Posts Tagged ‘Near Death Experiences’

LamberthIs consciousness spirit, mind or brain?

Or none of the above perhaps?

Just kidding.

I was asked to give a talk on this topic at the University of Birmingham at the beginning of March. I have done this once before (see link) and have ruminated on the issues before and since on this blog. I had so much running round in my mind-brain, whichever it is, that I needed to start organising my ideas in good time. Writing a blog post seemed a good way of helping in that process. The last post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is simply what I thought I might say!

‘Doubt Wisely’

David Lamberth in William James and the Metaphysics of Experience reports James’s point of view on the investigation of such matters, and I feel this is a good place to begin (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

When it comes to these issues, fundamentalist certainty is completely out of place. I may have chosen to believe certain things about the mind and its independence of the brain but I cannot know what I believe is true in the same way as I can know my own address. Similarly, though, those like Dennett and Churchland who believe that the mind is entirely reducible to the brain cannot be absolutely sure of their position either.

We are both performing an act of faith.

is-god-a-delusionIt is in this spirit that I want to explain my point of view and with the same intent as Reitan in his book Is God a Delusion? He explains that he wishes to demonstrate that it is just as rational to believe in God as it is not to believe in God. I am not trying to persuade anyone to believe as I do, I simply want people to accept that I am as rational as any sceptic out there, and more so than the so-called sceptics who have absolute faith in their disbelief. The only tenable position using reason alone is agnosticism. Absolute conviction of any kind is faith, which goes beyond where reason can take us.

John Hick adduces an argument to explain why we cannot be absolutely sure about spiritual issues, an argument which appeals to a mind like mine. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . 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.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe in a spiritual perspective whether it involves the concept of God or the idea I’m discussing here, that the mind is independent of the brain. Conversely, materialists should be aware that there is no evidence that could compel us not to believe it either. There is only enough evidence either way to convince the predisposed to that belief.

As an atheist/agnostic of almost 25 years standing and a mature student at the time I finished my clinical psychology training after six years of exposure to a basically materialist and sceptical approach to the mind, I was pretty clear where I’d confidently placed my bets.

There were three prevailing ideas within the psychological community at the time about the nature of the mind: the eliminative materialism advocated by such thinkers as Paul Churchland; the epiphenomenological approach which says consciousness is simply an accidental by-product of brain complexity; and the emergent property idea that posits that, just as the cells in our body as a whole combine to create something greater than themselves, so do our brain cells. I’d chosen the last option as the most sensible. Consciousness is not entirely reducible to a simple aggregate of cells: the mind is something extra. But I didn’t believe for one moment that it was not ultimately a material phenomenon.

mind v3The Emanation Shock

Well, not that is until I took the leap of faith I call declaring my intention to work at becoming a Bahá’í.

The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Faith, were a bit of a shock to me at first: ‘. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.’

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart.

My memory of the process by which I set out to investigate suggests that my initial research involved looking into near death experiences (NDEs) and Psi.

I decided that, as I was not absolutely certain of this, I’d better make sure I was even aware of that body of data at this time. I checked my bookshelves. To my surprise, it showed that I was reading about NDEs and Psi even before I declared as a Bahá’í. My copies of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life and John Randall’s Parapsychology and the Nature of Life both date from 1981, a whole year earlier at the very least. There is no reference to either book in my journals of 1981/82 so I don’t know whether I read them before finding the Bahá’í Faith.

Not that in the end, after years of checking this out as more research became known, NDEs have provided completely conclusive proof that there is a soul and that the mind derives from it. Even my Black Swan example of Pam Reynolds, which I discovered much later, could not clinch it absolutely. This was the beginning of my realisation that we are inevitably dealing with acts of faith here and that both beliefs are equally rational when not asserted dogmatically. Even if you couldn’t explain them away entirely in material terms, the existence of Psi complicated the picture somewhat.

For example, Braude’s work in Immortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

I’ll explore this in more detail in the next post on Saturday.

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O SON OF THE SUPREME! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendour. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No 32)

worm-coreIn the last post, looking at Solomon et al’s treatment of death in The Worm at the Core, I came to the conclusion that, in spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I had to admit they are making an important point.

They argue that all of us tend to create destructive solutions to the existential problem of death. This comes in two main forms: meaning systems/world views and self-esteem.

Let’s take world views as an example of their case (page 131):

It is deeply disturbing to have one’s fundamental beliefs called into question. Take our meanings and purposes away, characterise them as juvenile, useless, or evil, and all we have left are the vulnerable physical creatures that we are. Because cultural conceptions of reality keep a lid on mortal dread, acknowledging the legitimacy of beliefs contrary to our own unleashes the very terror those beliefs serve to quell. So we must parry the threat by derogating and dehumanising those with alternative views of life

The same kind of process applies if our self-esteem, as they term it, is threatened.

Because their book is focused on proving the nature of the problem they don’t say much about the solutions. They make a strong case that death denial is ultimately destructive leading to problems ranging from mindless consumerism through mental health problems to outright fanaticism. They spend less time contending that a constructive acceptance of death and its integration into a viable pattern of life bears the fruits of a common sense of humanity and a desire for positive purpose. Destructive terror-reducing purposes can be avoided. They share my liking for the existential therapy model, but don’t go far enough beyond that for me.

Perhaps because they lack a spiritual perspective, they seem blind to the possibility that, for example, there are positive aspects to psychosis (I will be exploring this more deeply in later posts).

Richard House (in Psychosis and Spiritualitypage 94) quotes Levin, who ‘finally, succintly and beautifully sums up [this] position:

[S]eemingly psychotic experiences are better understood as crises related to the person’s effort to break out of the standard ego-bounded identity: trials of the soul in its spiritual journey. The modern self is nearing the frontier of a historically new spiritual existence… It is time for a real paradigm shift. (Levin, 1987)

This idea of a paradigm shift or tipping point is something I have explored at length elsewhere so I won’t dwell on it again here. A summary of one aspect of the Bahá’í position will have to suffice here.

We urgently need a sense of the transcendent if we are to be able to answer the challenge issued by the Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, when the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were completed. The following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

The Bahá’í perspective shares Matthieu Ricard’s awareness of the need to link the local through the national to the global (Social Action):

No matter how essential, a process of learning at the local level will remain limited in its effectiveness if it is not connected to a global process concerned with the material and spiritual prosperity of humanity as a whole. Structures are required, then, at all levels, from the local to the international, to facilitate learning about development.

What might death have to do with our connection with the transcendent?

In a recent documentary on Down’s Syndrome, Sally Phillips, the presenter, exclaims towards the end, ‘Cracks are where the light gets in.’ What if death itself is some kind of light, as Bahá’u’lláh suggests, and not simply an intolerable crack in the fabric of our world view?

I’d be the first to admit that this is not an obvious option. It certainly hasn’t been for me.

