Smile of the Universe: Miracles in an Age of Disbelief, by Michael Grosso
The author, Michael Grosso, has a PhD in Philosophy from Columbia University, and has taught philosophy at the City University of New York and elsewhere. Grosso describes himself as an artist, an independent scholar, and a consciousness researcher. This is the 6th book he has written on psychic matters, as well as contributing with Edward Kelly chapters on genius and on mystical experiences to Irreducible Mind, and a chapter on the history of mysticism to Kelly’s Beyond Physicalism. Although not apparently scientifically trained, he is clearly no lightweight. This short book on miracles bears this out, despite or perhaps because it is written in an easy style with nice turns of phrase and a great range of historical asides and illustrations. Grosso wears his learning lightly.
The title refers to the root of the word miracle coming from the Sanscrit “smi” from which we derive the word smile. This indeed seems apt, as anything that surprizes without danger invariably induces a smile. The subtitle refers to the present age being one of disbelief. One could dispute this, but this book is indeed a challenge to scientific dogma. A miracle could be a danger to those wedded to strict materialism. Open mindedness is important while reading this book. In fact, in his introduction Grosso asserts as much, stating as the purpose of the book being “to save miracles from the clutches of religion and science” and not be hampered by their biases. A scientist worth his salt would say he is not biased, unlike a theologian who may try not to be but whose premises are guess work. Science can indeed be biased, depending on the perceived success of the current theory to fit facts that the scientist observes. Other facts may not be observed. As a good philosopher, Grosso initially at least appears objective about religion and indeed beliefs. His aim is to look at the facts in a historical context, and to try and find out from the reports and evidence available if a particular miracle really did happen, and if so, what are the consequences.
Grosso warns us in his introduction that “we shall go where more conventional intellectual explorers refuse to go.” This is correct. One can perhaps excuse scientists for not straying into unfamiliar territory, but when I recently asked a well known philosopher who was selling his latest book if he had included thoughts about the findings of psychical research in his philosophical inquiries, he dismissed the idea that he should with a supercilious wave of his hand. Grosso though believes that acceptance of his findings will “propel us to expand our appreciation of mental reality”, which is certainly true, and perhaps more speculatively, he claims that it may “point towards the possible development of something like a higher species of humanity”. Miracles he regards rather thrillingly as being “snapshots of future development”, though wisely moderates this speculation with the proviso that we are still in existence.
Grosso includes in his remit not just those miracles which are associated, as generally understood, with religion, but any event that is physically unexplained and which both perplexes and amuses us. In his introduction he expounds on his classification of miracles as either obvious, in which category he includes consciousness, and the unobvious, by which he means those arrived at by “rummaging through the records of history , folklore” etc etc. A fine happy rummage might in fact describe the style of this book quite nicely.
He does attempt nevertheless attempt to sort out the consequences of the rummage in chapters as befits a philosopher, dividing them into themes starting with “Opening Salvos”. Some may find that his discursive style distracts from the stated purpose of each chapter, but he helpfully reminds us of this both at the outset and the towards the end. In the first chapter he describes an illustrative miracle from the 13th century which seemed to be a response to a prayer and follows this with those reported in the last century. These include one he himself witnessed in the form of the materialisation of tears on a statue of the Virgin Mary, something which was occurring throughout the world in the 90s. The brief survey conveys the idea that miracles are “agents of transcendence” and vary according to culture.
The next chapter he heads “A Concise Anthology of Miracles”, in which he sets out to discuss the most extreme and well attested examples, such as that of the flying monk, Joseph of Cupertino, and that of an Indian shaman who on request stopped a heavy rain storm spoiling a festival, the dry area covering only the festival participants. This was in 1973, witnessed by an anthropologist. He includes stigmatics, those who could elongate their bodies, and extreme fasters, and firewalkers, though fails to mention an impressive event that which was witnessed by a bishop in Mysore and described in detail in Thurston ‘s great book (Thurston,1952) on miracles from which Grosso has taken examples. The bishop observed a fire walking ceremony conducted by an Indian shaman, who after supervising his acolytes across the fiercely burning coals, then did the same for some duly amazed Europeans. However, those who tried after the shaman had finished and had told them firmly not to try it were severely burned. Grosso does not omit plausible materialistic explanations for his examples, but also includes the possibility of harmonized group intention as causing for example the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Januarius, which has been happening annually I believe since 1389. He cites the experiments by Kenneth Batcheldor in support. Much of the chapter is a quite brief historical survey and no less intriguing for that, covering Greek and biblical reports. Grosso discusses Lourdes and the power of prayer, echoing Charles Tart’s view that the parapsychology of God is a topic whose time has come.
