Religion and Politics
Proof of Heaven

Chris Carter's Science and the Afterlife Experience

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When Chris Carter's first book came out he mentioned he'd originally tried to do it all in a single volume, but was advised to separate it into three. As a writer who was trying to do something similar I could readily relate to that, but didn't think that I had that option. As a result I spent a lot of time trying to telescope complex arguments into a small space.

Carter, by contrast, has given himself the room to do full justice to the various different topics. His first two instalments tackled psi research and NDEs. With this latest book on survival-related research - spirit communications, apparitions and memories of a past life - he has carried his ambitious trilogy to a triumphant conclusion.

This is more than a survey; it's an uncompromisingly partisan argument in favour of survival. The last person to make the case with philosophical rigour was Robert Almeder some twenty years ago, and it's fitting that the book includes an foreword by him. An earlier one was by CJ Ducasse, which Carter frequently references, also perhaps CD Broad's Lectures in Psychical Research, but these of course didn't include near-death experiences or evidence for reincarnation. Stephen Braude's Immortal Remains is up there too, but, like Broad, he's more concerned with exploration than in making a committed statement. So it's not a crowded field.

The advantage of having plenty of room is that the topics are pretty comprehensively covered, with case studies representing a good range of evidence and illustrating all the main issues. It's also admirably laid out and structured. Much of the material is probably familiar to anyone who is reasonably well read in psychic research. On the other hand there were quite a few examples which I was glad to be reacquainted with, and others which were completely new, leaving me with the feeling that I don't know as much as I thought I did. One such is the chess match between living and deceased grandmasters, concluded in 1993, via a medium who knew nothing about chess - an extraordinary and apparently successful experiment.

I thought it was brave of Carter to tackle the cross correspondences, which to get the full impact of requires a knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman literature that few now possess. I'm still not convinced that they make the case for survival as watertight as the SPR researchers at the time clearly thought it did. But at the very least one can clearly see the convincing appearance of their deceased colleagues trying to come up with ways to persuade them that mediumistic communications are not just confabulations in the minds of the living.

But could that not be the case? The nub in books about survival is what to do about the super-psi hypothesis, the possibility that survival evidence can be more economically explained in terms of a virtually boundless psi capacity in living humans. I'm used to seeing this quite fully described with some seriousness - and in Stephen Braude's case, with a large degree of sympathy - as if it's a real contender. Carter will have none of this, and in what, for me, was one of the best chapters of the book, provides a full array of cogently argued examples to show why it is untenable.

That is one of the most striking characteristics of Carter's writing, his unwillingness to make the slightest concession to sceptics. This book takes full account of possible counter explanations, and indeed is largely concerned with showing why they must be set aside in the key cases he describes. But unlike the two earlier ones it does not focus very much on individual debunkers. When they do appear, it is to no great effect. For instance Paul Edwards is brought in as the chief prosecutor in the section on reincarnation, but since his basic position is that survival and reincarnation are simply incredible, and for that reason cannot possibly be true, one is left feeling that there is not much to argue about.

A part of me thinks that agnostic readers may object to this, believing that Carter is not giving their natural objections fair representation. After all, they may reason, if traditional materialist science rejects the idea of survival so completely, then its arguments must surely be stronger than Carter is letting on. Another part of me recognises that he is right, at least as far as psychic research is concerned: the evidence, across several different categories, locks together to provide an absolutely convincing case.

So I certainly don't disagree with Carter about his conclusions, which I think are absolutely warranted. I also think this book, and the trilogy as a whole, is a tour-de-force, and that it's vital that authoritative interpretations like this are available to set against the productions of sceptics like Richard Wiseman, which, alas, seem to get much more exposure. The really big question is whether the books we write about survival will ever make much difference to public perceptions.

Reading Carter's book reawakened in me that sense of wonder that something so entirely obvious should in our time be so effectively suppressed. The bottom line is that a great many people - clever and humane - will take their first steps in a new existence filled with puzzlement, confusion and perhaps even anxiety. That surely can't be a good thing. But if we want to address this, we will have to find ways to get them even to consider the question, never mind weighing up the pros and cons of the evidence.

Comments

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Nice review. Thanks!

What a balanced, excellent review!

As for "we will have to find ways to get them even to consider the question, never mind weighing up the pros and cons of the evidence," isn't that just the truth about quite a few questions in "all this." Thanks,Robert.

