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Atheists and Neuroscience

A member of a Facebook forum pointed out this extended essay by Adam Lee, an atheist, and asked whether anyone had a response. I've been thinking about these things of late, so I thought I'd have a shot.

Lee takes aim at the idea of the soul, arguing that recent discoveries in neuroscience make it untenable. Growing evidence of the way the brain functions, as revealed by brain scans, demonstrates how closely it is implicated in the production of identity, personality and behaviour, he points out. He gives an overview of which bits of the brain do what. And where in all of this is the soul, he wants to know. 'Which brain lobe does it inhabit? Where is it hiding in this tangle of neurons and synapses?'

Lee explains:

As a practical matter, it should be easy to judge between dualism and materialism, because unlike most religious doctrines, the notion of the soul is an idea that would seem to have testable consequences. Specifically, if the human mind is the product of a "ghost in the machine" and not the result of electrochemical interactions among neurons, then the mind should not be dependent on the configuration of the brain that houses it. In short, there should be aspects of the mind that owe nothing to the physical functioning of the brain.

So where is the soul hiding? Area after area of the brain has yielded up its secrets to the probing of neuroscience, and not a trace of it has been found. The more our knowledge advances, the less reason we have to suppose that it exists, and the less sustainable the dualist position becomes. All the evidence we currently possess suggests that there is nothing inside our skulls that does not obey the ordinary laws of physics.

To add substance to this Lee goes on to describe in some detail the effects of different types of brain injuries. For instance there are patients with memory disorders who cannot remember, or cannot make new memories. He asks: 'According to dualist beliefs, what has happened to these people? Where are their souls?'

Furthermore, with their memory shot, they no longer have the option of converting to Christianity. Any proselytizer who tries to convert them has, at most, a few minutes, before they forget everything he's said. 'Will God condemn them for this? Assuming these people were not religious, are they now doomed to Hell because their souls are trapped in an endless loop of brain chemistry?'

This is before we consider more exotic cases of the type described by Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damasio, such as alien hand syndrome (where a hand seems to develop a mind of its own, viz. Dr Strangelove); paralysis and denial (the patient believes he can move his paralysed arm, and resists all arguments to the contrary); Capgras' syndrome (the patient thinks a person she knows well is actually an imposter); and of course Phineas Gage, who survived but underwent a severe personality change after a steel rod passed through the front of his skull.

The article is quite long, but you get the idea. The essential point is that all this data poses an insuperable challenge for dualism and for the existence of an immortal soul. And the more of it that accumulates, the tougher the challenge gets.

It struck me straight away that Lee is attacking an idea of the soul that no serious person could believe: the Cartesian substance that sits inside our heads and somehow meshes with the machinery. To ask where the soul is hiding is quaintly naïve, as if the thing could potentially be tracked down and ferreted out of its burrow. It's hard to think that he's completely serious about it, and yet one worries that actually he is. This is exactly how the scientific-sceptical mind thinks. It's akin to the observation that cosmologists have combed through the entire universe and found no trace of God - as if he might be hiding in a gas cloud somewhere.

Another approach would be to identify what contemporary dualists actually do think and then tackle that. Most these days tend to hypothesise some kind of quantum interaction at a deep interior level of the brain, as did Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff. One variation of this would be the filter theory first outlined (in different ways) by Frederic Myers and William James, and recently given a dusting off by Edward Kelly in Irreducible Mind.

Like many people, I first encountered this in Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception, where the brain is seen as a 'reducing valve', shutting out the greater part of the reality out there - Mind at Large, as Huxley called it. Having had similar mescaline experiences to Huxley's I found it immediately appealing: it's when brain functions are compromised, as for instance after ingesting hallucinogens, that consciousness changes radically, giving a glimpse of the greater reality Out There, magnificent and terrifying. Agreed, this stands more as an initial metaphor than as a fully worked out theory. Kelly has made a good effort, fleshing it out with the ideas of quantum physicist Henry Stapp, but it's still a long way from being taken seriously by the consciousness studies community.

