Michael Whiteman, scientist, mystic, philosopher

John Poynton

Michael Whiteman was Emeritus Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. His work is unique in combining physics, psychical research, Eastern and Western mysticism, ancient and modern philosophy, depth psychology, and music. He treated the subjects with utmost rigor yet from the level of personal knowledge, having had a life-time of psychical and mystical experience.
Author of six books and several book chapters, articles, papers and editorials, he was able to integrate these fields in the unifying idea of ‘scientific mysticism’. He was critical of conventional scientific materialism, which is unwilling (or even incapable) of coming to grips with non-physical experience and life in worlds other than physical. His methods rested on observation, conceptual analysis and insight, in tune with Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology.[1] This aims at gaining face-to-face self-evidence, shedding the usual ‘cloak of ideas’. Science in Whiteman’s usage was not an exercise in theorising; he was a radical empiricist.


Joseph Hilary Michael Whiteman was born in London in November 1906. From Highgate School, London, he won a scholarship to Cambridge University between 1926 and 1929, where he obtained a first class in the mathematics tripos. In 1933 he became scholastic head of Staffords School in London’s Harrow Weald, where he met his musician wife.
The couple emigrated to South Africa in 1937. First appointed to the Diocesan College (Bishops) in Cape Town, in 1939 he was appointed a junior lecturer in the Department of Pure Mathematics at the University of Cape Town. He was active in music, and in 1941 took on editing The South African Music Teacher, a position he held for 55 years. He was awarded Trinity College diplomas in composition, also a B.Mus. at the University of South Africa in 1943. In the same year he was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Cape Town for a thesis on the foundations of mathematics.
After a spell as lecturer in music from 1944 to 1946 at Rhodes University, Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, he was appointed lecturer in the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town. He remained active in music, conducting his own piano concerto in the Cape Town City Hall with his wife as soloist. In 1947 he was awarded a M.Mus. by the University of Cape Town.
In 1962 he was appointed Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, and on his retirement in 1972 was given the title of Emeritus Associate Professor. He lectured on mysticism at the University of Cape Town’s Summer School, and conducted several study groups on mysticism, Sanskrit and related subjects. His first publication in the field of psychical experience was on angelic choirs in The Hibbert Journal of 1954 (reprinted in volume 3 of Old and New Evidence on the Meaning of Life.[2] ). It was a wide-ranging account of non-physical states in which music, mostly song or chanting, has been reported. Its importance was in ‘pointing to the unique source from which all wisdom and goodness springs.’
In 1956 he published his first paper in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research on out-of-body experience. He came to the attention of the newly-formed South African Society for Psychical Research, centred at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and was invited to give lectures there; he also took part in conferences on parapsychology held at the university in 1973 and 1980. The South African SPR awarded him the prestigious Marius Valkhoff Medal and elected him a vice-president of the Society. He joined the London-based Society for Psychical Research in 1953, and was elected an honorary life member in 1999. He also had close connections with the American SPR.
He developed a particular concern for what he saw as the miscarriage of justice arising from the failure of the judiciary to understand aspects of psychopathology connected with spiritual development. Two cases in particular, of adolescent girls charged with murder, prompted an engagement with legal processes and, largely, the writing of volume 2 of his Old and New Evidence on the Meaning of Life.[3]
A special correspondent to the Cape Times wrote in November 2006, “Michael Whiteman, mathematician, musician and mystic, turned 100 last week, but is far too busy with his music and his writing to think of dying.” Yet it all came to a sudden end in February, 2007, when he was found dead in his home by his daughter Sibyl, having suffered a heart attack.

