Posts Tagged ‘God’

I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words, Number 32)

Greyson AfterIn the previous post I took a quick look at where Greyson started from in terms of his deep scepticism about the validity of NDEs. Now I will explore some aspects of the evidence.

The impact of the evidence seems to fall into two categories: one is its impact on scientists and their thinking, while the second is its impact on those who have experienced, or those read about and accepted the validity of, NDEs.

Let’s take the scientists first, before looking at some of the evidence that has produced this shift. In the final post we’ll look at the impact of NDEs on those who experience them, whether directly or indirectly.

The Impact of the Evidence on Science

Greyson’s position is a nuanced one. He states early in his book:[1]

I think there is enough evidence to take seriously both a physiological mechanism for NDEs and continued functioning of the mind independent of the brain.… [N]either of these ideas, while plausible, is a scientific premise – because there is no evidence that could ever disprove either of them. They are instead articles of belief.

This is similar to the position I take that both atheism and theism are acts of faith. This has on occasion produced surprisingly strong reactions from those who have chosen to believe in atheism.

The occasion that sticks in my mind most was how much I upset an atheist in the local Death Cafe. She seemed totally affronted, and clearly could not understand how, by any stretch of the imagination, her belief that there is no God was a commitment ultimately unprovable in purely material terms, just as was my faith in God. She couldn’t even accept my position that if you are relying solely on reason it is impossible to prove beyond any doubt whatsoever whether there is or is not a God.

For obvious reasons, a scepticism that places the two hypotheses of the validity and the purely superstitious nature of NDEs equally in doubt, would be a hard pill for some materialists to swallow. Greyson is in no doubt about the bullet he has had to bite:[2]

As philosophy professor Alva Noë put it, “After decades of concerted effort on the part of neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers, only one proposition about how the brain makes us conscious – how it gives rise to sensation, feeling, subjectivity – has emerged unchallenged: we don’t have a clue.”

He expresses his own perspective with disaerming frankness,[3] ‘The dirty secret of neuroscience is that we have no idea how a physical event like electrical current or a chemical change in a nerve cell can produce consciousness.’

He feels strongly that the evidence points clearly in the direction of doubting reductionism:[4]

The interpretation that the brain creates the mind is not a scientific fact. It’s only a theory developed to explain the association… It turns out that the connection between mind and brain breaks down under exceptional circumstances, like near-death experiences.

It certainly shifted his own position:[5] ‘I knew that immersing myself in near-death experiences was pushing me to grow and changing my view of the mind and the brain and who we really are as human beings’ until he ended up in a very different place from where he started:[6]

I don’t have any alternative explanation of the evidence. We may eventually come up with another explanation, but until then, minds and brains as separate things, with brains acting to filter our thoughts and feelings, seems to be the most plausible working model.

My sense from his book is that he is not alone in making this move, even though it probably still can endanger a scientist’s career as it came close to doing in his case as well, when he was called into the office of his department chairman in Michigan[7] to be told that he should stop ‘wasting time studying NDEs, because they were “just anecdotes”.’

Sir John Eccles, whom I quoted in an  earlier sequence, expresses the situation perfectly. Peter Fenwick, in his chapter in Leslie Kean’s Surviving Death, [8] quotes Eccles’ description of where he thinks reductionist materialism leaves us:

The human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism, to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition. We have to recognise that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.

surviving-deathWhat the evidence looks like:

NDEs challenge materialistic explanations of the brain mind relationship:[9] ‘The extraordinary thinking and perceptive abilities in NDEs, while the brain is impaired, were difficult to understand in terms of what we know about the brain.’

Attempts to explain them in materialistic ways have failed. For example,[10] ‘No study has ever shown decreased levels of oxygen during NDEs.’ Medication didn’t deliver either:[11] ‘research showed that patients who are given medications in fact report fewer NDEs then do patients who don’t get any medication.’ And the killer blow, possibly, is that[12] ‘NDEs may be the ultimate example of elaborate experiences associated with not only reduced, but practically absent brain activity.’

