Not proof of anything, but pretty neat.
For a Thanksgiving Day treat, here's one of the best afterlife communication cases ever documented: the chess match between a living grandmaster and (purportedly) a deceased one!
As with my last post, I'm not going to summarize the case, since Miles Edward Allen has already done so (PDF). I'll just point out the two most striking features of this experiment.
First, of course, there's the fact that a living grandmaster ranked third in the world could find himself struggling to win a match against a channeled opponent. The medium knew only the rudiments of chess, while the researcher who organized the experiment was a good player but nowhere near the grandmaster level. So where did the channeled chess moves come from? As Allen observes,
Mind reading, even on a grand scale, can’t explain things.... Picking up impressions may be common, and discerning an occasional message from another’s mind is not unheard of, but no one has ever demonstrated an ability to learn a complex skill via telepathy.
Indeed, I'm unaware of any documented case in which a person was able to learn a difficult new skill through ESP. And the channeled chess moves were not merely of grandmaster quality; they were consistent with the style of play from the deceased player's heyday, a style that had become somewhat dated by the time the experiment was done.
Second, there's the wealth of personal information apparently communicated by the deceased. 85 verifiable items were recorded. Some of them were available in public records, but others could be confirmed only by combing through obscure archives or interviewing relatives. 70 hours of research on the part of an independent historian (who knew nothing of the paranormal aspects of the case) were required to track down these data. At the end, only two items (both trivial) were proved wrong; the rest were correct -- a success rate of more than 97%. And all these facts were relayed by the communicator in a single afternoon and evening.
Most impressive perhaps was the communicator's insistence that one of his opponents was named Romih, when all known records spelled the name Romi. Only by obtaining a program from the 1930 tournament was it established that, at that date, the player did in fact spell his name Romih (he later dropped the "h").
The combination of a powerful skill -- chess play at the grandmaster level - and a mass of verified personal information makes this case anything but a Thanksgiving turkey!
Another great case from The Survival Top 40 is the James Leininger reincarnation case. This story is sufficiently well known that I don't think I need to summarize it; anyway, Miles Edward Allen's excellent summary is readily available at this link (PDF).
Besides the strongly evidential value of James' statements about the plane he piloted, the ship he flew from, the names of his fallen comrades, etc., there are three aspects of the case that strike me as particularly interesting.
First, little James showed strong emotions when remembering his past life as a pilot. The whole episode began with James' nightmares, in which he struggled and screamed in bed. Whatever he was experiencing was obviously vivid and terrifying. Moreover, he showed flare-ups of righteous indignation that would seem more appropriate for a WWII flier than a two-year-old. As Miles Edward Allen recounts, when James identified his ship as the Natoma, his father replied that the name sounded Japanese. "Little James grew indignant and said no. It was American!" It's certainly credible that a patriotic serviceman would have that reaction; after all, it was the Japanese who shot him down. James, on the other hand, was probably too young to know or care about the Japanese through his own personal experience.
Second, James' description of the downed pilot, given while he was in the throes of his nightmare, was "Airplane crash! Plane on fire! Little man can't get out!" I don't know if this has been commented on by others, but I couldn't help wondering why James would describe the pilot as a "little man." After all, the pilot was a full-grown adult, considerably larger than James, a toddler. It occurred to me that the description would make sense if the pilot were viewed from a distance - that is, from an external vantage point. Looking down (say) on the struggling pilot in the cockpit, one might very well see him as a "little man." Such a perspective is commonly reported in NDEs and OBEs, when a person rises out of his body and looks down on himself from a height. There have also been reports of "dual consciousness" in such situations, where the person is simultaneously looking at his body from an external perspective and still experiencing the pain or anxiety of his physical body. If James was in fact remembering an event from a former life, it is possible that he was reliving the pilot's experience of separating from his dying body while still maintaining some connection to it. Naturally James was much too young to have been exposed to NDE literature or influenced by it.