I was studying for my ‘A’ levels when I heard about what someone from our school had done. His father was a farmer. He took his father’s shotgun, so they said. All we knew for sure was that, after his girl friend had dumped him, he turned up where she worked and with the first barrel killed her before turning the second on himself.

A few of us who knew him left the library and went to the nearest coffee bar in shock. The conversation settled nothing, least of all our nerves. Nothing we knew of him before explained his final acts. In the end, we shrugged it off and went back to our books.

Five years later in the second term of my first teaching job the common room was stunned after the Christmas break. Even the bridge fanatics stopped their game. A young man who had started at the school the same time as me last summer wasn’t coming back. He had thrown himself under the wheels of a tube train. Again none of us had seen it coming.

We knew he had been struggling a bit keeping his classes under control. No big deal, we thought. But we were obviously wrong. A mixture of shame and guilt now stopped us in our tracks at least for a short time. And again it was too late. The bidding at the bridge table began once more. Newspapers shuffled, teaspoons rattled in our cups, and piles of exercise books to mark took our minds off what could not be undone or understood.

In my second teaching job there was the sister of a student. On leave from hospital she booked into a hotel, where staff found her dead the following morning of an overdose. This was harder to understand. She had been in hospital for depression, and they knew she had plans to kill herself sometime. They clearly didn’t think it would be now.

Mary poem

These were not the only times in my life up to that point that I’d had to deal with death. There had been others – my sister’s mainly, whose lungs gave out before I was born, but the shadow of whose passing hung over my childhood. Also the war dead, like those in my father’s book – black and white images of uniformed corpses spread across the mud – and the victims of the concentration camps everyone was talking about as I grew up.

In addition, as the youngest child of youngest children, for me relatives were scarce. I knew more family graves than family members. And even some of those who had survived, were scarred by life or war. One uncle had had his right arm damaged in the First World War so he carried it rather than used it, and another had a tumour on the brain, whose pressure, they told me, had been eased by a plastic flap they’d cut into his skull. It would wear out one day, they said, and when it did he’d die. They couldn’t operate again, it seemed.

Every time I went to see him, because my mother asked, I looked anxiously at the deepening bowl in the side of his head, worried in case it wore out when I was there. I don’t remember my mother ever seeing him either with me or alone. I was her unwilling surrogate. She’d had more to do with death than she could stomach. And sometimes, to be honest, I was beginning to feel a bit the same.

It was much later that other more positive ways of seeing death became available.

dancing-past-the-darkNancy Evans Bush asks an interesting question in her masterly exploration of distressing near-death experiences (NDEs) (Dancing Past the Dark – Kindle Reference 2046): ‘What if the Void and heaven are not opposites but differing perspectives of whatever is ultimate?’

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.

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.’

My childhood death connection obviously draws me to exploring this dimension of death, spirituality and mental health. The culture I’ve grown up in does not help, nor does my training in mainstream psychology.

Neil Douglas-Klotz (Psychosis and Spirituality – page 49) explains exactly why:

Beginning with the imperialisation of Christianity under the Roman Empire, European culture extracted a limited language concerning [spiritual & psychotic] states from an underlying Middle Eastern context, but without fully understanding the language or worldview involved. Because of this, Western culture developed a massive split between ‘inner’ psychic and ‘outer’ normative consciousness, as well as splits between cosmology and psychology, body and soul, and humanity and natural environment. . . . . . Whether by following an orthodox religious interpretation or by reacting against this interpretation in the form of the Enlightenment and the Western scientific revolution, Western culture evolves without a language or worldview that can conceptualise expanded states of consciousness in a healthy way.

Most cultures have been blind to some degree. Sadly we are both arrogant and powerful as well as blind. Still, there are hints to be found in many places, most of them off the beaten track of the market place and the hustings. I hope to follow the trail they promise towards a more satisfying truth about death, psychosis and spirituality.

I feel as though all the pennies still have not dropped. Even I though I have been so slow to see the relevance to one another of the Death Cafe and psychosis, maybe it’s not too late to get closer to the bottom of the problem.

Perhaps at the end of this sequence it will be more uplifting to confront the issue of death with a song, such as this one, powerfully rendered by June Tabor and Martin Simpson.

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Dr Penny Sartori (for source of image see link)

It is more than two years since I posted this short sequence. Given my recent sharing of Sharon Rawlette’s review, it seemed a good time to republish it.

I recently read yet another book about NDEs –  The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences: How Understanding NDEs Can Help Us Live More Fully by Dr Penny Sartori.

Much of it covered very familiar ground and I won’t be dwelling on those aspects in detail here as I have dealt with such things as the basic elements and the implications for consciousness elsewhere. I want to look at what the book seems to add to our understanding of this contentious area of investigation.

Some of what she writes simply adds to my understanding of aspects which have been well-researched already. For example, previous studies, such as those of Ken Ring, have rightly emphasised the impact that an NDE can have on someone’s subsequent pattern of life, often radically altering a person’s priorities, shifting them from the material towards the moral/spiritual. What Sartori includes is some concrete evidence that supports the idea, which writers such as Eben Alexander put forward, that genuine knowledge beyond the person’s previous capacity can be acquired during an NDE. One example (Kindle location 325) describes a presentation at an NDE conference of the NDE experienced by someone called Rajaa:

During the conference a video recording of an interview with Rajaa’s university professor was broadcast. He stated how puzzled he was about Rajaa’s level of knowledge of quantum physics. The knowledge and understanding that she has cannot be acquired by attending an accelerated course or reading lots of books about quantum physics. What I found particularly intriguing was that he said that not even he understood some of what Rajaa was writing about but her work had since been confirmed by recent papers that had been published in physics journals.

Because she is a nurse by profession she is particularly interested in the clinical implications of the NDE. This gives her treatment of the subject a specially valuable slant.

She gives a clear account of the challenges the experience can present in its aftermath. She feels that ‘six major challenges that the NDErs [are] faced with’ have been identified (697). She lists them as (698):

• Processing a radical shift in reality
• Accepting the return to life
• Sharing the experience
• Integrating new spiritual values with earthly expectations
• Adjusting to heightened sensitivities and supernatural gifts
• Finding and living one’s purpose.

As will become clear later the attitude of important others is of particular significance in helping people comes to terms with these challenges. NDEs may be particularly testing for children (1464):

Connecting with unconditional transcendent love, then returning to life was confusing for many childhood NDErs. Many children reported that they wanted to return to where they were and would even attempt suicide to get there. Suicide in this case is not a means of self-harm but a means to return to that wonderful place of love.


In her own practice as a nurse she was challenged by the way that clinical teams managed death and dying and by accounts of NDEs that she met en route. She watched as four members of staff, intent on saving the life of an elderly woman who was certain to die soon, mounted a massively invasive mechanical campaign to prevent the inevitable, only to prolong her suffering to no useful purpose whatsoever.