What details does the experience of an NDE provide that suggest it is authentic? There is a significant amount of such evidence, involving more rigorously controlled examples of the ‘stain on the tie’ phenomenon that initially dented Greyson’s scepticism. I’ll quote only one example here:[13]

[Al, a subject in a carefully constructed study] said that he saw his chest held open by metal clamps, and two other surgeons working on his leg. That puzzled him, because his problem was with his heart and he didn’t expect anyone to be messing with his leg. In fact, the surgeons were at that time stripping a vein out of his leg to be used to create a bypass graft for his heart. That detail clearly established that Al had been completely unconscious when he’d witnessed the cardiac surgeon flapping his arms.

All the measures indicated that his brain was completely inactive at this point.

Attempts to provide an even more rigorous methodology may have failed, not because the NDEs were inauthentic but because the methods adopted were inappropriate to the task. A good example is the idea of placing targets close to the ceiling in the hope that experiencers would spot them. Consultations with a group of NDE experiencers flagged up the problem with this approach very clearly and, in my view, convincingly. Greyson described what happened:[14]

When I discussed [my] research findings at a conference attended by a large number of people who had had NDES, they were astounded at what they considered my naivete in carrying out this study. Why, they argued, would patients whose hearts had just stopped and who were being resuscitated – patients who were stunned by their unexpected separation from their bodies – go looking around the hospital room for a hidden image that has no relevance to them, but that some researcher had designated as the “target”?

This resonates with what Julie Beischel writes in Leslie Kean’s Surviving Death about mediumship studies:[15]

The analogy I like to use is that a mediumship study in which the environment is not optimised for mediumship to happen is akin to placing a seed on a tabletop and then claiming the seed is a fraud when it doesn’t sprout.

The experience itself, especially in those areas that describe more transcendental states of consciousness, presents additional problems for any attempt to study it systematically. Ineffability is a major hurdle to overcome:[16]

One of the first things many experiencers say is that there are no words to describe what they experienced. So when I follow that by asking them to tell me about it, I find that I am asking them to do something very difficult. Many experiencers turn to whatever cultural or religious metaphors they have available in order to describe things they don’t have familiar labels for.

The analogy one experiencer uses is to describe explaining the experience as trying ‘to draw an odour using crayons.’

This difficulty extends even to the terms used to capture the being of light or its equivalent:[17]

. . . experiencers attempting to talk about their encounter with the divine in their NDEs use a variety of labels, be it God, Buddha, Brahman, Krishna, Allah, Source, All That Is … and many of the experiencers themselves … acknowledge that these labels should not necessarily be taken literally, but represent their brain’s attempt to make sense of something they experienced that was beyond words.

Beyond the diversity of labels there is some consistency:

 . . . The important point seems to be not how experiencers identify or label the divine beings, but how they feel in the presence of the divine. Regardless of the label or the surprise, they consistently describe feeling peaceful, calm, tranquil, “at home,” grateful, and, most of all, loved.

They also have a shared sense of what the experience means for them and their relationship with the divine in whatever sense:[18]

. . . they recognise that they are just one small part of a far greater divinity. Many experiencers use the analogy of a wave in the ocean to describe this condition. The wave is one small part of the vast ocean and is composed of the same water as the rest of the ocean, yet it maintains its integrity as a distinct wave with its own properties – at least for a while.

On that mystical note I’ll pause until next time when I will be discussing at some length what Greyson feels is possibly the most important data in connection with an NDE – its impact on those who experience it either directly or indirectly.


[1]. After: a Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond  – page 11.

[2]. Ibid. – page 117.

[3]. Ibid. – page 118.

[4]. Ibid. – pages 118-19.

[5]. Ibid. – page 207.

[6]. Ibid. – page 220.

[7]. Ibid. – page 59.

[8]. Quoted by Peter Fenwick, in his chapter in Leslie Kean’s Surviving Death – page 146.

[9]. After – page 35.

[10]. Ibid. – page 109.