Finally, the coda to Miles Edward Allen's summary connects neatly with accounts given by people who have been hypnotically regressed to remember a life between lives - that is, a spiritual existence bookended by earthly incarnations. Accurately describing a "big pink hotel" in Hawaii and his parents' romantic dinner on the beach, James said, "When I found you and Mommy, I knew you would be good to me." The dinner in question took place five weeks before James was conceived. Many life-between-lives subjects have stated that they were allowed to choose their next set of parents, and that they would look in on various couples before making a selection. Again, it seems impossible that a young child would know anything about this research, especially since his parents were committed Christians who rejected the very idea of reincarnation until James' own testimony eventually changed their minds.
To me, the evidential details supplied by James (exhaustively researched and confirmed by his father), in combination with his intense emotional connection to the memories, his arguably NDE-like description of the "little man" in his wrecked plane, and the similarity of James' last remark to life-between-lives testimony, add up to an especially powerful case.
It may be worth adding that the great majority of children who spontaneously recall a past life report that their previous incarnation ended suddenly, either by violence or a quickly fatal disease. Perhaps an unexpected death, one that the soul is not properly prepared for, is more likely to be recalled in the next incarnation, either because of lingering trauma or from a sense of unfinished business. James' story clearly fits this pattern; he remembers dying young, in combat, on the very last day before he was scheduled to ship home.
Having focused on some problems with mediumship and other afterlife evidence, and on the possibility that some of the evidence can be explained by sociological and psychological factors (such as mania) and by the influence of a collective unconscious constructing the desired phenomena, I now want to look at some of the strongest evidence, which seems to resist these explanations. A good place to find such evidence is The Survival Top 40, a website created by Miles Edward Allen, which lists many of the most compelling cases.
One of the better ones, currently #29 on the Top 40 list, is "The Rationalist Spirit." I'd suggest reading the detailed summary (PDF) provided by Miles Edward Allen; like all his summaries, it's well-written, clear, and gets directly to the point. Below I'll provide a briefer synopsis.
Alan Gauld, a longtime and highly respected parapsychological researcher, spent some time working with a home circle in Cambridgeshire, England, in 1959. While with the circle, he learned of a case from 1943 involving a drop-in communicator - someone with no known connection to anyone in the group. Fortunately, detailed records had been kept, including verbatim transcripts of the sessions, which were conducted with a "talking board" (a Ouija board or similar item).
The communicator in question identified himself as "Adolf Biedebmann," adding, "I always was known and called Gustav." In his first appearance, on January 4, 1943, he was hostile and insulting. The spirit control, "Peter," warned, "A little later I am going to let the eel through.... Humour him. Get to know him. We can then deal with him from here."
"Gustav" then took over the planchette, insinuating that he had impersonated "Raymond and a Doctor James" (presumably Raymond Lodge and William James) in an earlier session. When told that the group wanted to help him, he replied, "I do not want your help." The group said they were taught to help those who need it. "Wrong teaching," the spirit huffed. "I am not going to be bloody well pally [friendly] with you. Mind your own business. I did not come here to talk to you. Shut up."
He pretended to be a female spirit named Molly or Mollie - his spelling varied - but despite his insistence that they "mind [their] bloody business," the group quickly divined that he was male. "I was a man who always kept to himself," he added, inadvertently revealing his sex. "Damn," he commented when his slip was pointed out.
Religion was "bloody rot," he said. When asked to be reasonable, he replied, "Shut up. Buggar you.... Only Hitler can help. He is the master mind.... I knew Hitler." Claiming his nationality was German, he took credit for a sentence in German that was spelled out by the board in a previous sitting. He lived in London, at a house in Charnwood Lodge. By the end of the session, he seemed calmer and more friendly. "Peter" assured the group that "Gustav" was genuinely sorry for his rude behavior, adding, "And he is German."
Three days later, on January 7, an apologetic "Gustav" showed up, giving his "correct name" (a version of his name given in the earlier session was inaccurate). "I was a rationalist," he said. "A type of religion to follow only the reasoning of one's own mind. It puts a barrier around." That was partly why he had been lonely in the spirit realm. "I was turned seventy when I passed away," he said, going on to explain that his references to Hitler were intended "to hurt."