So the model would not be difficult to challenge, for instance on the grounds that warm wet brains are hostile environments for quantum interactions. But unless you can demonstrate that it's terminally incoherent, or provide evidence that in some way falsifies it, you can't maintain that neuroscience has disproved the concept of the soul.

Another feature that interests me is Lee's emphasis on the accumulation of contrary evidence. Each new experiment that demonstrates a link between a brain state and a mental state - and the literature is by now extremely rich - is another nail in the coffin of dualism.

But was this ever really necessary? It doesn't need brain scans to observe, for instance, that the personality becomes progressively degraded with the progress of senile dementia, and this has long been viewed as a problem for any claim of survival of consciousness after death. New items of evidence don't need to be piled one on top of each other, as Lee does here, in order to make the point: it surely has to be ceded at once. Nothing bypasses the brain. Identity, personality and behaviour are all absolutely implicated in what it does. If the brain is damaged, one or more of these will be compromised.

It does not follow, however, that physical brain functions are the ultimate source of these things. No matter how successfully we correlate brain states with mental states, that's all we have - increasingly detailed and suggestive correlations. To argue that a correlation demonstrates fundamental cause is absolutely unwarranted. We remain free to hypothesise, say, the existence of the soul as an information field that exists in an unseen dimension, and which expresses itself through the brain and nervous system through some kind of quantum interaction.

If the brain is the medium by which this information field is expressed in the physical world, then, in the event of injury, one would expect its expression to fail in striking and various ways. Furthermore, if this field continues to exist after the death of the body we could hypothesise that it finds another way to express itself, in some other form, in some other dimension. In which case the individual is restored to health - as indeed is frequently described by spirit communicators through mediums, as their experience.

All this may seem to the sceptic to be speculative and unwarranted. But something of the sort is required to account for the observed facts of psi. A brain that can express telepathic intuitions, presentiment, precognitive dreams, and suchlike is not to be conceived in purely mechanical, physicalist terms.

So we end up some distance from where Lee set out. The real target is not the Cartesian concept of the soul, which hardly anyone takes seriously, but those phenomena that would require some alternative, more viable dualist framework to make sense of. That would have been the basis of a quite different argument, of the kind that Richard Wiseman et al produce, questioning psi's existence.

To be clear, I believe that the evidence from neuroscience, of the kind that is currently being produced, cannot be an argument against survival of consciousness after death. Still, I guess that it will continue to be a powerful element in atheists' thinking. They seem mesmerised by it, to the extent of letting themselves be seduced by an illusion.


The Politics of Psi

Halfway through writing Randi's Prize I started to feel a nagging sense that many of the people I hoped to reach weren't really open to persuasion. The brilliance or otherwise of my arguments wouldn't make much difference; they would be acclaimed by people who already on some level accepted them, and denounced by those who never could.

The fact is, surely, that when it comes to our personal worldview, studies and experiments play a secondary role. We accept findings that best fit our preferred narrative, and reject those that don't. Mostly, I think, we gravitate towards writers who reinforce what we already intuitively feel to be true. Paranormalia readers aren't likely to frequent JREF or Pharyngula, which they probably find alien and uncomfortable, and vice versa.

So these days I'm thinking less about psi evidence itself and more about the social and psychological context. As a psi-advocate, I believe I know why my group believes what it does: we're convinced by the evidence, which happens to validate our ideals. But what about sceptics? Why is it so extremely important to them that psychic claims be shown to be false? Why does it irritate them so much, and why do they go to such extraordinary lengths to explain it away? (I'm thinking of the tenacity of people like Gerald Woerlee, for instance.)

This would seem to be a question for psychologists in their quest to identify the drivers of human thought and behaviour. Our brains stopped evolving when we were still hunter-gathering, they say, and aren't terribly well equipped to deal with the challenges of modern living. Among other things, that's why some of us tend to go on believing in fantasies like gods and ghosts and life after death.

Interestingly, sceptical thinkers implicitly exclude themselves from this tendency towards irrationality, at least in this context. They don't have hallucinations, so it doesn't apply to them. But having close-up experience of the way they argue, it seems to me that it very much does; they are as profoundly affected by emotive thinking as any of us, and with the added complication that their complacency blinds them to the fact.