Psychical and mystical experiences

Whiteman drew a distinction between ‘psychical’ and ‘mystical’ experience. The former includes the study of purportedly non-physical events, the latter extends to states that have a sense of higher significance and ultimates, openness to guidance, transformed being, and orientation to the perceived source of the Right and Good. His world-view was not the result of speculative theorising, but of direct observation combined with conceptual analysis. This is evident in his definition of mysticism in an early work, The Mystical Life[4]: ‘the study of everything non-physical, including the other worlds and their archetypal governance, as well as our spiritual bodies, the facts and their relationship being known by the self-evidence of direct observation and not by reasoning or speculation.’ Mysticism was taken to be fact-finding, not concerned with theorising or religious belief.
He recorded incipient out-of-body experiences as early as age five to six. He was not alarmed since he ‘perceived and understood intuitively the character of the situation and phenomena.’[4] A ‘major spiritual skill’ of recollection developed around the age of 20; a ‘great discovery’ came ‘when in following some music in the score I suddenly realised that there was a way of voluntarily holding some chosen sound conceptually in mind, so that a deeper, precisely characterised and liberating essence was revealed in it.’[3] Following this discovery of ‘essential insight’, ‘my chief aim became at once to liberate every kind of sensation in that way.’[3]
Development of insight was helped by a course in Pelmanism, which required the ability to ‘stop time’ in observation and reproduce each detail of an event in the memory ‘with its timeless conceptual-perceptual character.’[3] This developed a ‘power of timeless recall of particular sensations’ which he came to call Recollection. ‘The thought that was then borne in upon me with inescapable conviction was this: “I have never been awake before”.’[4]
A practice of ‘Active Recollection’ led to ‘the momentous discovery, essential for later spiritual development, that such a continuous and effortless kind of Recollection (Continuous Recollection) could be voluntarily induced. [The discovery] expanded into the awareness of a boundless whole whose details were known simultaneously, being open to exploration as on a map without losing primary contemplation of the whole. Time had become like space.’[3] The ‘spiritual skills’ of Recollection are discussed below.
Almost diagnostic of mystical experience is the overwhelming experience of light. One occasion Whiteman described:
Above and in front, yet in me, of me, and around, was the Glory of the Archetypal Light. Nothing can be more truly Light, since that Light makes all other light to be light; nor is it flat material light, but a creative light of Life itself, streaming forth in Love and Understanding, and forming all other lives out of its substance: a Light become Life not through addition to material light, but by the removal of the impurity of fixation.[4]
From an early age, Whiteman reported being aware of an inner femininity, which became established in separative (out-of-‘body’) states. In heightened states of separation, leading to ‘Mystical Form Liberation’, he noted that ‘Reports of mystics show that when a mystic is transformed as “Son” or “Daughter” it is not at all as a copy of the physical personality in appearance, but is usually of some age between about seven and fourteen, and may go back to shortly after birth. But the conviction will be that such bodily form truly represents the lasting core identity.’[2] In physical life he was unmistakably and exclusively male; to consider him bisexual or transgendered at a physical level would be a radically mistaken conflation, since what he described was existence in wholly different worlds of being and function. He repeatedly emphasised that an appearance as core identity in no way resembles the appearance of a physical personality.

Scientific Mysticism

The term ‘scientific mysticism’ appeared as a title in the trilogy, Old and New Evidence on the Meaning of Life. Volume One was entitled An Introduction to Scientific Mysticism.[5] He aimed to bring mysticism into the field of science as being ‘open-minded, rigorously tested, rationally coherent, and illuminating.’[5] As noted earlier, his definition of mysticism indicates empirical science, sharing territory with psychical research. The importance he attached to direct evidence was emphasised in the subtitle of his first book of 1961, The Mystical Life,[4] whose subtitle is An Outline of Its Nature and Teachings from the Evidence of Direct Experience. The word “evidence” also appears in the title of his three-volume series, Old and New Evidence on the Meaning of Life.[2,3,5] His methods rested on observation, conceptual analysis, and insight regarding what he termed ‘the inner constitution of nature.’ This is a phrase from the subtitle of his book, The Philosophy of Space and Time,[6] which was also subtitled A Phenomenological Study. Phenomenology was understood in Husserl’s sense, noted earlier.
A sixth book is titled Aphorisms on Spiritual Method: The “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” in the Light of Mystical Experience.[7] This is a unique presentation of the Sanskrit text with interlinear and idiomatic English translations and commentaries. Based on his wide knowledge of classical Indian languages, he recognised that the Sutras incorporated an abundance of Buddhist technical terms, a fact underplayed in standard translations made within the Hindu tradition. He showed close connections between thinking in the Sutras and Husserl’s phenomenology. The non-mystical, physical interpretation of passages in the Sutras and other ancient texts, as generally encountered in English translations, were rigorously criticised in his radically authentic treatment.
All this was linked to a ‘universal theology’ connecting Minoan, Vedic, Upanishadic, Buddhist, Hebrew, Pauline and Johannine mysticism as one coherent tradition. Later writings were considered to be corrupted by dogma and theory. To him theology simply meant ‘the application of the phenomenological method to our awareness of the Divine.’ So, ‘the word “God” must be taken to stand for Archetypal Reason in all.’[2]

