Category Archives: Spirituality

Belief Systems, Dogmatism and Intolerance

I often feel a sense of frustration at people’s closed mindedness when they are confronted with facts or viewpoints that do not neatly fit within their personal worldview. These people are not skeptics according to the strict definition of the word, that is: open minded people who are prepared to critically evaluate their current views in light of new evidence or facts. They are in fact closed minded dogmatists who have already made up their mind on how the world works, and are often not prepared to ever seriously question their own worldview irrespective of whatever inconvenient facts might come along and contradict their current views. And the irony is that these people invariably present themselves as being the objective ones who uniquely have the capacity to transcend subjective fanciful thinking and wishful belief systems in favour of a more scientific and rigorous framework of thought. Most commonly, from my experience, these people are militant atheists and/or materialists (although to be fair I would probably have to include some religious people as well) who are oblivious to the fact that their views actually constitute a belief system, and are not simply objective facts as they claim. And ironically it is contemporary science that proves reductive materialism to be incorrect. (I have studied modern physics, including quantum mechanics at university, so know this to be the case.) Another irony is that militant atheists often defend their strong views on the basis that religions contain an unacceptable degree of intolerance. Whilst it may be true that sectarian religious groups can be somewhat divisive and intolerant of each others views, I often feel that the best way to promote tolerance in the world is to display it yourself!

Although I would describe myself as spiritual (as opposed to religious) I am at the same time an agnostic (technically this places me in the same category as Richard Dawkins!) in that I don’t claim or believe to know anything for absolute certain. However there are a few minor caveats to this cautious disposition: Firstly I don’t extend my reservations concerning certain knowledge on everyone else, and insist that they should likewise uphold an agnostic stance. For one thing some people, having had transcendental experiences, claim they know for sure their experience was real and what they learned from their experience constituted certain knowledge. Despite being an agnostic myself I would not presume to claim that these people, who have had experiences I have not personally had or fully understand, have no right to regard their experience as being real, and their subsequent knowledge from it to constitute certain knowledge. In addition to this, there are perhaps others who may have not had spiritual experiences as such, but are able to intuitively know things for certain. In other words perhaps they are able to transcend the logical/analytical human mind and directly perceive (to some degree) a higher level of reality which we cannot readily apprehend by just using the limited five human senses. I do not have such intuitions myself but perhaps other people do.

All I am basically claiming is that intellectual reasoning alone can never lead to certain knowledge. It is always possible to be mistaken irrespective of how persuaded one is by the power of one’s own corroborative arguments and supportive chains of reasoning. And since I personally have always had to rely merely on analytical reasoning alone I do not feel I can claim to know anything for certain.

The second caveat is this: Although I believe that nothing can be known for certain by intellectual reasoning alone, I nonetheless believe it is possible to know for certain that particular viewpoints are incorrect. For example, I am absolutely certain that reductive materialism is an incorrect worldview, even though I can’t legitimately claim to have certain knowledge of the true nature of reality. If this might seem a contradictory position to take, a simple analogy might help:  If you lose your car keys (like I did the other day) and look in a drawer only to discover they are not there, you can then claim to know for certain that the keys are not in that particular drawer. There is no contradiction in making this claim whilst at the same time not having certain knowledge of where the keys actually are. And the same principle applies to worldviews. I do not know the true nature of reality, but I know what it isn’t – and it is not reductive materialism! This is a paradigm which is essentially rooted in outdated 17th century Newtonian physics, and is not compatible with the more recently observed physical facts of the world.

In summary, it would be accurate to say that I categorize my thoughts and opinions in a probabilistic fashion, as opposed to a definitive black and white correct/incorrect mode of thinking. Based on my knowledge of near death experience research (primarily conducted by cardiologists and surgeons) and also my knowledge of contemporary science (primarily from studying at university) I would put my money on the following propositions being true: i) There is an afterlife. ii) There is a ‘god’ (but perhaps not in the traditional religious sense of the word, hence the inverted commas). iii) The world we experience via our physical senses is illusory.

Behind all these subjective viewpoints however, there are objective definitive answers. It is just that most of us are not in a position to assert what these answers are, even if what we believe just happens to correspond with the objective true facts of the world. Oscar Wilde once said “The truth is rarely pure and never simple” and I think this sentiment is largely applicable to most of our human based knowledge and opinions, and the multitude of lines of reasoning and philosophical arguments that are used to support them. But at the end of the day there are still objective facts of the world that ultimately have definitive yes/no answers. But most of us will have to wait until another time to know the answers for sure – that is of course assuming there is some kind of existence beyond this physical plane…..which I personally would put my money on.

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Critique of the Exceptional Claims Argument

What is the connection between contemporary theoretical physics and spirituality? How do we get from quantum mechanics to near death experiences?

