“Bottoming Out the Universe: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing” by Richard Grossinger; Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont, 2020; 320 pages, paperback, $19.99.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I was watching a TV show about the paranormal. A no-nonsense scientist (I forget his field of expertise) set out to debunk claims about such things as ESP, telepathy, ghosts and (every skeptic’s favorite) telekinetic spoon-bending. He visited different places to demonstrate claims he presumed were either hoaxes, magic tricks or delusions. I remember thinking he seemed to believe that if he could debunk one paranormal claim, he had them all. But, in the interest of thoroughness he was investigating all the ones he could think of. This was not terribly good science, but anyway.

In one of his visits, he asked for permission to observe a séance, and the women who ran it agreed. He and his film crew attended the séance, in which he refused to participate. He explained the hard-core scientific reasoning behind this: If the activity in the séance was real, then it would occur with or without him. The women went on with their ritual, but you could see by the looks on their faces they were kind of chagrined because they knew his refusal to participate would probably derail the process. Needless to say, the séance derailed. The scientist chalked up another debunking victory for science.

He made no mention of one of the fundamental findings of quantum physics, mapped out in the 1920s and ’30s: The observer of a quantum experiment affects the outcome. Maybe the scientist omitted to mention this because it’s not exactly clear whether, or how, this effect holds in the macro world where we live. But to dismiss known possibilities because their mechanics are unknown is, well, kind of naive, to tell you the truth. Why can’t there be processes that require participation to work?

This story in a way illustrates the thesis of Richard Grossinger’s latest foray into the philosophy of consciousness and unexplained phenomena, “Bottoming Out the Universe: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing.” I call it a foray, but Grossinger, who lives in Portland, has spent his entire adult life as a well-known interpreter of what is superficially called the occult, or mysticism, or paranormal studies, or, in an almost useless use of the word, metaphysics. He has long had a bone to pick with scientists like the one sketched above, and “Bottoming Out the Universe” goes right to the marrow.

The book asks a central question of Grossinger’s whole philosophical life: What is consciousness? It replies first by observing that science has never been able to frame even an approach to investigating consciousness; some hard-core neuroscientific circles skip the question altogether by denying consciousness even exists – despite the fact that you are reading this. Second, the book provides an overview and summary of some of the principal approaches that do seem to provide clues. The main thread is reincarnation. Only Western materialist cultures view it as a religious delusion, Grossinger observes and goes on to provide detailed summaries of documented incidents, which anyone curious about the topic will find fascinating.


He frames the discussion with quotes and summaries from many scientific and philosophical commentators, with repeated emphasis on the famous Seth books, borne of the trance, or channeling, sessions conducted by Jane Roberts in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Grossinger’s take is that they evince a complex, coherent philosophy of how and why souls like us humans move around the cosmos.

The aim of the discussion is, in a way, to debunk the claims of science about things it has no way of knowing anything about, in particular consciousness and the afterlife. “Under science’s entitled takeover of the brain,” Grossinger says amid a summary of neuroscience’s complete failure to explain how activities inside the brain are linked to activities in the mind, “life is no longer an adventure or spiritual opportunity but a series of malfunctions in need of emendation.” The proponents of artificial intelligence similarly operate amid the same total failure to understand how the very system they seek to re-create works. “Consciousness is not computation,” he says, stating the point so simply and accurately that how the AI people miss it is mind-boggling. But they do.

Grossinger is not bound by the rhetorical conventions of modern philosophy. His prose is technical-sounding here, breezily anecdotal there, and still elsewhere poetic with awe, bewilderment, pique, frustration and a truly expansive sense of cosmic beauty. A recommender years ago called him “a pyrotechnic writer,” and this description is apt. Sometimes his metaphors and allusions take flight on wings of their own.

This has been true his whole writing life, including in books such as “The Night Sky,” “Planet Medicine,” several autobiographical works, and others like “Dark Pool of Light” and “Embryogenesis” which are more extensive technical delves into the soul and science. “Bottoming Out the Universe”  is a forceful overview of the parts of the cosmos where science fears to tread.

I’ll end this with a disclosing story. Richard Grossinger was my professor in an anthropology class called Magic, Science and Religion when I was a hapless freshman at the University of Maine at Portland-Gorham. When I contacted him a few years ago at his then-home in Southwest Harbor, he had no idea who I was. But I wanted him to know that seeds he had planted had grown me by twists and turns into a scholar of contemplative literature, and into writing a book about the night sky he might find interesting. He generously invited me to his home, and later I was able to contribute to one of his subsequent books published by North Atlantic Books, which he founded 50 years ago while living in Cape Elizabeth, my childhood hometown. There are, in fact, superluminal connections at the human level.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at universe@dwildepress.net.

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