The 2013 Society of Psychical Research Conference, Part II

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I finally have the time to continue my report of the 2013 SPR Conference in Swansea. The second paper offered a fascinating account of a sad chapter in the history of parapsychology, Dr. Soal’s falsification of data that rendered all his findings suspect. In their paper, “Dr. Soal: A Psychic Enigma,” Donald West and Betty Markwick studied Soal’s later research findings which had not been considered in earlier studies documenting fraud. Unfortunately, they found clear evidence of fraud in Soal’s later studies in the form of answers being altered in order to raise ESP scores. They suggest that perhaps Dr. Soal believed in psi so much that he felt he had to offer conclusive data to convince other scientists to accept psi. Unfortunately, Soal’s fraud increased skepticism of psi among scientists, even though it was parapsychologists themselves who discovered and publicized the fraud. Who know what motivated Dr. Soal—what we do know is that the damage he did to parapsychology has not fully been repaired.

My own paper, “The Principle of Credulity and Testimonial Evidence for Psi,” appeals to Thomas Reid’s notion that one should trust another person’s purported testimony unless there is good reason to think otherwise. I discuss the use of the Principle of Credulity in philosopher Richard Swinburne’s discussion of the evidence for miracles. Swinburne defends the general trustworthiness of people’s claims that they have experienced a miracle, arguing against David Hume’s thesis that natural explanations for purported miracles are always stronger than supernatural ones. I defend the Principle of Credulity from attacks by analytic philosophers such as Quine and from the postmodern critique of philosophers such as Derrida and Foucault. I argue that in general people’s claims of having experienced psi should be trusted unless there are very strong reasons to think otherwise.

David Vernon’s paper, “Exploring the Possibility of Precognitive Priming,” taking off, of course, from the work of Daryl Bem and his colleagues. After I heard the paper, the evidence for precognitive priming does not seem to be consistent across researchers, and it seems to me that the experimenter effect may be playing a role in the different results arising from similar studies.

The always entertaining and colorful character Sean O’Donnell presented a paper entitled “Awkward Questions Revisited: Ameliorations Proposed.” He strongly defends the notion that psi is a learned skill and that a person can improve over time by extensive practice. This is a claim also made by many of those involved in remote viewing studies. It seems reasonable that people may differ in how much they might accomplish through practice, just as not everyone can play the violin with equal skill. If practice is essential for improving psi, then for me this raises the question whether psi can be understood on a craft-like model in which practice makes the ability to access psi “second nature” in the Aristotelian sense.

David Wilson’s paper, “The Spiritualist Development Circle as Laboratory: Some Reflections on Methodology Arising from Apprentice-Participation” was fascinating in that Professor Wilson is both an academic parapsychologist and a practicing medium. His account of the Spiritualist Development Circle illustrates that mediums take their craft seriously and work hard to improve their abilities. He also noted the differences between various Spiritualist groups, with some being more traditionally religious (“Christian”) than others.

Rachel Browning presented a paper on “The Relationship Between Physical Phenomena and Electronic Voice Phenomena Reported in Séances with a Physical Circle from 2008 to 2013.” Electronic voice phenomena fascinate me, especially since when I go on investigations I pick up more voices than anyone else in the group—40 vs. 0 or 1. Why that is the case is mysterious—is it my own psychokinesis or am I a medium of some kind. Unfortunately, much EVP evidence is not that strong, with voices saying short phrases, the identity of which very few people agree. I was not impressed with the quality of voices played, though it would not surprise me that EVP would be detected in an attempt to elicit physical phenomena.

Ross Friday’s paper, “I Hear Dead People: Individual Differences in the Perception of Anomalous Voices in Ambiguous Electronic Audio Recordings” focuses on the problem of interpreting what a voice in a particular EVP says. Some sounds that are not voices at all are interpreted as voices. Even when a voice is present, it is rare that, without “priming” from the person who heard the EVP and thinks he knows that it says, that any two people agree on the content of the EVP. The examples from the presentation confirmed the difficulty.

