A book that deserves to be read
Science, Mind & Paranormal Experience
Since this book, Science, Mind & Paranormal Experience (2006) is available online (I downloaded it from the website www.academia.edu), I have also included it in the Library. The author, Eric Lord, is a British eclectic mathematician, born in 1940, who – since 1984 to 2006 – has lived in Bangalore as an associate professor with the Indian Institute of Science. His researches focused mainly on general relativity and the algebraic structures in elementary particle physics. He has also written some books on geometrical structures in materials science: crystallography, quasicrystals, minimal surfaces, etc. But this book of his, which I recommend reading, has many similarities with the topics covered on this site, even in the order in which these topics are set (as can be seen by following the contents). This means that people who do not know each other, different in origin, personal history and cultural orientation, can follow a very similar cognitive path, reaching similar conclusions. And, almost certainly, it is a cognitive itinerary which – at this very moment – is followed independently by many other human beings.
In his book Lord first highlights the difference between current scientific knowledge – on which a reasonable hope of further progress in the near future is also based – and the claim, by some exponents and many popularizers of the scientific world, to consider as acquired scientific knowledge mere hypotheses, which have not yet been validated by sufficient tests, or which do not stand up to certain observations and experiences. There is a tendency towards a certain dogmatism even in the scientific milieu (and fortunately many scientists are exempt from it), probably determined by psychic tunings that are activated in defense of the cognitive power of the human mind, which also translates into the denial of observations and facts that are not explained by the hypotheses that some scientists want to defend. Certainly progress in science and technology has brought enormous advantages over the last two centuries to the living conditions of the members of the most advanced complex societies. A sort of unlimited trust has thus formed and spread in the capacity of the human mind (meant as the mind of particularly intelligent and gifted people, identified above all with scientists) to be able to explain every aspect of the world and life, and to be able to solve every human problem, not so much through a long, demanding and tiring process, made up of checks and finding of errors, but based on the «everything and at once» of the information and knowledge already available.
In our age, an almost religious faith in science has spread, and some scientists cannot resist the temptation of wanting to explain – even in good faith – every aspect of the world and of life, as if we humans (or at least the smartest among us) already knew all there is to know. The most important consequence of this attitude is that the existing is often limited to what it is possible to know, nay – narrowing the field even more – to what is, or is considered, already known, while everything that still escapes our knowledge is removed or neglected, for fear that – in the face of mystery – one might fall back into the obscurantism of metaphysics, occultism, or the dogmatism of traditional religions. In fact, this is a well-founded fear, given that the human psyche has always shown that it wants to fill the void caused by the lack of knowledge (and human power) with some more or less imaginative and ingenious elaboration, nevertheless equipped with a sufficient power of involvement and persuasion towards the conscious Ego. However, dealing with people with a sufficiently developed smart consciousness, we can expect them to be able to resist this temptation, by calmly admitting the limits of what we know and recognizing all those aspects of reality and life for which we do not yet have got satisfactory explanations.
As Lord writes (page 1): «On the one hand, we see a growing confidence (perhaps it would be fair to say overconfidence) in the explanatory power of science. Rapid and spectacular developments in scientific understanding of the mechanisms governing the physical world have produced a feeling in many quarters that the puzzle presented by the universe we are a part of is now, at least in broad outline, nearly solved, and that we have a fairly clear idea of what kinds of things are possible and what are not. On the other hand, we see a growth of interest in the "occult" and the "supernatural". The latter tendency is abundantly evident in the plethora of books purveying absurd pseudo-sciences – fanciful fictions masquerading as fact – that mislead the gullible and the scientifically ill-informed into crazy beliefs about the nature of reality». The author then highlights the value of the scientific research and method, and the important successes, not only in terms of knowledge, but also of quality of life, that science has offered to humanity. However, the scientific method is not, nor can it be, unitary, because the various branches into which science is divided – fragmenting more and more due to the increase and complexity of the acquired knowledge – present different aspects that require different experimental and theoretical approaches.
Mechanism originated from the study of Galilean and Newtonian physics, which is led to explain everything that happens in the physical world in terms of (known) energies, and the effects that the forces produced by these energies have on material particles (atoms and molecules). So, for example, chemistry tries to describe and explain the interactions between molecules on the basis of the laws of physics, biology relies on the laws of chemistry, the study of morphogenesis is based on biology, and so on. Therefore, mechanism has become a sort of paradigm of science, which however shows all its limits as the organizational and informational complexity of the material that is observed and studied increases. As Lord points out (page 15): «The laws of classical physics are deterministic laws. Thus, according to the physics known to Newton and Kelvin, any physical system is governed by deterministic laws. That is to say, the future of the physical world is an inevitable consequence of its present state. This leads to a world view in which the universe is seen to be a vast mechanism, inevitably unfolding events that were already implicit in its primordial state. The determinist universe leaves no room for the "free will" of a living creature. Living creatures are simply automatons with no more freedom of choice than a pebble swept along by a stream».
The scientific method and the evolution of physics
Lord, after stressing that the purpose of scientific research is the acquisition of objective knowledge that can be relied upon, states that the role of scientists – who are still human beings – in the advancement of science is fundamental, given that scientific speculations, hypotheses and theories are still a product of the creative intelligence of human minds. What offers science an advantage is the development of a method that separates, as far as possible, the subjective elements of perception and thought from objectively acquired and validated knowledge. The criteria of the scientific method, listed on page 34 of the book, are however applicable with precision only to a limited core of scientific knowledge, which concern events subject to rigorous experimental validations: for many other aspects of the world and of life, science consists in a process of continuous updating and revision of hypotheses and theories – previously (and temporarily) acquired as useful explanatory tools not contradicted by available observations – in the light of new facts and interpretations.