Chapter 3 is entitled “Beyond Physicalism”, here he becomes more historical and philosophical, discussing the skeptical approach of David Hume and other Enlightenment figures towards the miracles going the rounds at the time. He feels that a mention of poltergeists is appropriate at this juncture. Mesmerism undoubtedly is, and perhaps the Visions of Mary which occur from time to time, one of the most recent being in Cairo in 1971. (I can attest to that event’s emotional power as I was told of it by a deeply affected witness, an Egyptian medical colleague.) He usefully mentions some results of physiological investigations on the visionaries of Yugoslavia in 1981. The miracles of Sai Baba and Padre Pio are discussed, including the latter’s bilocation habit, together with his stigmata and healing powers. Pointing out the pervasive nature of miracles, Grosso states his belief that they are a precious inheritance, with or without religion. In this chapter he categorizes miracles into those which upend physical laws which includes healing, those which make history such as the day of Pentecost, and those effecting the senses such as the odour of sanctity. He points out that miracles tend to be unpredictable, but seemingly adaptable.
Chapter 4 is headed “Things to do with Miracles”, a catchy title intended to convey purpose. He proposes that they are a “prophylactic against the conceit of scientism”. They back up belief in the power of prayer. He equates this with the sheep goat effect which intrigues and complicates, as it underscores the importance of mindsets in the production of psi, for good or bad. It could for all one knows effect mainstream science. Wolfgang Pauli, the quantum physicist and friend of Carl Jung, might have had the talent in that he had the unfortunate reputation of causing equipment in his proximity to go haywire. Anomalies stimulate progress, are a subject for artistic enterprizes such as surrealism, and more subtly they act as a liberator from constraints on the exploration of existence.
In chapter 5, “Living by Miracle”, a quote from Blake, the author explores in essence the power of positive thinking and imaginative creativity. He asserts correctly that we have a right to believe what we like and to test out our belief system against experience. This is indeed how I suspect our minds have evolved to operate, a belief being a verbal thought that has formulated in response to a situation, and it is neither true or untrue but useful or not useful in a particular circumstance, having to be in harmony with the perceptions and the possible actions of the nonverbal emotional immediate survival brain. It has to be said that this emotional short term brain with the accompanying thought may well be wrong. I give as an example the certainty with which Trump supporters are currently shouting their belief that the election was rigged. (While on the subject, I would mention that Grosso quotes Socrates as believing that democracy short on wisdom leads eventually to tyranny.) Perhaps nevertheless Jesus’s assertion that faith can move mountains is correct, though the down side might be to become overly trustful in divine providence. Grosso goes on to discuss the psychological components that seem to be associated with miracles, emphasizing the role of imagination, but including some findings of parapsychology.
This leads nicely to the next chapter entitled “The Hypothesis of the Mind at Large”. We are now accustomed to his easy flowing style, moving effortlessly from idea to idea and author to author, scientific, philosophical and literary, coming to the inevitable conclusion that “Mind at large is a logically possible extrapolation of known data.” His quotes range from Heraclitus to Jaspers, Mark Twain to F. W. H. Myers. Here he cites his own psychic experience as adding to the quantity of evidence supporting the hypothesis.
In Chapter 7 Grosso asks the most pertinent question, summarized I am sure in many people’s mind as “So what?”, but in his as “Is it possible to have a meaningful dialogue with this Transcendent Mind at Large?”. He explores the various attempts by Myers and others to answer this with automatic writing, and goes on to feature instances of clear dissociation in historical notables, from Socrates and his Daemon, via Descartes and his dreams to Poincare and his sudden mathematical insights. Many would concur with mainstream psychologists who marvel at the power of unconscious processing rather than assume miraculous causes, and Grosso does in fact mention the psychological mechanisms which may be the driving force of practices such as glossolalia and serpent handling. He does predictably come down firmly on the side of at least one miracle, that of consciousness. This, needless to say, is contentious, if only because evolution is such a powerful theory and consciousness is such a valuable tool for survival that natural selection seems likely to have produced it. Much work is being done of course on the neurology of consciousness, which, though he describes himself as a consciousness researcher, he does not discuss.
The last chapter he entitles “Beyond Science and Religion.” He usefully summarizes the conclusions of each previous chapter, and finally asserts that, though miracles are arbitrary and unpredictable, they nevertheless in his mind point the way toward “a new realm of freedom”, a very heartening conclusion.
This is not a book of scientific analysis, therefore, and he mercifully perhaps fails to mention quantum theory, or any theory of psi, come to that, though he has clearly a grasp of psychological mechanisms and parapsychological issues. His accounts back up the crystalizing of some conclusions of current parapsychology, such as the role of intention and attention, and of group dynamics. In addition, he has brought a philosopher’s mind to bear on the meaning of miracles, even if some ideas seem overly speculative. He for one has no doubt about a future of living in a world of psychic phenomena, which is likely to be awe inspiring, but also possibly terrifying, as described in the helpful Tibetan Book of the Dead. One is not sure whether this is a particularly hopeful scenario the way he describes it but be warned, in any event, having read this book, it will be difficult for most people to put aside any lurking, maybe slightly shaming, superstitious instincts.
He has in summary had a rummage through a larder stuffed with goodies, from which he has concocted a cake of different layers incorporating tasty morsels throughout, rich, delicious, nourishing, not too big but good value.