Rudolf H. Smit tells me that The Self Does Not Die, the excellent study of near-death experiences that he co-authored with Titus Rivas and Anny Dirven, is now available in a Kindle edition. I reviewed the book here.
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A new TV show, The Good Place, presents a quasi-spiritualist view of the afterlife. We are told that a very small, select number of the departed go to a paradisal community of spacious homes, green gardens, and frozen yogurt shops, while the vast majority end up in the terrifying nether regions. The Good Place bears some resemblances to the Summerland of spiritualist tradition – spirits of equal evolutionary development are drawn together, thoughts and feelings directly influence reality, much of the environment apparently consists of thought-forms, and everything is an idealized recreation of earthly life. The show's gimmick is that the main character, Eleanor, doesn't really belong in The Good Place at all, having been a pretty crappy person in her physical incarnation.
At first, the idea that only a minuscule percentage of humanity gets to enjoy a decent afterlife, while nearly all of us end up in damnation, didn't sit too well with me. Nor does it satisfy Eleanor, who argues – plausibly enough – that since most people are neither saintly nor awful but of medium quality, there ought to be a medium quality afterlife for them. Someplace like Cincinnati, she suggests.
However, even by the third episode, it's becoming clear that the situation is more complicated than it originally appeared. In some respects, the show is a sitcom version of Lost, in which an initially straightforward premise is developed in unpredictable ways. My guess is that The Good Place will not turn out to be quite as good as were told, while the bad place won't be nearly as bad.
Anyway, it's a clever idea with an appealing cast. I think it could use more laugh-out-loud moments, and some of the humor falls flat, but it's worth a look.
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I recently read Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book Unbroken, the story of World War II POW Louis Zamperini, whose bomber crashed in the Pacific, leaving him adrift on a life raft for over a month before he was captured by the Japanese and subjected to terrible abuse. Though his suffering was undoubtedly real, I suspect that Zamperini's story became considerably embellished over decades of retelling, especially after he rediscovered Christianity in a Billy Graham revival meeting and went on tour describing his experiences to eager crowds. Some of what he talks about just seems a little bit over the top.
For instance, he claims that the raft was strafed with machine gun fire from a Japanese bomber not once but five times – yet although the raft was peppered with bullets, neither he nor the other two men aboard received a scratch. He recounts epic battles with sharks that went on for hours, as the sharks became ever more crafty and aggressive, carrying out elaborate strategies to pluck the men from the raft. As a prisoner of war, he remembers having once been subjected to punishment in which he was punched in the face more than two hundred times in succession; I'm skeptical that anyone could live through that ordeal, much less recover without disfigurement or brain damage. My guess is that, as terrible as Louis's tribulations were, he felt the need to make his story even more dramatic each time he narrated it.
I mention this only to warn that his claims have to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, he does tell of an interesting experience aboard the raft, when he was so dehydrated and famished as to be on the verge of death. At this time, he says, he began to relive incidents from his life in astonishing detail, even incidents from his very early childhood that he had never previously recalled. One incident in particular involved his interaction with a dog when he was no more than two or three years old; he had never even remembered that dog before, since it had died when he was still a toddler. He witnessed this event from an impartial, third-person perspective, seeing himself as a small child and taking in every detail of his environment. Around the same time, he also had what would conventionally be called a hallucination in which, looking up at the sky, he saw ranks of angels and heard glorious, ethereal music. In general, the whole episode bears the hallmarks of a near-death experience – the life review, the encounter with the divine. Neither the author nor Louis makes this comparison, but it's obvious to anyone familiar with NDE literature.
In another life raft episode, while he and his one remaining companion lay languishing in the doldrums, Louis experienced an overpowering sense of the beauty and wonder of the physical world, which he saw suddenly as the handiwork of divine intelligence. Even the tormenting sharks now struck him as miraculous creatures of astonishing perfection. He felt no pain, hunger, or thirst, no desire to move, no unhappiness, just a complete sense of peace. Later, the memory of this event played a role in his religious conversion at the Billy Graham tent meeting. To me, his epiphany in the doldrums was strongly reminiscent of what Richard Maurice Bucke called an experience of "cosmic consciousness."
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In one of the comments threads, I mentioned that I was reading a book called An Atheist in Heaven, an account of apparent after-death communications on the part of Forrest J Ackerman, a well-known figure in the science fiction community. Some of these ADCs are pretty impressive, and the author, a long time friend of Ackerman named Paul Davids, went to the trouble of having some physical evidence subjected to elaborate scientific analysis. Unfortunately, I don't know if I'm going to finish the book, because the good evidence is outweighed by a mass of trivial coincidences. It appears that Davids decided his best course of action was to include everything – literally everything – that could possibly relate to the ADC phenomena, even down to the most minor and seemingly meaningless events. It's too bad, because there is a core of a very good book in here. This incidental material should have been either omitted or relegated to an addendum.
Still, for those who have a fond memory of Ackerman's magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, with its endless succession of terrible puns and cheesy horror movie photos, the book should provide a nostalgic smile. Amazingly enough, I even remember reading about an amateur movie contest sponsored by the magazine which the author entered; the title of his movie, Siegfried Saves Metropolis, had somehow stuck in my mind for more than forty years.
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Throughout the first half of 2016, I was under an unusual amount of stress, and when I look back now, I can see how it affected my thinking in unexpected ways. For one thing, my memory recall was way off. I had trouble remembering names, even very familiar ones – the names of classic movie stars, say. A name like Gary Cooper would elude me for hours. I found it difficult to concentrate. More than once I tried to read the Agatha Christie book Funerals Are Fatal, but I bogged down in the first four or five pages, finding it impossible to keep the characters straight as they were introduced. Even writing my own book, I would forget exactly what plot developments had already taken place or even the names of some of my characters!
My problems became so annoying that I tried to diagnose them. I'd read that Lyme disease can cause memory recall issues, and since I had a bull's-eye pattern on one leg that could be consistent with that illness, I decided to be tested for it. But the test came back negative. I wondered if maybe I was getting some kind of early onset dementia or if I was lacking some vital nutrient in my diet.
Eventually, however, the problem eased, and I can now see that stress itself was responsible. In fact, just recently I tried reading Funerals Are Fatal again, and though I still found the opening scene a little too exposition-heavy, I had no difficulty with it.
The episode reminded me of something I read in one of the Seth books by channeler Jane Roberts. I don't remember the exact source, but somewhere Seth says that conscious awareness varies much more from day to day and even from hour to hour than most people realize. To drive the point home, he temporarily adjusts the level of consciousness in Jane's husband, who reports feeling progressively foggier and more confused. This always struck me as an interesting idea. My guess is that we tend to remember the parts of the day when we are most alert, while forgetting other parts of the day when we are in more of a daze. I think it's likely that we spend much more of our daily activities on autopilot than we realize.
In any case, my experience drove home the close connection between mind and body. No, it doesn't follow that mind is reducible to an emergent phenomenon of physical processes, but it does suggest that there is continuing feedback between mental states and physical states, and that what we call "mind" is both more complex and more fragile than we ordinarily assume.