Correspondence with Andrew Powell

Email from Tom McLeish
Dear All

Perhaps a brief comment on reductionism, following this fascinating conversation, – I have become increasingly of the view that this isn’t so much a philosophy as an empirically testable statement about the universe we live in. I can imagine, in other words, worlds in which all causal agency was located in a single, low-lying level of ‘atomistic’ variables, and other worlds in which this was not true, but where there were much higher level variables, causally active, and not reducible to lower level ones. The question then becomes which set of possible worlds ours belongs to?

The existence of long rang topological order in both quantum and classical physics (or our world) identifies non-reducible high level causal powers as far as I can see. Note that this is a statement and a methodology situated within science, not outside it

Best wishes


Email from Iain McGilchrist 03 December 2016 11:06
Dear Natalie,

Thank you for your very gracious response. I am absolutely with you that we need exploration, not certainty, dialogue, not monologue, other perspectives as well as our own. And I do not think that giving due importance to the brain, or to the body more generally, leads to reductionism. I believe that in my own work I have shown how understanding the brain, not as the cause of consciousness (although an answer to this question is not necessary in order to understand my thesis – in fact I believe it is a question that is itself founded on an error), but as, at least, the conduit of our own version of consciousness, may lead us out of reductionism. Indeed I feel that mainstream scientists often do not honour the body enough, seeing it as perhaps a sort of rather clever machine, rather than, as Blake (and many others) understood, a radiant aspect of the soul.

With kindest regards,


Email from Natalie Tobert
Dear Colleagues

Thank you all for your comments and insights. I am aware that this is a time of multiple insights and multiple truths. There appears to be no singular truth, and a weaker polarity from holding dual beliefs.

It seems to me one way forward is by acknowledging multiple perspectives.

For myself, and from my discipline of medical anthropology, I perceive many different understandings of consciousness and mental health.

In the two pages I wrote for this exercise, perhaps my perceptions came across in rather a concise manner. In the new book just published on “Cultural Perspectives on Mental Well Being” my arguments are more rounded, evidenced, and expanded.

During the first part I present historical examples whereby society and specific governments decide on a particular set of beliefs around morality, health, and well being. Then they agree laws based on consensus. Decades later they change their minds, and apologise to the people who they felt were wronged (or criminalised). They make a cultural U-turn.
The second part evaluates examples of altered states of consciousness from many different parts of the world: deliberate access, spontaneous benevolent, and spontaneous negative. It also presents material on death, dying and beyond, suggesting people’s beliefs about survival or consciousness after death may influence their beliefs about mental health.
In the last few chapters, I explore the dissonance between mainstream press and social media regarding peoples’ experience of mental ill health and extreme spiritual experiences (the terms depending on our own perspectives and training).
Then I propose that some people who spontaneously tap into a non-local realm of consciousness may not have a framework for understanding, may become distressed and confused, and may be pathologised. I present new initiatives by psychiatrists and psychologists for responding to extreme experiences. I suggest it is time for another cultural U-turn.
I appreciate both Iain and Andrew’s comments, and also the need to be respectful of those who have a particular training or mindset. I believe we cannot move forward in polarity. Truth and Reconciliation was proposed by a group of psychiatrists and psychologists, to acknowledge different perspectives, rather than prove one side right or wrong. I was invited to participate.

Currently some psychiatrists and psychologists in the western world are supporting distress with an Open Dialogue approach (which is an ancient practice in parts of Africa). I offer training on cultural perspectives on their programme. However, I am acutely aware medical and healthcare staff of all grades who complete this training, go back to their departments, and may experience dissonance with their colleagues regarding clinical practice.

It is my belief that as long as there are humans on earth, and there is human suffering, then there is a role for psychiatrists and psychologists to address suffering. Iain it seems that our theories of causation are different, I honour the work you do, and I also honour other perspectives. To move forwards, I consider we need to hear each of our perspectives, and so many more.

with kind regards Natalie

Email from Andrew Powell 02/12/2016 12:57
Dear David,

As I mentioned previously, other commitments at this time preclude a more detailed reply, but I want to say that I do appreciate the many responses so far, including both Natalie’s and contributions.

Since starting the Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists 16 years ago, I have seen growing interest in the field, not at the level of philosophical discourse but simply about how best to respond to people in distress where the spiritual dimension is vital to their progress and recovery. One in six British psychiatrists are now members of the group and our recent conference ‘Hallucinations and Spiritual Experience: Voices, Visions and Revelations’ with more than 200 registrants was oversubscribed.

At the same time, there are other psychiatrists who see our work as endangering the credibility of psychiatry as a scientific discipline. The one-third rule seems to apply here as so often elsewhere in life: one third sympathetic, one third sceptical and one third open to becoming at least interested!

In line with eloquent and reasoned argument, we have always taken care to be respectful of our colleagues who take a biological approach to mental illness. It is sometimes true (even thought mostly not so) that the problem is with the brain rather than the mind. In any event, there is no point in argument since, as with Newton’s third law of motion, it merely engenders a reactive force equal in size and opposite in direction.

It is true that many in our interest group do feel very frustrated sometimes by a system of healthcare that is so set in its ways – and geared to such a dated scientific perspective. Here I can appreciate much of Natalie’s impassioned response. The question is what to do about it, when ‘bottom up’ simply refuses to meet with ‘top down’. I have been reading Huston Smith of late, who puts it very simply: the greater can never be fully revealed by the lesser. However, no one can be compelled to see what he/she doesn’t wish to see, not least when ‘greater’ is the transcendent – the mysterium tremendum – and invisible unless seen through the eye of humility.

As I have tried to underline in the talks I have given over the years to the SMN, however we may try to make our case, we must make it in a loving way. We need to love (with the wisdom of the soul) those who hold a different position (although we don’t need to love their ideas!) and never more so than when our work is being derided.

It is also important not to make it a matter of ‘winning’ the worldview, or anything else for that matter. We do what we can and leave the rest to take its course. Striving for a given outcome puts us in competition for other strivings and other outcomes – and we are back to Newton’s third law of motion! We can only be exemplars of open-mindedness in our quest to restore the sacred to its rightful place, and invite others to see what we are doing. Some will join us, and others won’t. It was ever thus.

The outcome will be perfect, perfectly suited, that is, to the stage of evolution of the consciousness of our species. If we help to raise the level a little with our efforts, well and good. If humanity is heading for disaster and nothing can stop it from happening, the universe will doubtless continue to manifest consciousness in sentient life forms elsewhere! This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try our very best while remembering meantime, as in the words of the song, ‘que sera sera’.

I’ll attach a short paper I gave at the above-mentioned conference on Hallucinations that you may enjoy. Anomalous perceptions are alive and well, and show no signs of being deterred by the culture of material realism that currently prevails.

With warmest good wishes,


The Healing Potential of Anomalous Perceptual Experiences – Dr. Andrew Powell