The Science of Spirit: Parapsychology, Enlightenment and Evolution, by Luis Portela

Reviewed by Adrian Parker

In the late 1980s when there were more polite exchanges and on occasion even constructive debates between critics and parapsychologists, there was a debate in Behavioral and Brain Sciences between the psi-critic James Alcock and various parapsychologists. Alcock’s article, which was titled “Parapsychology: Science of the anomalous or the search for the soul?” concluded that parapsychology was a clear case of the latter and ipso facto deemed unscientific.  The reply that I found most interesting, was Charles Tart’s in that it argued there was nothing intrinsically wrong or unscientific in searching for the soul and that all sciences begin with prior beliefs and hopes but what distinguishes them is that testable hypotheses are formulated with results that can go against or modify existing beliefs.  Undoubtedly this was also the attitude of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) who wanted “to examine without prejudice or predisposition, phenomena, real or supposed that were inexplicable on any recognized hypothesis”.  It would be disingenuous to deny that most of the founders hoped that psychic phenomena if found to exists would then support a belief in the soul or some form of spiritual reality.  Of course, the so-called Rhinean revolution in moving parapsychology into the laboratory largely jettisoned the life-after-death question as being too burdensome to deal with. Likewise, Robert Morris in establishing parapsychology at UK universities purposely steered away from mediums.  Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a widening of the subject matter to include not only mediumship cases but also reincarnation cases and near-death experiences (NDEs). These were major topics for instance at the 2021 International Conference of the SPR.

If we now fast travel forward 34 years in the case of Alcock and Tart, and 140 years in the case of the SPR founders, we might well perhaps naively ask, has the soul been found?   This book provides a positive interpretation of where we might land today in seeking an answer and where the findings then point towards. In doing so the author gives us a clear definition of what we might be looking for:

The soul is the spiritual principle, the immaterial part of the human being and, apparently of other animals. It is a particle of the whole, which animate a certain physical body and exist after its death. It is a small part of universal energy which can return to successively animate other physical bodies. (p.15).

This is a personal and an inspiring book, not because it presents any new research or theories, but because it dares forthrightly to claim that the findings of parapsychology do have spiritual implications.  I know that some of the critics I have worked with such as James Alcock and David Marks would see using parapsychology to support any form of spirituality as fulfilling their worse forebodings about the subject.  Yet, they themselves use the findings of science to justify their own belief system, in this case that of materialism or even worse scientism. They also quite rightly in my opinion, point to the major remaining weakness of parapsychology, which is the lack any theoretical commonality that can make sense of the diversity of paranormal phenomena. It would then indeed be ironic if the sought-after commonality linking the phenomena were to be found in the spiritual claims associated with parapsychology.  

Before addressing this, it needs to be said that the author,  Luis Portela, is careful here to say that it is spirituality rather than religion that the findings from parapsychology, and he also wishes to add some of those from quantum physics, seem to support.  The form of spirituality he supports is based on the writings of Lao Tzu (the founder of Taoism), the Buddha, and Jesus. The starting premise for the book is that consciousness has a primary role in the universe and this claim is now no longer to be considered a gratuitous assumption given the validity of parapsychological findings. It is also premise which several contemporary philosophers take, such as Bernardo Kastrup and Jeffrey Kripal as well as (as the book made me aware of) the Portuguese philosopher, Agostino da Silva. 

The author, Luis Portela, is the chairman of the prestigious Portuguese BIAL Foundation, which funded most of contemporary parapsychological research carried out in recent years especially in the UK and in Sweden. In Sweden, BIAL supported some of our research with the ganzfeld, lucid dreaming, and with twins. This makes me aware of my possible bias in reviewing a book by an author whose support we have been dependent on and it is indeed possible I will be compensating by now being over-critical.  One immediate criticism of the book is that in presenting an overview of the accumulated evidence for the existence of a diversity of paranormal phenomena, little space is given to the perennial criticism made by the critics concerning the lack of replicability in parapsychology. Some mention then could have been made of how much of the same problem has now been shown to occur in mainstream psychology and that the studies using ganzfeld and dreams states to facilitate psi have withstood much of the criticism.  There may however be a bedeviling complication in this field when we consider that the so-called “experimenter effect” whereby some experimenter seem always successful) may reflect the researchers own psychic ability.

The author’s review is otherwise comprehensive but it does include some contentious phenomena such as “global consciousness” and “instrumental transcommunication” (voices from the dead). Global consciousness studies use deviations seen in the output of random number generators (RNGs) placed at various locations in the world as detectors for the reaction of human consciousness to global events (such as the death of Diana). However, it needs to be said that the physicist Ed May, who has a detailed knowledge of this work, has been wary of the shifting windows of observation used to identify some of the RNG deviations. I have often wondered if RNGs react so sensitively to changes in human consciousness why global events do not lead to a widespread breakdown of the Internet and computer devices which rely on randomicity. As concerns instrumental transcommunication, I believe our own experience is typical. A few years ago, we were supplied with prime examples of what were claimed to be clearly objective utterances recorded on tapes made from open microphones and sent to us by Nils-Olof Jacobson, one of the few academics then studying that field.  Without knowing what we were supposed to hear, we were nevertheless unable to discern that there was anything more than random meaningless sounds. Of course, on being primed with suggestions as to what we should hear, then there was no problem in recognizing just these words. A final critique concerns the caution needed in interpreting quantum physics as providing any solid support for the primary of consciousness – I agree with Bernard Carr that physicists are very split on this issue.