Transcendental experiences have occurred throughout history. Buddhist monks have been meditating and levitating for years, regaling us with insights into higher levels of reality. And near death experiences have occurred since the time of Ancient Greece. One of the first recorded accounts dates back to 380 BC when Plato related in The Republic the account of a soldier describing his experience of the afterlife.

Near death experiences are also a modern phenomena. In fact their occurrence seems to be on the increase, perhaps an inevitable consequence of improved resuscitation techniques. Can we draw any useful observations by reviewing past and present accounts? Are there any common threads?

Well a review of available literature does reveal remarkable resemblances between experiences, despite them spanning considerable temporal, demographic and cultural divides. What are some of their common features? They include claims of a deep connection between all things, the illusion of space and time, observer created reality, a universe composed of vibrating energy, and the illusory nature of reality as perceived by humans. Recognition of the primacy of consciousness is also commonplace in such descriptions.

Students of physics may recognize some of these concepts. They crop up in theoretical fields of study such as quantum physics, special relativity and superstring/M-theory.

So is science finally catching up with the ancient mystics? Are modern theories pushing us towards a new view of things, a view fundamentally different from that currently held by much of Western society? In a word yes.

Twentieth century science was nudging us towards a new paradigm. Of that there is no doubt. But as history has shown us, mankind tends to drag its feet when subjected to a prod from science that we need a new paradigm. We have been here before. An obsolete worldview without any real basis in science, and a dogmatic and stubborn core of people refusing to accept the rational and clear cut consequences of contemporary scientific theories.

This discrepancy between science and popular perception lies at the root of all sorts of fallacious thinking. Take for instance the argument: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There is nothing wrong with this argument as it stands of course. We do have to be more cautious of extravagant claims. Nonetheless we need to be careful how we apply this argument. One of the first questions we need to ask ourselves is: What does it mean exactly for something to be extraordinary? Are there any nuances to discern in that word?

Let’s take the claim that I can run the 100 metres dash in 8.58 seconds. If true that would be quite extraordinary – that is one second faster than the current world record! I would certainly expect someone being asked to accept this claim to demand compelling evidence to back it up. What about the claim that I can play a piece of music perfectly after hearing it just once? Again quite extraordinary, and similarly deserving of compelling corroborative evidence to substantiate this self-alleged ability of mine.

At this point there might appear to be no meaningful distinction between the two cases. Even if a person subjectively argues one feat to be more impressive feat than the other, we can make suitable adjustments to counter this. Suppose they were being asked to accept the fact I could run 100 metres in 7.58 seconds? Or 6.58 seconds? At some point a person would have to concede something extraordinary was going on.

So the two claims can be seen to be pretty much equivalent in degree of extraordinariness.  Or at least equivalent in terms of how surprising they appear to be. But there is, nonetheless, a difference between the two claims that relates to the nature of the things they are making claims about. The first case challenges our knowledge of human anatomy and physiology. If I can run faster than a car then our current understanding of human physiology might need some revision. Perhaps this might involve looking at our current understanding of how fast-twitch muscle fibres work, the speed these muscles can utilize glucose, and all the associated metabolic processes. These kinds of things however are readily amenable to current scientific methods.

On the other hand it might mean changing our definition of what it means to be human. Perhaps I am some kind of chimera created in a mad scientist’s laboratory by splicing together the DNA of a human and a cheetah. (Or maybe I am simply from the planet Krypton.) But in any event current science is up to the task of finding out what is going on.

The second case is slightly different. Our knowledge of the brain, and particularly the mind-brain relationship, is rather more tenuous than our understanding of the dynamics of muscle groups in the human body. So the second claim does not violate any prior reservoir of knowledge, unlike in the first case. Our vagueness legitimately permits some leeway into what could be considered possible. Put in more general terms, we cannot so readily write off a particular possibility without a fully comprehensive understanding of the system and processes underlying the issue in question.

Interestingly the second case – the case of being able to play a piece of music after hearing it just once – is possible. We know this because it happens. A number of well documented case studies show people demonstrating this very ability. People who exhibit these capabilities are often high-functioning savants. These are people who have some known form of disability or handicap, particularly the kind associated with some form of autistic spectrum disorder, but can display abilities such as having a perfect photographic memory or superhuman mental arithmetic skills (the movie Rain Man was a caricature of this phenomena). People displaying these kinds of savant abilities do seem to throw up something of a challenge to our current understanding of how the brain works, and invite a synthesis of these extraordinary kinds of mental abilities within a potentially broader framework of neuroscience.

So in summary: both of the cases detailed above are equally extraordinary in a psychological sense. Or put another way are equally surprising. But the difference between them relates to the kind of things to which they refer. In the first case there is a direct conflict with ideas that are quite well established – human physiology and anatomy. In the second case there is no such conflict with prior knowledge. The observed phenomenon is merely uncommon, relatively unknown about, and not well understood. And the underlying system – the brain/mind – is not sufficiently understood to identify any contradiction between what we already know from medical science and the observed phenomena.

