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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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A particularly shocking demonstration of the limitations of the genetic argument is an epidemiological analysis of the prevalence and incidence of schizophrenia in Nazi Germany, wherein it is estimated between 220,000 and 269,500 citizens with the diagnosis were forcibly sterilized or murdered by the Nazi regime (Read & Masson, 2013; Torrey & Yolken, 2010). Contrary to everything that is known about genetic, heritable conditions, the rates of schizophrenia diagnoses in Germany did not diminish after the war but increased. The analysis showed this atrocity provided proof against the very reasoning used to instigate it.

(The Role of Social Adversity in the Etiology of Psychosis by
Eleanor Longden and John Read – page 11)

schwartzSome time ago on this blog I addressed the issue of neuroplasticity. I shared my frustration at how the neuroscientific community’s resistance to the idea that the mature brain could change had been a damaging doctrine for decades.

As I wrote in 2012, even if you only date the start of a belief in neuroplasticity at 1962 – and there is some evidence it could fairly be backdated earlier than that – 34 years seems a long time to wait for such a clinically vital concept to surface into general practice.

I can testify to that from personal experience. From when I first studied psychology in 1975 until I qualified as a clinical psychologist in 1982, the conventional wisdom was that the adult brain had virtually no capacity to change itself. I cannot exactly remember when it became respectable to doubt that dogma, but I am fairly sure it was well into the 90s. And even then it was a qualified scepticism only. We were into the new century before I became aware of the wide-ranging and radical possibilities that people like Schwartz have written about.

It is horrifying to contemplate the human cost of such resolute intransigence in the face of compelling data.

I have expressed equal frustration, if not more, at the obdurate dogmatism with which mainstream materialistic science denies validity to spiritual experiences of almost any kind.

Not even once in my entire experience of being taught psychology did I ever hear of Frederick William Henry Myers, a resolute explorer of the borderland between mind and spirit. The closest encounter I ever had of this kind was with William James. He was mentioned in asides with a dismissive and grudging kind of respect. The implication was that he was an amazing thinker for his time but nowadays very much old hat. I gave him a quick glance and moved on.

Looking back now I realise I was robbed.

Irreducible MindKelly and Kelly capture it neatly and clearly in the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind (pages xvii-xviii):

[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the “hard” sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, “a purely objective experimental branch of natural science”. It should “never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.”

And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Too many psychologists are still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind.

I have a comparable, perhaps even greater, sense of frustration about a similarly destructive dogmatism that bedevils the clinical/psychiatric approach to so-called psychotic experiences. This is far more damaging, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, than the a priori rubbishing of psi or near death experiences, unhealthy as that undoubtedly is.

My recent decluttering process triggered the feeling all over again. I’ve been sorting through back issues of my psychology journals. In the process, I found one article of particular interest on this theme. Sadly it was the only one I found in the dozens of journals I have checked through for items of interest before deciding whether to discard them. (As I later discovered through trawling the web and my British Psychological Society website in particular, there are others sailing against the hitherto prevailing current of dogmatic biodeterminism, but they are still the exception rather than the rule. The BPS as a body, to its credit, is getting on board as well, as quotes I use in later posts will testify.)

The journal[1] was dated 2012 and contained a paper by Charles Heriot-Maitland, Matthew Knight and Emmanuelle Peters on the subject of what they call Out-of-the-Ordinary-Experiences or OOEs. The focus of the study was to use a phenomenological interview process that enabled them to compare the experiences of two small groups of people, one group who had been diagnosed as psychotic, labelled the clinical (C) group, and other who had not, labelled the non-clinical (NC) group.

Their operating assumption from the start was that voice-hearing prevalence, which runs at 10-15%, (page 38) ‘suggests that OOEs do not inevitably lead to psychiatric conditions, and that people can experience psychotic-like phenomena whilst continuing to function effectively.’

They also refer to two other pieces of research from this sparsely populated field of investigation.

First of all, they quote Brett et al (2007) as finding that ‘while [their Diagnosed] group were more likely to appraise their experiences as external and caused by other people, the [Undiagnosed] group made more psychological, spiritual and normalising appraisals, and reported higher perceived understanding from others. . . . . They . . . did find trauma levels in both groups to be higher than in the general population.’

