Breaking Down the Barriers of the Repressive Intellectual
Regime of Materialism
This week, I am privileged to bring to you a very special guest, Professor John Poynton from the Society for Psychical Research. Professor Poynton’s life-long interest has been in African wildlife and classical music and later an interest in psychical phenomena and in mysticism. He takes a critical view of the dogmatic materialism promoted both by current science and by current philosophy and has helped many people break free from the chains of materialism through his books, his teachings and motivational talks.
Professor Poynton takes the view that one’s existence on earth is for some purpose, which the individual has to try to discover, and to fulfil to the best of his/her ability. A past President of the SPR, he continues to fulfill a variety of duties as Hon. Secretary as well as other important academic work elsewhere.
In 1992 he received an Order of Merit in South Africa from F.W De Klerk. He was South African until 1992, when he emigrated to the UK on account of a position offered by the Natural History Museum in London and is still doing research there, aged 82. If we understand Professor Poynton’s comments correctly in this frank interview then I’m sure many more will devote the time necessary to engage in the search for truth.
Enter Professor Poynton..
Question: Professor Poynton, welcome to Spirit Today. May we address you as John?
Professor Poynton: Yes, of course.
Question: Thanks John. Spirit Today has been described as an unusual place to hang out. Would you describe yourself as an unusual man?
John: I would like to think it’s not unusual for a scientist to hang out with something like Spirit Today. The fact that most scientists would run a mile is a symptom of the barmy times we are living in – a kind of Dark Age.
Question: I’ve never come across your surname before. What can you tell us about it?
John: The surname appears to be Norman, so there is a long-standing connection with England. There is a town near Manchester of that name, and Poynton Green near Shrewsbury.
Question: Interesting. You’re of South African descent, Pretoria I believe?
John: A widowed ancestor with two sons left England for South Africa, settling in Durban in 1842 to open a hardware business. My grandfather took the business to Pretoria in the 1890s when it was the capital of the old Transvaal Republic, before suffering defeat by the British. He sold windmills and other equipment to President Paul Kruger, after whom the Kruger National Park (established by Kruger in 1898) is named. Kruger was a great and greatly wronged man.
Question: Has your family been in South Africa long?
John: Since 1842 on my father’s side. Part of my mother’s side goes back to the seventeenth century and the Dutch settlers of the Cape.
Question: You studied at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg majoring in botany and zoology. Looking back, what are your fondest memories of that period around 1950?
John: In his great novel, Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton wrote of Pietermaritzburg as “the lovely city”. A Victorian “last outpost of the Empire”, it was ideal as a university and school centre. In the fifties the university campus was pleasantly small (a bigger campus was in Durban) with a collection of wonderful characters.
John: From my family; not good performers but serious listeners.
Question: You returned to the Department of Zoology in Pietermaritzburg as a lecturer in zoology in 1958. At 27, that was quite a feat.
John: I was extremely lucky to get back into a scientific career – that would not be likely to happen nowadays. I found I could be more creative in African zoology than in music, which at that time was passing through a rather sterile period.
Question: Moving on to more recent times, you have also been the president of the Society for Psychical Research. However, I’d like to come back to that if I may. You’ve written four “protest novels” taking issue with the dominating materialist culture of the present times. It is indeed a great mystery that science still fears taking on the study of psi, and we have a lot to gain by moving forward on this front. But of course, you have not only written novels. You have publications in the fields of biogeography, taxonomy, ecology, evolution, philosophy of science, and parapsychology or psychical research, amounting to 109 monographs, book chapters and papers. Which are you most proud of and why?
John: The four novels. They were all published by Kima Global of Cape Town this and last year (firstname.lastname@example.org), although the first two were started in the 1960s. Novel writing was partly inspired by Alan Paton (who was also a gradute of the science faculty in Pietermaritzburg). His Cry the Beloved Country was a protest against the repressive political regime at the time, apartheid; my novels are protests against the repressive intellectual regime, materialism. I think my novels are my most important works, even though I can say I am highly regarded in my scientific field (the African Journal of Herpetology published a number this year to honour my sixty years of research and publication, and to commemorate my having lasted into the eighties).
Question: For those who have not read your novels, please give us a synopsis of them in the order they were written.
John: First, in New Creation a young ranger in an African game reserve grows from conventional thinking to a new spiritualized understanding of his job and of nature. In Brief Authority a London psychiatrist is confronted with similar challenges that transformed the ranger, but he is stuck in his materialistic mode (the title comes from Shakespeare, “man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority”). I illustrated both the fixating strength and the factual weakness of this materialistic mode. Then in The Life Play the ranger and the psychiatrist come together – what a clash – and through sheer force of experience the psychiatrist abandons his set mode of thinking. He settles in a mission near the game reserve, captivated by African spirituality. He dies at the start of the fourth novel, New Enlightenment, but not before completing a book, The False Enlightenment, which declares that his conventional inheritance of eighteenth-century Enlightenment was in many ways a darkening of our spiritual understanding. The novel then explores the reaction of various people to this book and this way of thinking.
