The surge was suggested as a possible naturalistic explanation of the near-death experience. Some NDE researchers countered that the electrical surge was so extremely minute (too small to be detected by a standard EEG) that it could not account for the complexity of the subjective experience reported by patients.
Recently a reader sent me two more studies on same subject. The first article, "Asphyxia-activated corticocardiac signaling accelerates onset of cardiac arrest," was originally published in 2015. Its findings:
Asphyxia stimulates a robust and sustained increase of functional and effective cortical connectivity, an immediate increase in cortical release of a large set of neurotransmitters, and a delayed activation of corticocardiac functional and effective connectivity that persists until the onset of ventricular fibrillation.... These results demonstrate that asphyxia activates a brainstorm, which accelerates premature death of the heart and the brain.
The second article, "Neural Correlates of Consciousness at Near-Electrocerebral Silence in an Asphyxial Cardiac Arrest Model," appeared in April of 2017. It concludes:
In summary, we found asphyxial CA [= cardiac arrest] to induce a period of near-electrocerebral silence that was marked by hypersynchrony in the frontal lobes and increased power in the visual cortices, which suggests potential markers of consciousness.
The material in both cases gets very technical, as would be expected of articles written by and for neuroscientists.
My first reaction is that the electrical activity reported still seems to be extremely minimal and restricted to narrow bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. This would (I think) make it hard to account for the persistence of consciousness according to currently accepted models of brain functioning, which posit widespread "global" information processing. In addition, the surge is very brief, yet some NDEs take place considerably later and last longer (as estimated by patients' veridical observations).
These points were part of the rebuttal offered by Bruce Greyson, Edward F. Kelly, and W.J. Ross Dunseath after the earlier rat study was published:
[T]he activity observed following cardiac arrest represents a tiny fraction of the total neuroelectric power present just before arrest ..., and thus it is misleading to describe these rat brains as being “hyperaroused.” All that can be concluded is that activity of unknown functional significance occurred at a few places in the EEG frequency spectrum in the context of near-total obliteration of activity accompanying the waking state. The pertinent question here is not whether there is any brain electrical activity at all after cardiac arrest, but whether there is activity of the type currently thought to be necessary for conscious experience....
[M]any reports of near-death experiences include verifiable perceptions by the experiencer that are anchored to specific time periods far longer than 30 s after cardiac arrest, the duration of the electrical surge in this study.
There was also a response by Robert Mays, who, like Greyson et al., argued that the electrical activity post-cardiac arrest was too small to account for consciousness.
The original researchers responded forcefully to Greyson et al. in this letter.
I think the NDE researchers' objections would apply to the new studies also. But I'm no expert, and perhaps there is something new in these papers, so I'm putting them out there to see if anyone more knowledgeable than I am in matters of neuroscience would like to comment.
I've been reading Near Death in the ICU, by Laurin Bellg, MD, and finding a lot of fascinating material in it. But before I present some examples, I need to offer a caveat. At the beginning, the author says she has done her best to conceal the identities of the patients and family members in the stories told here. That's understandable, but she goes on to say that in some cases she has even created composite stories based on two or more episodes blended together.
I'm not entirely happy about that approach, since it necessarily means blurring the details of individual accounts and suggesting a more elaborate experience than any one person may have reported. Personally, I think that when it comes to NDE accounts, composites should be avoided and the details should be changed as little as possible.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of good stuff here, and I have no reason to doubt the general accuracy of what's being reported. Much of it is consistent with other NDE accounts, but told from a fresh perspective.
One common thread involves seeing a spiritual being (or more than one) in the form of a glowing point of light or a luminous orb. Another feature in common in several accounts is the patient's relocation to an ethereal space of perfect peace.
Here is an excerpt from the account of someone identified only as Dr. John, which includes both details:
His next awareness found him completely and peacefully enveloped in what he could only describe as a soft shroud of mist with tiny points of light blinking in and out, as they darted quickly back and forth all around him. He felt completely weightless and peaceful, void of any fear. The feeling of love was immense, almost unbearable, and recalling it now, Dr. John’s voice became fragile as he paused to fight back tears.
Regaining his composure, after a few moments he continued. He described floating in such a beautiful and bright place of total peace that he lost all thoughts and concerns related to anything connected to his physical existence. He was aware of nothing except how good it felt to be there where he was – wherever that was. How long he lingered in this space he could not say because time had immediately lost meaning for him.
Out-of-body experiences feature in many of the accounts, and in some cases veridical observations are reported. I've already mentioned the next NDE in a book review of another book, The Self Does Not Die. Here is part of the story:
Howard started from the beginning and gave us a play-by-play of his experience. He recounted that at some point, he didn’t know when, he felt more than heard an intense, escalating buzzing. Not long afterward he experienced the sensation of shooting out of the top of his head with incredible speed ...
“Next thing I know,” he said, “I’m looking down on my body and it feels like I’m bobbing and bouncing against the ceiling. I was too shocked to be scared! It occurred to me that I might be dead, so I started to panic and, as crazy as it sounds, I tried swimming through the air to get back to my body. It didn’t work. That convinced me I must be dead, so I just watched and listened ...”
After this, he found himself rising up through the ceiling, where he saw the plumbing pipes and other fixtures between floors. Then he entered a strange environment in which mannequins were laid out in hospital beds. The nurses were flabbergasted when he described this detail to them, because there was no way he could have known about this room, which was used for training purposes. This part of the story is excerpted in my earlier post.
Two features of the above excerpt are interesting to me. First, the buzzing sensation is commonly reported by people who have OBEs, including people who have learned to induce these experiences at will. Exiting via the top of the head is also a pretty familiar observation. (The buzzing sensation is also reported in many cases of so-called alien abduction, a fact that lends credence to the idea that these episodes are OBEs misinterpreted as events in physical space.) Second, the business about bobbing against the ceiling reminded me of a time, some years ago, when I used to have exceptionally vivid dreams in which I would "bob and bounce" weightlessly against the ceiling of my home, sometimes exploring corners of the ceiling or treading water in midair. Was I dreaming? Or was my astral body exploring my environment while I slept?
A woman who suffered a series of heart attacks reported several NDEs that included the orb, veridical observations, and a sort of impromptu scientific experiment that she herself performed in her out-of-body state:
“What happened next was a big surprise, and that’s when I knew I must have died. I became distracted by a growing, bright light to my left, and when I turned my attention to it, it became bigger and brighter. It seemed like it should have been a blinding light, that’s how bright it was, but it wasn’t hard to look at, even though it was so intense. The more attention I gave to it, the closer it came and then, suddenly, I wasn’t concerned at all about what was going on with my body in the ER. Not one bit. In fact, in an instant, I forgot all about it. In just a blink, it was all about that incredible light for me.
“It was coming closer and I wanted it to, because the closer it came, the more intense love I felt ...
“It’s so hard to explain that kind of love. It was very intense and so real. More real than this,” [she said, indicating the room around her].
Later in the experience, she was reunited with her mother, who told her she had to go back. She didn’t want to return, and she put up quite a fight about it.
