Book Review


Can the World of the Spirit, Memory, Imagination, Inspiration and Consciousness Itself Really Be 'Reduced' Purely to the Physio-Chemical Workings of the Brain?

There Can Only Be One Intelligent Answer: NO.

(A book review of 'Irreducible Mind - Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century,' published by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., I used the 2010 800-page paperback version in this review. ISBN: 978-0-4422-0206-1.)

A Christian is bound to believe that, during prayer, a human soul can reach out into the cosmos, making contact with the very Creator of Heaven and Earth

W e have all had mystical experiences, though we might have some problems with that word, 'mystical.' I recall, many years ago, riding along on the top deck of a 'double-decker' bus through a crowded city centre (Cardiff, actually). Suddenly, in the distance, I saw a man whom I had worked with as a very young man of about 17. But the really strange thing was that although I only saw the back of this man in the distance and among a great throng of people, I instantly knew that this was Jack, an old office colleague; yet - once again - I only saw the back of this man at quite a considerable distance. He was walking (quickly, as Jack always walked), away from the bus - just a greyish figure in the distance, yet I had no doubt it was Jack. If I had been sitting on the lower deck of the bus I would never even have seen him. The bus was moving slowly due to heavy traffic but eventually it caught up with this figure in the distance and, it was indeed Jack. I recall analyzing how it was that I could possibly have recognised somebody whom I had worked with about twenty years earlier when he was only a distant figure among numerous others. Is not the power of the mind, and of human consciousness incredible? There really had not been enough evidence for a positive identification yet - from very first glance - I 'knew' (with a rare positivity) that it was Jack.

We have all had somewhat strange experiences which are hard to explain. Have you found yourself thinking about somebody you haven't seen for quite a while and then that very person suddenly rings you? Has that not happened to us all? The world is full of such unexplained occurrences. Naturalistic science insists that all the wonders of human imagination, memory, consciousness and creativity are explainable solely by the brain - no need to look beyond it; yet there are huge areas - not small areas - which tend to cast doubt on this strict physicalist approach to all human mental and psychological experience.

In this book, originally published in 2007 but now available as a truly giant paperback of 800 pages, six leading lights in psychology, psychiatry, philosophy and neuro-behaviourism come together to challenge modern science's insistence that the brain - all on its own - can fully explain the incredible diversity of human emotional and mental experience. In fact, long before the book's ending, their case is well-established and indisputable, in my opinion (but don't expect established modern science, which is now better called 'scientism,' to change its preferred path anytime soon).

Our writers here are Edward Kelly, Emily Williams Kelly, Adam Crabtree, Alan Gauld, Michael Grosso and Bruce Greyson; they are to be congratulated for producing such an exhaustive and surprisingly fair-minded work. Over nine large chapters the team tackle such areas as Memory, Unusual Experiences, Near Death Experiences, Genius, Mystical Experiences, all concluding in a final chapter entitled Towards a Psychology for the 21st Century. The work and research of these contributors is extensive and something way beyond impressive. Without a doubt many parts of the book are 'heavy reading' to all except those actively studying and researching psychology, but other sections are very readable and accessible.

The group immediately acknowledge their debt to William James and F.W.H. Myers, two open-minded researchers into the psychological world who were active around a hundred years ago. These men, especially Myers, are strongly admired by the writers assembled here and it is easy to see why; these two men were open to studying all areas of the world of the human psyche, feeling that nothing should be left out - in complete contrast to the closed naturalism which they perceived to be developing among too many scientists of the mind. In short order, the prevailing tendency was for a purely physicalist (it can all be explained by the brain, no need to look further) approach to take root. For their part, however, the approach of James and Myers was to say, 'we must research all areas without prejudice,' this led to these men being prepared to study and catalogue countless psychic experiences, including dreams, religious experiences, apparitions, visions and much else.

What is 'Scientism'?

Hey - Wake Up! Don't You See That Elephant?

'Scientism' has become the term to describe that part of science which is mainly naturalistic or physicalist philosophy in scientific dress. This section of 'science' is pretty much disinterested in where the substantive evidence points, only in the determined pursuance of a theory. That theory is that the physical realm of things is all there is. So macro-evolution, for example, refuses to acknowledge the 'elephant in the room' of evidence and the laws of science themselves, in the pursuance of a theory which cannot be established nor demonstrated; they only have rhetoric, propaganda and intellectual arrogance at their disposal (which they use rather well).

