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Posts Tagged ‘Pim van Lommel’

In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the last of the four: they appeared on consecutive days.

Having sought to establish, in his book Close Connections, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, and that much that materialists see as explained away completely by the brain in fact has its roots in this other dimension, Hatcher shifts his focus onto a closer examination of some of the detailed implications of this.

WadeJ

Jenny Wade

For me,  perhaps the most fascinating one of all concerns the issue of memory. I’ve blogged about it a number of times. It is by no means settled yet what memory is and where it resides. Hatcher deals with this at some length. He explains his model in terms of spirit (page 251):

. . . . according to [the] Bahá’í perspective, the memory of self – even the recollection of specific events – will be retained by the soul and regained once the constraints of the associative relationship with the body are severed and the soul is released from its . . . . indirect connection with reality.‘

It may seem improbable that there could be any empirical basis for this. However, I have reviewed on this blog Jenny Wade’s book – Changes of Mind – and she is unequivocal that for her the evidence in favour of memory being held outside the brain is compelling. She reviews a mass of data based on careful investigations of the experiences of children, either from interviews with children or work with adults about prior experiences. What they described was carefully checked against the reports of independent witnesses (page 44):

Regression subjects … have accurately reported incidents long before any significant brain growthis possible, in some cases before the embryonic body was even formed.

william_wordsworth-1364n29

William Wordsworth

Her model states that at conception the soul is independent of the body and its memories can be accessed by the child until about the age of four, after which the body becomes a barrier denying access. This is uncannily reminiscent of Wordsworth’s lines in the Ode on Immortality. I need to quote the whole stanza (lines 59-77):

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

What other evidence have we for supposing something rather more special than a mechanical process is going on here?

For me the growing literature on near death experiences (NDEs), which I have reviewed elsewhere, settles the question that consciousness is not produced by the brain and resides somewhere else. The brain simply decodes it for our body to use. It’s a no-brainer then that memory is no different. The brain can access it but does not contain it. Hatcher discusses other lines of thought that tend in the same direction.

Computer models do not provide an adequate account of how new learning is recorded and memories laid down. On page 252 Hatcher quotes from an article by Joannie Schrof ‘What is a Memory Made of?’

Where a computer encodes data in strings of 0’s and 1’s, the brain forms ephemeral patterns of chemical and electrical impulses. Where computers record information in serial order like an index-card file, the human brain creates sprawling interconnections; more than a hundred billion nerves cells each connected to hundreds of thousands of others to form a billion connections.

In addition, he points towards Robert Rosen‘s book Life Itself (pages 253-54) who writes:

. . . no new information . . . can be processed by a computer if the computer has not already been programmed to consider this information. The brain, however, can effectively create new sequences and new pathways.

Others that I have referred to elsewhere have also raised radical doubts about the computer model. Take Pim van Lommel again, in his book Consciousness beyond LifeHe 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.

Pribram

Karl Pribram (for the YouTube interview this comes from see link)

Though some critics feel that Lorber has overstated his case, the general point that severely compromised brains can function improbably well is not in question.

Where Hatcher goes next surprised me. He draws on the work of Pribram. I had read, as an undergraduate, his early work on plans and the structure of behaviour but perhaps I qualified too soon to benefit from the direction of his later work, that Hatcher refers to now. He describes (page 255) Pribram’s 1985  ‘holographic theory.’

As a concept of how the brain processes ideas or memory, the holographic theory implies that each portion of the brain contributing to the recollected idea would contain the complete thought, not a piece of it.

This took Pribram somewhere even more radically different from what I was taught in the 70s and early 80s (page 257-259):

Pribram has stated that the more he studies the brain and its functions, the more he feels that there may well be something outside the brain that accounts for its activity and capacity! . . . . .  the source from which the brain receives its “program” needs to be greater than the brain itself – the cause has to be greater than the effect it produces.’