Ann Winsper presented another paper on EVP, “The Psychology of Alleged Electronic Voice Phenomena.” She believes that EVP evidence thus far is weak, and those involved in EVP research must consider ways out of the difficulty of interpreting EVP, especially given the human tendency to hear voices even when all that is present is noise.

Responding to a lack of studies on near-death experiences in Japan, Mika Iwasaki and Tatsu Hirukawa presented a paper, “Near-Death Experiences and their After-effects: 18 Cases from Japan.” They note that the elements of various NDE scales such as Ring’s are present in Japanese NDEs. Their experiences lack the Christian imagery of NDEs in countries where Christianity is the dominant influence, but this is no surprise given the Shinto-Buddhist nature of contemporary Japanese religion. NDEs are interpreted through cultural filters; however, some elements remain stable—the feeling of peace, a bright light, in some cases dead relatives (or the god of the dead). Iwasaki and Hirukawa’s study fills a major gap in NDE research in Asia.

Although Peter Fenwick spoke last due to his busy schedule as a physician, I will discuss his talk now in the order of the original program. His talk was, “Do End of Life Experiences and Cardiac Arrest OBEs Contribute to Our Understanding of Survival?” Those who know Dr. Fenwick’s work will not be surprised that he does believe that such experiences best support a survival explanation. As a philosopher I wish to make two points: (1) clinical death is not death—it is a “near-death” state, and when Dr. Fenwick as well as Dr. Parnia refer to cardiac arrest as actual death they are being philosophically sloppy. Death is a state from which one does not return absent a miracle of God. Now near-death experiences may not be explainable in terms of brain processes, which would mean a paranormal experience is taking place, and it is also possible that the experience can support a minimally survalist life after death. Super-psi is another issue NDE researchers ought to consider—could the events, or at least some of the events, in an NDE be explained by the experiencer’s super-psi or someone elses.

I wanted to sightsee in Swansea, so unfortunately I missed three presentations on precognition; below are their titles and authors:

Suschat Meshram, “Precognitive Dreams – A REM Sleep Fourth Dimensional Consciousness”

Fernando de Pablos, “The Arrows of Time, Precognitive Dreams and the Human Brain”

Fergus Hines, “A New Approach to Precognition.”

Professor de Pablos kindly gave me a copy of his book, and if he is reading, yes, I still plan to review it! When I first began to study parapsychology, I was surprised by the strong evidence for precognition. There are possible implications for the nature of time and for our experience of time, some radical. What if time itself is fluid? What does that do to the stability of our lives?

I caught the tail end of Carolyn Watt’s paper, “Dream Precognition in the Sleep Laboratory.” It would be no surprise if such precognition is found because of the results of the Maimonides study. Dreaming is probably the state in which most people claim to have precognitive experiences—when the sensory stimuli are mitigated and other powers of the mind can come through.

Neil Spring’s paper, “The Ghost Hunters. What might have happened at Borley and Price’s Laboratory” offers a fascinating account of the equipment Borley and Price had and the methods they used to “hunt ghosts.” Harry Price, not to be confused with the philosopher H. H. Price, was one of the first people to market himself as a ghost hunter—and he did an excellent job of self-promotion. While questions arose concerning his claims he made, he remains the intellectual father of the “ghost hunting groups” that are so popular today.

Tony Percy’s paper, “The Selection and Use of Instrumentation in the Investigation of the Paranormal,” is an approach by a ghost hunter on which equipment to use in an investigation. He brought several items—cameras, video cameras, etc., and focused on those he found most useful in his studies.

Steven Parson’s paper, “It’s not Rocket Science!” offered what Parson describes in his reply below as “a personal observation and was aimed squarely at the frequent failures by Psychologists and Parapsychology when it comes to making to objective measurements of physical variables such as Temperature, Electromagnetism or Infrasound and a call for an adherence to the existing measurement standards such as those by the ISO etc. To illustrate this my presentation used the Radin & Rebman Psychomanteum and the French Haunt Project as examples.” I suggest that those who read this post also read Steve Parson’s full response below, including a conference abstract and a reply to comments I had earlier on this post regarding the Parascience website. As anyone working online knows, it is easy, without the nuances of speech, to always communicate what we really mean in an online format, and I appreciate Parson’s efforts to correct any errors I have made and any misunderstandings anyone might have of his work.