Since mathematics is the tool that offers the human mind the greatest guarantees of objective accuracy, the role of mathematics in physics is fundamental, although, quoting Bertrand Russell, «Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little. It is only its mathematical aspects that we can discover». Starting from physics, the need was then felt to apply mathematics to every branch of knowledge, even to biology or psychology (mostly based on the application of statistical methods to quantitative data), precisely by virtue of the objectivity that mathematics can offer, not only in numerical terms, but also in the study of structures and recurrent patterns. Lord then highlights the intrinsic limitations of the scientific approach, despite the indisputable and sensational successes it has achieved. Not all aspects of the world and of life can be expressed in quantitative terms, and many escape the same need to be subject to repeatable observations and experiments: therefore, in many cases, science proceeds through forms of intelligent intuition and the formulation of hypotheses and theories which must then be experimentally validated.
Lord explains this process very clearly (page 34): «The scientist looks for patterns within the body of well-established facts and formulates tentative explanations – models and hypotheses. The human imagination dominates at this stage... The really important hypotheses are those that have deductive consequences, i.e. those that lead to predictions. They suggest further observations and further experiments and predict the outcomes. These hypotheses can therefore be tested against reality. If their predictions turn out to be false, they have to be modified or discarded. No hypothesis is ever "proved" by the success of its predictions. Only the falsity of incorrect hypotheses can be "proved". Confidence in a viable hypothesis grows as it continues to withstand continued checking and testing in a large number of varied experimental and observational situations. Thus science grows by means of feedback loops: observations stimulate the formulation of hypotheses and hypotheses in turn suggest further observations». Obviously, various fields of human knowledge completely escape the needs of scientific knowledge, meant in its strict sense: think of life evolution, the human sciences, such as history, or the events of our inner life, essentially subjective by their nature. Does this mean that, in these fields, we must give up any attempt at knowledge?
With regard to the repeatability criterion (page 38): “This criterion necessitates that science turn a blind eye to all aspects of reality that, by their very nature, do not lend themselves either to sustained observation or repeatable experimentation. Reported observations of sporadic, ephemeral events are not amenable to scientific investigation. There are very many reports of alleged events for which established modes of scientific explanation cannot account». Ultimately, much of human knowledge continues to be based on collective consensus and the power of conviction that certain cultural paradigms acquire once they are well established (page 41): «The paradigms that human intelligence formulates for understanding the world and its modes of action have a curious robustness. A paradigm, once it has become well-established, is peculiarly resistant to change. New ideas are accepted reluctantly, even, sometimes, by their originators. If they appear to conflict with currently well-established paradigms, they are sometimes seen as a threat and denounced as heretical, and sometimes as superstitious fancies not worthy of serious attention.The tendency of well-established systems of thought to rigidify and become tyrannically authoritarian is a manifestation of a deep-seated security instinct in the human psyche». I fully agree: I would just like to correct the first period, replacing the intelligence with the psyche, which indeed elaborates and formulates its interpretative theories of the events of the world and life when our intelligence fails to achieve a valid form of knowledge.
Just from physics, the field of scientific investigation in which determinism had achieved its best results, came the theoretical changes that in the twentieth century determined the decline of Newtonian mechanism, highlighting how – as the investigation of physical phenomena deepened – the capacity of the human mind to interpret reality risked to go into a crisis. First of all it was the nature of the components of light, the photons, that required a revision of the previous interpretative schemes, because they could behave both as material particles and as electromagnetic waves (page 49): « (Light) will reveal itself either as a wave or as particles according to the kind of question we ask of it – the kind of experiment we set up to study it. This became known as the "waveparticle duality". The actual nature of light is something that cannot be apprehended in terms of mental models based on our everyday experience at the scale of human perceptions». By the end of the nineteenth century, physicists had built up a picture of physical reality based on matter, made up of material particles, and on energy fields, which pervaded the space between particles. The explanatory power of the mathematical methods based on this matter/field picture had proved so successful that they seemed to contain all that could be said about the nature of the physical world. «Even the revolutionary changes in physics brought about by Einstein's relativity theories did not contradict the basic assumption that every physical entity was either field or matter».
Planck's quantum theory, applied to the elements of light, struck at the foundations this well-outlined picture (p. 51): «The clear-cut distinction between the "field" concept and the "particle" concept was undermined, in a disturbingly paradoxical way. The full extent of the disruption of "classical" physics was revealed when it was recognised that the waveparticle duality applied not only to electromagnetic radiation... the mathematical formulae that connect the quantum aspects of radiation with its wave aspects can be extended so that, for example, electrons can be regarded as the "quanta" of an "electron field" in the same way that particles of light (photons) are the quanta of the electromagnetic field... So the dichotomy between the "field" aspects and the "particle" aspects of nature turned out to be an illusion. Nature simply does not work that way». But if the elements of physical reality can manifest themselves in two very different forms, as particles or as energy fields, what depends on whether they manifest to the human observer – or to the devices created by humans – in one or the other form?
