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Posts Tagged ‘Pam Reynolds’

aloeMNDL1onSTARaWEB

Mandala (for source see link)

Having looked at his idea that the brain does not produce consciousness and some of his evidence in support of that, this is the point at which Pim van Lommel’s view almost certainly diverges significantly from my own, assuming I have understood him correctly. And that’s part of the problem. His understanding of Quantum Theory is better than mine by a millions of miles and therefore I can only parrot some of what he says and take a partially informed guess at where his views depart from mine.

However, I think his ideas, eloquently conveyed in his book Consciousness beyond Life, are of sufficient value for me to have a stab at reproducing key elements of his argument.

Nonlocality and Interconnectedness

He sees parallels between the kind of transcendence of time and place that NDErs experience, which is reflected in their paranormal experiences, and that within Quantum theory, which is called nonlocality. He feels (page 224) that ‘the mind seems to contain everything at once in a timeless and placeless interconnectedness.’

He is one of those who argue that Quantum Theory implies that consciousness plays a central role in not just our perceiving of reality but in the creation of it as well (page 226):

All matter, 99.999 percent of which is emptiness, can ultimately be regarded as a wave function and thus possesses wave–particle complementarity. . . . . . Some quantum physicists champion the radical interpretation that observation itself literally creates physical reality, thereby ascribing consciousness a more fundamental role than matter or energy. I personally support this not-yet-widespread view that consciousness could determine if and how we experience (subjective) reality.

This is a radical view which some take to its logical extreme (page 237):

Some prominent quantum physicists, . . . . support the radical interpretation that observation itself literally creates physical reality, a position that regards consciousness as more fundamental than matter or energy.

Flower-mandala

Mandala (for source see link)

The key word that seems to come out of all this is ‘interconnectedness.’ It comes in a key passage in which he also pins his colours clearly to the mast (page 241):

. . . since the advent of quantum physics we know that everything is interconnected, that everything operates like a holistic system and not in isolation, and that analysis of these separate elements will never uncover a so-called objective reality. . . . . . I support the not yet commonly accepted interpretation that consciousness determines if and how we experience reality.

He believes that this concept, whether we call it nonlocality or interconnectedness, is important if we are going to understand NDEs in their own terms (page 242):

The conclusion that most fundamental fields and forces in the universe seem to have their basis in nonlocal space is important for our later discussion and understanding of the nonlocal aspects of consciousness that are experienced during an NDE, and for our understanding of the relationship between consciousness and our physical body.

He explains why, in his view, this is so (page 244):

In quantum physics the information is not encoded in a medium but is stored nonlocally as wave functions in nonlocal space, which also means that all information is always and everywhere immediately available.

And he also spells out in more detail what this means (page 245):

According to this interpretation, consciousness has a primary presence in the universe, and all matter possesses subjective properties or consciousness. In this view, consciousness is nonlocal and the origin or foundation of everything: all matter, or physical reality, is shaped by nonlocal consciousness. . . . . . . . The philosopher David Chalmers, who specializes in questions of consciousness, calls this approach monism or panpsychism.

He refers to the work of others with similar views (pages 247-248): the ‘implicate order’ of David Bohm, which was an influence on Jenny Wade’s work on levels of consciousness, and Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of ‘morphogenetic fields.’

So, do we have a soul?

So where does all this leave consciousness (page 251):

Given the current insights afforded by quantum physics and the theory that consciousness and memories are stored in nonlocal space as wave functions, we should speak no longer of holographic organization but rather . . . .  of nonlocal information storage in which memory is nonlocally and instantaneously accessible.

He refers (page 252) to ‘microtubules (the tiny structural components of the skeleton of cells that are involved in many cellular processes) inside neurons’ and feels they ‘might explain our ability to experience consciousness.’ The neurosurgeons in the programme I saw many years ago on Pam Reynolds (see my earlier posts on the subject) also felt that the ‘quantum activity’ at this level of the brain might support consciousness. This idea has clearly been around for some time.

For a thinker like Eccles all this leads to an honest acceptance of ancient ideas such as the soul (page 261):

I maintain that 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 recognize 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.

This is, of course, what I also have come to believe, even after the fierce incredulity I initially felt and which I have touched on in a previous post.

Van Lommel is far more cautious (page 263):

I am reluctant to use the word transcendence because it suggests something transcending or rising above the body. Transcendence is usually associated with the supernatural or with the concept of transcendental meditation; hence my preference for the term continuity hypothesis.