A phenomenological approach to paranormal experiences is valuable in bringing out what people subjectively perceive when they experience a paranormal event. Aaron Lomas presents such an account in “Phenomenological Aspects of the Apparitional Experience:  A Current Study of How Individuals Have Experienced Such Anomalies.” Those familiar with the literature on apparitions would know that most, though not all, apparitions appear to be ordinary people, though in some cases they appear to be transparent. Lomas’ account showed the unity and diversity of apparitional experiences.

SPR members know that David Luke will present a paper with an interesting title, and 2013 was no exception. His paper, “The Men (and Woman) Who Stare at (Sheep and) Goats: Beliefs, Expectations, Experiences, Neurology and Gender in Haunt Site Vigils” reveals the role that expectations play in a person’s experience of an alleged haunt site. It is a well-know phenomena in psychology that expectations play a role in human experiences. Beliefs help focus the ways that human beings interpret experiences of all kinds, not just paranormal experiences. That such factors play a role in a person’s experience of a haunting site is no more or no less than the way human beings access experience in general.

Cal Cooper’s paper, “Helpful or Harmful? Anomalous Experiences in Bereavement,” affirms that in most afterdeath experiences by the bereaved, the effect is positive, though there are rare cases in which the effect is negative. If there was a bitter relationship between the deceased and a particular relative, if the deceased were to communicate, the result might not be a friendly greeting. However, most people find such experiences positive, and they aid in the grieving process.

Overall, this was one of the best SPR conferences I have attended and hope I can say the same about the upcoming September 2014 conference.

The 2013 Annual International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research: Part I

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The 2013 annual conference of the Society for Psychical Research took place at Swanea University in Swansea, Wales, UK from September 6-8. This was one of the most interesting conference I have attended, since my primary interest in psychical research is the survival issue, and many of the papers dealt with survival. I was able to attend most sessions; I wanted to see the ruins of Oystermouth Castle when I was there, so I missed some sessions to walk to Mumbles. It was a grand site, well worth seeing.

 Alan Murdie did a fine job as Chairman of the Program Committee and MC. He is a worthy successor to Bernard Carr, who has done a splendid job the past thirty years in the same role. The first paper, by John Poynton, was entitled “Different Vibrations or Different Spaces? A Basic Question in Psi Research.” As I listened to this fascinating paper, my mind wandered back to Sunday School class when I was in high school. The teacher, Ken Schott, said that Heaven “could be in this very room, but in a different dimension,” and since then I have been intrigued with that idea. Professor Poynton surveyed possible locations of OBE survival, dividing the options into:

 (1) single field theories, in which there is one single physical space (this he called “the common view” and

 (2) many field theories, in which physical and OBE bodies occupy two different spaces of some kind (which he stated is the more common view in scientific settings).

 Problems with single field theories include:

 (1)   How can the OBE body displace matter—“Kant’s Problem.”

(2)   OBE space does not seem to be wholly isomorphic with physical space.

(3)   OBE experiences are of a different quality than experiences in physical space.

(4)   The theories are illogical—they seem to posit an outdated medieval world which Heaven and Hell are literally above the physical world.

 In many field theories, different spaces may be viewed simultaneously—this can easily reduce to the single field idea. There are two many field alternatives to single field theories:

(1)   Unnested—different spatial fields/worlds.

(2)   Nexted—different superimposed spatial fields with a different hyperspace with faster vibrations.

 Stevenson and Whiteman seem to assume non-nested spaces.

The nested view is held by the spiritualists—it holds there is an objectively real spirit world in the same space as we exist, but the matter vibrates more rapidly.

There may be a hierarchy of spaces, such as physical space, the space of paranormal experiences, and the space of mystical experiences.

