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"Our best hope may be to become more aware of the artificiality of the roles we play, and of the insubstantiality of even our most cherished convictions."

That is very deep, MP.

It points to total freedom and the terror that guards it.

Interesting post, Michael, with several themes I'd like to respond to. I'll start with this:

"Consider this: If I were fully and unflinchingly convinced of life after death, wouldn't I expect the AWARE study to yield solid hits?"

Not necessarily. It's a question of motivation, as I see it.

Suppose you walk through a doorway into a room with an unusual photograph hanging on one wall. Are you likely to see that picture?

Oh--I forgot to mention something. The door has been opened for you by a woman of indescribable beauty. She's smiling warmly and beckoning you to follow her into an adjacent room. Did I mention she's naked?

So how likely are you to notice that picture?

Don't you think that the adventure that awaits an NDE'r--the light, the deceased love ones, the peace that surpasses all understanding--is at least as enticing as that woman? From what I hear, it may be infinitely better.

Is it really so strange that one would fail to notice a picture on a wall?

But then, you might argue, well sometimes NDErs do report seeing odd, seemingly inconsequential things in the surgery room--a bald spot on a doctor's head, the shape of an unusual medical instrument, etc. Why do they see quirky stuff like that?

Well, maybe there's a good reason for each of the things we choose to focus on while in an out-of-body state. And maybe our motivation and behavior are quite different than we would expect them to be. For example, maybe we don't scan an area, as we normally would, glancing at all sorts of random items (like experimental targets), but rather, focus right in on whatever it is that has MEANING for us in that moment.

In purely physical terms, eyeless sight is obviously different than normal sight. Why shouldn't it be psychologically quite different too?

But I could be way off base and I'd like to hear what NDErs have to say about this. I wonder if any were consulted as the experiment was being designed. Hard to believe they wouldn't have been.

How is tomorrow any more certain? How is a memory objective? It's not. Life in a parallel universe is not something easy to fathom. Here's something to chew on: people who have elaborate Ndes have no problem like you described. Same with people very talented at the Obe state. The only reason it seems like fantasy to you is because you have no reference experience to compare it to.

I have come to believe that a huge amount of the ambiguity around the evidence comes from a simple source: lack of money. We don't have the societal will to investigate these things and consequently we don't have the money to spend on them. Imagine trying to solve the questions in physics they are going after with the Hadron collider, only on the budget of parapsychology. When you think about it, to explore these huge, central questions with virtually no money is a bit of a joke. I think when we have the societal will behind this, the answers will be much firmer.

"is it because the universe has been set up this way to keep us in perpetual doubt"

One thing to consider is, the not knowing is by design to help us more realize our true selves.

What kind of person would you choose to be if you knew for a fact there was no afterlife? What kind of person would you choose to be if you knew for a fact there was an afterlife? We are currently choosing to be as we are because we don't really know for sure either way. (Some of use believe one way and act accordingly and some believe another and act accordingly, but not knowing for sure has its place in the mix.)

Its kind of like how someone would act if they found out their home was bugged electronically, or they found out they were under constant surveillance. They likely wouldn't be their usual selves under those circumstances. The person they presented would not be a true one.

"is it because the universe has been set up this way to keep us in perpetual doubt"

I am no so sure that the universe is "set up" in any particular way or for any particular purpose; particularly not for a human purpose. Rather, I think it is what it is and what it is way too infinite in every aspect for our puny perceptive capabilities to take in its entirety, let alone understand.

It is we humans that set things up. We are, as living beings, first and foremost, organizers of perception. Our myths, if they are functional - and by myths I mean belief systems that contain metaphorical truths and I include religions in the category - coordinate our natural inner energies with the external environment in a way that organizes our thinking and feeling such that we can psychologically survive our journey on earth. Our science organizes our rationality in conjucture with the environment so we can biologically survive during that same passage in the physical world.

Without the myth structure that provides the "role" we would each be insane; lost in a chaotic flood of stimuli and possibilities and acting out on inner impulses in random ways. Without the science we would die due to starvation and exposure. We would resembled the disorganized schizophrenic street people.

So humans must impose order on the infinity of photons, electro-magnetic forces, atoms, etc. as well as biological urges and animal instincts. Not the other way around.

The role we play, the mask we wear, whether deliberately chosen, imposed on us by societal influences or, as is most often the case, donned via a largely a subconscious mix of choice, nature and influence, is an aspect of that need to organize.

Very few people are able to recognize this organizational process occurring. Most make the myths and science concrete as if they are objective realities. They do the same with their role; mistaking it for the real "them".

A tiny % of people are able to see and accept the largely arbitrary
and fleeting nature of the organizational structure. They can play the role when needed and put it aside at will. These people become the shamans, the saints, the great gurus.

But for most, seeing the organizational process and stepping beyond it leads to terror and they turn back quickly to familiar well mapped territory. If they don't, if they take one step too many or linger just a little too long, insanity results and the road back is forgotten.

I think we all intuitively comprehend the danger and the fear. Our myths and folktales are filed with warnings; some implied and some explicit. We spend a huge amount of our time trying to avoid the anxiety that is provoked by the threat of going outside the organizational structure. This includes "spacing out" to the TV, becoming a workaholic, becoming an alcoholic, being addicted to romance, being addicted to physical fitness, being addicted to blogging ;-).......the list goes on and on, and many of the activities are not bad at all in balance, but they become out of balance when they become defensive, when they block that inner voice and perceptual freedom.