These caveats do not blunt the author’s main conclusions but they do emphasize that there are some major issues limiting some of the claims made by parapsychologists. The main contention of the author then remains and this is that the existence of psi suggests that consciousness is pervasive, NDEs indicate that individual consciousness in some sense continuous after death, and given that reincarnation cases are suggestive of former lives occurring, then it is natural to look for a more profound meaning to it all.

This search is of course entirely justified and can be seen as a fulfillment of the above mentioned search of Charles Tart. Tart himself wrote a book in 2009 which documents the outcome of his own search for the soul, called The End of Materialism – How the evidence of the paranormal is bringing science and the spirit together. Tart, in linking the paranormal to spirituality, finds Tibetan Buddhism, in particular the teachings of Gurdjieff to be highly salient, whereas it is Taoism that influences Portela’s interpretation. However, when it concerns the central importance of “self-remembrance” there seems to be a close correspondence between the two. As might then be expected Charles Tart’s search results in conclusions remarkably similar to those of Luis Portela.

In pursuing his goal, Portela’s interpretation is that self-remembrance can reveal the existence of multiple lives which must serve a purpose and this purpose is to provide an opportunity for developing our spiritual awareness. It is this insight that potentially provides a basis for the “universal values” governing our actions. These universal values relate to feelings of personal responsibility and connectedness to the universe. When realized, this insight concerning connectedness often brings a sudden shift and a heightened meaning into our consciousness – described by Jeffrey Kripal as “The flip” and by Tart as “Waking-up”. Central to all this, is the simple assertion, again flying of course in the face of materialism, that nothing happens by chance. 

All this would likely be considered down-right ignominious by many of the conventional supporters of die-hard scientism such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.  In the midst of this melee, it has to be said parapsychology is not, despite all the good intentions, a science like any other sciences. It is not only as John Beloff once described it: the ultimate background for different theories of the mind-body relationship; but it has now become by extension the fight-to-the-finish between opposing Weltanschauungen. Given a forced choice between them, then it would seem to me to be pragmatically healthier and life-affirming to choose the philosophy promoting harmony - and the book certainly excels in giving advice for a harmonious life. It provides the reader with numerous aphorisms and maxims which are intended to raise conscious awareness and I daresay this may well on occasion succeed. Since these inundate the book and I think it is worth giving some, what are for me, representative ones:

The positive attitude creates more favourable conditions for good accomplishments but also tends to have a contagious effect on others. (p. 110)

When we stop disconnecting ourselves from the turbulence of the world, we always have our interior serenity available to us, and the more we disconnect, the more serenity we feel.   And the more serenity we feel, the more lucid we become, down playing day-to-day occurrences and positively constructing our thoughts.  By increasing our lucidity, we are in a better condition to assess situations (p. 111)

Mental hygiene seems more easily achieved in connection with nature….we should seek to develop simple, clear ideas, making our behaviour coherent and transparent, in defense of universal values, without wavering, by harmoniously accepting the good and the beautiful. Respecting everything and everyone, it is natural for us to admire exemplary behaviour and to seek to be with those who can offer us good teaching independent of their social economic or intellectual levels.  It is advisable to maintain these kind of decisions when reading the newspapers, watching the television, navigating the internet or choosing a film to watch  (p.112)

An individual who lives in peace with himself…maintains a balanced and varied diet, avoiding ingesting and inhaling toxic substances, avoiding eating dead bodies especially warm-blooded animals such as mammals and fowls, and avoiding the excessive intake of fats and sugar (p.144)

In actual fact, none of the maxims found in the book ought to be so controversial since they are not hinged solely onto the credibility of parapsychology but fit well together with those to be found in some of the authoritative texts of modern clinical and health psychology. One of the most respected is Carl Rogers who described “the fully functioning person” in a similar way.

One might nevertheless ask, is this an all too rose-coloured and moralistic view of life? What is to be said then of suffering and human nastiness? . Luis Portela writes: “To love the whole is even to love the unspeakable terrorist who cannot be forced to change; but temporary interruption of his freedom, made with persuasion and love, may contribute to his journey of self-correction.” (p. 156) According to Portela and his mentors, evil “is a space to be to be filled with enlightenment, firmness, tolerance and compassion.” This is perhaps not so vacuous as it may sound and it seems to fit well with some of Luis Portela’s Portuguese background.  The American film maker Michael Moore recently made a documentary series called somewhat whimsically “Where to Invade Next”.  Amongst the countries he visited that were exemplary in applying these humanitarian principles, were Norway because of its way of running prisons and Portugal by virtue of its progressive drug policy. The efficacy of the humanitarian methods seen in these countries, was outstandingly and in contrast with the punitive and all-too-often intentionally vengeful measures applied in the USA and many other countries.