Potentiality and actualisation
A key to Whiteman’s scientific mysticism is the idea of potentiality and actualisation. It had been developed by the physicist Werner Heisenberg[8]. Behind a physical event one has to recognise what Heisenberg called ‘an objective tendency or possibility, a “potentia” in the sense of Aristotelian philosophy.’ For Whiteman the term ‘reality’ could apply only to underlying reason, potentiality, not to appearances, to actualisation. Appearances are manifested only on an occasion of observation, when all potentialities—from the universal to the individual—are integrated to produce a unique actualisation. The state of the observer is itself part of the potentiality governing any appearances, so the process of actualisation will be different for different people.
Whiteman believed the potentiality-actualisation principle operates in the mental sphere of every individual: thought and images are actualisations in the consciousness of an individual’s ‘thought-image sphere’, as he called it, which includes memory and imagination.[5] He saw telepathy to result from the interaction or resonance between the thought-image spheres of individuals; the interaction is not actualised at the physical level and so transfer of information occurs independently of physical space and time. Clairvoyance is resonance between the potentiality-sphere of a physical object or event and the thought-image sphere of an individual, resulting in the actualisation of impressions in the individual’s thought-image sphere. Once again, resonance or interaction happens independently of physical space and time, as there is no physical actualisation. Psychokinesis may be regarded as a reverse clairvoyant interaction; potentialities usually linked in some way to an individual result in physical actualisations.
Whiteman saw precognition as actualisation in an individual’s thought-image sphere of potentiality-fields that may affect future physical events. The individual may even intervene in the physical actualisation of these events by altering the potentiality-fields, and so allow prevention of a precognised event from happening.[5] Even if potentiality-fields are time-ordering, resulting in a succession of events actualised in the physical world, the ordering is not fixed in the way a road map is fixed. They are accessible in states of physical detachment, and so allow limited alteration and the exercise of free will.

Out-of-body experience
Whiteman defined mysticism as ‘the study of everything non-physical, including the other worlds ...’ As just discussed, potentiality-fields have the capacity to deliver different spaces or worlds of physical and non-physical actuality, depending on the state of the observer. So, ‘The difference between one “world” and another then depends upon the state of life in which the observer happens to be settled.’[2]
Direct experience of ‘the other worlds’ occurs mainly in out-of-body experience, which Whiteman preferred to term separative experience, since there is usually awareness of a body of some kind. The commonest type he termed ‘primary separation’, in which there is no awareness in the physical body, even though what appears to be the physical body can be viewed. In ‘secondary separation’ the physical body is under some degree of conscious control, but principal awareness is in another organism seemingly not located in the space of the physical body. In ‘tertiary separation’ the physical body is normally under complete control, but there is full awareness of being in a different bodily form despite the locations of the two bodies seeming to be superimposed. Difference between the two bodies may be radical, such as one being male and the other female. For Whiteman the highest mystical experiences were generally of this type, noted earlier as ‘Mystical Form Liberation’.
In separative experience he saw a need ‘to distinguish between what is deceptive or illusory and what has the quality of face-to-face objectivity and truth which we describe by saying that a thing is real.’[5] This requires setting up a numerical scale, which he called a General Index of Reality. This index covers a range from ordinary dreaming (zero rating) to what is experienced as spiritually releasing with a high degree of reality, namely mystical experience (high rating). Features scoring in the Index include continuity of memory between physical and non-physical experience, free observation, ability to compare physical and non-physical states accurately, awareness of substance and tangibility, communication of thought with others, and a feeling of transcendence of physical life.
The General Index does not include claims of observing physical things during a separative experience. Regarded by most people as being veridical, these observations could have been made by clairvoyance or remote viewing, and do not necessarily mean that something somehow separated from the physical body to make the observation. As Whiteman stated, any claimed physical supporting evidence merely has ‘chiefly propaganda value for the uninformed or sceptical, who do not realise that separation is not established by them, but who may thereby be induced to accept the “interior” testimony as having some bearing on “scientific fact”.’[5]
Whiteman’s Index might seem of limited value to standard parapsychology, where a useful scoring system would identify experiences that rate better than dream, hallucination or some form of pathology. In Whiteman’s Index the direction of ranking is towards mystical experience, which is hardly looked for in parapsychology, even shied away from. The order of ranking is: undeveloped, borderline, psychical, pre-mystical, mystical. Out of a possible sixteen points, experiences reaching six to eight points rank as ‘psychical separations’, scoring on criteria listed two paragraphs above. Further requirements of ‘mystical’ rank were noted earlier, and demarcate ‘mystical’ from ‘psychical’. Yet in the eyes of a physically-fixated investigator, the mystical requirements would indicate reduced reality rating, since ‘reality’ means ‘like physical experience.’ For Whiteman this was a cardinal error; higher reality means ‘unlike physical experience’.