In the same manner, 'scientism' insists that the human brain accounts for everything within the fields of human experience, emotions, memory, inspiration, mystical experience, religious experience, plus consciousness itself. The 'elephant in the room' here is the ever-growing evidence that there is an additional spark, soul, mental dynamism (whatever one chooses to call it) which operates above and beyond the brain; the evidence here is truly overwhelming but in its refusal to acknowledge any world of the spirit, 'scientism' is not about to change its course any time soon.

But you can turn your back on an 'elephant in the room' for a while, but eventually its presence becomes impossible to deny.

In our day, a wealth of further testimonies may be added with the record of OBEs (out of body experiences), and NDEs (near-death experiences) now probably numbering in the thousands, to say nothing of numerous other phenomena which really are not explainable by the physicalist and reductionist approach. I will just note here one well-known phenomenon which cannot be explained by the physical brain alone; one might call it 'dream-tripping.' There are now more than a few cases on record of people vividly dreaming of visiting a particular place or person. During that night an apparition of that person was indeed seen going to that place, or visiting that person. Obviously such an occurrence could never be explained in a 'closed' physicalist sense in which the physical brain within a human being would obviously not be capable of escape, nor of going off and doing its own thing! Therefore the narrow, material, physicalist approach is bound to be flawed. This is but one example, yet this book presents one with scores of similar occurrences, all within the appropriate book chapters, of course, for the book is orderly and well-structured.

Edward F. Kelly sets the book's stall out at the beginning of chapter one:

"The central contention of this book is that the science of the mind has reached a point where multiple lines of empirical evidence, drawn from a wide variety of sources, converge to produce a resolution of the mind-body problem along lines sharply divergent from the current mainstream view." (p 1).

Yes, that just about sums it up. The book starts with a review of where psychology currently stands, detailing the influences which have brought us to the present point. This is quite comprehensive, even a little tedious at times, but invaluable material for any student of psychology and, surely this eminently fair-minded book is a must-have for any students of psychology even though it probably won't appear on any 'student's recommended reading' lists.

As early as page 27, Kelly states where - in his opinion - we now stand:

"I believe that sufficient information is already in hand to demonstrate that biological naturalism as currently conceived is not only incomplete but false as a theory of the mind." (p 27, Kelly's emphasis).

Your reviewer strongly agrees with this statement.

This book has many strengths but nobody should conclude that it is a Christian book. What one can say is that the writers are 'open' to religious explanations to the mind-body problem and would refuse to rule out religious explanations as being 'non-scientific.' In this day, that is refreshing indeed! However, I will just note here that one possible weakness is the book's ongoing homage to the aforementioned F.W.H. Myers (1843-1901). This fascinating 19th century voice of psychology and of para-psychological research, greatly admired by Edward Kelly and Emily Williams Kelly, two of this weighty tome's principal writers, was, it must be admitted, a sometimes contradictory man. Whilst being a leading voice opposing the tendency to explain consciousness in a purely physicalist/naturalist manner, he - nevertheless - had rejected Christianity yet seemed to loosely believe in 'spirituality' and, apparently, in a spirit world. So Myers loosely liked religion and religiosity and hoped for eternal life, yet - surely in contradistinction - he strongly supported evolution. Among his various beliefs, he, somewhat strangely, believed that sleep dreams were from a more primitive evolutionary past:

'Myers described the evolution of consciousness as a process in which, in response to environmental demands, we become "more and more awake." Sleep is thus a reversion to an earlier stage of [evolutionary] development.' (p 101).

It seems strange indeed that a man who (apparently) strongly believed that there is something greater than us out there and who opposed reductionism, nevertheless, fell back on Darwinism which is probably the greatest mind-reductionist theory of all time. Yet Myers was surely on the right track in seeing the brain - not as the only explanation of consciousness (as in modern scientism) - but more as a filter, filtering out much of a greater consciousness which would only confuse our present existences. This schema is increasingly being postulated again in our day even though it remains (substantially) outlawed in naturalistic scientism. So - for me - Myers was certainly a highly interesting voice but he missed the mark; if he had supported Theism and Christianity he would have discovered therein a ready explanation for the things which he seemed to be looking for. He also disbelieved in miracles, feeling that every occurrence - however strange - will eventually be explainable as we learn more and more about the mind-body relationship.

In the second chapter of this huge paperback, Emily Williams Kelly speculates on the mind-brain relationship, stating:

"A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case, consciousness may be only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body." (p 73).