On February 4, he made another appearance. "I had my own business," he recalled. "In some remote way I am associated with the Lond[on] University." He said he'd passed over a year ago, and when asked if he was connected with publishing, made reference to the Rationalist Press.
Gauld, examining the case in 1959, discovered the existence of a Dr. Adolf Gustav Biedermann (only a slight variation on the name Biedebmann, which was presumably misspelled during the session). Miles Edward Allen summarizes:
[He] was a German-born, naturalized citizen of England who lived at Charnwood Lodge on the outskirts of London until he died at the age of 73. He was a fairly wealthy businessman who also worked in the Psychology Department at London University.
Those who knew Biedermann described him to Gauld as an arrogant, obstinate, and aggressive man who, nevertheless, could be a pleasant companion when one got to know him. He seemed to revel in his German heritage and never dropped his accent. One acquaintance portrayed him as "an out-and-out rationalist" who may well have been attached to the idea of Aryan superiority.
He was hostile to claims of telepathy, and to religion. In his will he left money to the Rationalist Press Association.
The case is strong for several reasons. First, the communicator matches up extremely well with the earthly Biedermann in terms of demeanor, beliefs, and personal history. Second, there was a clear progression from hostility to remorse and friendliness, suggesting the activity of a living mind, not a static bundle of memories. Third, no other communicator at this home circle ever behaved the way "Gustav" did; if the mental influence of the sitters or planchette operators had been responsible for the messages, we might expect to see other cases like this involving the same persons, but there were none. Fourth, the loneliness and confusion of "Gustav" dovetails with statements made through many channelers about the state of mind of spirits who hold a deep antipathy to spiritual values and a strong commitment to the ego.
The only question I would raise is whether either of the planchette operators could possibly have known of Biedermann during his lifetime and unconsciously recreated his personality, manipulating the planchette either through subtle, unintentional muscular movements or via PK. But this seems doubtful, given the absence of any motive on the part of the sitters to bring "Gustav" to the circle. And it is unlikely that a casual acquaintance could know such details as Biedermann's legacy to the Rationalist Press.
Yesterday I learned that there may be an effort by members of my condominium association to remove a tree that stands directly outside my unit. When I woke up today, the first thing I found myself thinking about was the tree. The more I thought about it, the more exercised I became. I could not stand the thought of losing the tree. I spent most of the day dwelling on the problem, envisioning various strategies to protect the tree, and considering fallback positions if the tree should in fact come down. I put in a work order to have some groundcover cleared away by the landscaping crew so as to determine whether the root system of the tree poses any threat to the sidewalk or nearby driveway. I called a tree surgeon to arrange an appointment so I could get an expert opinion on the health of the tree and whether it ought to be removed. I was so distracted by this problem that I found it difficult to work, even though I'm overburdened with projects at the moment and have several deadlines I'm trying to meet.
And then at some point in the evening, a little ray of clarity broke into the turbulence of my thoughts. I found myself thinking, What the hell, man? It's only a tree.
At that point, I was able to step outside of my emotional connection to the tree, my feeling that any attack on the tree was an attack on me personally, my egoic attachment to this tree which is an extension of my home and therefore an extension of myself. That's not to say I was suddenly okay with the prospect of the tree coming down, if it is in fact healthy and not posing a threat to the sidewalk, etc. But at least during this period of clarity I was no longer fuming and obsessing.
Later, I happened to look out the window at the tree, and the simple sight of it immediately brought back a lot of the rage, frustration, and exasperation I'd been feeling. I could easily have gotten caught up in another whirlwind of negative thinking if I hadn't consciously pull back.
What this little episode illustrates, I think, is a simple point that has been made often enough by Eckhart Tolle and similar writers, but remains insufficiently appreciated–namely, the ego is insane.
I mean this literally. There is a sane part of us, but it is not the ego. The ego is capable of lucidity when lucidity serves its self-defined interests. But it is equally capable of brazen irrationality when irrationality serves its perceived interests. It is also very adept at disguising irrationality and making it appear perfectly sensible, at least to ourselves, and sometimes to others.
