Spiritual Science: Why Science Needs Spirituality to Make Sense of the World, by Steve Taylor
Reviewed by Robert A. Charman
Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology, Leeds Beckett University, and blogs for Psychology Today. He is author of nine books exploring the personal effects and social implications of having one or more of what he calls ‘awakening experiences’ or moments of spiritual enlightenment when feeling ‘at one’ with the universe and, based upon such experiences, the greater explanatory power of the theory he calls ‘panspiritism’ as compared to non-spiritually based materialism.
The first time Taylor himself experienced an ‘awakening experience’ occurred when he was on a family holiday in Wales. One sunny, blue sky morning he was enjoying the typical Welsh view of rolling farmland and sheep dotted slopes when ...
as if someone had pressed a switch. Everything around me became intensely real… more vivid, more intricate and more beautiful … What was inside me, as my own consciousness, was also "out there". There was a glow of intense well-being, inside me, too, a powerful feeling that “all is well”. It felt incredibly “right” to be alive in the world. (p. 128)
As a psychologist Taylor has made a study of such experiences and their implications for our understanding of the universe, life in general and ourselves in particular. In this book he presents his belief that the only way we can ever attempt a real scientific understanding of everything is to accept the reality of a spiritual agency implicit throughout the evolution of the universe.
‘Materialists’ or ‘Physicalists’ are those who believe that matter (defined here as that which is instrumentally detectable and quantifiable including fields) from quantum physics to classical physics is the only reality of the universe. All living systems from the first cells onwards to our present selves are formed by biochemical interactions of matter and have evolved through a series of increasingly complex systems resulting in the non linear emergence of new phenomena with new properties not present in the component parts. Materialistic explanations of the evolution of life are therefore ‘bottom-up’ in increasing complexity from physics to inorganic chemistry to organic chemistry to the biochemistry of replicating, self sustaining, living systems. This increase in systems complexity is coupled with the emergence of new phenomena with new properties at certain critical levels as in self-regulating feedback systems. Within the animal kingdom including ourselves there is a specialist system formed of neurons called the brain that has developed ever higher levels of neural processing resulting in the emergence of mental processing with new qualial properties of emotions, desires, thoughts, sense of self and social relationships governing our interactions with the world and each other (see Eagleman, 2015 for a very readable account). As far as the neurosciences are concerned, the fact that we do not, as yet, know how the brain generates qualial processing across the animal species does not mean that it does not do so, because the evidence from across the neurosciences is that it does. No brain activity – no mental activity.
In chapter one Taylor spells out the history of materialistic interpretation of the world which reached its zenith from the late 19th century through to around the 1960s with psychology reduced to mindless behaviourism before modern brain scanning techniques turned the tide by correlating brain activity with reported mental activity. He summarises the range of its explanatory framework under ‘Ten Tenets of Materialism’ (pp. 13-14). Those who disagree, including himself, he terms as ‘post materialists’ who believe that something more fundamental than matter has somehow ‘informed’ the evolutionary changes of matter from the Big Bang onwards, and that something is variously termed ‘mind’ ‘consciousness’ or ‘spirit’ The term ‘postmaterialism’ was coined by the American sociologist Ronald Inglehart (1977), indicating a shift in values away from a materialistic culture towards more spiritually based beliefs. Panpsychism, for example, proposes that all matter from the quantum realm onwards possesses some degree of individual sentience, or proto-consciousness. The perceived ‘deadness’ of ordinary solid matter is a misperception as all matter down to electrons is imbued with some degree of consciousness.
Taylor sees it rather differently. His view is that “although spirit-force is in all things, not all things have their own individualized spirit or consciousness” (p. 51). Embedded in the fabric of the universe from the beginning of time, or maybe even before, Taylor proposes that what he has called ‘panspiritism’ acts rather like gravity, as a ‘spirit-force’ moving everything along. The universe is not the inanimate vastness of billions of light years of spacetime dotted with galaxies of stars as envisaged by materialistic cosmologists but an interactional living organism imbued with ‘spirit-force’.