Jackson and Fulford (1997), which they describe as the only known published qualitative study of clinical and nonclinical populations with OOEs, also found that psychotic-like experiences were triggered in both groups by intense stress in the context of existential crises, and that the subsequent group distinction depended on ‘the way in which psychotic phenomena are embedded in the values and beliefs of the person concerned.’

Later work has expanded on this. For instance, Eleanor Longden and John Read in their review of the evidence concerning the role of social adversity in the etiology of psychosis (American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 70, No. 1, 2016: pages 21-22) summarise a wealth of data that suggests that, not only is trauma a clear factor in the incidence of psychosis, but also psychotic experiences relate strongly to the nature of the trauma experienced. For example, work with 41 patients experiencing a first episode of psychosis found that attributes of stressful events in the year preceding psychosis onset were significantly associated with core themes of both delusions and hallucinations (Raune, Bebbington, Dunn, & Kuipers, 2006).

Where the OOE work is particularly significant is in the emphasis it places on the potentially positive function of the psychotic experience in and of itself, a rare perspective indeed. Even a paper on the existential approach (Grant S Shields – Existential Analysis 25.1: January 2014 – page 143) takes a somewhat darker view of such experiences, seeing psychosis as ‘a mechanism for coping with existential distress – a way of being that allows an individual to escape existential realities when that individual cannot avoid these things otherwise.’ I will be returning to a more detailed consideration of his valuable but different position in a later post.

ooe-table

Later in this sequence I will refer back to other thinking and data that expand on the relationship between levels of consciousness or understanding, and the stress caused by experiences that challenge the models of reality we have so far developed. I’ll just focus in the reminder of this first post in the sequence on the basics of what this study found (pages 41-49). Please bear in mind as you read that we should do our best to see the experiences labelled ‘psychotic’ not as some alien state remote from anything we might ever have to undergo ourselves, but as simply part of a continuum, a dimension, along which we all are placed and therefore could at some point also be thrust to a similar extreme, given the wrong circumstances. I’ll be retiring to they theme in a later sequence as well.

Nearly all participants in both groups reported a period of emotional suffering before their first OOE. There was a sense, therefore, that the first OOE was a direct expression of emotional concerns at the time. For details of what some of the OOEs were like, see the table above.

A process of existential questioning came into the mix. Similar to the emotional suffering, there also seemed to be some direct relevance of OOEs to the context of participants’ existential questioning. From this, it could be interpreted that the OOE actually emerged as a direct expression of, or indeed solution to, some kind of psychological crisis.

Isolation, which was reported equally across both groups, was either caused by intentional social withdrawal, or by private pre-occupation with other activities. It may therefore be that isolation has more of a causal role in triggering the experience itself, perhaps because it encourages introspective focus on the kinds of emotional and/or existential concerns mentioned above.

At first I thought the authors might be operating on an implicit assumption that isolation is generally undesirable, but revised that view in the light of the paper as a whole.

One of their most striking findings was the powerful language used by participants to describe the emotionally fulfilling and euphoric qualities of their experiences.

Next Monday I’ll be looking more directly at the spiritual implications of this.

Footnote:

[1] British Journal of Clinical Psychology (2012) 51, pages 37-52.

 

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Random-Number-Generator_1

Readers should take note of a new section in Chapter 6 entitled “Psi Phenomena.” We have discussed parapsychology in previous editions but have been very critical of the research and skeptical of the claims made in the field. And although we still have strong reservations about most of the research in parapsychology, we find the recent work on telepathy worthy of careful consideration.

(From the Preface to Introduction to Psychology by Richard L. Atkinson – 1990: quoted in The Spiritual Brain, page 169) 

In science, the acceptance of new ideas follows a predictable, four-stage sequence. In Stage 1, skeptics confidently proclaim that the idea is impossible because it violates the Laws of Science. This stage can last from years to centuries, depending on how much the idea challenges conventional wisdom. In Stage 2, skeptics reluctantly concede that the idea is possible, but it is not very interesting and the claimed effects are extremely weak. Stage 3 begins when the mainstream realizes that the idea is not only important, but its effects are much stronger and more pervasive than previously imagined. Stage 4 is achieved when the same critics who used to disavow any interest in the idea begin to proclaim that they thought of it first. Eventually, no one remembers that the idea was once considered a dangerous heresy.