She decided to embark upon her own investigation of NDEs. It was a demanding exercise to undertake given her duties as a nurse at the time (2605-8):

After the first year I had interviewed 243 patients but only two reported an NDE (0.8 per cent) and two reported an OBE (0.8 per cent). . . . . So by the by the end of the five years, out of 39 patients who survived cardiac arrest, seven reported an NDE (17.9 per cent). . . . . in total, during the five years, 15 patients reported an NDE and there were eight reports of OBE-type experiences.

She argues strongly against NDEs as some form of wish fulfilment, partly on the grounds that these experiences do not conform to expectations and are sometimes decidedly unpleasant. One ‘was so terrifying for the patient that I had to terminate the interview.’ She adds (2725):

Such experiences are hardly the outcome of wish fulfilment. Further to this, some patients met dead relatives they did not expect to see and some had unexpected reactions from these relatives while others did not experience what they had expected. It seems that expectations were not met and some unexpected factors arose.

She quotes Bruce Greyson’s pithy summary of the situation as far as systematic investigation is concerned (2786):

It is interesting to note Professor Bruce Greyson’s comment: ‘Why is it that scientists who have done the most near-death research believe the mind is not exclusively housed in the brain, whereas those who regard NDEs as hallucinations by and large have not conducted any studies of the phenomena at all?’

She dismisses the contention that NDEs are drug induced on the basis of considerable evidence to the contrary, for example (2807-9):

Interestingly, when drug administration is considered in the hallucination group, out of the 12 patients who reported bizarre hallucinations, 11 (almost 92 per cent) of them received both painkilling and sedative drugs. This appears to suggest that drugs greatly contribute to confusional, bizarre hallucinations . . . . which are in stark contrast to the clear, lucid, well-structured NDEs that were reported. 


For source of image see link

She then moves into an area of particular practical interest to me given my involvement in NHS Chaplaincy.

She begins by explaining that, in general (2967), ‘spiritual aspects of patient care are an area which is greatly lacking for many reasons, such as lack of confidence or experience, or lack of continuity of care, but probably the biggest factor is excessive workloads and resultant lack of time and nurses.’  She is clear that (2970) ‘addressing spiritual needs of patients and treating patients holistically has the potential to accelerate healing and recovery, reduce medication and resources required and so reduce the hospital stay’ and that (2973) ‘[c]aring for patients’ spiritual needs could also prompt healthcare workers to explore their own spiritual needs.’

She makes the same point (2977) as the recent Horizon programme on the placebo effect also demonstrated experimentally, ‘Drawing on the latest research of the effect of positive emotions on health, it has been shown how feelings of wellbeing and love can greatly enhance recovery and healing.’

What has this to do with NDEs? Quite a great deal as it turns out. First of all these experiences are usually wrongly categorised (2987):

NDEs are often misdiagnosed as post-traumatic stress or a dissociative disorder, despite the literature warning against this, and they are categorized into conventional diagnostic illnesses that are not appropriate for NDEs.

There is widespread ignorance amongst health staff which adversely affects the care they provide (3003):

Despite NDEs being highly popularized in the media, healthcare workers still lack the knowledge to provide the level of care that these patients require.

She argues for the importance of a more understanding approach (3032):

Caregivers should not discredit NDE/end-of-life experiences because they are at variance with their own worldview but should encourage the person to use it in a positive way and see it as a gift. Although as nurses we are trained to ‘correct’ hallucinations, it is most important that NDEs are not treated in this way but listened to.

She unpacks why this matters (3040):

NDEs are still regarded by some people as hallucinations and many try to explain them away as being due to drugs or lack of oxygen. This is not a criticism; when NDEs are taken at surface value these appear to be very rational, plausible explanations – in fact, these were my own initial reactions to NDEs. Research in the clinical area is now showing these factors to be inadequate explanations and such a response can be detrimental to the NDEr understanding and integrating their experience.

This can lead to long term negative consequences as the patient retreats into silence about the whole experience, questions his or her rationality and suffers from a feeling of alienation.

The next post will go into more detail about what the book reveals of the implications and the aftermath of an NDE.

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Another example of where deep conversations can lead.

More faith in honest doubt?

Any reader of this blog will know I’m really into NDEs – sorry, near death experiences for the uninitiated – and accept the validity of the basic experience as proof that consciousness is not reducible to the brain. Though I try hard to give the sceptic within a fair hearing, life sometimes has to send me a hint that I should sift at least some of the evidence more carefully. I got one of those hints just the other week.

I had a visitor, a good friend, someone I’d not seen though for quite a few years. He hadn’t changed much. Stocky, square-faced, with a confident stride, he came in through the front door as though he’d never been away.

Always when we meet our conversations go deep – the kind I like as I’ve already explained on this blog. This time was no exception.

He sat on the sofa opposite the window, his compact frame looking ready to spring into instant action as though, even after all this time, his years in the army had still not worn off. For someone so apparently on standby, he spoke slowly, with a Northern twang and with relatively little expression in his voice. Even so, from time to time he would scrunch up his eyes and open them again as though trying to clear his vision.

It was obvious that he felt strongly about what we were discussing.

Over the tea that I had made for him, which stayed untouched on the small table by his knee for what seemed ages as he spoke, he brought me up-to date with his state of play. The steam from the coffee in my left hand spiralled between us across my gaze.

He has a combination of problems, mainly high blood pressure and sleeplessness probably caused by the constant pain from old injuries: this also prevents him functioning at full capacity most of the time, though there are days, he said, when he can dig for hours with no discomfort. He keeps positive mentally by drawing on what he had learnt from reading Krishnamurti over the years, and from the one time they had met and spoken together for some considerable time.

‘As soon as I began to feel important because of this attention,’ my friend explained, ‘Krishnamurti walked off.’

The hours we had spent in the past repeatedly revisiting Krishnamurti’s teachings came flooding back. His explanations when they happened, as they often did, had tended to last an extremely long time, the teachings meant so much to him.

I dunked a ginger biscuit into my coffee at about this point. He hadn’t touched his tea yet. I stood up and offered him a biscuit, which he took and began to drink his tea.

Then he made a knight’s move into unexpected territory, possibly under the influence of the biscuit or maybe the tea. Perhaps he had said all he needed to say about Krishnamurti for now.

To my surprise, we had moved into my home town – the NDE. Well, at least, I thought we had, until he mentioned electronic beds in the context of altered states of consciousness. This was news to me. He’d brought this into the conversation because he thought such an invention might be a possible cure for his physical ills by enabling him to draw upon the higher powers of his mind.

He said he’d found out about this after reading a book called Saved by the Light by Dannion Brinkley and Paul Perry. The title sounded familiar to me but I couldn’t remember anything about it.

‘This guy was struck by lightning,’ he explained. ‘He was an engineer and had the skills to make this kind of bed. He had an NDE. He was sent back to produce this bed. Only he didn’t do so straightaway so he had another NDE and was told to get on with it. I call them e-beds for short. You’ve probably read it and know all this already.’