The level of evidence required to accept that a human could run at the kind of speeds proposed above would arguably go beyond a mere observance of the fact. Conceivably it could involve searching for prosthetic limbs having some kind of inbuilt turbo capability engineered into them. Or an exhaustive examination of the exact physical composition, biochemistry and genetic make-up of the body – just to check it was in fact human and not something else. In the case of the extraordinary savant abilities no such checks would be required. Our knowledge of how the brain and mind works are not sufficiently complete to rule out these kinds of ‘superhuman’ abilities in humans. We don’t generally question whether high-functioning savants displaying these extraordinary abilities are really human.

So the basic upshot of all this: the extraordinary claims argument would be much more apt in the first case – that of running at superhuman speeds – than to the second case – displaying superhuman mental capabilities. This is despite the fact that in a sense both types of things are equally surprising.

It is of course true that the mere fact people have been known to display these ‘superhuman’ mental abilities means by definition they are not superhuman abilities, whereas in the case of running at extraordinary speeds this has not been similarly demonstrated. But this does not change the fact that there is an element of ‘extraordinary’ present in the latter case which does not exist in the former case, specifically for the reason outlined above – it flies directly in the face of what we currently understand. We have a pretty solid grasp of human physiology and anatomy, certainly more so than the mind and brain. So this distinction has to be factored in when considering the extraordinary claims argument.

So let’s move on to psi abilities. In what sense is this phenomenon extraordinary? To some people this kind of thing might appear to defy the laws of physics to the same degree as someone being able to dash around faster than road runner. And they have a point don’t they? Is it not the case that reading other people’s minds must necessarily defy the laws of physics?

Nope. Not at all. And this is the surprise for many people. It does not defy the laws of physics in the least. It is perfectly consistent with them in fact. And here is why. Since the early twentieth century we have been living with the legacy of a strange and profound branch of physics called quantum mechanics. This relatively new theory has completely revolutionised our understanding of the world in very fundamental ways. One of the extraordinary and profound insights this theory has uncovered is how everything in the universe is connected at a deep fundamental level. This connection is far deeper than the causal connections previously suggested by Newtonian mechanics. In fact this deep connection strongly suggests the world of discrete objects which our human senses apprehend is largely illusory.

The property I specifically refer to is quantum entanglement. Take one quantum object, an electron for instance, and perform a measurement on it. The act of measurement literally creates the property being measured, which according to quantum theory did not exist prior to measurement. So if we are measuring the spin of the particle for instance, prior to measurement the particle literally did not have a well-defined property called spin. At the instant this property is created by measurement, any particle which exists in an entangled state with this first particle will immediately have a property called spin which is correlated to the spin value of the measured particle. The measurement of the first particle will bring about this correlated property instantaneously in the other entangled particle, irrespective of the distance separating them, which could in principle be from one end of the universe to the other. And we have very strong grounds to believe all particles in the universe are entangled with all other particles. The correlation between particles of the universe is not as simple as in the case of the entangled electron pair described above, but nonetheless is still there. The non-physical nature of this instantaneous influence between spatially separated particles is referred to as the property of nonlocality.

It is important to note that if psi abilities do exist they are not necessarily directly related to quantum entanglement itself. But the knowledge that the universe is intrinsically nonlocal in nature has a direct bearing on whether we should consider psi abilities to be contravening the laws of physics. Prior to quantum mechanics it certainly appeared to be the case. Objects truly seemed to be separate and distinct, and influences between objects could only happen by known physical forces. This made phenomena such as psychokinesis and telepathy look very dubious indeed, at least from the point of view of known scientific principles. Simply put, it was very difficult to find any compatibility between science and the existence of psi. But this is no longer the case. Important to note however is the absence of conflict does not in itself entail psi abilities do exist. But it certainly now seems less extraordinary if they do.

Scientists often get a bit twitchy when quantum mechanics is used to promote new-age spiritual beliefs. They feel it is a case of misusing good science in order to promote pseudoscientific ideas. And in some respects they can have a point. We can’t legitimately make the leap from quantum entanglement and nonlocality to psi phenomena, as if the former proves the latter. When such suggestions do occur in new age and spiritual books it is indeed a misuse of good science. But we should nonetheless be clear that no contradiction exists between psi phenomena and known scientific principles. And acknowledging this fact is clearly relevant to the extraordinary claims argument. And it is an important point to acknowledge, since there are still people to this day who state, quite falsely, that psi abilities violate known physical principles.

If psi abilities really do exist then how do we not notice this in everyday life? And what could be easier to test than the ability of a person to move an object with the power of their mind, or the ability of one person to read the thoughts of another person? If someone claims to have telekinetic abilities why not just ask them to bend a spoon or something to prove it? It would be very obvious if such phenomena exist. And it would be very testable. There would be no legitimate grounds to debate the existence of a phenomenon openly evident to everyone, just as there are no grounds to debate whether or not gravity exists.