(Dean Radin: The Conscious Universe – page 1)  

Another post it seemed appropriate to republish at this point.

In 2002 I read a fascinating book on parapsychology by H.J. Irwin. My recent reading of another intriguing book, The Spiritual Brain, triggered a memory of that experience.

Irwin’s book is a rigorous examination of the work done up to that point in the field of parapsychology. I was still working in the NHS at the time and swimming against all the powerful reductionist currents of thought flowing along the broad estuary of mental health work.  Reading this book was yet another attempt to find a sound empirical basis for my scepticism about materialism.

That sounds like a futile ambition, you may think. But I am not alone in cherishing that hope. Beauregard and O’Leary quote Eccles and Robinson with approval in The Spiritual Brain as saying (page 125):

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.

So that makes five of us at least.

Where a nonmaterialist explanation works well

What reactivated my interest of more than decade ago was Beauregard and O’Leary’s list of things that a nonmaterialist perspective can explain better than a materialist one (ibid.)

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.

My clearest memory of Irwin’s book concerned precisely the massive amount of meticulously generated evidence in favour of psi, especially in terms of subjects’ accurately predicting random numbers at a level slightly but consistently above chance over thousands of carefully controlled trials.  Not a dramatic finding, perhaps, not like apparently successful mediumship or seemingly bending spoons on television, but in an important way more compelling and significant than any of those because all possibility of fakery had been eliminated to leave it beyond all reasonable doubt that something materialists couldn’t explain was going on.

psi dice

Rear-guard materialism

Most materialists, little to their credit or credibility, resolutely refused to look carefully at the evidence as they knew in advance that such findings were impossible and must be the result of fraud or sloppy methodology. So much for science’s supposed openness to all evidence. In fact, it has always been blinded by its current paradigms, so there is really no surprise here either.

Beauregard and O’Leary quote a particularly startling example of materialistic zealotry. Grossman tells of his encounters with materialists about NDEs. He recalls one snatch of dialogue which they quote (page 166)

Exasperated, I asked, “What will it take, short of having a near-death experience yourself, to convince you that it’s real?” Very nonchalantly, without batting an eye, the response was: “Even if I were to have a near-death experience myself, I would conclude that I was hallucinating, rather than believe that my mind can exist independently of my brain.”

There’s no arguing with such intransigent dogmatism – in the face of the evidence that I am convinced exists but which it refuses to examine, such an attitude is bordering on the delusional. What makes it all the more bizarre is that the evidence for psi has been conducted with a rigour and extensive sample size that would be the envy of many a mainstream researcher. Beauregard and O’Leary summarise the findings as follows (pages 170-171):

Psi is not a form of magic. It is a low-level effect demonstrated in many laboratory studies—one that materialism does not account for. . . . Generally, the studies show that people sometimes get small amounts of specific information from a distance that do not depend on the ordinary senses. . . The experimental subject is asked to influence the [Random Number Generator’s] output by “wishing” for 1’s or 0’s. A small but stable effect has been shown over sixty years of tossing dice and RNGs that is reliable irrespective of the subject or the experimenter and remains when independent or skeptical investigators participate.

Not many experimental findings survive, for example, their attempted replication by sceptical experimenters. That in itself argues for something valid as well as seriously strange going on. Sadly we meet the same kind of scientistic dogmatism once again. They quote (pages 171-172) from Dean Radin‘s The Conscious Universe – which I read so long ago I’d completely forgotten it:

Skeptics who continue to repeat the same old assertions that parapsychology is a pseudoscience, or that there are no repeatable experiments, are uninformed not only about the state of parapsychology but also about the current state of skepticism!

entanglement-two

For source website see link

A Blinding Double-bind

Radin also points out the resulting double bind with blistering clarity (quoted on page 173):

If serious scientists are prevented from investigating claims of psi out of fear for their reputations, then who is left to conduct these investigations? Extreme skeptics? No, because the fact is that most extremists do not conduct research; they specialize in criticism. Extreme believers? No, because they are usually not interested in conducting rigorous scientific studies.

