The Politics of Ontology

by John E. Mack, M.D.

There is a vast range of reported human experiences that cannot be understood by the laws and mechanisms of Western science including mental telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition, near-death and out-of-body experiences, UFO abductions, kundalini awakenings, religious miracles and seemingly miraculous healings, and the common perceptions by peoples all over the earth of gods, goddesses, fairies, goblins, demons, spirit guides, guardian angels, and animal and ancestor spirits. Polls of various kinds demonstrate that a high percentage of Americans who we have no reason to believe are deranged or especially subject to distortions of reality report having had one or another of these experiences.

When our established empirical or deductive methods can provide no conventional explanation, we are likely to attribute the report to overimagination, misperception, or collective delusion, even when, as far as can be ascertained, the experiencer is of sound brain and mind and the conditions of collective contagion are not present. Sometimes the claims of such experiences are rejected out of hand, attributed to superstition or, worst of all, to belief in the “supernatural.” There is even an established, highly biased group of self-appointed watchdogs of science, aptly named CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), that has assigned itself the task of investigating reported experiences of the “paranormal” (whatever “normal” may mean) and discrediting those researchers or observers who report such phenomena. I have repeatedly found reports by mentally sound people of encounters with alien beings dismissed out of hand primarily because they do not fit our prevailing world view.

We are hardly concerned here simply with a question of evidence; a review of thoughtful, even critical, scholarship on these subjects indicates that the things observed are perceived not only intuitively, but sometimes empirically (though not understood), and are experienced not just in nonordinary states of consciousness but in ordinary ones as well. Taken altogether, the evidence that these so-called paranormal phenomena cannot in many instances be dismissed – that they represent important domains of reality that seem to lie behind or exist along with the one that science accepts – is overwhelming. We cannot help wondering what motivates the need to reject this domain so eagerly. Parapsychological studies by Charles Tart, Stanley Krippner, Robert John, and others using Western statistical methods obtain replicable results. It could be argued, furthermore, that those of us who rely exclusively on intellect and rationalism to arbitrate reality are as prone to bias and distortion as those who have been accused of misrepresentation by virtue of lack of education, primitivism, naivete, and the like. Perhaps it is we who, having
[so totally] internalized the assumptions and ways of knowing of scientific and philosophical materialism and dualism, have lost the mental faculties by which these domains might be known.

We are contending here more with political than scientific problems – that is with questions of how a culture deals with fundamental ontological matters, those which concern reality, or what is believed or allowed to exist. We rarely stop to think that what we have come to accept as real may be determined by individuals and groups whose point of view in a culture at a given time is seen as authoritative, or who have the power to impose upon the rest of the society their methods and criteria for perceiving and defining reality.

In the case of Western culture, whose technological and military preeminence has enabled it to spread its dominant scientific paradigm throughout the world, reality has come to be limited to what we can know through our senses, or the instruments by which we extend these to the physical world. A relatively small group – a scientific, economic, political and even religious (insofar as the churches fear departing from the dominant rationalistic culture) elite – has decided consciously and unconsciously what the rest of us are to endow with objective existence.

Domains of the spirit – the vast range of being and beings with and without form which all peoples through recorded time and throughout the world, including ourselves until the past 300 years, have experienced as real – have been relegated largely to religion or for study by those academic departments, such as anthropology, theology, and (in rare instances) psychology, that study belief and subjectivity. If vast numbers of people still experience a connection with realities beyond those officially sanctioned – see or hear angels, ghosts, UFOs or ancestor spirits – they tend to keep this knowledge to themselves or share it only with a sympathetic support group, fearing ridicule or psychopathological interpretation from their friends, families, colleagues and the media. [Suppression of experience on such a vast scale could hardly be healthy for individual human beings or for the culture itself.]

I would suggest that if we were able to appreciate how radically we have permitted our experience of reality to be constricted by the currently prevailing world view, we might be able to liberate the human faculties and energies that are needed to address the major personal, institutional, and global problems that now afflict humankind.

Historians of science and culture are documenting how the extreme materialism and dualism of the Western world view arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in response to a challenge: the need and desire to gain mastery over the physical world. But even as the Newtonian/Cartesian perspective developed, the world continued to be experienced as “ensouled”. As philosopher William Barrett has shown, throughout the seventeenth century another domain of reality that was numinous and sacred persisted alongside the materialist perspective in Western consciousness. In the twentieth century, however, even this has been largely lost. For many people nothing is real except physical objects that can be perceived by the senses in what we generally call ordinary states of consciousness.

