A Militant Skeptic Discovers the Afterlife
July 01, 2013
By Bruce Siegel
During the 1990's I experienced a radical shift in my thinking and worldview. A longtime hard-core atheist, I gradually became convinced of the reality of psychic phenomena and life after death. It was an about-face as surprising as it was healing.
While there's much to say about what convinced me to change my mind, at the heart of my story is this: I came to understand that a belief system that had been extremely helpful to me - a therapy-cum-philosophy - was keeping me from seeing what was right under my nose.
So how skeptical was I? Extremely. If anything related to spirituality came up in conversation, I would get visibly annoyed, even angry.
Actually, the word skeptical doesn't quite fit. It implies a negative evaluation of the evidence. But you can't evaluate what you're not willing to look at, and when it came to supposedly wondrous, unexplainable events or abilities, my eyes were clenched tight.
I remember once on a blind date, a woman asked me what I thought about out-of-body experiences. The concept was new to me, and after making sure I had heard correctly, I said, in an irritated tone of voice that did little to advance my romantic hopes for the evening, "What?! How can anyone be outside their body? We ARE our bodies!"
Thinking back on it, she was probably eager to share an experience she had, and was sounding me out to see if I'd be receptive. But her telling me about it would have put fresh data on my plate, information I knew would be threatening to my worldview. So I did what I always did - I preemptively rejected it.
Another time, a friend simply asked if I believed in magic. Even that was enough to set me off.
To understand why I felt so strongly about these things, you need to know what it was that I did believe in. For a long time leading up to these events, I was deeply involved in psychotherapy. After a difficult period in my life, I was finally coming to terms with what was for me a much-neglected dimension of reality - my feelings.
Specifically, I was engaged in a healing process called primal therapy that focuses on allowing painful emotions to come to the surface, be fully experienced, and then released. I can't overstate how committed to this therapy I was. I saw it as my one chance to achieve the joyful, creative life I had sometimes glimpsed, but that too often seemed out of reach. So in 1972 I left my apartment in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to Los Angeles, the only place in the world primal therapy was then being practiced.
As I saw it, primal was not only a way to heal my own wounds, but an experience everyone needed. I thought that if people would only learn to feel (and thus begin to resolve) their pain instead of acting it out on others, the world would be an infinitely better place.
At the time, I wasn't alone in that hope. To get a sense of what I mean, listen to John Lennon's album Plastic Ono Band. He and Yoko were treated by Arthur Janov, founder of primal therapy, in 1970, and John recorded those songs during this period. His music is brimming with the raw honesty, sense of discovery, and deep sadness balanced by equal measures of love and optimism, that, for many of us, characterize the primal experience.
Now you might think that getting in touch with my feelings would have created an opening to the spiritual rather than turning me away from it. But as it happens, Janov was, and is, certain that there is no God or afterlife. (A belief that Lennon forcefully echoes in his songs.)
To be blunt, Janov equates people who believe in a higher power to narcotics users. Both, he says, are running away from their pain. To him, the notion of a spiritual realm has no basis whatsoever in reality. And for almost twenty years, I was so deeply immersed in Janov's therapy and worldview, it never occurred to me he might be wrong. Ironically, an atheistic therapy had become my religion. (Although I would have strongly denied it at the time.)
To be clear, I think Janov has made an important contribution to our understanding of suffering and how to alleviate it. The help I received from therapists he trained may well have saved my life. But based on that, I assumed he must be right about everything. Which is why, for two decades, I knew for sure that to be sane is to be an atheist. It's impossible to exaggerate how certain I was that spirituality is a sign of weakness. As I saw it, to believe in God is to be unable to face reality without clinging to the comforting fantasy of a heavenly parent who looks out for you.
My arrogance, of course, should have been a clue to my insecurity. For if the spiritual perspective were valid, primal therapy was not as complete a solution to life's mysteries, and my own problems, as I thought. And that's where things stood when, in 1990, almost twenty years after I came to L.A., I made a decision that seemed less than earthshaking at the time: I joined a book club.