Other spaces
All separative experience, physical-like or transformative, was considered by Whiteman to occur in spaces other than physical. They are often so similar to what is presented physically that they are mistaken for the physical. ‘Duplicate physical’ space, he called it. He wrote, ‘if one is taken into a “psychic” space when not familiar with such states, or with fixed ideas about them, and if the phenomena resemble physical ones closely ... there may be a strong persuasion to think that the objects are being observed physically; and this applies even to possible duplicate presentations of the observer’s physical body in its actual situation.’[5]
‘Fixed ideas’ assume there is only one ‘real’ space that can be manifested, namely the physical world. A fixed idea will contribute to the potentialities governing a separative experience, and lead to the actualisation of a physical-like ‘duplicate’ scene. Yet for someone free of the constraints of one-level thinking, Whiteman wrote of an ‘inexhaustible variety’ of appearance in other spaces. The highest lead to ‘perfectly acceptable forms of transcendent unified beauty,’ where ‘the surroundings, correspondingly, are distinguished by the quality of the light, and gain in intelligible character, perfection of beauty, depth of glowing heart quality, unitive freedom and sense of blending with other minds, as the highest condition, which is that of Mystical Form Liberation, is approached.’ In these descriptions, Whiteman states, ‘“I” and “me” do not stand for the familiar consciousness of self in the physical personality, or, in fact, for anything that can be known in an ordinary physical state of mind. To understand what is meant, the characteristics of the merged ordinary self must be ruled out.’[4]

Skills, cycles
We cannot achieve a heightened spiritual state, Whiteman believed, ‘without psychological and spiritual faculties of attention, judgement, purposiveness and self-discipline’, based on three ‘foundational skills’ named Active Recollection, Continuous Recollection, and Faith + Obedience[5].
Active Recollection aims to recall or recover the essence in what is perceived, ‘and thus the attainment of objective insight and release.’[5] Husserl termed it the phenomenological epoché or stoppage, ‘the necessary operation which renders pure consciousness accessible to us.’[1] It is termed samādhi or sati in Indian literature.[5] Continuous Recollection is ‘the freely stabilised ground of release at which Active Recollection has been aiming.’[5] Obedience is not a state of subservience but orientation to ‘the transcendent Source of Right and Good.’[5] It operates in conjunction with Faith in this transcendence.
The skills are structured into a four-part system known since ancient times and appearing in modern contexts in learning theory, Freud and Jung. Described as the four creative functions, these are ‘purposive drive, deciding on means, putting into practice, and a virtually secret maturing of one’s skills in consequence.’[2] In ancient texts they are represented as four stages in the passage of the sun, rising in the east, zenith in the south, down to earth in the west, and underground in the north[2,5]. This corresponds with aspiration (E), assessment (S), action or manifestation (W), fulfilment or non-attachment (N); it also corresponds respectively with Faith, Obedience, Active Recollection, Continuous Recollection.[5]
He placed great importance on identifying opposites or ‘counterfeits’ to this psychological cycle, namely self-will, self-satisfaction, automaticity, complacency, which may lead to a corresponding cycle of ‘stresses’ of death-feeling, shame, pain, fear. Correction involves ‘inner contests’ between helpful and harmful impulses. These were recognised as essential for spiritual growth, although fraught with turmoil. Growth of personality was not thought possible without them.

The structure of personality
Personality was regarded as being in the realm of potentiality, actualising physically as behaviour. His own experience and classical Indian texts led him to believe that personality has a corporate structure, centred round a largely unrecognised ‘core identity’. It falls under influence of various ‘contributory minds’, also largely unrecognised in ordinary life. It is the task of the individual to have knowledge and command of these minds, and to discern his/her core identity as the origin of inmost disposition. The skills discussed above play a vitally important role in this task of self-exploration and overcoming the limiting fixations and attachments of ordinary life.
Personality as a corporate structure can survive physical death, Whiteman considered, being composed of imperishable minds; but sooner or later the structure disintegrates. Fragments, either the core identity or contributory minds, may re-enter physical life, either as ‘strict reincarnation’ in the case of core identity, or ‘loose incarnation’ in the case of a contributory mind.[5] They can carry memories of a former life, which suggests ‘past life recall’. But Whiteman recognised alternatives to reincarnation interpretations: other entanglements of minds, such as retrocognition and psychometry, do not entail memory of successive lives assumed by reincarnation.[5]
In his search for underlying logic and universality, Whiteman converted his ‘psychological’ cycle into a sixteen-fold number system, with the aim of integrating it with a ‘physical’ sixteen-fold number system derived from three space and three time dimensions. From combining these number systems he intended to provide ‘a clear-cut explanatory system ... as, for instance, the basic laws of mechanics are exhibited before any problems are tackled.’[3] The result was highly complex and its usefulness in psychology is still to be explored.[9] The correspondences, however, satisfied his view that to explain what we experience is to