Theorists suggest two ways layers may be organized:

(1)   Like layers through a cake (Carr, Smythes)

(2)   Like a Russian doll (Findley)

Prof. Poynton raised the important issue of whether human beings are capable of experiencing a four-dimensional world. Kant denied that we could [for Kant, space—as well as time—are forms of sensibility that structure our sense experience and are necessary and universal forms in the mind that we impose on the world. Kant believe the form of sensibility that is space to be three dimensional by necessity]. Prof. Poynton mentioned a fascinating account of an NDE by the Roman historian Plutarch in which the NDEr could see in four directions at once.

Prof. Poynton also raises the interesting Aristotelian point of how much do we know what fundamental processes (potentiality and actualization of potential)  that underlie the manifestation for an observer of any spatial world and the object experienced? How much do (and can) we know about the constitution of non-physical objects.

 Michael Whiteman uses words like “light” or “noetic” space. [Here I would point out that a medieval thinker overlooked in many discussions of psi is Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253), who believed that all was made of light and that light is the medium between matter and spirit]. Jean-Pierre Jourdan prefers to posit a “fifth dimension.”  Bernard Carr prefers the term “hyperphysics.” His position is that the extra dimensions are time-like—different levels of the “specious present” but in the same space.

Professor Poynton’s paper was one of the most interesting at the conference. It was, by nature, highly speculative, but the speculations on multiple spaces (or times) seem reasonable and hopefully can generate further research that can aid in our understanding of OBEs, NDEs, and a possible “afterlife world.”

Theodicy and Animal Suffering

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Four ten-day-old kittens

Four ten-day-old kittens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Too many attempts at developing a theodicy, a broad-based account of why God allows evil and suffering in the universe, take account only of human suffering. Either writers do not deem it important, or else in Neo-Cartesian mold they deny either than animals have emotions or that because they do not find a sense of anomie in pain that they do not suffer in the way that human beings suffer. The Neo-Cartesian route, though still defended by certain Evangelical Protestant scholars who want a cheap way to get God off the hook for animal suffering, is so far from our experience of animals to be absurd. When will Calvinist philosophers stop try8ing to find a cheap way out of a real problem by denying it’s a problem? It is the propensity of some Evangelical scholars to deny the hard issues of their position: the Bible not being inerrant on historical and scientific matters, the evidence for some kind of macroevolution (even if more than Darwinian mechanisms are insufficient to explain all of evolution), the accounts of God in the Bible as an arbitrary, angry, jealous individual who kills with as much ease as He creates–and the problem of animal suffering. Not all Evangelical scholars agree with the Neo-Cartesians (to be fair, this includes Calvinist scholars–my intense dislike of Calvinism encourages me to be rather expressive emotionally).

The Neo-Cartesian position some scholars espouse has been used to justify abusing animals since “they don’t really understand pain like we do” and since “humans are over the other animals”.Despite the claim of some that animals have a sum total of positive emotions that outweigh any bad, one should also consider their short lives in the wild, often spend in running from predators and seeking sufficient food. Human beings have burdened animals with enormous tasks, The history of man’s treatment of animals has, at best, been a “mixed bag” (no pun intended). Abuse and/or abandonment of pets is a growing problem, especially during difficult economic times. Thus both evolutionary biology and its nature “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson) and man’s abuse has resulted in a tremendous amount of animal suffereing. How could a good God allow such suffering.

Evolutionary biology provides little help, for animals must pass on their genes to their offspring for the species to survive. Survival–life–is the necessary condition for all other good things in life. Why the food chain? Why so much pain due to predatory relationships between carnivores and omnivores and their prey?

Why is there so much human abuse of animals–dog fights, cock fights, beating pets until they are bruised and bleeding. Does God simply overlook such pain and suffering? If man, the steward of the animals, fails to exercise stewardship and instead exercises cruel domination, do animals have any recourse in a just and merciful God?

Francis Collins, John Hick, and C. S. Lewis have provided attempts to explain animal suffering within an evolutionary framework. For Hick, animal suffering is the required result of God using evolution to bring forth life. Lewis posits a fall of some kind to explain animal pain. Without an eschatological dimension, as I have mentioned in previous posts, animal pain has no redemption–and Romans 8 makes clear that the entire creation, not merely man, will be subject o the saving power of God. John Wesley correctly understands that animal resurrection is a possible implication from the Romans passage.