One of my first selections was Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. In it, he describes the grandeur of the universe in such compelling terms, that for weeks after reading it, I went around breathlessly telling everyone I knew: there are more stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth!
(That still astonishes me. Imagine counting the grains in just a single spoonful of sand.)
It's funny - this book, written by a world-famous skeptic and atheist, opened the door to my tightly shut mind just enough to let in some fresh air. In trying to picture a universe so vast, my imagination expanded beyond its normal limits, stretching my usual sense of what was possible.
So when the book club offered The After Death Experience: The Physics of the Non-Physical by Ian Wilson, I bought it. And if that seems like an inexplicably huge leap for a skeptic like me, here's the blurb I read:
The purpose of this book is to explore the central question of whether death is unequivocally the end of our experience, or whether, just conceivably, something of us . . . carries on, to experience, and be experienced, after death.
Somehow, in my Cosmos-inspired, heady state, that made sense to me. I thought, "Well, what does happen to the molecules and atoms of my body when I die? Might they become part of the soil, and then turn into plants and so forth, and thus have some sort of conscious experience? And is there some way in which I (whatever "I" really means) might participate in that experience?"
The word "physics" in the title of the book put me at ease. It made me feel that I could join Wilson in exploring his provocative question, while remaining comfortably assured that matter is all that matters.
Well, the book turned out to be quite different than I expected - in fact, something altogether better. Wilson wrote with a no-nonsense skeptical tone that put me at ease. About half the book is devoted to offering supposed evidence for survival, such as past lives and mediumship, and then debunking it. (Though as I see it now, Wilson wasn't especially well-informed on either of those subjects.)
But he also introduced a phenomenon he couldn't explain away, one I knew nothing about - the near-death experience (NDE). I learned that a not insignificant percentage of the population claims to have had a medical crisis during which they died, and then returned to life. For despite the label we use to describe the event, these people usually insist that what they briefly tasted was not near-death, but death itself.
Intrigued, I looked for more information on the subject. (There are many excellent books now available; Wilson's is no longer one I would particularly recommend.) And as I began to get a clearer picture of what NDErs felt, saw, and learned during their surprising encounters, I became more and more interested.
There were many aspects of the NDE that drew me to it. But I was especially fascinated by claims such as "I felt love a thousand times more powerful than I had ever known." Given my devotion to a feeling-oriented therapy, it's not hard to understand that I would want to know more about a phenomenon of such emotional power.
But above all, there was the paradox that lies at the heart of the NDE, one I couldn't stop thinking about. NDEs often involve the stopping, or near-stopping, of all bodily functions. (Vital Signs can confirm this.) During that period, many people later report having had the most life-changing, aesthetically beautiful, real, and loving, experience, they've ever known. How is this possible and what does it mean?
I had no idea.
Trying to answer that question became my project and my passion. To skip ahead in the story, over the next five years I would devour the NDE literature (including the strongest skeptical arguments I could find), and join a group where I met regularly with near-death experiencers. I would discover, to my astonishment, compelling evidence of the psychic in my own life.
To gain a first-hand perspective of this new territory, I would explore the depths of my consciousness using a powerful shamanic approach.
And I would find myself questioning Janov on a crucial point. While he reduces spirituality to a neurotic behavior, was it possible he had things backwards? Might human psychology actually be a subset of a larger, more fundamental, spiritual order? If so, psychotherapy and spirituality were not adversaries, but partners waiting, and needing, to find each other.
But these thoughts, as I say, lay well in the future. In the immediate aftermath of learning about the NDE, I was still under the spell of the materialist-atheist philosophy that is Western Civilization's "official" position, still deeply invested in a worldview that kept me from fully enjoying my life.
Something was changing, though. As I continued to learn more, I occasionally found myself wondering if, up to then, all my thinking had been confined to a small box. Little by little, I began pondering ideas and possibilities I had long dismissed, or never even knew existed.
One chapter in my life was ending, one beginning.
Thanks Bruce, good stuff.