My idea of why there used to be so many good mediums and there aren't any more is that our society has become more nuerotic (and that is what the defensiveness constitutes). We have more ways to avoid the great fear through imposition of perceptual structure via mass media and other technology. With urbanization, population growth and modern capitalism there is a greater division of labor and role definition is sharper.


If you have doubt the universe will express that doubt.
Consciousness and the universe are mutually arising.

I do not think from a scientific point of view the question of life after death is different from other objects such as photosynthesis or pulsars, an object of empirical research. The difference is that few objects are so emotionally charged as this, besides the religious and philosophical tradition that takes. Actually the question of life after death is very close to us and is much more important than almost any object of scientific research, but remains a subject of empirical research, and therefore, you have to apply the empirical possibility and not the logic possibility. In other words, it is questionable whether it is plausible according to evidence if there is life after death, not if it is logically possible whether there is life after death. It is logically possible for evidence of life after death other than fraud or errors, but the most plausible is that some evidence is authentic and that there is life after death. It is a fallacy made ​​by some skeptics to apply logic possibility to the topic of life after death and to apply empirical possibility the rest of the empirical sciences.

You are right, the skeptic and the believer each do play roles. The difference for me is that for at least some believers, the belief results from direct experience of something that totally abrogates the previous sense and idea of normality, and for them belief is based on knowledge (I'm not talking about second hand historical evidence, things that you "heard" or "read" about though that seems to make up the bulk of publicly discussed evidence).

For the skeptic, that never happens. And so for some believers their belief is based on extraordinary knowledge while the skeptic's beliefs are always based on conclusions that he derives from a complete LACK of extraordinary knowledge, in other words, ignorance.

The position of those in that class of belief are stronger, not weaker, than the position of skeptics, who have placed themselves in the position of denial out of ignorance.

Imagine that I am the first and only man ever to see a gorilla and you are a skeptic who does not believe my story. Who is right?

Of course, the existence of gorillas is easier to prove than the existence of poltergeists, because you can never produce the dead body of a poltergeist, and whatever evidence you DO gather will always be subject to doubt as hoaxing, even if there is no evidence of hoaxing. The fact that the universe contains elusive realities that do not respond mechanically to our demands says nothing about whether or not they are real, but merely points out false presuppositions upon which the false stories we tell ourselves about reality are based.

Wow--I wake up this morning to see a flood of intriguing responses to Michael's essay. And I'm reminded that my own comment about the Aware experiment, written late last night, didn't address the main themes of the blog post at all.

I'm particularly interested in talking about roles. If I understand both Michael and no one correctly, then while not condemning role-playing, both seem to be describing it as a sort of coping mechanism, stressing its arbitrariness, superficiality, and even its artificiality.

I think there's real value in that perspective. But there's also another way to look at the subject, one that would have struck me as plum crazy before I became open to the spiritual world.

Here's what I mean: If there's any truth at all to the notion that we plan our lives prior to being born--and I've heard this from way too many sources not to take it seriously--then couldn't it be said that each of us incarnates for the express purpose of playing a role?

My understanding is that between earthly lives, we decide on certain parameters for our next incarnation, based on what we need or want to focus on in that particular life. We design our new selves, choosing specific strengths, talents, challenges, etc.

We even set up meetings with soul mates with whom we wish to interact.

In other words, much as an author would, we write the very broad outlines of a play, and assign ourselves a role in that drama, with the understanding that we will be called upon heavily to improvise, making up much of the script as we go along.

And looked at in that way, our role-playing is not a survival strategy or distraction, but our reason for being here. And how well we play that role, a matter of great importance.

For much of my life, the idea of acting out a role horrified me. The idea that some people were "fated" to be poor or abused, while others were chosen to be wealthy or loved, was not an idea that I cherished, to say the least.

But since I've come to understand that I'm only in this particular body for a limited time, and that I will have--and HAVE had--endless opportunities for other kinds of adventures, I'm much more comfortable with (here's that word again) the ROLE I seem to be called on to play here.

And my persona no longer seems quite as arbitrary, tragically limited, nor artificial (which is not to say that I'm not full of bullshit at times).


"people who have elaborate Ndes have no problem like you described."

True. But people who have alien abduction experiences similarly believe that the event was physically real. People who take hallucinogenic drugs often believe that their experiences were real. I'm not sure this proves much.

"We don't have the societal will to investigate these things and consequently we don't have the money to spend on them."

There's a lot of truth in that, but at the same time it's worth noting that life after death is not a scientific hypothesis, so even with unlimited money it still couldn't be established scientifically. The reason it's not a scientific hypothesis is that it's not falsifiable. If the AWARE study comes up empty, it will not falsify the afterlife hypothesis because we can argue, as Bruce does (and as I have myself), that the NDErs simply weren't paying attention to the targets. If a medium is tested and scores no better than chance, we can argue that he/she wasn't a very good medium or was having an off-day. Etc. So while evidence can be adduced in favor of the afterlife hypothesis, no definitive evidence can ever be adduced against it, even in principle. This doesn't mean there is no afterlife; it only means that the question (like the existence of God) is not one that can be resolved by scientific investigation, even though such investigations can yield -- and have yielded -- interesting and provocative data.

"for some believers their belief is based on extraordinary knowledge while the skeptic's beliefs are always based on conclusions that he derives from a complete LACK of extraordinary knowledge, in other words, ignorance."

The trouble is that what the believer regards as extraordinary knowledge may be seen by others as delusion, imagination, hallucination, etc. For instance, "alien abductees" claim to have extraordinary knowledge, but those of us who have not been abducted can hardly be expected to take their word for it. And I don't think we would necessarily say that the "abductee" is in a stronger position to evaluate his own claims than a more neutral observer.

