When I was six or seven, I was still a devout Catholic, and I believed in the power of prayer. At a class bowling party, when my turn came I silently said a Hail Mary, hoping the mother of God would help me throw strikes. She didn’t come through. Nor did Jesus, to whom I appealed in a snowball fight with older boys, keep me from being smacked in the face so hard by an iceball that I started bawling.
These disappointments contributed to my loss of faith, but I continued paranormal experiments in a secular vein well into my teens. I passed the time in dull school assemblies by telepathically commanding classmates in front of me to scratch their ears. Never worked. I could have been commanding them not to scratch.
I had better luck when I was 17 and carried out a card-reading experiment with Chris, a friend who had read a book by parapsychologist J.B. Rhine. Chris used the five cards that Rhine employed in experiments demonstrating extrasensory perception, or ESP. Each displayed a different symbol. Square, circle, cross, five-pointed star, three wavy lines.
I stared at the cards and Chris tried to guess them. After he guessed the first nine cards correctly, I started giggling, and Chris did too. Then he couldn’t guess correctly any more. Or so I remember. We were probably smoking weed. I called Chris while working on this chapter, and he said his memory of the incident was similar, although he couldn’t recall exactly how many cards he guessed correctly.
Another anomalous experience: In the mid-1980s I was sipping mint juleps in the living room of an old farmhouse in Maine with two women, India, the house’s owner, and her roommate Suzie, whom I married several years later. There was a strange noise, and we stopped talking to listen. It sounded like a woman crying upstairs. India and Suzie said it was a ghost, whom they had heard before. That incident and the card-reading episode remain inexplicable to me.
After I became a professional science journalist, my interest in the paranormal, or psi, faded as I delved into more scientifically acceptable mysteries. I decided that ghosts, telepathy and telekinesis are woo. My skepticism is not strictly rational—that is, based entirely on objective, empirical analysis. Like, say, sexual faithfulness, skepticism has become a fundamental part of my identity, personal and professional. A choice.
I’m proud of my skepticism, but a little ambivalent, too, because it is based in part on cowardice (again, like sexual faithfulness). I fear if I become too open-minded toward the paranormal, I might harm my image as a science writer, such as it is, and my self-image. I might forget who I really am. But in part because of my modest anomalous experiences, I’ve never achieved 100-percent certainty that the paranormal does not exist.
When I was writing a book on mysticism in 2000, the topic of psi kept popping up, and I dealt with it by devoting a chapter to British psychologist Sue Blackmore. Blackmore, after a spectacular, drug-induced out-of-body experience in college, believed in and tried to find evidence for astral projection and other manifestations of psi. But after many years she concluded that most of the evidence stemmed from confirmation bias or fraud. I liked and trusted Blackmore, so I believed her. I also wanted to believe her.
In 2004 physicist Freeman Dyson, who possesses one of the truly great minds I have encountered, proposed in The New York Review of Books that “paranormal phenomena are real but lie outside the limits of science.” Scientists have had a hard time producing empirical proof of psi, he conjectured, because it tends to occur under conditions of “strong emotion and stress,” which are “inherently incompatible with controlled scientific procedures.”
Dyson even offered an explanation for what Rhine called the “decline effect,” the tendency of subjects to show less telepathy over time. “In a typical card-guessing experiment,” Dyson wrote, “the participants may begin the session in a high state of excitement and record a few high scores, but as the hours pass, and boredom replaces excitement, the scores decline.”
In 2007 I ran into Dyson at a scientific conference in Europe, and he affirmed his belief in psi. We happened to have this exchange while sitting at a table with seven or eight scientists. Soon, everyone started swapping stories about paranormal experiences. Surprised, I asked who, at the table, thought paranormal effects might be real. All, as I recall, raised their hands. None, other than Dyson and Wolf Singer, a German neuroscientist, had publicly revealed their open-mindedness. They worried that disclosure might harm their careers.
My skepticism wobbled again in 2014 when I met Rupert Sheldrake at a conference in England. Sheldrake, who earned a Ph.D. in biology at Cambridge, is a leading parapsychologist, renowned, or notorious, for claiming that humans, dogs and other animals have extrasensory perception. Sheldrake and I hit it off. He was smart, knowledgeable, funny, passionate about his research without being fanatical. He told me that scientists constantly confess, privately, that they keep their belief in the paranormal secret for fear of damaging their reputations.1 These are some of the reasons why I have devoted a chapter to the strange, tragic case of Stuart Kauffman.
* * * * *
Kauffman, who was born in 1939, has had multiple professional identities. He studied philosophy at Oxford, switched to medicine and earned an M.D., left medicine to do genetic research, earned several patents, became a biotechnology entrepreneur and even a business consultant. He is best known as a theoretical biologist, who claims that conventional materialist science cannot account for life and consciousness. He is one of the most intrepid mind-body theorists I know.