And we find ourselves back with a familiar metaphor (page 257):

. . . Pribram has observed that when he studies the brain, he feels that in truth he is examining an elaborate transceiver rather than the ultimate repository of memory, the ultimate origin of self-consciousness, the primal engine of creativity, the seminal source of will, or the instigator of action.

Hatcher pushes this further and confronts the basic question which he feels is unanswerable in material terms (page 258): ‘. . . how can the brain be in charge of making itself function as a brain?’

This for him constitutes irrefutable grounds for believing in a transcendent reality imbued with a higher consciousness (page 258):

The most elaborate and powerful computer we have created or will ever create cannot program itself unless it is programmed to program itself. In short, there must exist for any given machine – or machine model of the brain – some willful input from an outside source for it to have any sense of goals or values, or for it to be capable of evaluating progress towards those goals.

And this brings him to a powerful and important point. We have a delicate and complex instrument entrusted to us for purposes that we are hardly even beginning to understand and we have to treat it with the utmost care and respect (page 259):

. . . the brain, as a counterpart of the soul and its faculties, . . . .  must be capable of mimicking in physical . . . terms everything the soul feels, conceives, decides, or wills. This fact explains why a human soul cannot associate with (operate through) anything less complex or less ingeniously devised than the human brain. . . . . Any practice or substance that distorts the associative relationship between soul and body or that tampers with the brain endangers our ability to function as complete human beings and, thereby, to fulfill our earthly purpose of attaining the knowledge of abstract reality . . .

For me this book pulled together thinking from many disciplines into a coherent and compelling case for the soul. The work he adduces usefully complements my own reading and suggests many directions I could now take it. For that I am most grateful. The least I could do, I felt, was bring this thoughtful book to  the attention of others.

CC books

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Dizzy heights

In the light of Monday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing once more this sequence on essentially the same subject from a somewhat different angle. This is the first of four: they will appear on consecutive days.

I recently read John Hatcher’s latest book Understanding Death. The second half was compelling reading and I’d thoroughly recommend it. However, it maps so closely onto so much that I have blogged about recently I thought I’d refrain from reviewing it in detail. It inspired me though to go back to an earlier book of his published in 2005 – Close Connections. Improbable as it might sound to a materialist, this book on spirituality helped keep me grounded in reality recently while I was staying on the dizzying 32nd floor of a Shanghai hotel. While the themes it deals with, unlike the hotel, are not exactly a million miles away from my well trodden home turf, it has much that enriched my understanding further, so I thought reviewing the second half of this book would be well worthwhile.

He looks in the first part of the book, at science, evolution and theodicy, amongst other preoccupations of mine, before he reaches the core topic of his book which I want to look at more closely. I am going to pick up his theme roughly halfway through (page 154): ‘our metaphorical self (our body) is the outward expression of our metaphysical self (our soul).’

The first half of his book has sought to establish that there is both a spiritual and a physical aspect to reality. This is a theme developed elsewhere on this blog so I thought I’d skip that aspect of his argument this time round. I am mainly interested for now on where he goes with this.

Much that he says has echoes of my other reading and I’ll point this up where it seems appropriate to do so.

He sees parallels between the maturation of the individual and of society (page 162).

Even as the advancement of the human body politic is portrayed in [Baha’i] terms of an “ever-advancing civilisation,” so the advancement of the individual can be portrayed in terms of an ever more inclusive or expansive definition of “self” . . . . an expanding sense of one’s relationships with and obligations to others, even eventually to the whole of mankind.

Robert_Wright_journalist

Robert Wright

The resonates with Robert Wright in The Evolution of God and Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilisation. Wright’s position is captured in a quote I’ve used in an earlier post:

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

(page 428-429)

Jeremy Rifkin, in his searching book, The Empathic Civilisation, takes a more nuanced position but nonetheless highlights the positive power of empathy (page 16):

Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is the core of our nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilisation.

A recent article suggests that the empathy debate is a vigorous one.