… the essence of reality (which is also the essence of our being) is a quality that might be called spirit, or consciousness. This quality is fundamental and universal; it is everywhere and in all things (p. 3).
Panspiritism manifests itself in two forms; as matter pervaded by directional spirit-force analogous to the way that we are pervaded by directional gravity, and in varying degrees of individual consciousness in living systems that are living precisely because their systemic complexity enables them, as Taylor describes it, to ‘canalise’ this all pervading spirit-force. This ability to canalise spirit-energy into degrees of personal consciousness reaches its zenith through the function of our brains that do not generate the mentalness of our conscious selves but act analogous to radio and television receivers of the all pervading spirit-force, converting it into conscious selves across all species including ourselves. This spiritist interpretation of everything we know about the universe down to our personal thoughts, feelings and sense of self provides, in Taylor’s opinion, much greater explanatory power than materialism. In contrast to bottom-up materialism that seems dependent upon the concept of nonlinear levels of new property emergence, Taylor proposes that panspiritism, as a beneficent evolutionary force, provides a much better top-down explanation because what emerges as ‘new’ has potentially been there all along in spirit awaiting actualisation.
Having stated his panspiritist position in the first two chapters Taylor contrasts the explanations provided by materialism as compared to panspiritism in ten chapters concerning: The Riddle of Consciousness / The Primacy of Mind: Puzzles of the Mind and Brain / How the Mind can change the Brain: More Puzzles of Mind and Brain / The Puzzle of Near-Death Experiences / Waking Up: The Puzzle of Awakening Experiences / Keeping the Account open: The Puzzle of Psychic Phenomena / Complexity and Consciousness: Puzzles of Evolution / Why do selfish Genes Behave so Unselfishly: The Puzzle of Altruism / Quantum Questions: Mysteries of the Microcosm and finally The Spiritual Universe: Moving Beyond Materialism, referenced by chapter plus a bibliography and index.
Taylor argues his case well and his panspiritist belief in the spiritual unity of everything with everything else, shared in various forms of spiritual belief systems by many cultures and civilisations throughout recorded history and probably even earlier, will strike a resonant chord in many readers. It takes psi and all its manifestations as a mental given, accepts that near-death experiences (NDEs) clearly demonstrate that a conscious mind can operate independently from its almost moribund brain, that out-of-body experiences are genuine mental excursions to elsewhere, that NDEs present a strong case for personal survival as self aware spiritual beings able to communicate with each other and with those left behind following brain death with even the possibility of reincarnation, and that during moments of ‘awakening’ or enlightenment we are as one with ultimate universal reality. Proponents of panspiritism could reasonably argue that if panspiritism became the societal norm the future of the planet and all who live on it would become far more assured.
With this in mind I feel a certain reluctance in questioning the basis for this belief, but as a reviewer this has to be done. Panpsychism or panspiritism can never be more than a personal belief system. This does not mean that it may not be correct, but it can never be validated by the scientific method. It is an unprovable hypothesis because there is no available scientific method by which the existence of a ‘spirit-force’ of universal and personal effect can be put to an empirical test any more than a belief in God. Panspiritism cannot, for example, offer a scientifically testable explanation for the still unsolved scientific question in molecular biology as to how life began on earth (see Davies, 2019 for a new theory), or the relationship between the known mechanisms of the brain that can be tested objectively and mental phenomena only available to first person experiencing. The correlation between these two sets of phenomena seems unbreakable whatever their relationship as no mental activity has ever been reported co-incident with the absence of correlated brain activity. NDEs are the claimed exception to this rule, but the unexpected observations by Borjigin et al. (2013a, 2013b) in dying rat brains of a period of highly integrated brainwave activity consonant with mental functioning may apply to all dying brains across the species including our own, indicating that more may be occurring in brains close to death than we had assumed (see Charman, 2017).