He stays as close to physics as he possibly can in his explanation of what is going on (page 265):

In this new approach, complete and endless consciousness with retrievable memories has its origins in a nonlocal space in the form of indestructible and not directly observable wave functions. These wave functions, which store all aspects of consciousness in the form of information, are always present in and around the body (nonlocally). The brain and the body merely function as a relay station receiving part of the overall consciousness and part of our memories in our waking consciousness in the form of measurable and constantly changing electromagnetic fields.

And we come back to one of his favourite metaphors (ibid.): ‘In this view, brain function can be seen as a transceiver; the brain does not produce but rather facilitates consciousness.’

He explains how an NDE serves to demonstrate this (page 268):

The oxygen deficiency brought on by the stopping of the heart temporarily suspends brain function, causing the electromagnetic fields of our neurons and other cells to disappear and the interface between consciousness and our physical body to be disrupted. This creates the conditions for experiencing the endless and enhanced consciousness outside the body (the wave aspect of consciousness) known as an NDE: the experience of a continuity of consciousness independent of the body.

He adduces other examples of nonlocality or influence at a distance, where none should be possible, in support of his conclusion. These include; EEG synchronies in closely related people who are placed in separate Faraday cages, where all forms of radiation are blocked (page 269); ‘strong indications of a nonlocal therapeutic effect of certain drugs such as morphine, when the substance was placed between a pulsating magnetic source and the brain’ (page 276); ‘proof of instantaneous and nonlocal communication between the consciousness of a subject and his isolated white blood cells in a growth medium at a considerable distance away’ (page 284); and lastly, an ‘organ recipient can sometimes sense snippets of feelings and ideas that are later found to match the deceased donor’s personality and consciousness’ (ibid.).

The Role of DNA

dna_molecule,_artwork-spl

DNA representation (for source see link)

As his book moves well into its second part he embarks upon a detailed description of the role of DNA within his view of reality (page 292):

DNA appears to be the direct and indirect personal coordinator of all information required for the optimum function of our body. And for this our individual DNA receives the necessary information from nonlocal space.

It would be impossible to go into further detail about his fascinating summary of the evidence for this. He also adduces examples from the insect kingdoms that appear to offer further support for his view of distal communication. For example he writes of (page 295):

. . . . . bees, wasps, ants, and termites. These colonies are examples of living and self-organizing systems composed of animals with different tasks but with a collective consciousness coordinated by the queen. If the queen is isolated from her colony but alive, everything continues as normal, but if the queen is killed away from her colony, chaos ensues and all work stops.

In the end, though he seems to baulk at ideas of the soul and of heaven, what he does believe is not so far away from my own sense of the afterlife (page 318):

The questions still outnumber the answers, but in view of all the reported experiences of consciousness, we ought to seriously consider the possibility that death, like birth, may be a mere passing from one state of consciousness into another.

He quotes, with something close to approval, such axioms as (ibid.):

A death notice I came across recently featured the following words: “What you have perishes; what you are survives beyond time and space.” Death merely marks the end of our physical aspect. In other words: we have a body, but we are consciousness. . . . . Recently somebody with an NDE wrote to me: “I can live without my body, but apparently my body cannot live without me.”

And that, I feel, is as good a note as any to end this review of van Lommel’s excellent treatment of this subject. Mind you, I don’t expect this will be the last post on this subject on this blog.

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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)

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 last week’s 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 RingLessons 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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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

A pure heart is as a mirror . . .

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love . . . .

Bahá’u’lláh: The Seven Valleys (page 21) & Persian Hidden Words No. 3

I want to deal with only two more complex issues. Both of them stem from our experience of what might be our soul. The two quotations from Bahá’u’lláh give us a sense of what those issues might be. These posts could go on for a while yet!

The Mirror and the Garden

The first issue is to do with how we can feel there is an infinity inside us and how that relates to the ability of our mind to watch itself. We will be talking a lot about mirrors, hearts and minds later.

The second issue is one that Dennett raises which needs to be addressed more closely than I did last time. He states that the brain is a parallel processor of great complexity and that serial consciousness is what computing people would call virtual not real: in simple terms the more complicated parallel processor underneath, which can do lots of things at once (‘Not a man, then!’ did you say?), fakes our experience of thinking one thing at a time in a time-line.