The only explanation that human intelligence has been able to find is the probabilistic interpretation suggested in 1926 by Max Born (1882-1970) (page 53): «Suppose you set up an experiment to measure some particle property of an electron – its spin, its position or its velocity, for example. In general, there will be a range of possible outcomes – a range of possible values that the measured quantity can turn out to have – each with its own associated a priori probability. The psi-field is the carrier of this range of possibilities and the probabilities associated with them. One can say that, before the position (say) of a particle is actually observed, it cannot be properly said to have a position, it only has various probabilities of turning up in this or that place; it is in fact only a "psi-field", not a "particle" at all. Only when you do the experiment, when you actually ascertain its position by measurement, does it acquire a position. It has then acquired a property characteristic of a particle, namely, the property of being in a particular place at a particular time». In this way we begin to understand the important role that the intelligent mind of the observer, who has to set up the experiment, can play in determining what we consider real. The psi-field, in fact, is not in itself observable in reality: it cannot be measured or ascertained, and consists only of a mathematical elaboration that allows us to explain certain aspects of reality.
Lord so summarizes the effects of the new framework created by quantum physics: «The probabilistic nature of events in the world of elementary "particles" means, of course, that the strictly deterministic causality of older physical theory does not apply. The result of observing a physical system is not precisely determined by the state of the system at an earlier time; an element of chance is involved. Many physicists were unhappy with this aspect of quantum theory. Some still are. Einstein, in particular, was deeply disturbed by the way the element of pure chance had entered into physics at such a fundamental level, and never became reconciled to this new and unexpected direction that physics had taken. His doubts are neatly summed up in his famous dictum "God doesn't play dice"». Since, however, measurements can be performed, one might believe that the problem is solved once the measurements have been acquired. But at this point Heisenberg's uncertainty principle intervenes, for which it is not possible to measure simultaneously the values relating to two complementary elements of a particle, such as the position of an electron and its momentum (mass times velocity): indeed, an increase of accuracy in the measurement of one of the observable elements of a pair is paid for by a necessary decrease in the accuracy with which the other can be known.
So what exactly is an observation? (Page 56): «The quantum theory assures us that the measuring apparatus is itself a configuration of interacting quantum fields (albeit an exceedingly complicated one)... There is nothing in the quantum theory to tell us how or why just one of these possibilities has been randomly selected and given the status of "reality", nothing to tell us why the wavefunction suddenly decides to collapse, nothing to account for the abrupt nondeterministic transition to a new field configuration». Because of these aspects, quantum theory – the validity of which has been confirmed by many experiments which, up to date, have never disproved it – seems more like a theory founded on the limits of our knowledge of reality, rather than a theory of objective physical reality. It seems that it implies the presence of an ingredient which is not part of the observed physical reality, but which refers precisely to the observer (page 59): «Wigner has proposed that the missing ingredient is consciousness. Conscious observers such as physicists... don't just record information like a camera or any other "measuring device", they acquire knowledge. Of course, this does little to resolve the conceptual difficulties, since no-one can say what consciousness is, nor how it is related to the rest of the world. Wigner's views, however, do serve to emphasise that radically new ways of thinking will be needed if the present conceptual difficulties raised by quantum theory are ever to be resolved».
At present, knowledge based on observation is reality to us, and any interpretation – essentially metaphysical – of possible speculative implications of quantum theory, such as that of the various alternative Worlds, results in a futile attempt to get beyond what is knowable. However, precisely because of the need for the presence of an observer to determine reality, quantum theory tells us that objective reality is a myth that is best forgotten. Lord sums up the issue like this (page 66): «The experimental predictions of quantum theory have continued to be resoundingly successful throughout the twentieth century. Yet, no matter how human reason twists and turns in its struggle to come to grips with the implications of the theory and to arrive at a consistent picture of an objective reality beyond "observations", it comes to an impasse. Quantum theory seems always to imply that the actual existence of a "physical reality" underlying observations and giving rise to them is illusory, that the notion of self-consistent "reality" applies, in the final analysis, not to "matter", but only to acts of observation...».
Mind and consciousness
All theories and speculations about the nature of the world are products of the human mind. The inner world, made up of thoughts, images, feelings, memories, etc., constitutes for each of us what we can define as the primary reality. We are instinctively (that is, automatically) led to attribute an objective reality value to what we perceive, but the success of the scientific method is attributable precisely to the strategies it adopts in order not to incur the errors to which we usually go through in the process of acquiring knowledge. In the light of these premises, as Lord points out (page 69), «...it is rather ironic and somewhat paradoxical that in the quest for knowledge it is knowledge about the nature of mind that has turned out to be peculiarly elusive. Concepts arising from the direct experience of what it is like to be a creature with a mind – awareness, attention, volition, various moods and feelings – are strangely difficult to pin down. It is as if we are confronted with a different kind of reality, separate from the objective physical reality that science has so successfully probed».