[11]. Ibid. – page 110.

[12]. Ibid. – page 129.

[13]. Ibid. – page 68.

[14]. Ibid. – page 74.

[15] Surviving Death – page 172.

[16]. After – page 47-48.

[17]. Ibid. – page 161.

[18]. Ibid. – page 162.

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Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga

My latest sequence of posts concerns itself with the possible nature of a spiritual psychology   It therefore seemed reasonable to republish this short sequence. The first part came out on Thursday.

At the end of the last post I stated it may not be enough to adduce evidence, which satisfies me, to support the idea of a non-material reality ignored by the mainstream because of a bias in science that discounts it. I need also to have some sound reasons for my claim that there is a valid distinction to be made between a good science, prepared to accept the possibility of transpersonal explanations, and a bad science, dogmatically committed to ruling any such explanation of experience out of count on the a priori grounds that it couldn’t possible exist no matter what evidence was brought forward in support of it.

Here I turn to Alvin Plantinga as the most coherent proponent of the case that has convinced me. His book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, deserves the attention of every sceptic. His introduction marks out his core contention:

If my thesis is right, therefore—if there is deep concord between science and Christian or theistic belief, but deep conflict between science and naturalism—then there is a science/religion (or science/ quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn’t between science and theistic religion: it’s between science and naturalism 

He defines ‘naturalism’ as ‘the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.’ He sees it as a kind of religion and definitely not a science. Atheists need to bear with this a little longer to give his argument a fair chance.

Plantinga clarifies where the conflict seems to lie for him:

There is no real conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution. What there is, instead, is conflict between theistic religion and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else).

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Must Evolution be Unguided?

If there is no deep-seated conflict for Plantinga between the theory of evolution and theism, the same is surprisingly not true in the case of naturalism and science:

I argue that the same most emphatically does not go for science and naturalism. . . . . there is deep and serious conflict between naturalism and science. . . . it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. . . . . a naturalist who accepts current evolutionary theory has a defeater for the proposition that our faculties are reliable. . . . naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: one can’t rationally accept them both.

He starts with a simple statement of naturalism’s position before exploring some of his doubts about it (page 34):

Life itself originated just by way of the regularities of physics and chemistry (through a sort of extension of natural selection); and undirected natural selection has produced language and mind, including our artistic, moral, religious, and intellectual proclivities. Now many—theists and others—have found these claims at least extremely doubtful; some have found them preposterous. Is it really so much as possible that language, say, or consciousness, or the ability to compose great music, or prove Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, or think up the idea of natural selection should have been produced by mindless processes of this sort? That is an ambitious claim.

One of the main purposes of Plantinga’s book is to scotch the misconception that a theory of evolution inevitably entails the assumption that it must have been unguided for good and all (page 55):

Well, if we think of the Darwinian picture as including the idea that the process of evolution is unguided, then of course that picture is completely at odds with providentialist religion. As we have seen, however, current evolutionary science doesn’t include the thought that evolution is unguided; it quite properly refrains from commenting on that metaphysical or theological issue.

He concludes that evolution has incorrectly been seen as hostile to religious belief (pages 63-64):

The scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is unguided. But that idea isn’t part of evolutionary theory as such; it’s instead a metaphysical or theological addition.

Caveman and Dinosaur

For source of image see link

Can Naturalism be trusted?

His perspective has other solid ground to stand on. One point he sees as crucial (page 275):

It is important to see that our notion of the laws of nature, crucial for contemporary science, has [its] origin in Christian theism.

An additional critical factor is that the laws of nature lie within the grasp of our understanding (page 276):

On this conception, part of the job of science is to discover the laws of nature; but then of course science will be successful only if it is possible for us human beings to do that. Science will be successful only if these laws are not too complex, or deep, or otherwise beyond us. Again, this thought fits well with theistic religion and its doctrine of the image of God; God not only sets laws for the universe, but sets laws we can (at least approximately) grasp.

