Posts Tagged ‘near death experience’
Posted in Afterlife, Book Reviews, Science and Religion, Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged Bahá'í Faith, consciousness, David Bohm, Jenny Wade, Mark Fox, NDE, near death experience, Positive Disintegration, The Master and his Emissary on 29/10/2014 | Leave a Comment »
Last week I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this next sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well so that all the related posts have been reblogged close together. There are four posts in this sequence. The second will be published tomorrow and the other two on Saturday and Sunday.
When I first read Jenny Wade’s book, Changes of Mind, I was carried away when she hypothesises that the highest possible stage of the development of human consciousness is Unity Consciousness. As ‘unity’ is a Bahá’í mantra, this was enough in itself to guarantee my complete attention and disarm my disagreements.
But there was more. This level of development was the last of nine. In Arabic numerology nine is the numerical value of the word at the core of the name of this Revelation: ‘Bahá.’ I was entranced. I wrote ‘Brilliant!’ inside the front flyleaf after I’d finished the book.
Because my recent reading of Dabrowski (see three earlier posts) has sensitised me to the possibility of categorising levels of consciousness and perhaps even character development, I decided to re-read her book.
I have decided this time round that it is brilliant (for different reasons though) but flawed.
Still brilliant after all these years
Her reflections on lateralisation and its relationship with the development of consciousness are intriguing and will probably prompt me to revisit Iain McGilchrist to check them out more thoroughly, but as it stands I resonate strongly to what she says. She maps out her levels of consciousness against the back drop of lateralisation and mounts a compelling argument for the value but extreme difficulty of achieving a proper balance in our lives between the operation of the two hemispheres of the brain. But more of that in the next post.
Her most interesting observations to me at present relate to the way that her model maps closely onto Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration in key respects. She analyses, in a more close-grained fashion than Dabrowski, which kind of conflict and discomfort spurs us to move up from the comfort zone of our present level of consciousness to the next step up the ladder of awareness.
It is probably only fair to add that I am completely incapable of properly evaluating the foundation of her thesis in Bohm’s work on the implicate order as I simply do not understand Bohm’s thinking well enough. You may well wish to stop reading at this point if you feel I have totally disqualified myself from commenting on her other lines of thought.
My simple summary of what I think she means in terms of Bohm is this. There is a hidden order and a visible one. Both are inextricably intertwined. The visible, or perhaps more accurately, the accessible order is the material world as we commonly experience it. The hidden order (though transcendent, timeless and placeless) is also expressed in and through the physical world here and now. Our highest self exists fully realised already in the hidden order but remains invisible to almost all of us. The purpose of our lives is to come to a realisation and expression of and identification with that self, consciously in the visible order. When we do so all ego and desire will fall away, and self in any sense we currently understand it fades away completely. If we fail, in her view we are reincarnated again to have another go. Moving up the levels of consciousness is primarily about cleansing the lens of perception so that we can experience in its true nature what is currently hidden from us.
For those of you who have continued reading, we need to look slightly more closely at the first of the themes I mentioned, and later at the other two in even greater detail.
Near-Death Experiences (NDEs):
One of the key problems here is that she fails to recognise, from the evidence available to her at the time, that NDE-type experiences are not uniquely linked to close encounters with death as she contends (page 324) on the basis of evidence drawn from Morse. Fox’s access to the RERC data enabled him to recognise the common elements between so-called NDE experiences and other mystical and spiritual states where there was neither a threat to life nor any kind of trauma. She does though accept (page 239), but more cautiously than Fox, that ‘near-death consciousness . . . appears to share some characteristics of Transcendent consciousness.’
She also rather too uncritically accepts a long list of core elements (pages 225-226), something about which Fox’s critical re-examination has caused me to be rather more sceptical.
Given that NDEs are very much secondary to her main thesis and her treatment of the issue covers a mere 24 pages out of her total of 341, it is perhaps not too surprising that it falls short of Fox’s focused and thorough treatment.
It certainly does not seriously blemish the overall case she is seeking to make. More of that next time.