Question: The fourth novel, New Enlightenment, completes a tetralogy which tells of personal growth from conventional thinking, stories involving one of the great issues of our time: the conflict that pits materialism against spirituality. Why in the narrative form, John?
John: All the way back to Plato, as in The Symposium, story-telling can be a powerful philosophical tool. It has the potential to work on someone’s mind more effectively than dull tracts, making ideas come to life in spirited exchanges between the characters, make views spring into living issues when developed as direct experience. It can attract people to think profoundly in areas where they are not expecting to think. As with Shakespeare, story can expose in dramatic terms the hidden issues that govern people’s lives. Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country had a much greater impact on apartheid than his political tracts, good as they were.
Question: What kind of feedback did you receive from your novels?
John: People have liked my lively mix of characters and the way their lives interweave with the intellectual issues of materialism vs. spirituality.
As one reviewer wrote, “His theme lies comfortably in his plots, and I hope he will continue to publish such thought-provoking ‘good reads’.” The trouble is that the English novel does not traditionally encompass this kind of “thought-provoking” material, so booksellers in the UK are not taking the novels up. The prevailing sceptical, debunking atmosphere in commerce and the media doesn’t help.
Question: Why doesn’t scepticism allow facts to guide one’s conclusions? Surely then there would be no “need” to write on materialism vs. spirituality and your pen could be put to work elsewhere?
John: True scepticism does allow facts to guide conclusions; it is the false scepticism of debunkers that accepts no guidance from facts, because such people “know” the answers already. In particular, my second novel, Brief Authority, explores that.
Question: Were they cathartic to write?
John: I think any artistic activity is soul-building if not necessarily cathartic. The novels became part of my life-development, although there is very little that is autobiographical.
Question: How did you come up with the story lines for them?
John: I wanted to find a vehicle for my dissatisfaction with the “iron rule of the mechanistic regime”, as Jan Smuts called it in his seminal Holism and Evolution. I felt I could not make my points strongly enough in an ordinary book – these are lived issues, and must be portrayed in living circumstances. A setting in the African wilds gave immense scope for story-telling and atmosphere, and the Marylebone area of London (where I live) also has the right mature atmosphere, so that is mainly where my characters act out their parts.
Question: Who inspires you, writers or otherwise?
John: I learnt a lot from the South Africans Alan Paton and Jan Smuts (a one-time South African prime minister with a high reputation in the UK). Also people in psychical research and spiritualism have been an inspiration, both in South Africa and the UK.
Question: Mahatma Gandhi said many years ago, “If you wish to see a change in the world, you must change yourself first”. As a man who has lived in South Africa for a long time, you must have seen the country change substantially over the years. However, do people really change?
John: I think there has been a change of heart in South Africans, from the repressive time of apartheid to the freedom and generosity one can now sense. Unfortunately that does not extend to the large criminal element.
Question: People in one country can’t live without people in another country. But we don’t recognize this, do we? If we are all part of a big family, what’s stopping us?
John: What’s stopping us involves the hard lessons that South Africans had to learn about human value and equality (although it’s still not completely learnt even in South Africa). We need a few more Nelson Mandelas to inspire us.
Question: We as a world community must awaken to the stark reality of what is happening in the world around us and the continued loss of animal species and habitats. You’ve studied this area extensively. What can we do to stop more species and habitats falling into decline?
John: By controlling habitat destruction.
Question: Many great people have looked at nature and seen patterns, Alan Turing for one wrote about Nature Patterns, John Lennox argues excellently in his book Has Science Buried God that it is beautiful by design and not simply evolution having honed its skills. Have you in your work come to a conclusion?
John: I think there is more to life than is allowed by the evolutionary mechanisms of variation and selection that are currently recognised. There are feedback and guiding potentialities that we are only just beginning to perceive, which result in the staggeringly beautiful structure and adaptations of living things. The young ranger in New Creation had a type of mystical experience that revealed this to him; inspiration, vision, is needed to perceive beauty and majesty in nature.
Question: As a man that has no doubt watched and observed animals a lot more than the average person, what are your views on animals having souls?