Guy Claxton deals with much the same issue by using the analogy of interconnected octopuses to describe the brain’s complexity. Both

Octopus

Octopus

agree, as I do (and Jonathan Haidt as well in his elephant and rider metaphor), that the brain, whether or not we have a soul, can do an awful lot of complicated things without our feeling anything at all and can go its own way in spite of us sometimes.

This is the issue that will involve us in talking about gardens as way of describing hearts and minds. We will be exploring whether the relationship between our conscious mind and the rest of our mind is rather like the relationship between gardeners and their gardens. You will have to bear, more than you usually do, with my limitations here: my hands-on experience of gardening is derived only from the deckchair.

In the end I hope to use all this to shed light on whether I have a soul and whether my will is free.

Mind and Brain

We have to get some basic stuff out of the way first before we tackle the fascinating surfaces of our mind’s mirrors and the fertile depths of our heart’s gardens.

I ended the previous post wondering what it is like to experience my soul. I hinted that there is something about our inner experience, something with which we are all very familiar, which might just be the end of a piece of string that is tied to our soul, the experience of soul in consciousness if you like.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, along with therapies like Psychosynthesis as well as Existentialist writers and millenia of meditators, have all homed in on the one same remarkable capacity of our minds. I can look into my own mind and watch it: we can reflect. I can see the contents of my consciousness passing through my mind. ‘Oh look!’ I can say to myself, ‘There’s a feeling of anger. There’s a thought about fish and chips. Oh, and there goes a plan to go shopping tomorrow.’ I think we all know what that feels like already or can at least confirm that we can do it with just a small amount of effort: we can separate our consciousness from its contents.

How do we do that though and what does it mean?

Some say it’s a by-product of language. That’s the A.C.T. explanation. “I speak therefore I can talk as though I am watching my mind.’ Others dress up their explanatory bankruptcy in fancier ways. ‘It’s an epiphenomenon of the brain’s complexity.’ Epiphenomenon means by-product. It also is used to indicate that this ability is accidental and pointless: all the really important stuff is going on underneath where the neurons are firing. ‘I’ve got more connections in my brain than atoms in the universe, so I think my mind can watch itself, ha, ha! It’s got no idea what’s going on.’

Some are more charitable. “Well, when you get complex systems you do sometimes get an emergent property that’s more than the sum of its parts.’ Consciousness and self-reflection would fall into this category. ‘My brain’s so complicated it’s better than its bits so I really can watch my mind working. More than that, my mind can change the brain as well as being affected by the brain.’

Now that really is something.

It either demonstrates an emergent property or suggests that the mind and brain might be different kinds of stuff. It really does happen as well. For instance, wiring a very antisocial late-teenager’s head (i.e. late meaning 18 or 19, but not dead yet or behind time in this case!) to a feedback machine, so he could learn how to increase the activity of the frontal lobes which control impulsive behaviour, led to more active frontal lobes. His grades improved, his crime rate slumped to zero and he stopped using drugs. That doesn’t sound like the brain was really calling all the shots to me.

The Spiritual Perspective

So, the mind can watch itself and also change the way the brain functions in significant ways. Why might that be more than an emergent property?

First of all, in the Pam Reynolds experience, which is not unique, we had, in my view, solid proof that her mind gathered and remembered information that her brain could never have gleaned or stored. It operated separately. The idea of mind/brain separation, therefore has evidence in its favour (See also Jenny Wade’s ‘Changes of Mind‘ for a full discussion of mind/brain separation in infancy and beyond). No theory connected with mind as an emergent property has ever predicted that. It goes way beyond what would have been expected.

That’s the kind of externally corroborated evidence that science likes to find but in this case prefers to ignore as what it demonstrates is held to be impossible.

More importantly though, there is the evidence of our own subjective experience. Remember the disparagement of free will? It’s an illusion, Dennett says. Such people also say that our experience of being able to look at our minds isn’t what it feels like. But why should we believe them about this any more than we should believe them when they say we do not really have free will? Is this another lamp post that needs kicking?

Who is it then that we can get in touch with when we watch ourselves? Who was there when we look back on every aspect of our lives at every period and feel we were the same self doing the watching then? Every cell in our bodies has since been changed. Is it really just a trick of language, neuronal connections or memory? Is there really no genuine constant sense of a real inner self observing all we do?

We all have to make our own decision about what that experience means. I think it is quite reasonable to say that it suggests that my mind is made of different stuff from my brain although it uses it. It is at least as reasonable to conclude that as to conclude that it’s all down to the neurons.