A good friend alerted me to a recent article on the Independent website on the subject of work by Sam Parnia on near-death and out-of-body experiences, an obsession of mine about which I have blogged frequently. They refer to an article in the Telegraph which gives more detail. The paper itself is published on the Resuscitation website. Only the Abstract is available to the general reader. The conclusion, expressed in far more cautious terms than the newspaper article, is:
CA [cardiac arrest] survivors commonly experience a broad range of cognitive themes, with 2% exhibiting full awareness. This supports other recent studies that have indicated consciousness may be present despite clinically undetectable consciousness. This together with fearful experiences may contribute to PTSD and other cognitive deficits post CA.
Below is an extract from the Telegraph article: for the full post see link.
Do we deserve them?
It was initially believed that troubling NDEs are extremely rare. Later research indicates that as many as one out of five NDEs may be distressing.
Some components of all NDEs are becoming readily recognizable (1015):
Pleasurable or distressing, NDEs are likely to include an out-of-body episode, a sense of journeying, encounters with presences, and the familiar qualities of a transcendent experience described by William James: ineffability, noetic quality, transience, passivity.
There is one key difference between the reactions of others to the two types of experience (1037-57):
Truth to tell, a great many people who disdain organized religion and intensely dislike any concept of a literal heaven, hell, or ‘divine judgment’ immediately leap to an assumption about frightening near-death experiences that echoes the most conservative religious view. The difference is primarily that secular language replaces talk of sin with descriptions of psychological failure, spiritual weakness, or perhaps a characterological deficiency in the person who “attracted” the experience. . . . . Curiously, to my knowledge, no researcher has ever raised similar speculations about whether people who had a blissful NDE deserved it. There is no list of personal characteristics of those experiencers. Only the distressing experiences have drawn observers to such fascination.
Her conclusion is clear (1073):
There is, as of this writing, absolutely no evidence to support the conventional wisdom that deservingness has anything to do with having a glorious or dismal NDE.
None the less (1119), ‘Aversion to the dark experiences runs so deep that even ordinarily compassionate people turn their attention away.’ This turning away from darkness comes at a price (1155):
Greenspan again (26-27): “The world is in vital need of the truth that the dark emotions teach… When we master the art of staying fully awake in their presence, they move us through suffering. We discover that darkness has its own light.”
There are ways in which we will stunt our own growth by this kind of denial and repression (1161).
No Olympic gold medal winner has ever simply strolled to the podium without pain, without sacrifice. Siddartha did not find an end to suffering by sitting in the palace that was his birthright; Jesus did not remain in a small boat on the Sea of Galilee. In pain and darkness, in tragedy and struggle—there is where courage is found, and redemption. That is the path of sacred power. The least we can do is learn to deal with emotions we do not care for.
We are very much in the domain of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, with its emphasis upon our need to accept suffering as inevitable if we are to grow beyond it. The authors, in their book of the same title, state (page 247):
Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.
However, she has no wish to force us to interpret NDEs as absolute proof of the afterlife. In that respect we are in Hicks’s territory also: the world is set up so we can no more absolutely prove that God and the next world really exist than we can absolutely prove they do not (The Fifth Dimension: page 36-38).
This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.
What are we to make of NDEs then, especially negative ones?
Struggling to make sense of them
Clearly the exact nature of the reality we are discussing has a bearing upon the impact the experience will have on the person who experiences it (1249):
A major reason for reluctance to look at distressing near-death experiences—and it is the source of terror for many experiencers—is a fear of discovering that the hell we hold in our minds may somehow actually exist. But despite the extent of that fear—or because of it—the subject is rarely discussed except in abstract theological terms or in religious circles that insist on a literal interpretation.