Interesting about Ian Wilson’s book, because that’s one of the first that I came across when I was starting to get interested in psychic research. Wilson wrote another book debunking Ian Stevenson’s research on children who remember a past life. It didn’t surprise me that he was so negative about mediums, but then towards the end, on the subject of near-death experiences, he seemed to change tack. As I recall, a friend had died and there was a bit of deathbed drama when, moments before he expired, this person suddenly became awestruck by the beauty of what he was seeing (apparently as Steve Jobs was).
I don’t recall if Wilson was present at the deathbed or whether he just heard about this from the widow, but there was some trust there. He could respond to something he was sure didn’t involve trickery. But the rest he just casually dismissed (he jeers at Stevenson having been ‘cruelly misled’ by a series of ‘tall stories and acting performances’, which is about as superficial a response as could be imagined) even though it points in the same direction. I found this quite curious.
Posted by: Robert McLuhan | July 01, 2013 at 04:30 PM
thank you bruce for a story of courage.
i find it courageous to face ones assumptions, recognize and allow change to occur in ones thinking and then share that experience with others.
Posted by: Billy Mavreas | July 01, 2013 at 04:51 PM
It doesn't surprise me that Wilson's eyes were first opened by the NDE, because that's what happened with me, too. And it then took me a while to begin to take other phenomena seriously as well.
But I agree. If after continuing to study these things he remains adamant that past lives are a crock, that's surprising. For one thing, it's the opposite of what NDErs themselves almost unanimously believe!
As I said in the post, his book may have been ideal for me 20 years ago (as it apparently was for you), but with so many better NDE books out now, I don't see much reason to recommend it to anyone.
@ Billy: Thanks!
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | July 01, 2013 at 06:16 PM
Bruce, I appreciate your essay. It mirrors some of my own personal story.
In the mid-90's I emerged from a fundamentalist Christian box, a very narrow and constricted view of God and the universe. For a time this view served a purpose and helped me to order my then chaotic life a bit, but thankfully, by stumbling on the right book or two at the right time and some radical internal guidance, my eyes were opened and I gradually out-grew that limited viewpoint. I now greatly value others experiences as well as my own and try my best not to judge their value and veracity. The universe is grand and there is more there than meets the eye.
Thanks and Kind Regards.
Posted by: D. Cepulis | July 01, 2013 at 08:22 PM
Nice story Bruce, brilliantly told.
My own story is kind of opposite - I start off a credulous believer in angels and God, then gradually start seeing the darker side of things, how we may be pawns of higher powers or forces.
There is no one path.
Posted by: Barbara | July 01, 2013 at 09:48 PM
"It mirrors some of my own personal story. In the mid-90's I emerged from a fundamentalist Christian box/"
You're right--there definitely is a similarity. Primal therapy is atheistic, so in the usual sense of the word, it's not a religion. But I came to realize that I was *relating* to it as if it were. Which is not true, by the way, of everyone who goes through the therapy. I'm sure it had to do with the depth of my need.
Lennon was able to put the therapy into more realistic perspective more quickly. I remained a primal fundamentalist for a long time!
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | July 01, 2013 at 10:01 PM
Thanks, Barbara, for the kind words!
"My own story is kind of opposite - I start off a credulous believer in angels and God, then gradually start seeing the darker side of things, how we may be pawns of higher powers or forces."
Do you still feel that way--that we're at the mercy of malevolent beings?
I myself have never believed that. And I think it may have to do with my primal experience.
This may seem presumptuous, but maybe it works this way: if you're not integrating your emotional pain and taking it back to its true source (your parents, childhood, even your birth), then you create monsters outside of yourself. You come to feel that you're at the mercy of dark forces external to you, whereas what you're really responding to are dark energies (pain) stored up inside.
Do you think that's possible?
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | July 01, 2013 at 10:31 PM
I'm sure my last comment oversimplifies matters. But I think there may be some truth to it.
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | July 01, 2013 at 10:46 PM
Very illuminating story, Bruce. I never would have guessed that you had been a militant skeptic. Your story does exactly what Robert intended. Just as there are things about the credulous believer mindset that one can only own up to in hindsight, so there are things about the angry skeptic mindset that no one would admit to, or perhaps even be conscious of, while still committed to it.