So this book provokes, it stimulates and it enlivens all the debates about the wonderful and unquestionably mysterious human mind. It pulls no punches, refusing to bow before the altar of the naturalistic approach to mind and consciousness. For their part, Christians might be disturbed that serious attention is given to mystics, to hypnotism and to areas which - at least sound - almost occultic, but they should remember that the big question being asked here is whether the mind and consciousness could be 'containable' within the brain alone, or if there is something within all of us which supercedes the human brain. If the eventual conclusion is that the human mind and psyche go above and beyond what the brain - all on its own - is capable of doing, if we indeed all have spirits or souls which can launch forward into eternity - even when scientific graphs show no heartbeat and no brain activity, then we are very close to having undeniable proof of God and of a spirit world. This part is of great interest to all Christian theologians, since we believe that there is an omnipotent God out there Who, indeed, is capable of granting Eternal Life and who has given His human creation 'souls' which - even now - may reach out beyond the capabilities of their brains. After all, if a Christian firmly believes in the power of prayer (and surely, if true to their faith, a Christian must believe in that), that is already to state that the human spirit, soul or psyche (however one might choose to describe it), cannot be contained within a small brain within one's physical body, but can reach out and make contact with an omnipotent God (necessarily a ludicrous idea to naturalistic scientism, of course).

For many non-psychologists this book's real highspot will probably be chapter 6: 'Unusual Experiences Near Death and Related Phenomena.' Here three members of the book's writing team (the two Kellys and Greyson) carefully consider some quite incredible stories. Some are quite long and detailed, here is a briefer one:

" one of these [cases], which occurred in 1889, the patient (a physician himself) seemed to have died of typhoid fever; his physician testified that "he was actually dead as fully as I ever supposed anyone dead," with no perceptible pulse, heartbeart, or respiration...Nonetheless, the patient had a vivid and complex experience of seeming to leave his body and see it, as well as the actions of the people in the room. He then went to a place of great beauty where he felt a presence and saw the face of an unidentified person who radiated great love....He seemed to be given the chance of staying or returning, but when he chose to stay and tried to cross an apparent boundary, he was stopped from proceeding and then suddenly found himself back in his body. Throughout the experience, he seemed to be in a nonphysical body that had "perfect health and strength," and he reported that "memory, judgment and imagination, the three great faculties of the mind, were intact and active."" (p 371).

Especially fascinating are certain testimonies from blind people who 'saw' with amazing clarity, some 'seeing' for the first time. With so many writers now documenting such claims, it becomes ever harder for the apologists of scientism to belittle or ridicule these areas. Good too that this book takes time to counter the claims of atheists and supporters of scientism (Susan Blackmore, for example), who have often ridiculed such NDE and OBE claims, providing "scientific explanations" which - in reality - are weak and unconvincing. No, we are surely getting close to the point where modern scientism will not be able to do that because of the sheer weight of evidence. How long can one go on claiming that there is no elephant in the room just because to acknowledge that creature's presence would cause one to have to re-write ones favourite/preferred theories? Physicalist scientism is now nearing the end of its 'rope,' I have thought this for several years, how nice that an increasing number in the scientific community are also coming to see this.

Criticisms of the book? The writers should all have received regular reminders to keep things clear and simple. Sometimes they seem to wander off into an enclosed 'psychology-speak' world where they might well be speaking in a different language; when that happens they lose the lay reader who may have a highly inquisitive mind but cannot be expected to be au fait with all the current jargon and terminology among psychologists and psychic researchers.

A second criticism might concern the putting of a book of this weight and size into paperback form. Within an hour of opening the book, about three pages fell out - not good enough!

Who might enjoy reading this book? Well, many theologians will be curious about certain areas of this book, but probably not all of it, but the very clear chapter system would make it easy to 'dig out' any areas of particular interest. But I also think that many ministers and pastors would do well to make themselves familiar with certain things in this book, yet (from my personal experience), I doubt that too many of them will. That is sad. Apart from that, this book should be read by every single serious student of not only psychology and neuroscience but of psychiatry and possibly philosophy too. To read this book would broaden the understanding and experience of all such people. This is especially vital since - make no mistake - the book is unlikely to be 'recommended reading,' on any university course (in which the sciences remain under the control of the reductionists and physicalists, at least for the present).

Buy this book by all means if you are prepared to delve into the world of the brain and the mystery of human consciousness, but don't expect an 'easy read,' except in certain sections which are more accessible, such as chapter six. This is not a 'Christian book,' but how refreshing to read such a well-researched and painstakingly referenced scientific document which is unbiased and entirely open to religious explanations. It, of course, advocates no particular religious explanation at any point but it is a very honest and unbiased document, honestly considering the vast scientific and experiential evidence without having any physicalist or atheistic axes to grind. If I had a child about to study for a psychology degree, I would be prepared to move Heaven and Earth to get a copy of this book into their hands!

Robin A. Brace. December 10th, 2012.