She discusses at fascinating length how the Biblical foundations for our ideas of hell are shaky to say the least. She concludes her argument by pointing out that (1443-1462)):
Sheol as a term seems to have confused the early English translators [of the Bible], who proved unwilling to understand it as meaning simply “the place of the dead.” By the time of the King James version the idea of hell as a physical place of torment apart from the presence of God had taken such firm root that for a translator confronted by “Sheol,” the translator’s preconception produced “hell” in place of “grave.” (Hanson, 1) The King James Old Testament translates Sheol 31 times as hell, in several places as “grave” or “pit,” and once even as “dust.” (Thayer, Orr). . . . . Gehenna came to represent anything that was foul and repulsive, deserving of severe judgment or condemnation. Common usage indicated a severity of punishment rather than a duration of time; there was no sense of “forever” about the word. . . . . Modern readers are clearly misled by anachronistic translations.
So, there is little or no authentic Biblical basis for our culture’s original and deeply ingrained concept of hell’s possible reality, something which subsequent corrections in more modern versions of the Bible would appear to have done little to dilute (see the following links for examples: Psalms, Proverbs and Amos).
She then returns to a point we heard earlier about the lack of grotesque detail in most negative NDE accounts (1533-55):
In contrast to the deliberately imagined grotesqueries of the medieval religious fantasy and modern Hell House, most actual accounts of today’s hellish near-death experiences seem remarkably sedate, though they are no less terrifying. The horror and fear are deep and genuine, but their descriptions are primarily emotional rather than visual, internal rather than external. . . . . [M]odern NDEs strongly tend to be visually less violent and significantly less vindictively cruel, though they have lost none of their horrifying emotional power.
She locates the durability of the vivid concepts we hold to of heaven and hell to our innate wiring for ideas of fairness and justice. However, hell breaches aspects of our need in that respect (1657-64):
The idea of hell satisfies the reward/punishment imperative, but it is not without problems. First, when interpreted stringently it violates reciprocity, that basic criterion of justice, that punishment should fit the crime. . . . . [A]ccording to a narrow slice of theological thought, the wrath of God demands that [the guilty] will undergo limitless agony for a limitless duration of time for a finite cause.
The way we as a culture will predispose people to respond to an NDE will depend upon the ‘fundamentalism’ of the belief system of the individual, ie how literally (s)he takes what (s)he believes in order to achieve a firm foundation of certainty. This can be as disastrous for the sceptic as it is for a religious person (1827-1849):
A postmodern metaphysical journey, no less than that of an organized religious tradition, is based on beliefs and understandings, and has its own fundamentalism; a principle difference, is that whereas for most people religion is a search for the answers to questions, metaphysics looks for personal experience around the questions. . . . . After a glorious NDE, it has been too often the case that literalism in this tradition has led to disastrous inflation of the ego and corruption of personality. . . . . Conversely, with a distressing NDE, the risk is to take at face value that same “Law of Attraction” which leads to internalizing the idea that all of one’s life events are one’s own doing. The belief that an individual acted, however inadvertently, as a magnet to attract a terrifying NDE may suggest something evil inherent in that person’s life and self.
Western versus Eastern Models
Her discussion of this issue turns to an important distinction which can be made between Western and Eastern paradigms of spirituality. She argues plausibly that this distinction can account for a large part of the difficulty Westerners have with the negative NDE experience. She begins by looking at Western assumptions (1961-65):
The United States, especially, has lived for three centuries with the great and largely unquestioned myth of the individual: that the very essence of being human is one’s individuality, to be one’s self, to be unique in the here-and-now . . . . each of us is saturated with the sense of individuality, personhood, specialness, selfhood.
Not so with Eastern Traditions (2013-25):
A quite different perspective exists in Eastern traditions, especially those which arose in India: Hinduism and its offshoot Buddhism in its many variations. . . .The task in Hinduism and Buddhism is to recognize that the ‘realities’ of the physical world are ultimately illusory, and to let go of identification with them. . . . It is not the individual who matters, but the individual’s connectedness to the whole.
This leads her to ask an interesting question (2046): ‘What if the Void and heaven are not opposites but differing perspectives of whatever is ultimate?’
I am inevitably going to be even further simplifying a complex position which she supports with detailed evidence. The only solution will be to read this brilliant book and decide for yourselves. Personally I find her position quite persuasive.