Well this argument presupposes that these kinds of abilities exist at a sufficient level to make such an argument valid. Despite the obvious fact that psi does not generally exist in this way, there remains at least the theoretical possibility that psi exists on a much weaker level. And if this is true the method of testing must necessarily be different. In a nutshell we need statistical methods. And this unfortunately is where the controversy kicks in.

When statistical data methods are applied to psi research and yield positive findings, sceptics quickly slap it down by essentially using the argument that if you look hard enough you will find a pattern in any set of numbers. This may well be true, but it is never justifiable to use this argument as a prima facie reason to reject statistical data. We would not do so in other contexts. Statistical methods are used widely in science, and when conducted in the proper manner are completely acceptable and valuable methods of scientific research. So each case has to be taken on its own merits. But just how compelling is the evidence coming from psi research? If the evidence really is that compelling it would surely convince the sceptics wouldn’t it?

This is where you might be in for a surprise. The data is actually very good. It is so good in fact that it has convinced a number of sceptics. Sceptical psychologist Richard Wiseman is one such case. He conceded the evidence supporting telepathy is so good that:-

“…by the standards of any other area of science telepathy is proven.”

This seems all well and good, until you hear what he says next:-

“…but this begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do….remote viewing is such an outlandish claim that will revolutionize the world, we need overwhelming evidence before we draw any conclusions, Right now we don’t have that evidence.”

Here we are immediately confronted with a problem. What exactly constitutes overwhelming evidence? Results from psi research typically yield odds of billions to one against the statistical deviances occurring purely by chance. In fact when meta-analysis is employed – the technique of combining together results of many different experiments conducted over a period of time to effectively form one big experiment – the results become trillions to one! This amazing result not only includes research into telepathy but psychokinesis as well. Psychokinesis is tested by employing a device known as a random number generator. This is essentially an electronic coin-toss emulator, producing a random ‘1’ (head) or ‘0’ (tail) via naturally occurring atomic processes. The basic idea is to “will” more 1’s than 0’s in an effort to end up with an uneven distribution of recorded states. The larger the statistical deviance the stronger the demonstration of psychokinesis. Sufficiently large runs of data reveal such statistical deviances taking place. And the deviances are statistically significant. The term statistically significant here refers to a rigid mathematical definition which is used to sharply delineate between statistical results which prove a hypothesis (prove by the standards of science) and statistical results which don’t.

The Richard Wiseman quote above makes the point that we need overwhelming evidence before accepting the reality of psi. I am sure you will agree that odds of billions to one is a pretty good start. In fact some might argue it might constitute the overwhelming evidence to which Mr. Wiseman refers. But perhaps the word ‘overwhelming’ in this case means something slightly different. Perhaps it means going beyond statistical data, however compelling this might be, and to demand a dramatic demonstration of telekinetic powers – such as hurling a grand piano out of a window for instance using just the power of the mind.

Unfortunately however, as pointed out above, we have no reason to believe these kinds of powers exist at this level (unless of course one believes Uri Geller was really bending spoons). But is it fair to make such demands before accepting things? Science has not progressed in this way. In science a hypothesis is made, predictions based on this hypothesis are formulated, and then a series of experiments are conducted to test these predictions. Eventually the hypothesis will stand or fall depending on how well the predictions bear out. This is the scientific method. Even if you agree with Wiseman in principle, this does not change the fact it is not possible to conjure up more evidence than what exists. If we applied this to science in general we would not get anywhere. And it is a red herring to believe we can conclusively prove anything anyhow. Science works by induction. No matter how many white swans we find we can never prove all swans are white. We only need to find one black swan to disprove the hypothesis: all swans are white. And this is still true no matter how many white swans we find. In a nutshell science is a fine balance between rigour and reasonableness, as it should be.

So the scientific method does make any demands you need to directly observe a phenomenon before accepting it as scientific fact. It is generally inferred by experimental data. Applying double standards in the arbitrary ad-hoc manner proposed by Wiseman is highly unreasonable, counterproductive, and indicative of nothing more than personal prejudice. But the assertion is of course that the double standards are justified by virtue of the extraordinary claims argument. But then we come back to the original discussion above – that we need to apply this argument in an intelligent way, and not use it merely from a position of personal prejudice we might have against a certain hypothesis.

George Price, a research associate at the Department of Medicine at the University of Minnesota published an article in a prestigious scientific journal where he stated:-

“Believers in psychic phenomena appear to have won a decisive victory and virtually silenced opposition….This victory is the result of careful experimentation and intelligent argumentation. Dozens of experimenters have obtained positive results in ESP experiments, and the mathematical procedures have been approved by leading statisticians….Against all this evidence, almost the only defence remaining to the sceptical is ignorance.”

But like psychologist Richard Wiseman he cannot accept what he concedes is completely rational to accept on the basis of the evidence alone. He goes on to say:-

“….but ESP is incompatible with current scientific theory.”