“I even tried pleading with her to let me stay. I told her, ‘It’s my life, I should get to choose. I should have a say-so.’ Then she told me, ‘It’s not that you don’t get to choose. Part of you, in fact, is choosing and participating in this decision. It would be easy for you to choose to stay here, but you understand on a level you can’t quite comprehend just now that there is more from your family relationships you need to experience and learn. And more they need to learn from you. When choosing is not an act of escape but an act of completion, then you will stay.’"
She did go back but suffered a second heart attack.
She knew it was coming. She felt a subtle buzzing sensation, then perceived a voice saying, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. It’s going to happen again.” Strangely, she said it sounded like her voice, as if she could hear aloud the thought she had spoken internally ...
Having the notion that the voice she heard was actually her own thoughts audibly manifesting so she could perceive them, she decided, in her disembodied state, to test her hypothesis and found her suspicions were correct. True to her self-professed, smarty-pants nature, she tossed out random words – butter, ping pong, tacos – and heard these very words echo aloud, although she was looking at her physical body that was unconscious, mouth unmoving, and clearly in distress. But she wasn’t in distress, not in the least. Rather, it fascinated her ...
Note that her OBE was also precipitated by a buzzing sensation.
Later, she had a third cardiac arrest. Afterward she reported a veridical observation.
She described it to me, and astonishingly, even reminded me of something I had forgotten. She was watching us from a position in middle space – not exactly floating above and not entirely standing; rather, she was somewhere in between. After having the thought, “Your heart is going to stop again,” and feeling the soft buzzing sensation tingle through her once more, she then saw the [sterile] blue drape being lifted up and the nurse reaching under it to start chest compressions.
Then she mentioned something I had forgotten entirely. She saw members of the resuscitation team try to tilt her whole body sideways to put a long, flat board under her and me saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, my stuff,” as I grabbed the things I had set on top of the sterile field to prevent them from falling onto the floor ...
The board is used to make the chest compressions more effective. The patient made this observation when she was totally unconscious and in need of CPR to restart her heart.
One of the book's more elaborate NDEs involves many of the above elements – and more. It is so lengthy and detailed that I have to wonder if it is one of the composite accounts. In any event, here are some excerpts from a much more extensive account:
[Marlene] soon became distracted by the presence of a soft blue orb of light that came into view on the opposite side of the room. She watched as it began to move slowly toward her the moment she had noticed it. How long it had been there hovering, watching before she had actually seen it, she could not say, but it seemed that the mere engagement of her attention drew it forward. While the orb was slowly approaching, she noticed that the voices below [in the hospital] became thinner and more distant while the visual scene grew ever smaller and more remote, as if she were looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
As the orb, about the size of a beach ball, came to rest in front of her, she felt overwhelmed with emotion and intense feelings of peace, love and complete safety. While nothing in particular was said, the thought came to her that she was going to be okay but that something was going to happen first. This was confusing to her, but she did not feel afraid or threatened ...
She passed between the floors, seeing the pipes and wiring, and then emerged into a hospital room where a patient was eating a meal in bed.
She noted a couple of vases of flowers on the window sill and perceived, more than actually smelled, their intoxicating fragrance. The flowers were the most vivid colors she had ever seen and the petals, stems and leaves all seemed to be made up of tiny particles that vibrated very fast. Remarkably, there was a palpable, humming energy emanating from the flowers that vibrated across the atmosphere, entered into her body, if she could call it that, and presented itself in such a way that she could feel the flowers ...
[After more such experiences, she concluded that] whatever she visually locked in on – from the hospital room where she had seen the flowers, to the roof and then the parking lot below – she gained an instant awareness of the sounds, smells and colors in hyper-sensory detail from a great distance. Her guide, if that is what it was, seemed in no hurry to move her along, allowing Marlene to marvel and observe with this phenomenal skill ...
Moving into lighter space, she was aware that the orb was less dense as well. Looking to her right as they moved along, she realized that her companion was actually no longer an orb but seemed to have stretched out to a filmier smudge of an elongated, cloud-like substance. She wondered why the orb had changed like that – dense and round in physical space but lighter and less formed in a more ethereal atmosphere ...
Her movement became literally as rapid as thought itself, as she whirled over the ocean and the field of rippling wheat, still accompanied by the cloudlike "guide."
Suddenly, she reported, they came to an instant stop with absolutely no sense of deceleration into a vast void that was incredibly silent. But even the silence seem to have texture. After a brief pause of floating in this splendid quiet, the environment took on more density, with subtle shifts in color and hue. At this point, Marlene really struggled to explain this to me, saying that it was like a cloud, but not really – like a mist, but not exactly. She described the feeling of silk or soft fog settling around her while, at the same time, muted colors of blues, grays, and faint pinks and greens fluctuated in and out. With the color there was a faint sound that had a somewhat musical quality, but there were no specific tones that she could identify. It was more vibrational than anything, she recounted, much like the connection she had felt from the vase of flowers ...
In this more rarefied environment, Marlene encountered deceased loved ones, as well as a barely remembered neighbor to whom she had been helpful. Though the small acts of kindness she showed him had meant little to her, they had been more important than she realized.
To her dismay, she was told she could not stay in the afterlife. A child of four or five years old was brought before her; the child, she was told, was "special" and would need her. The child would be named Crystal, and would struggle with a mental issue; the struggle would be helpful to the personal growth of the people around her. The child herself seemed to be looking forward to the assignment. Marlene "was informed, again through a thought that seemed to be deposited in her mind, that this was a preordained task agreed upon by the young child and her guides.”
After this, she retreated to physical reality and was back in her body feeling pain and exhaustion.
For years, Marlene never told her daughter or anyone else about the deepest parts of her experience; she made no mention of Crystal, the girl who was waiting to be born. Nevertheless, twenty-one years after Marlene's NDE, her daughter gave birth to a child who was named Crystal, and the child did struggle with autism and other issues. Bellg writes, “Crystal required a lot of work and attention but her ready smile, infectious humor and unqualified affection more than compensated for it." She goes on:
Marlene and Crystal had a particularly special connection, a bond that was instant and strong. They spent hours together and, living close by, Crystal often stayed the night with Marlene ... Once when Crystal was about four years old, as Marlene was tucking her into bed for the evening, she looked peacefully up at her grandmother and, lost in a soft gaze that connected her to something far away, said, “I saw you before, Grammy, remember?”
“What do you mean, Sweetheart?” Marlene did not immediately understand.
“When you died before, and came to Heaven. I saw you there. Remember?”
With a shiver of excitement, Marlene leaned in toward her granddaughter and replied softly through instant tears, “Yes, Crystal, I remember.” Marlene’s death and return to life so long ago was now a distant memory. It was something she rarely talked about, and certainly not with Crystal. There was no way that this child could have known what she seemed to know about what had happened over twenty years earlier.
“You were sad that you had to go back in your body,” Crystal became pensive as tears poured down Marlene’s cheeks. “Are you still sad?”
“No, Crystal, I’m not sad. I’m very happy to be here with you."
Again, I would prefer it if none of the stories had been conflated to create somewhat fictionalized composite accounts, and I would also prefer to have as few details altered as possible. Still, Dr. Bellg's sincerity is obvious throughout the book, and I don't doubt that she was told of these experiences, though maybe not exactly in the form in which they appear in print.
Near Death in the ICU contains several other fascinating cases. I'll provide excerpts from those in an upcoming post.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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."