From here Hatcher moves through familiar territory marshalling evidence in support of the metaphysical including near death experiences (NDEs) for example. There is much on this blog on this subject also (see the earlier links) so again I will not dwell on this.

It’s when he refers to Larry Dossey quoting the work of Paul Davies (page 180-81) that we move closer to the core of my current preoccupations.

‘What stuff is the soul made of?’ he asks.  ‘The question is as meaningless as asking what stuff citizenship or Wednesdays are made of. The soul is a holistic concept.’ This essential concept of ‘the mind,’ or ‘self,’ or ‘soul’ or ‘consciousness’ as nonlocal and nonmaterial – though capable of interacting with physical reality – is critical to our discussion.

pim v l

Pim van Lommel

This proves to be a truly challenging issue once you get up close, as we will see in the sequence of four posts.

The start is deceptively familiar, straightforward even. He brings in, at this point, the metaphor of the ‘transceiver’ which I had already met in the work of Pim van Lommel who unpacks it in his book Consciousness beyond Life (page 68 – see an earlier post for a fuller treatment):

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.

Hatcher puts it this way (page 181):

To consider that the consciousness and its powers (will, memory, rational thought) can function through a transceiver (the brain) without being localised is at the heart of the Bahá’í concept of an ‘associated’ or ‘counterpart’ relationship between the physical self (especially the brain) and the metaphysical self (the soul). Dossey states the concept succinctly: ‘the fact that the mind maybe nonlocal does not mean that it could not act through the brain.’

These ideas, I have recently discovered, have their roots in the thinking of a 19th Century pioneer in this area, FWHMyers. Kelly in the book Irreducible Mind summarises a key part of his position (page 73):

. . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self

After exploring the effects of prayer, he draws on the insights of Lothar Schafer (pages 184-85): ‘. . . the background of reality has mind-like qualities.’ This is reminiscent of what Amit Goswami, the physicist, described in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe:

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.

This paves the way for a close consideration of the light that the Baha’i Writings shed on this intriguing and all-important matter. Consideration of that will have to wait till the next post. It’s where concepts get really slippery and hard to hold onto.

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NDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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thompson

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 earlier post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is the second and last post attempting to express simply what I thought I might say!

I argued in Thursday’s post, which describes my journey from atheism to belief in God, that finding completely compelling empirical evidence in support or refutation of the possibility of a spiritual dimension will be vanishingly hard to come by. I said I would examine a typical example in this post.

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.

Quotations from Thompson’s sceptical and Mario Beauregard’s convinced account will illustrate the problem. I’ll focus on the hearing issue, though that is by no means the only point of contention (readers of my recent post on this issue can skip this bit). Pam Reynolds had a tumour deep in the brain stem, surgery for which required a total shut down of her brain, drained of all blood and kept at a low enough temperature to fend off brain cell death within the time frame of the operation.

Thompson writes in Waking, Dreaming, Being (page 307):

Reynolds’s eyes were taped shut, so she wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on around her. Although she was wearing fitted ear plugs that delivered 40-decibel white noise to one ear and 95-decibel clicks every eleventh of a second to her other ear (in order to monitor her auditory brainstem response), she probably would have been able to hear the sound of the saw through bone conduction (as when you hear inside your head the sound of the dentist’s drill). On the basis of hearing the sound, she may have generated a visual image of the saw, which she described as looking like an electric toothbrush. She would have been familiar with the surgical procedure from the surgeon’s description and from having read and signed the informed consent form, and she would have seen the layout of the operating room because she was awake when she was wheeled in. [An alternative account posits that the theatre staff had hidden the instruments to avoid alarming her.] So she probably had enough knowledge to create an accurate visual and cognitive map of her surroundings during her out-of-body experience. Reynolds’s ability to hear what the cardiac surgeon said may seem less likely, but to my knowledge no one has tried to replicate the auditory stimulus conditions to determine whether speech is comprehensible through those sound levels or during the pauses between the clicks.

