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Archive for the ‘Afterlife’ Category

Beech hedge

As I noted briefly on this blog, I’ve been reading back through the notes I took from Peter Koestenbaum’s book The New Image of the Person. That reminded me of this poem which I couldn’t resist republishing.

Letter to a dear Friend in Winter

I wanted to see now
Without then between. How
Impossible! Yet hope haunts me.
The colours of regret stain you
And everything. O for the white
Light of outdoors,
Not church colours!
At times, pain forced me into flight
Towards desolate pleasures, through
Bars, packs of shuffling days: each lie
Weakened my hold on any vow.

Now I scribble a lot
Searching for what is not.
The sunrise of autumn hedgerows
Warned me about this mud and stone
Sky. Beech leaves cling like memories –
Dry, brittle, dust-
Coloured. I must
Make sense of what all sense denies.
Cells, nerves, too feeble on their own
To decipher what the snail shows,
Or the corpse whose wheels of mind rot.

Once I held a fledgeling
At point of death – I’d sing
Of death who’d never watched the last
Act’s surrender or victory –
A sigh was all betrayed the change –
No, not sigh – death –
But flight of breath –
Quiet sundering to unhinge
The gate of thought! When our mind’s eye
No longer detects in the vast
Dark the flame to which we cling

What has become of us?
Here is the syllabus.
Where is the teacher and the school?
At this question all our endeavour
Ends. Perhaps it’s better to ask:
‘What if the mind
Fails to find,
On the bleak shore where the dead bask,
The shelter it always yearns for,
Are we to suppose it a fool
As it scours the dark for warm places?’

I’ve no affinity
With God as Trinity
For sure, since my need for answers
Finds finespun theology wide
Of the mark. So, here I stand.
My evidence
Preserved silence
In the question of my still hand,
A small ball whose still feathers hid
Still warm flesh. Nothing reassures.
I felt the infinity

Between fledgling and meat
Silence my every thought . . . .
Until the habit of thinking
Resumed its race to run the truth
To ground. If this opportunity
Beneath the skies,
Though shared with flies
And blind with relativity,
Is not to be wasted like my youth,
From my heart’s earth love must spring
– God knows how I’ll choose to act.

Pete Hulme Text © 1982[1]


[1] This is a poem written in the year I became a Bahá’í and reflects the struggles I was having then which are explored from a different angle in Irreducible Mind (2/3).

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Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘Glory Be to God’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

Likewise, reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

Then we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to light.

(Bahá’u’lláh in the Seven Valleys – page 34)

The Background

Everyday, soon after I wake, I read passages from the Bahá’í Writings. At present I am fixated on the Seven Valleys, which I have recently read through twice in succession. Over the last few days my focus has narrowed to a short sequence of paragraphs. I’m not entirely sure why, although part of the reason is clearly because an aspect of their message encourages me to hold onto my abiding sense of the limitations of our materialistic worldview in the West.

Bahá’u’lláh, in his letter to a respected Sufi referring to such experiences as dreams that foretold the future, wrote (page 33):

God, the Exalted, hath placed these signs in men, to the end that philosophers may not deny the mysteries of the life beyond nor belittle that which hath been promised them. For some hold to reason and deny whatever the reason comprehendeth not . . . .

By philosophers He means materialistic thinkers such as most scientists.

We live in a time when statements about a transcendent reality are regarded not just with a rational scepticism which is open to evidence, but with an absolute and irrational belief which regards examining the evidence as a complete waste of time.

You might think that evidence of a material kind would be the most compelling.

Certainly Fontana shares that view as he explains in his masterly survey of the evidence in Is There an Afterlife? In his list of reasons why physical mediumship is worth investigating (page 245) he states:

The second reason why physical mediumship remains important is that, unlike mental mediumship, the phenomena which they manifest are purely objective.

However, it seems to attract even more withering dismissal than subtler experiences, possibly because giving it even a nanosecond’s serious consideration would be far too threatening.

