Philosophy and the Paranormal:
Greg Johnson wants to popularize Plato's art

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Jul. 26, Aug. 2, 1997)

Greg Johnson is trying to create a novel career for himself as a "philosophical consultant." Having recently completed his Ph.D. dissertation for Catholic University in Washington, Johnson lives in Atlanta where he teaches part time at Morehouse and through his own organization called "The Invisible College."

But his objective is to bring philosophy out of academia and into the lives of ordinary people. Our encounter is something of a synchronicity. I have been intellectually struggling with the inadequacies of psychotherapy and Johnson has been wondering -- like others documented in the Feb. 1997 issue of the "Utne Reader" -- if philosophical inquiry isn't the step missing in the lives of many psychotherapy clients who, despite the unraveling of their biographies, continue to feel unable to change.

Moreover, Johnson's Ph.D. dissertation is on the philosopher Immanuel Kant and the visionary theologian (and scientist) Emanuel Swedenborg. I grew up in a church founded on the latter's teaching and, in fact, Johnson spent some time in my hometown, Bryn Athyn, Pa., researching Swedenborg.

Johnson is presently teaching a series of classes on "Philosophy and Paranormal Experience," 7-9 p.m. Tuesdays at E-Land / Words Worth Books (2112 North Decatur Road, at Clairmont, 404-633-4275). Call Johnson, 404-378-5132, for more information.

In the following, very broad-ranging discussion, Johnson and I discuss philosophy and the paranormal. Next week, our discussion will focus more on how philosophy can be of value to ordinary people.

I had no idea that Kant was interested in Swedenborg.

Yes, Kant published a book called Dreams of a Spirit-Seer in 1766. In it, Kant sets out to establish what would make possible communication with departed souls. The second part of the book is about Swedenborg, who, of course, claimed to talk to angels. Kant's very nasty and ironic at moments. Now, most scholars have long regarded it as a complete rejection of Swedenborg's thinking, but we actually find that in all other ways -- in his private correspondence and in his teaching -- Kant took Swedenborg very seriously. He even said he wrote his book because it was better to attack than be attacked.

What was your interest in Swedenborg?

At first, it was just in Kant and when I read Dreams, I realized that it contained all of the basic ideas that Kant would elaborate in The Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. In other words, the main doctrines of the mature writing of the preeminent philosopher since Plato were all developed as an attempt to deal with Swedenborg. I really think in some ways Kant was trying to refashion Swedenborg in a way acceptable to philosophers who are not mystics.

Can you capsulize Swedenborg's main thought?

I think when D.T. Suzuki [a Zen scholar and admirer of Swedenborg] was asked the same question, he held up a spoon and said, "This spoon is in heaven right now." Kant and Swedenborg held the same idea -- that we already exist in the spirit world and have the assistance of spiritual beings, so that heaven (and hell) is just a step away, so to speak, beyond the physical world we also obviously occupy. Kant believed the ordinary access to the spirit world was through dreams and sometimes visions. He believed some people, because of an abnormal sensitivity like a nervous disorder, might have a more porous access to the barrier between the physical and the spiritual.

Are the visions and dream images direct apprehensions of the spiritual world?

No, because they exist beyond time and place. So, they assume form in time and space as symbolic presentations. You have to have a hermeneutic system to decode the inner spiritual meanings. This was Kant's main objection to Swedenborg, the lack of a canon of interpretation. Swedenborg talked to angels and visited heaven and hell and the other planets but his writing is subjective and fanciful.

Do only these visionary experiences have spiritual meaning or do, as is true in esoteric Islam, the objects of the world also have spiritual correlatives?

That's very interesting. For Swedenborg, everything in the world was the symbolic manifestation of something spiritual. Let's not forget that he was also one of the great scientists of his time and, I've learned, was probably very politically active, too. To his mind science itself was a grand hermeneutics. ... Kant, on the other hand, wrote very little about ordinary perception. He limits his accounts of spiritual signatures to dreams, extraordinary visions, the scriptures.