Two books I've been reading recently seem relevant to the psi controversy, at least indirectly, driving home the emotive basis of so much human behaviour. One is Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious At Our Peril, by Margaret Heffernan, a British writer and businesswoman. The other is a widely-covered new book by American psychologist Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Wilful Blindness describes how people manage to close their eyes to obvious wrongs, often out of solidarity with the group they belong to. That results in catastrophes that could easily have been avoided. Doctors close ranks in support of a paediatric surgeon accused of incompetence, with the result that dozens of babies die who might otherwise have been saved. An oil company orders severe cost-cutting at a distant refinery, which local employees obediently carry through, all the while knowing that it is compromising safety: the resulting explosion kills 15 people. Citizens of a small town fiercely resist emerging health concerns about a local asbestos mine, to protect jobs, even while all around them their friends and family members are dropping like flies.

In big corporate scandals like Enron, plenty of people in positions of authority knew that its success was built on a giant scam, but looked the other way. When it's a choice between exposing wrongdoing or showing loyalty to peers and superiors, the latter usually wins. That's why whistleblowers are so rare, and why they have to struggle so hard to be heard.

The sheer number of Heffernan's stories builds a deeply depressing picture of the limits of human thinking. Especially when one realises how much of the present economic troubles are due to the wilful blindness shown by bankers, regulators and politicians who for years fell into a kind of moral slumber. Yesterday I read a news item about the Bernie Madoff scandal, that what seemed to hit the world like a bolt from the blue was really no such thing. Most of Wall Street suspected he was fraudulent - as indeed it should have, considering his abnormally high returns to investors and his refusal to tell anyone how he managed it - but no one publicly said or did anything about it. Earlier I might have been shocked, but now I understand this is absolutely normal.

This is relevant if we agree that science itself is subject to the negative effects of groupishness. Even some scientists themselves are at pains to deny the idealised picture that the public has of science, as a process of disinterested truth-seeking that is absolutely rational, fair and objective. On the contrary, they say, it's a hugely emotive business driven by cliques and factions who identify with pet theories and beat up their opponents (intellectually if not actually). They close ranks to freeze out intruders like parapsychologists, who are not loyal to the central tenets of materialism.

Unsurprisingly, there are persistent reports from scientists and medical professionals sympathetic to psi-research that some of their colleagues privately agree with them, but publicly wouldn't dream of exposing themselves to ridicule by speaking out. It's quite literally more than their job's worth. For most, the group-think is the truth, and what they personally think doesn't come into it.

I've often felt, grappling with sceptics' arguments, that they literally can't see why paranormalists argue as they do. They are literally blind to the paranormal element, so they can't see what the fuss is about - they think people are just making it up.

Heffernan references a 2005 experiment in which subjects were placed in an fMFRI brain scanner, shown some objects, and asked to decide which of them were similar to others. In one version they made the decision on their own, and in another decided only after knowing what their fellow participants had decided. The subjects tended to be swayed by the group, which was expected; the purpose was to determine which area of their brain was active as they made the decision. Activity in the prefrontal cortex would indicate that it was a conscious choice ('I'm going to follow the others on this one'.) But in fact, there was no activity there. Instead the activity was centred in the occipital and perietal regions of the brain, suggesting that conformity was an act of perception.

This is a shocking finding. Social influence had altered what the volunteer actually saw.

Jonathan Haidt too is sceptical about the primacy of reason, arguing that its role in human judgements has been vastly exaggerated. He follows David Hume in believing that intuition, not reason, is what drives people in their decision-making (interestingly, given Hume's status as the patron saint of sceptics, who glorify the primacy of reason). His image is of the rider (reason) perched on top of the elephant (intuition), and trying, for the most part ineffectually, to guide it.