I do not believe that such resurrection involves just the species. God’s concern is for individuals, and millions of individual animals have suffered over the millenia without a smidgeon of support Duns Scotus was correct in holding that each being is individuated by haecceiitas, a unique formality that contracts the individual natures into an individual thing that is incommunicable. Only God knows the haecceitas in this life. It is arbitrary to say that only the human body is resurrected–why not animals? If God cares about each blade of grass, surely He cares enough about individual animals not to allow them to be annihilated at death. Alternatives allow no justice for the suffering endured by animals (or by people), In raising humans and non-human animals, God reveals His mercy and love in extending the gift of eternal life to the sentient beings of His creation. To deny this is to deny the love of God for His creation and His concern for the “least of these.”

Duns Scotus, God’s Ability to Keep Forms in Existence, and Animal Immortality

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John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November 8, 1308) ...

John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November 8, 1308) was a theologian and philosopher. Some think that during his tenure at Oxford, the notion of what differentiates theology from philosophy and science began in earnest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is well-known that John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) had a more voluntarist bent in his philosophy than did St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). Scotus, writing in light of the Condemnation of 1277, in which the Bishop of Paris declared a number of Aristotelian propositions to be heretical, was careful to stay in line with current church teaching. Now the two great medieval thinkers would agree that God can do anything logically possible that is consistent with His nature. Aquinas, however, included all ten commandments under the natural law, while Duns Scotus held that the commandments dealing with human conduct were consistent with the natural law, but could be overridden by God given particular circumstances. Another issue to which Scotus devotes attention is whether God could maintain plant or animal souls (forms) in existence in the same way that the human soul is naturally immortal. (Unlike Aquinas, who believes in absolute proof of the immortality of the human soul, Scotus suggests that although probable arguments can be given to justify the soul’s immortality, conclusive arguments are lacking. Scotus, unlike Aquinas, emphasizes the freedom of God to maintain plant and animal souls in everlasting existence if He so chooses. Now Aquinas says that when a plant or animal dies, the soul is corrupted with the body, since plant and animal souls depend on a functioning body for their existence. Scotus accepts that position, but also emphasizes, as usual, God’s freedom.

What is significant about Scotus’ view has to do with the question of any child who has suffered the loss of an animal companion: “Will my (dog, cat, ferret, rabbit, hamster, etc.) go to heaven? For Aquinas, the answer is a definite “no.” Neither plants nor non-human animals will live in Heaven, but only human beings among embodied creatures. The four elements–earth, air, fire, and water will remain, though in a perfected fashion. When this world comes to an end, so do all the animals.

This is an uncomfortable position for the Thomist to hold, especially given the cosmic eschatological statements of Romans 8 which seem to imply that all of creation will be redeemed. It also ignores the great love between people and their companion animals, a love that is a good for the universe, a love that surely does not die forever with the animal’s death. Given the mistreatment of animals by human beings, it would be fair for animals to share in the eschaton.

If God wanted to keep a dog soul in existence (or a cat soul, a ferret soul, and so forth), according to Scotus He could do so. This does not imply that God would do so, but given the nature of God as love, it is difficult to believe that He would not raise those animals that are precious to human beings–and given God’s plenitude, why would he not raise other animals to whom individuality has worth?  A soul is a form, an informational pattern that acts to organize matter in a particular way. Even if it is not normally ontologically separate from a particular body, according to Scotus, God could miraculously maintain a dog or cat soul in existence up to an infinite future. Then at the resurrection, God would create a new body and allow that animal soul to inform that new piece of matter, perfect the composite, and by His grace grant eternal life to that animal. Scotus’ emphasis on the freedom of God gives more hope to the believer that animal resurrection may take place. That is my hope and prayer.