Fontana conveys a sense of this kind of default dismissal ending with a measured response to it. For example, after examining the work of Sir William Crookes, one of the 19th century investigators of Daniel Dunglas Home amongst other mediums, he responds to the 20th century critics who dismiss Home out of hand (page 257):

I doubt very much if the critics concerned read the work of . . . . Crookes on the subject in any detail or with any care. If they did so, they could hardly fail to be aware that . . . . Crookes had little need of modern infrared cameras when many of the phenomena were produced in good light, had little cause to wire the medium up to modern electrical circuits and circuit breakers when the phenomena occurred on the opposite side of the room from him, and had little reason to suspect the kind of elaborate modern stage props and hidden accomplices necessary for levitating the medium nearly to ceiling level when these levitations occurred on the home territory of Crookes . . . rather than in Home’s lodgings. . . . .

The best way of demonstrating [trickery’s] existence would be for critics to duplicate the phenomena under the conditions described by Crookes. To my knowledge no attempt has yet been made to do this.

Crookes’ exasperation was only too obvious and understandable as well (page 253):

‘Will not my critics give me credit for the possession of some amount of common sense?’ He also asked reasonably why they could not ‘imagine the obvious precautions, which occur to them as soon as they sit down to pick holes in my experiments, are not unlikely to have also occurred to me in the course of prolonged and patient investigations?’

From a Bahá’í point of view anecdotal examples of possibly miraculous events are not meant to be what determines whether we choose to follow this path or not. That has to be based on a careful investigation of the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith.

The Kinneys

The Boots

However, as I am arguing that materialists should take paradigm-threatening material phenomena more seriously I want to start with one such example from the Bahá’í literature before examining briefly evidence which has been more systematically gathered.

This story is included in a collection of stories about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in their Midst by Earl Redman (pages 269-270):

It was at the home of the Kinneys that Abdu’l-Baha stayed the second time he came to New York and it was from this home that He left to return to Haifa. The day before He was to take ship to leave He asked Mr. Kinney if there was something amongst His belongings that He might offer as a gift of farewell. At first, Mr. Kinney was reluctant to choose, but finally he admitted that well, might he be given a pair of Abdu’l-Baha’s boots? Those boots that had sheltered the feet that walked with such serene certainty upon the Path of God? Mr. Kinney would cherish these above all else.

So, with smiling love, Abdu’l-Baha gave a pair of His boots to Edward Kinney. Reverently and joyfully, Mr. Kinney laid them in a bureau drawer in his bedroom, carefully wrapped in a nest of tissue paper. Very rarely – since the boots were such an intimate and precious thing, were they shown to anyone though Mr. Kinney touched them frequently as he prayed.

Then one day, he did wish to show them to someone. He went to the bureau, pulled out the drawer – and the boots were gone – completely gone. No sign of them in the tissue paper, no sign of them in any other drawer, no sign of them in any part of the room which was searched carefully. There simply were no boots anywhere.

So Dad Kinney (he became ‘Dad to all the hundreds who loved him) began to pray and he prayed, shaken, from the depths of his troubled soul. Why had the beloved boots been taken from him? Where had they gone? What could have happened? Was he, had he become – unworthy to possess them? And, at last, he knew this was it. He was no longer worthy to hold the precious boots. Then why was he no longer worthy? What had he done between the time when he had last held the boots in his hands and the moment when he had discovered their absence?

It had been, he estimated, some two, possibly three weeks. So in deepest meditation, he went back, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment over this period. He remembered his actions; he analyzed his motives; he reviewed his thoughts. And suddenly, in a blaze of illumination, he knew what it was. Deeply selfish materialism; clouded hypocritical motives; unjust actions. He had been guilty of all these. But he had deluded himself by calling them such fair and pretty names. No wonder the boots had been taken away. In all justice he had proved himself in no way worthy to hold such treasure. Humbled and ashamed, he prayed abjectly for forgiveness – and then, mournfully, he went to the bureau drawer – just to touch the tissue paper that once had protected the boots. And lo! the boots had returned. They were there, real and tangible; the leather soft beneath his fingertips, the well-worn soles smooth to his touch. They were there, but the warning was never forgotten – the lesson was well learned.

I have no reason to doubt the veracity of this story. On its own this would obviously do little if anything to dent the disbelief of a sceptic, and I can quite understand why.

The Scole Group

However, there are other examples in the paranormal literature where careful constraints have been put in place to ensure that neither fraud nor wishful thinking could possibly play a part in the observed effects – at least as far as it is humanly possibly to eliminate such flaws. My hope is that before dismissing the paranormal as a figment of gullible imaginations, sceptics would take the time carefully to examine the evidence adduced in such books as Fontana’s on the afterlife and Leslie Kean’s on Surviving Death, before leaping gungho to their materialistic conclusions.