Haidt is a moral psychologist who has studied the basis of leftwing and rightwing political thinking. No space, alas, to go into detail of his wonderful book. (It's a bit complicated, and confusingly structured, but if you stick with it all makes sense in the end.) He's a liberal, but found himself becoming critical of the relatively shallow basis of liberal or progressive morality compared with conservatives, and coming to appreciate the true value of conservative morality (of the Burkean rather than the Tea Party kind). The liberal emphasis on fairness and equality, he thinks, can have negative effects if it tries to override the moral foundations that conservatives are big on, such as respect for authority, loyalty and sanctity.

That sounds like common sense, but this is the most detailed and nuanced explanation of human morality that I've found coming from a scientist, and a lot more satisfying than the rather crude speculations of evolutionary psychologists.

Haidt's thinking about politics chimes with my own about psi. What one believes - and how one responds to claims and evidence - has a lot to do with one's genetic predisposition, and how that predisposition is shaped by life experience into a worldview.

I don't know what the equivalent foundations would be of advocacy and scepticism. As a moderate leftie myself, I've been tempted in the past to think of scepticism as a rightwing thing. It's perhaps partly because I associate the crude and noisy intolerance of people like Martin Gardner and James Randi with the blow-hard, Rush Limbaugh-Fox News tendency in American politics; also the way the Right espouses extreme climate scepticism, arguably another form of denial. In general, there seems to be something inherently reactionary in the deference to established scientific authority and tradition, and the knee-jerk rejection of radical new thinking. At its worst, the rhetoric looks like an angry white (mainly) male defence of the establishment against dippy idealistic liberal New Agers.

OK, this is far too simplistic and I wouldn't seriously argue it. Psi-sceptics just as easily fit the secular liberal model, and progressives can be every bit as snarky as their opponents.

But what interests me about Haidt's analysis is that it provides a in-depth view of both sides' motivations, particularly that of the group he has always opposed. I think we should be doing something similar. If sceptics take what seem to us to be extraordinary, egregious and indefensible positions to defend themselves from the implications, of, for instance, veridical out-of-body perception in the near-death experience, it's worth exploring why. Is it personal fear, or does it threaten an idea of the world that they value and want to defend?

Off the top of my head, I can think of all sorts of things that bother them. The corruption of personal privacy implied by telepathy; the threat to the integrity and authority of science; the invitation to witchcraft implied by psychokinesis; the notion of a supernatural interference in human affairs; the terror of living on after death (and having nothing to do) and so on. These are things which may not bother psi-advocates, or even appear on our radar. But quite possibly they are legitimate worries. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, what kind of world this would be if science did an about-face, and endorsed the reality of psi. Is it something we're ready for?

All questions for another post, and things I'll be exploring in my next book.


Something from Nothing

Physicist Lawrence Krauss has attracted a lot of attention with his claim that the universe could have sprung into existence from nothing. His lecture for AAI (Atheist Alliance International), introduced by Richard Dawkins, has been viewed 1.3 million times on YouTube. Now he has published a short book, again with an afterword by Dawkins.

Krauss argues that a quantum relativistic field is inherently unstable, and exactly the kind of thing that would bring forth a universe. That seems intuitively likely to me, although I obviously can't comment on the scientific arguments, which take up 95% of the text.

It's the other 5% which interests me. Krauss's goal is atheistic: he explicitly aims to knock away the First Cause argument, which he takes to be a pillar of religious faith. If the universe can be shown to have created itself from nothing, then there is no need for a creator god.

Actually the idea isn't new - another physicist and sceptic, Victor Stenger, has been banging this drum for a while. But Krauss's ability to get people's attention is exciting the atheist warriors, who seem to think he has really cracked it. 'Knockout blow', says Richard Dawkins. 'As it turns out, everything has a lot to do with nothing - and nothing to do with God (Sam Harris). 'The triumph of physics over metaphysics, reason and enquiry over obfuscation and myth, made plain for all to see' (A.C. Grayling).

Dawkins adds in his afterword:

The last remaining trump card of the theologian, why is there something rather than nothing, shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If On the Origin of Species was biologists' deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe from Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says, and what it says is devastating.