This is not to deny that heavenly NDEs and experiences of enlightenment result in a strong personal conviction of life after death or of having had contact with the divine, but they are no more real in the sense of contacting an ultimate reality than the opposite experience of mental desolation as in profound clinical depression or an NDE of a terrifying hell. They are equally valid experiences from opposite ends of the experiential spectrum, so this seems a somewhat insubstantial base upon which to build a universal philosophy.
Equating the concept of a universal ‘spirit-force’ with a universal ‘consciousness’ seems a synonym too far, as the latter carries a meaning of conscious self-awareness and it is rather difficult to think of cold, thin space or stellar nuclear fusion as in the sun at some 15 million degrees kelvin as somehow being consciously aware of what is going on.
It might be argued that panspiritism doesn’t really solve the riddle of consciousness because it doesn’t explain where consciousness comes from in the first place. But in a sense it doesn’t need to do this. Consciousness doesn’t come from anywhere – it just is (p. 68).
Well, no, consciousness of itself just isn’t. Consciousness, in the sense being in a state of self-aware consciousness, is a state of mental functioning sustained by a certain level of brain functioning. If the latter fails then self-aware consciousness collapses into non-aware unconsciousness. In daily life periods of consciousness cycle in and out of existence dependent upon the circadian rhythm of brain activity as in being awake or asleep. As for psi phenomena such as telepathy there seems good anecdotal evidence (Playfair, 2012) and good experimental evidence (Broderick & Goertzel, 2015) for psi as a property of mental functioning in this life, but this does not, of itself, support the argument for life after death any more than having a gift for mathematics.
Taylor proposes that the fact that conscious emotions, thoughts, desires and fears can affect brain functioning supports the theory of spiritism. But if mental functioning is an emergent level of brain processing there is every reason to expect that its new properties would interact with other levels of brain processing as in control of bodily movement to fulfil mental objectives. Top-down/bottom-up interaction is essential for survival. The materialistic neuroscientist could also argue that the processes of mentation sustaining consciousness can be considered as an, as yet, unidentified expression of matter because for A to affect B and vice versa A and B must be of like kind.
If panspiritism, when ‘canalised’ (curious term) by the brain, is such a beneficent evolutionary force then surely everyone, including this reviewer, should experience ‘awakenings’, evolution should have avoided prey and predator by evolving peaceful herbivores only, and all the dreadful and undeserved suffering experienced by so many millions of people without benefit of experiencing moments of enlightenment throughout history to the present would not be possible in spiritual principle. Considered from their equally valid point of view panspiritism does not seem to be doing a very good job.
You may profoundly disagree with such counter arguments, so I urge you to study Taylor’s case for panspiritism for yourself and to that end he must have the last word. Here is what he hopes he has achieved:
I hope that this book has made it clear that the spiritual (or panspiritist) perspective offers a coherent and viable explanation of the world. Once we allow for the existence of an all-pervading spiritual force, a host of problematic phenomena- such as consciousness, the influence of the mind over the body, near-death experiences, psychic phenomena, even the weirdness of quantum physics and so on - become more comprehensible (p. 225).
Borjigin, J., et al. (2013a). Surge of neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying
brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 110 (35), 14432-14437.
Borjigin, J., Wang, M.M., & Mashour, G.A. (2013b). Reply to Greyson: Experimental evidence lays
a foundation for a rational understanding of near-death experiences. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Science, 110(47): E4406.
Broderick, D & Goertzel, B. (Eds.) (2015). Evidence for Psi:Thirteeen Empirical Research Reports.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Charman, R,A. (2017) Do Dying Rat Brains Offer a Possible Explanation for the Occurrence of Near-
Death Experiences? Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 81, 240-247.
Davies, P. (2019). What is Life? New Scientist, 3215, 28-33.
Eagleman, D. (2015). The Brain: The Story of You. New York: Pantheon Books.
Playfair, G, L. (2012) Twin Telepathy (3rd Ed.). Hove: White Crow Books.
Robert A. Charman can be reached at email firstname.lastname@example.org