Jeffrey J. Kripal holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University. His current areas of interest include the renewal of the comparative method in religious studies, the comparative eroticism of mystical literature, American countercultural translations of Asian religious customs and the history of Western esotericism. The paranormal is something that occupies his life. In fact, while writing his Ph.D. dissertation, he actually underwent an out-of-body experience in which he felt “electrocuted by God” and began to float above the ground. He claims that this experience has influenced all of his research ever since, and is not sure if he has “taken a single full day off from such intellectual and spiritual pursuits in over three decades.” This week, the S&B’s Mineta Suzuki spoke with Kripal about paranormal activity and his experiences.
Several webpages I looked at said that you think you may be Spider-Man. What do you mean by that?
Of course I’ve been playful. I don’t really sling webs and dress up as a spider. But in another sense I suppose I’m serious. I think that superhero genre is about … secret identities and that human beings are more than we think we are. I think that … [the] superhero genre is a playful way of exploring that.
How do you define “paranormal?”
A paranormal experience is … when something happens in the physical environment that corresponds perfectly with something happening inside the mind or the human beings. There is an exact correspondence between the material world out there and the mental world in here. And the correspondence is so exact and so precise that … the person recognizes instantly that something special is happening. It is … an event in the external world, but also an internal experience.
Is it similar to “paranormal activities” in the movies or popular culture?
Yes and no. Hollywood takes these sorts of experiences and exaggerates them in … such extreme ways. So that’s not really what I’m talking about. Although, there is clearly a relationship between what Hollywood does with these things and what people actually experience. There is also a connection … paranormal [in Hollywood] tends to be associated with horror movies … and people do have negative paranormal experiences. It’s not all positive.
What can be some of the examples of paranormal?
The most common paranormal is when a person has a dream, a vision or an intuition that a loved one just passed away or is in some kind of danger. That event can be taking place hundreds of miles away or even days or weeks into the future. So there is the separation in space and time, and yet the person knows the loved one is in trouble or … has died.
You mentioned that paranormal is something scientists ignore because it appears to violate causality or scientific rationalism. How can we be critical or objective to the method we use for science?
Well, I’m a big admirer of science. But I think that scientists have to be more humble … about what they know and they don’t know. I think we all have to be humble … I also think that science needs to listen to other disciplines, particularly humanities, particularly folks who study these things for a living. What happens a lot is that science becomes a kind of scientism becomes dogmatic particularly materialist. I’m most interested in scientists who have had these experiences and have to struggle with how to reconcile their materialistic understanding of science with these events that are clearly real, but simply don’t fit into materialist interpretation.
It is often stated that science attempts to reveal causality or law of the world, while philosophy attempts to reveal meaning of the world. How can one come to terms with another?
What scientists are after is mechanisms and what humanities are after is meaning. Those are two different things, but they may actually be two sides of the same coin. Those might be … the same reality. [When the reality is] looked at from outside, we see mechanisms, but looked at from inside, we see meaning. My hope would be … that we become more skilled in moving between those two perspectives, and not lock out one for the sake of the other.
In the “Introductory Essay” for the webpage of Rice University, you have mentioned that you don’t see the undergraduate education as a technical training toward a specific career, but an opportunity to foster students into independent thinkers. Do you have any comment or message for students at Grinnell?
My personal view is that the world’s problems … and their promises will depend almost entirely on people making connections between different disciplines and different forms of knowledge. One kind of knowledge, particularly one kind of technical knowledge, simply is inadequate to meet your generation’s challenges. Whether that’s a climate change, economic development or cultural understanding … none of those things can be addressed by a particular or singular discipline. They will have to be addressed in a broad, broad way. So I happen to think [that a] liberal arts education is the only way to … move forward. So I think you came to the right place.