I have taken his book down off my shelves and placed it on my desk to read again.

Beauregard and O’Leary conclude (ibid.):

Psi must find its place within an evidence-based paradigm of physics, psychology, and neuroscience. However, working out and testing a hypothesis for psi faces some obstacles in a materialist environment. . . .

They are clear that the effect is small (page 167):

The stubborn problem turns out to be a small statistical effect from controlled laboratory studies, the psi effect, a general term for telepathic and psychokinetic phenomena.

And they are suitably cautious about the hypotheses we can build upon this robust but tiny effect (page 177):

Regarding psi, we can assume one of two things: (1) every single instance of psi is a direct interference in nature, presumably by a divine power from outside the universe; or (2) the universe permits more entanglement than the materialist paradigm does.

They favour the second idea. I would be delighted if this were to be more seriously investigated by mainstream researchers and the findings were then to be integrated into a more spiritual model of reality. The days of materialist domination are numbered, I feel: I’m just not sure how many more there are – whether it will be millions or merely thousands.

Radin

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Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes the fundamental obligation of human beings to acquire knowledge with their “own eyes and not through the eyes of others.” . . . . God has given each human being a mind and the capacity to differentiate truth from falsehood. If individuals fail to use their reasoning capacities and choose instead to accept without question certain opinions and ideas, either out of admiration for or fear of those who hold them, then they are neglecting their basic moral responsibility as human beings. Moreover, when people act in this way, they often become attached to some particular opinion or tradition and thus intolerant of those who do not share it.

(Quoted from the official Bahá’í website)

The Conscious Universe IRM

This sequence from two years ago still seems relevant.

My recent post on psi, as well as a positive reference to it in Irreducible Mind, triggered me to go back to a book I read many years ago before I started blogging. It is Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe.

It deals in depth with the wealth of research that had been undertaken until that point on the vexed issue of psi. It reveals how meticulously those involved in this research had taken on board the criticisms of the sceptics and refined their methodology until it had reached the point where its replicated confirmation of the reality of psi could not be explained away by any serious scientist who bothered to examine dispassionately the work that had been done.

I won’t review the whole of his book, which I am convinced will amply reward anyone prepared to read it. It covers the whole area, including methodology, from telepathy through remote viewing to field theories of consciousness.

I will instead confine myself to one example of how carefully considered his treatment is of this issue, then I’ll focus on his chapters exploring the reasons for the prevailing scepticism – endemic then in 1997 and still a common response within the scientific mainstream – before outlining briefly in a second post the sources of some of the distortions of thinking operating here and elsewhere.

The Point of Detail

Remote Viewing SketchWhen I recently published a post on psi I noted that I was doubtful that everyone could demonstrate the level of remote viewing skill Jeffrey Iverson quotes in his book. I concluded:

I am not at all sure . . . that everyone is currently capable of psi: however, I am hopeful that over a long period of time humanity will evolve to a point at which this could well be so.

Radin has helped me refine that view in the light of two pieces of research. In terms of remote viewing (page 102), he states:

. . . . . mass screening to find talented remote viewers revealed that about Remote Viewing Angel1% of those tested were consistently successful. This says that first class remote-viewing ability is relatively rare, but it probably varies across the general population much like athletic ability and musical talent.

Neither practice nor training seems to do much to improve upon someone’s starting level of ability.

However, micropsychokinesis, tested by means of random number generators (RNGs) tells a different story, perhaps because influencing electronically generated numbers is a less demanding skill (page 143):

Roger Nelson and his colleagues found that the main RNG effect . . . . [contained] no “star” performers – this means that the overall effect reflected an accumulation of small effects from each person rather than a few outstanding results from “special people.”

This is just one example among thousands of what has been revealed by decades of painstaking research.

So, do scientists irrationally persist in not taking the reality of psi seriously?

