Mind Beyond Brain

Buddhism, Science, and the Paranormal

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David Presti
  • New York, NY : 
    Columbia University Press
    , October
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $30.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780231189569.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Max Planck (20th century quantum physicist), Thomas Nagel (21st century philosopher), and Nāgārjuna (2nd century Mahāyāna Buddhist philosopher and founder of the Madhyamaka school) walk into a bar. What in the world can they find to talk about? You can read all about it in David E. Presti’s book Mind Beyond Brain: Buddhism, Science, and the Paranormal. In fact, these legendary figures are so crucial to the purpose of this book, they are quoted even before the table of contents. 

Presti is joined by Bruce Greyson, Edward F. Kelly, Emily Williams Kelly, and Jim B. Tucker to discuss the relationship between mind (consciousness) and brain (physiological neural processes) through the lens of research into the paranormal or “‘psi’ phenomena” (xviii). Mind Beyond Brain was directly inspired by topics explored during the October 2010 Ligmincha Institute symposium in Charlottesville, Virginia, but more broadly stands at the forefront of a burgeoning cross-disciplinary movement between mainstream science and religious studies. The book consolidates and analyzes a century of research conducted on phenomena such as near-death experiences, past-life memories or “‘cases of the reincarnation type’” (xvii), out-of-body experiences, mediumship, apparitions, and deathbed experiences, as well as other psi phenomena including telepathy, precognition, and altered states of consciousness. Presti, along with his collaborators, introduce, report, and reconsider the dominant conceptions of the relationship between mind and brain in “contemporary mainstream science” (93). 

As the authors see it, mainstream science—too often handicapped by the burden of physicalism—tends toward reducing the activity of the mind to the material processes of the brain. In so doing, that same science fails to adequately account for evidence of psi phenomena. In the worldview of mainstream science “all of what we call reality is conceived as constructed in some way from matter and its interactions as described by the mathematical laws of physics” (2-3), therefore all experience of the mind is entirely contingent on the ways in which the physical material of the body and its surroundings are processed by the brain. Once the brain stops working—primarily through death—so too does the mind. There is no survival after death. Relying on this physicalist framework, mainstream science has historically butted heads with many of the world’s religious traditions, not only in regards to the afterlife, but also the paranormal and supernatural—or the so called “rogue phenomena” (112). 

Ultimately, the authors propose an expanded or revised theory of the mind and its relationship to the material brain. Drawing on studies conducted by members of the Society for Psychical Research (founded in 1882)—pioneers in the field including Joseph Banks Rhine, Ian Stevenson, and members of the Division of Perceptual Studies—Presti and the others nominate a mind/brain model first developed by William James and F.W.H. Myers. This “‘filter’ or ‘transmission’ model” (111) posits that, rather than producing consciousness, “the brain filters or restricts consciousness to allow efficient functioning in the physical world” (89). In addition to the filter-transmission theory, Presti and the others they envision a metaphysical worldview “point[ing] to some form of evolutionary panentheism” or “the universe as in some sense slowly waking up to itself through biological evolution in time, as more complex organisms permit fuller expression of the inherent properties of that antecedently existing greater consciousness” (113). Both the filter-transmission model and evolutionary panentheism are thoroughly examined in Irreducible Mind (E.F. Kelly, E.W. Kelly, A. Crabtree, A. Gauld, M. Grosso, & B. Greyson, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) and Beyond Physicalism (E.F. Kelly, A. Crabtree, & P. Marshall, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) written by members of the Esalen Center for Theory and Research. 

Presti and the other authors are interested in inviting perspectives that mainstream science has typically left out. One could have hoped for an even broader presence of Buddhist voices in Mind Beyond Brain, though at least the authors demonstrate a method of inquiry and cooperation that may well lay the first planks towards bridging that chasm. Specifically, the final chapters invite experts in Buddhist meditation to participate in further studies and collaborative dialogue. These neuroscientists have openly put their cards on the table, as if to say to Buddhist experts and practitioners “now show us yours, we want to see!”

Academics, both in and outside the fields of neuroscience and Buddhism, who are interested in psi phenomena will find this publication accessible and reader-friendly, though not reductionistic in content. For those in the realm of science, the book is a challenge to expand or revise the pervasive physicalist framework, to continue funding and conducting research into psi phenomena, and to open the conversation up to other worldviews. As far as religious studies is concerned, the authors engage people from Buddhist traditions as equal epistemological partners. Recognizing the ways in which mainstream science tends toward omitting—sometimes contentiously rejecting—many of the claims made by the world’s religious traditions, the authors appeal to these ostracized religious practitioners, particularly Buddhist meditation experts, to safely rejoin the conversation and research. Despite this complexity, this publication remains user-friendly to non-experts as well, invoking their curiosity to the possibilities of unexplained realities that lay beyond the material brain; the reader does not need a reference book handy in order to understand Mind Beyond Brain.  

Presti and the other authors manifest a method in which they seriously consider, and seek to deeply engage with, intellectual ways of experiencing and knowing that do not follow the standard path of mainstream science. Mind Beyond Brain is a step towards a way for  science and the world’s religious traditions to collaborate across worldviews. These researchers are attempting to eavesdrop on that bar room Plank-Nagel-Nāgārjuna conversation. These luminaries seem to be saying similar things, just from different perspectives. The question is, can they actually talk to each other?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Meghan Alexander Beddingfield is a doctoral student in Religion and Culture at Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
May 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David E. Presti is Teaching Professor of Neurobiology, Psychology, and Cognitive Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He also teaches neuroscience to Buddhist monks and nuns in India and Bhutan. He is the author of Foundational Concepts in Neuroscience: A Brain-Mind Odyssey (2016).

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