He added that Brinkley claimed the beds were able to induce out-of-body experiences (OBEs) such that two people could communicate telepathically with each other. He seemed to accept these claims as valid.

‘I’ve read about someone who was struck by lightning but he was an arms manufacturer. Doesn’t sound like the same guy, and I’ve heard nothing about an electronic bed.’

Anyway the conversation began to fizzle out shortly after this. I made him lunch and we walked to town together afterwards. We agreed to meet up again soon and went our separate ways. But the connection I’d made with the man struck by lightning kept crackling and sparking away in my mind as I walked on.

I didn’t get the time to follow up on it till the next day.

Initially, when I looked the following day, I couldn’t find any reference to any kind of ‘e-bed’ on the net. Then I thought I’d check my shelves for the book. It had sounded so familiar I might just have read it and lost track.

Good grounds for not buying the package?

NDE books

All my NDE books are in one place and sure enough, it was there – I’d read the book. The familiar account unfolded as I read it. My conviction that it must have been in Ken Ring’s book Lessons from the Light bit the dust. I had thought he was an arms manufacturer but in fact he claims to have been a soldier and, post-discharge, in special ops. My mistake has even found its way into one of my poems. My unchecked memory at fault again! How could I have forgotten what I actually read, and transmuted it into something so different. I’ve explored that question before so I won’t go over that ground again, though it is disturbing to realize that I don’t even listen to myself.

Basically, I respect my friend’s integrity – there are few people with more – but I don’t trust his judgement – I’ve come not to trust my own judgement so why should I not question other people’s? The fact that my friend had been in the army and not retained this part of the story and recreated Brinkley as an engineer mirrored my mistake as a retired psychologist in missing evidence of psychopathology in his younger days and morphing him into an arms dealer.

More than enough cause to give full rein to my inner sceptic about e-beds and OBEs at the very least.

The description of his history prior to the NDE makes him sound as if he might have been some kind of sociopath. He may have chosen to present himself that way to make his transformation all the more dramatic. (There were other suspicious aspects to his account as my subsequent researches would show and I’ll discuss in a moment.) Here’s a quote from his own description of himself in case you don’t believe me about the possible pathology (pages 12-13).

Once in sixth grade, the teacher asked me to stop disrupting class. When I refused, she grabbed my arm and began marching me towards the principal’s office. As we walked out of the classroom, I pulled loose and hit her with an uppercut that knocked her to the ground. As she held her bleeding nose, I walked myself to the principal’s office. As I explained to my parents, I didn’t mind going to the office, I just didn’t want to be pulled there by a teacher.

We lived next door to the junior high school I attended, and I could sit on the porch and watch the kids in the playground on the days that I was suspended from school. One day I was sitting there when a group of girls came to the fence and started making fun of me. I wasn’t going to take that. I went into the house, got my brother’s shot gun, and loaded it with rock salt. Then I came back out and shot the girls in the back as they fled, screaming.

He also claims that he went on to act as a sniper for the US military – an army hitman. His worst outrage, according to his account, was blowing up a hotel, killing 50 innocent people in order to take out one target person.

What was I dealing with here? Did an NDE really change a sociopath into an empathic caring individual, if so that was amazing in itself, e-bed or no e-bed. Was he creating a myth for his own advantage to sell his books and readings, psychopath or no psychopath? Or maybe this was another example of what more and more people are claiming, that there is a positive side to psychopathy, and the lightning strike brought it out in his case, NDE or no NDE.

I really needed to investigate further.

First of all, I found the e-bed via an account of Ron Moody’s (see post):

Dannion claims that during his near-death experience, otherworldly beings showed him a design for an electronic bed with healing powers. They instructed him to build this device and to install it in his healing centers. I have seen several models of this bed from beyond. They are comfortable recliners with built-in headsets that play tape-recorded music through the body by bone conduction. When I tried one of the beds, I found its effects indistinguishable from hypnagogia.

The most he accuses Brinkley of is sensationalising his story the better to gain the credibility that helps his good cause, hospice care. He sees it as harmless.

To sum up, Dannion Brinkley’s story appeals because it tries so many colorful threads of popular paranormality together into one entertainment package.

I want to make it clear that I am writing in the abstract, and that, personally, I find Betty and Dannion to be lovable and endearing people who do good things for others. I understand, for example, that Dannion recruits volunteers for hospice during his dramatic and exciting talks with large audiences, and gets quite a few of them. I don’t question either of their motives for a second. I am merely pointing out here what makes them listened to.

Problems with the Core NDE

Waking in morgue

Waking in the morgue (for source of image see link)

Others, I discovered, were not so forgiving.

For a start there is this more scathing scepticism from Roy Rivenburg with help from Paul Dean in the LA Times:

[Dannion] Brinkley says his life review covered “at least 6,000 fistfights” that he had between fifth and 12th grades. That averages out to two brawls a day, nonstop for eight years, making Brinkley the Wilt Chamberlain of schoolyard pugilism.

He also says he was a Marine Corps sniper during the Vietnam War, dispatched to Cambodia and Laos to assassinate enemy officers and politicians. But military records show that Pfc. Brinkley was never a sniper, never saw combat, indeed never left the United States during his 18 months in the service.

He was a truck driver stationed in Atlanta.

Brinkley declines to offer any evidence of overseas duty, saying the government is covering up his record because it is classified. But several sources inside and outside the military (including ex-Marines involved in the same covert operations Brinkley claims a role in) say his tale is full of holes and that the so-called secret files are all public.

To be fair, I can’t find the 6,000 fights quote in my copy of the book so maybe Rivenburg is overstating his case as well though in the opposite direction.

There are further questions though (see link) about the facts around his physical ‘death.’ This is far more damaging to the whole issue of establishing the validity of NDEs as a whole. I will quote at some length from this article.

In his book, “Saved By the Light,” Dannion recounts his story and embellishes upon the details [of his NDE]. He claims that he was dead for 28 minutes. During this time, he floated above his body, watching as his wife attempted to revive him in the moments after the lightning strike. He says he heard a paramedic pronounce him dead. . . . . And then, he woke up in the hospital just before being taken to the morgue.

It is an incredible story; one that saw his book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, as well as spawning a highly rated television movie. Dannion has since used his notoriety to become a psychic, charging $250 for a half hour reading [link], . . . . But if his story were true, we can reasonably expect that he would have told a similar one in the days following his injury. But it’s not, because he didn’t. . . .

Carl Langley was a newspaper reporter for the Augusta Herald at the time of Dannion’s ordeal. He interviewed him, and in the September 19th 1975 edition, published a story about the incident titled “Phone Call Almost Cost Him His Life.” The story as Mr. Brinkley told it then is dramatically different than the one he tells now in his books and interviews. Remember how Dannion said he was dead for 28 minutes, and the paramedic pronounced him dead? Langley’s newspaper article says otherwise:

“Frantically, Mrs. Brinkley began pounding away on her husband’s chest, stopping only to grasp his tongue and pull it away from his windpipe so he could breathe.