Why is any of this important?

Well, Swedenborg and Kant both make the point that man is in freedom and has responsibility. We have a given moral personality that is already in the spirit world and our task is to live according to the laws of spiritual development, to live by the better angels of our natures. We have to negotiate the tension between our spiritual selves, our moral selves, and the physical nature. For both Kant and Swedenborg, then, the spiritual life has an ascetic quality.

I feel somewhat as if I'm a kid in church again. I understand your claim that Kant and Swedenborg are talking about the moral life, but I'm curious about what the lived experience of this is like. Why is it a philosophical pursuit?

Well, that points to the great misunderstanding of philosophy, I think. You know, people in the academy, scholars, routinely just dismiss Kant's interest in the paranormal as a youthful aberration because it doesn't fit into the categories we've established for study. But the truth is that most of the major philosophers have been deeply involved in the mystical and the paranormal. I remember for myself that when I discovered Swedenborg, I also really discovered that the world is so strange. Here was this famous scientist writing dry Latin phrases about life on other planets. Here was this living community and church -- in Bryn Athyn -- seriously trying to live by these teachings. How can we account for this? That was Kant's concern too.

I'm not clear what you mean ...

I mean that from the beginning, philosophers have been concerned with the human soul -- its nature, where it exists in space and time, whether it's immortal, whether it's real or not. It's out of this inquiry that we have developed our ideas about the good life, the moral life.

And how does the existence of paranormal experience pertain to this?

Because, if we can empirically demonstrate, say, clairvoyance or reincarnation, it is -- in these questions that pertain to the soul -- a means of cutting the gordian knot of argumentation. Imagine that Copernicus had gotten into a space ship and gone out far enough to observe the solar system. It would have cut through a lot of argumentation.

Are you personally convinced that paranormal phenomena are real?

I think if you gather all the stories together and carefully sift through and eliminate the fraud and the cases of wishful thinking and even the ones that just seem dubious, you are still left with a residue of cases that resist any other explanation than a paranormal one. There are plenty of documented cases of people recalling provable past lives, for example. I think it's entirely possible to be a rational human being and accept that these things are just as true as, say, the contention that dinosaurs once walked the earth. We don't have to experience what we believe. We take the existence of dinosaurs to be true on the basis of fossil records, but we haven't seen them ourselves. The same is true with many of these phenomena.

* * *

But why does science seem to routinely reject these possibilities?

It's not science rejecting the possibility. Science is a neutral, empirical method of investigation and when you submit these phenomena to that kind of inquiry, you don't disprove them. These intense skeptics and outright persecutors of people who believe in the paranormal don't have a scientific method. They are simply operating from a model that says everything that occurs must have an explanation in terms of the five physical senses. So, they have made a prior decision about what reality has to be like. They are a contemporary version of the Epicureans. They have a moral and ideological commitment to explaining away all religion and mysticism on the basis of purely materialistic science.

So you do advocate a scientific inquiry.

Of course, but not one that presupposes a material explanation and is militantly ideological to the extent it just ignores what can't be explained. Science is a self-critical method of inquiry. Many of these people go to embarrassing lengths to explain phenomena away. That is not science. They need to turn the scientific inquiry on themselves.

And this is in part the function of philosophy, right? Why should the average person study philosophy?

If you are interested in the pursuit of wisdom, you will study philosophy. The most efficient way to obtain wisdom is by conducting a serious inquiry with the great serious minds who recorded their inquiries in books.

Most of us regard philosophy as an enormously difficult undertaking appropriate only to academics.

I know. My own goal is not to become a great philosopher. I've been teaching these informal classes in philosophy for three years now and this nonacademic study made me begin to question my commitment in grad school to its pursuit as an academic career. There are a dozen colleges where I'd teach, certainly, but I've decided to try to create a career as a private philosophical tutor.