Pam reynold's surgeryBeauregard’s view is different (Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship – page 132):

Sceptics will argue that when Reynolds saw the surgeon cutting her skull or heard a female voice say something about the size of her blood vessels, she was not clinically dead yet. Nevertheless, her ears were blocked by small moulded speakers continuously emitting 100-dB clicks (100 dB correspond approximately to the noise produced by a speeding express train). Medical records confirmed that these words were effectively pronounced (Seabom 1998). Moreover, the speakers were fixed with tape and gauze. It is thus highly unlikely that Reynolds could have physically overheard operating room conversation.

In terms of Reynold’s supposedly prior knowledge, it is perhaps also worth quoting Penny Sartori’s 2008 work in Swansea, quoted by Fenwick in a later chapter of the mind-brain book. In her study she was able to ask (page 148):

. . . whether the patients who said they left their bodies during the cardiac arrest were able to give a more accurate account of what happened during their resuscitation, than those who did not claim to have left their bodies or to have any memory of seeing the resuscitation. She asked both groups to describe what they thought had happened during the resuscitation and found that those who said they had seen the resuscitation were more accurate in their account of what had occurred than those who were simply guessing. This finding is important as it is the first prospective study which suggests that veridical information may indeed be obtained in some manner by someone who is deeply unconscious and who has none of the cerebral functions which would enable them either to see or to remember.

past-livesReincarnation:

Much later in the game I came back to giving reincarnation another look. It can’t really be ignored in any honest open-minded investigation. There is far too much evidence that suggests there are phenomena that invite interpretation as supporting reincarnation.

I explored reincarnation when I was investigating Buddhism and rejected it, so it is not only because my current belief in the Bahá’í Faith discounts it, that I am drawn to another way of interpreting the data.

Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, in their excellent book Past Lives, have a whole section on this take on the issue. They also look at whether psi alone might be a sufficient explanation. Personally, though they do not close the door on that possibility themselves, for reasons concerning the degree of identification that the strongest cases exhibit (see below) psi does not seem to me the best candidate.

They then move on to what they refer to (page 278) as the ‘Cosmic Memory Bank.’ They describe ‘field theories’ and refer to Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of ‘morphic resonance.’ They add (page 279):

If memories (information) are held in this way they would exist independently of the brain and therefore be accessible to another brain which ‘resonated’ with them.

They accept that this could explain cases where (page 280) ‘more than one person remembers the same past life’ but feel that it is improbable that a child’s brain would be capable of resonating to an adult consciousness. They also feel that where memories of a past life display ‘continuity’ and ‘detail,’ this would not usually the case where psi is involved and for them accessing a universal mind would entail the use of psi.

The idea of a Cosmic Memory Bank appeals to me partly because this idea is to be found in other sources that I trust in different ways. Yeats refers to it as the Anima Mundi and Jung speaks of the ‘collective unconscious.’ The Bahá’í Writings refer to the ‘universal mind’ as when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá responds to a woman’s letter advising her: ‘to forget this world of possession, become wholly heavenly, become embodied spirit and attain to universal mind. This arena is vast and unlimited . . . .’

The introduction to Albright’s Everyman edition of Yeats’s poems puts his view succinctly (page xxi):

He came to the conclusion that there was in fact one source, a universal warehouse of images that he called the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. Each human soul could attune itself to revelation, to miracle, because each partook in the world’s general soul.

If we can accept this possibility, it provides, in my view, another possibly way of explaining the data which points also towards the possibility of reincarnation. Unfortunately, as always in this kind of area, greater certainty is inevitably elusive.

spiritual-brainWhere does that leave us?

In the end I’ve come to feel as Mario Beauregard does.

In The Spiritual Brain he refers in summary to the areas of exploration he has adduced which he feels a nonmaterialist view can explain more adequately (2528):

For example, a nonmaterialist view can account for the neuroimaging studies that show human subjects in the very act of self-regulating their emotions by concentrating on them. It can account for the placebo effect (the sugar pill that cures, provided the patient is convinced that it is a potent remedy). A nonmaterialist view can also offer science-based explanations of puzzling phenomena that are currently shelved by materialist views. One of these is psi, the apparent ability of some humans to consistently score above chance in controlled studies of mental influences on events. Another is the claim, encountered surprisingly often among patients who have undergone trauma or major surgery, that they experienced a life-changing mystical awareness while unconscious.