From this he concludes (page 282):

With respect to the laws of nature, therefore, there are at least three ways in which theism is hospitable to science and its success . . . First, science requires regularity, predictability, and constancy; . . . From the point of view of naturalism, the fact that our world displays the sort of regularity and lawlike behavior necessary for science is a piece of enormous cosmic luck, a not-to-be-expected bit of serendipity. But regularity and lawlikeness obviously fit well with the thought that God is a rational person who has created our world, and instituted the laws of nature.

Second, not only must our world in fact manifest regularity and law-like behavior: for science to flourish, scientists and others must believe that it does. . . . such a conviction fits well with the theistic doctrine of the image of God.

For me though the killer blow that he delivers is even more fundamental. There is an undermining aspect of naturalism for anyone who chooses to espouse it (page 313):

. . . . .  suppose you are a naturalist: you think that there is no such person as God, and that we and our cognitive faculties have been cobbled together by natural selection. Can you then sensibly think that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable? . . . . . . the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low. But then . . . . . if I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties.

We need to unpack a little more the logic that underlies this conclusion (page 315):

The principal function or purpose, then, . . . . . of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous (nearly true) beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place.  . . . hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. . . . . What Churchland therefore suggests is that naturalistic evolution—that theory—gives us reason to doubt two things: (a) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (b) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs.

For example, awareness that a predator is present is not a belief. It is a trigger to action based on lower level brain processes.  Any beliefs that ride on the back of those processes at a higher level of brain function are irrelevant to the production of life-saving behaviour and may or may not be true.

In short, and to me very sweet, if you believe naturalistic evolution is true you cannot be sure any of your beliefs, including naturalism, are true. Unpacked a bit more it says, if we believe that how we think has been exclusively determined by natural selection, which is only concerned with our capacity to survive long enough to reproduce, then we cannot absolutely trust our beliefs about anything beyond that level, including both our belief that our thinking ability is fixed by evolution and our conviction that there is no God and no spiritual dimension.

Accepting this entails accepting that naturalism cannot be a science. If you add into the mix that excluding any potentially valid data a priori is unscientific then naturalism, which enshrines the ideas that all we are is the fruit of evolution and that anything suggesting there is a spiritual dimension must be false, definitely cannot be a science.

QED, in my book. Gone in a puff of compelling logic is any valid reason in true science to exclude a priori from consideration evidence that supports a spiritual explanation.

Perhaps with his tongue slightly in his cheek, Plantinga closes his book by saying (page 349):

My conclusion, therefore, is that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic belief, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. Given that naturalism is at least a quasi-religion, there is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies.

The Conscious Universe IRMIn Summary

For me then the case is strong.

There is enough evidence, much of it referred to elsewhere on this blog, to support the notion that the mind is not reducible to the brain, and beyond that the mind seems to have the capacity, under certain conditions, to respond to wavelengths of reality that contradict our materialistic consensus.

There are compelling reasons for mainstream science to take this evidence seriously if it is to be true to its own most fundamental principles. And there is no good reason for pretending that the idea of a spiritual reality is so preposterous we’ve no need to look at the evidence in its favour. In fact, a central tenet of modern science, the theory of evolution, suggests the exact opposite: any claim to reduce our reasoning entirely to material origins in evolution and to protect that claim by ruling out in advance as false any evidence to the contrary, would, if it were true, undermine its own validity.

All of this can be explored in more depth at the links below. Any atheist who refuses to explore not only my version of the books referred to but the books themselves, should at least consider that they might be protecting their prejudices rather than behaving rationally. If, after careful consideration, neither the argument nor the evidence contained in those links shifts them from conviction to at least agnosticism, then they should acknowledge that what they believe is at least as much an act of faith as my position on the matter.