Cheers Rob

I'll order this today. If it's anything like its predecessors, then this book will certainly be worth reading.

The only comment I'll offer for now is that David Fontana also gave some pretty lucid arguments against the super-psi hypothesis in "Is There an Afterlife".

I'll get back to you on this one!

Oddly enough, I just finished the book myself this morning. It's really something. My reactions were very similar to yours, right down the line. Thank you for doing this. I've been hoping to find this review here!

"The really big question is whether the books we write about survival will ever make much difference to public perceptions."

I'm not sure what you mean here, Robert. Public perception is in favour of the survival hypothesis - by a huge margin. Mainstream scientific perception is the only perception that refuses to budge.

'Public perception is in favour of the survival hypothesis - by a huge margin'

Not sure I agree, Julie. Polls show about half of populations in developed countries believe it - quite a bit less in some northern European countries, I think.

You might think that's quite a lot. But it's certainly not a mainstream belief in the UK, in the sense that one could talk about it publicly - on TV or radio, for instance - and assume that everyone else agreed with you.

On the contrary, I think a lot of people assume that science is the authority in these matters.

Perhaps it depends what circles you mix in :)

Do you think Eben Alexander's book will have any impact on the mainstream scientific community, Robert?

Well it should do, and I'm sure it will make some people sit up and take notice, who might not otherwise have done.

But no, I don't think there'll be any noticeable impact on the scientific community generally. If they were going to take the phenomenon seriously they would have started to do so long ago.

I'm not sure what I think about the percentages of people who believe in an afterlife. I think in Western academia, that spirituality and the paranormal have been "on the out" for many years. However, as to the general population of countries - I can't make up my mind whether the majority believe in an afterlife or not.

I've certainly known a lot of people who don't, but then I've met people who, if not fully believing, have been open-minded to the idea. And then of course there are probably some people who privately hold beliefs but don't dare say so.

The main danger that I see with aggressive atheism and aggressive pseudo-scepticisim is that I fear it may ultimately create a climate in which people who believe in spiritual and paranormal phenomena are bullied and mistreated. I know I've certainly been picked on and treated disrespectfully because of my spiritual and occult beliefs, and it's not pleasant.

Michelle,

I would say you have more than beliefs...because they are backed by evidence!

May I ask what you make of the following, Robert:

http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/proof-of-heaven/

Pretty standard sceptic response, Julie. The main thrust is that the experience did not have to take place while he was clinically dead, which has been a major argument of other sceptics like Keith Augustine and Gerald Woerless, and that stuff is going on in the brain that instruments don't necessarily pick up.

There's a lot that one can argue with. For instance the confusion of 'critical thinking' and 'materialist worldview' that sceptics automatically make.

But then what can we expect? Novella is a confirmed sceptic, talking to his audience. He has to make these arguments.

Also, I haven't seen Alexander's Newsweek piece, and it may be that he came across more New Agey than one might expect from a scientist.

Actually I found this Guardian piece today more objectionable.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/11/dr-eben-alexander-proves-need-heaven


A bit OT, but appropriate for readers of this blog. A short, entertaining and well produced video about free will from Prager University:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q40PfsLxMzY&feature=youtu.be

I'm a big fan of Carter's and yet I have problems with the survival hypothesis, preferring super-psi myself. As McLuhan points out, Stephen Braude is the heavyweight here, and frankly I don't think his objections to the survival hypothesis have been answered, or adequately addressed even. This is something we will have to agree to disagree on as I know I'm not going to change anybody's mind.

I don't necessarily think there is a hard and fast division though between the belief that consciousness survives death, and super-psi. I think ultimately our ideas are too simplistic, limited and crude here, the reality as J B Haldane alluded to, is probably stranger than any of us can even imagine. I just don't see the believers in survival getting to grips with the real problems here, including the mystery of consciousness (which nobody understands, I'm talking about the 'hard problem' of self-awareness and related) and the mysterious nature of Time (which nobody understands neither) and the latter's implications to our near universal belief in simplistic linear time, and the implications that in turn has on reincarnation for example (not necessarily refuting it at all, just our notions of reincarnation may be too simplistic and neat).