This paves the way for finding the idea of mid-brain independence credible.

He also refers to the work in neuroplasticity which I have also dealt with on this blog (2605):

Generally, Schwartz says, success with the four-step method depends on the patient doing two things: recognizing that faulty brain messages cause obsessive-compulsive behavior and realizing that these messages are not part of the self. In this therapy, the patient is entirely in control. Both the existence and the role of the mind as independent of the brain are accepted; indeed, that is the basis of the therapy’s success.

He ends up on Alvin Plantinga’s ground at one point (Kindle Reference: 2520):

We regard promissory materialism as superstition without a rational foundation. The more we discover about the brain, the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena, and the more wonderful do both the brain events and the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists…who often confuse their religion with their science.

conscious-universeIn addition, Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe marshalls acres of evidence in favour of Psi, though it has been accused of overstating its case. He even quotes a sceptic in support of its rigour, thereby hopefully dismissing the spurious claims of dogmatic a priori sceptics (page 209):

Today, informed sceptics no longer claim that the outcomes of psi experiments are due to mere chance because we know that some parapsychological effects are, to use sceptical psychologist Ray Hyman’s words, “astronomically significant.” This is a key concession because it shifts the focus of the debate away from the mere existence of interesting effects to their proper interpretation.

There is enough here overall, I feel, to give all but the most died-in-the-wool materialist pause for thought. Even if you only give credence to ‘hard’ scientifically gathered evidence, it seems clear that the exact nature of consciousness is an open question rather than a closed case.

Let’s hope I conveyed all that clearly enough to get the point across to a roomful of psychologists!

Or was it back to the lion’s den again, perhaps.

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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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filter-spectrum-v2At the end of the last post we looked at psi. Other transpersonal experiences, particularly ones relating to mind-brain independence, are more controversial, if that is possible. Psi is even seen as a confounding variable, which I suppose is progress of a kind, rather than a supportive prop.

For example, Braude’s work in Mortal 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.

Quotations from Thompson’s sceptical and Mario Beauregard’s convinced account will illustrate the problem. I’ll focus on the hearing issue, though that is by no means the only point of contention.

thompsonThompson writes in Waking, Dreaming, Being (page 307):

Reynolds’s eyes were taped shut, so she wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on around her. Although she was wearing fitted ear plugs that delivered 40-decibel white noise to one ear and 95-decibel clicks every eleventh of a second to her other ear (in order to monitor her auditory brainstem response), she probably would have been able to hear the sound of the saw through bone conduction (as when you hear inside your head the sound of the dentist’s drill). On the basis of hearing the sound, she may have generated a visual image of the saw, which she described as looking like an electric toothbrush. She would have been familiar with the surgical procedure from the surgeon’s description and from having read and signed the informed consent form, and she would have seen the layout of the operating room because she was awake when she was wheeled in. So she probably had enough knowledge to create an accurate visual and cognitive map of her surroundings during her out-of-body experience. Reynolds’s ability to hear what the cardiac surgeon said may seem less likely, but to my knowledge no one has tried to replicate the auditory stimulus conditions to determine whether speech is comprehensible through those sound levels or during the pauses between the clicks.

mind-brain-relationshipBeauregard’s view is different (Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship – page 132):

Sceptics will argue that when Reynolds saw the surgeon cutting her skull or heard a female voice say something about the size of her blood vessels, she was not clinically dead yet. Nevertheless, her ears were blocked by small moulded speakers continuously emitting 100-dB clicks (100 dB correspond approximately to the noise produced by a speeding express train). Medical records confirmed that these words were effectively pronounced (Seabom 1998). Moreover, the speakers were fixed with tape and gauze. It is thus highly unlikely that Reynolds could have physically overheard operating room conversation.