John: A standard dictionary definition (Oxford) of “soul” is: “the spiritual or immaterial element in a person, often regarded as immortal.” If one is talking about a soul in terms of survival of death, it seems that the evidence for survival of individual animals is (as far as it can be) about as good as the survival of individual people. Maybe your question reaches beyond that to the definition: “the moral, emotional or intellectual nature of a person or animal”, to which one could add loving, aesthetic, spiritual. In particular, animals can be loving, devoted (and so spiritual), so I would say that animals have souls according to these definitions.
Question: I have read that your first interest in spiritual/psychical matters came from the late great Professor Michael Whiteman. Can you describe the situation and the influence Michael had on you? What happened to get the enquiring mind of a scientist interested?
John: I had an interest in spiritual/psychical research matters before meeting Whiteman. I first encountered him when he gave lectures to the South African Society for Psychical Research in the 1960s. It seemed to me that he had an exceptional grasp of spiritual and psychical phenomena, supported by a deep understanding of physics (notably quantum theory) and mysticism (especially classical Indian and west European). He himself had “the enquiring mind of a scientist” and also the enquiring mind of a philosopher, centred on Husserl’s phenomenology. I began corresponding with him, and eventually he sent me drafts of nearly everything he wrote for comment and criticism, so I got to know his thinking fairly well. Much of that is encapsulated in an article I wrote in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 2011, vol. 59 (222) pp 109-143. Copies can be obtained from the SPR, email email@example.com.
Question: Why was Michael Whiteman, whose professional subjects included physics, mathematics and philosophy and his writings on psychical research, mysticism and music, largely overlooked?
John: It takes a lot to understand his views, since they reach far beyond conventional thinking and experience. I got to know his Philosophy of Space and Time only by reading it into a tape recorder and playing it back to myself on long motoring trips! Most people are not prepared to make such an effort. I have considered expanding my SPR article into a book about him, but I feel the task is beyond me, encompassing everything from mysticism to music to mathematics to physics to psychopathology to psychical research. He was a true polymath.
Question: In 1987 you formed the Natal Branch of the South African Society for Psychical Research and also gave winter school courses in parapsychology. What was the level of interest in parapsychology in Durban back then?
John: It was gratifyingly strong. The trouble is that it takes several hard-working people and a large local population to keep a thing like that going. Even in the vastly more populous city of London, regular attendances at meetings are usually below fifty, even with the backup of permanent and semi-permanent staff to make the Society function.
Question: What was the reaction of colleagues at this time?
John: I was conspicuously active at both the University of Natal and the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg). I never had bad confrontations with so-called sceptics, and I received a fair amount of interest if not tolerance from colleagues. I gather it is not always like that in American and British universities (although several British universities now run courses in parapsychology), but in South Africa there has been an interest or occupation with such things from President Kruger and Prime Minister Smuts downwards. I have to say that my colleagues at London’s Natural History Museum are tolerant, and even tell me about “odd” experiences.
Question: And you were president of the Society for Psychical Research from 2004 to 2007. How did that come about?
John: I suppose people see me as a fairly willing and capable dogs-body. The chair circulates among SPR Council members every two or three years.
Question: When you were president of the Society for Psychical Research you did a radio broadcast in London with Michael Roll. As you know Michael starts from the base that the mind and brain are separate. He follows Sir William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge. This is diametrically opposed to conventional science teaching in universities throughout the world. This is what is always presented by the psychologist professors Richard Wiseman and Chris French whenever the subject of survival after death is discussed on mainstream media and educational outlets. In your view does the human brain derive from consciousness or temporarily contain “I”, or something else? Which side of this debate do your studies lead you to follow?
John: Michael Roll is doing magnificent service in promoting the views of Crookes and Lodge, which need to be kept to the fore even though overlooked by academia. I take the view common among parapsychologists et al. that the brain is some kind of receiver or transducer of consciousness, not its originator. I like the comment of the astrophysicist David Darling in his book Soul Search that we are conscious not because of the brain but in spite of it. It seems that many neurophysiologists who thought that the brain created mind and consciousness are now having second thoughts. That has even got into the magazine New Scientist.
Question: In that case don’t you think it is about time the public were allowed access to a scientific balance in future whenever the subject of survival after death is featured on mainstream media and educational outlets? At the moment people only have access to the psychologists’ “when you are dead, you’re dead”.
John: The SPR has consistently met closed doors when trying to interest the media in some event or idea. In the inaugural address of 1882 to the SPR, Professor Henry Sidgwick said, “it is a scandal that the dispute as to the reality of [psychic] phenomena should still be going on, that so many competent witnesses should have declared their belief in them, that so many others should be profoundly interested in having the question determined, and yet the educated world, as a body, should still be simply in an attitude of incredulity.” This “attitude of incredulity” is resistant to facts and argument and is maintained aggressively in academia, the media and things like Wikipedia. It is a received view entrenched during the seventeenth-eighteenth century Enlightenment (so called). It is a scandal that is explored in all my novels, particularly the fourth, New Enlightenment.