She does not avoid the crunch issue (2061-67):
Western culture is not prepared to deal easily with the Void. Further, between the religious reverence for covenant and the capitalist reverence for things, we are trained into objects. . . . Here it becomes clear why experiences of the Void create such havoc for those who have grown up in Western ways of thinking. . . . . Any NDE is a mystical experience, but with few exceptions, Western people are not educated mystics. The fear in experiences of the Void rises out of profound, fathomless detachment from self and other, for which most of us are totally unprepared.
Margaret Donaldson has mounted a compelling argument in her excellent book, Human Minds: an exploration, to explain how high a price we might be paying in the West for discounting mystical experience as we do, for example in part at least (page 264 – my emphasis):
The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.
Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?
Bush is exploring here a further example of this cost. We will returning to Donaldson’s final question in the last post.
It is not that such ideas are absent in our Western mystical tradition: it is that we have turned our backs on them for so long they have been almost completely forgotten (2068-75)
In addressing the fear produced by the Void, Gerald May quoted the fourteenth century spiritual guide, Theologica Germanica: “Nothing burns in hell but self-will.” . . . . [T]he contemplatives proclaim, with a conviction that can be absolutely frightening, that self-image must truly die… A dying image of self, or a dying belief in such an image, must be accompanied by a dying of one’s images of the world as well. It is not an easy business.
She goes on to make links between Nirvana, the Void and astrophysics whose validity lies far beyond my ability to assess but are well worth mentioning. She quotes Brian Greene (2080-82):
‘Empty space is not nothing; it’s something with hidden characteristics as real as all the stuff in our everyday lives.’
She therefore concludes (2088):
. . . [T]here is this curious resemblance among Godhead, space, the Void, and Nirvana—that what seems so empty may be full of everything there is.’
And on that paradoxical note we must leave it for now.
Next time we will be looking at how she develops these ideas further and explores the probability that we are in another Axial Age, one of potentially traumatic transition.
Then I plan to briefly outline her detailed and well-researched exploration of how we might approach these experiences as symbols that could function as pointers to a reality whose roots lie deep in our imagination but are not imaginary.
As I indicated at the start of this series of posts I plan to come back to that theme in far more detail as a topic that needs careful exploration in its own right, so important are her views about it but so distant is it from any conventional view of reality as articulated by our modern faith in pseudo-scientific naturalism.
Whatever Happened to the Rose Garden?
Nancy Evans Bush’s book – Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences - is a challenging but essential one. Among the many who followed with keen interest the unfolding story of the near-death experience (NDE), I was, as were most of us, happy to view the experience through the rose-tinted spectacles purveyed by the majority of NDErs who, until relatively recently, found their way into print.
This book is a wake up call.
We have moved from a position where (405) ‘of the 354 near-death experiences in eight major studies between the years 1975 and 2005, including the largest in-hospital investigations, there were no unpleasant reports.’
This reversal began slowly (410-11).
But then… “In 1978,” Kenneth Ring would write years later, “a dark cloud of chilling testimony began to penetrate into the previously luminous sky of reports of near-death experiences” (1994, 5). . . . . The “dark cloud” was a startling book published by Chattanooga cardiologist Maurice Rawlings (1978). In Beyond Death’s Door, Rawlings described in grim detail another kind of near-death experience for some of his patients being resuscitated from cardiac arrest. “Doc! Doc! Don’t let me go under again—I’m in hell!”
Bush admits that Rawlings evidence was somewhat shaky but he was not alone (432):
Psychologist Charles A. Garfield reported as early as 1979 that of 36 people interviewed, eight described vivid demonic or nightmarish visions, while another four reported alternating blissful and terrifying features.
Intriguingly, what was described was not some dramatic confirmation of the objective reality of Dante’s Inferno. In terms of the visual effects Hammer films would’ve had created some scarier ones even without computer graphics (456):
“. . . [T]he negative near-death experiences in our study,” Gallup summarized, “include some of the following features: featureless, sometimes forbidding faces; beings who are often merely present, but aren’t at all comforting; a sense of discomfort—especially emotional or mental unrest; feelings of confusion about the experience; a sense of being tricked or duped into ultimate destruction; and fear about what the finality of death may involve.”