There is not, in Lord's book, a sufficient deepening of what he generically defines as mental states (and which I prefer to call psychic experiences) in relation to the involvement by them of a subject, the conscious Ego, which can also identify completely with them. The author retraces the historical process through which the problem of the relationship between mind and brain has been dealt with, both by philosophy and science, explaining to the reader the meaning, coherence (or inconsistency) and implications of the main theories advanced on this topic (Behaviourism, Dualism, Reductionism, etc.). He then affirms, obviously, that a (possible) science of the psychical aspects of reality must adopt methodologies that are substantially different from those of the physical sciences. There is no doubt about this, but the problem remains of how we can pass from the description of intrinsically subjective events to a cognitive interpretation that is not, in any case, an expression of the psychic orientation of the person who suggest it. The contributions made by Freud, Jung, and others – mentioned by Lord – to the study of psychology, and the latter's fragmentation in a variety of schools and sub-schools, are quite a testimony to this problem: everyone can interpret the subjective psychic experiences communicated by others in the light of their own psychic orientation. With these premises, a true science of psychology does not therefore seem possible.
As (rightly, in my opinion) observes Lord, our cognitive abilities – when we are dealing with the psyche – are limited by the same human condition, particularly with regards to unconscious mental processes (page 94): «The unconscious mind, like everything else, can be known only through its effects on the contents of consciousness». Following Lord's exposition, we realize that with the expression unconscious mind he intends to refer to the unconscious psyche in the Jungian meaning, and in fact some pages of his book are devoted to an examination of various aspects of Jung's psychology and its cultural influences. However, the reader of Lord's book misses a deeper insight into the correlation between brain functioning, unconscious brain activity and conscious psychic dynamics: although current knowledge in this field is still very limited, and the interpretative hypotheses advanced are controversial, it would have been necessary, in my opinion, to define the psychic dynamics with greater precision, highlighting the role of the brain as a tuning instrument, or creator (according to those who believe it is more correct to consider it in these terms), of psychic experience.
The theme of the brain functioning, however, is resumed later, in relation to consciousness, comparing the most extreme reductionism (expressed in this quote from Julian Huxley (1887-1975) on page 104: «We are conscious automata; and our consciousness is just an accidental froth, an aura, an epiphenomenon: our sensations and feelings are but the collateral product of the mechanism of the nervous system, like the tunes ground out on the wheels of a barrel-organ, having no effect on the machinery») to the dualistic hypothesis which assumes that consciousness can sometimes influence brain processes. Obviously John Searle, whose point of view has been reported and evaluated on this page, is mentioned. Highlighting the recent huge advances in artificial intelligence, Lord examines the problem of how consciousness can emerge from the assembly – however complex – of parts to which no form of consciousness is normally attributed: after all, our brain is made of molecules, and if we attribute a zero quantity of consciousness to a molecule, we do not see how a system of molecules, however large, can give rise to consciousness, unless we recognize to the latter an autonomous existence of its own, towards which the system acts as a detector and tuner. But, in this case, we cannot exclude that even a robot machine designed and built by us humans can manifest a form of consciousness.
If, on the other hand, we attribute even rudimentary forms of consciousness to living matter, it remains for us to explain the phenomenon whereby the atoms and molecules of inanimate matter, devoid of consciousness, are transformed into the more complex molecules of living organic matter, endowed with glimmers of consciousness. But, of course, we should first solve the mystery of the transformation of inanimate matter into living matter, and in the end we must always recognize that the hypotheses advanced up to date to explain these complex phenomena cannot be validated and, in short, they only rely on known facts wthout explaining nothing. Lord too agrees that reductionism, focusing on the study of brain functioning, does not solve the problem of consciousness, but simply ignores it (page 139): «Consciousness is what is having the experiences; it is the I in Descartes' "I think, therefore I am". As we have seen, materialistic philosophical systems suggest no reason why consciousness should exist at all; in these systems it is simply an irrelevant passive observer taking no part in the causal stream of events. That we feel that we have free will is an incontrovertible fact – it seems to us that we consciously direct our thoughts and actions, that they are not entirely determined by external events. Materialistic philosophical systems have no recourse but to insist that this really is only a "seeming" – an illusion – and that there is some kind of conspiracy whereby consciousness, itself an epiphenomenon of brain activity, is continually being deceived into feeling that it is taking an active part». It seems to me quite important, however, also the distinction, which is lacking in Lord, between the conscious Ego (the subject) and consciousness (the function).
It is important to point out, as Lord rightly does with regard to the role of consciousness, how some important activities that our brain carries out in an unconscious way are preceded by a more or less long learning phase that requires a conscious attention (page 140): «When we are called upon to deal with something unfamiliar, we need to concentrate. In order to learn effectively, attention has to be directed to the matter in hand. The brain activity dealing with the unfamiliar new skill is predominantly conscious activity. Only when, through repetition and practice, a greater level of proficiency is achieved, can the skill be exercised with less attention... Driving a vehicle, for example, can become largely an unconscious mental activity. Only when something unexpected crops up is consciousness again involved – the driver is obliged to "pay more attention". It is as though the automatic operations of the brain call upon consciousness for help when a situation arises that they cannot handle without the aid of conscious attention». Therefore consciousness has a fundamental role, and cannot be reduced to a simple epiphenomenon of the more or less computerized functioning of the brain. It also seems important to me to highlight the role played by conscious concentration in coordinating all the ideational and cognitive activities carried out by our mind.