In another post there may be an opportunity to look at the work of Margaret Donaldson and Ken Wilber who both brilliantly advocate in their very different ways the value of subjective experience as data about reality. Many people can keep replicating the same experience by the same spiritual practices in very different cultures: that means something, they argue, about the true nature of reality. Newberg, D’Aquili and Rause have the humility to admit that even though we can pin down exactly what’s going on in the brain at the same time as these experiences, this doesn’t mean they’re not real anymore than understanding the neurobiology of colour vision proves that colour doesn’t exist. The fact that our brains turn wavelengths of light into the experience of colour does not mean there is nothing out there corresponding to the experience, even though green and 510 nanometres seem to have very little in common!

If I can carry you with me rather further now, let’s see in the next post where this possibility can take us. It is worth reminding ourselves again here that the word we use to describe this ability of the mind is ‘reflection.’ Next time we will be exploring mirrors, hearts, selves and consciousness. Not much to look forward to then.

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Why fret about the Afterlife Hypothesis?

A black Swan

A Black Swan

The previous post looked at how the black swan of Pam Reynolds‘ Near Death Experience (NDE) could perhaps be seen as a blow to the white swan theory that there is no possibility of life after death. This focused on the possible truth value  of the Afterlife Hypothesis. There is a critical look at the data in the Wikipedia link above that reveals weaknesses, of which I was previously unaware, in the case as presented in the television documentary. I still feel that mind-brain independence has been established in this case because of the accurate visual experiences gained under anaesthesia (see previous post on this subject — now revised). None the less we still need to consider the usefulness of the Afterlife Hypothesis if we are going to be able to persuade those who are sceptical to rethink.

We saw that Ken Ring’s research, which is summarised in Lessons from the Light, noted how often people who had experienced an NDE felt that their lives had been enhanced and that they wanted to be of service to their fellow human beings.

I said that we would come back to this point — the usefulness of holding the Afterlife Hypothesis to be true. I also said we’d look at why this aspect of the issue is critical if we are to understand why belief or unbelief on this issue matters to us all, believers and unbelievers alike, almost regardless of its truth value.

Some people may find the discussion that follows a bit challenging: it was impossible to write about it clearly without seeming to come on a little strongly. In spite of appearances, though, I respect differences of view immensely and would hope to learn at least as much from those who disagree with me as I do from those who think the same.

I’d like to focus on two aspects of the question of belief in the afterlife: its usefulness and its importance.

Our answer to questions about whether or not we have a soul, and whether or not that soul is immortal, very much determines who we think we are. It shapes our identity. Who I think I am powerfully influences what I decide to do and how I relate to others and to the world around me. It is important.

Then, when we look at the average effect of all our actions, influenced by all our various views of who we are, we will find that we have a vision of the kind of society, civilisation and culture we are creating by these decisions and these actions. This in turn influences who we continue to think we are. What’s perhaps even more important is it influences who our children come to think they are. In this way we enhance or warp our futures.

Because our future depends on it, we will need to address, as a society, whether materialism in its various forms is enough when it causes us to derive our values and our morals only from reason, experience and our shared sense of humanity – not that those are entirely without worth: a society that shuts its eyes to the feedback from experience and blinds itself to the truths that are within the reach of reason will soon fall off a cliff it is convinced does not exist.

But materialism goes too far when it preaches dogmatically that there is no need of any seal of approval from outside, no need of a transcendent point of reference, no need to believe in an afterlife. It claims that we can, as it were, place each of our feet in two different buckets, grasp the handles and heave ourselves off the ground. In my view materialism is trying to persuade us that the tiny candle of reason can illuminate the dark vastness of the entire universe: I find that claim preposterous.

Is getting the best out of ourselves without God really like the bucket problem?

Unfortunately, mobilising the evidence to try and demonstrate that materialistic worldviews fail to lift us as high as spiritual ones will probably fail to convince the wavering and leave the reductionist utterly unmoved. John Hick wryly concluded that the universe has been created to contain just enough evidence to convince the believer that there is a God but not quite enough to convert the sceptic!

However, I have come to the conclusion that a lot really does hang on the decision that we make on this issue.

It’s not just a question of our physical and mental health, and there is a great deal of evidence (Koenig et al) to suggest that religion is good for our state of mind in this world never mind the next. Nor of the efforts religious people make to be of service to others.