Hardly X certificate material, then.
But the significance of these experiences is precisely because they do not conform to our ideas of a conventional hell at all and yet their impact upon those who experienced them and the reaction of those they disclosed the experiences to is completely disproportionate to the relative blankness of the visual canvas. We’ll come back to that point later.
The reluctance of people to come forward with these stories is a key characteristic and speaks volumes (470):
The infrequency of alarming NDEs in the materials then available . . . is, in retrospect, not because distress does not exist in the modern near-death repertoire but because experiencers were not ready to come forward with them.
We need to unpack this point more fully to understand its true significance (485):
Medical social worker Kimberly Clark Sharp was the first to observe that this is a population that vanishes . . . . For many people with a painful NDE, simply admitting they have had such an experience is as much as they can do; describing it can seem impossible.
Bush’s own gathering of stories was a painfully slow process and (493-95):
It took nine years to find fifty people who could give enough detail to create a coherent sense of such experiences. . . . . [T]he “closeting” was so intense that even when our respondents could bring themselves to write their accounts, few were willing or able to complete the questionnaire, answer questions, or agree to an interview.
For a scientific study to be credible the sample of ‘subjects’ has to be as nearly random as possible to be truly representative. Random, these fifty people clearly were not but, she writes, (504): ‘From what we know about these fifty individuals, they are a representative group of ordinary people who have had an extraordinary experience.’
Though her main focus is on negative NDEs, as she herself states towards the end of her exploration (3226):
The purpose of this book is to provide as even-handed a description as I can give of what is known about near-death experiences and how people of different backgrounds and faith standings make meaning of them, depending on their own point of view.
She is therefore redressing the balance rather than taking the negative experiences completely out of context.
In attempting to review this book, which covers the topic from at least three main angles, I am going to focus mainly on the first two sections of her treatment: the experience itself and the issues relating to how we interpret that experience. These are the least subjective aspects of her treatment, and the rigorous, dispassionate and thorough way she approaches her material means that what she says should carry weight for all of us and deserves our careful attention.
Her third section, which consists mainly of pointers and signposts to help those who have had a negative NDE find a constructive and healing way to understand it, I will explore very briefly in this sequence of posts.
It refers to a mass of material which potentially can help people move past the negativity: it is therefore, for those who are struggling, her most crucial. However I need to return to it more fully later as a topic in itself if I am to do it justice. I will have to draw on other aspects of my reading which need more room than I can spare in this review if it is not to sprawl beyond reasonable limits.
What did these accounts reveal?
Those of us who want nice clear lists of typical components are not in for a treat unfortunately (505):
The basic finding of the study was quickly apparent: there is no universal “distressing experience.” In fact, there was greater variety of phenomena within these accounts than among those of pleasurable experiences.
They did, though, fall into certain categories so I began to breathe more easily again (515):
In the most common, the elements of the classic pleasurable NDE were experienced as terrifying. The second type was an experience of nothingness, of being without sensation and/or of existing in a limitless, featureless void. The third type, with by far the fewest accounts, corresponds more closely to the hell of the popular imagination.
I found that last point particularly intriguing as it weighs heavily in favour of the credibility of these accounts. If they were fuelled purely by our culture’s expectations we would find in most of these accounts a world populated by medieval devils and animated gargoyles against a backdrop of fire and brimstone. But we don’t. This argues for the probability that something else more objectively valid is going on here, something not directly subject to, certainly not the product of our desires and expectations as most materialists would contend. And it is experienced by a more coherent consciousness than anoxia, drugs or delirium would permit.
Given that the experiences are so bleak and stark, as against teeming with malevolent culturally influenced stereotypes, what makes them so disturbing – too disturbing to share, quite often? This is where Bush’s analysis really comes into its own. She fully recognizes the nature of the challenge this poses and rises to it admirably.