In early encounters, Kauffman aroused mixed feelings in me. I first talked to him over the phone in 1991 for an article on the origin of life. Kauffman had attracted attention for proposing that life emerged from a generic process called auto-catalysis, in which simple chemical compounds combine to form more complex structures capable of replication, mutation, evolution. I quoted Kauffman saying of his theory, “I’m sure I’m right,” a statement for which he apparently took some heat.
I interviewed him face to face three years later at the Santa Fe Institute for Complex Systems, then one of the hippest places, intellectually, on the planet. People at the small but high-powered think tank were at the forefront of a field called complexity. They were creating a new science that could explain hideously complex things better than conventional reductionist methods. Armed with powerful new computers and mathematics, they were seeking general principles underpinning cells, immune systems, brains, nations, global economies…
Ugh. Even now, after all these years, when I describe the field of complexity, I feel like I’m writing an advertorial, the kind of crap that publishers put on book jackets, or that academic departments paste on their websites to impress students, parents and funders. I feel like I’m tapping the part of my brain dedicated not to genuine expression but to bullshit.
At any rate, Kauffman was a star of the Santa Fe Institute, along with Nobel-winning physicists Murray Gell-Mann and Phil Anderson. Kauffman was a theoretician of everything, a seeker of answers to Big Questions. How did order arise in the cosmos, the order manifest in stars and galaxies, cells and cities? How did life arise, and not just bacteria and jellyfish but conscious, intelligent creatures that can question and alter their destinies? Kauffman was dissatisfied with science’s answers to these questions. He proposed the existence of a new creative force or law or something that counteracts entropy, the universal tendency of things to fall apart.
In 1994, while I was visiting the Santa Fe Institute, Kauffman described the theme of his new book, At Home in the Universe, with messianic fervor. The book explained how life could have emerged from generic processes that countered the drift toward heat death decreed by the second law of thermodynamics. Here is a sampling of what Kauffman said over dinner:
Here you have a body of models that says the emergence of life might be a natural phenomenon, in the sense that, given a sufficiently complicated set of reacting molecules, you’d expect to crystalize autocatalytic subsets. So if that view is right, as I told you with abundant enthusiasm a couple of years ago [big smile] then we’re not incredibly improbable accidents. It didn’t take something that was utterly, bizarrely mysterious and improbable to make a self-reproducing system. It pops up out of the laws of chance and number as expected, okay? It’s self-organized. Now one doesn’t know despite my enthusiasm that my view is right. But suppose for the moment that it is, and suppose you could test it. Then genesis of life is to be expected, and therefore we are at home in the universe in a different way than we would be if life were this incredibly improbable event that happened on one planet and one planet only.
I emphasize “we are at home in the universe” for reasons that will become apparent later. At the time of our meeting, I was writing a book about how science would produce no more discoveries as profound as natural selection, relativity, quantum mechanics, the genetic code. If Kauffman was right about his theory, I was wrong. That was one strike against him.
The other was that Kauffman, while undoubtedly brilliant, seemed too taken with his brilliance. Too charming, clever, self-confident. I didn’t trust him. His riffs seemed intended to impress more than illuminate. He was trying to dazzle me, even bully me, with the sheer force of his intellect and personality. I wanted to puncture that self-regard.
So when I wrote about Kauffman—first in an article for Scientific American, “From Complexity to Perplexity,” and then in The End of Science—I was hard on him and his ideas, as I was on complexity researchers in general. I accused them of peddling “ironic science.” Ironic science is more akin to philosophy or even literature than to genuine science, because it cannot be empirically verified or falsified.
I always felt a little guilty about roughing up Kauffman, for two reasons. First, I thought his critique of science was profound. He was right that conventional science has not really explained the emergence of life and consciousness. Also, there was a side of him that I didn’t capture in my writing. He exuded a faint aura of melancholy. I occasionally noticed him brooding, contemplating some inner darkness. A colleague at the Santa Fe Institute told me that his daughter had died tragically. I never asked Kauffman about it, because his personal life had nothing to do with his intellectual life. So I thought.
Here is what changed my view of Kauffman. In 2015 Richard Kroehling, a filmmaker and friend, showed me a documentary he had made about Kauffman. In the film Kauffman talked movingly about how his wife of 46 years, Liz, had just succumbed to pancreatic cancer. Kauffman also recalled the death of his teenage daughter, Merit, in 1986. He had a vision of his daughter’s death a month before it happened, and he had been trying to understand this paranormal incident ever since. Eventually, to explain what happened, he invented a radical new solution to the mind-body problem.