Take this example from Fontana where, as he gives an account of his own rigourously conducted investigations of the Scole Group phenomena, he highlights the newspaper apport as of particular significance (pages 335-336):

Other materialisations took the form of apports, though I was only present on one occasion when an apport arrived. Emily Bradshaw had jokingly bet Montague Keen half a crown (an old coin no longer used) over some factual matter on which they have disagreed, and when she was proved wrong (much to Montague’s triumphant amusement) we heard something clatter onto the floor. After the séance was over Montague found it was the promised half crown. The Scole Group had a wide range of even more impressive objects that had apparently arrived during their own private séances (which they continued to hold throughout the two years of our investigation). One of the most notable of these was a copy of the Daily Mail newspaper of April 1, 1944 containing an account of the celebrated trial of medium Helen Duncan. The newspaper was in pristine condition, the paper on which it was printed was as white as if it had been printed only that day. Our supposition was that it might be a modern facsimile edition of the kind that can be bought from some newspaper publishers. However, analysis of the paper and the newsprint by the prestigious Print Industry Research Association (PRIA), carried out at the request of Montague Keen and handled by him throughout, revealed that this supposition was incorrect. The PRIA confirmed that far from being modern, the newspaper was in fact printed by the old-fashioned letterpress method in use in 1944, and that the paper on which it was printed dated from the same era. The PRIA expressed itself baffled by the newspaper’s perfect condition. Dating from 1944, it should have shown the ageing and yellowing inevitable in a newspaper of that age. Unless an explanation can be found, the newspaper may therefore be what is known by psychical researchers as a PPO (a Permanent Paranormal Object – an object apparently produced or modified paranormally that remains with us as a subject for study), and thus represents one of the Holy Grail of psychical research.

Why does it matter?

Well, in my view, for the reasons I explained at some length to a young and deeply thoughtful Colombian student on a crowded train back to Hereford the other day. We sat in a four-seater stall animatedly talking diagonally across the other two occupants who had perhaps sensibly decided to leave us to it.

‘If we are to address the massive challenges facing us in our increasingly global so-called civilisation,’ I suggested, ‘we need a meaning system that will motivate us to work with unremitting determination over many decades, centuries even, in the face of innumerable obstacles, if we are to resolve them.’

Interestingly, the student did not accept the label ‘humanist’ to describe his more sceptical position. He admitted he had been attracted to that approach, but now felt it placed us too much at the centre stage. Some better way of describing his perspective was needed but he didn’t have one.

As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, simply believing we matter, or our children matter, or even the planet matters, may not be enough. We need to feel empowered by something beyond material means, in my view. A sense of a spiritual dimension is not only necessary if we are to care enough about others because of a sense of interconnectedness, but is also crucial if we are to feel ourselves capable of doing anything remotely effective over such testing spans of time.

A deep sense of our interconnectedness would make it harder for anyone to harm another living being or the planet upon which our lives depend. By harming others we would know we are also harming ourselves. A sense that there are powers greater than ourselves ready to aid us as we strive to heal this breaking world would lift us to higher levels of sustained effort.

I pulled Fontana’s book out of my bag and showed it him and said, ‘People need to look carefully at this evidence before deciding they don’t accept it. It matters. Without the soul and its transcendent connections, evidence supporting which he investigates thoroughly, we will never lift ourselves to the necessary level of activity for the required amount of time.’

He scanned the covers of the book briefly.

‘So, does he believe there is an afterlife?’ he asked, handing it back to me.

‘He doesn’t feel the paranormal evidence can absolutely prove it, but he does believe that on balance it is the more likely possibility.’

At that point the loud speaker announced the train was arriving at my station and I said goodbye as I scrambled my things together.

Just as so often with this blog, I’ll never know how far my words shifted his thinking, if at all.

I didn’t have time to read him Fontana’s closing words before I got off the train of thought (page 469):

Ultimately our acceptance of the reality of survival may not come solely from the evidence but from our personal experience and from some inner, intuitive certainty about our real nature. We are who we are, and at some deep level within ourselves we may be the answer to our own questions.  If your answer is that you are more than a biological accident whose ultimately meaningless life is bounded by the cradle and the grave, then I have to say I agree with you.