A lot of people have pointed out the flaw in the argument, however. The 'nothing' that Krauss talks about is, in both theological and philosophical terms, already 'something'. A 'nothing' that has properties, and can be described as being unstable - and indeed, the kind of thing that is highly likely to produce 'something' - is very far from being 'nothing'. On the contrary, it is a very definite 'something'.

So the book has generated a lot of heat, of the usual impassioned kind. Even some generally sceptical scientists like Jerry Coyne have problems with it. The charge is led by David Albert, a philosophy professor with a Ph.D in physics, in a quite hostile review in the New York Times.

Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states - no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems - are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn't this or that particular arrangement of the fields - what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don't is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don't.

Krauss seems to anticipate this come-back, sort of. He deals with it in the book in rather grudging asides. The question 'why is there something rather than nothing' is 'intellectually bankrupt', mere semantics, he claims. It's no more significant than asking why some flowers are red and some are blue. It used to be the domain of theologians and philosophers, but they've had their day, and now it's the turn of scientists, who are vastly better equipped to deal with it.

As a last resort, he concedes, the problem might justify a 'deistic' view of nature (of the kind that was briefly adopted by some thinkers in the eighteenth century). That's OK, just so long as we understand that this 'deity' is very far from the gods of the world's great religions, and isn't remotely interested in our doings. He concludes:

Either way, what's useful is not pondering this question, but rather participating in the exciting voyage of discovery that may reveal how the universe in which we live evolved and is evolving...That is why we have science.

It strikes me that this inability of scientists to accept the idea of 'nothing' - in its fullest sense, is closely analogous to the problems sceptics have with psi. It's a conceptual dead-end, a barrier that they can't get past. If they yield to it, it would represent the final triumph of mystery and uncertainty over the capacity of the human mind, harnessed to scientific thinking, to conquer all mystery. And this mystery must be vanquished, because it is exploited by wicked supernaturalists, to fuddle people's minds and cause evil.

I can understand why they should want to use this 'something from nothing' formula as atheistic propaganda - as part of their campaign to rid the world of the virus of religion. But I'd like to think that, in their heart of hearts, they know that there's a question here that science is not remotely capable of answering. What really worries me is that they don't, and that they actually believe this idea. In that case, there's no common ground on which to base a dialogue: we're in different conceptual worlds.

For me, Krauss's argument only goes to confirm Stephen Jay Gould's famous definition of science and religion as 'non-overlapping magisteria'. It's partly what Gould was talking about, and what atheists like Harris, who considers Gould's position 'doomed', seem unable to understand. For all of scientists' contempt for philosophers, casually expressed by Krauss throughout his book, they can't address this. Yes, biologists like Dawkins can explain why flowers are of different colours: it's to attract the right sort of pollinators, as insects and birds have different optical spectrums. But that sort of question is embedded firmly within the logic chain of material cause and effect. A state of 'nothing' that the human mind can conceive of, by contrast, is not - it's utterly beyond the mind's capability to deal with.

I may not be typical in this regard, but the First Cause problem has lurked obscurely in the background of my consciousness for as long as I can remember. It's an ever-present question. I accept that it can't be resolved in this world, with this mind, but I also struggle to understand how it could ever be resolved - in any future state. That frustrates me, so I'm never completely at peace about it.

I suppose one way to deal with it is to argue that the question doesn't exist, it's just a property of human consciousness to think in this way, an effect of the way the brain has evolved. But if we start down that road, then surely we degrade all human thinking, including the science that reveals to us the workings of the universe, in all its marvellous complexity. It's all so much meaningless fluff.

Or else we can believe that a state of mystical enlightenment may provide the answer, in a flash of intuitive insight, perhaps showing that the question in some way is false. That's something that's always intrigued me. But then the reasoning mind barges in, insisting that this would just be some comforting illusion, nothing to do with reality.

It's hard to escape the feeling that we're like fish in a tank, coming to an ever more detailed understanding of our environment, but still lacking the slightest clue what lies beyond it.


Distressing Near-Death Experiences

It's easy to forget, amid the hype: not all near-death experiences are about light and bliss. I've been reading a new ebook, Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences by Nancy Evans Bush.

