Friday, February 20, 2009


The notion that souls depart and live on in another world comes to every child sooner or later as a cultural transmission. It may be negatively slanted (“Ignorant people believe…”) or positively; the fact remains that people don’t discover this point of view; they inherit it. Any kind of investigation thereafter is thus a second-order activity. Some people in every generation get engaged in the debate; they seriously ask themselves if the tales they’ve heard are true or false; if individuals go much beyond that, they’re part of a kind of enterprise.

Assuming my own experience is average, most people learn about these things from figures of authority (grandmothers, impressive aunts, etc.). Outer circles of adults confirm what they have heard. There is broad consensus on the matter. It’s part of the culture. Thus it is disbelief in the cultural transmission that requires initiative, not acceptance. But that initiative is also aided by processes of enlightenment. In our day “achieving” disbelief is a part of growing up; we discover that it’s not the storks that bring the babies—and that the dead stay in the grave. Human personalities, however, are interestingly layered. The cynical, bright, adult layer floats on top of an archaic world of childhood feeling, and in certain circumstances people can descend again and, from within a deeper layer, they can actually believe what they deny on their brittle surface— namely that mother, dad, or the child is still alive up there, somewhere, in heaven. We are more complex than we seem.

Two Approaches. But let’s look at the more conscious processes of resolving the debate. Two alternatives are open; they are both used in a mixed form. One is a process of reasoning from patterns of reality; that’s the philosophical approach. The other is based on experiencing or evaluating empirical evidence. In the West that evidence is usually associated with communications with the dead, with apparitions and, since the 1970s anyway, with near death experience reports. Reincarnation studies, although pioneered by Ian Stevenson from the West, are predominantly based on reports of experiences provided by people in the eastern world.

I will explore the philosophical approach some other time, but note here that that approach produces as strong an argument as any; indeed, in my opinion, it is the most persuasive. Those who think this way, however, can point to the best empirical evidence as confirmation.

What Constitutes Evidence? How do we know that NDE reports are true, that mediums are really communication with someone dead, or that apparitions are the dead? Interestingly enough, mere reports of having been to heaven, claims by mediums that Grandpa sends his love, or statements, however amazed, that Joe appeared to me and held out his arms as if to embrace me—none of this is hard evidence. Hallucination, self-deception, or fraud may be the explanation. The only thing that constitutes real evidence is some kind of information from the dead (or near-dead) to the living of a certain kind. But of what kind? The information must contain something only the personality on the other side could possibly know or could only obtain over there.

I stress the centrality of information on purpose. The very fact that such information is necessary to establish the evidentiary value of the seeming contact has led to a positivistic interpretation of such phenomena. Before we get to that, some examples now to make these matters more concrete.

  • A person, a teenager, say, reports an NDE. As part of that account, she claims to have seen Aunt Elizabeth in heaven. Aunt Lizzy was part of a group, including grandma and grandpa, receiving the teenager up there. Now it so happens that the teenager’s family had just recently heard of Aunt Lizzy’s death in California. The death took place some time after the teenager was hospitalized in a severe accident. The teenager didn’t and couldn’t have known that Aunt Lizzy had passed on. The teenager’s knowledge, therefore, is taken as hard evidence of another world.
  • In a séance a woman, Jean, learns, listening to a medium, that her late husband is very much upset that Jean sold what the medium calls the “leather bindings” which had been Jean’s husband’s pride and joy. Jean had met the medium for the first time this very evening. Jean is bowled over by this information. Her husband had owned a very valuable set of old leather-bound books, antiques that he had purchased as a young man. And, indeed, Jean had recently sold them to an antiquarian at a very decent price with lots of second thoughts.
  • A woman, Margaret, awakens at night. In a dim light, but unmistakably visible, she sees the figure of her husband standing there in combat uniform. His left hand is extended toward her in a gesture of greeting. The whole of her husbands left side is covered in blood; he appears to be standing on one leg. Weeks later she learns that her husband died after emergency amputation of his left arm and leg necessitated by the explosion of an improvised explosive device. The date of his death coincides with the date of her vision.
In each of these illustrative cases—they are not actual cases although just such cases are common—an element of information is present apparently proving that only a paranormal or spiritual faculty could have conveyed the information from sender to recipient.

Super-Psi. Indeed such cases, and such evidence, are powerfully indicative of the truth of survival claims. It strikes me as rather interesting that one element of humanity simply can’t accept such evidence. Thus from within the very center of paranormal studies has arisen a new explanation to discount the evidence; that’s super-psi. This doctrine emerged in the twentieth century as a counter to the survival hypothesis; in effect it materializes the spiritual.

To put the matter as simply as possible, the advocates of super-psi explain all paranormal phenomena, not least cases indicative of survival, by means of telepathy and other similar so-called psychic powers. These are considered to be universally present in humanity but overlaid by sensory information. Super-psi would explain each of the three cases above. The teenager did not see Aunt Lizzy in heaven but, instead, picked up the fact that she had died telepathically from other members of her family and had then woven that fact into a fantasy while in a semi-conscious state; the entire near-death experience was nothing but a fantasy. In the second case, the medium managed to pick up information about the leather-bound antiques Jean had sold, her misgivings about the sale, and the value of those books to her husband, by telepathic means from Jean herself. No communication with the dead needs to be assumed here. In the third case, Margaret’s vision of her husband was simply her own telepathic reception of his final agonies. Super-psi, therefore, is able to explain it all using what its proponents envision as ordinary but usually hidden human power. No heaven, no beyond—and death retains its sting.

Super-psi proponents can and do make claims for psi far more fantastical than any survival hypothesis. The very fact that such an explanation could emerge and get some traction at all, especially in a field traditionally comprehensive in its approach, suggests that in the case of survival, as in every other, the empirical approach must be judiciously combined with a philosophical inquiry to produce the total picture.

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