But this latter claim is simply not true. ESP does not conflict with current scientific theory, as we have seen. Current scientific theory does not automatically lead to ESP, but there is certainly no conflict.

Sometimes the very classifications we use in language mislead us. Classifications serve a practical purpose. They enable us to organize and carve up our thoughts about the world in useful and efficient ways. But it can also lead to misleading and stereo-typical thinking. The classification ‘paranormal’ is a good example. In reality there is no such thing as a paranormal fact. The fact is – facts are facts. They are not inherently paranormal or otherwise. They are neutral. But an inadvertent consequence of our human tendency to associate distinct things within single categories is that it leads to unwarranted prejudices against certain ideas. In this case we kind of lump together magic and voodooism with psi and NDE research, at least on a subliminal level. But that is the wrong way of looking at things. If someone were to levitate in front of your very eyes, and even if you knew they were not attached to cables, this would still not warrant a belief in magic (I don’t actually believe people do levitate, I am just using it as an example.) If any phenomena exists, even phenomena we currently categorize as paranormal, then this simply means the constraints of physics are less rigid than what we previously imagined them to be. It is neither magic nor sorcery. It is simply the laws of physics exposed in a way that has not been previously demonstrated or understood.

As was stated above – facts are facts. There is no such thing as a paranormal fact.

Let’s now move on to near death experiences. In what sense is the belief in an afterlife extraordinary? In really basic terms we are making the claim that consciousness can exist in the absence of a physical substrate such as the brain. But we first need to look more closely at the concept of ‘physical’ and what we really mean by that word. We have known since Einstein that ‘physical’ is not really physical at all. What we mean by physical is a manifestation of energy in a particular form. Mass and energy are equivalent (E = mc2), and this equation is not merely a numerical equivalence – matter is literally a form of energy. In ‘physical’ form energy has the particular characteristics which lead it to appear as solid matter to the limited human senses. And presumably, as a consequence of our bodies being composed of this same energy, we are able to physically interact with our environment in a manner that convincingly persuades us that the world we inhabit has a physical nature, which in reality it does not really have. String theory, although as yet unsubstantiated due to a lack of empirical evidence, makes the claim that everything in the universe is really vibrating energy. Physical matter particles according to string theory are really manifestations of energy vibrating in subtly different ways.

And what is energy anyhow? Nobody knows. If this seems surprising it is probably due to a conflation of separate things. Knowing how something behaves and what that something is are separate and distinct. There are myriads of myriads of physics equations which describe energy. But these descriptions are description of behaviour. Nothing more. It is not garnering us with any real knowledge or insight into the true essence of energy and what it is.

There is a deeper rabbit hole to consider however – an observer created reality. And here we are back to quantum mechanics again. The observer created reality interpretation of quantum mechanics is not something that everyone accepts. It is possible to wriggle out of this viewpoint by coming up with what I personally consider to be quite contrived sets of arguments. This is one of the main reasons why I wish to write some future articles on quantum theory. Ideally one has to revert to the very mathematical formalism underpinning quantum theory to acquire a truly impartial understanding – that is, one that is most free of individual interpretation and personal prejudice.

So if there is no physical, then it is a moot point that consciousness can exist in the absence of a physical substrate. It already does. However we also need to account for modern theories of consciousness which view consciousness, rather analogously, to software in a computer. This basically means the emphasis is on causal structure rather than what the brain is made of. Such a move might be justified however since, physical or not, the brain certainly does have a causal structure, realized in the highly complex neural network which comprises most of the brain. And it is solely this causal structure according to many modern theories, which is responsible for the emergence of consciousness in the brain. This idea merits a lot of scrutiny however, and is something I want to discuss at some length later on. But most of the time people are not really swayed by this kind of thinking. Typically when people outright reject claims of an afterlife, it is usually because they are linking what is real with what is physical, perhaps best summed up by the hypothetical statement:

‘I believe in the physical material world. What I see around me in everyday life is what is real. I have no room in my belief system for mysterious ethereal substances that float free of the body at death.’

This I believe, sums up well the basic sponsoring thought behind many peoples sceptism of an afterlife.   

It is a fairly common belief that neuroscience has already proven that the brain is the producer of consciousness. The advocates of this view will point to the many correlates of consciousness that neuroscience has revealed. If someone thinks a certain thought, or feels a certain emotion, it shows up somewhere on a PET scan. Prod the brain in certain regions and a spontaneous memory is invoked. In short, mental processes seem closely correlated with physical processes in the brain. Hence the brain produces the mind.