In the chapter of Lord's book dedicated to Mental states, the topics relating to dreams, lucid dreams, OBEs, NDEs and experiences induced by psychedelic substances are dealt with in a similar way to the section on non-ordinary states of consciousness of this site. Additionally, Lord also mentions hallucinatory experiences and mystical states. However, in exposing the different cultural approaches through which the topic of consciousness has been dealt with up to now, the author does not sufficiently highlight the problem of the functioning of human psyche, and the reader is left with the impression that consciousness coincides with the psychic experiences that involve the conscious Ego. A brief and inadequate reference to the psyche is made with regard to cognitivism (page 156): «"Cognitive" psychology recognises the possibility, and the need, to investigate the mental processes that transform input into output, and deals with the aspects of learning, motivation and volition that behavioural psychology had deliberately ignored. Psychology became once more interested in the processes in human and animal subjects that underlie observed behaviour». In Lord's exposition, consciousness is presented as an autonomous operating system, but still functional to a process the dynamics of which are not explored (page 157): «"Cognition" becomes a somewhat less vague concept if one can make a real distinction between those brain processes that take place automatically (such as the information-processing involved in perception) and those that do not. The arguments I have presented suggest that such a distinction makes sense and fits many of the facts that otherwise remain extremely baffling, and that any theory of mental functioning must take account of. The very existence of consciousness is, in itself, quite strong evidence for the distinction».
Chapter 9 of the book, dedicated to the evolution of life and the theories proposed to explain it, is one of the most interesting, above all because it highlights the critical points and the lack of sufficient validation of the so-called neo-Darwinism, which nevertheless still enjoys much favor in the scientific establishment. Lord first raises the issue whether reductionism can be considered a proper method to study all the different aspects of complex systems, such as living organisms undoubtedly are (page 163): «The phenomenology of highly-complex systems is now receiving more attention. The meaning of "complexity" seems intuitively obvious, but it turns out to be a rather elusive concept when one attempts to pin it down in a rigorous definition. Throughout the twentieth century areas of investigation concerned with the genesis of intricately organised phenomena have opened up. Satisfactory understanding of biological systems requires the development of new ways of thinking and new theoretical structures. Complex systems call for holistic explanatory principles quite different in kind from the physical and chemical principles of their material constituents. Knowledge of the interaction of constituents – biochemical molecules – is contributory and supportive, but the myopic reductionist assertion that molecular constitution fully "accounts for" biological complexity leaves the desire to understand unfulfilled. Moreover, the assertion may not be valid».
With respect to our deeper questions about the evolution of the material and energetic components of our universe, and the reasons why an informational order can arise from disorder, neo-Darwinism can offer only a disconcerting explanation in its naive simplicity: that is, that some random transcription errors of the genetic code of organisms, and the advantages in terms of reproductive success that a small part of these errors entails, are sufficient to account for the evolution from the most rudimentary primordial living forms to the creative (and destructive) intelligence of our time's humanity. The only element that this questionable hypothesis can adduce to its support is the long duration of the geological eras in which these mechanisms should operate, compared with the relatively short duration of the life of every single organism that takes part in the evolutionary process. But we must deal with the extreme improbability that certain chains of mutations can occur by pure chance, even in such long times. Moreover, we have before our eyes examples of shocking changes that have occurred in a very short time, as shown by the phenomena of technological anthropization that have changed the face of our planet in the last two centuries. The limit of neo-Darwinism is that of wanting to consider the changes in the genetic code, which undoubtedly take place, as exclusively random, ruling out any influence in determining them by more or less conscious forms of intent.
Here is what Lord writes about it (page 165): «It is interesting to note that the increase in brain complexity in humans and the corresponding increase in psychological complexity has been, in evolutionary terms, extremely rapid. It far exceeds the kind of development that can be comfortably accommodated by purely mechanistic modes of explanation... The richness of human culture, including the highest achievements in the arts and sciences – the whole astonishing phenomenon of the world of human activity – stems from the creative cognitive activity of the human psyche. Surely, something more is afoot here than a series of mishaps in the genetic message that encodes the morphology of the mammalian brain». After having pointed out how the cultural programs transmitted through the brain network in our human societies have an enormous influence on the behavior of the organisms that are part of them, Lord examines some interpretative theories of the evolutionary dynamics, such as entelechy and Lamarckism, which have been shelved – perhaps too quickly – by mainstream science.
The concept of entelechy was developed by Hans Driesch (1867-1941), one of the pioneers of experimental embryology, to explain – at the end of the nineteenth century – the development of embryos, and the regeneration by some organisms, such as the starfish, of entire parts of their body. Dissatisfied with purely mechanistic explanations, which seemed unsatisfactory to him, Driesch came to admit the existence of an organizing vital principle, immaterial and non-mechanistic, which was the basis of natural creativity. Today we could recognize in Driesch the forerunner of the recognition of the powers that rule and direct the informational complexity of living organisms. «Driesch's "metaphysical" notions were, of course, opposed by biologists with a materialist outlook, who had faith that physical and chemical mechanisms would be seen, as knowledge expanded, to be entirely sufficient to account for the observed behaviour of living matter, without the need to postulate intangible quasi-theological concepts. The astonishing progress made in the biological sciences during the twentieth century, in particular the discovery of the molecular basis of genetics and the elucidation of the intricate biochemistry underlying the structure and behaviour of living cells, appears to have amply vindicated their faith, and Driesch's "entelechies" are relegated to the status of historical curiosities» (page 167).