Radin demonstrates that this is very much the case before tackling head on the question of why that might be so.

A Field Guide to Scepticism

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

We can start by considering how well-informed scepticism was at the time of Radin’s writing this book. He quotes Paul Churchland as a not untypical example (page 207):

‘… There is not a single parapsychological effect that can be repeatedly or reliably produced in any laboratory suitably equipped to perform and control the experiment. Not one.’

Radin’s reposte, which his book proves is completely warranted is (ibid.):

Wrong. As we’ve seen, there are a half dozen psi effects that have been replicated dozens to hundreds of times in laboratories around the world.

Radin goes onto explain that such sceptics as Churchland have not even bothered to find out what the tiny handful of well-informed sceptics had come to accept (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.

Part of this resistance to the clearly proven stems from something I have explored at length already on this blog: the a priori assumption that psi is impossible, no respectable scientist need therefore investigate it and any evidence that claims to support the idea must be flawed. That this can lead to wildly unsubstantiable claims almost beggars belief (page 211):

. . . . in 1983 the well-known sceptic Martin Gardner wrote: “How can the public know that for 50 years sceptical psychologist been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess [sic]?”

Radin confirms that Gardner made no attempt to support his assertion, which was in any case pure fiction. There was no such body of careful experimentation by sceptics.

Radin quotes Honorton as defining this whole approach as (page 212) ‘counteradvocacy masquerading as scepticism.’ In other words, not the cautious mindset of a true scientist, but convinced and intransigent disbelief.

Another tactic, given the weight of evidence (ibid.), was to claim that the effect of psi was too weak to be interesting, a claim that conveniently forgets the history of electricity, whose initial manifestations (page 213) were decidedly weak and ‘erratic.’

In the end it is hard not to disagree with an early sceptic, Donald O. Hebb’s own description of his inability to accept the overwhelming evidence (page 214): ‘My own rejection of [Rhine’s] views is in a literal sense prejudice.’

It was hardly surprising that the popular press followed suit (page 219), when the National Research Council (page 215) and introductory psychology textbooks (page 223) danced to the same mocking music, even when they could and should have known better.

In the end, one of the most fruitful ways of looking at this tendency to discount, distort or completely ignore the evidence for psi is to see it as the mirror image of what sceptics accuse believers in psi of doing – warping what they see to confirm what they believe and then, consciously or unconsciously, faking the evidence to prove it (page 224-25).

This paves the way for his more detailed examination of the processes that reinforce this very human tendency. More of that tomorrow.

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The Conscious Universe IRM

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to our take on reality, to where our society is heading and to what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This sequence was first posted in October last year but it maps so closely onto the consciousness sequences of last week and covers other areas than my hobby horse of the NDE to support the idea that the mind is not reducible to the activity of the brain that I thought it worth republishing now. It goes a long way to support the idea of interconnectedness that is at the core of the North American Indian perspective on reality.

As I explained, I am very late indeed in getting round to reviewing this thought-provoking book. I read it a number of years ago but was reminded of it recently when I spotted and re-blogged an article on near death experiences (NDEs) by Mario Beauregard, who, along with Denyse O’Leary,wrote The Spiritual Brain. My understanding of what follows in this part has also been informed by other books such as Irreducible Mind and The Conscious Universe. The former I have reviewed already and a review of the latter will appear soon.

Beauregard’s book is comprehensive and thorough. It seemed best to tackle it in three parts on three consecutive days, focusing in turn on:

(1) his critique of materialism (posted yesterday);
(2) his treatment of consciousness; and
(3) his assessment of the costs of missing the spiritual point, along with an account of his own mystical  experience (to be posted tomorrow).

This is the second of the three aspects.

Consciousness & Mind

So, back to consciousness (2251):

Studying consciousness presents us with a curious dilemma: Introspection alone is not scientifically satisfactory, and though people’s reports about their own consciousness are useful, they cannot reveal the workings of the brain underlying them. Yet, studies of the brain proper cannot, in themselves, convey what it is like to be conscious. These constraints suggest that one must take special approaches to bring consciousness into the house of science.