Now, I think the evidence for life after death is better than the evidence for alien abductions. But it's not conclusive by any means. It's suggestive, that's all.

A little addendum to my last comment. Maybe it would be instructive to make a clear distinction between the genuine role each of us devises for ourself before (re)entering the Earth environment, and the false roles we sometimes lazily adopt, once here.

For example, Michael says:

"Still, increasingly I'm aware that my interest in this subject is based, at least in part, on the enjoyment of contemplating something outre and unconventional. I've created a persona for myself, and I play a role appropriate to this persona."

Frankly, I don't see much evidence of that. I wouldn't be drawn to this blog if I didn't see, first and foremost, a real passion for grappling with "matters of life death" (as it says up top).

But if Michael says he's a bit of a phony, well, I can believe that. We all are.

And maybe it's pretty obvious, both to ourselves and others, when we're playing our true, divinely-inspired part to the hilt, and when we're doing something less than that.

"The trouble is that what the believer regards as extraordinary knowledge may be seen by others as delusion, imagination, hallucination, etc."

That's not a problem so much as a raw fact of life for us as individual people.

If we are in a car together and you pass out and tell me an elaborate story about being abducted by aliens when you wake up, and I clearly did not have the same experience during that time, then it's something of a mystery and it may be open to the criticism that it's all inside your head, although I don't know it's as simple as that either, so my position there to speak about something I have no experience of is weaker as well. It may be a hallucination, whatever that means, or it may not be. I simply do not know. But that is an extreme case that hardly captures all the varieties of extraordinary knowledge that do have multiple witnesses all seeing the same things.

To the skeptic who wasn't there, you NEVER have extraordinary knowledge, and he can prove it by always concocting a normal explanation for something he has no experience of, and congratulating himself for saving the universe from irrationality afterward.

Sure, there are events where the facts are unclear and there is some room for interpretation of what actually happened and some people may dubiously interpret what happened as extraordinary in those cases. But then there are events where what happened is so blatantly extraordinary that it boggles the mind. It would be equivalent to a skeptic who wasn't there trying to convince you that the horrific auto accident you witnessed didn't happen.

Perception is perception whether the object is mundane or mind boggling.

Wow! Brilliant post by Michael with many equally brilliant responses. I have a lot to say here, but I wanted to jump in with this and then finish my work for the weekend and then come back.

Cyrus: people who have elaborate Ndes have no problem like you described.

Michael: True. But people who have alien abduction experiences similarly believe that the event was physically real. People who take hallucinogenic drugs often believe that their experiences were real. I'm not sure this proves much.

---

Sorry to start on a point of disagreement, but I believe that the fact that nearly/actually 100% of people claim that their NDEs were real is VERY strong evidence of the Afterlife.

First, I have never read of an actual case of a named person who in detail and emphatically claimed that his/her classic NDE was not real, a dream, a hallucination, etc. IIRC, Keith Augustine describes or hints at a case in his essay "Hallucinatory NDEs."

In any event, the number is virtually zero. Why should this be? The easiest thing that skeptics could do to flush NDEs as evidence down the drain would be to find a substantial number of people to describe the false nature of NDEs. To describe how they are disorganized or ephemeral or insubstantial like dreams.

According to the skeptics, NDEs are absolutely nothing more dreams or hallucinations. They are 100% unambiguously false content. Where are the people who have had NDEs and seen through the false content? There is no one. Is this plausible or even possible based on what we know of statistics? There is never 100% agreement on anything! Shouldn't there be a bell curve in this case, as there is in so much else in nature. OK, maybe a slightly skewed distribution, but some sort of distribution nevertheless? E.g., 15% Strongly disbelieve, 20% Disbelieve, 50% Neither disbelieve nor believe, 10% Believe, 5% Strongly believe.

That's realistic, right? Yet... instead, the skeptics find themselves in the unenviable position of implying that no matter how rational you are, no matter how good a skeptic you are, no matter how big and smart an atheist you are, you WILL end up believing your NDE if you have one. You WILL end believing 100% false and hallucinatory content--no matter what!

As for the counter examples, I don't think they work.

Alien abductees. An alien abductee is almost by definition someone who claims that his or her experience is real. It seems, however, that there are many people who have had similar or related experiences who don't claim them to be real or don't assert their reality with much confidence.

The reason is that there is almost some type of memory lapse, etc., involved in the experience. People often describe them as confused, hard to remember, remembered long after the fact, etc. Their claims about their "reality" seem much different than those of NDErs.

That said, I certainly don't assume that there is nothing real about abduction experiences. I would only say that there is no unity of claims of reality as there is with NDEs, and the claims themselves are different in kind.

My personal guess is that abductees are not being abducted by actual extraterrestrials but are traveling to an alternate dimension whose reality does not mesh perfectly well with our own. That's why their experiences are "real" on one level but rarely have physical consequences in our world (for example, why are abductees almost never severely hurt or killed?).

Drug users. This seems a "different in kind" type of claim again. When NDEers claim what they experienced was "real," I think they mean that the world they experienced continues to exist and they can return to it again when they die. I.e., it's connected to our world and maintains a constant and consistent relationship with it (you go there when you die).

I have heard of MDA users claiming that what they experienced was "real," but I have not heard them claim that they have experienced a world that they can return to.

The same thing goes for dreams, I think. I have had many powerful and "real" experiences in my dreams; but, with not just a few exceptions, I do not feel that I can go back to those worlds (except in the limited sense of recurring dreams).

