1: What Constitutes Evidence of Life After Death?
What is ordinarily referred to as evidence is of many different kinds. There are, for example, the measurements and readings on which scientists base their hypotheses; or what the observers of an accident say they saw or heard; or the descriptions by mystics of what they claim to have experienced. These three examples illustrate the great range of what is commonly referred to as evidence and, for convenience, will be referred to as evidence of types (a), (b) and (c).
In (a) the measurements and readings are numerical, and there is little scope for error in recording them. The validity of the actual experiment is provided by its repeatability, and the fact that tests conducted under similar conditions give similar results.
In (b) the use of words presents no problem, but experience shows surprising scope for error in reporting what actually took place. This is shown by an experiment conducted by a professor of law during a lecture on evidence. Unbeknown to the members of his class, the professor had arranged that during his lecture three people should dash into the lecture room; that one of the three, when in front of the class, should fire three blanks from a revolver in quick succession; and that the three intruders should then dash out — with the class encouraged to give chase! The accounts by the students of what they thought had taken place often differed significantly from what had actually happened.’ As the exact reconstruction of an accident is rarely possible, deciding what occurred depends on the overall consistency of the observers’ accounts.
In (c) the experience transcends what is capable of being described in numbers or words, and so in a literal sense is `indescribable’. Moreover, the experience is unique to the individual concerned, so that no direct check is possible on what is being claimed. If, however, the accounts of such experiences, when undergone by different people on differ¬ent occasions, display certain similarities, then the presence of these similarities may have important evidential value.
Generalising: evidence of type (a) is objective; evidence of type (c) is subjective; evidence of type (b) is a combination of the two.
Today’s psychological climate is largely the result of the successes achieved by science during the last 150 years: successes arising from the use of objective data and experiments that are repeatable. But because of these successes, what tends to be overlooked is a realisation of how much of our lives lies outside what science is equipped to investigate. An actual situation almost always involves a subjective element, and events which are exactly repeatable are very rare. Reflection leads to the conclusion that while objective data derived from repeatable experiments can lead to proof and certainty, life as lived is not like this. In practice, certainty is replaced by varying degrees of prob¬ability. The probability that the alarm will go off, that we shall wake up feeling well, that the postman will call, that the car will start, that the train will run, etc., etc. What matters, for normal living, is the degree of probability that these events will happen. And how is this arrived at? Answer — ‘By noting what has happened in the past; by the cumulative evidence of past experience.’ And for most of the time there is little more to be said. But what are we to make of an unusual experience which appears to contravene scientific laws as at present formulated? Such as an apparent case of telepathy or precognition, or an intimation from someone who has died? Such experiences will be referred to as paranormal and have occasioned much interest, difficulty and controversy.
The interest lies partly in the actual happenings, e.g. in the information about a particular individual that may be received by ostensibly paranormal means, and partly in the scientific and philosophic implications of such happenings. To explore the unknown is one thing, and usually welcomed; but to come up with observations and conclusions which run counter to current thinking is another and not infrequently viewed with misgiving. To the latter category belongs the paranormal, because much of what happens or is experi¬enced does not fit into the dominant current outlook of scientific humanism, the view that there is nothing outside the world of the five physical senses and which asserts that, given time, everything will be explicable in terms of physics and chemistry.
Now comes the difficulty. Having regard to the tenacity with which scientific humanism is held in many quarters, the evidence — if it is to be taken seriously — for anything which opposes it has to be very strong. Repeatable and repeated experiments under controlled conditions say the scientists. But these are just the conditions which the student of the paranormal can rarely provide. For more often than not the paranormal is not susceptible to that kind of investigation. As a result the scientific community has tended, albeit with notable exceptions, to give the whole subject the cold shoulder and to ignore it. But the topic has not gone away. Since the end of World War II, there has been a marked upsurge of interest in many aspects of the paranormal, and a small number of devoted researchers have produced results of definite scientific interest. This has led to controversy. On one side are those who take the a priori view that there cannot be anything beyond or outside the world of the five physical senses, and that therefore those who maintain that there is are mistaken. Such people point out — not without some justification — that in the past the whole subject has been shot through with deliberate fraud or unconscious deception, and that therefore whatever is being asserted today has little or no credibility. On the other side are the devoted research groups — very few in the U.K., many more in the U.S.A. — who have been collecting and sifting data and, where possible, experimenting. These groups are totally convinced that the paranormal is a vast area about which we know very little, is worthy of serious investigation, and may prove to be most important. In between are the great majority, both of the general public and of the scientific community, who view the subject, in so far as they view it at all, with an odd mixture of curiosity and unease.
Much of the difficulty impeding progress is due to the impossibility of obtaining objective data from repeated experiments; what was referred to at the beginning of this chapter as evidence type (a). But, as has already been pointed out, this is not the only kind of evidence on which we base our lives, or, indeed, on which the law of the land is founded. Most of the offenders who are sentenced in a court of law for committing a crime, including those which until recently carried the death penalty, are convicted on evidence type (b) — evidence which is a mixture of the objective and subjective, but the overall consistency of which led to a conclusion which was ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
Has this approach to evidence got any application to a study of the paranormal? An unprejudiced answer must surely be that it has. Instead of insisting that the only acceptable data are the results of repeatable experiments under controlled conditions, suppose we take as data the cumulative evidence of reliably recorded happenings. Such evidence exists in plenty in certain well defined areas of paranormal experience (see Chapter 5), and in certain of these areas it may be possible to formulate working hypotheses (not to be confused with established theories). What seems strange is the widespread reluctance to do just this. For example, when some experience or happening indicates the possibility or probability of survival as the simplest explanatory hypothesis, the reaction so often seems to be: ‘We cannot stand for that (i.e. survival). So we shall have to think of some other explanation.’ It is almost as if survival was regarded as the ultimate calamity! Is this, I wonder, because scientific humanism and the attendant belief that nothing exists outside the world of the five physical senses has entered so deeply into the conscious and subconscious minds of the average person that he or she has come to regard the concept of survival as something to be eschewed?
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published March 2016
Size: 203 x 133 mm