* * * * *
Early in 2016 I contacted Kauffman and asked if he would talk to me about his personal life, as well as his mind-body ideas. It turned out we were both going to “The Science Of Consciousness” in Tucson. Kauffman, like Alison Gopnik, was scheduled to give a keynote lecture. We met one cool morning on an outdoor patio at the conference center. Kauffman has a magnificent face, with full, sensual lips and heavy-lidded eyes. He looks like a fallen prophet. He speaks with supreme, sonorous confidence, dialing up the intensity and precision of his enunciation when imparting difficult concepts, as if to imprint them on your brain.
I had seen him a couple of times in the intervening years, and he didn’t seem to harbor grudges about my previous treatment of him. But after we sat down at an umbrella-canopied table, Kauffman kidded me about my ad hominem descriptions in The End of Science. “Everybody who agreed with you,” he recalled, “was normal physiologically, and everybody who disagreed with you had something like snot dribbling from his nose or was a hunchback.”
He sighed. “You nailed me,” he continued. “You got me saying your name too often, and you’re right!” In The End of Science, I had compared Kauffman’s habit of repeating my first name to that of a salesman trying to establish a bond with a potential customer. Surely you realize you’re a natural salesman, I said. “Yeah, I guess I am,” he replied. “Look at my last name, Kauffman. It means merchant or something like that.” He seemed amused and annoyed.
After getting that off his chest, Kauffman told me about the life and death of his daughter. “I may have loved Merit more than anybody I ever loved,” he said. She was born in 1972, when Kauffman was at the University of Chicago. He delivered his daughter himself. “I was the first to touch my little girl,” he said. “Like catching a football. You just go, Foop!… I fell in love with her instantaneously.”
In the summer of 1986, Kauffman, then teaching and doing research at the University of Pennsylvania, took Merit to France and England for two weeks, and they had a splendid time. In Oxford, where Kauffman had studied philosophy, they bicycled, punted and drank shandies, a blend of beer and lemonade. Everyone they met in Europe “fell in love with” Merit, Kauffman said. “There was a picture taken about three months before she died, in Paris. Beautiful picture. She looked 18. People said, ‘How old is she? She looks 18.’ I had to say, ‘No, she’s 13.’” Kauffman sighed again. “Merit was an old soul,” he said. “Maybe I had too much faith in her.”
When they returned home, Merit became troubled. A “good girl” and straight-A student, she started getting bad grades and becoming rebellious. She “went from absolutely solid to being in turmoil.” Merit might have been upset that the family was moving soon to Santa Fe, and that her older brother, to whom she was close, was going to a boarding school in Colorado.
“She seemed to be in some emotional difficulty,” Kauffman said, “but John, we didn’t know it. It came on very fast.” Merit started dating a boy her age. “Of course I didn’t want her to,” Kauffman said. “There was no way I was going to stop her. Things were flooding through her body near the onset of adolescence.”
A month before Merit died, Kauffman picked her up at her boyfriend’s home, which was five miles from the Kauffman home in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Merit said she wanted to walk home, but Kauffman insisted that he drive her. Night had fallen. They were driving down a street, passing a tree, when an image, like a snippet of film, flashed into Kauffman’s mind. Merit was walking down the middle of the street, her back to oncoming traffic, when a car struck her.
“I was staggered, just blown away,” Kauffman said of his vision. He didn’t mention it to Merit, but he made her promise she would never walk home from the boyfriend’s house. She would always call him for a ride. Merit, after a moment of silence, replied that she would walk as far as a restaurant near her boyfriend’s house, where she would call her father so he could pick her up. “I thought, ‘Well that’s a pretty fair compromise.’ So I said, ‘Fine, Merit,’ and we went home.”
A month later, on October 25, 1986, Kauffman and Liz were at the wedding of an acquaintance. They reconstructed what happened to Merit from conversations with her boyfriend, his parents and others. “We were very gentle” with the boyfriend, Kauffman said. “We never blamed him, because he was going to carry enough trauma.”
Merit’s older brother dropped her off at the boyfriend’s house. He and Merit drank some wine, and then he told Merit he was breaking up with her because he had a new girlfriend. He asked Merit for money so he could take a taxi to the new girlfriend’s house. Merit left the house and started walking home. She set her purse down at the side of the road. Then she lay down in the road, her head toward the middle, her face turned toward oncoming traffic. She was in the same spot where Kauffman had had his vision of her being hit by a car a month earlier.
Three drivers later reported seeing Merit lying in the road. One was an anesthesiologist at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, where Kauffman worked. The anesthesiologist was with his wife, who was nine months pregnant. He didn’t stop, because it was a few days before Halloween, and he feared the girl in the road might be playing a trick. If he slowed down, her friends might throw eggs at his car. He drove to a police station and reported what he had seen.
Police rushed to where the anesthesiologist reported seeing Merit. It was too late. “A car had come from the other lane, going the other way, not in the lane Merit was in, going too fast,” Kauffman said. “He slammed on the brakes, tire marks all over the place, skidded into Merit’s lane, hit her and crushed her brain stem.”