Tablets for all ills

Tablets for all ills

There’s also some less clear-cut evidence (see Batson et al for investigations that do justice to the real complexities of this issue) to suggest their efforts are somewhat greater in this respect than the efforts of those with no religion.

Certainly there is enough evidence to make a psychologically sophisticated atheist ask:

If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God.

(Haidt: page 211)

Even more importantly it’s a question of the expectations we harbour about our future, based on our estimate of our capabilities and our assessment of the current reality. These expectations, of course, help form the future.

This needs unpacking. An analogy will help.

Research strongly suggests that pessimists, and even depressed people, are more realistic about the present (See Seligman’s ‘Authentic Happiness‘ for example). On the other hand, optimists and happy people exaggerate, for example, the degree to which they are liked by others or the level of skill they have. They are less realistic: they see the world through rose tinted spectacles.

The sceptical materialist might well conclude “Case closed! You just shot yourself in the foot. I need read no further. You’re all deluded then.” I’m afraid (s)he couldn’t be more wrong!

If we take a snapshot of the lives of these two kinds of people say ten years later, what are we likely to find? You’ve probably guessed it. The optimists, untrammelled by low expectations, will probably have made something better of their lives on most measures such as the quality of their relationships or their level of health. The pessimists are usually very much where they started and generally much worse off than the optimists. A lot of information can be gleaned about the effects of a pessimistic or unhappy style from Seligman’s book (see also the link to the Authentic Happiness website on the front page).

In my view, comparing optimists with pessimists is very much the same thing as comparing those who believe in God with those who believe in nothing (which of course is also an act of faith). To divide the ‘camps’ in this way simply into religious and non-religious would be too simplistic of course. Some spiritual beliefs are narrow, constricting and/or pessimistic about the human predicament. Some materialistic worldviews have warmer perspectives and rosier expectations.

It will none the less be found, I feel, if the evidence is systematically sought and examined dispassionately, that, on average, people with a sense of the transcendent, because they have a more positive view of what they can achieve individually and collectively, will enhance their own and their communities’ lives significantly more each decade than will those who, because they take a completely materialistic view of things, have lower expectations of themselves, of others and of what can be achieved. This is an empirical question: it needs to be properly researched. Ken Ring’s work is already pointing strongly in that direction.

Unless someone can produce compelling evidence to the contrary I intend to go on believing the words attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

As ye have faith, so shall your powers and blessings be.

(Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, Vol IV: p 217: )

The Free-Rider Problem

There is one rather disturbing implication of all this.

If this idea is correct, that faith in the transcendent lifts our game and the level of well-being of the communities we live in, the person with a sceptical take on the afterlife, whether (s)he likes it or not, whether that is the intention or not, could well be making a contribution that falls short of his or her capacity as a result. When civilisation is getting as close to the edge of self-destruction as it is at the moment, every little short fall matters and could make the difference between collective survival or collective suicide.

In the worst case scenario, where the falling short is very great, someone who is sceptical to the point of cynicism, or even nihilism (this touches on extremism of all kinds, atheist as well as religious, and will have to wait for another time for a more adequate treatment), could become that bane of all organisations – the free-rider – who reaps the benefits of other people’s efforts without contributing his or her fair share! According to Philip Ball in his book ‘Critical Mass‘, the effect on an organisation of carrying too many such people is to make it unfit to survive.

He writes (page 333):

So why do firms fail? . . . . Once it grows big enough, it becomes a haven for free-riders who capitalize on the efforts of others. So the firm becomes gradually riddled with slackers, until suddenly the other workers decide they have had enough and jump ship. . . . The failure is self-induced.

It is perhaps stretching a point to extrapolate from firms to civilisations, where jumping ship is more like moving to China than changing jobs, but we know that civilisations do fail (See Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse‘).  If there is any truth in this extrapolation, it could therefore mean that our collective survival depends upon enough people waking up to the transcendent, regardless of how the costs of extremism at both ends of the spectrum eventually stack up.

We need to find out what we think for ourselves

I believe it would be very difficult indeed to reach a conclusion about whether faith in a transcendent dimension makes me a better citizen or not. The issue matters so much though that we should not  accept what we’ve been told simply on the authority of other people.