Her first point is obvious enough and begs the question to some extent (563): ‘. . . . what is frightening in this type of experience is not so much its objective content as the person’s subjective reaction to the content.’
One problem for the Western mind experiencing any NDE is that, according to the prevailing materialistic paradigm, none of this should be happening (568):
Here for the first time we see the conceptual difficulty of encountering a realm that is other. The world of science, remember, does not “do” the non-physical. Few of us are contemplative monks, saturated in the world of the transcendent and well versed in the history of spiritual practice; most of us have no language, no context for this kind of event.
In addition, NDEs press certain panic buttons for us, all the more so when they are not the uplifting kind, though even the latter can be ill-received by some experiencers. She lists these buttons as safety, control and surrender (571-582):
Safety lies in control. Especially for people whose preference in dealing with the world is cognitive, rational, analytical – the preferred mode in Western culture – the perception of chaos may be extremely alarming. . . . NDEs are risky. . . . . Perhaps one reason that people respond so differently to an NDE lies in their ability to tolerate the radical riskiness of free-fall into otherness. . . . . Ram Dass quotes Mahatma Gandhi as saying, ‘God demands nothing less than complete self-surrender as the price for the only freedom that is worth having.’
It is not a comfortable place to be for a Western left-brain-dominated control freak – forced into a position possibly requiring surrender to the completely unknown.
If the unknown in these negative experiences were a recognizable something, the situation might be slightly less terrifying. The problem is it’s not recognisable at all according to those rare and courageous individuals prepared to talk about what they experienced to someone who was clearly a very skilled listener (598):
What the second type of experiences have in common is some version of the Void, a palpable emptiness, a mental but otherwise non-sensory negation of self and world.
In discussing this she has pointed me back to someone whose book has lain unfinished on my shelves since 1995 – a not uncommon fate for books in my possession, I’m sorry to admit. My pocket has proved much deeper than my appetite for ideas, it would seem. She writes (632):
“The experience of the Void,” says psychiatrist Stanislav Grof . . . “is the most enigmatic and paradoxical of all the transpersonal experiences. It is experiential identification with the primordial Emptiness, Nothingness, and Silence, which seem to be the ultimate cradle of all existence.
Such a way of thinking about our possible destination raises a crucial question in her mind (651):
Isn’t it odd, as a friend once commented, that we practice guitar and saxophone and piano; we practice golf and gymnastics; we practice aerobics; but we rarely, if ever, practice anything in our inner life. We spend months planning a two-week vacation, but we do not plan to die—nor, for that matter, do we plan how to live. We tend to think it will just happen. And so, although we would not dream of asking an amateur to pilot a mission to outer space, we somehow expect ourselves to encounter inner space without training or assistance.
What do they mean?
I’m going to make a small jump now to an issue of particular fascination for me, given my sense that a defining characteristic of human beings is their need to make meaning out of experience. She quotes Miriam Greenspan as saying (815) ‘Meaning-making is a defining characteristic of what it is to be human. Existing without purpose or meaning, for humans, is like existing without air. You can only go for so long before you choke.’ The meaning we make of an experience such as the negative NDE can have a devastating impact upon our lives.
In Bush’s view this impulse towards meaning provokes one of three, possibly four, reactions to an NDE, especially of the negative kind (822-25):
Perhaps the most common is conversion, turning one’s life around. Another is reductionism, replacing an alarming explanation by one that feels more manageable. The third response is a failure of resolution, which can range from bewilderment and a searching for one’s life mission to a lingering disbelief and despair. . . . . To these three types of response, repression might be added in the case of stark terror.
Because a negative NDE is terrifying the most common response is likely to be conversion, but not necessarily in the sense of changing one’s religion (831):
Among people whose NDE was genuinely terrifying and even hellish, it is likely that most fit this model. They understand the message of the NDE as simple: This is a warning; something in your life is wrong and must change, or there will be unwelcome outcomes.
This can make conservative religious movements attractive such as Bible-based Christianity or Orthodox Judaism.