Lord defends the concept of entelechy from the attacks that have been made against it due to its alleged scientific incompatibility: in fact, if the science of the time was based on the measurement of quantities, and thus considered molecules and atoms as real, energy concepts such as electromagnetism and gravity – the effects of which could be measured – already showed quite mysterious features, while the concept of informational complexity had not yet come to the fore. In practice, science behaved – and often so does even today – as if the explanation of everything that exist were already implicit in their very existence, without being able to give any valid demonstration on the root causes that determine the effects we observe. This fact is all the more evident in the face of the complexity of living organisms, regarding which mechanism has proved to be completely unable to provide satisfactory explanations of the observed phenomena. Thus we arrived at the curious paradox for which (page 169): «during the twentieth century... biological sciences became more and more "mechanistic" at the same time that physics, forced to abandon determinism and faced with the bewildering complexities of the physical world, gradually came to realise that "matter" itself is only an epiphenomenon of fluctuating probabilities carried by elusive non-material entities».
Lord then examines Lamarckism, i.e. the hypothesis, advanced by Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829), that certain characteristics acquired by an organism to adapt to environmental conditions during its life could be inherited by its offspring (p. 170): «In the early days of evolutionary theory the idea had many supporters. Darwin himself was one of them. With increasing knowledge of the way morphological characteristics are inherited, Lamarck's hypothesis began to look extremely unlikely. Inherited characteristics are passed on from generation to generation by the genes. As Weismann was the first to point out, it is inconceivable that an individual's genes can in any way be affected by morphological and behavioural changes that are incidental consequences of events in the life of the individual. The translation of genetic information that produces an organism is asserted to be a strictly one-way process (from "genotype" to "phenotype")». However, Lord mentions some experiments, and in particular those carried out by the Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer (1880-1926), which seem to confirm how – at least in some species – the features acquired through an environmental adaptation are then effectively transmitted to the progeny. It could therefore be possible that certain mutations of the genetic code, rather than being completely random – as neo-Darwinists claim – are influenced by forms of intent operating in the organism, in a more or less conscious way.
As Lord rightly observes (page 172): «Ever since Darwin introduced the phrase "survival of the fittest" Darwinians have been plagued by the need to define what they mean by "fitness". The obvious answer, that the fittest life-forms are those that survive, produces a tautology, and plainly will not do. NeoDarwinists hit on the idea that "fitness" in an organism, in the context of Darwin's theory, is essentially the effectiveness of its ability to produce offspring; the fittest organisms are asserted to be those most likely to leave descendants: "By fitness is simply meant the probability of survival and reproduction. The characteristics themselves do not directly matter at all. All that matters is who leaves more descendants over the generations"». As it is evident, ideas of this kind do not advance our actual knowledge one step. Quoting Lord again (page 173): «The most glaringly obvious fact about evolution is that it is a dynamic process of adaptation to ever-changing environmental factors, wherein every species is a factor in its own environment. Evolution is the adaptive self-interaction of the biosphere. The myriads of adaptive strategies and structures are wonderfully precise and efficient – they are not haphazard».
After recalling both the experiences of the British biologist Rupert Shaldrake (born in 1942) with led him to devise his controversial and unproven theory of morphic resonance, and the strange behaviors caused by what appears to be a form of collective cognition present in the colonies of organisms, Lord dwells on the complexity of morphogenesis (page 182): «Every multicellular organism begins life as a single cell, which develops into a cluster of seemingly identical cells by growth and repeated subdivision. At a certain stage the cluster begins to organise itself. It goes through astonishing sequences of transformation, becoming more and more complexly structured as the individual cells become increasingly differentiated and specialised, adopting the behaviour and morphology appropriate to their purpose in the overall structure. This is morphogenesis – the awe-inspiring and inconceivably intricate process whereby a single cell develops into a mature organism – a giraffe, a tree, a human being, or a mosquito, according to the particular genetic message that the original cell contained encoded in its DNA... An enormous amount of detailed knowledge of these intricate molecular activities has accumulated over the years. However, the awesome complexities of multicellular organisation are far from being well understood. There are tremendous hierarchical gaps separating the lowest level (cell biochemistry), the intermediate levels (the formation of intricately-structured tissues and organs) and the topmost levels (the integration of the activities of many millions of cells to produce a functioning system – a living creature)».
Lord reports the cognitive elements acquired up to date on the ways in which, through the production of enzymes, hormones and other proteins – activated in a particular phase of the morphogenetic process – each cell seems to have a spatial and temporal knowledge of its function and its interactions with other cells of the organism to which it belongs. The informational process thus manifests all its potential (page 183): «At a higher hierarchical level the communication network can be viewed as a dynamical entity, a web of information carried by chemical gradients and electrostatic potentials, creating and governing specialised cell regions and created and governed by them. In the sense that "information" is abstract and "non-material", this conventional and generally accepted view is not so very different from Driesch's entelechy concept!». These topics have also been exposed on this site in the page on the origin of life.
After recalling that the reductionist view of biological systems considers morphogenesis as resulting solely from the mechanisms of molecular interactions, Lord objects that the explanation proposed by reductionists, who believe that the mystery of life has been thus solved, does not explain anything, but consists only in a rudimentary and partial understanding of the phenomenon, under the false appearance of a complete understanding (p. 184): «Biochemical knowledge is a basis for the beginning of an understanding of living things. The fundamental mysteries remain, and they are immense. Why is it that what we regard (perhaps erroneously) as the fundamental constituents of physical reality – molecules, atoms, quarks, quantum fields or whatever – possess the miraculous property of being able to build themselves up, apparently all by themselves, into ever-increasingly complex hierarchical systems – cells, plants, animals, societies, ecosystems (not to mention things like languages, ideas, religions and scientific theories)?». In the last part of the paragraph on morphogenesis the author dwells on some experiments and alternative hypotheses advanced to explain, at least in part, the enigmatic aspects of this complex process.