Question: Do you think that all of these hypotheses floating around out there such as naturalistic determinism, anti-mind theories (there are many scientists stating that we don’t really have minds), illusions of self (by the likes of Metzinger), etc are desperate attempts by scientists to support reductionism?
John: Reductionism has its value within certain limits. But to try to apply reductionism as a method and attitude to everything, especially consciousness, is inappropriate, ridiculous. But most scientists are not good philosophers in evaluating what their basic assumptions and habits of thinking are, and so are engaged in “desperate attempts” to preserve their received reductionist, materialistic view, even at the price of betraying a truly objective scientific attitude. This is just as rife among the humanities, not only science.
Question: So what you’re saying is that to assume consciousness plays no role in the physical world is almost certainly wrong, but the degree to which it plays a role is still an open question?
John: I think it is an open question only to the extent of being a wide-open issue, ranging from some quantum physicists who maintain that consciousness is the substrate and creator of all physical reality to some academics who go as far as to deny consciousness. I would say that the latter, if they had some understanding of quantum mechanics, would admit error.
Question: A cognitive bias found in some closed-minded sceptics is the backfire effect, in which individuals challenged with evidence contradictory to their beliefs tend to reject the evidence and instead become an even firmer supporter of their initial belief. So is it fair to say that there will always be a hard core of closed-minded sceptics who will never accept the evidence for survival no matter what?
John: Several thinkers have pointed out that hard-core positions tend to disappear not through the conversion of their holders but simply because such people die out. Hopefully this will eventually happen in the case of close-minded sceptics. My second novel, Brief Authority, deals with this in particular.
Question: Should we pay attention this group of people?
John: I think that close-minded people hardly warrant attention; a closed mind is a closed mind. It tends to be a waste of time giving them attention, as some characters in my novels come to realise. The cast can only be broken, if at all, by some earthshaking personal experience, like a near-death experience, but not by argument.
Question: Having said that John, there are physicalist neuroscientists who don’t like the idea of an aspect of consciousness that exists independent of space-time, and isn’t based in the physiology of the body. They are pushing further and further, yet as their work gets better and more refined they keep confronting the hard problem of consciousness. People who don’t want to believe it are being pushed to accept it by their own data. This is now appearing from physics to medicine, however this still goes largely unnoticed. How do you see this unfolding?
John: I think it is being increasingly noticed, even in the odd snippet from New Scientist. One can think of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about the nature of scientific revolutions, which are changes in one paradigm or global thinking to another. The changes are resisted during a settled period of “normal science”, but anomalies start to accumulate which force some people to switch to a new paradigm. This tends not to be a wholly rational event but a kind of conversion, so one cannot make too many predictions about how and when an unfolding will take place.
Question: Paradigm shifts tend to be most dramatic in sciences that appear to be stable and mature, as in physics. How would the world react in your opinion if science itself declared there’s an afterlife, and that we all survive death regardless of our beliefs, and that our actions on earth reflect what will happen to us when we pass on, not what we believed?
John: I don’t think science as such “declares” anything, but scientists are a major contributor to world opinion, and the more scientists there are who come to the conclusion that there could be an afterlife, the more it will shift world opinion. Remember, though, that much (if not most) of world opinion actually does include the idea of an afterlife. The Western materialistic paradigm is a minority and hopefully transitory aberration seen against world history.
Question: Turning to the SPR for a moment. On standing down as president in 2007 you resumed the post of honorary secretary. Is indefatigable a word that you are familiar with, John? Isn’t this role just as demanding as president?
John: I think that what the SPR tries to develop and achieve is one of the most important things an open-minded person can be engaged in. To that extent one could see me as being indefatigable. The SPR employs a full-time (and very competent) secretary; the role of the hon. secretary is to oversee and support administration and to link administration with the Council. It’s a backroom job, so it’s different from the front-of-house position of president. I prefer it.
Question: It seems that in order for an organization such as the SPR to retain its scientific integrity, it must never take a position and forever remain on the fence. Is it possible for the SPR to ever take a stand and assert that there is strong evidence in favor of various psi phenomena, such as telepathy and survival? Certainly, researchers in other areas of science eventually come to some conclusion. Why, after 131 years, can’t the SPR take a stand? Why must it continually sit on the fence? It doesn’t have to say that something has been proven, but can’t it at least say that the evidence strongly suggests telepathy, survival, etc?