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
I'm currently reading The Self Does Not Die: Verified Paranormal Phenomena from Near-Death Experiences, by Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven, and Rudolf H. Smit. As the title indicates, it's an in-depth study of NDEs with veridical content. The book was originally published, in a slightly different form, in a Dutch edition.
When I started it, I wasn't too excited about the prospect of reading yet another book about NDE's. I felt a little burned out on the subject. But The Self Does Not Die proved to be different from most other books of this type. It is never sensationalistic or overheated; the authors carefully consider the strengths and weaknesses of the various cases, ranking each according to how well documented and authenticated it is. The collection of professionally researched cases is the most comprehensive I've seen. Cases that don't meet the authors' strict criteria are omitted. The overall tone is serious, even a little dry, an approach I like much better than the carnival barker style of some popular accounts.
Though right now I'm in the middle of the book, I did skip ahead to read the authors' conclusions and their coverage of skeptical objections. In the latter section they concentrate on the debunking efforts of anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee, who has written extensively on the subject and devotes a website to it.
There are far too many cases to summarize, but the one I read just this morning – case 3.33, "Howard," on pages 112-113 – was particularly intriguing. It is drawn from Laurin Bellg's 2015 book Near Death in the ICU, and involves a man who suffered cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated. After he had recovered sufficiently to talk, he described an NDE that took place while he was unconscious:
I felt myself rising up through the ceiling and it was like I was going through the structure of the building. I could feel the different densities of passing through insulation. I saw wiring, some pipes and then I was in this other room.
It looked like a hospital but it was different.… It was very quiet and it seemed like no one was there. There were individual rooms all around the edge and on some of the beds were these people, except they were not people, exactly. They looked like mannequins and they had IVs hooked up to them but they didn't look real. In the center was an open area that looked like a collection of work stations with computers.
Dr Bellg, a critical care physician, says her jaw dropped when she heard this. She writes:
I stole a look at the nurse who looked equally surprised. What we knew that Howard didn't, is that right above the ICU is a nurse-training center where new hires spend a few days rotating through different scenarios. There are simulated hospital rooms around the perimeter with medical mannequins on some of the beds. In the center there is indeed a collection of workspaces with computers.
The patient also repeated statements made by Bellg during the resuscitation effort, when he was being defibrillated, and accurately reported who was present during the event.
Though not all the cases are this dramatic, the sheer number of them and the obvious efforts that have been made to substantiate the patients' accounts add up to a powerful argument for the significance of NDEs – not as the hallucinations of a traumatized brain, but as ontologically real events. Readers who are serious about the scientific study, analysis, and interpretation of near-death experiences can't go wrong by reading this important book. My only complaint is that there's no ebook edition. Soon, I hope!
In my last post I discussed a couple of issues raised by Michael Sudduth and Bernardo Kastrup in regard to Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander's bestselling book about his NDE. Dr. Sudduth was good enough to respond via email, and to give me permission to post his response, which follows.
Thanks for commenting on my blog "In Defense of Sam Harris on Near-Death Experiences," as well as the responses to it. Let me say, at the outset, that I appreciate your less tilted and more sober analysis of the discussion. Nonetheless, I wanted to offer a rejoinder to your commentary, mostly in the spirit of clarification. Reality may be an irredeemable mess, but there's no good reason for supposing that arguments must be. So permit a few more flaps of the butterfly's wings, come what may.
As I made clear in my response to Kastrup, I didn't say (or imply) that on Harris' view Alexander's NDE could not be explained by postulating some purely natural mechanism, such as one invoking biologically active DMT compounds. Moreover, I didn't say, contrary to what you've suggested, that Harris wasn't trying to discredit Alexander's particular interpretation of his NDE by introducing such a possibility or by arguing for that Alexander's NDE resembles DMT experiences. The issue here is how the appeal is supposed to discredit Alexander's NDE.
To repeat what I stated in my original blog, and also in my response to Kastrup, I've objected to Kastrup's contention that Harris was trying to argue that a DMT explanation (or similar reductively naturalistic explanation) of Alexander's NDE is the likely explanation of the experience. There's no textual basis for attributing this strong claim to Harris, which as I illustrated actually contradicts what Harris said. Much less is there any textual support for attributing this claim to Harris for the reasons Kastrup invokes in the form of an argument Harris intact never presented.
The claims you and Kastrup have subsequently extracted from Harris are logically weaker claims than the claims Kastrup made in his original blog and book discussions of Harris. I'm assuming that we don't need a course in confirmation theory to understand the conceptual distinction between the following claims:
(i) Hypothesis h is a likely or probable explanation of an experience
(ii) Hypothesis h might explain the experience
(iii) Hypothesis h is a "far more credible" explanation of some experience than some other hypothesis h*.
Since these weaker claims ((ii) and (iii)) are logically compatible with everything I've said in my critique, adducing them does nothing to undermine what I originally argued concerning (i). It actually distracts from my original argument. It's an illustration of a red herring.
Moreover, to repeat the point central to Harris's actual discussion, Harris is not (by his own explicit admission) arguing that we have compelling reasons to suppose that Alexander's NDE was not a transcendent experience. He's arguing, as he says repeatedly (though systematically ignored by Kastrup) that Alexander has not provided good enough reason to accept that his NDE was a transcendent experience. Kastrup fails to grasp this, despite Harris' explicitly stating it at the beginning and end of his discussion. Kastrup's misrepresentation of Harris's larger argument, as well as my own, is an unfortunate and inexcusable amalgamation of poor critical thinking and poor textual exegesis. And his flagrant and flamboyant disregard for the need for conceptual clarity is an illustration of why the vast majority of professional philosophers, including those who believe in survival, don't take any of this stuff seriously.
As for your critical comments about Alexander's experience, I largely agree. But here I think we should return to the broader structure of Alexander's own argument. As Harris correctly points out, the transcendent interpretation of Alexander's experience depends on two crucial premises: (a) Alexander's cerebral cortex was completely inactive during his coma and (b) Alexander had his NDE when his cortex was completely inactive. Harris is correct that neither Alexander nor anyone else is justified claiming at least one of these premises. Consequently, Alexander's argument lacks cogency.
I'll have more to say about the factual and conceptual aspects to Alexander's NDE-argument in a subsequent blog, once I've completed my discussions with various neuroscientists and medical doctors, but sufficient for the day are the criticisms thereof.
As for my own views on survival, you wrote: "Michael Sudduth, a philosopher who is open to postmortem survival but thinks the current evidence and arguments for it are inadequate ..." Well, thanks for at least acknowledging my openness to postmortem survival. As you're probably aware, but it's worth reiterating, my agnosticism with respect to personal survival represents the further side of my earlier firm conviction on the matter. Nonetheless, as I've explained in several blogs, my views on survival are more nuanced than is usually recognized. For example, see my Personal Reflections on Life after Death. That being said, I don't say that the current evidence is inadequate. What I've consistently argued over the past few years is that the arguments purporting to show that the evidence is good are unsuccessful at showing this. I argue this in considerable detail in my recently published book, A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
You also wrote: "As I've explained on other occasions (once in direct response to Michael Sudduth), I'm very skeptical of the super-psi idea, which Sudduth seems to find somewhat persuasive, or at least well worth considering." As Stephen Braude and I have argued for several years now (arguments that have gone largely unanswered), survivalist rejoinders to the super-psi hypothesis have been wrong-headed and steeped in some profound conceptual confusions. But this is all dialectical foreplay. I'm not entirely sure what you've taken away from our earlier discussions, Michael, but as it turns out, the fundamental problem infecting classical empirical arguments for survival doesn't really depend on attributing any plausibility to the so-called super-psi hypothesis. It's for this reason that I've been saying for some time now that there needs to be a rather profound recalibration of the entire empirical survival debate. That's the challenge my recent book offers.