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Grave & Courtyard v2

Last week, I walked through soft rain at a brisk pace to get to the venue on time. I was sweating slightly as I walked to the counter to get my coffee. That’s the trouble with waterproof coats. They trap the heat as well as keeping out the rain.

As I ordered my coffee the Death Cafe facilitator indicated we’d switched rooms, but at least we had a room this week. We went upstairs together to a room tucked away in the far back corner. Apparently we’d been asked to keep our voices down a bit so the audience in the next door studio cinema weren’t disturbed in their enjoyment by any thoughts of death.

She went downstairs to direct people to the room. I stayed and sipped my coffee enjoying the silence and the opportunity to cool off a bit.

By five-past-six the room was still empty. Then, to my relief the Buddhist lady came in. By ten past no one else had arrived except the facilitator. In fact, it wasn’t until 6.30 that the fourth person arrived fresh from her yoga class.

Even so, what we lacked in numbers was made up for in intensity, depth and excitement. It was another great two hours of exploration of death-related issues from almost every possible angle. We had a Buddhist, a Bahá’í, a humanist (well, at least, that’s my label for her) and someone still searching, someone ‘on a quest’ as we put it later.

We roamed across such themes as our interconnectedness, the Buddhist and Bahá’í seeing this as something spiritual. The humanist agreed with the basic idea but not its spiritual dimension while the searcher was not completely sure.

The thorny issue of science and religion came up, and science’s dismissal of any idea of an afterlife. We pulled in references to Ken Wilber and his book  The Marriage of Sense & Soul. I’ve dealt with his powerful arguments elsewhere so I won’t dwell on him too long. For example he forcefully argues, science has invaded spirituality and the arts (page 56):

. . .[T]he I and the WE were colonised by the IT. ..  . . . Full and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism,  the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Consciousness itself, and the mind and heart and soul of humankind, could not be seen with a microscope, a telescope, a cloud chamber, a photographic plate, and so all were pronounced epiphenomenal at best, illusory at worst. . . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness. And that was the disaster of modernity. . . . it was a thoroughly flatland holism. It was not a holism that actually included all the interior realms of the I and the WE (including the eye of contemplation). . . . [I] as the reduction of all of the value spheres to monological Its perceived by the eye of the flesh that, more than anything else, constituted the disaster of modernity.

Margaret Donaldson also came into the mix with her brilliant book, Human Minds: an exploration, which addresses a closely related question (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?

And that’s just a small sample of the invigorating ground we covered.

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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A passion to cage the invisible by visible methods continues to motivate the science of psychology, even though that science has given up the century-long search for the soul in various body parts and systems.

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 92)

In the last post I looked at some of the ways in which the arrogance of our convictions creates problems for us all, a theme triggered by excellent books on the afterlife by Fontana and Kean, who both emphasise the way our culture dismisses compelling evidence that supports the idea of the transcendent.

Basically, human beings are prone to asserting their unexamined convictions in the face of contradictory evidence.

One important reason for this has been labelled confirmation biasShahram Heshmat, in a Psychology Today article, explains:

[This] occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.

Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.

This tendency is not much of a problem when the belief in question does no harm. When beliefs do damage, this tendency is fundamentally unacceptable, especially if the beliefs spread, as they often do, and when our sense of self is deeply invested in them.

What do I mean by that exactly?

To answer that question, at least in part, let’s come back to the issue of the afterlife.

Fontana writes (page 94):

Just as once the multitudes were persuaded by the priesthood they had no right to approach the divine except through the intermediation of the church, so the multitudes are now persuaded by the materialistic creed of our times that they have no right to approach mental life except through the intermediation of those who put their faith in prescription drugs and brain scans.

Those who have invested their credulity in scientism plainly do not see that they are operating just like a Holocaust denier. Denial and arrogant ignorance is toxic enough when applied to the facts of history, and could potentially create the conditions for a repetition of the same abusive genocide. Denial of our spiritual dimension allied to a denigration of our more extraordinary experiences is not just potentially destructive, it is actually damaging huge numbers of people already, as previous posts on this blog have explored.