On the other hand (861) ‘Reductionism is common among investigators who deny any spiritual claims about NDEs.’ According to Corbett ‘reductionism is a “defense [that] allows one to repudiate the meaning of an event which does not fit into a safe category.”’
And last of all we find (901) ‘lack of resolution moves [the experiencer] from reductionism to this third group, which has identified no comprehensible meaning in their near-death experiences.’ They are caught in an irresolvable conflict (914):
Conversations and correspondence indicate that these experiencers are typically articulate people haunted by the existential dimension of the event and searching for an explanation that is both intellectually and emotionally grounding. Intellectually unable to accept a literal reading of the event, they also find reductionist explanations inadequate, as the theories assign a cause but do not address the question of meaning or integration.
I need to make this a series of posts, even while treating the last section of her exploration briefly, as every section of her book poses serious questions about an experience that has been discounted for decades and now needs to be integrated into our paradigm of reality. I think that is excuse enough for a series of three posts at this point. I hope that by the end of it you will agree.
No matter how long this sequence is it will not be a substitute for reading this compelling book as I have ruthlessly omitted scores of telling points and moving accounts of NDEs.
Till the next time then.
Posted in Book Reviews, Science and Religion, Science, Psychology & Society, tagged brain, entanglement, materialism, near death experience, Parapsychology, psi, psychology on 20/05/2013 | 1 Comment »
Readers should take note of a new section in Chapter 6 entitled “Psi Phenomena.” We have discussed parapsychology in previous editions but have been very critical of the research and skeptical of the claims made in the field. And although we still have strong reservations about most of the research in parapsychology, we find the recent work on telepathy worthy of careful consideration.
(From the Preface to Introduction to Psychology by Richard L. Atkinson – 1990: quoted in The Spiritual Brain, page 169)
In science, the acceptance of new ideas follows a predictable, four-stage sequence. In Stage 1, skeptics confidently proclaim that the idea is impossible because it violates the Laws of Science. This stage can last from years to centuries, depending on how much the idea challenges conventional wisdom. In Stage 2, skeptics reluctantly concede that the idea is possible, but it is not very interesting and the claimed effects are extremely weak. Stage 3 begins when the mainstream realizes that the idea is not only important, but its effects are much stronger and more pervasive than previously imagined. Stage 4 is achieved when the same critics who used to disavow any interest in the idea begin to proclaim that they thought of it first. Eventually, no one remembers that the idea was once considered a dangerous heresy.
(Dean Radin: The Conscious Universe – page 1)
In 2002 I read a fascinating book on parapsychology by H.J. Irwin. My recent reading of another intriguing book, The Spiritual Brain, triggered a memory of that experience.
Irwin’s book is a rigorous examination of the work done up to that point in the field of parapsychology. I was still working in the NHS at the time and swimming against all the powerful reductionist currents of thought flowing along the broad estuary of mental health work. Reading this book was yet another attempt to find a sound empirical basis for my scepticism about materialism.
That sounds like a futile ambition, you may think. But I am not alone in cherishing that hope. Beauregard and O’Leary quote Eccles and Robinson with approval in The Spiritual Brain as saying (page 125):
We regard promissory materialism as superstition without a rational foundation. The more we discover about the brain, the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena, and the more wonderful do both the brain events and the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists . . . who often confuse their religion with their science.
So that makes five of us at least.
Where a nonmaterialist explanation works well
What reactivated my interest of more than decade ago was Beauregard and O’Leary’s list of things that a nonmaterialist perspective can explain better than a materialist one (ibid.)
For example, a nonmaterialist view can account for the neuroimaging studies that show human subjects in the very act of self-regulating their emotions by concentrating on them. It can account for the placebo effect (the sugar pill that cures, provided the patient is convinced that it is a potent remedy). A nonmaterialist view can also offer science-based explanations of puzzling phenomena that are currently shelved by materialist views. One of these is psi, the apparent ability of some humans to consistently score above chance in controlled studies of mental influences on events. Another is the claim, encountered surprisingly often among patients who have undergone trauma or major surgery, that they experienced a life-changing mystical awareness while unconscious.