Kauffman and his wife knew none of this when they returned home from the wedding party. They arrived just as their son was rushing out the door, screaming that Merit was at the hospital. By the time they arrived, Merit had been declared dead. The hospital staff led them into a room, in which Merit was lying on a gurney. Kauffman kissed her goodbye.
Recounting this scene, Kauffman was somber but calm. Around us, waiters bustled, diners gobbled food and chattered, forks clinked against plates. I felt a surge of anger. I wanted to jump up and scream at everyone to shut up, but Kauffman seemed unperturbed.
After they drove home from the hospital, Kauffman, his wife and son spent the night huddled together in bed. The next morning, they discovered a drawing in Merit’s room. It depicted The Grateful Dead, the rock band, and an image of a girl lying in a road. “Somewhere in her she had that image in her own mind,” Kauffman said. “I don’t know. All I know is what I’m telling you.”
At some point, Kauffman told Liz and his son about his vision of Merit being hit by a car. Liz didn’t want her husband to share details of his vision or of Merit’s death with anyone outside the family. Kauffman only started talking about these events after Liz died in 2013.
Liz “was ashamed that Merit had lain down in the road, because there are suicidal components to it,” Kauffman explained. It was possible, he thought, that Merit did not really want to die. Her act might have been a “desperate attempt for attention” that went awry. She might have been hoping that her boyfriend would see her when he took a cab to his new girlfriend’s house.
The day after Merit died, Kauffman had another “anomalous” experience. He called Linda, a childhood friend who lived in Denver, to tell her what had happened. Linda said she had dreamed about him the previous night. In the dream Kauffman was sitting on the floor, in agony, while Liz embraced him. Kauffman had not spoken to Linda for eight months.
Let me be clear. Kauffman is describing two paranormal incidents. The first was his vision of Merit walking down the road and being hit by a car, which occurred a month before she died at the same spot. The second was the dream of his friend Linda about him and Liz on the night of Merit’s death. These incidents cannot be accounted for by mainstream science–unless of course you assume that they are just coincidences, or that they didn’t really happen.
* * * * *
Before Merit’s death, Kauffman was a conventional “atheist reductionist.” He knew about research on extra-sensory perception, but he thought “all of that was just bullshit.” Sure, various researchers, notably Rhine, claimed to have produced evidence of ESP, but others had difficulty replicating these experiments.
After Merit’s death, Kauffman could not explain away his experiences. “The specificity of my vision, and Linda’s telephone call the next day, I could not account for, and I still can’t,” he said. “From that moment on, I was open to telepathy.” Most scientists consider telepathy to be “utterly fringe,” but “what if it’s true? Then it changes everything.”
He entertained two possible explanations of his vision of Merit being run over. One is that it was precognition, seeing the future. Because he has a hard time accounting for precognition (for reasons I’ll return to later), Kauffman favors the second explanation, that he was telepathically picking up Merit’s own thoughts about what she might do.
After Merit’s death, Kauffman became intrigued by arguments of physicist Roger Penrose that consciousness cannot spring from purely deterministic processes, in which causes have specific, predictable effects. Penrose’s reasoning was complex. It included an appeal to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which delineates the limits of rule-based systems such as those employed in conventional computers. Consciousness, Penrose concluded, must arise from probabilistic quantum effects.
Kauffman began to suspect that quantum mechanics could account for not only ordinary consciousness but also telepathy. According to one interpretation of quantum theory, a particle such as an electron or photon exists in a blur of probable, “superposed” states until it is observed, when it snaps into a single state. Particles can also influence each other through an effect called entanglement, or nonlocality. Measure the spin of an electron in New York and you instantly determine the spin of its entangled twin in Paris. In the 1930s Einstein derided this hypothetical effect as “spooky action at a distance.” If quantum mechanics predicts this impossible effect, he argued, the theory must flawed and in need of revision. Einstein turned out to be wrong. In the 1980s, laboratory experiments conclusively demonstrated nonlocality.
In recent years, Kauffman has become more convinced that telepathy is real, and that it is a quantum phenomenon, for several reasons. First, Dean Radin, a former engineer at Bell Laboratories, has reported finding evidence for telepathy and telekinesis in multiple experiments over the past couple of decades. Second, several groups have found signs of quantum effects in neural information processing. These data are tentative, and contested, but they have helped Kauffman explain the anomalous events he experienced in 1986. “If mind is partially quantum, then, by nonlocality, Linda could have had her experience of me in her dream, and I could have picked up something from Merit.”