The computer analogy is for him fruitless, as it has been for others as well (2307):

To make any sense of human behavior, we must confront mind and consciousness, which means confronting beliefs, goals, aspirations, desires, expectations, and intentions, none of which is relevant to the functioning of computers.

Evolutionary theory is equally bankrupt (2462):

The claim that “Darwinian principles” will solve the problem is merely a statement of faith—in this case, a faith at odds with historical experience. . . . . . The fact that “Being human in mind and brain appear clearly to be the result of an evolutionary process” tells us nothing. The question is not whether evolution occurs, but what drives it and what exactly it has produced to date. Finally, whether “Darwin’s is the most ideologically significant of all grand scientific theories” is irrelevant for the purposes of their discussion. Darwin’s theory neither predicts consciousness nor describes it.

He argues that biology is out of step now with the current understandings of physics (2505):

As Harold J. Morowitz has pointed out, biologists have been moving recently toward the hard-core materialism that characterized nineteenth-century physics, just as physicists have been forced by the weight of the evidence to move away from strictly mechanical models of the universe toward the view that the mind plays an integral role in all physical events.

He ends up on Alvin Plantinga’s ground at one point (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.

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.

He 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.

Placebo

Paul Pattison found a placebo helped his Parkinson’s

A recent BBC documentary gave telling support to the power of the placebo effect, including the example of a placebo inducing a brain supposedly incapable of producing dopamine to produce it simply by tricking the mind into believing the placebo was an effective medicine. Beauregard makes this process clear (2809):

The placebo effect—the significant healing effect created by a sick person’s belief and expectation that a powerful remedy has been applied when the improvement cannot have been the physical result of the remedy—must not be confused with natural healing processes. It depends specifically on the patient’s mental belief and expectation that a specific remedy will work.

He feels the placebo effect is coming in from the cold (2971):

Scientific medical research is beginning to help resolve the dilemma by accepting the mind-based nature of the placebo effect. It can be studied as an authentic effect and its power can be targeted, perhaps increased, which is so much more productive than continuing to treat it simply as a nuisance.

He quotes Radin from his book – The Conscious Universe (page 107) – describing the serious problem created by materialism’s position on psi, which applies across the board to other issues as well (3432):

If serious scientists are prevented from investigating claims of psi out of fear for their reputations, then who is left to conduct these investigations? Extreme skeptics? No, because the fact is that most extremists do not conduct research; they specialize in criticism. Extreme believers? No, because they are usually not interested in conducting rigorous scientific studies.

He tellingly adds (3497):

. . . as cosmologist Rocky Kolb, of the University of Chicago, noted recently, we don’t understand 95 percent of nature (dark matter and dark energy). Under the circumstances, it is a stretch to declare a phenomenon identified in a laboratory “supernatural” merely because it does not fit an established materialist paradigm.

Tomorrow we will examine the costs of scientists’ missing the spiritual point.

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'Newton' by William Blake

‘Newton’ by William Blake

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to our take on reality, to where our society is heading and to what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This sequence was first posted in October last year but it maps so closely onto the consciousness sequences of last week and covers other areas than my hobby horse of the NDE to support the idea that the mind is not reducible to the activity of the brain that I thought it worth republishing now. It goes a long way to support the idea of interconnectedness that is at the core of the North American Indian perspective on reality.

I am very late indeed in getting round to reviewing this thought-provoking book. I read it a number of years ago but was reminded of it recently when I spotted and re-blogged an article on near death experiences (NDEs) by Mario Beauregard, who, along with Denyse O’Leary, wrote The Spiritual Brain. I probably neglected to review the book originally because I was posting so many articles reviewing so many other books on overlapping themes: it looks as though I thought one more would be too much.

Once reminded, I thought that the least I could do is provide a brief heads up and pointer to its value.

His book is comprehensive and thorough. It seems best to tackle it in three parts on three consecutive days, focusing in turn on:

(1) his critique of materialism (today);
(2) his treatment of consciousness (tomorrow); and
(3) his assessment of the costs of missing the spiritual point (Wednesday).

There is a coda which draws powerfully on his own direct mystical experience.