The ego is not our friend. The ego is looking out only for itself. The ego wants to enlarge itself, and it does so by getting us worked up, angry, righteous, obsessed, vindictive, frustrated, and defensive, among many other things. Occasionally it may actually be beneficial for us to experience one or more of these states of mind, but most of the time it is not helpful. Not helpful to us, that is. It is very helpful to the ego.
It is true that most of us identify with the ego and have trouble drawing a distinction between the "I" and the ego. And that's just the way the ego likes it. The more we identify with it, the more power we give it and the less able we are to resist its siren song. People who are totally in the grip of the ego, without any ray of clarity from the higher self or true self, are psychotic. They may be walking around in public, they may be successful in their field, they may even be admired and envied, but they are still psychopaths.
It is entirely possible for a person to be very successful in a material sense, outwardly normal and even likable, and still be, in fact, insane. Actually, I think this state of affairs is more common than we like to admit.
But all of us have an ego, and all of us are insane to one extent or another. Maybe there are a few very enlightened gurus who have overcome the ego completely, though I wouldn't count on it. But the overwhelming majority of human beings on the earth, and probably every human being you or I will ever meet, is in the grip of the ego much of the time, and therefore is functionally insane for a good part of his or her life.
People wonder why they see so much cruelty in the world, so much craziness, so many examples of man's inhumanity to man. But if you consider that nearly all of us are insane at least part of the time, and many of us are insane most of the time, the cruelty, craziness, and inhumanity of the human species is less surprising. To be honest, it is a little surprising that things aren't even worse. The better angels of our nature do seem to temper our egoic tendencies more often than we might expect.
Lately on this blog, I've been talking a lot about manias, and specifically the idea that the heyday of Spiritualism as a cultural, social, and religious movement may have been characterized by an atmosphere of mania, or perhaps more accurately, by recurrent waves of mania erupting at different places in different times, not unlike the witch hysteria of an earlier era. But how can otherwise rational people become subject to any sort of mania? Well, perhaps they can't; but the trouble is, people are not “otherwise rational.” As creatures of the ego, they are insane for a good part of their lives, so it's not surprising that their individual insanity should sometimes coalesce into a group insanity, and that this insanity should seem perfectly reasonable to the people who are subject to it.
That's why I have to treat with skepticism even the most sober accounts of séances and other purportedly paranormal experiences if they were supplied by people whose rationality and objectivity had been compromised either by excessive personal enthusiasm or the larger insanity of a mass movement. These people were convinced that they had witnessed paranormal or supernatural phenomena of epochal importance. Naturally they became intensely committed to the reality of what they had seen. Their commitment was reinforced by sharing their experiences with others who felt they had seen the same things. This commitment became an extension of the ego, and any attack on that commitment–any questions raised about the validity of the phenomena–were felt as an attack on the ego. And the ego will go to astounding lengths to protect itself from such an attack. It will marshal all of its resources, including all of the intellectual capabilities of the mind it is using (and I do think the ego uses the mind, not in a symbiotic relationship but parasitically; the ego is, in a sense, an alien entity that clings to the mind in order to sustain itself).*
A mind that has been hijacked by the ego can believe itself to be entirely lucid, objective, even unusually perceptive–while spouting sheer nonsense. Some behavioral psychologists use the term “thought attack” to describe the cascading avalanche of irrational thoughts that can lead to severe anxiety, depression, violence, etc. But all ego-based thinking is a thought attack to some degree. And while we are caught up in it, we are no more able to extricate ourselves from our racing thoughts than from a descending mountainside of snow.
I think we need to keep this in mind when we evaluate any eyewitness accounts or recollections of paranormal events, especially those from the frenetic halcyon days when Spiritualism, like Revivalism before it, was burning like a prairie fire across the nation. Again I have to say: the ego is not our friend. It is not interested in truth or facts or even logic and reason, except as these may be used to serve its own purpose, which is to survive and grow stronger. The ego is not a reliable guide. It will intentionally mislead us if, by leading us astray, it can aggrandize itself. The ego is not honest or rational or moral, though it may speak in the language of reason and morality when it pleases.