I think "real" for us in the everyday world has in large part to do with the continuity and pertinence of experience. Continuity: If I throw a ball through a window and break it, then, oh damn! I know that it will still be a problem 10 minutes from now. Pertinence: I know that the characters in Lord of the Rings cannot affect my life except as fictional characters, but I also know that Stalin and Madame Curie have affected my life and that I affect other people's lives through the great chain of interaction.

People who have NDEs come away from them believing in the continuity and pertinence of their experiences. Alien abductees seem to have less strong beliefs in this area, and drug experiencers do not seem to come away with beliefs in this area.
We don't know how many people who have had similar or related experiences don't bother to come forward since they don't consider their experiences to be real or a big deal.

Keith in his essay tries to provide examples of what he believes are NDEs that fit this category, but they do not come from the experiencers, and I think his examples are weak.

Further, NDErs' claims of reality are backed up by the fact that their experiences rarely if ever contradict reality. E.g., there are virtually no cases in which someone sees a dead person as living or a living person as dead. (I think Keith gives an example of a person seeing a living person around his/her bed. I.e., a person there who was distant and could not be there. I don't consider that a very strong example, since we New Agers believe, in general, that people can be present in spirit even when they are distant.) Plus, many people having NDEs have found out that people were dead through their experiences who they could not have known were dead. E.g., people who came back knowing who was dead and alive after an accident.

Add to that the veridical nature of many NDE OBEs, and you've got a strong dovetailing between claims of reality and what we normally call "reality."

I wrote:

Keith in his essay tries to provide examples of what he believes are NDEs that fit this category, but they do not come from the experiencers, and I think his examples are weak.

What I meant was that the experiencers do not themselves claim that their NDEs were hallucinatory.

I want to walk back my earlier comment, when I said the afterlife hypothesis is not scientific because it is not falsifiable. Thinking about it some more, I realized this isn't correct. What I overlooked was the distinction between a hypothesis/theory and an empirical fact.

The existence or nonexistence of an afterlife is an empirical question. Even though it would presumably exist in another dimension of reality, its existence would still be a brute fact. There either is an afterlife or there isn't. If we can prove it exists, then it exists. I don't think we have proved it, but at least there's evidence that points to the strong possibility that such a dimension exists.

The Popperian falsifiability test, on the other hand, applies to theories, not empirical facts. If someone were to develop a specific, testable theory about the afterlife, the Popperian criterion would apply. But it doesn't apply to empirical facts as such. These can be determined only by finding evidence.

To give an example: If someone proposed that the afterlife can be accessed by altering brainwaves through some sort of "God helmet," this would be a testable theory. Volunteers would wear the helmet and report their experiences. If (given an adequate sample) none of them reported anything unusual, then this particular theory would be disproved.

So there are ways of testing (and potentially falsifying) specific hypotheses that relate to the afterlife. In that sense, afterlife research can be considered scientific.

Mea culpa (Latin for "my bad").


Matt said: "I believe that the fact that nearly/actually 100% of people claim that their NDEs were real is VERY strong evidence of the Afterlife."

And: "According to the skeptics, NDEs are absolutely nothing more dreams or hallucinations. They are 100% unambiguously false content. Where are the people who have had NDEs and seen through the false content? There is no one."

This is excellent, Matt. You're saying something that I've long felt, but have never expressed or formulated so clearly.

As someone who's had some powerful, life-changing altered-state experiences myself, I've long found it frustrating that someone who has not had an NDE or similar experience himself, is nevertheless quick to jump in and tell you what such an experience is REALLY all about.

And yet, at the same time, I can understand how natural that is, because I know how hard--impossible, actually--it would have been for me, before my own first dip into these waters, to take seriously, much less truly understand, anyone else's claim of a profound mystical experience.

I wish I had had your words in front of me a week ago or so when I was debating someone in the Skeptiko forum. He described an NDE as "a messed up brain thinking weird things."

I said: But you clearly haven't had a profoundly transformative experience like the ones I'm referring to, and certainly not one that in any way resembles an NDE. If you had, you'd never in a million years be content to describe it as "a messed up brain thinking weird things".

To which he replied: I probably would.

And what I needed to say to him at that point was that he'd be the first to do so.

But now, Matt, I have to differ with you, to an extent. You said:

"I have heard of MDA users claiming that what they experienced was "real," but I have not heard them claim that they have experienced a world that they can return to."

Actually, if you read many of the accounts of people who have had powerful psychedelic-triggered experiences (as described in DMT: The Spirit Molecule, for example), they do seem to be saying precisely that. Under the influence, they were visiting "places" and entities to which they kept returning.

And Rick Strassman, the researcher and author of the book, who began as somewhat of a skeptic, ended up, I think it's fair to say, agreeing with them.


I needed another couple of paragraphs in my last comment, somewhere near the top:

I know it's not fashionable to say this, but I think we need to give more weight to what NDErs themselves have to say as to the meaning of their experience. We tend to lean too heavily on the analyses of those who are on the outside looking in, regardless of how brilliant they are and how qualified they may appear to be.

Anyone who doubts this needs to consider the enormous variety of seemingly intelligent and credible experiencers, including (former) atheists, scientists, and others; the sheer number of NDErs; and (as Matt says) their virtually unanimous agreement as to what the NDE is and what it means.

MP wrote:

and the (in my opinion) inadequately supervised materialization experiments conducted with David Thompson.

There have never been any materializtion experiments with David Thompson no matter what he or Victor Zammit claim.

Materializtion has to be SEEN to be veridical.