Posted by: Robert Perry | July 02, 2013 at 09:50 AM
Thanks for talking about this Bruce. I came from a very fundi bible belt background. I came to realize as I got older that I honestly believed very little of what I had once held on to. Still, the bleak (we are all just brain farts) never was something I aspired to. It might be true but it's not something I would fight to establish. :-) Still, I wasn't able (as so many of my peers were/are) to simply say "The bible says it, I believe it and that settles it." I do remember reading once a column in my youth in a newspaper. Can't really remember the details of the story but the title was "The Wild God." Somehow through the years that resonated with me. I never forgot it. My Goodness, if God were the "Wild God" and you couldn't put him in a box then anything was possible. You might not even be able to call "him" a "him" :-) Anyway, in my 56th year I am still learning and stumbling and hoping.
Posted by: Stephen Snead | July 02, 2013 at 01:32 PM
"You come to feel that you're at the mercy of dark forces external to you, whereas what you're really responding to are dark energies (pain) stored up inside." -Bruce
Bruce -your psychological explanation is by no means impossible.However (to continue Robert’s train analogy), if you’re happily and hopefully on the train from Slough to Penzance when there’s a crash and you have to return to Slough injured and in a state of shock, you kind of feel you’ve been let down by external rather than internal factors. You start to wonder why…
I think we can both agree that the physical world is maya -illusory, or at least designed that we can only see through a glass darkly rather than clearly. In your terms, we are really a much greater being than the puny little creatures we see in the mirror. In my terms, we’re just the avatar of some higher power.
So, for reasons benign or malign, we’re being fooled, n’est ce pas?
Posted by: Barbara | July 02, 2013 at 03:55 PM
Thanks, everyone, for the responses.
@ Steve: "Still, I wasn't able (as so many of my peers were/are) to simply say "The bible says it, I believe it and that settles it."
Whenever I start feeling superior to bible-thumpers, I just remind myself how I felt about Janov's book The Primal Scream for so many years.
@ Barbara: "In my terms, we’re just the avatar of some higher power. So, for reasons benign or malign, we’re being fooled, n’est ce pas? "
I think there's a huge difference between saying that we're being fooled, and saying that we ourselves are the higher power, and have chosen to temporarily forget our true identity. In the first scenario we're victims, in the second, we're designers/participants in a pretty extraordinary game.
@ Robert P: "there are things about the angry skeptic mindset that no one would admit to, or perhaps even be conscious of, while still committed to it."
Thinking about that reminds me of something. We talk about the disadvantages of skepticism, but how about its undeniable upside (this goes along with what I was saying to Barbara)--when we finally awaken to the truth, what a wonderful surprise!
I still enjoy basking in that feeling of joyous discovery, which is part of the reason I wrote this piece.
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | July 02, 2013 at 08:02 PM
Bruce, my experience about NDE's was similar to yours. They opened my heart to the research and I was astonished by the out of bodies experiences, when people can see and hear things they couldn't experience being physically dead-brain.
Love, Light & Serenity
Claudio from Italy
Posted by: CLAUDIO PISANI | July 02, 2013 at 10:07 PM
Hello Again! Very nice to see your post on Robert's site.
Your sharing of your inner journey establishes a consensus that our journey is inward and toward the central mind. We are all "dreamers" even while awake in "normal consensus reality" and the journey inward is experienced subjectively as an "apprehended sense of waking up"in life and discovering that we are not who we thought we were, we are the inner witnessing space where "we dreamed the story of our life".
As a psychologist myself, I remember the various cult therapies of the sixties and early seventies. Like any religious movement, any therapy movement can take on much more than it was originally intended to remedy. An over-determined group of "therapist followers" often arises over time "as a cult following" and even when the original therapist dies, the shadow side of any "beleif/healing system often arises, much like the World Religions left behind by Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and countless other "avatars". Gestalt Therapy tried to prolong the image of the late Fritz Perls, who was a therapist of unique, spontaneous genuis. Milton Erickson's extraordinary ability to use paradox and story telling techniques, often completely off topic when he intuitively sensed an unconscious group or family dynamic arising, as in Strategic Family SystemsTherapy requires a therapist as gifted as Erickson or Perls in order for it to remain efficacious after the "master" has died. Schools of psychotherapy, like religious movements centered around a spiritual master, often fall into "all encompassing dogma" over time commencing after the master's death.