One short quote from James Davies’s book Cracked in support of this contention will have to suffice here. He is addressing the issue of our exportation of our psychiatric model to the rest of the world. In the chapter dealing with the export issue he first summarises his case up to that point (page 258 – square brackets pull in additional points he has made elsewhere):

Western psychiatry has just too many fissures in the system to warrant its wholesale exportation, not just because psychiatric diagnostic manuals are more products of culture than science (chapter 2) [and have labelled as disorders many normal responses to experience], or because the efficacy of our drugs is far from encouraging (Chapter 4), or because behind Western psychiatry lie a variety of cultural assumptions about human nature and the role of suffering of often questionable validity and utility (Chapter 9), or because pharmaceutical marketing can’t be relied on to report the facts unadulterated and unadorned [and its influence has helped consolidate the stranglehold of diagnosis and a simplistic psychiatric approach] (Chapter 10), or finally because our exported practices may undermine successful local ways of managing distress. If there is any conclusion to which the chapters of this book should point, it is that we must think twice before confidently imparting to unsuspecting people around the globe our particular brand of biological psychiatry, our wholly negative views of suffering, our medicalisation of everyday life, and our fearfulness of any emotion that may bring us down.

Not an entirely healthy approach to human experience then. Hillman defines the problem neatly (page 184):

If a culture’s philosophy does not allow enough place for the other, give credit to the invisible, then the other must squeeze itself into our psychic system in distorted form. This suggests that some psychic dysfunctions would be better located in the dysfunctional world view by which they are judged.

So, the widespread self-serving disparagement of the evidence in favour of an afterlife is just one troubling symptom of a prevalent materialistic disease.

It does not have to be so. There is a remedy and it is a matter of urgency that enough of us come to recognise that.

For a start, an important principle of my faith asserts that religion and science are in harmony, something I have  explored at length on this blog in the work of Alvin Plantinga and am republishing currently.

The third principle or teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the oneness of religion and science. Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man. If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test

(Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 106)

Moreover, in the Bahá’í view the existence of the spiritual dimension is supported by evidence, though such a proposition is not one that is widely accepted.

If you should ask a thousand persons, ‘What are the proofs of the reality of Divinity?’ perhaps not one would be able to answer. If you should ask further, ‘What proofs have you regarding the essence of God?’ ‘How do you explain inspiration and revelation?’ ‘What are the evidences of conscious intelligence beyond the material universe?’ ‘Can you suggest a plan and method for the betterment of human moralities?’ ‘Can you clearly define and differentiate the world of nature and the world of Divinity?’ — you would receive very little real knowledge and enlightenment upon these questions….

The intellectual proofs of Divinity are based upon observation and evidence which constitute decisive argument, logically proving the reality of Divinity, the effulgence of mercy, the certainty of inspiration and immortality of the spirit. This is, in reality, the science of Divinity

(Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 326)

Stewart in his home studio: for source of image see link.

The two books under consideration here provide a plethora of hard evidence for the reality of some kind of transcendent dimension. Kean’s account of her direct experience of  Stewart Alexander’s mediumship is just one of many such pieces of evidence (pages 321-344). It contains much that would trigger the incredulity of a convinced and dogmatic sceptic, including physical manifestations: however the conditions under which these phenomena occurred make it hard, perhaps virtually impossible to dismiss them out of hand.

She quotes Fontana in their defence (page 326):

Despite his distaste for travel, Stewart has held séances in Scotland and Wales, as well as Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and Spain. He has sat for sceptics, researchers, and parapsychological organisations. For these public sittings, he was often bodily searched, and his chair and every aspect of the various rooms were thoroughly searched. ‘Apart from the very few and unconvincing accusations made against him by ill-informed individuals,’ David Fontana wrote in 2010, ‘Stewart’s long career has been free from attempts to cast doubt on the genuine nature of the phenomena associated with his mediumship.’

In fact, the evidence in favour of this transcendent reality has often been more rigorously generated and seems more convincing, in my view, than that which recommends our ingestion of chemicals with a multitude of unpleasant effects in addition to their dubious benefits.

