The Flip

Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge

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Jeffrey Kripal
  • New York, NY: 
    Bellevue Literary Press
    , March
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



Jeffrey J. Kripal’s The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge is an important, wonderfully rich book. He organizes his discussion in five substantive chapters, bookended by a brief prologue and epilogue. Kripal describes these chapters as essais, a sly homage to Montaigne who developed the essaiform as a “trial” or “test” of his opinions, a form of critical inquiry into the truth of human life and nature by way of the experience of one person. The Flip embraces the normative position that individual human experience, fired in the kilns of culture, history, science, and religion, provides the best—and really the only—avenue for engaging consciousness. Understood in this way, it is no stretch to say that The Flip is an extension and development of William James’s idea of radical empiricism.

Kripal argues that an entire range of human experience has been rejected from serious scientific inquiry. He calls these extreme or extraordinary experiences, with near-death experiences, alien abduction, and precognition serving as examples. The adjectives extremeand extraordinary point to the fact that this is a category of outlier experiences. To say simply that they are intense or exceptional does not really speak to their standing: these experiences, rather, are impossible—their sheer existence is frequently denied or dismissed altogether. For this reason, the categories and concepts we use to think critically and speak about these experiences are either lacking, or have fallen into disrepute. The category of paranormal, to use one of Kripal’s examples, was originally developed to describe fantastic but nevertheless natural phenomena that could not be modeled or explained using existing scientific frameworks. Soon enough, however, it became a category populated by spooky entities of all sorts, and similarly spooky events unexplainable according to the natural (read mechanistic) workings of cause and effect. As such, to use Kripal’s metaphor, paranormal experiences violate the rules of the academic table regarding acceptable topics for serious scientific inquiry. Kripal is a radical empiricist insofar as he desires to add some leaves to the academic table and make it broader and more inclusive of human experience. He wishes to re-envision the limits of metaphysical possibility. As he writes in the prologue, “I do not want to exhaust you with words. I want to flip you” (13).

The “flip” refers to a radical (there’s that word again) reversal of perspective on extreme experience. There is a double meaning at work—an “inside” and an “outside,” you could say. The “inside” meaning refers to the flip intrinsic to extreme experiences themselves. As recounted in chapter 1, Mark Twain experienced precognition, and this experience was transformative. Twain was flipped, in other words, head over heels. Kripal describes the transformative flip as a reversal “from ‘the outside’ of things to ‘the inside’ of thing, from ‘the object’ to ‘the subject’” (12). Put differently, the inside or transformative flip is epistemological: we possess first-hand knowledge of something (as opposed to third-hand knowledge about something). We know it in our bones, we might say.

The Flip addresses a wider audience than those who have personally tasted extreme experiences. For the unflipped or uninitiated, the flip speaks to the effects of intellectual imagination—something we can imagine outside of our personal experience despite our lack of first-hand acquaintance. This “outside” flip takes place by means of the narratives and arguments Kripal marshals in his text. If the inside flip can be described as life-changing, then the outside flip is akin to the mind-opening experience of empathetic understanding. If the majority of Kripal’s readers are innocent of extreme experiences personally, they are nevertheless able to imagine these experiences (think of the cliché of walking in someone else’s shoes) and furthermore conceive of nature or reality in new, expansive ways—what Kripal describes as “a new real” (11). For those who have experienced the inside flip, Kripal’s discussion provides warm assurance that they are not “mutants” (think the X-Men), defective, or insane. For those unacquainted with extreme experiences, the outside flip opens the imagination to ponder the potential of human beings and nature/reality beyond the limits of what is considered possible. The Flip, in other words, is a work of therapeutic humanism.

Briefly, here are the lineaments of Kripal’s discussion. In chapter 1 he argues for the priority of the humanities for understanding consciousness as something other than (in Gilbert Ryle’s tart dismissal) a “ghost in the machine.” He also sketches what Aldous Huxley called the “filter” thesis (or “transmission” or “reduction” thesis) in which the mind is not reducedto the brain (and is therefore understood to be produced by it), but rather is filtered by the brain while existing outside of the skull cavity. That is, the mind is prior to the brain, not subsequent. Chapter 2 concentrates on the flipped experiences of scientists and skeptics such as A.J. Ayer, Hans Berger, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Michael Shermer. Kripal’s intention is to show that the flip is not something experienced solely by sensitive new agers, creative artsy types, or credulous naïfs. Chapter 3 takes up the relationship of mind and matter from a flipped perspective. From that stance, the familiar binaries—inside/outside, subject/object, mind/matter—are collapsed. Consciousness is not simply “inside” the skull cavity; knowledge is not simply objective or “out there”; and mind is “mattered” no less than matter is “minded.” Consideration of the metaphysics of mind mattering and matter minding leads to a fascinating discussion of dual-aspect monism (118–22), among other possibilities. In chapter 4 Kripal looks at the ubiquity of consciousness in its dazzling diversity as found in the various semiotic codes and systems we call cultures and religions (and cognates, such as scientific materialism). He argues that this is why the humanities have more resources to bring to bear on the topic of consciousness than modern science. Finally, chapter 5 considers the ethical and political implications of a flipped world. The flip, ultimately, is not simply localized in the individual, but in society at large. Expressed differently, the flip is an exquisite example of the bumper sticker “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

The Flip could be described as a mythical book written jointly by Montaigne and Jorge Luis Borges: a book about testing first-hand experience (the flip) that conjures, in the spirit of magical realism, the flipped effects of that experience in readers. While Kripal modestly claims The Flip can be read in a single setting, I do not recommend doing so. Read this book slowly, no more than one chapter at a sitting. Think about the arguments Kripal makes, the evidence he marshals, the light touch and melody of his prose, and his prodigious reading. (Like me, you might find yourself making lists of books to read.) Imagine the experiences conveyed in the narratives. Reading this book is an embodied experience; it is yoga for the mind. The Flip is an important book that deserves a broad readership both inside and outside the academy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Dawson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lynchburg.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religion at Rice University.


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