Without doubt the correlation between physical processes in the brain and mental processes are real. But consider a TV set. Do the correlates between the picture detail and the electrical signals within the TV set prove the source of the signal originates within the TV set itself? We know of course the source of the signal originates from the broadcasting station. But a suitably naïve person could potentially be fooled into believing the signal source resides within the TV set. If such a person were to unscrew the back of the set and apply a device such as a multi-meter or oscilloscope to the circuitry, electrical signal readings at certain points in the circuit would sharply correlate with the picture content. It would appear to someone completely lacking knowledge of communications technology that he had discovered the source of the signal. This of course is false. But a sufficiently naïve person would have no reason to suspect his findings were misleading him.

This analogy vividly exposes the fallacy in supposing the neural correlates of consciousness prove that the source of consciousness is in the brain itself. The brain is perhaps instead a filter of consciousness. The correlates of consciousness do not lend more or less support to either hypothesis – the brain as a filter of consciousness or the brain as a producer of consciousness.

This conclusion still leaves open the possibility that the brain produces consciousness however. So we have to see if we can look at other sources of information to inform us one way or another on the matter. That is where NDE research comes into the picture. But to approach this research impartially one needs to accept first that we have not already proven the brain produces consciousness. Anyone with this preconceived notion in their head is highly unlikely to look objectively at the results. They will always be able to conjure up alternative explanations to explain the results from a materialistic standpoint, even when those arguments to any clear thinking impartial person are clearly of the straw clutching type.

There is a particular debate surrounding near death experiences, a largely unnecessary one in my view, which focuses on the role of the brain in triggering the NDE. It is quite clear to me that severe disruptions in brain activity do normally play a role in triggering the experience. Take someone who has an NDE due to a cardiac arrest. There is generally no debate that the NDE in this situation is caused by physiological changes in the brain, specifically a lack of blood flow, and subsequent loss of synaptic firing. No one argues for instance that the NDE is caused by a lack of blood flow to the big toe. In other contexts this seems to cause a problem. Debunkers of NDEs typically point out that test pilots experiencing G-forces of sufficient intensity will sometimes have an NDE type experience. Therefore, they argue, NDEs cannot be real since they are most likely caused by physiological changes in the brain. But that is a moot point. We already know this. But here we have to be careful of the word ‘caused’. In this context the word ‘caused’ really means ‘triggered’. It does not mean ‘cause’ as in the sense that the physiological changes in the brain created the experience itself (to use an historical analogy, the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne was responsible for triggering World War One. To claim this incident actually caused World War One itself would be equivalent to not understanding the historical context of the war, which was essentially the culmination of years of aggressive European imperialism). A test pilot who has all the blood drained from his head due to intense G-forces will conceivably have a similar experience to someone who has the blood flow to their brain interrupted by a cardiac arrest. This does not debunk NDEs. And there is no automatic assumption (at least on my part) that the two experiences are necessarily identical. But the mere possibility they are the same, or at least related, does not debunk NDEs in the slightest. A similar argument applies to alleged transcendental type experiences induced by psychotropic drugs. We have no real reason to believe a genuine transcendental experience cannot arise by such means. Buddhist monks who achieve higher levels of consciousness through intense meditation practises have on occasion been the subject of scientific studies which utilize brain imaging techniques to observe associated changes in brain states. And such changes are observed. This however was no great surprise. I doubt if anyone, including the Buddhist monks themselves, thought their experience was completely unrelated to associated changes in brain states. They don’t however use this fact to explain the experience itself in purely materialistic terms.

Clearly transcendental experiences have a physical basis. But the distinction needs to be made been causation in the sense of triggering the event and causation in the sense of creating the event.

Regarding this latter point, there is an accumulating body of evidence suggesting the brain is not creating the experience. One recent high profile NDE case concerns a neurosurgeon by the name of Dr. Eben Alexander, who contracted severe bacterial meningitis caused by the e-coli bacteria. This resulted in him being in a deep coma for a period of seven days with his entire neocortex region suffering virtually complete shutdown. This makes the case medically interesting, since the neocortex region is responsible for all the higher brain functions involved in perception and thinking, as opposed to the more primitive brain functions located further within the depths of the brain. In practical terms this almost mimics brain death. The case particularly attracted attention because of who the patient was – a top neurosurgeon who formerly lectured at Harvard university, and a former sceptic on such experiences. This afforded him substantial levels of media attention, including his story appearing on the front page of Newsweek magazine, and a large number of interviews conducted by various news networks, TV and radio shows. His new book: ‘Proof of Heaven – A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife’ has been out just a few weeks and has resulted in a sharp polarization of views. Particularly noteworthy is the response of high profile atheist Sam Harris, who promptly responded to the Newsweek article by stating that what Eben Alexander was basically describing was a DMT trip, and since Eben was not a neuroscientist, but a mere neurosurgeon, he was not adequately qualified to talk about the workings of the brain and whether or not it was responsible for his experience.

How dare he make these preposterous claims! Sam deserves a slap for saying such things! This Eben guy has some seriously kick-ass credentials, including lecturing at Harvard University for fifteen years. Just check out his bulging CV:

http://www.eternea.org/PDF/CV_Eben_Alexander_III_FACS.pdf.

