My last post, concerning the effects of the hallucinogenic drug Salvia divinorum and its possible role as a portal to a different plane of reality, seems to lead logically to a larger question: What kind of existence do we inhabit? Salvia, after all, can cause terrifying descents into a nightmare world. Is this the true nature of things? Are we doomed to navigate a malevolent and irrational jungle? Is reality basically friendly to us … or unfriendly?
By "reality," I don't mean only the spacetime universe, but the whole shebang – every dimension, plane, and/or level of reality that exists. The whole show, the total picture. Is it ultimately a good place for us, or not so good?
Some might argue that it's entirely neutral. This I find unlikely. Almost everything in our experience has some value content, whether positive or negative, and the totality of our subjective experience at any given moment can be assessed in value-laden terms. It seems plausible that reality as a whole can also be assessed and evaluated as, on balance, either good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, rewarding or meaningless. Even if both aspects are present, as undoubtedly they are, the issue lies in determining which quality predominates.
Okay, then. First, here are some considerations in support of a basically unfriendly reality.
Earthly life – both human and animal – often entails pain and suffering. The world can be a cruel place.
People who've experimented with out-of-body experiences sometimes find themselves in disturbing and even nightmarish locales. If taken as ontologically real events, these trips suggest that other levels of reality are unpleasant or actually torturous. So-called alien abductions, which I take to be misinterpreted OBEs, are another example of frightening subjective experiences suggestive of malevolent extradimensional forces.
Even worse experiences have been reported by people who've taken psychogenic drugs. Nor can such "bad trips" be explained away as merely the incompetent experimentation of amateurs. Experienced practitioners, such as shamans on a vision quest, have been known to report terrifying visions.
Some near-death experiences feature either a terrifying void or a hellish environment populated by sadistic demons.
The dark side of the paranormal is sufficiently well recognized to have inspired many cultural taboos. People who've played with Ouija boards have reported disturbing consequences. Hauntings, poltergeists, and the low-level entities sometimes encountered in séances all indicate that some postmortem planes of reality are populated by undeveloped, mischievous, or outright malevolent beings.
This conclusion is also presented by some channeled literature, and by some messages purportedly received through electronic voice phenomena and other technology-based communication strategies.
On the face of it, the above seems like a pretty compelling collection of evidence, sufficient to show that the world is by no means a friendly place. If anything, the picture that emerges is darker even then the fatalism of arch-materialists who insist that the cosmos (which they equate with all of reality) is utterly indifferent to human life. Mere indifference would seem preferable to the hostility and madness encountered in some psychic experiments. And personal extinction might well seem preferable to an eternal existence in a bafflingly illogical, even insane paranormal realm.
Before we jump to conclusions, let's remind ourselves that we're not choosing between perfect goodness and perfect evil. No one doubts that our experiences constitute a mixture of good and bad elements. Again, the question is: What's the balance? Can the above phenomena be reconciled with a more positive view of reality?
I think they can. Here's the case for a basically friendly reality.
Although some NDEs are hellish, the vast majority are not. In fact, the overriding message of nearly all NDE's is exceedingly positive, focusing on love, forgiveness, acceptance, reunion with departed loved ones, encounters with advanced spiritual beings, and sojourns in a heavenly paradise.
This is equally true of mediumship and channeled literature. While the existence of lower realms is acknowledged, most after-death communications seem to originate in the "Summerland" environment popularized by the Spiritualist movement in the 19th century. Details vary, but the broad outlines of this idealized earthlike environment are pretty consistent. The inhabitants of Summerland present themselves as joyful and at peace. Furthermore, we are assured that the great majority of people (and even their pets) end up in this environment and not in lower realms, which are reserved for those handicapped by profoundly stunted moral and spiritual development. And even those spirits drawn to the lower realms are not doomed to stay there forever, but only until they recognize their true condition and improve themselves. Often this is as simple as realizing that they are actually dead, and then choosing to go into the light. In many cases their entrapment in the lower regions seems to be the result of willful stubbornness, a childish refusal to acknowledge the obvious facts of their situation.