His seances are always in the dark.

Neither Thompson nor Zammit have ever attended a materialization seance.

Bruce,

In which case, my ignorance, my bad. All the better for my argument about this one point of Michael's (I'm going to be fulsome in my praise of this post later, trust me. It is fantastic).

I came up with a further argument in the shower, if you will all indulge me again.

If I may paraphrase Michael's argument (I think Michael's actually thinking is more subtle than this, but the semi-straw man I think will help to prove a point):

*We know that people who claim to have been "really" abducted by aliens or have "really" been to other place on drug trips are mistaken. Since we know that they are mistaken, their claims that their experiences were real cannot serve as evidence that their experiences were real. Since we do not allow this evidence in the case of people who are obviously mistaken, then we should not allow it in any case at all.

This argument is incorrect, and I'll tell you why again, this time from a philosophical standpoint. But here's an obvious example that helps show why the argument is baseless.

This is a true example. One of my best friends is a very gifted psychic. He is also very lucid, rational, and, in my opinion, non-crazy. He claims to see fairies on a regular basis. He sees them flit around the room, pop out from the woods, etc.

I personally am agnostic as to whether the fairies he sees are "real." Fairies are not a part of my experience. If I had to form an opinion about every experience anyone I knew ever had, I'd never be finished.

But let's assume he's mistaken in his belief and that his experiences are hallucinations. Would it be correct to argue, "Matt's friend's experience is clearly unreal, so the fact that NDErs claim that their experience was real is no good as evidence"?

I think this argument fails the red face test. Here's why it does.

If 100% of NDErs claimed that their experience was a dream or hallucination, we would not have a phenomenon to talk about in the first place.

If, say, 80% of NDErs said that their experience was a dream or hallucination and 20% said that it was real, we would probably be inclined to think that the two types were having the same kind of experience (if the descriptions matched) and the 20% indeed had a powerful experience but that it probably was a dream. Especially if there was no veridical evidence, etc.

If the numbers were reversed, and 80% said it was real and 20% said it was a dream, we would still have a serious problem. Skeptics would have a field day with this and praise the 20% as those who were smart enough to see through the illusion. This would still be very strong evidence for the skeptics.

As stated before, the actual number of NDErs appears to be 0%. Heck, the skeptics have not even been able to find a couple of patsies who were be willing to claim that their NDEs were false, which surprises me a lot.

Now, at this point, the argument does NOT prove that NDEs are real. But it *does* put the skeptics on the horns of a dilemma:

1. Either NDEs are, as the experiencers claim, real or

2. There has to be a materialist-reductionist explanation for the phenomenon (coherent, real-seeming, experiencing ultimate love, compassion, transcendence while the brain is in a catastrophically dysfunctional state).

The skeptics are of course force to choose door #2, which, taken on its own terms, is actually one of the most interesting questions in science today. But of course they just hand-wave it away. "Oh, it's just the dying brain, a lack of oxygen, an excess of carbon dioxide." Just get it away from me, off me! One of the most interesting questions in science, but they'd like just to find a simple "reason." As though we'd be done with the issue if CO2 were the cause. Solve that, cool!

Put more simply, the fact that 0% of NDErs claim that their experiences were real makes those experiences unlike any dream, hallucination, or mental phenomenon we know about. It is this claim that makes explaining NDEs away so very difficult. That's why it's important evidence.

By the way, I think alien abduction stories put skeptics on the horns of a dilemma too. I just don't think it's as powerful a dilemma.

Our best hope may be to become more aware of the artificiality of the roles we play, and of the insubstantiality of even our most cherished convictions.

Or alternatively based on personal experience.

My introduction to the subject, more than fifty years ago, came through Mona van der Watt, a Scottish medium living in South Africa. Her husband was a psychologist.

When demonstrating her mediumship in public, or in private, all could hear the spirit voices talking to her. This took place in the light.

I thought all mediums were like that but it wasn't till I came to England that I found it wasn't so.

However, during my life I met many other fine mediums such Alec Harris (materialiation), Leslie Flint ( Independent Direct Voice medium), Gordon Higginson (mental and physical medium), Maurice Barbanell (trance medium for Silver Birch) and many others who have given me a wealth of survival evidence.

All the speculation in the world cannot replace personal experience.

"Here's what I mean: If there's any truth at all to the notion that we plan our lives prior to being born--and I've heard this from way too many sources not to take it seriously--then couldn't it be said that each of us incarnates for the express purpose of playing a role?"

That could all be true, Bruce. My sense, though, is that much of the astral/spirit world is still subject to human perceptual organization. The notion of 'thought form' is along these lines. Our thoughts are still creating order out of infinity.

And I don't see anything inherently wrong with any of that per se. The trouble starts when we forget what we are doing is somewhat arbitrary and we start to take it too seriously.

I had never thought about it before, but you guys are onto something. It does seem particularly interesting that people having NDEs are absolutely consistent in their assertion that the experience was "real" and not illusory.

"I think alien abduction stories put skeptics on the horns of a dilemma too. I just don't think it's as powerful a dilemma."

I read John Mack's books years ago and found him to be brave and persuasive. I was pretty much convinced that there was a genuine and compelling mystery there, whatever the "solution" may turn out to be.

But since Mack died--what, 10 years ago or so?--I keep looking for more research in this area, and am not finding any. So to be honest, I've stopped thinking about it much.

With NDE's, on the other hand, it's nice to see that people are still dying, coming back to life, and telling us about it. :o)

"I came up with a further argument in the shower, if you will all indulge me again"

Absolutely, Matt. Take as many showers as you like.