Does Carter even acknowledge all the problems with the survival and reincarnation work? I don't mean the knee-jerk rejectionism of the Randi types, the new atheists and the like. I mean the seminal work of everybody from Ian Wilson (his 'Mind out of time' also published as 'Reincarnation?') to Joe Fisher's 'Hungry Ghosts' that puts a real spanner in the work with regard to mediumship. I don't agree with the tragic Fisher's hypothesis on pretas, but the implications of his impressive field investigations need to be gotten to grips with, and I don't see that happening really. I agree with Braude that there is something of an irony to survival believers choosing to downgrade or limit our psi abilities when it suits them. Things like synchronicity, remote viewing, PK, the incredible physical phenomena associated with genuine mediums, paranormal healing etc shows us that we really are potentially (even actually) supermen and women, we just don't know it! And this scares us to death, all of us.

There are problems with Ian Stevenson's seminal work on reincarnation that are rarely acknowledged by the believers camp. And I'm a big admirer of Stevenson's btw.

Whatever the truth is, I'm sure we can all agree that it is stranger than fiction, even science fiction. I do think consciousness probably survives death for what it's worth, I just think from there we take a lot of speculative leaps.

Lawrence, I just happen to be re-reading Braude’s work on this in preparation for a talk at the SPR study day in London next Saturday, so I’m interested in your comment.

The focus of the talks will be the ability of mediumistic communicators and possession subjects to give evidence of skills such as linguistic ability, for instance of speaking fluently a language not known by the medium or the previous personality. As you probably know, Braude makes quite a coherent case that this would not be as impossible for a living individual to manifest as survival advocates suppose. He gives tennis as an example: many people are natural athletes and can play a reasonable game of tennis having never picked up a racket.

If a deep motivation is there, he argues – for instance, an unconscious need by the subject to express himself or herself, that has been repressed for some reason – it would be possible to manifest these remarkable abilities. As you know, he is critical of survival advocates like Stevenson who, in his opinion, fail to probe the existence or otherwise of these deep-seated psychological issues.

I have a couple of comments. Braude’s arguments are extremely competent and coherent, as one would expect from a professional philosopher. But it struck me that he is adopting the same sort of tactic as out-and-out sceptics like Susan Blackmore use to weaken the claim of OBE veridical perception, by stretching ‘normal’ functions of mind further than many people would consider reasonable. His tone is often quite shrill, as if he has a bone to pick with Stevenson. This may be a purely academic disagreement, but I find it distracting when emotion is brought into these very sensitive disputes.

I actually agree with him that the level of discussion on these survival cases is quite crude, and will need over time to become much more refined if we are able to rely on it. But I’d suggest that’s true across the board where the investigation of mind is concerned. Look at the state of neuroscience, where all kinds of preposterous claims are being made on the basis of brain scans which at their present level are quite crude.

Perhaps like you, I’m uneasy with claims that any single instance is hard proof of survival. But the appearance, surely, is vastly more favourable to the survival hypothesis in this regard. Carter’s use of the chess example seemed to me to be quite justified: a medium who did not know how to play chess would not be able to supply appropriate moves from a putative discarnate player, let alone moves sufficient to play on equal terms with a living grandmaster.

Braude would argue that we can't be sure of that until we have thoroughly probed his background. Perhaps. I agree that the standard needs to be raised, with regard to understanding psychological motivations, and so on. But I’m sceptical of the idea that when that happens the idea of survival will be revealed to be an illusion. Finally, to me, considering the abundant indications of survival of consciousness, the materialist idea of extinction can never be a neutral base-line starting point, as sceptics believe.

If it looks like a duck, etc.

Just read the Guardian article, Robert, and, oddly enough, it doesn't bother me at all. The reason for this is that it amounts to little more than over-confident, rhetoric aimed at spoon feeding a smug and bigoted band of pseudo sceptics.

I believe that anyone taking a more balanced view - and, in particular, anyone willing to read the book before offering a critique - will see that article for what it is: a sneering attempt at intellectual thuggery.

But, then again, I suppose even journalists have to make a living by hook or by crook. ;)

Ah, pseudo sceptics...the bane of any spiritualist's existence.

And bigoted is just the right word to describe that particular kind of people, Julie. I have many friends who are non-believers and genuine sceptics - they don't believe in anything like this, but they are willing to accept that other people think differently and will not bully those who *do* believe. Whereas the brand you describe above seem to do nothing but taunt, ridicule, insult and sometimes outright bully people just for believing in something that they don't! They are a very prejudiced lot.

And what I find most odd about such people is the fact that they are willing to devote so much of their time and energy to a phenomenon that they regard as an absurdity! 'Tis all very peculiar. 8/

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