Why should people go to you instead of directly to the books?

Much of this writing is very difficult. It's written in foreign languages and the arguments are hard to follow. My job is to make it more accessible. It's my job as a teacher to already know the material and to be able to expose the student to different answers to the questions we all have.

And those questions are ...

... endless. There are important questions we all ask, about our place in the universe, about destiny, about the moral life, the good life. We all have these questions. We also have this body of literature, of thinking, by great minds who have struggled with these questions and come up with some interesting answers. ... Philosophical inquiry is a way of freeing the mind from the usual conventions. People are often not aware of the options they have.

What is the difference between this and psychology?

That, of course, is one of the big questions people are asking now. Let me talk first about the ways they intersect. The fundamental teaching, the main inquiry, with which almost all the great philosophers begin concerns the nature of the soul, the psyche. Like psychology, philosophy tries to understand the nature of the soul, what makes it flourish and what doesn't. Philosophy, like psychology, catalogs all forms of pathology and misery and then attempts to conclude, given the options we have, what is best for the good life.

An example?

They are endless. You can start with the beginning of our tradition. Plato's Republic is an inquiry into the nature of the soul. It asks the question, "Which life do you choose?" given all the options, including the choice of what style is going to rule your soul -- the rational, desire, or the idealism of "spiritedness," according to Plato. So we are dealing with values.

And psychology deals with ... ?

My understanding is that psychology regards itself as a value-free or neutral science. Philosophy attempts to answer the question of what is good for the soul whereas psychology as a science just wants to collect the facts. Many questions we understand now as psychological questions are really moral, philosophical questions.

Perhaps the comparison we need to make is to applied psychology, psychotherapy.

I have a number of friends who have gone through lengthy Freudian analysis. They increase their understanding a great deal. They come to understand the sources of their problems with, say, male authority figures or forming relationships with women. And then the therapy stalls. Things don't change. Dealing with the dynamics of the psyche is not the same as asking what I ought to become, how I'm going to move toward that, whether my values are compatible with that.

I think those questions are common in therapy. I do agree that therapy is often ill-equipped to answer them. For one thing, because psychology is, as you say, out of the materialistic tradition, it tends to reinforce contemporary values. Clients often expect that and don't want their values questioned even when they obviously aren't working. I'm thinking of a case in which two clients were obviously cheating on one another. One had been caught but the other maintained his own fidelity. When I raised the subject of experimenting with an open relationship, they were both indignant. They did not want their values challenged or didn't even want to consider options, even when their present values failed them. They wouldn't even entertain the question which I saw as a way of investigating their values.

Yes, that would be an example. In a philosophical inquiry, we assume a willingness to look at all the options. The effort is to move beyond opinion to the truth.

Oh, my! How can you say that? I mean, what do you do with a postmodern client in whom all values are relativized.

I'm not talking about absolutes necessarily, although there is a great deal of agreement in philosophy about what constitutes the good life. But I'm afraid I believe the postmodern view is a way of entombing the soul. Even if a person believes all values are subjective and claims to believe that reason is incapable of clarifying meaningful values, the person is still motivated to act, to make decisions in the world. People who assume the dogmatic postmodern position often think they are enlightened and autonomous, but in the absence of a set of clarified values, they are really just absorbing whatever values are in the environment -- in our case, consumerist values. They are puppets of the unconscious, through which the ripples of consumerist fads pass. Postmodernism is a one-way ticket to moral vulgarity.

It has often occurred to me that the "borderline" diagnosis that is so popular now is really the pathological apotheosis of the postmodern style -- lack of internal values, appropriation of identity from an exterior object, and so forth.

The entire culture is in need of self-examination. I think that is why this new occupation -- philosophy as consultation -- is gaining so much attention.

And why traditional psychotherapy is grinding to such a halt.

Copyright 1997 by Creative Loafing | Published Aug. 2, 1997

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