“‘I was out for a few minutes, and she saved my life,’ Danny said. With breathing restored, Mrs. Brinkley called the paramedics.”

But there’s more. Remember, Dannion also tells people that he woke up in the hospital later, after having traveled to heaven and talking to angels. . . . Dr. Gilmore Eaves says he was at Dannion’s side within an hour of his brush with lightning. . .

“When I saw him he was completely lucid,” Dr. Eaves said. . . . Nor did he ever tell him about seeing a light or seeing a cathedral.

When Brinkley was filmed being confronted with this evidence by a reporter in the video ‘Dr Death’ he laughs it off, explaining that he was young and embarrassed and, “wasn’t gonna start ranting and raving about a near-death experience.”

Later still he responded in a video to these doubts. The report deals with these also and makes a particularly telling point at the end. For the point-by-point commentary see the original story.

But the film “Reverend Death” came out in 2008. It is three years later now, and Dannion has had some time to make up a new version of what happened. In a video posted on his website on May 18th of 2011, Dannion now claims to not remember much about the days of the events in question, which is funny since he has never had problems remembering in radio and television interviews before. . . . . It is also interesting that he has waited until after Mr. Langley and Dr. Eaves have passed away to say all this.

The report comes to a clear conclusion.

He has invented a fictional story about an Out-of-Body experience to sell books. He has given people false hope about heaven, angels, and crystal cities, and has made a fortune doing it. . . . .  When confronted with his fictions, he changes his story or infers that everyone else is lying about what happened.

Where does that leave us?

light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel032111Since I don’t have access to his medical records (nor does anyone else as far as I can tell) there’s no way I can come to a definitive conclusion on this matter – an endemic problem with much NDE research except prospective studies, I’m afraid. Whatever the exact status of his NDE story is, all this undermining background noise would make the uncritical quoting of his NDE experience in any piece on the subject somewhat unsettling.

For example, though Fenwick, in his excellent book, is sceptical of the prophecies Brinkley claims to have been given he accepts the core account as valid (The Truth in the Light – pages 240-241):

As the book was published in 1994 is difficult to comment on predictions reported in it about events which happened before this date, events such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the Gulf War. The dates of these events – 1986 and 1990 – and many other pre-publication happenings came into Dannion’s head with pinpoint accuracy as he saw them on his spiritual tele-screen. But, as tends to be the way with prophecies, those events due to take place after 1994 are foretold with less precision.

Interestingly he speaks as Moody does of Betty Eade and Brinkley in the same breath. He does so in a way that brushes to one side the reservations and focuses upon what he believes is the core of truth (page 241):

. . . . if we pare are away the more extravagant aspects of these two experiences we are left with a great deal that the rings true – the tunnel, the light, the feelings of joy and tranquillity.

The books I trust the most do not mention Brinkley at all, as for instance with Mark Fox and Pim van Lommel, or at least only in passing as in the case of Nancy Evans Bush.

So, where does this leave me now?

I still feel the balance of the evidence is in favour of the validity of the NDE in general even if we do not yet know exactly what it is telling us about life after death. My faith in that has not been shaken. Mario Beauregard allowed the posting two years ago of a clear and coherent summary of the current state of play. Fox and Bush, in particular, convincingly address the difficult issues surrounding the NDE with rigour and clarity. Pim van Lommel bases his conclusions on a rich wealth of prospective data. Charlatans can be found in all walks of life, though perhaps more so where the paranormal is concerned, and often profit at the expense of a dispassionate investigation of the facts: this should not be allowed to cloud the truth completely.

My view concerning Brinkley is that, if his account is in anyway spiced up or fundamentally incorrect, the honourable thing for him to do would be to set the record straight before he dies. After all, the main thrust of his first NDE concerns being forced to experience the pain his actions had caused others. If his NDE account is in anyway valid, he must therefore recognize the imperative of coming clean as his distortions of the truth would otherwise continue damaging many people, both those who believe them because they will have based at least some of their important decisions upon a fairy tale, and perhaps more so those who don’t because the doubts created by his fabrications will have kept them away from the truth.

If he never had any such experience and simply invented it for profit, then I don’t expect that argument would hold much water and he’ll carry on regardless. If his account is true in every detail, which seems doubtful, then he need do nothing more than carry on as he is.

As for me this post is a different kind of wake-up call.  I need to take care myself not to use dubious evidence to support my views for fear of discrediting my own case. It’s hard to remain so consistently vigilant but it looks like it’s a necessary precaution.


I have found references that suggest there is a genuine account of an arms dealer’s NDE in no way related to the one referred to here. I am still searching for the original version.

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Worldwide Web (for source website see link)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This sequence of three posts was first published in April 2013 and then again late last year. The first was republished yesterday and the last will come out tomorrow.

Van Lommel, in his book Consciousness beyond Life, is attempting to persuade us that consciousness is not a product of the brain: in fact, the brain, in his view, may simply be our means of accessing consciousness, rather as a computer gives us access to the internet.

After the first shock of becoming a Bahá’í, which came at the end of twenty years as an atheist including seven years exposure to a reductionist psychological orthodoxy, I had to fight to integrate my new understanding into my current worldview. Now I was reading that the mind is an emanation of the spirit, whereas previously everything that I had read told me that the mind was at best an emergent property of the brain, at worst simply a by-product of neuronal complexity. It was a steep learning curve.

For anyone reading this who is where I was in terms of this collision of ideas, Pim van Lommel is at the top of an ideological Everest. I am not naïve enough to suppose that a sequence of three blog posts is going to do much to shift such a person from where they are at present into this very different paradigm, especially given the bias of mainstream science against the whole idea as completely preposterous.

I would like to argue though that the only tenable position for any true science to adopt is agnosticism, and, moreover, an agnosticism that does not rule out anything a priori, that is prepared to examine any evidence on its merits no matter how dissonant with its prevailing ideas, and that is also capable of realising that evidence and explanation are not the same thing at all. While I might feel that van Lommel’s evidence and the arguments he builds upon its foundations are compelling in their demonstration that there is indeed a soul and an afterlife (in fact, he’s not quite saying that), there might be other conclusions to draw from that same evidence that we will be deprived of if we dismiss it out of hand as virtually delusional.

So, in that spirit, I hope I can carry along any convinced atheists among the readers of this blog at least to the end of this post and of the next one so that they can hopefully get a glimpse of the cogency of his arguments through my rather brutal summary. It has not been possible to also include a detailed explanation of his evidence base. For that a close reading of his text would be necessary. You will have to take my word for it that the evidence he musters, beyond the fragments I refer to here, is not to be easily dismissed as fantasy.


fMRI Machine (for source see link)

The Evidence

Let’s pick up his argument at what is a crux for his case (pages 132-133):

The fact that an NDE is accompanied by accelerated thought and access to greater than ever wisdom remains inexplicable. Current scientific knowledge also fails to explain how all these NDE elements can be experienced at a moment when, in many people, brain function has been seriously impaired. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.