It takes a gnosis to become a great Gestalt Therapist or Ericksonian Story Teller or neuro-lingusitic programming therapist, which both Perls and Erickson, were instrumental founders. Janov's Primal Therapy requires a therapist who is intuitive, who have themselves taken the inner journey into selflessness, to maintain the spirit and intuitive sponteneity of a Founding Master. The dangers of dogmatic fundamentalism and ego-inflated all encompassing claims for a particular therapy almost always arise when less imaginative therapists teach or try to implement a particular therapy. I know enough about Perls, Janov and Erickson to say that they may have been gifted as "shamans of psychotherapy" but were not without their own ego-inflated tendencies and traits that provided a sense of entitlement and of course self made "charisma" that attracts followers who tend to idealize them and their schools of therapy.
Bruce, your courageously open journal is shares a story that is applicable for all of us who have traveled through the years and decades of our lives spent cultivating Plato's Academy's dictum to "Know Thyself".
I find he quote below applicable;
The Universal Heretic, Embracing, Yet free of All
No sacred cows survive the realization of the nonconceptual, and one's realization becomes independent from any belief or teaching. He recognizes that who and what he is is ultimately beyond any category, including all the spiritual categories. He realizes that Reality is not a description, and that any description, any teaching or belief system regardless how useful and accurate, falls short of Reality as it is. He recognizes the uniqueness of his realization without having to compare it with others, and appreciates the differences between the various teachings without having to rate them. His realization has gone beyond conceptual categories and, hence beyond comparisons and ratings. He believes in nothing, and adheres to no teaching or religion as final and ultimate. He has become a universal heretic, embracing all, yet free of all.
- A. H. Almaas
Be Well Bruce ;>)
Posted by: Richard Stuart | July 04, 2013 at 04:04 PM
I eagerly await for you to write about the "next" chapter. This was moving and intelligent. I want more.
Posted by: Tony M | July 04, 2013 at 09:21 PM
"my experience about NDE's was similar to yours. They opened my heart . . ."
@ Claudio: I agree--this is not just about opening minds, but hearts.
"He . . . adheres to no teaching or religion as final and ultimate."
@ Rick: Thanks for the kind words, for your insights, and for this great quote from Almaas.
"I want more."
@ Tony: Wow, that means a lot to me! Thanks so much. I'll see what I can do. :o)
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | July 04, 2013 at 11:22 PM
Thanks for an extremely interesting post. I presume that you’re still ‘sceptical’ about at least some aspects of the ‘believer’ oeuvre, though? Please say ‘yes’ ;)
I think, as Will Storr mentions in 'Heretics', that part of the problem lies in the fact that many (most, all?) of us crave emotional certainty in the personal validation we seek from our worldview. And the mechanism of confirmation bias can play havoc with the ‘truth’ if the emotional drive for that validation is powerful enough – for whatever reason. Indeed, it can cause discomfort even in those who don’t have a Gordian Knot of childhood issues to untangle.
So, I’ve come to see the skeptic’/’believer’ schism as being a bit of a red herring.
The sad truth is that, at least at the extremes, we just have a load of human beings thrashing around in the same psycho-emotional soup. And the Skeptical movement, at least in terms of its public face, does, IMO, show all of the hallmarks of an extremist cult that are no different from, say, those exhibited by Scientology.
The thing that I find fascinating about Skeptics, though, is that they are proof positive of the power of the mind (Skeptics feel free to use ‘brain’ there - or go out for a walk until the cognitive dissonance pangs wear off) ability to fool you – even if you think for some reason that you’re magically immune to the process.
Posted by: Steve Hume | July 05, 2013 at 09:54 AM
"I presume that you’re still ‘sceptical’ about at least some aspects of the ‘believer’ oeuvre, though? Please say ‘yes’ ;)"
Yes, for sure. But that's true of just about everything: after being so certain for so long that psi was false, only to be proven wrong, I don't think I can never again be that dogmatic.