Upon reflection these qualifications are perhaps somewhat of a surprise. I was convinced that neurosurgeons simply hacked away at people’s brains without needing to understand how they worked.

Anyhow it does not take an PhD in neuroscience to understand the miraculous nature of Eben’s experience. Eben himself went through all possible materialist hypotheses that could be used to explain his experience in materialistic terms. These are listed below.

i)                 Primitive brain structures such as the brain stem and limbic system were responsible for his conscious experience in coma.

A crap hypothesis because: The neocortex is the part of the brain which is responsible for complex perception and thinking processes. Primitive brain structures do not serve in this capacity. The distinguishing feature of the bacterial meningitis Eben was inflicted with was its devastating affect on the neocortex region, which was basically in shutdown for the duration of the coma. Hence there was no way to account for the rich, complex nature of his experience from primitive brain functioning alone.

ii)                A few rogue cortical neurons start firing away like there’s no tomorrow due to overstimulation. The effect is similar to ketamine used as an anaesthetic.

A crap hypothesis because: The effects of ketamine anaesthetic are nothing like the coherent ultra-real experience Eben had during his coma. Eben knows this well since he observed the effects of ketamine anaesthetic on a number of his patients.

iii)               DMT type molecule secreted by primitive brain structure such as the pineal gland cause hallucinations. These hallucinations are what Eben experienced during his NDE.

A crap hypothesis because: DMT acts on the auditory and visual cortex regions to         produce its effects. But the cortex was offline. So there was nothing for the DMT to act upon.

iv)               Isolated bits and pieces of the cortex region might still have been active despite being completely overridden with bacteria.

A crap hypothesis because: Highly unlikely due to the severity of the infection. Also CT scans and neurological exams revealed severe alterations in cortical functioning. Hence, highly unlikely to cause the ultra-real and coherent experience described by Eben.

v)                Due to possible suppression of inhibitory neurons, specific neuronal networks containing excitatory neurons might have been getting somewhat over excited, with no mechanism to calm them down. This might be the explanation the ultra-real nature of the experience.

A crap hypothesis because: The inhibitory and excitatory neurons are evenly distributed across the cortex region, which makes it hard to explain why the infection would selectively de-activate one type of neuron but not the other.

vi)               The experience might have happened as he was coming out of the coma and not while he was in the coma.

A crap hypothesis because: A brain trying to splurt and splutter its way back online is hardly likely to give rise to the type of hyper-real lucid experience described by Eben. Get real.

In summary: Eben’s brain was so impaired due to the aggressiveness of the meningitis bacteria that the current neurological models of the brain do not allow for the intricate, lucid, coherent, and ultra-real nature of his experience. His neocortex region was shut down. End of.

The points above, as far as I know, are not seriously disputed by any of Eben’s medical colleagues. The main contention seems to be that his experience must have happened whilst he was coming out of the coma. Regarding this contention it is fair to put Eben’s experience within the context of NDEs in general. There have been many cases now of what are known as veridical NDEs, where observations are made during a time when the brain was definitely known to be flat lining. Dr. Penny Sartori (PhD), an intensive care nurse for seventeen years conducted a five year clinical study of near death experiences. One of the issues Sartori was trying to address in her research was the exact timing of these experiences. She was trying to settle the debate between the sceptics and non-sceptics as to whether the experiences were happening as the brain was transitioning into or out of unconsciousness, or whether they were happening when the brain was completely shut down. She seized on the fact that some veridical accounts incorporate accurate descriptions of such things as the surgical instruments used during operations or the resuscitation techniques performed whilst the patient was flat lining. The sceptics have always contended these surprisingly accurate descriptions were made possible by patients watching medical TV dramas such as ER, where they picked up the details from watching these shows. This was never a likely explanation since these kinds of TV programs do not give a true representation of events which happen in real intensive care units and operating theatres. In fact watching shows such as these under the impression they are an accurate source of information is highly misguided. But anyway Sartori decided to test the hypothesis. She used two different control groups – one group consisting of people alleging to have had an NDE, and the other group consisting of people who reported no such experience. The results couldn’t have been clearer. The people who had no experience but who were asked to guess at the resuscitation techniques and surgical procedures did not have the foggiest idea of what happened. They were not even close. So much for the ER hypothesis. The other control group on the other hand, those consisting of veridical NDEs, were able to provide highly accurate accounts of what happened during their resuscitation.

As a side not there were other issues Dr. Penny Sartori addressed in her research, such as the effects of endorphins, abnormal blood gases or low oxygen levels – the very things typically used by sceptics to explain away the near death experience. Her finding lead her to make the statement:-

 “all the current sceptical arguments against near death experiences were not supported by the research”.

This has been the consistent findings of subsequent NDE studies conducted since then. The traditional arguments against NDEs are looking quite worn. They are simply not supported by the data.