What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition. The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible both immediately afterwards and then after a set period of time again later, rather than finding people who claimed to have had an NDE and interviewing only them. The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved (page 140):

Within a four-year period, between 1988 and 1992, 344 consecutive patients who had undergone a total of 509 successful resuscitations were included in the study.

and for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided (page 159):

The four prospective NDE studies discussed in the previous chapter all reached one and the same conclusion: consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period of unconsciousness—that is, during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.

The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence (page 160);

As prior researchers have concluded, a clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.

What is important to emphasise here is that the precise conditions under which the NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear (page 164) that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’

He is, of course, not claiming that there is no relationship at all between brain activity and consciousness, only that the brain does not produce or completely determine consciousness in any way we currently understand and any assumption of that kind is unwarranted. He also produces reasons for concluding that our technology is not sophisticated enough as yet to capture what is actually going on. For example, our equipment can only scan once every two seconds whereas cerebral processes take place in milliseconds. This, he says, (page 180) is like ‘reading a book by reading only one of each thousand words.’

Further to this point, he quotes the interesting experience of a sophisticated subject who wanted to test this for himself, unknown to the experimenters. They were testing for the mind/brain’s reaction to either having one’s foot tickled or seeing one’s foot tickled. He decided he was going to think about football in the one case and about his cat’s funeral in the other. The results showed no difference between his thoughts and the thoughts of all the other participants as far as the fMRI scans were concerned (pages 180-181):

At present, scientific research methods appear to be incapable of accurately studying the neural processes associated with our experience of consciousness. . . . . . Given the fact that Roepstorff’s thoughts fell outside the scope of the experiment, the test leader should not have been able to understand the findings. But the leader failed to notice anything strange about the scans. They were no different from the scans of any of the other subjects. . . . .. only the subject himself has direct access to his thoughts.

In the end, the kind of subjectivity, whose abandonment by psychology the Kellys lament in their substantial work Irreducible Mind, cannot be ignored (page 181):

Consciousness is fundamentally unverifiable, and thus fails to meet scientific criteria…. This evaporates the hope for completely objective knowledge about consciousness. Sooner or later, you will have to talk to your subject, so there will always be a subjective link.


For source see link.

Brain as Transceiver

Van Lommel then moves on to even more interesting ground (pages 183-184):

The hypothesis that consciousness and memory are produced and stored exclusively in the brain remains unproven. For decades, scientists have tried unsuccessfully to localize memories and consciousness in the brain. It is doubtful whether they will ever succeed.

He quotes the conclusions of a computer expert and a neurobiologist (page 193):

Simon Berkovich, a computer expert, has calculated that despite the brain’s huge numbers of synapses, its capacity for storing a lifetime’s memories, along with associated thoughts and emotions, is completely insufficient. . . . . . Neurobiologist Herms Romijn, formerly of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, also demonstrated that the storage of all memories in the brain is anatomically and functionally impossible.

Credibility is lent to the implications of this argument by exceptional but genuine cases of brain damage, take for example (page 194):

John Lorber’s description of a healthy young man with a university degree in mathematics and an IQ of 126. A brain scan revealed a severe case of hydrocephalus: 95 percent of his skull was filled with cerebrospinal fluid, and his cerebral cortex measured only about 2 millimeters thick, leaving barely any brain tissue. The weight of his remaining brain was estimated at 100 grams (compared to a normal weight of 1,500 grams), and yet his brain function was unimpaired.

This leads him to feel that the usual conclusion we draw when brain damage impairs functioning may be simplistic and misleading (ibid.):

. . . [F]unctions can also be lost after brain damage brought on by a cerebral hemorrhage, serious head trauma with permanent brain damage, long-term alcohol abuse, or encephalitis. The obvious and correct conclusion must be that the brain has a major impact on the way people show their everyday or waking consciousness to the outside world. The instrument, the brain, has been damaged, whereas “real” consciousness remains intact.

There is also a two-way relationship between mind and brain, something to which the latest work on neuroplasticity conclusively testifies (see earlier posts for more information). As van Lommel puts it (page 184): ‘A conscious experience can be the result of brain activity, but a brain activity can also be the result of consciousness.’ He expands on this point later (page 200):

In summary, the human mind is capable of changing the anatomical structure and associated function of the brain. The mind can change the brain. There is unmistakable interaction between the mind and the brain and not just in the sense of cause and effect. As such, it would be incorrect to claim that consciousness can only be a product of brain function. How could a product be able to change its own producer?

He therefore feels justified in stating (ibid.):

. . . . switching on your computer, connecting to the Internet, and navigating to a Web site does not determine the content of this Web site. The activation of certain areas of the brain cannot explain the content of thoughts and emotions.

Later he unpacks the implications of this more fully (page 268):

We are not aware of the hundreds of thousands of telephone calls, hundreds of television and radio broadcasts, and the billions of Internet connections around us day and night, passing through us and through the walls, including those of the room in which you are reading this book. . . . . . We only see and hear the program when we switch on a TV set,. . . . . The computer does not produce the Internet any more than the brain produces consciousness. The computer allows us to add information to the Internet just like the brain is capable of adding information from our body and senses to our consciousness.


Samadhi Buddha (for source see link)

Where this leaves us

He strongly questions the default position of contemporary neuroscience (page 185):

Contemporary research on consciousness in neuroscience rests on unquestioned but highly questionable foundations. Consciousness does not happen in the brain… despite the fact that a majority of contemporary scientists specializing in consciousness research still espouse a materialist and reductionist explanation for consciousness,

He explains exactly where key mechanisms for consciousness fail in a cardiac arrest and why an alternative explanation is necessary for those cases where full or even heightened consciousness exists in such a brain state (page 193):

During a cardiac arrest the cerebral cortex, thalamus, hippocampus, and brain stem as well as all connections between them stop functioning, as we have seen, which prevents information from being integrated and differentiated—a prerequisite for communication and thus for the experience of consciousness. The experience of consciousness should be impossible during a cardiac arrest. All measurable electrical activity in the brain has been extinguished and all bodily and brain-stem reflexes are gone. And yet, during this period of total dysfunction, some people experience a heightened and enhanced consciousness, known as an NDE.

Not surprisingly, this line of thought has spiritual implications (page 302):

Physicist and psychologist Peter Russell compares the ability to experience consciousness with the light of a film projector. As the projector throws light onto a screen, the projected images change constantly. All of these projected images, such as perceptions, feelings, memories, dreams, thoughts, and emotions, form the content of consciousness. Without the projector’s light there would be no images, which is why the light can be compared to our ability to experience consciousness. But the images do not constitute consciousness itself. When all the images are gone and only the projector’s light remains, we are left with the pure source of consciousness. This pure consciousness without content is called samadhi by Indian philosophers and initiates and can be experienced after many years of meditation. It is said to bring enlightenment.