So here's the thing. Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander wrote a best-selling book called Proof of Heaven, which made the cover of Newsweek. In the book he said that he had a profound NDE while comatose, and that the NDE constitutes empirical evidence of life after death. Sam Harris, an atheist philosopher who is open-minded on issues of psi and postmortem survival, criticized Alexander's claims and followed up with further criticism. Bernardo Kastrup, a philosopher and author who embraces Idealism (the idea that consciousness is everything), took on Harris's arguments in a blog post and then a second post. Michael Sudduth, a philosopher who is open to postmortem survival but thinks the current evidence and arguments for it are inadequate, criticized Kastrup for his opinion piece and defended Harris. Kastrup replied to Sudduth. Sudduth replied to Kastrup.
Yeah, it's a kerfuffle.
Though I'm a little reluctant to enter these roiled waters, I've decided to tug on my waders and give it a go. But since these arguments can persist forever without accomplishing much, I'm going to limit my comments to just a couple of issues, and to focus only on Kastrup and Sudduth.
First, I have to say that I think both of them make some good points. And what I want to do is highlight the single strongest point (in my opinion) that each of them makes.
I'll start with Kastrup. In his reply to Sudduth's initial post, Kastrup writes:
I ... argued that a chemical or physical trigger [such as the chemical DMT] does not necessarily invalidate the transcendent nature of [Alexander's] experience, since all NDEs are, ultimately, triggered by some physical event. What does Sudduth have to say about this? He writes: "Kastrup is correct, of course, that in at least one sense the similarity between Alexander’s NDE and DMT experiences doesn’t defeat the authenticity of the former as a valid transcendent experience." But this was my point. So Sudduth actually agrees with my point. What's his problem then? Well, he asserts that "Harris nowhere claims [that] Alexander’s NDE was produced by brain chemistry," so my point is a straw-man. What? With a blush of embarrassment, I leave it to you to judge it after you consider the following passage by Harris:
"Does Alexander know that DMT already exists in the brain as a neurotransmitter? Did his brain experience a surge of DMT release during his coma? This is pure speculation, of course, but it is a far more credible hypothesis than that his cortex 'shut down,' freeing his soul to travel to another dimension."
Can someone explain to me how is it that Harris is not suggesting here that DMT could explain Alexander's NDE on a purely chemical basis? I mean, how much clearer could this possibly be? Sudduth's grievance is that Harris does not outright state that the NDE was caused by chemicals; that Harris merely mentions the possibility that it was. Duh. So what? It would obviously have been ridiculous if Harris had asserted that he knew what caused Alexander's NDE. Raising the possibility of a chemical cause was as far as Harris could have gone to try to debunk Alexander.
In his reply, Sudduth defends his position, but I have to side with Kastrup here. It is, in my opinion, mere pettifoggery to suggest that Harris was not trying to discredit Alexander's NDE by suggesting that it could have been caused by a surge of DMT in the brain. True, Harris did not say definitively and unequivocally that this was the explanation, but he presented this hypothesis as "far more credible" than the postmortem-survival hypothesis.
Now, perhaps it is more credible in this case. It very well may be, as I'll discuss briefly below. But there is no point in pretending that Harris was doing something other than what he was very obviously doing.
That brings us to what I feel is Sudduth's strongest point, the issue of when exactly Alexander's NDE took place. In his initial post, he writes:
In Proof of Heaven, and in subsequent interviews and talks, Alexander ... argues, howbeit in a reserved manner, that his alleged veridical perceptions during his NDE provide evidence that his NDE occurred during his coma....
[H]e allegedly experienced communications from a person who tried, on particular occasions, psychically contacting him while he was in his coma, and he also saw faces that corresponded to actual people, five of whom were present at Alexander’s bedside shortly before he came out of his coma (Proof of Heaven, 108-10). If we regard these features of his experience as veridical perceptions, then, given the assumption of the time-anchor argument, it would seem that he had these perceptual experiences at specific points during his coma.
One fairly obvious response to the time-anchor argument would be to concede that Alexander had the veridical perceptual experiences (in his NDE) during his coma. This wouldn’t be extraordinary, and it certainly wouldn’t support the extrasomatic interpretation of his experience, unless there was good evidence that his cortex was shutdown at the time of the perceptions. As Harris noted, a significant number of coma patients have awareness during coma. Perhaps more significantly, there’s data that shows that even coma patients in a vegetative state can gradually transition into a state of minimal awareness, and then lapse back into a vegetative state (see Schnakers, Giacino, and Laureys). In the absence of functional data tracking patterns of brain activity, it’s difficult to see how Alexander can properly rule this out. Moreover, Alexander’s description of the human faces bubbling up out of a dark muck, and whose voices were unintelligible, wouldn’t be surprising as subjective features of a change in cortical activity shortly before regaining consciousness. While this would not explain the alleged communications with Susan Reintjes who was not physically present, if there’s any evidence for telepathic interactions between people, it’s drawn from persons whose cerebral cortex is actually functional.
Now let’s be clear here. I’m not suggesting that residual and changing cortical activity, generating moments of minimal awareness, actually explains the apparently veridical features of Alexander’s experience. I’m rather pointing out a consequence of Alexander’s lack of functional data: if he doesn’t have adequate evidence that his cerebral cortex was shutdown for the entire duration of his coma, establishing on the basis of time-anchors that he must have had the experiences during his coma doesn’t do much for the conclusion he wishes to establish.
I think Sudduth is right about this, and it's the biggest problem I've had with Alexander's story from the start. The strongest NDEs involve a veridical component that can be verified after the fact and can anchor the experience to events in the known world. Alexander's experience lacks this element. His vague impression of a psychic communication is too ambiguous to count for much, and his impressions of visitors at his bedside are not inconsistent with the limited perceptual capabilities of comatose patients. Alexander would probably argue that, because he remembers experiencing most of his otherworldly journey before these time-anchors occurred, it proves that his NDE must have taken place while he was deeply comatose. But we're not really justified in making that inference. His memory might be inaccurate, or the entire NDE might have occurred within just a few minutes during the period when he was recovering from the worst of his illness. As Sudduth points out, people who take psychogenic drugs often report elaborate, lengthy experiences that seem to go on for many hours, but which take place within just a few minutes of (what we might call) "Earth time."
I said this was the biggest problem I've had with Alexander's account. There are two other problems. One is that the experience really does seem like a drug trip. I've read accounts of DMT testing under controlled conditions by psychiatrist Rick Strassman, and the bizarre, hallucinatory narrative recounted by Alexander matches them very well. Though I've never taken hallucinogenic drugs myself, when I think of Alexander's book, the images that come to my mind are from the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine – imagery that was obviously inspired by LSD trips.