Also interesting are Lord's considerations at the end of the chapter on life's evolution (page 188): «The knowledge of the world that science has acquired has given rise to an astonishing hypothesis: that life and consciousness have arisen from the blind, purposeless and mechanical action of matter; that the only reality is the reality of atoms and the local interactions determined by their chance encounters. Scientific exploration bases itself on certain well-founded principles, principles whose purpose is to protect scientific knowledge from the intrusion of human irrationality. An important principle of science concerns the role of hypotheses. A hypothesis is not a dogmatic belief to be fiercely clung to, defended and protected against the "heretical" pronouncements of those who seek to contradict it. On the contrary, a hypothesis is a mental tool, a provisional framework of ideas that enables knowledge to be organised and new knowledge sought... In many minds, the hypothesis has become irrefutable: those who attempt to construct alternative hypotheses are seen as fools who don't understand "science" – the victims of obsolete animistic superstitions – and experimental results and observations that do not fit into the mechanistic scheme implied by the hypothesis are ignored. This is not a rational attitude. It is irrational and anti-scientific. We have examined some of the ideas of those who have made attempts to seek out alternative hypotheses that might lead to a richer and more profound understanding. These ideas are not fantasies, they have been arrived at from observations of the real world, observations that persistently and cumulatively intimate that the amazing organising, complexifying and exploratory behaviour that characterises biological systems are not just arbitrary and incidental artifacts of chance, but rather manifestations of something built into the very fabric of reality. This amounts to a viable hypothesis, neither more nor less "astonishing" than the materialist hypothesis, and equally worthy of serious attention. Indeed, the very fact that life and consciousness have arisen at all in an otherwise chaotic universe is very strongly in its favour».
Paranormal experiences and conclusive conjectures
The two chapters of the book dedicated to parapsychology and the various paranormal experiences, although interesting, are the result of the study of the extensive literature existing on these topics, and do not add much, from a cognitive point of view, to what is also reported in the pages of this site. The author is undoubtedly convinced of the reality of paranormal phenomena, based on the extraordinary amount of reports and testimonies – even from qualified scientists – that have accumulated over time, and reflects on the reasons why some people feel the need to deny a priori the possibility that such events could occur. Lord points out how many of the disproofs advanced on the correctness in the execution of some experiments and the evaluation of the relative results do not stand up to impartial criticism, and yet they are readily accepted because they offer an easy way out for those who feel disturbed by the recognition that certain phenomena have a real existence and are not subjective hallucinations.
Obviously, by their very nature, the experiments conceived to verify the phenomena investigated by parapsychologists do not present those characteristics of identity and reliability of the results regardless of the psychological conditions of the subjects involved (experimenters and participants), which are the prerequisite of the scientific validation of the results obtained, and therefore it may happen that an experimenter, while correctly performing an experiment, gets different results from those obtained by another experimenter. The study of paranormal phenomena therefore has much more affinity with human sciences (such as history, or sociology) than with physical sciences, and the attempts made – even with some success – to make parapsychology accepted as a science, have had the effect of limiting the field of study to those phenomena that can be tested by laboratory experiments, without being able to offer any guarantee as to the independent validation of the obtained results.
Lord highlights the role of human experience in determining prevailing cultural orientations, including mechanism (page 216): «As we have seen, the extreme sceptical attitude that takes the impossibility of paranormal processes for granted arises from the intuitive belief, often not explicitly recognised, that reality is a mechanism. How does this belief arise? It is implanted and strengthened by our ordinary everyday experience of inanimate objects... As we have seen, the universal validity of this mechanical picture is open to doubts, and the doubts are not raised only by parapsychologists. Scientific knowledge is, of course, an outcome of the way human beings consciously experience the world. The reason for the existence of this thing, this "conscious experience", is mysterious, and might be an instance of the kind of question science cannot answer... Conscious experience embraces a wider range of phenomena than those that science has traditionally paid attention to. Experimental parapsychology did not arise spontaneously out of a perverse desire to oppose rational scientific principles. On the contrary, it was a response to a wide range of so-called "paranormal" experience that seemed to elude rational understanding, and was motivated by the need to give "scientific respectability" to this kind of human experience with a view to gaining a better understanding of it».
Lord too agrees that the ways in which experimental research in the field of parapsychology can be conducted do not conform to the standards required by the scientific method (page 220): «In attempting laboratory verification, parapsychologists are hampered by not knowing the conditions under which the effects they are trying to establish can and cannot arise. They recognise that these conditions are psychological conditions, but the particular psychological characteristics of the rare individuals that turn out to be "good subjects" are not known, and the mental states in which ESP is possible (if it is possible!) are also unknown. The experiments thus differ radically from experiments in the physical sciences in that the "right" conditions consist of unknown psychological factors, so that a requirement that is deemed to be a sine qua non of genuine scientific endeavour, namely the reliable repeatability of experiments, cannot be met». Among the various parnormal experiences of which Lord presents some examples, in addition to telepathy, clairvoyance, psychometry, OBEs, NDEs, apparitions and mediumistic phenomena, also dowsing, reincarnation, the animals' ESP faculties, and some events related to sightings and testimonies of abductions reported in the UFO dossiers, are dealt with.