This brings me to a consideration of what van Lommel makes of this possibility. That will have to wait for the next post.

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[The] stone is the lowest degree of phenomena, but nevertheless within it a power of attraction is manifest without which the stone could not exist. This power of attraction in the mineral world is love, the only expression of love the stone can manifest. . . Finally, we reach the kingdom of man. Here we find that all the degrees of the mineral, vegetable and animal expressions of love are present plus unmistakable attractions of consciousness. That is to say, man is the possessor of a degree of attraction which is conscious and spiritual. Here is an immeasurable advance. In the human kingdom spiritual susceptibilities come into view, love exercises its superlative degree, and this is the cause of human life.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 168-69)

Once we have explained all the physical structure in the vicinity of the brain, and we have explained how all the various brain functions are performed, there is a further sort of explanandum: consciousness itself. Why should all this structure and function give rise to experience? The story about the physical processes does not say.

(David J ChalmersThe Conscious Mind, page 107)

Materialism’s biggest problem is that consciousness does exist.

(The Science Delusion –  page 109)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This short sequence was first published in 2012: part one came out yesterday, this is the second and final part. 

Putting my best foot forward?

 Three years ago I tackled the issue of the afterlife.  I felt, and still feel, that on this issue a good place to start is with the black swan problem and it works even better as an argument for the independence of consciousness from the brain.

Taleb has used this as the title for his extremely relevant guide to the inevitability of the market crashes which continue to astonish us despite all the evidence confirming their eventual recurrence, but that is not the point for now.

It’s to Karl Popper that we need to turn. He originated the term in a discussion about falsifiability. If you assert that all swans are white, you cannot prove it even by discovering an extremely long sequence of white swans. You can though falsify it. One black swan will sink the theory.

The same can be said of mind/brain independence, something which points to consciousness being more than matter. There is one near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain.

What is this black swan?

In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom. His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?” (page 184 passim). Sabom states, and the surgical team corroborates it, that Pam was fully instrumented, under constant medical observation and completely unconscious as indicated for part of the time by the flatline EEG (a measure of brain activity: flatline would mean no brain activity at all that would support consciousness). It was as close to a controlled experiment as we are ever likely to get, he said on a television documentary on NDEs some time later. The surgical procedure she needed required a complete shut down of brain and heart activity in order safely to operate on an aneurysm at the base of the brain. None the less, after being anaesthetised for 90 minutes but not as the video suggested when she was flatlined, she accurately observed aspects of the surgical procedure which were either a departure from what would have been the standard order of events or had unusual features, such as the bizarre appearance of the “saw” used, of which she could have had no prior knowledge. The surgeon in the case, and others who commented such as Peter Fenwick, felt that the usual methods of registering visual perceptions and memories in the brain would certainly have been unavailable to her and could offer no explanation of how she could have subsequently had access to the experiences she described.

The problem here is that my ‘black swan’ torpedo, something that holes the titanic edifice of materialism below the waterline, is someone else’s ‘delusional anecdote’ only serving to prove how gullible we afterlifers are.

How good it is, then, to find a science heavy-weight pulling together a massive array of assorted evidence to call the whole enterprise of materialism into serious question. Rupert Sheldrake may not be a mainstream scientist accepted by the practitioners of the prevailing orthodoxy but he has too much credibility to be lightly dismissed.

The evidence he marshals in his book, The Science Delusion, covers many areas. For the purposes of this post I am focusing on the evidence that relates to consciousness in some way and supports the possibility of its not residing entirely in the brain. In fact, according to the evidence he quotes, some its most important aspects appear to be located elsewhere altogether.

Brainless means brain-dead, right?

Let me put a key point right up front.

Even the dimmest materialist can tell me that I must be wrong about consciousness because, when you do enough damage to the brain, the lights go out. Sheldrake enables me to ask, though, how much damage is enough? 25%? 50%? 75%? 95%?

He has an answer. There is no way of knowing how much damage will destroy effective consciousness and functioning in any individual case. Massive damage can sometimes have little detectable effect (page 193):

John Lorber . . . scanned the brains of more than six hundred people with hydrocephalus, and found that about sixty had more than 95 per cent of the cranial cavity filled with cerebrospinal fluid. Some were seriously retarded, but others were more or less normal, and some had IQs of well over 100. One young man who had an IQ of 126 and a first-class degree in mathematics, a student from Sheffield University, had ‘virtually no brain’. . . . . His mental activity and his memory were still able to function more or less normally even though he had a brain only five per cent of the normal size.

He looks then at the well-researched area of memory to unearth an intriguing possibility (page 194-198):

More than a century of intensive, well-funded research has failed to pin down memory traces in brains. There may be a very simple reason for this: the hypothetical traces do not exist. However long or hard researchers look for them they may never find them. Instead, memories may depend on morphic resonance from an organism’s own past. The brain may be more like a television set than a hard-drive recorder.

. . . the fact that injury and brain degeneration, as in Alzheimer’s disease, lead to loss of memory does not prove that memories are stored in the damaged tissue. If I snipped a wire or removed some components from the sound circuits of your TV set, I could render it speechless, or aphasic. But this would not mean that all the sounds were stored in the damaged components.

. . . But what if the holographic wave-patterns are not stored in the brain at all? Pribram later came to this conclusion, and thought of the brain as a ‘wave-form analyser’ rather than a storage system, comparing it to a radio receiver that picked up wave-forms from the ‘implicate order’, rendering them explicate.

And it’s a small step from there to Goswami’s ‘consciousness is the ground of being’ which we described in the earlier post (page 114-115):

The philosopher Galen Strawson, himself a materialist, is amazed by the willingness of so many of his fellow philosophers to deny the reality of their own experience . . . He argues that a consistent materialism must imply panpsychism, namely the idea that even atoms and molecules have a primitive kind of mentality or experience. . . Panpsychism does not mean that atoms are conscious in the sense that we are, but only that some aspects of mentality or experience are present in the simplest physical systems. More complex forms of mind or experience emerge in more complex systems.

It all depends upon your point of view perhaps (page 119):

The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce saw the physical and mental as different aspects of underlying reality: ‘All mind more or less partakes of the nature of matter . . . Viewing a thing from the outside . . . it appears as matter. Viewing it from the inside . . . it appears as consciousness.’

David Bohm

Our point of view will have consequences

It is an important issue though as our conclusions about it have implications for the way we live. Consciousness may be inherent in the universe. Bohm is another who raises this point (page 126):

Bohm observed, ‘The question is whether matter is rather crude and mechanical or whether it gets more and more subtle and becomes indistinguishable from what people have called mind.’ . . . In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when they are made by an electron.