The ego is really the devil in us all, the original sin that taints us. We ignore it at our own risk. And nowhere is this more true than when matters of ultimate spiritual significance–the nature of life and death, and the meaning of it all–are at stake.
*It's possible that the relationship orginally was symbiotic, i.e., mutually beneficial, but it does not seem to fit that description today. At the very least, the relationship seems to do much more harm than good in modern society.
Recently we've been discussing the possibility that the heyday of Spiritualism constituted a "mania," in which normally sober observers found their judgment impaired by what Alan Greenspan would call "irrational enthusiasm." While the very best research from that period was well-designed and difficult to refute, there are undeniably problems with other claims, reports, and observations. What follows is a grab-bag of items in no particular order - things I've noticed in my reading over the years. I also offer a brief counterpoint whenever it seems appropriate.
Spirit communicators offered conflicting statements on important subjects, most notably reincarnation. In the early years, there was little mention of reincarnation. After Madame Blavatsky popularized the idea of reincarnation through her Theosophy movement, mediums started talking about it a lot more. It's hard to resist the conclusion that the content of the mediums' messages, at least in this case, was influenced by what the sitters expected to hear.
Counterpoint: The greater part of the commuications was largely consistent, and this general consistency is found in more modern communications and in other afterlife evidence, such as near-death experiences and deathbed visions. Robert Crookall documented these consistencies in several books in the 1960s.
Spirit communicators made failed predictions, which were generally overly optimistic in nature. For instance, they predicted an era of universal peace and harmony following the First World War. Even during the buildup to the WWII they insisted there would not be another global conflict. They also predicted that the truth of Spiritualism would be universally acknowledged within 100 years and would be part of mainstream science.
Some of the people who analyzed the so-called "cross correspondences" became obsessed with the strange notion that a one of their number was destined to bear a son who would become a new messiah. This child was being "designed" by spirit entities to be a superior being, one who would lead the human race to a new era of peace. Though a child was born, he did not fulfill these expectations, though he did grow up to be a notably spiritual man who eventually became a Benedictine monk. The story is told here.
The spirit "controls" (i.e., spirit guides) exhibited many oddities, could not convincingly confirm their earthly existence, and often exhibited cartoonish or stereotyped behavior. More discussion here.
Dogmatism and credulity.
Some investigators seemed to become overly enthusiastic about their findings and exhibited dogmatism and credulity. James Hyslop, an early convert to belief in spirit communication and life after death, insisted that the case was proved beyond any doubt–clearly an overstatement. Arthur Conan Doyle was taken in by a number of fake mediums, notably the Davenport Brothers; he was fooled by obviously fake photographs taken by children in the "Cottingley fairies" case; and in one notable instance he insisted that Harry Houdini, the escape artist and famed debunker, must be a medium himself because only by dematerializing could he perform his escapes!
Some of the claims made by paranormal investigators of the time clash with our modern understanding of science. For instance, in his book Thirty Years Among the Dead (PDF), psychiatrist Carl Wickland tells how his wife's mediumship helped cure mentally ill patients by freeing them from obsessing spirits. But with everything we now know about the chemical basis for much of mental illness, how plausible is the spirit-obsession hypothesis?
It was not unusual for alleged spirit communicators themselves to provide incorrect scientific statements. Many of these involved "the ether"–the invisible substance then widely believed to pervade the universe and to serve as a transmission medium for electromagnetic waves. Today the ether has been generally discredited, although there are occasional attempts to bring it back in a modified form. Other inaccurate scientific statements are found in The Spirits' Book, a collection of spirit communications compiled by Allan Kardec. (Example, passage 46: "Do not the tissues of the human body and of animals contain the germs of a multitude of parasites, that only await for their development the occurrence of the putrid fermentation necessary to their life?" This appears to be an endorsement of spontaneous generation, a popular view of the time, but discredited today.) It's hard to trust "the spirits" if they don't know basic scientific facts.
Counterpoint: Science writer Norman Friedman believes that channeled information attributed to Seth, and found in the works of Jane Roberts, sheds valuable light on quantum mechanics.