Methods of “Expanding Consciousness” and Christianity

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digital-drugs-binaural-beatThis past Saturday I spent a day at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina. Paul Radamacher, Director of the Monroe Institute in Virginia, played some CDs designed to induce expanded consciousness. That expanded consciousness might be as dramatic as an out-of-body experience, or it could be a slight time distortion. My own experience was of near timelessness–in the last session, which lasted 45 minutes, I felt as if only a minute or two had passed. It was similar to waking up after anesthesia, but I did not fall asleep during that final session (I cannot say the same for the others!). The sense of relaxation was such as I have never felt before. My wish was to be able to talk with my friend Karen B., who died in May of 2010. So I prayed that “With Thy permission, God, could you allow me to see and talk to my friend Karen today?”

Although I did not have an experience of Kar during the sessions, I did have a dream that night. I was walking beside Kar, and I put my arm on her shoulder, which was strong, muscular, again (she had been an athletic woman). We sat down, I looked into her eyes, and she talked about her friends who still lived–I do not remember the content of the conversation, only her love and concern. I prayed, “God, why must she stay dust–could You keep her this way and bring her back to earth?” Kar looked at me with a look of such love and concern that it felt as if my grief was breaking her heart. It was a sense of unconditional love engulfing me.

I do not know whether my experience was just a dream or an actual visitation by Kar. All I know is that I felt comforted when I awoke, and I was thankful to God for allowing such an experience. Mass was especially meaningful as I contemplated the resurrection of the dead.

One question about methods of “expanding consciousness” is whether they are compatible with Christianity. I would say that they are as long as they do not lead a person away from orthodoxy and as long as a Christian is only using the experience as a means to an end rather than as the end itself. Some people worship the experience or the method of gaining the experience, and this is a form of idolatry.  No one should boast about a transcendent experience, but instead use it to build the faith of those with doubts, and in the case of my experience, to give comfort to those people bereaved of Kar and to those people in general who have doubts about an afterlife. Any transcendent experience is a gift of grace by the permission of God, and God should be praised and thanked for His precious gift. Experiences should also be tested by the light of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason to make sure that they are compatible with the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. With these precautions in mind, I would recommend the Monroe Institute’s programs or other programs for “expanding consciousness” for traditional Christians as long as they are used in the proper way, and with the realization that any transcendent experience remains the gift of God’s grace.

Survival Research and Culturally-Based Conclusions

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I have just returned from an excellent talk presented by Dr. Pamela Rae Heath, a medical doctor and leading researcher in parapsychology, at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina. She spoke on a number of issues in mind-matter interaction (MMI) or what is also termed psychokinesis (PK). I was pleased that her talk, while containing some of her conclusions that go beyond current evidence, was for the most part based on the best current research in parapsychology.

However, prior to her talk, I browsed her book, Handbook to the Afterlife. The quality of her talk was a surprise given the loose extrapolation from the survival evidence I saw in her book. Basically, life after death is envisioned as a process of personal growth that parallels growth and development (at least mental and spiritual development) in the present life and which includes a reincarnation component. This goes way beyond the actual survival evidence and was based, to some extent, on “channeling.”

How could someone give a scholarly presentation to the lay public and yet have a book that would fit into any fluff-brained New Ager‘s library? I fear that Dr. Heath was guilty of the same thing of which she accuses religious interpreters of MMI–that they interpret their experiences in terms of their cultural expectations. Now if Dr. Heath said, “That’s okay–we cannot avoid cultural expectations when interpreting data,” I would have no problem. But she seemed to assume (and I may have misunderstood) that parapsychological lacks such cultural expectations when it examines the data. That is simply false, and when we are dealing with survival research, cultural assumptions are unavoidable.

Take Dr. Heath’s position on the afterlife. It fits well into the American idea of evolutionary progress which has continued, unlike in Europe, to heavily influence American thought. Europe has suffered through two World Wars on its soil; America has 9-11, which was but one attack, and the War Between the States, which is distant to most Americans. Thus Americans buy into the idea of progress–and a life after death of continual evolutionary progress fits into American culture. The notion of multiple reincarnations, which in Eastern religions is something to be avoided if possible, becomes a positive thing in American New Age thought. A Hindu or Theravada Buddhist would be horrified by the American New Age interpretation of reincarnation.