Bush herself had an experience of this kind when she was 28, in labour with her second child. She left her body and saw the hospital and town receding swiftly below her, then had the feeling of hurtling into space. The darkness was immense.

Then this happened:

A group of circles appeared ahead and slightly to my left, perhaps a half-dozen of them, moving toward me. Half black and half white, they clicked as they flew, snapping white-to-black, black-to-white, sending an authoritative message without words. Somehow its meaning was clear: "This is all there is. This is all there ever was. This is It. Anything else you remember is a joke. You are not real. You never were real. You never existed. Your life never existed. The world never existed. It was a game you were allowed to invent. There was never anything, or anyone. That's the joke - that it was all a joke."

The circles felt heckling but not evil, mocking, mechanistic, clicking without feeling. They seemed like messengers, certain of what they were saying, not ultimate authority themselves but with an authoritative message.

Bush argued passionately to prove them wrong, bringing up details of her family and her relationships, historical facts, the fact of other people's existence. But the circles kept up their mocking.

And then I was entirely alone. The circles had moved out of sight, and there was nothing left - the world unreal and gone, and with it my first baby, and this baby who would never be born, and all other babies. Everyone I knew and loved - (but how had I known them, if they were never real?) - gone, and hills, and robins. There was no world, no home, no babies, not even a self to go home to. I thought that no one could bear so much grief, but there seemed no end to it and no way out. Everyone, everything, gone, even God, and I was alone forever in the swimming twilight dark.

Coming to in a hospital bed, her first thought was: Calvin was right about predestination. She was one of the lost. That is what it would be like when she died. She struggled for the next few years, bringing up her two infant children and wondering 'how so much tiredness can exist in someone who does not exist'.

Twenty years later Bush answered an advertisement for a job as office manager at a non-profit start-up in the nearby University of Connecticut. By chance, this turned out to be the International Association for Near-Death Studies, and she has been closely involved with it ever since.

Where positive experiences are concerned it's challenging enough to come up with an explanation. But at least they are satisfying and life-affirming. What are we to think about something like this? And why would someone like Bush - a preacher's daughter with an active life in the church - be burdened in this way?

Within the spirituality movement a popular explanation is based on psychology. If you have a bad spiritual experience it's because there's something wrong with your personality: you're cold, rigid, unloving, fearful, mean. Bush is in a strong position to understand the absolute falsity of this equation, as there's no data to support it. (Curiously, researchers who resort to it never wonder whether a person who had a blissful NDE actually deserved it.)

The conventional wisdom is that one is rewarded for good behaviour and punished for bad. For fundamentalist Christians, it has as much to do with belief. But these ideas were already suspect in the positive experiences, and are further refuted by the negative ones. Even Christian saints had hellish experiences, as a description by Teresa of Avila makes clear. There's no correlation between beliefs and/or behaviour on the one hand and what one may experience in a near-death situation.

When Maurice Rawlings's book Beyond Death's Door about hellish experiences was first published it seemed obvious that he was biased by his fundamentalist Christian convictions. That weakened his credibility in the research community, and meant that the phenomenon was downplayed.

In the 1990s Bush collaborated with researcher Bruce Greyson on a survey. It took them nine years to gather information on fifty cases; that's not necessarily because they are more rare than the positive kind, more likely because people are deeply reluctant to open up about them. The impact on the experiencers had been appalling: several of were still in psychotherapy as long as twenty years later, Bush says.

The survey showed there was no universal 'distressing' experience; in fact, there was more variety than with the positive kind. Three types emerged. The most common was where the elements of the pleasurable kind were experienced as terrifying. Then there was Bush's type - of existing in a limitless, featureless void that creates feelings of emptiness and fatalistic despair A more rare category corresponds to some extent with the hell of the popular imagination - demons and hellfire, and so on.

Bush frankly admits that no one knows why some people have these experiences. But the effort of coming terms with her own has led her into a full and profound reflection on the issue, exploring a spirituality in which the experience of suffering has full expression.