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | July 05, 2013 at 09:13 PM
You're proof positive that we're capable of enough self-awareness to see through the tangle of our prejudices at times.
There may be hope for us after all if protagonists involved in polarised debates everywhere can do the same.
Posted by: Steve Hume | July 06, 2013 at 08:19 AM
my friend Adam Gollner has recently completed a new book on the topic of immortality
thought paranormalia & friends should know
Posted by: Billy Mavreas | July 06, 2013 at 08:39 PM
Billy, your friend's book looks interesting, if he's able to send me a digital copy I'll review it here.
Posted by: Robert McLuhan | July 08, 2013 at 11:23 AM
thanks robert, i'll pass on the word
Posted by: Billy Mavreas | July 08, 2013 at 08:43 PM
I grew up in the 40s and 50s. At that time many people had not even finished high school, let alone graduated from college. My Dad got only as far as the tenth grade though my mother did become a registered nurse. So, when I showed a very early interest in weather and began getting copies of the Official US Weathermap in the mail every day at the age of 12, scored 99% in the American College Entrance test, and eventually got a degree in meteorology my family considered me some kind of prodigy (a big mistake, I can assure you). Anyway, I was very self satisfied with my SCIENCE degree and looked down upon anyone who took God, ghosts, mediums, or reincarnation seriously. It was an easy and very satisfying ego boost to put down other people who didn’t understand science like I did. I strongly feel that this is a primary reason why paranormal skeptics enjoy ridiculing those of us who have opened our minds to ways of thinking that simultaneously subsume and transcend logical thinking, as our culture understands it. They are all, to some degree, sadists.
My mother was Lutheran and my father was Catholic, but I was confirmed in the Lutheran Church. I hated every moment of Church and, especially, Vacation Bible School. As I grew up I can remember trying to figure out the world. Learning science gave me a (false) sense of power but nothing I "learned" in church made any sense at all and I stopped attending the moment my parents, in the normal course of my growing up, lost authority over what I did.
The great anomaly with respect to my negative relationship with religion is that sometime in high school I attended a Billy Graham revival. Either Graham was such an exceedingly inspi-rational speaker or I was still under the thrall of my parents' expectations - most likely both - that when Billy asked people to step forward and accept God, I actually did. This is not some-thing I like to admit or even think about today, some 55 years later. If this experience indicates I had an open mind – even toward religion after I had rejected it - at an early age, it is certainly the best thing I can say about it.
In the early 1950s UFOs were big news, taken seriously by the government, the press and the culture in general. I still vividly recall the 1952 press conference when Washington DC was visited by several UFOs, seen on 3 radars simultaneously as well as by pilots and re-sponsible ground observers. A high ranking Air Force officer gave a press conference that was watched on TV by the whole nation. Even at the age of 12 I knew that the "official" explanation - that what were seen by people and on radar were anomalous weather phenomena - was bunk. When the press didn't follow up on the biggest story of the millennium, I was extremely frustrated. Today, I am a Certified UFO investigator for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) and recently presented a paper on UFOs to the Academy for Spiritual and Con-sciousness Studies - but I am getting ahead of my story. I relate my early interest in UFOs only because it was an indication that my mind was more open than most others to thinking outside the box. I can offer the standard psychological explanation: I was rebellious because my brother took every opportunity to humiliate me (he was two years older and two inches taller and twenty pounds heavier than me) and he was smarter than I was. But, some-how, not every picked upon younger sibling turns into a UFO freak. I can only say that I had an interest in everything and, somehow - I don't know the reason - it didn't matter to me so much as it did to others that some of my interests were contrary to cultural norms.
Up until 1988 I was like most educated, nonreligious people. Since I rarely encountered any evidence or even mention of any paranormal phenomena I hardly thought about them at all. I had absorbed from the culture that all mediums were fraudulent, that Houdini had promised to speak thru a medium after he died but never did, and that the Bridie Murphy reincarnation story was proved to be hokum by evidence that she had corresponded with her grandmother who had lived in Cork, Ireland. Anyone who believed any of this nonsense was either nuts or extremely gullible. Who wants to be accused of being either?