Past-life regressions, especially those that claim to regress the patient to a stage between incarnations, also paint a broadly consistent picture of an orderly, beneficent system of personal growth. The suffering of earthly life is acknowledged, but treated as the price paid for spiritual evolution. Advancement results from facing adversity. In the absence of adversity, there can be no challenges and no incentive to improvement. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Most of us would probably agree that our greatest opportunities for personal growth came in those phases of life that were most challenging. That's when we find out what we're really made of.
Episodes of so-called "cosmic consciousness," as well as the mystical traditions of many cultures, point with near-unanimity to the conclusion that "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." For these mystical adepts, the ills and evils of life drop away to insignificance in the face of an overwhelming sense of the rightness of things.
We might also ask ourselves why we find NDEs, mediumship, and other controversial areas of research persuasive. I think for most of us, the answer is that the results obtained follow patterns that are reasonably consistent and predictable. Raymond Moody identified a number of key elements of the near-death experience in his groundbreaking book Life After Life, and it was the regularity of these elements, showing up again and again in experiences reported by people who had never heard of the phenomenon and had never met each other, that made these cases so compelling. The same is true when mediumistic accounts of the dying process from a hundred years ago match up with first-person accounts of the near death experience reported today. (See Greg Taylor's Stop Worrying: There Is Probably an Afterlife for an especially apt example.)
In contrast, divisions and hallucinations reported by people on psychogenic drugs are far less predictable and regularized. Certain types of imagery do tend to recur; in DMT trips, for instance, insectlike creatures are often seen, while smoking Salvia often leads to the perception that the world consists of blocky geometrical shapes. The metaphysical significance of these perceptions, which can vary depending on the particular chemical being ingested, is debatable. It is certainly arguable that this imagery results primarily from the disruption of certain neural pathways. The bottom line, for me, is that hallucinogenic drugs, when considered as a whole, generate a wide variety of subjective experiences, many (if not most) of which are clearly drawn from the user's subconscious mind. People who encounter Homer Simpson on an acid trip are not likely to be meeting an actual Homer Simpson who exists on another plane of reality. The sheer variety and sometimes ludicrous idiosyncrasies of these reports make them much less believable as real ontological experiences. If NDEs and mediumistic communications were as variegated and patternless as chemically induced experiences tend to be, we probably wouldn't put much faith in them.
Finally, we might consider cosmology's anthropic principle – the idea that the universe has been fine-tuned to allow for the emergence of life and consciousness. The fact that certain physical constants must be set within extraordinarily narrow parameters in order to allow for even the possibility of organic life forms suggests either that, as maverick astronomer Fred Hoyle phrased it, "the universe is a put-up job" and "a super intellect has monkeyed with physics," or that a virtually infinite number of universes exists, only a few of which are habitable. The latter point of view seems to multiply universes beyond necessity, violating Occam's razor. If the physical world has been designed to promote life and awareness, there is presumably a purpose to it all.
Given this list of positives, our previously listed negatives can be put into a new perspective. The pain of earthly life (which, by the way, is normally balanced to some extent by pleasure) can be seen as a small part of a larger plan and as serving a useful purpose in promoting spiritual growth. Lower-level entities and realms may be marginal at best, involving only a small segment of reality, most of which is far more benevolent. The terrifying visions brought on by psychogenic drugs may reflect a malfunction of the brain, a flood of subconscious imagery, or (if we insist that users are encountering another plane of reality) temporary access to some low-level spiritual realm – precisely the sort of murky, menacing region that the uninitiated are warned to avoid. (Hence the frequent cautions against fooling around with Ouija boards and violating other taboos.)
In short, while either of the two positions is defensible, I think the hypothesis of a basically friendly reality covers more of the available evidence. This is not to downplay the undoubted negatives that psychic explorers have encountered. But on balance, the negatives seem outweighed by the positives. The scale, I think, tips ultimately in favor of a benevolent reality (with a dark side), rather than a grim, despairing reality (with occasional deceptive glimmers of light).