Back to precognition, the other possible explanation for his vision of Merit’s death. Kauffman couldn’t rule out the possibility that he had glimpsed the future rather than simply reading Merit’s mind. “There are enough examples of precognition that, again, you’ve got to take it seriously.” Precognition is consistent with classical, pre-quantum physics, which implies that the future, in a sense, already exists. Kauffman notes that the concept of a mathematical description of all that has been and will be dates back to the ancient Greeks. He calls it “the Pythagorean dream.” Einstein’s theory of general relativity also holds that all events past and future exist eternally in the four-dimensional structure of spacetime.
But Kauffman doubts that his vision of Merit’s death was precognition, for two reasons. First, the vision wasn’t entirely accurate. He saw Merit struck by a car as she walked down a road, when in reality she was struck while lying down. Second, Kauffman’s ideas about time have gotten complicated, in part because of the influence of physicist Lee Smolin.2 Smolin has devoted himself to solving one of the great puzzles of modern physics, the apparent inconsistency between general relativity, which describes gravity, and quantum mechanics, which describes electromagnetism and the nuclear forces.
The theories are written in two entirely different mathematical languages. For more than a half-century, physicists have tried finding a unified theory that accounts for all the forces. Smolin is a co-inventor of loop-space theory, which takes a step toward a unified theory by reformulating gravity in quantum terms. Loop-space theory posits that spacetime, rather than being smooth, consists of loops, forming a kind of four-dimensional chain mail. Spacetime, because it is quantized, also exists in a probabilistic haze until we measure it.
Inspired by these ideas, Kauffman, together with Smolin, conjectured that reality is fundamentally unpredictable and creative. “Einstein starts with a pre-stated configuration space, a block universe,” Kauffman said. “What if that’s not how it happens? What if, from loop quantum gravity, the universe builds itself, but you can’t say what it’s going to build until it builds itself?” The universe “is not an is. It’s a becoming.” Kauffman constructed a non-deterministic metaphysics based not on probability—the key concept of quantum mechanics—but on possibility. The switch makes causation looser, allowing for more wriggle room. Causation becomes akin to enablement.
This view has dramatic implications for the life sciences. It means that no theory, no matter how powerful, could predict the emergence of life and multi-cellular organisms, let alone humans. “Nobody could have said giraffes three billion years ago,” Kauffman said. Ordinarily scientists postulate a law, predict consequences and carry out tests of the prediction. “Well, you can’t predict what’s going to happen in evolution, so you can’t falsify your prediction or verify it,” Kauffman said. “So no law for what’s out there. There is no law! It blows my mind away.”
As if on cue, birds started chirping madly in a cluster of bushes bordering the patio. Why? Was a hawk menacing them? Were they expressing fear or joy? What was going on in their bird world? Meanwhile, Kauffman kept talking. He knew about my fondness for free will, so he pointed out that his worldview easily accommodates it. “The only way to get that ontological requirement for free will is through quantum mechanics, that we know of. I mean, you could just posit indeterminism, but we have quantum mechanics. Why not use it?”
Kauffman pointed out that I could take advantage of my free will right now. I could stay here and listen to him. Or I could be thinking that he’s a nut and plotting to ditch him by pretending I needed to take a leak. That means there are two possible future moments. “You could be sitting here, or you could be on your way to the bathroom, right?” Free will “demands that the present could have been different. I don’t think this is well noticed, but it’s obviously true. You can’t have it in a deterministic universe. So that’s a counterfactual. You could have been on your way to the bathroom, but you’re not, you’re sitting here. Ha ha. Dumb bunny.”
Free will isn’t absolute, of course, because that would lead to nonsensical implications. “Suppose I said to you, ‘John, you can do anything you want!’ What are you going to do? Feel it come into you. ‘I can do anything I want.’ Does that mean I am going to rocket to Mars? Does it mean I am going to go pee? Am I going to sit here and meditate? Am I going to shoot my hands off in different directions into space? What does it mean to say you can do anything? It’s totally unformulated, because there are no constraints. You need constraints to enable action.”
Our first step toward making the possible real is to imagine it. The causal power of imagination “is nowhere in physics,” Kauffman pointed out. “Well, screw physics, they better get their heads out of their equations.” Our imaginations constantly create, or enable, new possibilities. This is the premise of improvisational comedy, Kauffman said. If we were doing a skit, he might pretend to give me “a steaming platter of horseshit,” and I would imagine a response that keeps the skit going, like demanding a spoon with which to eat the horseshit. “We enable one another. That’s not in our physics either. We’re doing it with one another right now.”
This view has much in common with physicist John Wheeler’s notion of the “participatory universe,” which was also inspired by quantum mechanics. The questions we ask about reality, Wheeler proposed, help create it. Every question provokes different possible answers, which in turn provoke new questions. “The becoming of the universe is a bunch of quantum enigmas,” Kauffman said. “And the question is, is it only we human beings that can do this, or is everything doing it? My bet is, it’s all over the place.” The entire universe seethes with creative possibilities.