Kean’s words towards the end of her book seem a good place to stop (page 360):

No matter where the force that produces these extraordinary phenomena comes from, any intellectually honest person who studies the literature and engages directly with authentic, skilled mediums cannot deny that psi is real. . . . . I’m not a scientist, but I would think that if consciousness is nonlocal and there are nonphysical realms, these would naturally exist outside the confines of the material world and would therefore not be subject to the laws of physics. My only request of those who deny any of this is possible is to simply look at the evidence with an open mind.

Where the afterlife is concerned, there would be no better place to start such an investigation than these two books. There are of course other issues to explore. For the deficiencies of psychiatry James Davies and Richard Bentall are to be highly recommended: in terms of our econocracy Earle et al’s book is a good one.

Whatever area we want to explore we need to ‘look [and look hard] at the evidence with an open mind’ if we are not simply to be dupes of our prevailing materialistic, consumer oriented, economic-growth-is-good mythology.

Oh, and I’ll be looking at mythology again in the next post or two.

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In the kingdom (or is it the mall?) of the West, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 110)

Sharon Rawlette put me on to Leslie Kean’s brilliant and rigorous exploration of the evidence for an afterlife, Surviving Death. It was a compelling and inspiring read that triggered me to go back and re-read a book – David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? – which I had read long before I started blogging and from which I took no systematic notes.

As I went back over Fontana’s book I slowly became aware that there was a key issue I needed to explore that is flagged up strongly in both books. I decided that this took precedence for me at this point over their impressive research, because the feeling came through strongly from both writers that no matter how compelling the evidence and no matter how rigorous their presentation of it, there would be obdurate resistance to even considering it let alone accepting it. As I will examine later in this post such denial of legitimate evidence is far from uncommon in our supposedly scientific culture, and is not confined to matters of the spirit.

A key passage from Fontana reads (page 94):

We can go further and say that not only is the dogmatic approach by materialistic science to the mysteries of the human mind misleading it reveals a disturbing ignorance. Ignorance is not so much the act of not knowing something, it is the act of not knowing something but claiming to know. . . . . . Lacking any personal acquaintance with inner spiritual or psychic experiences, the materialistic scientist ‘knows’ that those who have such experiences are wrong in their interpretation of them, while he or she is of course right.

This insight follows immediately after his account of the life and death of Socrates and the conclusions he draws from that (page 93):

How interesting that nearly two and a half thousand years ago Socrates was giving very much the same explanation of mediumistic gifts and their inhibition by the conscious mind that we might give today. This brings home to us an essential but often forgotten truth, namely that the knowledge of the spiritual dimension possessed by the ancients has hardly been bettered. The myth of eternal progress in human understanding, which lies behind so much of our delusory intellectual arrogance in modern times, can clearly be seen at least in spiritual matters for what it is, a myth.

In his view we have sold ‘the birthright of our innate spiritual wisdom for the mess of potage of material progress.’

The arrogance of our ignorance goes back a long way and across more than one dimension of human experience.

Take for example John Fitzgerald Medina’s exploration of the misguided attitude of the European settlers to the native American mode of agriculture in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology.

The sophistication of the Native American model lay not just in politics (pages 199-200):

Contrary to the American colonists’ misinformed judgements, much evidence now exists to show that the American Indians were in fact, quite adept at cultivating a large variety of plants in a diversity of climates, soils, and environmental conditions. They utilised the Earths resources wisely, gently, and reverently.

This system may be at least equal if not superior to our environmentally disastrous monoculture (pages 201-02):

Unlike the Europeans, who planted row after row of the same plants, the Indians throughout North and Central America cultivated small plots of land that often looked like wild, haphazard gardens. . . . Scientific studies have shown that such Indian-style plots, call milpas in Mexico, are resilient to pests and weeds and protect the topsoil from erosion. . . . . .

Modern agronomists marvel at the simplicity and productivity of Indian-style agricultural plots, and some are actively studying it as an alternative to the European style, monocultural plantation form of farming, which leads to widespread soil erosion and degradation of topsoil due to the massive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers.

Nonetheless, in the arrogance of our ignorance we dispossessed the native Americans of their land in the mistaken conviction that we knew better and they just didn’t know how to grow crops properly, justifying our actions by a distortion of scripture.

The irrigation system in ancient India was similarly disparaged with drastic consequences. Fred Pearce explains in his 2006 book, When the Rivers Run Dry (pages 301-02):

Until the early nineteenth century, much of India was irrigated from shallow mud-walled reservoirs in valley bottoms that captured the monsoon rains in summer. The Indians called them tanka, a word the English adopted into their own language as tanks.