Paranormal phenomena so fundamentally contradicted the prevailing world view, I reasoned, that if any of them had any validity whatsoever I would have heard about it in college or, at the very least, read an article about it in Time Magazine or the New York Times. Clearly, our culture's smartest people couldn't possibly be so wrong about such a profound subject.
Then, sometime in the 1970s I read about Ted Serios's ability to project photographs onto photographic plates in a sealed envelope. I was impressed that several respectable people had signed their names to a statement that Serios was not a fraud. That sowed a doubt in my mind about our cultural norms but the seed could not thrive under the withering glare of the culture’s disapproval of all subjects paranormal.
I was well into my 40s when in 1988, while randomly browsing in the library, I just happened to come across "Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World" by Dr. Robert Jahn. Jahn taught aeronautical engineering at Princeton University. It seemed to me that he wrote more like a philosopher than a scientist. Of course, I could not know that, 25 years later, his work is considered a landmark in paranormal research. Here was a SCIENTIST who had written a thick book filled with equations and graphs supported by hard evidence and complex reasoning that humans could actually influence the output of a random number generator. I was AMAZED! I immediately showed the book to my friends and my brother, expecting them to be as excited as I was by experimental evidence showing that the world is unimaginably stranger than it seems. My friends politely ignored me but my brother was apoplectic, even though in our adulthood we have a generally good relationship and debate heatedly but without ill will all sorts of subjects. He literally screamed at me that I must be completely crazy, and he meant it. I was surprised but not insulted. Jahn's work spoke to me with greater authority than my dear brother.
I am a person who has always read widely on a variety of subjects but until I came across the book on Ted Serios and Jahn's book by pure luck I had not come across any publication that took exception to the cultural norm that dismissed all things paranormal as so much pseudoscience or worse, believable only by the hopelessly gullible.
How many people are out there who were not so fortunate as to have stumbled across a book or a respectable magazine citing sober and solid evidence for paranormal phenomena? How many are so unfamiliar with the scientific method that they don't appreciate the enormous significance of evidence that calls into question the very principles upon which science itself, as understood by our culture, is based? There must be an enormous number.
But I am, again, a little ahead of my story. When I calmed down after reading Jahn's book the rigid thought patterns our culture has imbued within all of us reasserted themselves. It took me perhaps three years and the reading of several books ranging from Bud Hopkins'
"Intruders," (a credible chronicle of alien abduction) to summaries of J.B. Rhine's pioneering parapsychological research, as well as detailed accounts of the Fox sisters' mind-blowing mediumship before I finally was able to cast off my cultural biases entirely and feel comfortable with the profound change in my thinking.
It is harder for those of us who have studied and put our "faith" in science to fundamentally change our thinking because we have to somehow accept that science as we know it does NOT explain the physical world entirely, let alone the spiritual one. Most people not versed in science, when they hear a credible ghost story, feel, if only vaguely, that the existence of ghosts at some basic level challenges their worldview or their religion. But the person trained in science realizes that many if not all of the scientific principles they have laboriously mastered may be rendered meaningless by a single unexplainable ghost. Obviously, they will resist with great force the reality of anything that contradicts the laws of science.
Being open to evidence for paranormal phenomena is essential for us to make the leap to having a truly open mind about the nature of reality but such a statement is tautological, explaining nothing. Perhaps we are older, wiser souls but such a statement is self serving, leaving an opening for skeptics to dismiss us.
My own experience leaves the explanation of why some of us come to accept the reality of paranormal phenomena and others don’t to sheer luck. If I had not come across Jahn’s book I would never have begun what has been by far the greatest intellectual adventure of my life.
Posted by: Dean DeHarpporte | July 13, 2013 at 05:37 AM
Steve Hume, thanks for your kind words. Looks like I missed your comment earlier in the month.
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | July 13, 2013 at 07:48 PM
Dean, great story! Many, many, good points there, beautifully expressed.
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | July 17, 2013 at 09:08 AM