Let’s return now to Kauffman’s vision of Merit’s death a month before it happened. His metaphysics suggests that he could not have been glimpsing her actual future, because it wasn’t pre-determined. It was just one of many possibilities. When Kauffman saw his daughter walking down a road and being struck by a car, he was reading her mind, as she imagined a possible future for herself. We tend to see imagination as a positive force, but it can lead to dark places, and even to our destruction.
When I asked if the paranormal experiences related to Merit’s death were in any way consoling, Kauffman shook his head. Then he brooded, casting back. A week after Merit died, Liz thought she saw lights twinkling in a bedroom, as if Merit’s spirit was present. “That was kind of consoling,” Kauffman said.
I pressed the issue. I wanted to know what purpose Kauffman’s theory served. Did his expansive view of how minds and the rest of nature work make it easier to deal with his losses? “No, no.” He just wanted to know how the world works. His feelings were irrelevant. When I asked if he was happy, Kauffman shook his head again. “I’ve gone through too much loss.” He was still struggling with Liz’s death. Around the time she died, gigs at universities in Vermont and Finland ended.
But new possibilities have unfolded. He fell in love and married again. He embarked on several new writing projects, including a play and screenplay as well as books setting forth his ideas. He was repairing his relationship with his son. “I’m slowly reinventing myself,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s really hard.”
You seem happy, I said, and I meant it. “I have accomplished a lot of stuff that I am glad I accomplished,” Kauffman said. He was proud of fruit fly experiments he had done as a young man, and of some of his scientific and philosophical ideas. He felt “battered” by life, and he didn’t feel any wiser now than when he was in his 20s, but he had learned to take things in stride. “You start laughing a little bit.”
Providing this self-assessment, Kauffman looked somber. But his face lit up when he told me about a recent paper, which he titled “Cosmic Mind?” “Big question mark,” he emphasized, referring to the title. Quantum mechanics, the paper conjectures, could allow for the possibility of “disembodied” minds. “Entangled quantum variables,” Kauffman writes, “may conceivably share some form of consciousness and free will, whether embodied in us, or living forms elsewhere in the universe, or disembodied; hence, something like cosmic mind or minds are not ruled out. If true, life anywhere in the universe will have evolved with mind and free will. Souls are not impossible.” The italics are mine.
Kauffman’s essay also contemplates the possibility of a cosmic mind—that is, God—pervading the cosmos. I asked how he dealt with the old theological conundrum, the problem of evil. If God loves us, why is life often so painful and unfair? Why do innocent people suffer? Kauffman said his God, if He exists, is the cool, impersonal deity of Spinoza, not the emotionally volatile tyrant of the Old Testament.
In spite of his dalliance with the paranormal, Kauffman has a hard-headed view of human nature. As a Jew, he is all too aware of the human capacity for cruelty, but he does not believe in good or evil as supernatural forces. Natural selection, he pointed out, has shaped our behavioral tendencies, good and bad. “Our facial expressions and body language and all that is not that different from the other higher apes,” he said.
Aggression is encoded in our genes, but over the past 10,000 years, humans pursuing self-interest have invented more and more win-win, non-zero-sum ways of interacting with each other, which have enriched our lives in countless ways. Competition “isn’t such a bad thing,” Kauffman said, “as long as it’s nonviolent.” Kauffman was trying to imagine where human civilization is headed, and where it should head. What are the possibilities? “I hope it stays diverse. I hope it creates new ways of being human. I hope it has a lot of tolerance in it.”
By the end of my breakfast with Kauffman, we weren’t merely tolerating each other. We were pleased with each other and with ourselves. My view of Kauffman had swerved. In the mid-1990s, I saw him as a smart, ambitious guy trying to achieve fame and glory by peddling bullshit wrapped in glittery rhetoric. Actually, he was a man struggling heroically to see the cosmos as meaningful and magical after fate dealt him a terrible, terrible blow. Most people, after losing a child as Kauffman did, would be forgiven for thinking that the cosmos is uncaring, if not cruel. It doesn’t give a shit about us. Kauffman rejects that bitter conclusion. He insists that this is our home. We are meant to be here.
* * * * *
The phrase “God of the gaps” suggests that faith will endure as long as mysteries like the origin of the universe and life remain unsolved. The implication is that freedom of belief is proportional to ignorance. In the case of the mind-body problem, our ignorance is an abyss, not a gap. So how free should we be? Free to believe in panpsychism? Souls? Ghosts? Heaven, reincarnation, nirvana? The God of The Bible? Of Spinoza? Where should we draw the line between credible and incredible mind-body stories?