Critique of Materialism

His book is a response to the default position of materialism as he sees it: he describes ‘an important tenet of materialism: materialist ideology trumps evidence.’ (Kindle Reference: 129)

In his book he addresses three issues that call that assumption seriously into question in his view (and mine). These are the psi effect, which I have tackled before on this blog and will be coming back to again soon, near death experiences (NDEs), also wellaired here, and the placebo effect, which I have only mentioned once at any length. As a result of the work of researchers such as Pim van Lommel, Sam Parnia, Peter Fenwick, and Bruce Greyson, there is a growing base of information about NDEs, for instance, as well as similar bodies of evidence from other workers in other fields. As these are topics I have covered already on this blog I won’t dwell on them now.

I’ll focus instead on his general case against materialism, which in itself will take quite some time. He illustrates its basic crass assumption with a telling quote from a proponent (277):

The whole materialist creed . . . . hangs off one little word, “Since”—“Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system…” In other words, neuroscientists have not discovered that there is no you in you; they start their work with that assumption.

He looks at a deep crack through what is perhaps the key stone in the central arch of the materialistic thought-cathedral – evolution (421):

We are driven to the conclusion that if the theory of evolution is to include or explain the facts of artistic and spiritual experience—and it cannot be accepted by any serious thinker if these great tracts of consciousness remain outside its range—it must be rebuilt on a mental rather than a physical basis.

He doesn’t hold out much hope for that rebuilding process, at least for now. He is dismissive of evolutionary arguments to explain away religion (1075):

Alper’s evolutionary argument requires him to describe religion in universal terms but his ideas about religion are strictly Western, monotheistic and personal; and his representation of religious worldviews is exclusively dualistic…. This argument is a clay pigeon, and could be blown away from any number of angles. The word “Asia” should suffice.

His final verdict on science is beautifully borrowed from a Mulla Nasrudin parable (1254):

Science is wonderful at explaining what science is wonderful at explaining, but beyond that it tends to look for its car keys where the light is good.

Redressing the Imbalance 

He then provides his own far richer description of spiritual or religious experience (1281):

For the purposes of this book, “religious” experiences are experiences that arise from following a religious tradition. Spirituality means any experience that is thought to bring the experiencer into contact with the divine (in other words, not just any experience that feels meaningful). Mysticism generally means pursuit of an altered state of consciousness that enables the mystic to become aware of cosmic realities that cannot be grasped during normal states of consciousness.

He hits another long nail firmly in the coffin of scientism (1878):

The culture of popular science is one of unidirectional skepticism—that is, the skepticism runs only in one direction. It is skeptical of any idea that spirituality corresponds to something outside ourselves, but surprisingly gullible about any reductionist explanation for it.

Michael Persinger (for source of image see link)

Michael Persinger (for source of image see link)

And then goes on to dispose of the God-helmet theory about spiritual experience – the one that interprets the evidence as saying that the brain creates mystical experiences purely out of its own activity, not in response to a spiritual dimension, making them by definition hallucinatory (1955):

A research team at Uppsala University in Sweden, headed by Pehr Granqvist, mirrored Persinger’s experiment by testing eighty-nine undergraduate students, some of whom were exposed to the magnetic field and some of whom were not. Using Persinger’s equipment, the Swedish researchers could not reproduce his key results. They attributed their findings to the fact that they “ensured that neither the participants nor the experimenters interacting with them had any idea who was being exposed to the magnetic fields, a ‘double-blind’ protocol.”

In other words, when the participants did not know what they were supposed to experience as a result of electro-magnetic brain stimulation, they didn’t experience anything.  He added (1978):

Granqvist and colleagues also noted that they had found it difficult to evaluate the reliability of Persinger’s findings, “because no information on experimental randomization or blindness was provided,” which left his results open to the possibility that psychological suggestion was the best explanation.

I have skated over his detailed discussions of evolution, brain function and brain pathology, in order to cut to the chase of my favourite topic: consciousness – which is the topic for tomorrow. This is not to imply that his examination of those areas is not careful, compelling and immensely valuable. There simply isn’t space in a brief blog review to do it justice.

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