I had written earlier that the book contains no new hypotheses or findings but it does pose, at least for me, some new perspectives and questions.  This is because the basis to the central thesis, which is that there are the universal laws governing the development of consciousness, are the findings relating to reincarnation. The meaning of life is according to the author to raise consciousness and connect with its inner natural source of being. Suffering becomes then a matter of learning from the follies of our egoism and coming to terms with our own ill-deeds which may transcend several lives.  It is clear from the text that in formulating this view that the author has much respect for the work on the cases suggestive of reincarnation carried out by Ian Stevenson and his successors at the University of Virginia. Making these conclusions from this work, raises naturally the question of why, if we are to learn and evolve from former lives, do so few of us remember these lives? 

The approximately 3000 investigated cases collected by Stevenson and his successors may eventually. on further analysis, provide more exact answers as to why some individuals have these memories and others not.  Currently, we mainly know that the memories are associated with violent deaths.  There is however one other relevant finding. According to the findings cited by Stevenson, Matlock, and Tucker memories of former lives are not related to any form of retributive karma (see Reincarnation and Karma).

How could this be explained in order to fit with the idea of the remembrance of previous lives would facilitate a spiritual evolution based on enlightenment? The absence of memories according to the Bulgarian spiritual master Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov, pupil of Peter Deunov, is to avoid retributive and revengeful acts which might hinder personal growth in the current life. Even in milder cases, it can be argued that memories could disturb future relationships. The one case I know of which might illustrate this is that of Barbro Karlén, a precocious child writer who asserted with some considerable evidence to she was Anne Frank in her former life and whose claim was later supported by Anne Frank’s surviving cousin. Later as an adult, while working in Gothenburg as a mounted police officer, Karlén  came into a nightmarish conflict   with two persons whose destructive effect on her she related to their role in her former life.  In her case, the insight was said by her to have led to a positive resolution and self-development (see The Reincarnation of Anne Frank: Barbro Karlen).

Karlén’s own explanation for having this dubious gift of recalling a traumatic former life, would presumably fit with Luis Portela’s in that the recall served a purpose when seen in the context of her current life. This is an explanation that is certainty worth further study but my reading of the case literature suggests that this is rare, if it ever occurs, and by puberty the memories of former lives however traumatic, are largely forgotten.

Returning now to the main theme of the book, the connecting of parapsychological findings to spirituality does indeed convey one supreme advantage: It makes life appear more meaningful and above all in the end, fairer.  But is this only superficially so?   There are some rather glaring incongruities to this, one of which concerns the numerous individuals who suffer horrific fates solely because of their benevolence acts. Memorable cases are those of Raoul Wallenberg and Wilhelm Hosenfeld, the German officer in film The Pianist, who both rescued many Jews from the Nazis only then to suffer torture and murder at the hands of the Russians and there are of course the recent examples of the aid workers beheaded by ISIS.

If we begin to conceive rather contrived scenarios concerning the role of former lives in order to explain such ill-justices occurring in the present life, then the risk is that we enter a fatalistic realm in which the ill-treatment of others is seen as occurring because of these persons committed deeds in former lives for which they are now punished for and those who carry out this punishment will eventually themselves risk encountering some form of retribution in future lives. Enlightenment might be thought to break this pattern but this did not help for example Hosenfeld whose surviving letters seem to be those of an enlightened person.

It is obviously unreasonable to expect such a short book of about 160 pages to meet all these challenges and conundrums. The issue of personal responsibility, in the sense of biosocial determinism versus free-will, continues to challenge psychology, psychiatry, law and ethics.  However, there is one topic, almost forgotten in modern psychology, that comes into focus and it is The Will. This is usually dealt with as “ego-strength” or “intention” in contemporary psychology but the expression of a harmonious and unified sense of the Will transcending genetics and environment, which the book deals with, is rarely discussed.  I see then the success of the book is in raising important issues and implications which are rarely discussed by researchers. The book is clearly thought-provoking and inspiring especially as to the importance of parapsychological findings for life philosophy and it should encourage further research particularly in the area of memories of previous lives. What I find particularly in tune with current thinking, is to regard psi as an attribute of consciousness and to discuss the implications of this.  And what I admired, is that the author actually practices what he preaches: humility. Nowhere in the book does Dr. Portela advertise his medical and academic qualifications – which nearly all physicians do.  Perhaps in a future book he can tell us more of this personal story, how he maintained his spiritual belief during an education which must have been based largely on materialist premises and went on to work in the business world, a business world which can hardly have been enamoured with his support of parapsychology.