My other problem with Alexander's book is related but slightly different. His NDE is simply different in almost all respects from the standard NDE's that have been reported, documented, and tabulated for decades. I don't know of any other NDE where somebody reports flying around on the back of a giant butterfly, for instance. To me, one of the convincing features of NDEs is their relative consistency (taking into account cultural and personal differences). Alexander's NDE breaks the mold in so many ways that it is, at best, an outlier, and perhaps more plausibly, not a true NDE at all.
The fact is that Alexander's NDE is by no means the most convincing such case. It has been widely discussed because it is the first NDE, as far as I know, to be reported by a brain surgeon. Alexander's professional training and status provide his story with a certain intrinsic interest and perhaps make it more credible, to some people, than the account of (say) a plumber. But there are many other NDEs that boast more striking veridical details and which fit much more comfortably into established narrative patterns.
Many other issues have been raised in this discussion, but as I said, I'm not going to try to get into them all. As I've explained on other occasions (once in direct response to Michael Sudduth), I'm very skeptical of the super-psi idea, which Sudduth seems to find somewhat persuasive, or at least well worth considering. I'm also skeptical of Kastrup's philosophical idealism and the idea that reality can be explained in monistic terms – i.e., that everything can be reduced to a single thing. I suspect that reality, rather than being neat and simple and elegant, is actually something of a mess.
At the very least, this little dust-up has offered proof of a tenet of chaos theory: when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can indeed stir up a storm.
I originally intended to post this piece as a palate cleanser after the "Charlie Charlie" viral Twitter phenomenon was exposed as an ad campaign for a movie. However, I'm no longer completely sure that the tweets were a hoax. Snopes.com offers an interesting analysis that's worth reading in full. Here's an excerpt:
The UK’s Independent ... explained how most sites jumped upon the “viral marketing stunt” explanation with both feet despite the timeline discrepancy and the fact that the details of the challenge were contrary to the film’s context ...
It seems fairly evident that the connection between the social-media-driven “Charlie Charlie challenge” and the upcoming film The Gallows emerged well after the former had come and gone from Internet “trending” lists: No link between the challenge and the film was mentioned in the game’s first wave of popularity, nor was the film’s trailer referenced in mainstream news coverage prior to 1 June 2015. As the Independent noted, the social media challenge originated in a time and place far removed from any tangible connection to the film ...
While the Charlie Charlie challenge was certainly utilized with alacrity by The Gallows's marketing team, it appears that marketing tie-in was created after the fact: the film was neither an initial part of the story nor the driver (primary or otherwise) of the viral trend’s popularity.
So maybe the hoax explanation is premature.
In any case, for those who still would like a palate cleanser, or at least a change of topic, here's an interesting case study from more than 300 years ago. I found it in The Immortal Mind, by Ervin Laszlo and Anthony Peake, which I'm still in the process of reading. Though I've read many accounts of near-death experiences, I don't think I've come across this one before.
Laszlo and Peake write:
An early report on human NDE concerns the experience that took place in November 1669, in Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England (or, in some reports, in South Wales). The report is in a religious pamphlet written by Dr. Henry Atherton and published in London in 1680. Atherton's fourteen-year-old sister, Anna, had been ill for some time, then was thought to have finally died. The woman attending to her used to the only method available at the time for ascertaining death: placing a mirror to her mouth and nose. There was no evidence of breathing. They then placed red-hot coals to her feet and received no response. She was clearly in a state of what would now be termed "clinical death." However, she subsequently recovered. When she was able, she described how she had visited heaven and was guided there by an angel. This being showed her:
"things glorious and unutterable, as Saints and Angels and all in glorious apparell." She heard 'unparalel'd Musick Divine Anthems and Hallelujahs.' She was not allowed to enter Heaven but the angel told her that "she must go back again for a while, and take leave of her friends, and after short time she should be admitted."
As predicted by her "Angel," Anna died four years later and according to the pamphlet she departed "with great as[s]urance of her happiness hereafter."
While she was in her near-death state, Anna reported seeing people she had known, all of whom had died. There was one individual who, as far as Atherton knew, was alive. However, he subsequently discovered that this individual had passed on a few weeks earlier.
The source cited is Henry Atherton, The Resurrection Proved (T. Dawes, 1680).
The account contains many of the notable features of modern NDE's, including:
It also includes a feature sometimes observed in deathbed visions: the patient's report that a certain person had died when, at the time, this fact should have been unknown to her. And there is the interesting detail of the accurate prediction of her coming death – there would seem to be no obvious reason for a fourteen-year-old to assume that her return to life would last only a "short time," yet she did in fact die not long afterward. (The actual pamphlet, the full text of which is online, says, she died two years later, not four years as stated in The Immortal Mind.)
The pamphlet, which is quite short, makes interesting reading. It includes the further details that Anna passed through three different gates but was stopped before the fourth, "Heaven Gate," and that the angel who guided her was "all in white" and was present in the sickroom when she told her story. In modern NDEs, the ethereal beings encountered in the next life are often described as being clad in white robes.
Anna's brother, described as a "Physician in Caermarthen," naturally interpreted her story in accordance with his Protestant faith, publishing it "in this Adulterous, Atheistical and Papistical Generation, wherein neither God, Christ, Soul, Heaven nor Hell are minded; but Whoring, Swaring, Lying, &c. and, it may serve as a Curb to Vice, and a Spur to Vertue."
No doubt there are significant elements of cultural overlay in the NDE itself, such as the "hallelujahs" Anna heard. But the core elements transcend cultural differences — and can be seen to persist over more than three centuries, even to the present day.
Matt Rouge is back with his second guest post. Take it away, Matt!
In my first post here, I wrote:
[In the Mist, t]here is no one to confirm that, yes, one is just so right about everything. Indeed, the contradictions and issues one perceives impugn one’s ability to sort them all out, to paint the Big Picture once and for all. Should Michael permit, it is lack of ease and comfort in the Mist that I would like to explore in my next guest post.
Thanks, Michael, for permitting!
For more background, please read the above post, but I am going to get right into things here. One tenet of the Skeptic (capitalized per Roger’s excellent recent guest post) mythos is that “belief”1 is, as Marx characterized it, the opiate of the people. Thus, if we believe in God, we desire the comfort of a Sky Father in benign control of things, and if we believe in the Afterlife, we do so merely because we don’t want to die forever. Skeptics on the other hand, thanks to their superior intellectual constitution, are able to accept the harsh truth that God and the Afterlife do not exist.2
Yet, as I asserted in my preceding post, Skeptics are just as much in the Chamber of Maiden-Thought (and outside the Mist) as the religious fundamentalists and other “believers” they excoriate. Why? Because they have not accepted the death of the Western Myth.
The Western Myth3 is a concept I am introducing here, and I think it’s an essential one. Very much necessary yet currently lacking in the discourse of our culture, indeed of our world. What is this myth? On the surface, it is the strong, confident bones of Abrahamic religion, which includes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.4 To wit, there is a God, He created, knows, and understands all, which in turn means that all is understood, known, and created with a specific and perfect intention. Things are designed to work right, and when they don’t, that is our fault. In other words, when things go wrong, it is because we are sinners. Simple.