It is worth bearing in mind that nihilism is as much an act of faith as faith in God. If too much nihilism spread across too many people could annihilate us, surely, in all conscience, this is a matter of life and death now and bears painstaking and careful investigation, a scrupulously dispassionate weighing of all the evidence, before finally making up our minds? Bahá’ís believe in the inescapable responsibility of all of us to investigate the truth for ourselves. If you have a thirst to understand these issues you will find much food for thought (though water would of course be more use in quenching a thirst!) at the Baha’i World Centre site as well as through the other links on the front page of this blog.

After such strenuous investigation by everyone, how many of us would then be left to say with any sense of certainty there is no God, no soul, no afterlife?

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Is it just a question of faith?

An earlier post I made ended with a question: why should the existence or not of an afterlife matter to you if you don’t believe it, even if it matters to me who does. Why on earth should you consider believing what I believe?

Let’s see if we can make some progress on that one.

Some people believe there is an afterlife and I am now one of them, though it was one of the more difficult things I had to accept when I investigated the spiritual life. After all why should beings so imperfect have an immortal soul? We hardly seemed entitled to such a privilege. To be honest, as a former atheist, I found it easier to believe in God than in an immortal soul.

The Bahá’í Faith is clear on the issue:

The soul is not a combination of elements, it is not composed of many atoms, it is of one indivisible substance and therefore eternal. It is entirely out of the order of the physical creation; it is immortal!

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks: pages 90-91)

It is also clear that how we live now will affect the kind of afterlife we have. This is to do with how well we have fed our souls. When our spirit goes from the narrow womb of this world to the vast expanses of the next we will need all our spiritual faculties in the best possible order if we are to cope.

And just as, if human life in the womb were limited to that uterine world, existence there would be nonsensical, irrelevant — so too if the life of this world, the deeds here done and their fruitage, did not come forth in the world beyond, the whole process would be irrational and foolish.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: No. 156)

I needed help with coming to terms with this improbable hypothesis and found it hard to take it simply on trust, though I did try.

I’m going to be basing a strong case to support the idea that beliefs in transcendence and the afterlife are the strongest possible motivators to building a better world. There is a problem with that though as an argument to defeat people who are sceptical. They could concede the point while still saying that there is no afterlife. There are many examples we could draw on to support the view that mistaken beliefs can be very motivating indeed. People have died and been killed for them – in fact are still dying and being killed. If the only difference is that one person’s belief wreaks havoc while the other one’s creed enhances life, we haven’t moved all that far in terms of truth value: just because a belief seems benign doesn’t make it true.

So if this pragmatic argument were the best one going in support of transcendence and the existence of an afterlife, we’d have to say that the case was at least one wing short of a complete aeroplane! Even high levels of positive usefulness, after all, do not prove truth.

So, before we move in more deeply to the implications for our society of a belief or lack of it in transcendence and the afterlife, it seems a good idea to tackle the evidence issue from another angle.

A Black Swan: the Case of Pam Reynolds

Is there really no evidence for an afterlife and/or the value of transcendence other than indirect and inconclusive notions of how it is better for our society if you believe it than if you don’t?

I think there is. We need to start with the black swan problem.

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. I accept that a near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain does not absolutely prove there is life after death, but it is a necessary if not sufficient condition for maintaining that belief. I believe that this necessary condition has possibly been fulfilled at least once under completely controlled conditions. I think it may constitute a black swan for those that say an afterlife can be ruled out as completely impossible.

What is this black swan?

In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom (page 184 passim). His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?”. 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.

There is a huge literature on NDEs which many people with a materialist perspective refuse to inspect on the grounds that no amount of evidence can prove the impossible. This is scientism, not science, and I would urge everyone, no matter how sceptical, to investigate this thoroughly for themselves. The arguments parroted by so many that NDEs are the results of material causes such as anoxia or drugs just don’t stand up in this case (or in many others, according to Peter Fenwick).

What is of additional interest here is that the investigations of Ken Ring plainly indicate that NDEs are life transforming. His list of the changes they induce includes: appreciation for life, concern for others, reverence for life, antimaterialism, anticompetitiveness, spirituality, sense of purpose, and belief in God (pages 125-127). These are all things that we will hopefully come back to in more detail in the lifetime of this blog (though for some people it may already seem to have gone on far too long).

That list of Ring’s is a very significant one that paves the way for the next more pragmatic approach to the issue of why it should matter to everyone, why everyone needs to investigate carefully before they jump to the conclusion that an afterlife is impossible. A sense of the transcendent allied to a belief in life after death does seem to create a different more life- and community-enhancing pattern of behaviour in the individual who possesses them.

Time for a break, I think: more on that next time.

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