Haha, Bruce.

Alien abduction just isn't one of my "things." I read Communion Whitley Strieber (who's my friend on FB now!) and found it very compelling. But I have not managed to connection the alien dots with the rest of my worldview. I guess one can't do everything, right?

Fulsome praise time.

Michael, you've written the kind of post that we wish skeptics would write. That skeptics should write. Heck, that more people should just plain write.

You question your assumptions, your worldview... everything. This is true skepticism.

You go meta on the whole damn thing. You unflinchingly peer at it.

Further, you seek to understand the skeptics here as we would like to be understood by them--but never are. Indeed, you subject your assumptions and your worldview to a stricter and more disciplined critique than a skeptic is likely to give, considering how much they favor the straw man. Yet would you ever read a blog post by a skeptic entitled, "Do I really disbelieve all this stuff we're supposed to disbelieve?"

Hell no.

In short, you gave yourself the kind of reality check that we *all* need to give ourselves on a regular basis.

I had the highest level of respect for your blog and your writing before this post, but now... Wow, man, this was simply amazing!

"The trouble starts when we forget what we are doing is somewhat arbitrary and we start to take it too seriously."

I agree. That's the trick: to find a balance between taking our role seriously enough to meet an earthly challenge or two, while not losing the ability to step back occasionally and have a good laugh.

I think the strongest evidence for some form of survival actually doesn't come from survival research but the accumulated evidence of parapsychology over the last 70 - 80 years. This database overwhelmingly points to non-local linkages to the outside world and each other. This is the part of us that continues after physical dissolution.

ps... I agree with everything Matt wrote above!

"I'm aware that my interest in this subject is based, at least in part, on the enjoyment of contemplating something outre and unconventional."

It's only outre and unconventional if you are coming from the perspective of materialism, which currently dominates our mainstream science. Outside of that particular perspective, there is nothing unconventional about believing in an afterlife. The majority of Americans are not materialists, and many scientists are not.

But materialism seems to be catching on with Americans who feel they are educated and sophisticated. It has been a gradual progress, and it seems to be increasing. The fact that someone can say belief in the afterlife is unconventional is a little startling.

But it all depends on you social context. If a lot of you friends have been brainwashed into materialism, then you would see that as the prevailing ideology, even though it isn't. And never was, in any known society!

Science has advanced. In particular there is much more awareness of how easily experimenters' expectations and hopes can influence observation and interpretation of an experiment. Some fields, such as much of physics, still lags in this regard, but even in these fields, there has been improvement over the last 75 years or so. This is why statistical treatments and double blind conditions have become a requirement in many fields.

Do I have to point out that, however much it is ignored by the mainstream, these techniques were, to a large extent, invented and pioneered in parapsychology?

In other words -- in all fields, experiments were not as rigorous "back then" -- not because the researchers were more sloppy but because they, quite literally, did not know any better.

"But materialism seems to be catching on with Americans who feel they are educated and sophisticated."

I agree with the sentiment - assuming I am accurately catching the implied sense that the education and sophistication are facades.

I have lived a rather unusual life in that I have had the opportunity to be considered neighbors, classmates or peers with everyone from true captains of US industry (Ford, Dow, Gamble....) to corporate senior management and consultants to military brass down to soy bean and horse farmers and a lot of characters in between.

I'll admit I've never been directly exposed to any leading scientists like a Hawkings or a Dawkins. However, I have confidence that they follow the same pattern.

Leading individuals that I have known tend to have a limited number of successes, flash in the pan moments of brilliance pertaining to narrowly focussed subject matter, during a phase of a few years in their lives. They gain a reputation as a genius at that time and they are forever blessed with the reputation if they can promote it and defend it. They become invested in dedicating their energies to furthering their self promotion to the point where they are no longer advancing the original cause. If they are effective in that regard, they are still considered worth listening to even though their perspectives are no longer leading edge or even relevant.

Worse, their now outdated tired perspectives can trump those of new kids on the block who really are leading edge and relevant.

There is a lot of hero worship involved. People - especially Americans - love their heros.

I mean, honestly, who really knows what Steven Hawkings is talking about? He could be rattling off a bunch of incoherent mumbo jumbo. Would you know? If you suspected as much would you say so? How could you? It would be your mumbo jumbo again his and he is the credentialed genius.

Personally, I don't see where Hawkings has much to say that is pertinent to the price of tea in China. And I really don't why his opinion of spirituality or life after death is any more weighty than the guy who bags groceries for a living. I sure wouldn't ask Hawkings about the best training approach for a thoroughbred race horse, how to maintain an M16 rifle, how to meet that woman that I'm crazy about, but haven't spoken to yet, how to write a bridge to that song I've been working on, how to fix the transmission on my jeep.....and on and on and on.....so why do we feel compelled to ask him about life ater death? Who freakin' cares what he says about it? And here's the odd thing, if you asked him about something like proper maintainence of military hardware, he'd probably tell you that he doesn't know and to refer to the manual. When it comes to life after death/religion, he has no problem offering an opinion like he knows what he is talking about. He becomes a politician, a representative of a constituency, replete with special interest group funding, etc etc.

Who trusts politicians? Are there any honest politicians?

This is how it goes with socially recognized "smart people". I am leary of them, myself.

In my humble experience I have found that smart people usually aren't that smart. There are a few things they know - or once knew - well and they leverage that limited set to gain money and fame and prestige.

I'd rather make up my own mind, thank you kindly.