admit a subjective cycle, such as mystics, many theologians, and some psychologists have admitted. This cycle, in its most complete form is sixteenfold, and parallels exactly what may be called the “world cycle” (as it appears in Quantum Field Theory) in every way, while manifesting itself in every kind of human experience. This is a form of potentiality which is discernible, and indeed can be lived by the individual in an enormous variety of “altered states of consciousness”.[2]

Scientific mysticism was a revolutionary attempt to discern and characterise this potentiality. Whiteman was confident that mind has this ability, able to discover underlying reason and meaning in life. He was convinced that behind any particular observation there is an intelligible structure ‘operative in and analysable out of the total experience.’[6] He did not accept Kant’s idea of the unknowability of things-in-themselves. Instead, we can attain ‘intellectual or perceptual knowledge which transcends in a certain clear and unmistakable way the onward urge of time, the rigid apartness of spatial objects, and the apparent isolation of the individual mind in its state of fixation on bodily impressions. It is a state of release. Fixation being overcome, the mind opens out into universality.’[6]


1.  Husserl, E. (1931). Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson). London: Allen & Unwin.
2.  Whiteman, J.H.M. (2006). Old and New Evidence on the Meaning of Life: the mystical world-view and inner contest. Volume 3 Universal Theology and Life in other Worlds. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe.
3.  Whiteman, J.H.M. (2000). Old and New Evidence on the Meaning of Life: the mystical world-view and inner contest. Volume 2 Dynamics of Spiritual Development. Gerrards Cross: Colim Smythe.
4.  Whiteman, J.H.M. (1961). The Mystical Life. London: Faber and Faber.
5.  Whiteman, J.H.M. (1986). Old and New Evidence on the Meaning of Life: the mystical world-view and inner contest. Volume 1 An Introduction to Scientific Mysticism. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe.
6.  Whiteman, J.H.M. (1967). Philosophy of Space and Time and the Inner Constitution of Nature: a phenomenological study. London: Allen and Unwin.
7.  Whiteman, J.H.M. (1993). Aphorisms on Spiritual Method: the ‘Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’ in the light of mystical experience. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe.
8.  Heisenberg, W. (1959). Physics and Philosophy: the revolution in modern science. London: Allen and Unwin.
9.  Poynton, J. (2015). Science, Mysticism and Psychical Research: The Revolutionary Synthesis of Michael Whiteman. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Professor  John Poynton, Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University  of KwaZulu-Natal and a Scientific Research Associate of London’s Natural History Museum, has recently (2015)  had a book published  by Cambridge Scholars Publishing on Professor Whiteman’s work. The title is: Science, Mysticism and Psychical Research: The Revolutionary Synthesis of Michael Whiteman.

Part One is about the experience of states, spaces, and worlds other than physical. It provides essential groundwork for understanding the psychical and mystical. Whiteman's own experience is combined with evidence ranging from one quantum mechanics to the Upanishads.

Part Two centres on two murder cases that Whiteman studied, as an entry to the concept of the corporate structure of personality and the workings of the mind in personal development.

Part Three covers his analysis of ancient texts based on his understanding as a mystic. His interpretations differ radically from standard treatments.

Part Four investigates his exploration of non-physical existence.

Part Five considers the mystical life, including Whiteman's own, and how it relates to physical laws. The book concludes with a brief biography.


"Michael Whiteman was an original thinker with a uniquely diversified life. To summarize Whiteman's thought and life is tantamount to capturing a rare tropical bird, but John Poynton has risen to the task. Whiteman lived for over a century, yet his books and essays are more relevant in this millennium than they were when he wrote them. Ranging from mathematical physics to psychical research, and plumbing the depths of mystical experience, archetypes, and bisexuality, Whiteman wove a remarkable synthesis of East and West, science and spirituality, and male and female into a seamless fabric that cannot help but entrap and enrapture its reader"

Stanley Krippner, PhD, Alan Watts Professor of Psychology, Saybrook University


To order this book visit: www.cambridgescholars.com

• Home • Aphorisms on Spiritual Method • The Meaning of Life • Dynamics of Spiritual Development • Previous Papers • Place your Book Order Here •