John: From its beginning the SPR has never taken a corporate view on anything, apart from the underlying view that psychical phenomena are worth studying and the results are worth publishing. It functions as a normal scientific and learned society, which issues publications, holds meetings, study days and conferences, maintains a library (including an on-line library), has an active website (www.spr.ac.uk), and provides research grants as far as its budget allows. The SPR Council is also taking steps to engage in the new social media revolution. But the Society is not in the propagandizing business to “take a stand”, any more that a physics society will take a stand about physics, unless perhaps there is some issue of malpractice. Certainly, individual members can (and do) “come to some conclusion” and “take a stand” if they see evidence pointing in some or other direction, and this is disseminated through the various publications, lectures and other activities of the Society. It is then over to the individual to decide whether the mountain of evidence for various psi phenomena presented in SPR publications and lectures is convincing; and as with any field of science, individual conclusions will be conflicting. This is not sitting “on the fence”; the function of any learned society is simply to try to safeguard and promote high standards of impartial research and scholarship in its field, as far as is humanly possible. No scientific society I know of makes ex cathedra pronouncements about the evidence in its field. As the first president of the Society, Henry Sidgwick, said in the inaugural address of 1882, “regarded as a Society, we are quite unpledged.” It is by this, and only this, that a learned society can “retain its scientific integrity”.
Question: For you, and as an ex-president of the SPR, what is the one piece of evidence that really does it for you? Or are you a person that needs all the evidence?
John: I got into psychical research through encounters with dowsers, who were able to gain information through means that physical science could not account for. Once I became convinced of mind acting as an independent and irreducible element, I was attracted to all the other fields of psychical research that gave a wide span of evidence.
Question: Staying with your SPR work John, I wanted to ask you about the Scole Experiment. In your opinion how close did Scole come to providing that all important scientific concrete evidence?
John: It looked most promising, but, so I gather, when some very experienced and sympathetic investigators drew up a new protocol that seemed likely to give reasonably “concrete evidence”, the sittings were terminated.
Question: Is the continuation of Scole in the form of the Norfolk experiments making headway in our search for the truth?
John: SPR members have been engaged in a “search for the truth” since the Society’s inception, and surely enough evidence has piled up regarding the existence of psi phenomena to appear convincing to any open-minded person, but I am not aware of any particularly outstanding experiments at the moment.
Question: How do you see the spiritual world? Does it interpenetrate ours with its matter vibrating at a range of frequencies different from ours, or do you see it through Whiteman’s eyes as existing in higher dimensions?
John: To me all options are open as to whether a “spiritual world” exists either as vibrating at different frequency ranges or as occurring in different dimensions. Maybe even both and neither – we haven’t the concepts to take a firm position.
Question: Who would you like to see take the leap into truly investigating what is not yet fully accepted by science?
John: There have been and presently are many notable people taking that leap. It is encouraging that an increasing number of people can be counted.
Question: Have you ever had any personal experiences of spirit contact?
John: Passing experiences, but I am not a psychic person.
Okay John, it’s that time again where we invite you to answer 10 questions in 60 seconds. Are you ready?
Q1: Be someone for a day; who are you and why?
John: I would prefer to be no-one, free from personality.
Q2: If you were allowed one magical power what would it be?
John: Get millions to read my novels. That would help a paradigm shift, I think.
Q3: If you could live at any time in history, when would it be?
John: Medieval times fascinate me, but I reckon now is best when I can engage in the materialism vs. spirituality conflict, and also engage in “normal science”.
Q4: Are parallel universes something you’ve considered before?
John: I don’t know what they would be.
Q5: What about the hot potato that is reincarnation?
John: The evidence shown by young children is quite convincing; I’ve seen it for myself.
Q6: There are 5 places at your dining table waiting for your fantasy guests to arrive. Who is on the guest list?
John: Plato (Socrates would be too disruptive), Whiteman, Schrödinger (of quantum-indeterminate cat fame), Smuts and Sidgwick.
Q7: Lead the conversation John, what do you chat about during your meal?
John: It would be about what Smuts called “the iron rule of the mechanistic regime” and how to neutralize it.
Q8: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
John: Be cautious about any advice.
Q9: In your view what is the greatest impediment to our spiritual growth?
John: Materialism (or matterism).
Q10: Please leave us with a thought of your own John without my direction.
John: All good wishes to those who have succeeded in reaching the end of this interview.
End of Interview
John, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us on Spirit Today. In my dealings with you I found you to be refreshingly frank and an inspiration to work with. Best wishes in all your future endeavours.
Professor John Poynton’s books can be found on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk as well as other reputable book outlets. They are also available in the ever-handy Kindle format too.