Other channeled information included what appears to be clearly incorrect historical data. Edgar Cayce, for instance, made claims about the origins of the Bible and the circumstances and time periods in which it was written that would not be endorsed by any accredited biblical scholars today. His statements seem to be in line with what would be expected from someone with a layman's knowledge of the subject.
Counterpoint: Stephan A. Schwartz's work with psychics at archaeological digs has resulted in some impressive finds. Schwartz's work is meticulously recounted in his books, notably The Alexandria Project.
Some investigators accepted spirit photographs whose fakery is embarrassingly obvious today. Others were not deterred by photos taken during séances that showed clear signs of fraud. A notable instance was the case of Eva C., who supposedly had the ability to manifest spirit faces out of ectoplasm. Photographs make it clear that the spirit faces were drawings clipped from the newspaper. In one photo it is even possible to see part of the newspaper's masthead showing through the paper. Nevertheless, the investigator researching Eva C. refused to believe the spirit faces had been faked, because he did not think there was any flaw in his security protocols. Even today, there are people who defend the mediumship of Helen Duncan, despite the embarrassingly phony “spirit guide” that shows up in photos taken while she was supposedly entranced.
Helen Duncan and her materialized "spirit guide."
A large number of physical and materialization mediums were exposed as frauds. A common tactic was to tackle the materialized “spirit” in the middle of the séance and hold on to it until the lights came up, at which point the struggling figure would be revealed as the medium in disguise. Even mediums who were caught in such deceptions retained some followers. Florence Cook was caught at least once, and arguably twice*, by such a method, yet her principal investigator, William Crookes, never admitted she was anything less than genuine.
(*In the one debatable instance, the “spirit” wriggled free before the lights could be turned on; accounts differ as to whether Florence, when found in her cabinet, was securely tied to her chair as she should have been, or was only loosely tied, the knots obviously having been undone.)
Counterpoint: Some physical mediums held up under scrutiny. Despite a known penchant for cheating when she could get away with it, Eusapia Palladino impressed highly experienced and skeptical investigators at the Naples sittings in 1908. D.D. Home was never caught in fraud, and performed in lighted rooms under close observation.
Frequent messages from the spirit communicators indicated that Jesus Christ is effectively the leading light in the spirit world, a message that seems perhaps a bit too nicely calculated to appeal to the Judeo-Christian sensibilities of sitters and researchers.
Messages about the nature of the afterlife and the ultimate purpose of existence seemed to borrow liberally from Emanuel Swedenborg's writings, with one significant alteration. In Swedenborg's system, there is no continuing evolution of the soul after death; the soul migrates to whatever sphere is most suitable and stays there for eternity. Most of the Spiritualist mediums, on the other hand, stated that souls inhabit a given sphere only temporarily and are constantly moving onward in accordance with a universal law of spiritual progress. This idea of spiritual evolution seems to have been inspired by the fashionableness of Darwinian evolution, giving a more modern and progressive spin to Swedenborg's ideas. But if the descriptions were influenced by cultural and social trends, do they reflect a higher reality or only the assumptions of the mediums and sitters?
Some researchers continued to accept the validity of so-called slate writing–messages written in chalk on slate tablets in the pitch dark séance room–even after slate writing had been exposed as fraudulent many times. Admittedly these researchers took elaborate pains to guard against fraud. Nevertheless, the long history of fakery in slate writing and the need to place the slate out of sight during part of the performance should be enough to cast doubt on these claims.
Spiritualism was characterized, in part, by fantastic stories that seem to have been taken seriously by at least some of its adherents. For instance, there was the often-told story of the sudden “apport" of Mrs. Guppy, a 300-pound medium who allegedly appeared out of nowhere during another medium's séance. The claim was that Mrs. Guppy had been dematerialized from her home many miles away and rematerialized on the séance table. Stories like this did not help the credibility of the Spiritualist movement with the general public, and led many to see Spiritualists as gullible and silly. The acceptance of such unlikely claims by some of Spiritualism's enthusiasts may give credence to the idea that a mania was at work - though, again, there is a core of serious research that resists easy debunking.