Scientists who disdain paranormal hypotheses are open-minded about other data-poor claims. Examples: Reality is made of infinitesimal strings wriggling in 10 dimensions. Our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes. Our reality is actually a Matrix-style simulation created by super-intelligent aliens. Why do many scientists take these claims seriously but consider extrasensory perception beyond the pale? Take Christof Koch. When I told him I planned to devote a chapter of this book to someone who had paranormal experiences, he was displeased. Your book won’t be taken seriously, he warned, if it treats a “fringe” topic like parapsychology credulously. Come on! I said to Koch. You believe in panpsychism!
My point was that if I included Koch and excluded someone who believed in telepathy, I’d be applying an unfair double standard. And actually Kauffman’s worldview resembles that of Koch. Both see consciousness as intrinsic to the cosmos. Both are fans of Spinoza, who equated God with the impersonal order of the cosmos. Koch would probably agree with Kauffman that “we’re at home in the universe.” Kauffman’s emphasis on imagination and possibility also evokes that of Alison Gopnik.
I admire Kauffman’s attempts to fuse science and spirituality. I once asked him about attacks on religion by Richard Dawkins and other “New Atheists.” Kauffman replied that “to dismiss those who do believe in God, in any sense, is arrogant and useless and divisive.”3 I agree. It is also “arrogant and useless and divisive” to dismiss those who, like Kauffman, are open-minded about extrasensory perception, telekinesis and other paranormal phenomena.
My views of telepathy are variable, unstable, entangled with my views of God, free will and the decency of humanity. My beliefs exist in a superposition of states, which can collapse when exposed to the force field of others’ convictions. They can shift wildly over the course of a single day, especially when I am subject to strong emotion and stress.
The day after my breakfast with Kauffman, I watched him lecture before a packed auditorium. He laid out his quantum-consciousness hypothesis, including the implications for extrasensory perception, smoothly, without slides or notes. Part of me was impressed. Another part worried that his presentation was too smooth, polished, slick, lacking in self-criticism.
Later that same day, I had to give a talk of my own. I had persuaded Stuart Hameroff, an anesthesiologist who had been organizing these meetings in Tucson since 1994, to allot me 25 minutes in a small room during a concurrent session, which took place at the same time as other sessions. In my writings I had mocked Hameroff for his aggressive promotion of quantum theories of consciousness. He hadn’t been eager to let me speak, but I wore him down.
Now I was dreading giving the talk. A dozen years of teaching has eased but not eliminated my life-long stage fright. Flipping through the conference schedule, looking for something to distract me, I experienced mild synchronicity when I discovered that Stephen Laberge was speaking. He is an authority on lucid dreams, during which you become aware that you are dreaming. In the 1970s Laberge showed that lucid dreamers could communicate with the outside world by moving their eyes, which unlike most other body parts are not immobilized in REM sleep.
In 1994 I spent several days with LaBerge in California while researching an article about him.4 I had had lucid dreams as a youth, and I tried to have more while working on my article about LaBerge, so I could supplement my objective reporting with first-person color. I went to bed thinking about lucid dreams, and I kept a dream journal. I fell asleep in his lab while hooked up to an electroencephalograph.
I didn’t have any lucid dreams in LaBerge’s lab or on my own, but my waking life became dreamier. I kept asking myself, as LaBerge recommended, Is this a dream? The more you ask this question when you’re awake, the more likely you are to ask it when you’re dreaming and to realize: Hey! This is a dream!
I slipped into Salon E, which was packed, just as LaBerge began speaking. He was lean and fit-looking, with bristly white hair. Telling us about his research, and about how we can induce lucid dreams, he was funny, interesting, lucid. I felt good that the years had been kind to him. I said hello after his talk, and we swapped reminiscences. I walked away feeling a frisson of derealization. I idly thought, Is this a dream? To psychiatrists, derealization is a disorder, a delusion, but according to certain mystical doctrines, enlightenment is the realization that your normal, waking life is unreal, a dream. Decades ago, I emerged from a psychedelic trip convinced that this world is the dream of a neurotic god.
These memories roiled my brain as I entered Salon L, where I was scheduled to speak. Kauffman was in the audience, as was Hameroff. The speaker before me, Hedda Morch, pondered whether individual human minds can merge into a meta-mind, as implied by integrated information theory. She noted that several prominent philosophers have explored the concept of “combined consciousness,” including Charles Hartshorne.
Synchronicity strikes again! I had stumbled on Hartshorne’s theological writings when I was trying to understand my old psychedelic trip. He envisioned a god who, far from being omniscient and omnipotent, is incomplete and ever-evolving. Thinking that Hartshorne might respond to my neurotic-god idea, I called him at his home in Texas. The conversation didn’t go well. Hartshorne treated me like a crank. I wanted to say, Hey man, if I’m a crank, you are too.
