Foreward to Beyond Boundaries

by Willis W. Harman

     Some who read this book (and many more who would never read it) will wonder about the experiences described. They are fascinating; they certainly seem like reports of available information which the informant has no physical way of knowing, of plausible memories of past lives, of communication with persons who are physically "dead." But such things don't happen in the world described by modern science. Do they?

     This discrepancy between the world of science and the mysterious happenings we hear about - and, in many more cases than are commonly talked about, experience because "science says: it couldn't have happened. Yet these denied experiences are of the sort which persons in other "pre-scientific" societies held to be of the utmost importance.

     Louise Hauck has done us a service with her "stories." We are tempted to believe in them. I would like to contribute a few thoughts as to why we might well yield to that temptation.

     There is a public misconception about science, not shared by really good scientists: that is, that science describes reality. The activity of science is basically a way of understanding based on making models (e.g. H2), E=mc2) or choosing metaphors (e.g. electric current, stream of consciousness) to represent certain aspects of reality, and then testing those models and metaphors through empirical inquiry. We use metaphors to understand or communicate about the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. No one thinks that electric current is really some sort of fluid flowing down the wire, but the term represents certain aspects of the phenomenon in terms of something easily visualized.

     In some respects science is like the well-known story about the blind men examining the elephant. Western science has been insistent that the "elephant" of ultimate reality is really "fundamental particles" and interacting fields. Eastern thought has held (much longer) that is consciousness. Modern quantum physics has examined the "elephant" in finer detail and decided there are no such things as separate particles, and no phenomena without observers. But we have tended to miss the real point of the story.

     When the blind man feeling the leg claims the elephant is a tree trunk, and a second, feeling the tail, claims it is a piece of rope, both are using metaphors. Rather than argue over who is right, they need to explore together in what sense the elephant is like a tree, and in what sense like a rope.

     Simple enough with elephants but the lesson has been harder to grasp with regard to science. Great mischief can result when the models and metaphors of science are mistakenly taken to be the "true" description of reality. Because when they are, then people feel a necessity to defend them, and to stamp out competing reality claims. Many of the conflicts in the history of science, as well as the conflict between science and religion, have been battles between groups who each insist that their metaphors are "really" how reality is.

     As with the story of the blind men and the elephant, some aspects of experienced reality are like the world known to the physical senses; some are like our knowledge of ourselves as whole organisms. Some, however, are like our inner knowledge or our own minds. (For example, it has often been remarked that social insects such as termites display characteristics that suggest a "group mind" which responds as a whole to an intrusion, even though the individual insects could not be in physical communications with another.)

     That implicit or explicit epistemological position of the "hard" scientist is that we know what we know through the empirical observation of quantifiable, replicable interventions in the physical world. A less positivist scientific attitude holds that reality has many aspects, and is never fully captured in any model or metaphor. Thus various kinds of metaphors may be employed, with appropriate ways of testing their fitness and range of applicability - since they each may help us to understand and communicate about certain aspects of a fundamentally mysterious reality.

     Mainstream science, characterized by an obsession with predictions and control, has almost exclusively employed physicalistic metaphors such as "mechanisms," particles, waves, or fields. It has been very dubious about more holistic metaphors such as organism, personality, ecological community, or the Gaia metaphor for the Earth and its biosphere. Scientists have typically insisted that these whole-system descriptions can or will be understood in terms of their parts.

     My own consciousness is my most direct experiencing of reality. Perceptions of the world through the physical senses are far more indirect, being mediated by the unconscious mind in ways only recently appreciated. Looking into my own mind, I find, first of all, that mind is not something that exists in the space-time world. To the contrary, my experience of the space-time world is constructed within my mind from vast numbers of physical sense perceptions.

     Among the most fundamental aspects of consciousness are awareness, volition, and creativity. I find there are levels of awareness, from subliminal or subconscious, to what feel like "higher" or "supraliminal" levels. I also find that there are "partitions" in my mind; there are parts that seem somehow separate from other parts, what C.G.Jung called "autonomous complexes: - multiple personalities being an extreme case.

     In my experience, consciousness is both something experienced and the experience - that which I consider my "self." Myself is that which thinks my thoughts, feels my feelings, participates in the choosing of my actions, generates my insight and my creativity. The self is surely real in some sense, for it has real consequences. For example, in the well-substantiate placebo effect, the fact that my self holds a belief regarding the medicinal qualities of a sugar pill results in real physiological effects, unrelated to the chemical composition of the pill. In the field of psycho-neuro-immunology the efficacy of the body's immune system appears to be affected by images and thoughts held in the mind of the self.

     To some extent I am able to refer to specific processes or contents of consciousness - such as ideas, or images, or emotions - but these are never really divorced from the whole; the fundamental reality is that, as the quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger put it, "Consciousness is never experienced in the plural, only in the singular." Consciousness is not something to be subdivided, measured, or quantified.

     Even so, the "partitioning" of the mind produces apparent separation. For example, in research of hypnosis it appears that there is a "hidden observer," not accessible to ordinary conscious awareness, that does not believe the suggestions of the hypnotists which another part of the mind has so readily accepted. In dissociative experience, the conscious part of the mind is experienced as separate from the body and other aspects of the self. In the experience of creativity, the conscious ego-self becomes aware of products generated by some other, out-of-awareness part of the mind.