Intriguing or what? Deuce maybe? Or a plague on both their houses?

In terms of Reynold’s supposedly prior knowledge, it is perhaps also worth quoting Penny Sartori’s 2008 work in Swansea, quoted by Fenwick in a later chapter of the mind-brain book. In her study she was able to ask (page 148):

. . . whether the patients who said they left their bodies during the cardiac arrest were able to give a more accurate account of what happened during their resuscitation, than those who did not claim to have left their bodies or to have any memory of seeing the resuscitation. She asked both groups to describe what they thought had happened during the resuscitation and found that those who said they had seen the resuscitation were more accurate in their account of what had occurred than those who were simply guessing. This finding is important as it is the first prospective study which suggests that veridical information may indeed be obtained in some manner by someone who is deeply unconscious and who has none of the cerebral functions which would enable them either to see or to remember.

Thompson feels, even so, that there is a possible way of explaining these sorts of experiences. He quotes the work of Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguez (page 313) who ‘put forward a model of how the distinct brain areas known to be frequently damaged in cardiac arrest patients may contribute to the various elements that make up near-death experiences.’ They claim to have found two types of NDE, one linked to right- and the other to left-hemisphere functioning. He adds (my italics): ‘it also seems possible that a patient could have both types of near-death experience and later link them together into one remembered and reported episode. Pam Reynolds’s near death experience, for example, might have been of this kind.’

So, you pay your penny and takes your choice.

I feel I’m back in a familiar place, the one described by John Hick.

John Hick adduces a very compelling argument that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what Pam Reynolds, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, 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.

To be fair to Thompson I need to add two more quotes which resonate with this in a way, the first from the end of the section on NDEs (page 314):

Although Blanke and Dieguez’s model is speculative, as they admit, it serves to illustrate how we can begin to approach near-death experiences from a cognitive neuroscience perspective, instead of supposing, as many near-death experience researchers do, that these experiences pose an insurmountable challenge to neuroscience.

This is at least honestly tentative, untainted by fundamentalist scientism. His basic position is similarly balanced (ibid.):

One way to lose touch with the existential meaning of near-death experiences is to argue, on the basis of the kind of cognitive neuroscience perspective just sketched, that these experiences are nothing other than false hallucinations created by a disordered brain. Another way is to argue that these experiences are true presentations of a real, transcendent, spiritual realm to which one’s disembodied consciousness will journey after death.

Both of these viewpoints fall into the trap of thinking that near-death experiences must be either literally true are literally false. This attitude remains caught in the grip of a purely third-person view of death… Both viewpoints turn away from the experience itself and try to translate it into something else or evaluate it according to some outside standard of objective reality.

Where does that all leave me?

I have failed so far to find evidence to confirm that transliminality of any kind is anything more than an occasional correlate of psychosis. Moreover, I sense that at this point, I am going to be hard-pressed to find strong evidence that will support the notion that psychosis entails the leaching into consciousness both of subconscious brain activity and extrasensory stimuli.

300px-psychosynthesis-egg-diagram_color

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

Disappointing.

Still, I have clarified to my own satisfaction what I think I need to find evidence for. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Some Answered Questions that (pages 241-42):

The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names—the human spirit and the rational soul—designate one thing. . . .

. . . 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. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

The diagram at the top of this post, with which I illustrated in an earlier post the issue of brain-produced and extrasensory stimuli, plainly does not go far enough. One of the best existing attempts of something that does is to be found in psychosynthesis.

It neatly distinguishes the conscious self (the ego) from the Higher Self – in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms the mind as a power or fruit of the spirit. With its help I am hoping to explore these issues further, particularly with respect to psychosis and creativity.

