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December 2013
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February 2014

New Book on Near-Death Experiences

I don’t like the Daily Mail’s politics, but I must say, it’s the only British paper that writes about psi experiences as if they were normal, and not some kind of freakish embarrassment. I remember once buying a copy on an impulse and finding to my astonishment a double page spread on new remote viewing experiments in a British university - the subject of one of the first articles I ever wrote for this blog.

Now the Mail Online has published an article by Penny Sartori, a nurse who is about to publish a book about NDEs. I met Penny a few years ago when she gave a talk about her work in the intensive care unit of a Swansea hospital, clearly an ideal environment for studying the subject. She came up with the idea that was subsequently adopted by Dr. Sam Parnia, of placing symbols where they could only be seen from the ceiling and asking NDErs if they recalled seeing them. None had, but the study was productive in other respects. (I wrote about it briefly here.)

One case that she describes involved a 60-year old man suffering from sepsis after surgery for cancer. Under Sartori’s care he went into a critical condition, and remained unconscious for more than three hours.

His first sensation, he told me afterwards, was of ‘floating upwards to the top of the room. I looked down and I could see my body on the bed. It was lovely, so peaceful — and no pain at all.’

In the next moment, the hospital ward had disappeared and he’d entered a pink room, in which his father was standing next to a man with ‘long black scruffy hair and nice eyes.’ For a time, Tom talked telepathically with his father.

At some point, he became aware that something was touching him. Once again, he was back on the hospital ward ceiling — looking down at me and the doctor.

I was putting a lollipop-shaped instrument into his mouth to clean it, he recalled later. He could also see a woman beyond the cubicle curtains, who kept twitching them to check on his condition.

Indeed, I can personally verify that everything Tom ‘saw’ while unconscious was 100 per cent accurate — down to the swab I used to moisten his mouth and the names of the consultant and of the physiotherapist lurking behind the curtains.

While all this was going on, Tom heard the man with the scruffy hair say: ‘He’s got to go back.’ This came as a blow: he remembers desperately wanting to stay. Shortly after that, he told me, ‘I was floating backwards and went back into my body on the bed.’

In another case a seriously ill older man recovered from a period of unconsciousness to tell family members that he was being watched over by his mother, grandmother and sister, keeping vigil beside his bed. He was pleased to see them, but puzzled about the presence of his sister, as she was still living. His family had kept the fact of her recent decease from him, fearing it would jeopardise his recovery; he died a week later still without having been told.

A third case echoes the experience of the truck driver Tom Sawyer described in Kenneth Ring’s Heading towards Omega. A woman is given an anaesthetic for a minor operation and finds herself scrolling through her whole life, before apparently seeing a review of the creation of the entire universe. Sometime after she recovers she discovers she has somehow acquired a deep understanding of quantum mechanics.

Much of what the article describes is familiar territory to most of us here, although presumably not to all of the Mail’s readers. Some of the details are less commonly aired, however, for instance the tendency for some NDErs to develop a new sensitivity to electricity or have problems with their wristwatches.

When I started asking the people I was researching if they’d experienced this, I discovered that many had. One was a nurse — a colleague who’d had an NDE — who told me she’d stopped wearing watches after her own experience as they invariably didn’t work.

Those who’d had particularly intense NDEs reported even more problems. One woman told me that she ‘blows’ light bulbs regularly when switching them on — so much so that this has become a standing joke in her family. ‘I’ve also been thrown backwards and right across a room several times when using or touching electrical appliances,’ she said.

Disturbing in a different way were accounts from people who’d developed psychic tendencies after having a near-death experience. One woman told me she could subsequently foresee ‘bad things’ that were going to happen, and even predict when people were going to die. This has so traumatised her that she now rarely goes out — and then only when wearing headphones so that she can play loud music to distract her from her thoughts.

A colleague of mine who had a NDE at nine years old claims to have similar powers. She says that ever since her vision, she’s been able to ‘read other people’s minds’ — which distresses her because she feels it’s morally wrong.

One of the reasons it’s good for the subject to be aired in the mainstream press is that it’s an opportunity to see what the public thinks. There were more than 300 comments when I looked, a pretty broad cross section of views: the angry, the interested, the hopeful; Christians who can’t understand why everyone gets into Heaven, people describing their own NDEs, etc.

I didn’t find that any one point of view stood out above the others, which is refreshing. And I liked the one who simply said: ‘Cool. Hope it is true. Would love to see loved ones who have passed on.’

The book has a foreword by Pim Van Lommel, and is out on February 18. Also check out Penny's website, especially the case studies.