Thus, if you are gay, that’s your lifestyle choice, and you are a sinner, inasmuch as God didn’t create gay people, and He didn’t design people to be gay. If you stray in your marriage, you are a sinner, inasmuch as God designed the institution of marriage to work; He designed monogamy to work. There ought to be peace, yet due to bad people, there exist crime, war, and every ill of society. But don’t call it flaws in human nature; call it original sin.5 Or maybe Satan or Iblis is tempting you. Someone. Something.
Ah, but it’s so easy to ditch all this simplistic thinking, isn’t it? Just stop believing in those silly religions! Then we’ll all be thinking as correct as can be, right? Right?!
Not so fast. However much we wish to reject the surface beliefs of the Western Myth, its underlying assumptions are likely to stick around and mislead us. Let’s look at some examples:
Thus, the Western Myth is about much more than believing in a capital G “God”; it’s an approach to ontology (reality), epistemology (knowledge), eschatology (final destiny of things), and indeed all of the big questions we humans face. Ultimately, it is an approach to things that keeps us in the Chamber of Maiden-Thought and out of the Mist. I would say the approach comprises the following three beliefs:
Skeptics think they have escaped the Western Myth by denying the theistic belief system of the West, but they have merely traded one surface for another while maintaining the underlying approach. They’ve repainted that ugly old Chevy, but the engine and transmission are the same. To wit:
It is true that Skeptics hold beliefs that would pain most people, such as the belief that there is no God or Afterlife. They feel that they are therefore cognitively superior to those who don’t have the fortitude to embrace their surface belief system. Yet, as inheritors of the Western Myth, they have established a world that is as cognitively neat and trim as that of the most believing fundamentalist.
A further error they commit is the one referenced by the title of this post: they assume that people who have not embraced their surface belief system live in comfort within their beliefs. Yet giving up the Western Myth means traveling out of the Chamber of Maiden-Thought and into the Mist, where ease and comfort are not to be found.
As for myself, I have read about NDEs (near-death experiences), read transcripts of ADCs (after-death communications), and had many spiritual experiences of my own. Yet the vast majority of the accounts I have read do not indicate the presence of an ultimate controlling authority, nor have my own experiences revealed one. Put simply, people having near-death experiences do not shake hands with a God who then tells them “how it all works.”7
I will not say that the accounts bring no comfort at all; indeed they do. They indicate to me that there is a very good chance that I will not cease to exist when I die, that all the effort I am expending now to gain knowledge and grow as a person will not disappear in an instant. But the fact that these accounts bring some degree of comfort does not bring comfort itself. ADCs and my own spiritual experiences mesh nicely with the information presented in NDEs, and such meshing is good, it gives credibility to the “big picture” that begins to form, but it too brings only some comfort and not comfort itself.
Indeed, I remain in a state of discomfort and yes, to some extent, fear, for one must consider again the nature of the Mist, per Keats:
[A]mong the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the nature and heart of Man—of convincing one's nerves that the World is full of misery and Heartbreak, Pain, sickness and oppression—whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist—We are now in that state—We feel the burden of the Mystery.
Put another way, when we are open to what we see and all its complications and apparent contradictions, we go “down the rabbit hole,” as Alice did in Lewis Carroll’s tale. For example, most NDEs are pleasant, but how do we deal with negative NDEs? In most NDEs, people present accurate information (i.e., they see the living as living and the dead as dead). How do we deal with the rare ones that do not? Most NDEs are fairly consistent in how they present God/Spirit/Source. How do we deal with those that present a specific religion as being true? Do we simply ignore the cases we don’t like as outliers, or do we try to integrate them somehow?
Here’s another example, a big one, at least to me. I say we need to be open to all phenomena, a principle that Skeptics of necessity must violate. Thus, I am open to UFO and related phenomena. I think there is absolutely no way that all of the cases come down to hoaxes, hallucinations, and misperceptions. Yet I have absolutely no idea of how to integrate the phenomena into my belief system. There are many arguments against UFOs being actual extraterrestrial craft, and one of the most famous of UFO researchers, Jacques Vallée, believes firmly that they are not. Per Wikipedia,
Vallée proposes that there is a genuine UFO phenomenon, partly associated with a form of non-human consciousness that manipulates space and time. The phenomenon has been active throughout human history, and seems to masquerade in various forms to different cultures. In his opinion, the intelligence behind the phenomenon attempts social manipulation by using deception on the humans with whom they interact.
Very well. If we suppose that he is correct, then how do we integrate that into a Universe in which NDEs are also true? If this non-human consciousness has some power over us, then what prevents it from having infinite power, and so on?
This to me is the most tantalizing fact: Regardless of how we feel about all the phenomena, and regardless of how contradictory or lacking in order we perceive them to be, we still exist in a Reality that is stable enough for us to exist and think about these matters. As a corollary of this fact, we likewise know that there is not a power in the Universe with the will and capability of destroying the Universe and life, since we are here.
Based on this fact and the phenomena I have perceived, I intuit the intention for us to understand Reality, which is in turn undermined by the intention (not necessarily a different intention!) for us not to understand Reality completely, or for Reality not to be completely understandable in the first place. It is this contradictory nature of things that occupies my brain on a daily basis and seems to threaten at times to burn out the neural circuits.
This approach within the Mist directly contradicts the Western Myth, which explicitly holds that the answers are known and contradiction is impossible. This approach I take seems to me correct, and it does give the comfort of feeling I understand something instead of nothing, yet the comfort is ultimately cold. The machine is beautifully designed and capable of efficient and cost-effective production, but there is always a wrench thrown in the works.
The Skeptics think that giving up “God” and the afterlife is the big challenge that people must face and will eventually face, since that’s just right, and the right thing will happen given enough time. But it is not so. The big challenge is to acknowledge the phenomena in all their complexity and let the Western Myth die. To leave the Chamber of Maiden-Thought as a species and go bravely into the Mist.
1Scare quotes because Skeptics use the word “belief” yet it does not operate in the mind as they think it does.
2Skeptics are correct that many beliefs are held out of a desire to assuage our fears and find comfort. They tend, however, to reason fallaciously that whatever belief brings us comfort must be “too good to be true.” Skeptics also correctly point out that religion and superstition bring people a great deal of fear, so in any case it’s difficult to sort out exactly why people believe as they do. It’s no doubt a combination of wishful thinking, social pressures, and the actual truth of many of the things believed. Skeptics are blind to the fact that they too are affected by wishful thinking (i.e., that each and every example of the paranormal is easily dismissible bunkum) and social pressure.
3I am distinguishing the Western Myth from the Eastern Myth (and other belief systems, such as African, Native American, etc.), although of course they share many things in common. Western culture has been dominated by the notion of a unitary, omniscient, omnipotent “God” who created all and therefore intended all in a way that the East has not. Nevertheless, owing to what may be called “human nature,” the East has produced a similar belief in infallible authority, such as the omniscient Buddha. As humans, we really want to believe that the answers are known—if not by us, then by somebody.
4There may be a tendency these days to think of Islam as a belief system of the Middle East and East, but it is very much comes from the same geographical and intellectual region as Judaism and Christianity. Consider that Thomas Aquinas cited Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who wrote extensive commentaries on Aristotle, and the picture becomes a bit more clear.