I will be the first to admit that I am biased against reincarnation. As an orthodox Anglican Christian, I cannot accept reincarnation unless the evidence for it were so overwhelming that only a fool would reject it. That is not currently the case, even with Ian Stevenson‘s research. Stephen Braude has pointed out serious methodological flaws with the Stevenson research (for which see his book Immortal Remains). The problem of super-psi also plagues survival research; it seems to me that the best mediumship evidence (Leonora Piper‘s readings, for example) and the best near-death experience cases support at least a minimal survival of death of the individual personality in some form. But this does not justify a specific picture of the afterlife, at least at this stage of the research. Current research would be incompatible with non-survivalists and with the “no-self” view of Theravada Buddhism in which only five aggregates survival with no survival of the self. Beyond that, the research paints a picture of survival that is compatible with some Jewish views, some Christian views, with Pure Land Buddhist views, and even with the American progressive view that Dr. Heath espouses. But the evidence does not clearly support one of those views over another. For me, the evidence is a preparation for faith–it removes a barrier to my acceptance of the full Christian revelation on life after death. For Dr. Heath, the evidence supports a more “secular” or “natural” developmental view of life after death in which we evolve to higher levels of human accomplishment, with reincarnation being a part of that process. My point is that both Dr. Heath and I, to some extent, interpret the survival evidence in terms of our own cultural expectations. To expect that anyone could do otherwise is naive.

“Cosmic Memory” and the Mind of God

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Harvard University image of Whitehead, circa 1924

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There has been a great deal of talk about “cosmic memory,” “Akashic Records,” and so forth among both mainstream parapsychologists and New Agers. This is an old idea that was revived not only by Theosophists, but also by philosophers such as William James, and there are some affinities with Jung’s “collective unconscious.” Ervin Laszlo has written a great deal on “Akashic memory,” as Edgar Mitchell and Stanley Krippner accept some version of cosmic memory placed in the framework of contemporary physics.

Such views remind me of Alfred North Whitehead‘s notion of “objective immortality.” For Whitehead, like contemporary advocates of cosmic memory, every event in nature is interconnected. As events constantly flow into the past, they are recorded in the mind of God, where they are stored forever. Whitehead himself denies subjective immortality, the notion that individual humans, for example, will live forever. But he accepts the idea that God remembers every event, and in that sense everything is immortal. These memories enrich the life of God, and He can use them as He continually aids the world in enfolding toward greater enrichment of value. Thus, Whitehead accepts a theistic (specifically a panentheistic) view of cosmic memory as existing in the mind of God.

None of these positions would suit traditional Christianity–but there is a version of cosmic memory that can–that of St. Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, God eternally holds every object and event in His mind. Although that is not the same as something existing in re, in itself, in another sense existing in God’s mind is more real than existing in re. Now Aquinas believes in subjective immortality; that is, he believes that God will raise all humans from the dead, restoring their souls to new bodies that are in a real sense continuous with the old. While Aquinas’ version of the afterlife sounds boring (“the beatific vision of God,” in which the saved contemplate God forever), as the late Father Joseph Owens of The Medieval Institute of the University of Toronto has noted, such an afterlife need not be boring at all. If all events and all places, everything that has ever existed or happened, exist virtually in God’s mind, then a resurrected person could have an experience of walking through the fields of his childhood. This sounds like a George Berkeley-like view of Heaven, or perhaps H. H. Price’s image-world with God as a ground of stability. My one caveat would be that if I exist in such a world, I would want the animals I have loved to be really, not just virtually, present–with their conscious lives restored and intact. If all else is composed of images in the mind of God, what would be the practical difference between such a world and a material world? Does the substrate out of which solid material objects is made really make a difference? There would be still be, to use Christian terminology, a “New Heaven and a New Earth.” On this view, the Beatific Vision of God would mark the fulfillment of our materiality rather than its repudiation. And the full truth of cosmic memory would be fulfilled in the ultimate vision of God’s memory playing a role in the blessed life of the resurrected.

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