Lord concludes the chapter on paranormal experiences with an exhortation to science – meant as the human need to increase our knowledge – to show a greater interest in the study of these phenomena, overcoming the mechanistic approach (page 282): «Scientific investigation is the search for a comprehensive intellectual understanding of the reality underlying what the human mind, in its encounter with the world, experiences. Science is driven by curiosity and imagination. To erect barriers to protect the purity of science from all that testifies to the anomalous nature of certain kinds of experience, to perceive these areas as a threat to science, is a thoroughly anti-scientific impulse. It is simply taking refuge in ignorance – an impulse, founded on fear of the unknown, to turn away from anything that appears to challenge cherished preconceptions. An open-minded but healthily sceptical study of the literature of paranormal experience, with a view to attempting to see where the truth lies, rapidly reveals that the mechanistic belief calls for an enormous amount of explaining away, so much so that the explaining-away exercise eventually becomes exceedingly strained and implausible». It remains to be seen which paradigms of the scientific method can be maintained, and which should be modified, in order to successfully tackle this kind of studies, which – up to date – have eluded the objective interpretative certainties on which science can rely, at least in certain fields.
The last chapter of the book, entitled Speculations and Conjectures, is interesting and stimulating, as the author – giving up any pretense of scientificity – indulges in some speculative considerations, anyway consistent with what is set out in his book, about the possible interpretative theories of all those phenomena that can become part of the experience of human life, but the knowledge of which still escapes the intellectual abilities of our consciousness. Some of these speculative conjectures – such as those relating to the Informational Universe, or the Cosmic Mind – have also been mentioned in the pages of this site. Particularly interesting is the paragraph on the Genesis of Meaning and Purpose in the evolution of living organisms, and in particular of human beings, a process which also includes the ability of the human mind to reason and understand (page 322): «In fact, discovery in science is achieved by more flexible thought modes, involving imagination, speculation and intuition. Logical rigour is imposed after the event, when scientific ideas are reported. Reasoned argument is an artifact, an end-product distilled form more fluid, more holistic mental processes. The cognitive activity underlying it operates in terms of context and meaning. In cognitive activity, information is not merely "processed", it is understood. Understanding arises from the organising of conscious subjective experience – a psychic activity that, I would suggest, transcends mechanistic, computational and algorithmic principles».
Towards the end of his book (page 327) Lord summarizes the intent of the conjectures and proposals he put forward in these terms: «In tentatively suggesting a "psychophysical" model of reality, in which a generalised "consciousness" produces the observed world from an underlying reality, I am not advocating a return to obsolete "unscientific" thinking, but searching for a more balanced view that acknowledges anomalous facts that the prevalent mechanistic philosophy cannot encompass, and either ignores or belittles. My speculations have arisen from a confrontation with these facts, and they will stand or fall according to the outcome of further investigation and elucidation of verifiable facts. In attempting to look behind the veil of observable reality, science is in a position similar to that of the psychologist attempting to deduce the nature of the hidden depths of the psyche from their effects in conscious subjective experience and behaviour. The existence and nature of deeper levels of reality beyond the observable world would, similarly, reveal themselves through their effects in the observable world. These effects show themselves in the non-mechanistic self-organising properties of living matter, in the existence of the subjective aspect of observable reality — in particular the existence of consciousness and volition — and in the anomalies of conscious subjective experience called "paranormal" occurrences».
As I said, reading Lord's book is recommended to all those who feel interest in the problem of knowledge, also in relation to the meaning and purpose of human life. Moreover, the author's clarity in relation to the various topics dealt with in his book should be emphasized. However, there is one aspect, very important in my opinion, that has not been explored in this book: that of the relationship between the conscious Ego and the human psyche, and the chance offered by life as an opportunity for transformation and for evolution of the conscious Ego. In his final considerations, Lord still refers to a position within the psyche, almost as if we simply had to change our point of view to have a broader and more satisfying understanding of reality (and also, possibly, a more effective ability to control it). I therefore think that there is an aspect of subjectivity – represented, precisely, by the conscious Ego – that cannot be dissolved in the objectivity required by the scientific method (which, let us remember, represents only one aspect of the human psyche), unless we want to reduce the human being to the state of a human automaton.
As I have repeatedly highlighted, within the human psyche, conflictual and problematic dynamics of wide range appear, with which the conscious Ego must confront in case it wants to avoid a complete identification with the psychic dynamics in which it is involved: this condition represents the existential normality, especially in the context of our culture. If the conscious Ego does not begin to ask itself some questions about the very origin of the psyche, the function of consciousness as an instrument for experiencing the psychic dynamics, and the meaning and importance that this confrontation with the psyche can have for its evolution, we run the risk of losing sight of the very value of subjectivity, which would be transformed and distorted into a new form of (presumed) objectivity. Basically, mediumistic and paranormal phenomena are always connected with a subject (the medium, the psychic, the occasional sensitive), and precisely this fact makes an objective evaluation in itself impossible, as if to underline the importance of an imponderable element. which escapes the standardization imposed by objectivity. This is the reason why – in my opinion – it is possible to investigate and study such phenomena, but we are not in a position to be able to explain their causes.