The problem is more than academic; the technologically gained dominance of the physical world has been achieved at great cost. In the Baconian spirit we may have succeeded to some degree in “tortur[ing] nature’s secrets from her,” but we have lost a sense of our place in the cosmos. For the sake of serving the interests of this one species, we are endangering not only ourselves but countless other living forms as well. [Our experience of contact with nature, and with what philosopher Michael Grosso calls that complex and ambiguous “zone of creativity” where the inner and outer worlds connect, has been lost. “We could,” as the American Catholic Bishops warned at the height of the nuclear arms race, “destroy His work.”]

In the light of this destructive trend, we can well understand why there has been a revival of interest in the past few years in a vast number of paranormal and spiritual phenomena which reflect the striving of human consciousness to transcend the confines of mechanistic science and psychology. Mainstream science and culture, especially insofar as they continue to be male dominated, regard this trend with alarm, fearing perhaps a return to “superstition,” the loss of reason, or perhaps the relinquishing of control that opening to the mysteries of the deepest forces in nature and ourselves represents. Something else, though, seems to be afoot. Grosso describes it as the “need to break out of the stranglehold of the materialist world view,” to recover our connection with the suppressed feminine principle in nature, a return to the sacred.

This trend toward the resacralization of human experience seems to be more than just a longing. For it appears to be an emerging stage in the evolution of human consciousness, the reconnecting of a scientifically and technologically advanced people with the divine in nature, a returning to our “home” in the cosmos from which the unbalanced overdevelopment of rationalism and dualism have cut us off. The matter is both practical and experiential. The development or rediscovery of a fuller range of human faculties that can enable us to find our appropriate place in nature and reverse the destructive trend can, at the same time, bring a deeper, more fulfilling sense of our own identity.

The materialist/dualistic world view maintains its stranglehold on our perspective about what is real by limiting the tools by which we know the world. At a recent conference at MIT on the UFO abduction phenomenon, I suggested to physicist Philip Morrison that relying upon radio telescopes for the investigation of UFOs and UFO-related abductions was too restricted. My own evidence for the reality of the phenomenon, I said, came from the complex yet consistent array of reported experiences of reliable, mentally sound witnesses augmented where possible by physical observations; it was in effect the co-creation of the consciousnesses of two people. He objected that the human psyche was too complex to be trustworthy as an instrument of knowing, failing to see that all instruments are merely extensions of one or another aspect of consciousness.

At times the parapsychological, transpersonal, and spiritual phenomena manifest so strongly in our material world that there can be agreement of their existence on the basis of the physical senses, as in carefully controlled parapsychological experiments. Most often, however, it is the testimonies of persuasive witnesses that tells us of their reality. Increasingly, folklorists such as Evans Wentz, Peter Rojcewicz, and Thomas Bullard are reexamining native legends and beliefs to discover what may have been their experiential basis. It is possible, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke has suggested of all the domains of our spirit, “the senses by which we could have grasped them have atrophied.”

Ultimately it is through the multiple dimensions of human consciousness – senses, reason, feeling and intuition, in ordinary and nonordinary states – that we come to learn about our universes, internal and external, physical and spiritual. By expanding and legitimizing the full range of faculties by which we know these worlds, we can eventually break the grip of the narrow materialism that has brought us to our present, treacherous impasse. By means of this expanded epistemology we may discover who we are and what we might accomplish in a cosmos that we can know once again to be luminous and ensouled.

  • John E. Mack, M.D. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
    © 1992 John E. Mack, M.D.
Originally published in the Fall 1992 issue of Center Review (the newsletter of Mack’s organization). For this online version, a few sentences from Mack’s original Sept 23, 1992 draft were restored; indicated by brackets. The opening sentence in which he presented examples of experiences that “cannot be understood by Western science” has been pared back to exclude examples of events which even at the time had been explained, such as “firewalking”, and to exclude ones for which there are no reputable accounts, such as “materializations of physical objects”. It is assumed that Mack’s purpose in providing many examples was to bolster the idea that there are experiences which may contradict Western ideas about reality, however the inclusion of dubious items made the argument weaker and was not necessary.