A Philosopher Tackles Survival

Jime Sayaka, on his blog Subversive Thinking, has published a written interview with a philosopher, Michael Sudduth, about survival. Sudduth takes the view that books by proponents of the survival hypothesis don’t amount to much. A few, by philosophers like Broad, Ducasse and H.H. Price cut the mustard, he thinks; he also likes Alan Gauld's Mediumship and Survival. But most of these are old books; more recent ones tend to overwhelm the reader with information instead of providing carefully reasoned argument.  

Survival is typically asserted as an ostensible conclusion drawn from a mass of empirical data for which there is apparently no better explanation, to which some authors append facile dismissals of materialist philosophies of mind and arguments from the data of cognitive neuroscience purporting to show the dependence of consciousness on a functioning brain.

And again:

The widespread claim among empirical survivalists—survivalists who endorse empirical evidence for survival—is that the survival hypothesis provides the best explanation of the data.  But what does it mean for a hypothesis to explain data?  How does a hypothesis explaining data convert the data into evidential cash value? What logical principles are being enlisted to show this and assess the weight of the evidence relative to competing hypotheses? And how do we arrive at judgments concerning the net plausibility of the survival hypothesis? 

These are crucial questions for evaluating the empirical case for survival, but you’ll find a deafening silence with respect to these questions in survival literature since the 1960s.  One gets the impression from much of the literature that the survival hypothesis simply wins by explanatory default:  since nothing else explains the data, survival explains the data.

Sudduth, an analytic philosopher of religion at Oxford University, is not actually arguing against survival. He calls himself a survivalist, saying he used to see apparitions as a child and had other (unspecified) paranormal experiences. Also, he was an active Christian before moving towards Indian mystical philosophy. His project, he says, is concerned with the ‘critique and dismantling of the existing and deeply entrenched tradition of classical empirical arguments for survival’, paving the way for ‘new and fruitful approaches to empirical arguments for survival.’

This immediately brought to mind the philosopher Stephen Braude, who has made similar complaints about a lack of rigour. So it was no surprise to learn that Sudduth and Braude are chums and often beef about it together. The outcome for Braude was his excellent Immortal Remains, and Sudduth too is writing a book which he says will be completed towards the end of the year.

I see the point - up to a point. Writers like Broad, Ducasse and Gauld get to grips with the data in an appropriately sceptical fashion, whereas some recent books – David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? comes to mind – take the view that the meaning of survival phenomena is so blindingly obvious it’s perverse to take any other view of it. I don’t think that works; for most of us the logic has to be clearly spelled out.

Chris Carter’s books are more rigorous, but clearly still fall short for Sudduth. I don’t think he even makes an exception of Robert Almeder, a philosopher whose book I read years ago when I was working this stuff out for the first time, and which I remember as a pretty thorough logical workout, especially on reincarnation-type experiences.

Like Braude, Sudduth takes the view that the standard objections against the super-psi hypothesis are much less forceful than is maintained by survival proponents such as Fontana and Carter. His arguments here are quite technical – this quote gives a flavour:

Let’s suppose that Pr(DMAX/S&K) = Pr(DMAX/C&K).  That is, the predictive power or likelihoods of S and C are equivalent. The survival hypothesis might still have a greater posterior probability than C (maybe even be more probable than not) if its prior probability is greater, especially if the prior probability is much greater.  From a Bayesian viewpoint, if Pr(e/h1&k) = Pr(e/h2&k), then Pr(h1/e&k) > Pr(h2/e&k) just if Pr(h1/k) > Pr(h2/k).  That is to say, if two hypotheses have equal predictive power (or likelihoods), then the evidence and background knowledge confers a greater probability on h1 than h2 just if h1’s prior probability is greater than h2’s prior probability.  So a survivalist might simply argue that, worst case scenario, Pr(DMAX/S&K) = Pr(DMAX/C&K), but since Pr(S/K) >> Pr(C/K), the survival hypothesis has a greater posterior probability, maybe it’s still more probable than not.  To put this otherwise, a survivalist might argue that the net effect of deflating the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis on the grounds of co-equal likelihoods is negligible since the prior probability of the survival hypothesis is much greater.

I understand what is being said here (I think), I’m just not convinced that this approach puts matters on a more sound footing. I spend a bit of time on philosophy blogs (like this one) and enjoy their logical approach to big moral questions, where, for the most part, they write in plain English. But when analytical philosophers go at each other hammer and tongs in their specialist lingo it doesn’t settle the matter for anyone, apart from peers who understand it. They may triumphantly claim to have spotted a logical flaw that makes a nonsense of their opponent’s argument - the rest of us just have to take their word for it.

Surely such life-and-death questions are never settled on narrow technical grounds. On the contrary, most people will be influenced here by the kinds of emotional factors that form their personal worldview, over which the logician can claim little influence, whatever the results of his professional efforts.