Penny Sartori’s work earned her a PhD in 2005.

 

 

End note

It is often claimed that the burden of proof falls squarely on believers of survival of consciousness at death, since science is not on their side. I would claim the opposite. The burden of proof falls squarely on the sceptics and materialists. Because science is not on their side.

  

“Thought is real. Physical is the illusion. Ironic isn’t it.” – What Dreams May Come

Humanistic Spirituality

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The concept of evil, a seductive explanation for the many horrors perpetrated by mankind over the millennia of human existence, persists and thrives to this day. To contemplate man’s inhumanity to man, even from just the last century alone, and not to feel a deep sense of revulsion and loathing of human inflicted suffering seems tantamount to exhibiting an indifference typically associated with sociopaths. The need for a explanation cries out to anyone who reflects on the myriad of historical cases of brutality, conflict and social injustice.

How are we to make sense of this? Can there ever be a satisfying explanation without invoking some kind of concept of evil?

It is not obvious we can. The idea of human morality existing as a purely relative and artificial man made construct, essentially an expression of our emotional response to situations and events, doesn’t seem immediately likely. Nonetheless various powerful philosophical arguments have been leveled against the notion of absolute morality, ones that when considered with an open mind are hard to ignore and brush under the carpet, as inconvenient and unattractive as the conclusions they lead to might seem to be. And it becomes even harder to refrain from a position of cultural relativism when confronted with the bewildering array of different cultural perspectives that I have personally been privy to, coming from a working life exposing me to many different ethnic groups and culturally diverse people. What seems so obviously wrong from one cultural perspective can quickly dissolve away when fully understood from the viewpoint of a person from another culture. And conversely what appears correct and proper from one’s own cultural perspective can quickly become more dubious and tentative when exposed to the moral standpoint of someone from a fundamentally different background.

I feel that American society in particular is full of glaring moral contradictions, to the point it can seem almost laughable if it wasn’t for the sad and tragic consequences that certain beliefs and misconceptions can ultimately lead to, and that are commonly held to be absolutely true in America at the present time. Indeed the idea of one’s own country always fighting for the liberty of other more primitive countries with their ‘incorrect’ political systems is both dangerous and misguided. I am not suggesting that America is necessarily the ‘bad guy’ and its enemies the ‘good guys’, merely suggesting the converse is not necessarily the case either. And I am not suggesting that the politics of wars are primarily driven by this perception of moral superiority. However the public support and sanctioning of wars is often partly fueled by this notion that we are always without question the liberators and freedom fighters who have the moral high-ground to displace existing regimes that fall short of our own perceived standards of government.

If we adopt the position that morality is subjective then where do we stand on the issue of how we should treat each other? Isn’t adopting the relative morality position simply carte blanche to treat other people however the hell we want to, regardless of the suffering we might inflict? If there is no absolute right or wrong then who’s to say I can’t go out and rob my neighbour if I am a bit short of cash this month and need to pay an outstanding gas bill? Or sell class-A drugs on the side to make ends meet? Without appeal to some kind of moral framework there doesn’t appear to be any particular reason why I can’t do these things (providing I don’t get caught of course).

I don’t agree with atheists on many things (with respect to their atheistic views) but there is one area where they may have some kind of a valid viewpoint – humanism. My understanding of humanism is that of being a movement that challenges the notion that we even need to appeal to a higher power or higher spiritual purpose in the first place in order to inform our conduct. We all know what suffering feels like, and we all know what it feels like to suffer at the hands of others, to varying degrees and in different ways of course. Can we not use these experiences as a basis for informing our behaviour toward others? Is it not enough that we know what it is like to suffer at the hands of others and as a result do not wish to inflict that same suffering on other human beings?

As I have gone through life and progressively become more acutely aware of what it feels like to suffer as a result of the actions and behavior of other people, be it through acts of pure maliciousness or acts of indifference, it has made me ever keener not to subject others to the same kind of suffering that I have gone through in my lifetime. I don’t feel the need to acquire the approval of a higher power or deity in order to do this. And I don’t feel the need to appeal to a higher spiritual purpose either. I merely need the empathy to understand and appreciate that others suffer the same way I do if I treat them like I have been treated myself by others. This provides me with all the qualification and legitimacy I need to essentially follow Jesus’ primary command – ‘do unto others how you would have them do unto you’.

Spirituality and religion should not be needed as an impetus for us to behave in a humane way to our fellow human beings. And the thorny issue of the objective existence of moral principles or lack thereof should not impede our desire to refrain from behavior that inflicts suffering on other people.

“A humanist is someone who does the right thing even though she knows that no one is watching.”
– Dick McMahan, New York humanist, 2004

“Of moral purpose I see no trace in Nature.  That is an article of exclusively human manufacture – and very much to our credit.”
– T H Huxley

Can I see another’s woe, and not be in sorrow too? Can I see another’s grief, and not seek for kind relief?

For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.

William Blake