Most of the tanks were quite small, covering a hectare at most, and irrigating perhaps twenty hectares. Farmers scooped the water from the tanks, diverted it down channels onto fields, or left it to sink into the soil and refill their wells. . . . Farmers guarded the slimy nutrient-rich mud in their tanks almost as much as the water. They dug it out to put onto their land, and turned silted-up former tanks into new farmland.

. . . The system thrived until the British took charge in India. . . . The British water engineers largely ignored the village tanks, apparently not realising that they were how India fed itself. . . . As the British and later the Indian government itself promoted more modern water gathering technologies, they gradually fell into disuse, but today, as the formal irrigation systems established on the Western model fail across the country, and as farmers are having to pump from ever greater depths to retrieve underground water, the old tanks are starting to be restored.

Before we get too smug about it, we need to realise that this kind of blindness is as prevalent as ever.

Sometimes it’s entirely wilful as with Holocaust denial, where the evidence is unquestionable and easily accessed. Sometimes it’s partly motivated by self-interest or an ostrich approach where keeping our head in the sand seems less of a problem than facing up to reality, but also the sheer complexity of an issue such a climate change can make denial seem rational in the face of such demanding data. I’ve dealt with the complexity issue elsewhere on this blog so won’t rehearse it all here.

My long-standing personal commitment to investigating issues for myself and checking out the evidence carefully has been further reinforced by the faith I have chosen to follow. Bahá’í Scripture is unequivocal on this issue. We must investigate for ourselves if truth and justice are to be well served (see link for a fuller exploration of this theme).

At the individual level justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, Justice is ‘the best beloved of all things[1]’ since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or group.

(Prosperity of Humankind – Section II)

There is no get-out clause:

If, in the Day when all the peoples of the earth will be gathered together, any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: ‘Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My beauty and turned away from My Self?’ and if such a man should reply and say: ‘Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal,’ such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – LXXV)

I won’t labour the point any further. In the next post I’ll move onto to considering further implications.

Footnote:

[1] Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic No: 2.

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NDE

In the light of yesterday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing this link as well. Below is an extract from an excellent article by Gideon Lichfield summarising the current state of research on NDEs: it manages, in a balanced dispassionate way, to express the author’s scepticism without offending those who believe in an afterlife. For Lichfield’s full post see link

Near-death experiences have gotten a lot of attention lately. The 2014 movie Heaven Is for Real, about a young boy who told his parents he had visited heaven while he was having emergency surgery, grossed a respectable $91 million in the United States. The book it was based on, published in 2010, has sold some 10 million copies and spent 206 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Two recent books by doctors—Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, who writes about a near-death experience he had while in a week-long coma brought on by meningitis, and To Heaven and Back, by Mary C. Neal, who had her NDE while submerged in a river after a kayaking accident—have spent 94 and 36 weeks, respectively, on the list. (The subject of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, published in 2010, recently admitted that he made it all up.)

Their stories are similar to those told in dozens if not hundreds of books and in thousands of interviews with “NDErs,” or “experiencers,” as they call themselves, in the past few decades. Though details and descriptions vary across cultures, the overall tenor of the experience is remarkably similar. Western near-death experiences are the most studied. Many of these stories relate the sensation of floating up and viewing the scene around one’s unconscious body; spending time in a beautiful, otherworldly realm; meeting spiritual beings (some call them angels) and a loving presence that some call God; encountering long-lost relatives or friends; recalling scenes from one’s life; feeling a sense of connectedness to all creation as well as a sense of overwhelming, transcendent love; and finally being called, reluctantly, away from the magical realm and back into one’s own body. Many NDErs report that their experience did not feel like a dream or a hallucination but was, as they often describe it, “more real than real life.” They are profoundly changed afterward, and tend to have trouble fitting back into everyday life. Some embark on radical career shifts or leave their spouses.

Over time, the scientific literature that attempts to explain NDEs as the result of physical changes in a stressed or dying brain has also, commensurately, grown. The causes posited include an oxygen shortage, imperfect anesthesia, and the body’s neurochemical responses to trauma. NDErs dismiss these explanations as inadequate. The medical conditions under which NDEs happen, they say, are too varied to explain a phenomenon that seems so widespread and consistent.