Morch was done, my turn to talk. I plugged in my laptop, got my presentation displayed and started babbling. My talk was titled “The Quest for Consciousness: A Skeptic’s View.” I said there had been little or no progress in understanding consciousness since the first meeting in Tucson in 1994. If anything, things had regressed. There were more theories of consciousness than ever. Abundance of theories, like abundance of treatments for a disease, means nothing really works.
As usual when I give a talk, I was in an altered state. The audience’s attention seemed to compress and heat my brain. A quantum telekinetic effect, perhaps? I heard chants or yelps from an adjacent session. Or were these hallucinations secreted by my pressurized brain? The session chair raised his hand, his fingers splayed. Only five minutes left??!!
I took my shot at quantum consciousness. I had just emailed Christof Koch to ask if quantum-consciousness theories should be taken seriously. I flashed a slide with Koch’s response: “No empirical data on large-scale quantum effects (e.g., coherence) in central structures in the brain (only for photosynthesis in algae). So very unlikely that such effects play a major role in cognition, including consciousness.” Someone grumbled, probably the quantum-consciousness fanatic Hameroff. Hoping to mollify him, I made a few derogatory remarks about Koch’s pet idea, integrated information theory.5
After my talk ended, relief flooded me, and my derealization ebbed. Good talk, John, Kauffman said with a little smile. I suspected irony, but I felt too good to care. He asked if I wanted to join him and a friend for dinner. I said sure. Kauffman’s friend turned out to be a prominent American roshi, or Buddhist teacher. The topic of psychedelics arose, and Kauffman and the roshi confessed, to my surprise, that they were psychedelic virgins. I bragged about slurping ayahuasca on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, and chewing peyote in a teepee in Arizona.
The conversation veered to telekinesis, and now I was the virgin. Kauffman and the roshi claimed they had bent spoons telekinetically, with the help of some tactile pressure. You rub the shaft of the spoon until it goes limp, like a reverse erection. Kauffman had bent a spoon once, in a workshop at Esalen, and he had tried and failed to do it subsequently. He promised to send me a photo of the bent spoon (and he did).6
My heart sank. I associate spoon-bending with tacky celebrities like Uri Geller. Kauffman was really testing my tolerance. But he was so excited, even child-like, as he recalled the time he bent a spoon that I ended up finding his revelation endearing. He had more to lose than to gain by telling me this. His honesty was admirable, I decided.
The roshi was a different story. I didn’t like him. He said he had bent spoons many times and could do it whenever he chose. I asked him to bend a spoon at our table. He wasn’t in the mood, he said. I smirked. You don’t believe me? the roshi asked. You think I’m a liar? He was a large man with a shaved skull. I replied, I can’t throw out my entire skeptical, materialistic worldview because someone I barely know tells me he can bend spoons. He glared at me, then abruptly bared his teeth in a feral grin. Derealization flooded me. I thought, Is this a dream?
If you asked me at that moment if I believed in telepathy and telekinesis, I don’t know how I would have answered. One part of me might have said yes, another no, another maybe. Another part would have been so absorbed in the weirdness of the moment that the question would have seemed silly and irrelevant.
I’m not sure if Stuart Kauffman has shifted my mind-body beliefs, but he has definitely shifted how I judge the beliefs of others. His story about the death of his daughter nudged me away from skepticism and toward compassion. Life can be brutal. As long as your mind-body story isn’t harmful to yourself or others, believe whatever gets through the night. Believe that this universe is our home, we were meant to be here, everything is going to be all right. For many people, for me on bad days, that is harder to believe than spoon-bending.
Listen to Kauffman talk at Tucson April 28, 2016.
See “Scientific Heretic Rupert Sheldrake on Morphic Fields, Psychic Dogs and Other Mysteries” and “Freeman Dyson, global warming, ESP and the fun of being ‘bunkrapt.’” Other leading scientists who were open-minded about ESP include William James, Freud, Jung, Wolfgang Pauli and Alan Turing. See my post “Brilliant Scientists Are Open-Minded about Paranormal Stuff, So Why Not You?”
See my 2015 Q&A with Smolin, “Troublemaker Lee Smolin Says Physics–and Its Laws–Must Evolve.”
See my 2015 Q&A with Kauffman, “Scientific Seeker Stuart Kauffman on Free Will, God, ESP and Other Mysteries.”
I wrote an article on LaBerge’s lucid-dreaming research for Omni in 1995 and blogged about it in 2010. See “Inception is a clunker, but lucid dreaming is cool.”
I posted an edited version of my Tucson talk on my blog, “The Mind–Body Problem, Scientific Regress and ‘Woo.’”
After I returned to Tucson, I emailed professional skeptic Michael Shermer and asked him to explain spoon-bending. Shermer wrote that people who claim to bend spoons with their minds “are all either deceiving or self-deceiving. No exception.” See “Skeptic Debunks Spoon-Bending and Fosters World Peace” for his full response.