Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why STEAM Needs the Humanities to Understand Science

An interview with Jeffrey Kripal, author of "The Flip".

Key points

  • Our contemporary STEAM paradigms evade consciousness.
  • Many of us may have experienced a "flip" in consciousness.
  • Mind and matter have been fused together since time immemorial.
  • Can Elon Musk's SpaceX protect the "light of consciousness"?

Materialism has been waning in influence in the scientific community, but what has replaced it is not clear. Are we in the midst of a Kuhnian paradigm shift? Possibly.

The decline of materialist philosophy has been rooted in 1) the belief in "intelligent design," that God exists, and it is immaterial how it came to be; 2) unsatisfactory explanations for mental and conscious phenomena and the "mind-body problem"; and 3) recent developments in 20th century quantum physics.

Thomas Nagle's Mind and Cosmos is a recent example of the waning of the materialist paradigm. He suggests that given that the human mind is part of the natural order of things, any philosophy of human nature that cannot account for it is fundamentally flawed.

The recent studies of psychedelic substances have shown that mind is irreducible to matter. The "mystical experiences" at the heart of individual transformations have led to an acceptance of the mind-altering power of psychoactive medicinal plants, long seen as the purview of mystics and quacks.

As Michael Pollan stated in the Wall Street Journal, "Typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a merging of the self with nature or the universe, a 'mystical experience' can permanently shift a person’s perspective and priorities. The pivotal role of the mystical experience points to something novel about psychedelic therapy: It depends for its success not strictly on the action of a chemical but on the powerful psychological experience that the chemical can occasion."

Max Video Productions
Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University
Source: Max Video Productions

Thus, I reached out to a colleague, Jeffrey Kripal, an expert in the history of religion, to enlighten us on the connection between science and spirituality, mind and matter, and humanities and the STEAM fields. In his recent book, The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, he makes a strong case for the humanities, and why the STEAM fields would be empty without the human psyche or the collective soul.

Dinesh Sharma: You propose that we reimagine the humanities as the study of consciousness coded in culture. The study of "culture" since the work of Clifford Geertz is the study of local cultures, but the consciousness you are proposing to study is almost beyond time, place, and context.

Jeffrey Kripal: Your question encodes my answer. It is a both-and, not an either-or. The anthropology you are describing is conventional anthropology. Its dogmatic localism is precisely what has gotten us into the situation we are now in—a kind of nihilism and inability to imagine shared meaning across cultures.

DS: You say Western knowledge systems are at a precipice of making a 'flip'. This is actually the case in physics. But the new physics is being constrained within the domain of the hard sciences, not permeating the larger culture, due to the politics of knowledge.

JK: You are reading me correctly. I think we are at a crossroads. Our social and spiritual imaginations have not caught up with the quantum reality our mathematics, our physics, and frankly our technologies all use and suppose. We are living in a vast schizophrenia. It does little good when elite physicists complain about popular attempts to permeate culture or mistake the quantum physics. So what? Correct them. Help them. And let’s move on.

 Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University
The Flip
Source: Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University

DS: Are you looking to "flip" the "materialistic paradigm" dominant in the academy since the enlightenment period?

JK: Well, yes, of course, but the book is not about me doing anything. It’s about a larger cultural, philosophical, and scientific shift that is happening all around us. I am just reporting.

DS: I like your phrase, "science only studies the things it can study." Thus, it can be defined by what is selectively excluded from the sciences?

JK: Science works so well because it gets to say what it will study, and what it will not. We are not so fortunate, or we are more fortunate, in the humanities. We study human beings, who never really fit into our paradigms or our models, and, strangest of all, we are human beings studying human beings, so it’s loopy. What I am trying to say in the book is that human beings have all kinds of strange, quantum-like experiences, and we should not ignore or discount them just because they do not play by the rules of our scientific or humanistic games. Quite the contrary, we should change the rules of those games.

DS: Yet, there has been a perennial dialogue between the sciences and the humanities, the "two cultures of the scientific revolution," as CP Snow called it. Do you think the study of Eastern religions helped to remove this impasse?

JK: The study of Asian cultures has mostly been slotted into traditional Western academic categories, like “culture,” “philosophy,” and “religion.” We have really not taken their ontologies seriously. For the most part, we have only “described” them as “discourses” or considered various political and social identities and thus shoved them into our little boxes. If we took their own philosophical views (and experiences) truly seriously, we would likely take consciousness much more seriously.

DS: You focus on the personal experiences of the 'secular' or 'materialist' scientists, who have had mystical experiences through spiritual practices. How long have you been collecting these stories?

JK: I focus on secular engineers, scientists, and medical professionals because I teach at a STEM-focused university and realized long ago that students will not take traditional religious sources seriously. But when I present them with modern, secular scientists, they do a double-take. It is much harder to ignore them. I have been collecting these stories for about two decades.

DS: What are precognitive dreams that you think are prophetic or tapping into another realm of time?

JK: Of all psychical or paranormal phenomena, I am probably most impressed with precognitive phenomena, which tend to happen in dreams. The work of Eric Wargo is astonishing here. If you have not read it, drop this immediately and go read Time Loops. Trust me. Eric’s ideas predict a lot of the things I actually encounter in the stories I've collected. I have always been more Freudian, but the “unconscious” here is hardly what Freud thought. Eric basically argues that there is no such thing as the unconscious; that the unconscious is consciousness transposed in time; that what Freud was studying was really communications spread out in time and often seeping back from the future. I do not know if he is correct, but these are the kinds of rabbit holes one is led down once one begins to take these phenomena truly seriously.

DS: In the book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, the socio-biologist EO Wilson discusses methods that have been used to unite the sciences and might, in the future, unite them with the humanities. Biologists are likely to see consciousness as evolving over time, through millions of years, in various adaptations and mutations through reptiles, fish, amphibians, mammals, and humans.

JK: Well, sure, but the biological sciences have a long way to go. They have real hang-ups around vitalism and teleology, for example. I think both of those are real mistakes—they might be pragmatic and useful mistakes, but they are still wrong. Life is not reducible to chemistry. Evolution evolves itself over and over again toward obvious goals (like the eye). I have a favorite quote here. It’s a definition of hydrogen that goes something like this, “Hydrogen: a light odorless gas that, given enough time, turns into people.” Appropriately, it is listed as anonymous. No one wrote it.

DS: Finally, Elon Musk says, SpaceX Starship could protect the 'Light of Consciousness.’ The human-carrying spaceship could play a key role in preserving humanity in the universe. What do you say to Musk's idea? He wants humans to be a multi-planetary civilization.

JK: I always hesitate to address topics I know very little about, so I am not sure what to say about Elon Musk. I do know that intellectuals are very good at critique, at saying “No,” and very bad at affirmation, at saying “Yes.” I also know that individuals and communities very much need something cosmic to affirm and dream about. I work and live in Houston, just across campus from the very football stadium where President Kennedy gave his famous “moon-shot” speech in September of 1962. I think we need moon-shots. We also need, of course, to ask serious questions about such grand projects: "Why not work harder to preserve this planet?" "How can we be more thoughtful about who benefits from such a project?" "Are we really even capable of subsisting off-planet?" Having asked such questions, I am certain that, had previous grand human enterprises (including the Apollo space program), none of which were morally pure, waited for the blessings of academics, they would have never happened. In short, I don’t know about Elon Musk or his project, but I am suspicious of our suspicions.