My clearest memory of Irwin’s book concerned precisely the massive amount of meticulously generated evidence in favour of psi, especially in terms of subjects’ accurately predicting random numbers at a level slightly but consistently above chance over thousands of carefully controlled trials. Not a dramatic finding, perhaps, not like apparently successful mediumship or seemingly bending spoons on television, but in an important way more compelling and significant than any of those because all possibility of fakery had been eliminated to leave it beyond all reasonable doubt that something materialists couldn’t explain was going on.
Most materialists, little to their credit or credibility, resolutely refused to look carefully at the evidence as they knew in advance that such findings were impossible and must be the result of fraud or sloppy methodology. So much for science’s supposed openness to all evidence. In fact, it has always been blinded by its current paradigms, so there is really no surprise here either.
Beauregard and O’Leary quote a particularly startling example of materialistic zealotry. Grossman tells of his encounters with materialists about NDEs. He recalls one snatch of dialogue which they quote (page 166)
Exasperated, I asked, “What will it take, short of having a near-death experience yourself, to convince you that it’s real?” Very nonchalantly, without batting an eye, the response was: “Even if I were to have a near-death experience myself, I would conclude that I was hallucinating, rather than believe that my mind can exist independently of my brain.”
There’s no arguing with such intransigent dogmatism – in the face of the evidence that I am convinced exists but which it refuses to examine, such an attitude is bordering on the delusional. What makes it all the more bizarre is that the evidence for psi has been conducted with a rigour and extensive sample size that would be the envy of many a mainstream researcher. Beauregard and O’Leary summarise the findings as follows (pages 170-171):
Psi is not a form of magic. It is a low-level effect demonstrated in many laboratory studies—one that materialism does not account for. . . . Generally, the studies show that people sometimes get small amounts of specific information from a distance that do not depend on the ordinary senses. . . The experimental subject is asked to influence the [Random Number Generator’s] output by “wishing” for 1’s or 0’s. A small but stable effect has been shown over sixty years of tossing dice and RNGs that is reliable irrespective of the subject or the experimenter and remains when independent or skeptical investigators participate.
Not many experimental findings survive, for example, their attempted replication by sceptical experimenters. That in itself argues for something valid as well as seriously strange going on. Sadly we meet the same kind of scientistic dogmatism once again. They quote (pages 171-172) from Dean Radin‘s The Conscious Universe – which I read so long ago I’d completely forgotten it:
Skeptics who continue to repeat the same old assertions that parapsychology is a pseudoscience, or that there are no repeatable experiments, are uninformed not only about the state of parapsychology but also about the current state of skepticism!
A Blinding Double-bind
Radin also points out the resulting double bind with blistering clarity (quoted on page 173):
If serious scientists are prevented from investigating claims of psi out of fear for their reputations, then who is left to conduct these investigations? Extreme skeptics? No, because the fact is that most extremists do not conduct research; they specialize in criticism. Extreme believers? No, because they are usually not interested in conducting rigorous scientific studies.
I have taken his book down off my shelves and placed it on my desk to read again.
Beauregard and O’Leary conclude (ibid.):
Psi must find its place within an evidence-based paradigm of physics, psychology, and neuroscience. However, working out and testing a hypothesis for psi faces some obstacles in a materialist environment. . . .
They are clear that the effect is small (page 167):
The stubborn problem turns out to be a small statistical effect from controlled laboratory studies, the psi effect, a general term for telepathic and psychokinetic phenomena.
And they are suitably cautious about the hypotheses we can build upon this robust but tiny effect (page 177):
Regarding psi, we can assume one of two things: (1) every single instance of psi is a direct interference in nature, presumably by a divine power from outside the universe; or (2) the universe permits more entanglement than the materialist paradigm does.
They favour the second idea. I would be delighted if this were to be more seriously investigated by mainstream researchers and the findings were then to be integrated into a more spiritual model of reality. The days of materialist domination are numbered, I feel: I’m just not sure how many more there are – whether it will be millions or merely thousands.