For me there are two salient points that rarely get mentioned in the survival-super-psi ding-dong. One is that there is actually a third player in this argument: materialism itself. To propose that living agents are responsible for the appearance of survival may undermine the survival hypothesis, but in acknowledging the reality of psi it also plays havoc with secular scientific materialism, the ideological norm that demands we argue against survival in the first place. If the mind is no longer be explained in purely physicalist terms, but, on the contrary, in terms that are far more hospitable to the possibility of it surviving the death of the body, how is that an argument against survival? That line of reasoning surely counts for something, but I don’t expect to see it in a narrow analysis like Sudduth’s.

Also, if we’re arguing for super-psi as opposed to survival, we still need to account for the existence so much survival-type phenomena, also the fact that they appear in such various contexts - deathbed visions, apparitions, NDEs, mediumistic communications, and so on – all pointing in the same direction, and often with remarkable clarity. A super-psi explanation of a given case over a survivalist interpretation, however devastatingly argued, leaves this mystery untouched. To be sure, an uninformed sceptic would argue for ‘wishful thinking’, that humans interpret otherwise formless impressions in a way that accords with their deepest needs and desires. But anyone who is literate in this subject knows that such experiences often occur in trance states, dreams and near-death, where the conscious mind is in abeyance and in no condition to shape or influence anything.

So we’re left considering unconscious influence. We might argue for some kind of adaptive mechanism, the evolution of a mental module that activates at moments of extreme insecurity to convince us that the ego will never die, in order to help it continue to function. But even if we felt inclined to do this – and such approaches seem to be falling somewhat out of fashion – the premise is utterly fantastic: we are bombarding ourselves with highly realistic stimuli whose purpose seems to convince us of something that is absolutely the opposite of the case.

Actually I’m glad to see a philosopher taking an interest in survival phenomena - it’s very much to be welcomed - and I look forward to reading Sudduth’s book. I do hope for a couple of things though. One is to see him getting to grips with the body of survival data, as Braude does in Immortal Remains, and without obscuring his arguments in technical abstractions. I shall be interested to see whether, having done so, the empirical data is as vulnerable as he implies.

The other is to hear less about the shortcomings of survival proponents when they argue their case. If they fail, and I don’t think they all do, this is surely only a symptom of the abysmal isolation in which parapsychology finds itself, trying to fill the gap left by contemporary philosophers who, as a profession, consider the subject beneath them.

An Appeal for Seriousness

Here’s a list of reasons why scientists should wake up and take psi research seriously. Worth a look, as much for the rollcall of signatories – around 90 (mainly) senior scientists – as for the content. By chance, I was in an SPR meeting yesterday that included four of them (Broughton, Carr, Gauld and Poynton), and one sent me the link.

I’ve been groping towards a more or less complete statement, something that covers all the main points and can be served up in a short space. This article, by Etzel Cardeña, is about the best I’ve seen. It’s succinct, yet seems to cover all the bases. It will be a great reference to have in public debates, not least those on Wikipedia talk pages, if the guardians of scientific propriety will allow it. I’d be interested to know if readers think anything could be added, ideally without subtracting from its admirable brevity.

Most scientists and academics aren’t naturally good at PR, which requires points to be put across in a way that readers or viewers can quickly grasp. (In parapsychology, alas, those that are good at it, like Richard Wiseman and Chris French, tend to be those playing for the opposition.) Some are good at popularising their subjects in books, but that’s not the same as having media skills. So it’s encouraging to come across a coordinated effort like this. Perhaps we’ll start seeing more like it.

A Movement Building

A Happy New Year to my readers! I promised myself that round about now I would flower forth with the usual insightful commentary (hem hem!), but no such luck. Still bound by the slothful bonds of Christmas, seemingly.

However Rupert Sheldrake is up and doing, and has sent me a couple of links, which I thought I’d share in the meantime. The first is a piece by David Gelernter, a computer scientist, railing at the anti-humanistic trend in objectivist science. It struck me as a particularly powerful statement of the kinds of things I talk about here regarding attitudes towards consciousness and the philosophy of mind. True, the website is a US neo-con forum, so it ties in with a rightwing anti-science agenda. But the author is a computer scientist complaining about the popular tendency to equate consciousness with computers, which is a bit unusual.

The other link is to a short paean to pansychism by neuroscientist Christof Koch, who considers it to be 'the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation for the universe'. As Rupert notes, Koch has a reputation as an aggressive materialist, who once tried to get him banned from a consciousness conference. I recently read his most recent book which however was a lot fuzzier than one would expect. Rupert sees this as a big shift on Koch's part.

The fact that these sorts of positions are becoming ever more articulate and passionate, and coming from scientists and philosophers, is suggestive of a movement gradually building.