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The Flip - Jeffrey Kripal ***

In The Flip, Jeffrey Kripal (a professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought) argues for a new view of the cosmos, consciousness and the relationship between humans and everything else out there. The 'flip' in question is a damascene conversion, but one that is spiritual without being conventionally religious - having your viewpoint transformed by a life-changing experience, often one that might be associated with the paranormal.

Kripal begins with two ‘true tales’ one of precognition the other of apparent communication with dead. But these immediately make me twitchy - data, as they say, is not the plural of anecdote. All too often people’s accounts of experiences (or even worse their memories) prove wildly inaccurate. Kripal tries to undermine this argument by saying we disempower stories by calling them anecdotes - yet the history of paranormal research shows that time and again as soon as controls are properly imposed the inexplicable experiences stop. (Kripal tells us this is because you need to be in extremis for these things to happen - something I can understand, yet you would imagine sometimes they would still occur in controlled settings. A simpler explanation is that they aren't real.)

The author damages his credibility with sweeping statements like ‘I simply want to call out those who want to claim [paranormal phenomena] do not happen. They do.’ I would love this to be the case - but argument from authority is no way to persuade anyone. It verges on deception to describe a situation where someone has a premonition and it comes true without mentioning the millions of time people have premonitions that don’t - this is world class cherry picking. This is frustrating, as after writing a book on the paranormal I was happy to accept there may be some unexplained occurrences (though the vast majority don’t hold up to scrutiny), but to only present them as fact in this unquestioning way ruins any potential for credibility. 

Underlying Kripal's viewpoint is what amounts to a inversion of C. P. Snow’s 'two cultures' concept. In Snow's 1960s world, the humanities were too dominant. Now, Kripal seems to argue it’s the sciences that are too much in the driving seat. (It's hard not to see this as science envy from a humanities academic.) Leaving aside the indubitable fact that most people in political power still have a humanities background, the problem is that each discipline has its own fields of applicability - and explaining phenomena is a situation where science is far more effective.

The irritating thing is that I agree with Kripal that there may be something there and that we shouldn't undervalue the humanities - but the way he goes about putting his message across wins him no favours. So, for example, Kripal tells us that students are moving more to STEM subjects because the humanities are not valued because the are perceived as being 'concerned with surface phenomena, with things that are not real, that are nonexistent.' But, in reality, if you talk to real undergraduates, it's far more that students are preferring STEM subjects because this is where the jobs are - perhaps an ivory tower academic view missing the real world context.

The book is not all bad - although Kripal does indulge in quite a lot that comes near the kind of quantum waffle that is associated with books that attempt to link Eastern mysticism and physics, such as The Dancing Wu Li Masters, he doesn't have such a wide-eyed acceptance as these books tend to, and the underlying message is more about a different understanding of the nature and importance of consciousness and our relationship with the wider universe than it is about trying to argue that Eastern mysticism prefigures quantum theory. Even so, there was a lot here that seemed either about fighting an academic corner (you can almost see parts of it as the basis for a funding application) or too reliant on making stuff up as you go along.

Definitely interesting - glad I read it - but ultimately not convincing.

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Review by Andrew May


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