Her thought ranges widely, but in essence it's about integration. She sees the meaningful outcome of suffering in transformation, what Jung calls 'individuation' - the ultimate stage of psychological or moral development (a moralistic view of suffering as punishment seemed to him too to be inadequate and misleading). Interestingly, Bush also recalls the psychic dismemberment of a shamanic initiate, a painful and apparently destructive process which again is conceived not a punishment but as a means of leading the apprentice towards his/her destiny (similar, she also suggests, to the religious significance of the crucifixion of Jesus).

I have to confess, I found the description of her experience so shocking that I too found myself searching for quick rational explanations - a process she rightly considers suspect. I thought for instance there might be some karmic element: the experiencer is being punished for something, if not in this life then in a previous one.

I wondered too about the mocking derision in the 'message' she was given, so similar to the kind of thing directed at believers by atheists and sceptics. By chance blogger Michael Prescott addressed this in a recent post, in which he summarised their point of view rather effectively as follows (I hope he won't mind me quoting it):

None of the key developments in your life was somehow meant for you. No one is looking out for you. No events in your past happened for a reason, and they aren't building up to any future purpose. The story of your life has no continuity and no destination - heck, it's not even a story - and there is nothing to strive for. You were not put here for a reason, you don't matter, and you're deluded if you think you have a "mission" in life. Face facts! You have no calling! The universe couldn't care less about you! Just give up!!!

It's easy to construct some narrative along the lines of a destructive atheist being made to experience, in a future existence, the effects of his/her corrosive mockery on other people. But such facile approaches won't do. However much we want a rational explanation for human suffering and evil - and however much we doubt the materialist explanation - we have eventually to face up to the fact of it, and deal with it in an interior way, not look for reasons to push it to the side. And to ask why a nice young Sunday school teacher would suddenly have her life blighted by an appalling 'truth' is perhaps not so different from asking why innocent people are brutalised by the powerful, why many suffer from poverty and unemployment, why little children are born with painful diseases and disfigurements, and so on.

I agree with Bush when she points out that we have a very skewed perspective on this. As she says, we live in a 'culture of unparalleled privilege at a time of almost obsessive flight from even minor inconvenience and discomfort. Even in a decade of unaccustomed economic hardship, technology and material progress are shielding us from the magnitude of deprivation and sheer physical pain that the majority of others, including our ancestors, have taken for granted.'

It sometimes seems as if contemporary spirituality, too, sees suffering as an irrelevance and an inconvenience. Over the years I've noticed that some of its most enthusiastic advocates are horribly shocked when bad things happen to them, and find that their enlightened attitudes and behaviour offer no protection. But they may gradually discover that dealing with the pain becomes itself a path to deeper understanding.

It's perhaps not well understood that a positive near-death experience itself is hardly free of challenges of this kind. As a veteran official of IANDS, Bush has long experience of dealing with NDEers, and dispenses with some popular misconceptions. The stereotype of the experiencer returning 'garlanded with saintliness and brimming with answers to life's questions' was always a myth, she points out. Audiences want to hear them talking about the spiritually uplifting stuff, but when they get together among themselves all they want to talk about are the life-problems - depression, domestic bust-ups, etc - that they too suffered as a result.

All this said, I'm personally left with a sense about the NDE phenomenon which the distressing variety does nothing to weaken: its apparently didactic nature. These aren't just random experiences that happen to individuals. They're shared with the rest of us. We don't feel the full impact, but they can draw us to ponder and investigate. It's as though there's a deliberate educational process going on.

In Bush's case, there's an intriguing clue embedded in the experience itself: the white and black circles.

YinYangSome six years afterwards, visiting a friend, she chanced to look into a book about Jungian symbols and was horrified to see the circles represented in an illustration - exactly as she remembered them. They were the classic yin and yang circles, each containing an element of the other. The message is inescapable: the light and the dark are part of each other.

Added to the curious synchronicity of her getting a job at a research organisation dedicated to investigating the near-death phenomenon - at a time when she did not even know there was such a thing - and the eventual production of a thoughtful exploration that can help others towards a deeper understanding, one is left with the reassuring feeling that this apparently random horror may have some positive purpose after all.