     Those are some of the characteristics of our own individual consciousness; let us now try to think of nature using the metaphor of consciousness as experienced in the individual mind. Thus nature is experienced as one whole, with many aspects. Characteristic of the whole are awareness (pervasive consciousness) and volition (most evident in organisms). Like the multiple personalities sometimes found in an individual, there is an appearance of multiplicity - different organisms with different consciousness for instance - yet at another level consciousness is one.

     Within this metaphor (making no ontological claim), things of the physical world are analogous to the images in a dream in the individual mind (images which in the dream state pass certain "reality tests" that they fail to pass in a higher state of awakeness). Within this metaphor it is not surprising that all organisms exhibit some characteristics or extent of consciousness, nor that "separate" organisms (like the cells of a slime mold, or the birds of a flock) seem to have a collective consciousness. Within this metaphor it is not surprising that the evolutionary process seems to show apparently teleological aspects, movement toward "higher" levels of consciousness, burst of "creative experimentation" (such as the bursts of new genera and even new phyla at certain geological periods). Within this metaphor the fact that a migrating bird "knows" its destination is less surprising, and we have less compulsion to search for a physical "mechanism." Within this metaphor one can easily imagine that the oriole's knowledge of nest-building resides in a sort of species-collective mind, "higher level" than the individual bird-mind (something perhaps like Rupert Sheldrake's concept of a morphic field built up through "habits").

     Vast ranges of extraordinary human experience are far more easily accommodated in a consciousness metaphor than in the reductionistic metaphors of mainstream science. For example, research on creativity and intuition reveals interesting characteristics of the behind-the-scenes part of the mind. Not only does this part of the mind regularly come up with creative resolution to problems, aesthetic creations, and deep wisdom; it also on occasion has available to it knowledge which appears not to have ever been learned through the physical senses. Furthermore, the more it is trusted and turned to, the more competent it seems to become.

     In research on cases of multiple personality disorder, the person's mind is partitioned more than with so-called normal persons, to the point that there may be a number of near-complete personalities with different self-identities, gestures, carriage, voice characteristics, memories, allergies, body chemistries, ocular characteristics, and so on. These different ego-states, which sometimes have no awareness of one another, may alternately take over the body and conscious awareness. They have different life histories, many or most of which appear to be related to early childhood sexual or physical abuse. But one - called the "inner-self helper"- is unique. It claims never to have been born, nor to die; when the physical body dies and decays, and the other personalities disintegrate, "I remain," it reports.

     The research literature of parapsychology, and that of the earlier field of "psychic research" is full of apparent instances of telepathic communication, clairvoyant "remote viewing," psychokinesis, out-of-body experiences, and near-death experiences, all of which tend to leave the experiencer with the conviction that mind is more than simply brain functioning, and that personal consciousness in some sense can exist independently of the body and that it in some sense persists after physical death.

     If one is entranced with the physicalistic metaphors or mainstream science, many of the above sorts of reports - like the anecdotes in this book - have to be viewed with skepticism; nay, with incredulity. They have to be the consequence of undiscovered "mechanisms," illusion, or fraud, since in that paradigm there is no other possible way of accounting for them. Within the consciousness metaphor, on the other hand, since one is imagining one universal mind (with levels and partitions), none of these kinds of reports has to be presumptively explained away. The reports need not all be accurate, but they are not intrinsically more mysterious than the more commonplace phenomena that go on within my own individual consciousness.

     It is not really necessary to turn to the "outrageous" to make this point. Our everyday experiences of conscious awareness, memory retrieval, volition, intention, quest for meaning, aesthetic sense - none of these fit into the physicalistic metaphor any better than the most outlandish psychic phenomena. Scientists have attempted for generations to ignore that fact in the faith that some day everything in our mental and physical behavior will be explained through our knowledge of cranial neurocircuitry and the DNA. It is time to recognize the need for a different metaphor.

     William James urges that scientists adopt a criterion of "radical empiricism," by which he meant that we should refuse to exclude from our scientific picture of reality any elements that are regularly directly experienced. Any class of inner experiences that have been reported, or of phenomena that have been observed, down through the ages and across cultures, apparently in some sense exist and have a face validity that cannot be denied. Such is the case with the kind of "stories" found in this book. It doesn't mean, of course, that one must believe any particular report; only that the entire class of reports cannot be denied simply on the basis that they don't seem to fit comfortably into the scientific world-view.

     What I am arguing is that admitting the consciousness metaphor allow us to return to ourselves the authority to interpret our own experience. Although the present reductionistic science, based largely on a particle-interaction metaphor, continues to be useful for many purposes, it no longer need have the authority in our lives to imperiously insist that we humans are here solely through random causes, in a meaningless universe. We are free to explore the possibility that the highest human ideals are more than the capricious choice of a fortuitous product of physical evolution; that our consciousness and all of its products are more than the chemical and physical processes of the brain; and that the "stories" such as Louise Hauck relates here can be used to inspire and enrich our lives.

Willis W. Harman

Institute of Noetic Sciences

Sausalito, California

October 1992