5I happen to think that the doctrine of original sin is pretty smart in essence. There is something inherently broken in everything, though not for reasons that Christianity would like to recognize. More on this perhaps at a later date …
6It’s more complex than this, of course, now that we understand genetics a bit, but there is still a tendency to see a particular diet or health regime as the way to health.
7This is not to say they receive no information at all about the working of Reality; they absolutely do. But the information they receive, outlier cases excepted, does not confirm the beliefs of any particular religion, nor does it confirm the existence of a unitary, all-controlling “God,” nor does it deliver a complete explanation of things. I think the teachings of Seth are a good example of information that jibes well with NDEs and explains a lot while shying away from a definitive explication of “how it all works.”
Addendum to footnote 7:
In reviewing this post, Michael wrote, “Some NDEs do involve the feeling that total knowledge of reality is being imparted, and that it all makes sense, it's all part of a master plan, every smallest detail happens for a reason, etc. I believe some other transcendent mystical experiences also take this form. Of course the NDErs (and others) find it impossible to convey more than a fraction of this infinite knowledge in words upon their return, but they do claim to have seen the whole plan.”
In response, I would say first that the nature and content of the “master plan” that is presented or experienced by NDErs and mystics seems to be significantly different than the nature and content of the Western Myth. From my reading, they see a reality (a kind of final or ultimate state of things) that is unitary and non-hierarchical and in which all of elements (people, spiritual entities, etc.) come together in a fully organic and autonomous fashion. The eschatology of the Western Myth is much more primitive than this: the righteous with God in Heaven, the evildoers in hell, and a “God” who has manipulated the pawns from start to finish. Forgive my negative characterization, but it’s definitely not to my taste, nor does it seem to be true based on observation of the world and history.
Further, NDErs and mystical experiencers describe, in my general interpretation, a kind of “ultimate rightness to things” that vastly transcends the concepts and content of the Western Myth. To cite one of my own spiritual experiences, I experienced a state once either before, during, or after sleep (that was not a dream) in which entities were communicating with each other and I was communicating with them, but we were not using symbolic language or even mental concepts as we know them. This jibes with what I have read about higher-dimensional communication and cognition, and it also jibes with the ineffability that people who experience the “master plan” describe. People who experience the “master plan” are not told “how it works,” and they can’t convey such a thing to others with words, since Ultimate Reality does not “work” on the level of our human cognition.
I think NDErs’ and mystics’ experience of the “master plan” is a true reflection of reality, actually, but I don’t think it solves the “problem” of the Mist. Perhaps I can make this quandary the topic of my next guest post, if Michael again permits!
Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Alan Joshua. Can you describe your new book, The SHIVA Syndrome?
First, the title can be misleading. Although the Hindu god Shiva is on the cover, it is symbolic and only mentioned in the book. SHIVA is an acronym for a special mind research project. The novel is cross-genre, consisting of speculative fiction, conspiracy fiction, psychology/mythology/anthropology/research fiction, with one foot in the present, and the other in the immediate future. I guess that makes it “fact-tion.”
It opens with the destruction of an actual city, Podol’sk (southwest of Moscow). Russian mind researchers lose control over their subject resulting in the obliteration of the city and the deaths of thousands—an event that leaves a mysterious one-mile deep crater in its wake.
Beau Walker is a research psychologist, parapsychologist, and reluctant empath. He is forced to join a research team, code-named SHIVA, to investigate the enigmatic event. During the story, Walker must fight past political and military deceptions and a host of deadly adversaries to unlock the riddle of the SHIVA syndrome.
In the excerpts I read, the writing seems very slick. Is this your first work of fiction?
Yes and no. I wrote an unpublished novel about cloning and an unpublished dystopian short story that’s still looking for a home. SHIVA is my first published novel. As far as looking “slick,” it has been in the hands of a number of editors who were helpful producing the final product.
What do you hope to accomplish with The SHIVA Syndrome?
My hopes are that SHIVA can entertain and educate the readers into recognizing that there is a helluva lot more to parapsychology than horny vampires and staggering zombies. Many people are completely unaware that parapsychology has been studied seriously, under experimental conditions since the 1930s. In addition, beyond the sensationalism of bending metal, “miraculous” healings, etc., people who demonstrate psi ability are all-too-human. As in Shelley’s Frankenstein, there is a very human story to be told. I try to touch on that in the novel.
Who is the book aimed at?
Well, I’ve had a variety of beta readers—from seventeen years of age and up, who were captivated by the possibilities shown in the book. Some read it for the action and adventure while others became fascinated by what some call “latent human potentials.” My goal was that every reader would be curious about the true nature of parapsychology—not just the commercial packaging—and take away something of value about the illusion we call reality. As Einstein said, “Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one.”
How did you come up with the idea?
Some of the basic ideas came from parapsychological research—others and mine. I learned a great deal about the psychology of individuals capable of performing so-called “paranormal” activities, Later I recognized that, although my research involved “psychic” or spiritual healing, it also applied to other paranormal abilities as well. Yet another realization was that the technology for a SHIVA project exists today.
What led you from clinical psychology to an interest in psi and near-death experiences?
My interest in psi existed since I was a child. When I reached my twenties, I read The Sacred Mushroom, my first serious book, by Andrija Puharich. This was followed by many other books, including Dream Telepathy, a classic in its field by Drs. Ullman and Krippner, and Psychic Exploration: A Challenge for Science, Understanding the Nature and Power of Consciousness, by Edgar D. Mitchell. I had no idea that twenty years later Dr. Krippner would be on my doctoral committee at Saybrook University and a valued friend. He’s a giant in the field and I urge readers to get to know him and his writings.
A recent post on the website of Psychology Today magazine reports: “It appears that psychologists are more skeptical about ESP than other scientists and academics. In one survey of 1,100 university professors, almost half as few psychologists believed that ESP is a ‘recognized fact or a likely possibility’ as other academics such as natural scientists and arts and humanities professors.” Why do you think this is?
I read the article and was thoroughly impressed. I agree with Dr. Taylor’s assessment and conclusions. He is “on the money.” I can’t repeat the entire article, but I agree that there is a negative bias towards the paranormal among psychologists and other scientists. Dr. Taylor points out that it may be rooted in the difficulties psychology encountered becoming accepted as a genuine science. Of course, the negative bias doesn’t apply to all psychologists. Many secretly embrace the concept, unwilling to risk the wrath of the empiricists and jeopardize their professional standing. Quantum physics, however, in its formulation of string theory, has led us away from the physically-based blinders of nineteenth century science and into the postulation of an energy universe with eleven or more dimensions and multiverses.
There’s another problem in the terminology: “parapsychology” and “parapsychologist.” “Parapsychology” came into use in the 1920s as meaning “beside psychology,”something different, apart. But parapsychologists are not, in fact, psychologists. They come from a variety of disciplines, from philosophy to physics. A nicely illustrative list can be found at www.psychicscience.org/researchers.aspx.
I believe advances in quantum physics will inform psychology and other disciplines of the validity of parapsychological phenomena. I hold a firm belief that we hunger to understand what lies beyond the limits of our senses and drives us towards the “paranormal” for answers not supplied by science or religion.
What is your opinion on the reality and/or metaphysical significance of psi and NDE’s?