Related Articles

Hard Evidence


Consciousness beyond Life (1/3): problems of scepticism
Consciousness beyond Life (2/3): ‘consciousness does not happen in the brain
Consciousness beyond Life (3/3): nonlocality

Book Review (1/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ and its critique of materialism
Book Review (2/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ on consciousness
Book Review (3/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ on the costs of the materialistic approach

Irreducible Mind – a review (1/3): how psychology lost the plot
Irreducible Mind – a review (2/3): Myers & the mind-body problem
Irreducible Mind – a review (3/3): the self & the Self


Book Review (1/2): Radin, Psi and Scepticism
Book Review (2/2): Radin on Processes of Distortion


Where the Conflict Really Lies (1/4): preparing the ground
Where the Conflict Really Lies (2/4): a superficial conflict
Where the Conflict Really Lies (3/4): a deep compatibility
Where the Conflict Really Lies (4/4): the deep conflict

Possible Implications: Heart & Head

An Understanding Heart (1/4): divided we fail
An Understanding Heart (2/4): a consensus trance
An Understanding Heart (3/4): separating gut from heart
An Understanding Heart (4a/4): redressing the balance
An Understanding Heart (4b/4): of lamps and gardens
An Understanding Heart (4c/4): of mirrors and reflection

The Third ‘I’ (2/5): Kahneman Revisited – the three ‘I’s
The Third ‘I’ (3a/5): the wisdom of dreams
The Third ‘I’ (3b/5): the wisdom of dreams
The Third ‘I’ (4/5): whispers from the heart
The Third ‘I’ (5a/5): the power of silence
The Third ‘I’ (5b/5): interthinking

Three Brains Revisited (1/3): A Stranded Mariner?
Three Brains Revisited (2/3): Are We Too Trigger-Happy?
Three Brains Revisited (3/3): Is Mammering the Best Policy?

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After my republishing the posts about my problems with puzzle poetry, the poetry of Antonio Machado seems to me to provide a good example of the kind of poetry to which I resonate most strongly. This second one is not so a much literal translation of his original as a response to it which incorporates his imagery seen through the prism of my perspective. 

A Crazy Song For the original Spanish that triggered this see link.

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Given the theme of my next post, this seemed a good poem to republish. 

(freely adapted from Ken Ring: Lessons from the Light pages 286-91)

. . . . . the next thing – I’m standing in this dark room
there’s my body on the bed and a deep darkness
I’m here and I’m also over there
one whole wall in the room a dark forest
the sun rising behind it and a path out through the woods.

I realise what’s happening.
If I go up that path to the edge of the woods into that light
I’ll be dead.
Yet it’s so peaceful.

I move up the path. The light grows massive. I see memories
of all my sadness. I urge, “Stop!”
Everything stops! I’m shocked. I realize
I can talk to the light and it responds!

I am rising into this tunnel of light.
I ask, “What is this light? What are you really?”
The light reveals itself directly, vividly, to my mind.
I can feel it, I can feel this light in me.
And the light unfolds its message in my mind:
“I could be Jesus, I could be Buddha,
I could be Krishna. It’s how you see me.”

But desperate for understanding
I insist, “But what are you really?”
The light changes into a mandala of souls
all our souls, our true selves, are fused,
we are one being,
we are the same being,
distinct aspects of the same Being.
I enter this mandala of human souls
white hot with all the love we’ve ever wanted,
a love that can heal everything, everyone

I’m desperate to know, really know

I am taken into the light and
instantly the world shrinks with distance
the solar system’s pinpricks
without moving I see galaxies upon galaxies
dancing across cold empty blackness
my consciousness is expanding so fast

here comes another light right at me
I hit this light
I dissolve
I disappear
I understand

I have passed the singularity
I have traversed the big bang
I went through that membrane into this –
the Void
I am aware of everything
that has ever been created
I’m looking out of God’s eyes
I know why every atom is

then everything reverses
I return through the singularity
I understand that everything since that first word
is actually the first vibration
there is a place before any vibration was

after the Void, I returned knowing
that God is not only there
God is here
everything is here – no need to search
while we are now God’s always

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Beech hedge

Yet another rather longer poem from the early 1980s, to complement the ones referred to in the previous post.

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 eventually 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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The original Spanish will be in this Thursday’s post. For the source of the edited image, see link.

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