At one time there was a lot of interest in parapsychology about "fear of psi." Charley Tart, for example, did a lot of work studying this. In a nutshell psi phenomena gives people the willies -- even those who believe in it.

Among the believers, this creates a cognitive dissonance which the need to deal with. Various coping mechanisms are evident.

It has been hypothesized that this dissonance may be a major limitation for individuals to achieve strong psi. It is notable that almost all "special psi subjects" seem to have strong coping mechanisms in place, e.g., "I don't do it, God chooses to work through me", "I don't do it, the flying saucer people work through me", or "This isn't anything much, everybody does it all the time -- they just don't notice." Most importantly, almost all strong subjects seem to have quite specific and strong beliefs about limitations and conditions under which they can operate, which become self-fulfilling (this is generally ignored by debunkers -- if restrictions don't make sense to them then any subject who insists on those restrictions must be trying to obfuscate and make excuses).

Among researcher's one generally finds a different set of coping mechanisms. Frequently, a tendency to deny the profundity of the phenomena when they get too real (however, much they talk about how revolutionary it is when they are dealing with it in the aspect). In other words -- it is common to treat it as a game or a ritual.

(Coming soon, by the way: my own blog about these things -- probably as w3 dot topherc dot net slash blogs slash metaskepticism, though I haven't decided absolutely on the name. I spelled this out to avoid spiders from following the link before it is set up and perhaps marking it as inactive).

" there is nothing unconventional about believing in an afterlife."

That's a good point, realpc. But with regard to Michael's blog, what may put it outside mainstream American thought is Michael's insistence on approaching his subject matter scientifically and rationally.

The New York Times, for example, wouldn't dream of disparaging church-going or prayer (talking to a non-physical being). It's not politically correct to put down religion or its leaders.

But will it take a serious look at research into things like after-death communication, OBE's or NDE's? Hardly. And the same is true of many people who are either religious or well-educated.

"Personally, I don't see where Hawkings has much to say that is pertinent to the price of tea in China. "

Great post, no one. What you're saying reinforces my comment that the most important qualification for understanding the near-death experience is having one.

Thanks, all, for the kind words.

I believe there have been at least a few cases of NDErs who were unimpressed with their experience. Though I can't provide a citation, I recall one case (possibly investigated by Sabom, but I'm not sure) in which a rather hard-bitten older guy, a retired military type, had a vivid NDE but regarded it as unimportant, presumably a fantasy, and said he still didn't believe in life after death.

Such cases seem exceedingly rare, though.

Topher, I'm sure your blog will be worthwhile. Please leave a comment with the final working address when it is up and running. I would add it to my blog roll, except I have never figured out how to install a blog roll on this site.

Realpc, I think an interest in empirical evidence for life after death does count as unconventional. Let's put it this way: If a presidential candidate announced this interest, would he be widely regarded as intellectually adventurous, or as a weirdo? I'm betting "weirdo." Even in the heyday of Spiritualism, there was a stigma attached to this pastime.

"All the speculation in the world cannot replace personal experience."

You're right, Zerdini, but such experience is hard to come by. And I find myself second-guessing such experiences even when I do have them.

Another thought about the New York Times (and mainstream media, in general.)

It wouldn't dream of making light of prayer (talking to a non-physical being). But how about when that non-physical being talks to you (channeling)?

That's just plain silly.

You're right, Zerdini, but such experience is hard to come by. And I find myself second-guessing such experiences even when I do have them.

I agree that such experience is hard to come by nowadays, but it wasn't always so.

There were many opportunities during the last fifty years.

When one talks to God it's called prayer but when God talks to you it's called paranoid schizophrenia.

"...I recall one case (possibly investigated by Sabom, but I'm not sure) in which a rather hard-bitten older guy, a retired military type, had a vivid NDE but regarded it as unimportant, presumably a fantasy, and said he still didn't believe in life after death...."

Not surprised; there's always going to be someone of that bent. That being said, I think that interview techniques are critical.

Being somewhat familiar with the hard-bitten retired military personality, I can imagine standardized and/or superficial interview approaches that would most likely elicit the, "it was a bunch of bunk" response. I can equally as well imagine the same interviewee, after a few drinks and a couple hours or so of gently dancing around the topic, coming out and honestly stating how he felt about it; like, " I dunno, this proly sounds crazy, but it wasn't like a regular dream or morphine high. It seemed very real".

That type of character has a knee jerk tendency to down play his own feelings; especially regarding non-conformist experiences. He also requires time to search his true feelings and become OK with them before releasing them to his own consciousness and conscience, where they are further processed before being approved for final release to external parties.

If he is a combat vet, then there is yet another layer of processing in which he needs to be sure that anything felt intensely will be safe for surface discussion and won't cause emotional - perhaps physical - seismic disruptions for himself or others.

Any trial lawyer wil tell you that it takes real talent and experience to get accurate testimony out of a witness when it is a factual event under examination. How much more difficult when there is a need to systematically study unusual subjective events.


""...I recall one case (possibly investigated by Sabom, but I'm not sure) in which a rather hard-bitten older guy, a retired military type, had a vivid NDE but regarded it as unimportant, presumably a fantasy, and said he still didn't believe in life after death….""

OK, folks. I just happen to have Sabom's book nearby and I checked this out. Interestingly, this guy, who is indeed described as a retired Air Force pilot, is the same guy who made a splash by describing the unusual dial on the face of the defibrillator, as well as details about medical equipment and personnel.

So, in a book filled with veridical evidence about the OBE, his case may be the most impressive of all.