These are two questions in one. I have no doubt about the reality of psi, and consider it as an extension of normal consciousness, not a separate entity. This is even mentioned in my book. The Bible and other ancient texts are replete with what we now call psi phenomena. There is sufficient laboratory research to satisfy me – as well as personal experiences – that there is something significant to be learned from these. They are not simply quirky manifestations, but are far broader, a deeper understanding of the nature of reality—and ourselves—that demands further investigation. Closed-mindedness will not make these anomalies disappear.
On the subject of NDEs, I keep a skeptical position: neither in favor of its existence or against. As a matter of fact, I can see where NDEs may have a relationship with the issue of the reality of psi. But I can’t get into that here.
Have you explored related issues such as spontaneous or induced after-death communications, mediumship, deathbed visions, apparitions, and reincarnation memories?
I haven’t personally explored NDEs, only read about them. What are the odds that, in my “psychic” healing research, seven of ten healers I interviewed experienced NDEs?
I have attended séances, witnessed mediumship, and I did some informal—and stunning—research into reincarnation. I was friendly with a man who consulted with a well-known psychic/medium. He had many family antiques. Although a particular piece of furniture had been in his possession for years, the medium was able to tell him about a secret drawer that, upon examination, he was able to find. It’s very hard to scoff when you’re a firsthand witness to a situation like that.
Have you personally experienced or witnessed any examples of psi or expanded consciousness (OBEs, NDEs, mystical states, etc.)?
I’ve experienced what you’re calling “expanded consciousness.” Some very personal things occurred that I can’t share, proving to me that William James was right when he said, “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, … all about it … lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”
As far as OBEs, I had two patients in psychotherapy, who had never revealed to anyone their personal experiences. One was a young man who, at bedtime, would leave his body. When he told his mother, she said it was the “devil’s work,” and frightened him silly. Although this wasn’t the main focus of our work together, I had him read a book entitled Journeys Out Of the Body, by Robert Monroe. He then realized that OBEs were experienced by many people, whether religious or not, and not necessarily as demonic.
A second patient was receiving gynecological surgery. While under anesthesia, she suddenly realized that she was floating above the surgical team operating on her below. She was not frightened, but felt a sense of peacefulness. This was not a typical NDE, but an OBE. The state of peacefulness she felt was so enticing that she was tempted to stay in that state. Then she thought of her children and felt suddenly anxious. That was enough to “snap” her back to her body and unconsciousness. Later, she awakened later in her hospital room and remembered what had happened. The surgeon visited her; she asked how the surgery had proceeded. He said it went fine, without a hitch. Later, the surgical resident visited. She asked him the same question. He smiled and shook his head, then told her, “We thought we’d lost you there for a while.” This corroborated the experience for her.
How open are your colleagues to this subject matter?
We’ve already talked about Dr. Taylor’s article. However, I can give a personal example. While in a doctoral program at Temple University. I was in a seminar and decided – since it was a course on thinking processes – to present on parapsychology. Knowing beforehand that I would be dealing with bias, I invited a local psychic to attend and give mini-readings on the eight people in attendance. The results were split. When the professor returned from his “reading,” his face was grim; he had virtually nothing to say. However, his student assistant was extremely talkative, especially about the psychic’s ability to tell him that he had an outstanding scar on his knee (he was wearing jeans), although she referred to the wrong knee. He was clearly shaken by the information she provided. This was the only presentation of the entire semester where the students approached and thanked the presenter – me. This did not endear me with the professor.
Do you think the scientific consensus on psi and NDEs is changing as more and better evidence piles up?
First, there is no accounting for selective attention, intentionally ignoring phenomena that are unexplainable or at odds with the popular worldview. To be a true skeptic is to be open-minded to possibilities. Scientific prejudice is no better than other forms that have haunted humankind for ages. It’s what almost caused Galileo’s death and that of countless others.
Second, it takes an enormous amount of evidence—and time—to change a paradigm. Some traditionalists would rather go to the grave holding on to outdated, outmoded views rather than entertain the possibility of something new—and potentially frightening. So, to answer your question, accepting psi and/or NDEs is especially threatening because it is asking the scientific and theological community, as well as the population as a whole to rethink their conception of reality. This ironic where theology is concerned. The Old and New Testaments are filled with miraculous and parapsychological happenings.
In The SHIVA Syndrome, you write about research indicating that gamma brainwaves serve to harmonize brain activities. Last year a study was published in which low-gamma spikes were recorded in the brains of rats immediately after the onset of cardiac arrest. Do you think these spikes indicate the high-level coordination of global brain activity consistent with consciousness, or is the overall level of activity in the dying rats’ brains too minimal for the gamma spikes to matter?
Although the body of knowledge is growing, we still know too little about the brain and nervous system as a synergistic whole. It would be premature and overly simplistic to make any comments about what gamma actually means at this point. Remember, although it was discovered many years ago, gamma was shelved as a research area. Only since digital EEG came into being was it brushed off to be re-examined. Consequently, there is a way to go before anything firm can be said.
You also write about the entorhinal cortex as a means of coordinating activities involving the hippocampus (the “old brain”) and the neocortex (the “new brain”). What are the possible implications for sleep and dreams?
Yes, I incorporated this into The SHIVA Syndrome, but more as an extrapolation of science than established fact. That isn’t to say that what I offer in the book is incorrect. Not enough research has been done to provide any kind of firm statements. I have no doubt that there are many as yet undiscovered paths of communication between the so-called old brain and new brain, but I urge more advanced mind research laced with new and creative hypotheses. Rephrasing Gene Roddenberry, human consciousness, not space, is the “final frontier.”
The same statements I made above can be applied to psi. Again, we cannot look at psi events simply as hiccups of human behavior. The implications are more far-reaching. Psi fits into a far broader framework, one that challenges existing paradigms and philosophies. It also has ramifications that extend into religious matters. So, for me, the whole area is emotionally charged and requires a concerted effort – an interdisciplinary team effort – to even approach the subject.
If NDEs are, in fact, real, what does that say about our view of physical reality? Once again, there is a challenge to our philosophy, our notions of religion, as well as science.
In a message to me, you wrote that some proposed answers to questions raised by psi and NDES “challenge the very nature of reality is conceived by the Western mind.” Do you think psi and near-death experiences require a paradigm shift? Or do you think the current materialist paradigm can accommodate these phenomena?
Any physically-based paradigm is inadequate to approach psi and NDEs. A paradigm shift is needed, indeed. Shifts of that type are not easily accomplished.
If a paradigm shift is needed, can you offer a thumbnail sketch of a model that might be better suited to our explorations of consciousness? Or is it too early for that?
It’s far too early for that type of model. Numerous models of consciousness exist already. Each offers some element(s) of truth. But the development of a paradigm of the magnitude you are questioning is going to require an investment of time, energy, finances, and the capability of setting aside the egos and biases found in science and elsewhere. It would take a heroic search for truth.
Finally, how close is science to replicating the experiments described in The SHIVA Syndrome—and should it?
Mind sciences have much of the technology available, but research of that type is of low priority—unless it relates to national security and the military. Unfortunately, quite a bit of funding—including the remote viewing experiments of Targ and Puthoff—has been supplied by the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency. This issue is touched upon (as fiction) in the novel.
Thanks very much, Alan Joshua.
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