If so what are the implications then? A sense of purpose is a major one (page 128).

It makes a big difference if you think of yourself as a zombie-like mechanism in an unconscious mechanical world, or as a truly conscious being capable of making choices, living among other beings with sensations, experiences and desires.

Maybe what we make of ourselves and of our world, in other words our entire future, will in part hinge on the answer we find to the question of consciousness (page 130):

Purposes exist in a virtual realm, rather than a physical reality. They connect organisms to ends or goals that have not yet happened; they are attractors, in the language of dynamics, a branch of modern mathematics. Purposes or attractors cannot be weighed; they are not material.

To make the point completely clear he later states (page 140):

Developing systems are attracted towards their ends or goals. They are not only pushed from the past, they are pulled from the future.

Yes, there is a push from the past and this is driven mostly from our unconscious as a 2012 Horizon programme on BBC2 illustrated very powerfully. But, as we have already said, there is also a pull from the future which is mostly responded to in consciousness.

So, what is going to happen lies in our own hands and depends to a significant extent upon our conscious choices. If we come to feel that those choices are all already completely determined by some billiard-ball-type interactions among our billions of neurones, we will behave very differently from how we would behave if we felt that we could freely choose a course of action determined to a significant extent by a freely chosen vision of what we wanted to achieve. At the very least, it creates a greater sense of responsibility for our actions.

What is also important is that the concept of consciousness being explored here by Sheldrake implies a strong degree of interconnectedness that in turn, for me, suggests that more than mirror neurones lie behind the experience of compassion. It is interesting in this light to read Thomas Mellen‘s account, in his story of his near death experience, of when he encountered the being of Light (Ken Ring – Lessons from the Light – page  287):

And at that time, the Light revealed itself to me on a level that I had never been to before. I can’t say it’s words; it was a telepathic understanding more than anything else, very vivid. I could feel it, I could feel this light. And the Light just reacted and revealed itself on another level, and the message was “Yes, [for] most people, depending on where you are coming from, it could be Jesus, it could be Buddha, it could be Krishna, whatever.”

But I said, “But what it is really?” And the Light then changed into – the only thing I can tell you [is that] it turned into a matrix, a mandala of human souls, and what I saw was that what we call our higher self in each of us is a matrix. It’s also a conduit to the source; each one of us comes directly, as a direct experience [from] the source. And it became very clear to me that all the higher selves are connected as one being, all humans are connected as one being, we are actually the same being, different aspects of the same being. And I saw this mandala of human souls. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, just [voice trembles], I just went into it and [voice falters], it was just overwhelming [he chokes], it was like all the love you’ve ever wanted, and it was the kind of love that cures, heals, regenerates.

And before you say it, if my preference for this picture, based on the evidence I have adduced, has in fact really been predetermined, then so has the preference of a materialist for a different reductionist picture. So why would his or her views have more weight than mine?

We all know the choice is ours really. Nothing can rationalise that reality away, I believe. A lot depends upon it.

No pressure then.

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. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá  in Some Answered Questions, page 208)

The sciences evolve, and so do religions. No religion is the same today as it was at the time of its founder. Instead of the bitter conflicts and mutual distrust caused by the materialist worldview, we are entering an era in which sciences and religions may enrich each other through shared explorations.

(Baumeister & Tierney: Willpower, page 340)

What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.

(George Berkeley)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This short sequence was first published in 2012: part two comes out again tomorrow. 

Consciousness is preposterous. It can’t be possible yet it exists. I know it does because I am writing this. You know it does if you are reading this. Because it exists and we are in a sense (well, five of them at least, actually) the experience of consciousness, we are usually blind to its sheer improbability. So much for the senses, then.

Perhaps this paradox is why it is currently a battle ground between those who believe mind is merely matter and those who believe that mind is much more than matter. This difference, as we will see, has implications for whether our actions are completely determined by unconscious processes or are freely chosen. Yes, there is a push from our unconscious, partly the result of evolution and partly the result of automated memories, as last Tuesday’s Horizon programme on BBC2 illustrated very powerfully. But – and it’s a very important but – there is also a sense of purpose which creates a pull from the future which is mostly mediated through our conscious mind.

In my lifetime I have switched sides in this battle for reasons too many to list here. I used to believe in nothing that I couldn’t directly experience with my ordinary senses. Now I believe there is a spiritual dimension even though it would be fair to say I have never experienced it directly. Other people that I have come to trust have had such experiences though and my earlier conversion to this point of view is constantly reaffirmed by their testimony.

A Physicist’s Personal Testimony

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, which I quoted in a post about three years ago,  confirms the mystic insight and vividly conveys his sense of it:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.

More Mystical Angles on the Matter

Andrew Powell, in Thinking Beyond the Brain, an intriguing book edited by David Lorimer, put me onto Goswami. He concludes, ‘Everything is mind,’ (page 182) and goes on to say (page 186):

. . . there is a more important truth to be discovered, that we are one. If humankind should ever learn that what belongs to one belongs to all, heaven on earth will be assured.

In the same book (pages 128-131) there is an account of a similar but not identical mystical experience. Charles Tart quotes the story of a Doctor S who was an atheist at the time. He was alone, watching the sunset, which was particularly beautiful that evening. All verbal thinking stopped. While what he experienced was, he said, impossible to express, he did try to convey it in words (page 130):

I was certain that the universe was one whole and that it was benign and loving at its ground. . . . . God as experienced in cosmic consciousness is the very ground or beingness of the Universe and has no human characteristics in the usual sense of the word. The Universe could no more be separate from God than my body could separate from its cells. Moreover the only emotion that I would associate with God is love, but it would be more accurate to say that God is love, than that God is loving.

Most religions, and the Bahá’í Faith is no exception, hold that God is more than the universe: they mostly agree also that God permeates the universe in some way. Which means, of course, that He is in us also. Bahá’u’lláh confirms this when He exhorts us to:

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee . . .

(Hidden Words from the Arabic: Number 13)

The implications for the nature of consciousness are immense if, as I do, you believe this to be true. What if you don’t?

Is this the best hard evidence we can get?

Aren’t these just anecdotes and metaphors, carrying no more weight than any other personal opinion? Is this going to help reconcile the differences between faith and science in this all important area?

Fortunately, since I first explored this question much more research has come into the public domain. And I’m not talking about things like Near Death Experiences (see the links at the end of this post), or David Fontana‘s explorations of the reality of the soul and the afterlife. I’m referring to work such as Schwartz‘s that demonstrates that the mind is not easily reducible to the brain but rather can, by force of deliberate willed attention, change the brain. Not quite enough to carry a hard-line materialist with me, though? Not even enough to cause him or her a fleeting doubt?

Well, beyond that, and most recently, there has been Rupert Sheldrake‘s book The Science Delusion. In the next post I will seek to unpack some of the most telling points he makes that should cause us to question too glib an attachment to a materialist explanation of consciousness.

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