I would hope eventually to be able to tease out how trauma can lift us towards compassionate self-transcendence instead of shrinking us towards self-protective egotism, depending upon our response to it. The implication for creativity would be whether the pain of life makes a better person as well as a better artist because greater creativity and access to the transcendent are both possible and facilitated by pain, and for psychosis whether pain causes less effective filtering for both brain-generated and extrasensory experiences.

In both cases trauma could lift or lower the trajectory of a person’s life. I’d like to explore more deeply why some people go up and others go down.

I’ll leave it there until the New Year, and pause my posts until then as I did last year. I wish all my readers well over this festive season.

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Mirror 1

The perfect soul of man—that is to say, the perfect individual—is like a mirror wherein the Sun of Reality is reflected. The perfections, the image and light of that Sun have been revealed in the mirror; its heat and illumination are manifest therein, for that pure soul is a perfect expression of the Sun.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá – Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

People will probably not feel an urgency to transform the current disordered world into a spiritually enlightened global civilisation unless they gain an appreciation for the true nature of reality.

(John Fitzgerald Medina Faith, Physics & Psychology – Page 52)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

We have looked in reasonable detail at Jeremy Rifkin’s important analysis of the relationship in our culture between empathy and entropy, at his model of levels of consciousness where he pins his best hope for our survival on what he terms ‘biosphere consciousness,’ and his outline of where child rearing practices might produce the most responsibly empathic outcome within an essentially materialistic approach to reality.

I found his book valuable, thought-provoking but in one respect deeply flawed. There are no prizes for guessing where I think the flaw is to be found.

Embodied Experience Alone?Emp Civil

He is not just attacking a belief in the transcendent, it is true. Reason is in his rifle sights as well (page 141):

Both fail to plumb the depths of what makes us human and therefore leave us with cosmologies that are incomplete stories – that is, they failed to touch the deepest realities of existence. That’s not to dismiss the critical elements that make the stories of faith and reason so compelling. It’s only that something essential is missing – and that something is “embodied experience.”

We soon find ourselves in the currently prevalent default mode of reductionism whose limitations I have discussed elsewhere at length (page 163):

Human beings have created religious images of the future in part as a refuge against the ultimate finality of earthly existence. Every religion holds forth the promise of either defeating time, escaping time, overcoming time, reissuing time, or denying time altogether. We use our religions as vehicles to enter the state of nirvana, the heavenly kingdom, the promised land. We come to be believe in reincarnation, rebirth, and resurrection as ways of avoiding the inevitability of biological death.

While I accept that organised religion has not helped its case by its history of intolerance and cruelty in the name of some travesty of godhead. As Greg Hodges puts it in a recent post: ‘It takes a willful ignorance of history to deny . . . . that much of what humanity remembers about its collective past centers around large-scale, religiously-legitimized violence.’

Isn’t it just possible though that we might believe in transcendent realities such as an afterlife because there happens to be some hard evidence to suggest that there is really something in these ideas? Let’s take Pim van Lommel as one possible example of carefully gathered evidence that strongly suggests, at the very least, that consciousness cannot be adequately explained by brain activity alone and is therefore extremely unlikely to be a purely material phenomenon. The crux of his case can be captured in a few quotations from his book Consciousness beyond Life (pages 132-133):

The fact that an NDE [near death experience] 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.

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

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, ie immediately afterwards, and then again later after a set period of time. This is a more powerful methodology than retrospectively finding people who claim 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 each 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.’

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

For those who find vivid individual experiences more compelling, that is just about all of us, one of the best examples is the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander in Proof of Heaven. I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

On this issue, Rifkin’s cart may well be in front of his horse (page 168):

It should also be noted that where empathic consciousness flourishes, fear of death withers and the compunction to seek otherworldly salvation or earthly utopias wanes.

NDEs have been shown to increase empathy and reduce the fear of death over and over again, except in the case of the minority of examples of distressing NDEs (see Nancy Evans Bush for a rigorous study of those phenomena.) I’m not sure where his evidence is that empathy is greater where all forms of transcendence are denied.