Recent books by Sam Parnia and Pim van Lommel, both physicians, describe studies published in peer-reviewed journals that attempt to pin down what happens during NDEs under controlled experimental conditions. Parnia and his colleagues published results from the latest such study, involving more than 2,000 cardiac-arrest patients, in October. And the recent books by Mary Neal and Eben Alexander recounting their own NDEs have lent the spiritual view of them a new outward respectability. Mary Neal was, a few years before her NDE, the director of spinal surgery at the University of Southern California (she is now in private practice). Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who taught and practiced at several prestigious hospitals and medical schools, including Brigham and Women’s and Harvard.

It was Alexander who really upped the scientific stakes. He studied his own medical charts and came to the conclusion that he was in such a deep coma during his NDE, and his brain was so completely shut down, that the only way to explain what he felt and saw was that his soul had indeed detached from his body and gone on a trip to another world, and that angels, God, and the afterlife are all as real as can be.

Alexander has not published his medical findings about himself in any peer-reviewed journal, and a 2013 investigative article in Esquirequestioned several details of his account, among them the crucial claim that his experience took place while his brain was incapable of any activity. To the skeptics, his story and the recent recanting of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven are just further evidence that NDEs rank right up there with alien abductions, psychic powers, and poltergeists as fodder for charlatans looking to gull the ignorant and suggestible.

Yet even these skeptics rarely accuse experiencers of inventing their stories from whole cloth. Though some of these stories may be fabrications, and more no doubt become embellished in the retelling, they’re too numerous and well documented to be dismissed altogether. It’s also hard to ignore the accounts by respected physicians with professional reputations to protect. Even if the afterlife isn’t real, the sensations of having been there certainly are.

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A couple of weeks back I spotted Sharon Rawlette’s review of Kean’s book. I’d already benefited from her alerts. She flagged up a book last year on her blog – Immortal Remains by Stephen Braude – which I bought and then devoured with great interest. Surviving Death seemed at least as intriguing. I’m halfway through and I have to say that for me Sharon’s high estimate of the text is spot on. For example, I hadn’t appreciated at all before that there are organisations that vet mediums to ensure the public are protected from frauds and that there are ways to access these mediums that make fraud almost impossible. The accounts of Kean’s own consultations with two such people (Chapters 12 & 13) illustrate clearly how this process works and how it powerfully suggests that, whether you accept that this is a genuine communication from a still living spirit or believe that it is some form of super-psi, something is going on that is far beyond the ability of a purely materialistic science to explain. Below is a short extract from Sharon’s review: for the full post click link – it’s well worth a look.

I almost didn’t buy Leslie Kean‘s new book Surviving Deathbecause I was worried it was nothing more than an overview of the afterlife evidence I’m already quite familiar with. But while there was certainly some description of the seminal case studies, there was also so much new material that it was absolutely worth the money I paid for a hardback copy. And Kean brings to it a subtlety of analysis that is often missing from other journalistic work in this area.

Kean’s book is divided into four parts. The first focuses on children’s past-life memories, with an in-depth look at two of the best documented American cases: those of James Leininger and Ryan Hammons. The second part of the book focuses on near-death, actual-death, and end-of-life experiences, with a very short chapter on children’s memories of life “between lives.” (This last was something I felt was missing from Stephen Braude’s otherwise very thorough book Immortal Remains.) The third part is devoted to ostensible communications from the dead, whether they come through a medium, odd coincidences, or apparitions. And finally the fourth part of the book takes the idea of mediumistic communication to a whole new level, exploring the evidence for what’s called “physical mediumship,” when the spirits of the dead seem to affect the material world in extraordinary ways, including by materializing objects and apparently living things.

Rather than summarize each of these sections in turn, I’m going to go straight to the material I found most fascinating. Kean reminds the reader throughout the book that it is very difficult to be certain whether any particular paranormal phenomenon is actually produced by discarnate spirits and not simply by the psychic abilities of living persons, who may have a very strong interest in manifesting “evidence” of their loved ones’ continued existence. I appreciated this philosophical rigor, and I was particularly interested by the cases in her book that seemed to weigh in favor of actual discarnate spirits.

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