And, he is exactly the exception to the rule we are discussing, because he says:
"It's like a dream….Really, the only explanation I have is that the brain still functions even though it is partially dead….Everybody believes you are out cold, but you are still perceiving things. . . . It hasn't changed my thinking about life, death, the hereafter, or anything...It's one of the facts of life you can't explain."

And Sabom says: "In the two and half years following our initial interview, this man has consistently maintained the same attitude towards his NDE."

I read this book many years ago, and remember well my puzzlement. The guy saw things that, even if his eyes had been open, he could not have seen. (I THINK that's the case, though I can't find, at the moment, a statement to that effect by Sabom.)

At minimum, I can't see, in any case, how his eyes could have been open.

So how could he not have been impressed by his ability to observe those details?

It may be significant that he added: "It's one of the facts of life you can't explain." Because that seems to indicate that he's not insisting that his ability to pick out those details could be explained by normal perception.

It's as if he'd prefer that the experience have no explanation at all, rather than one that might change his worldview.

But then, what I'm doing here is not unlike what I'm criticizing others for--trying to tell someone what his NDE is all about!

I agree with 'no one''s comment regarding Hawking. Unless he has looked at the evidence his opinion on the subject is worthless as far as I can see.

What would have been useful is his informed and considered opinion based on the collected evidence. Expressing so dogmatic an opinion without considering the evidence or referring to it is, IMHO, an error of judgement. One might wonder whether such errors extend into other areas where it is more difficult to assess.

"What you're saying reinforces my comment that the most important qualification for understanding the near-death experience is having one."

I think so.

Our society is suffering from a plague of experts who have little or no first hand knowledge of their subject matter. No subject matter is immune from the phenomenon.

I first became aware of it when I was a young man on the scene and the aged and strangley elfin - and decidely not hot - Dr. Ruth was everywhere lecturing about hot sex.

Now there is Dr Sadjay Gupta. He's an expert on healthcare reform, he's an economist, but, there he is in Iraq! - a doctor again - discussing the realities of everything from gunshot wounds to (and now he's a psychiatrist) PTSD.... blink of an eye and he's at the site of a hurricane discussing the public health ramifications of that incident.....

We have stodgey pudgey men who have never left the ivory covered walls of Cambridge telling us all about how tough Afghani mountain fighters think, feel and react.

There are guys in white coats who watch rats do whatever in a sterile laboratory for three decades and then tell us that their observations have bearing on our daily (human) lives.

We have had a grade B movie star elected US President (twice!).

All severly lactose intolerant individuals who are going to tell you all about the 31 flavors of ice cream they have never eaten.

Or, maybe they did eat it, once, and, due to their biology, got sick. Now they will tell you it is bad and that you will get sick too.

So, yeah, regarding the NDE (or the OBE), who you gonna believe? the expert or your own lying eyes?

I think the type of questioning that Michael is doing is necessary, but once done, whatever is decided must be a matter of personal conviction based ultimately on one's own perceptions. Actually, I think that is true of just about anything in life.

The herd is mediocre by definition. Yet it always pressures those few members beyond a standard deviation to conform. Social and biological evolution comes from the vanguards who resist the pressure and follow their own perceptions.

Thanks for digging up that Sabbom reference, Bruce. Very interesting indeed.

"Leading individuals that I have known tend to have a limited number of successes, flash in the pan moments of brilliance pertaining to narrowly focussed subject matter, during a phase of a few years in their lives. They gain a reputation as a genius at that time and they are forever blessed with the reputation if they can promote it and defend it. "

That's true. Certain people are worshiped all their lives because they discover something early in life that grabs the public's attention. No matter what they say, on any subject, after that, tends to be believed, however ludicrous. This is especially true if the individual happens to have a charismatic and forceful personality.

"I think an interest in empirical evidence for life after death does count as unconventional."

Ok, after I commented I realized that believing in an afterlife is not the same as studying it scientifically. Most believers are not interested in scientific evidence for their beliefs. People who are genuinely interested in psychical research have probably never been more than a very small minority.

It used to be more acceptable than it is now -- for example, William James was involved in it. But now you will seldom hear of a well-known psychologist who dares express an interest.

The acceptance of neo-Darwinism is probably the main reason materialism has been catching on over the past 60 years. Some of us know that neo-Darwinism is bunk, but most smart educated people have been brainwashed.

So anyway, psychical research is out of fashion, and you are unconventional for caring about it.

I also thank you, Bruce for the Sabbom reference.

It's instructive. It shows us that this type of case can exist and how it would look. If one old guy can think and feel that way, then there ought to be dozens more, right?

What seems to be different between him and others who have had NDEs is not so much the content but the emotional reaction to it. It just seems not to have affected him. This is precisely what we would expect from atheists and others who have a worldview to protect and thus a stake in NDEs being nothing more than hallucinations; yet, it seems precisely because of the emotional whallop that NDEs pack that many an atheist has woken up a believer.

As I said before, I am intrigued that the skeptics have not come up with many more such people. Is it from trying and failing or being too lazy to try? Either is plausible.

"As I said before, I am intrigued that the skeptics have not come up with many more such people. Is it from trying and failing or being too lazy to try? Either is plausible."

I'll bet it's because there aren't many such cases to be found. What passionate atheist or Skeptic would not love to de-bunk NDEs? Because it seems to me that publishing a book (or at least a paper) detailing a multitude of unconverted or unimpressed experiencers would be a ticket to Skeptical stardom.

Change that to superstardom. :o)

Bruce,

I think you're correct. Keith did not come up with much for his essay, although he did cite a lot of other sources. Which implies that the "it was a dream" sources are not out there.

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