He is aware of a void in the credibility of his position and has to locate awe elsewhere than in the transcendent he resumes to acknowledge (page 170):

Empathic consciousness starts with awe. When we empathise with another, we are bearing witness to the strange incredible life force that is in us and that connects us with all other living beings. Empathy is, after all, the feeling of deep reverence we have for the nebulous term we call existence.

I find this slightly muddled in any case. The first sentence implies that awe kicks off empathic feelings, whereas it is clear he feels that empathy creates awe. In any case I am not convinced by his empathy/awe connection.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The Golden Rule & the Fall

As a convinced advocate of the Golden Rule and aware of its roots in the Axial Age which saw the dawn or significant development of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, and Taoism, I am uneasy with his take on this key stone of almost every moral arch. He sees the Golden Rule as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

Immanuel Kant make the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative. . . . . First, “Act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.” Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the “felt” experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

Rifkin does acknowledge that Judaism endorses the the universal application of the Golden Rule (page 214):

Lest some infer that the Golden Rule applies literally to only one’s neighbours and blood kin, the Bible makes clear that it is to be regarded as a universal law. In Leviticus it is written: “[T]he stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’

But he does not regard with favour what happened next (page 236-37):

Unfortunately, the universal empathic embrace extended to all human beings became increasingly conditional over the course of the next several centuries with the introduction of the devil into human affairs. The devil played virtually no role in Judaism. Satan came on the scene in the form of a demon, shortly after the crucifixion, among some Jewish groups. But the devil as a key player, pitted against Christ and the Lord, with the vast power to deceive, sow seeds of chaos, and even challenge the power of God, was a Christian invention.

Certainly the take on the serpent in Judaism seems more subtle than the Christian one

A very enigmatic figure in this story is the snake. What kind of animal is this that speaks and tempts Adam and Eve? Actually, it is hard for us to imagine the primordial snake, since part of the snake’s punishment was a metamorphosis of what and who he is.

Before the sin of Adam and Eve, we find the snake described in detail in the Bible. He is depicted as “cunning,” he speaks to Eve, he walks, and he even seems to have his own volition and will. After the sin, he is punished in that he will now crawl on his stomach, his food will be dirt, and there will eternal enmity between himself and man. What was the snake originally, and what did he do to deserve such a downfall?

Most kabbalistic commentators equate the snake with the Yetzer Hara — the self-destructive tendencies to move away from God.4 What is the function of the Yetzer Hara? Why were such tendencies created? And why was a snake chosen to represent this?

The purpose of God’s creating the world was to bestow goodness on mankind. The ultimate good is to not give someone a gift, but to empower him to accomplish on his own. Imagine someone training for the Olympics with his coach serving in the role of the opponent. If the coach does not oppose him with all his strength and wiles, the athlete will be upset with him. And when the student manages to overcome the coach, the coach is happy at his own downfall — since it is his role to finally be vanquished.

The Yetzer Hara is our coach. Any rational person would desire a worthy opponent to overcome. Therefore the original snake was almost human, walking on legs, speaking intelligently, and able to present a world view alternate to God’s. In that sense, the snake is the ultimate servant of God and man. He is the force which gives us the ability to choose between two worldviews — as long as the choice is balanced and the snake is not too difficult to overcome.

When the choice was between intellectual and sensual, the snake needed to be able to tempt man with a sensual experience. However, he needed to clothe it in the guise of the rational and objective truth. Therefore the snake was almost human in his abilities.

When man failed that test, the snake himself needed to undergo a metamorphosis. He needed to become the obstacle and temptation for a different humanity, who now could be easily led astray. Therefore the intelligent rational snake becomes a dirt dwelling mute creature.

Nancy Evans Bush makes it clear in her book that hell is a concept introduced by Christians and promulgated most powerfully in the mistranslations of sheol in the King James version of the Bible.

We will be looking in the next post at how much his aversion to the theological hinges on these Christian variations on that theme as well as where that then leaves us in terms of reversing our descent into the abyss.

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