The Cosmic Detective Story
I confess that at times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling, to prompt our curiosities and hopes and suspicions all in equal measure, so that, although ghosts . . . and messages from spirits, are always seeming to exist and can never be fully explained away, they also can never be susceptible of full corroboration.
~ William James
The cosmic detective story, what’s that? It is about tracking clues to exploring the mystery of mind, trying to determine the scope of its outreach in nature, and as far as ourselves, the soul’s fate after the body perishes.
In this chapter, we’ll talk about claims regarding the belief in a life after death. This is a key part of the new story of transcendence, and the two previous chapters were steps that move us in that direction. Absolute proof may forever slip away, at least until the final experiment; but meanwhile the subject is full of interesting surprises.
Remarks on a Peculiar Paradox
It seems a paradox, but the main obstacle to belief in life after death is not lack of evidence. In fact, there was never a time in history when (in relative terms) there was more organized data suggestive of postmortem survival.
But still, among the educated masses, belief in an afterlife is probably at an all-time low.
And even among those who have studied the evidence closely, the claims are often hedged and qualified. So, for example, after years of study, Gardner Murphy concluded: “To me, the evidence cannot be by-passed, nor on the other hand can conviction be achieved.”
In speaking of survival data, apart from OBEs and NDEs, I refer to mediumship, apparitions and hauntings, and studies if the reincarnation type. And among these broad types are further sub-divisions. Compiled and analyzed by various societies for psychical research, the scientific study of these phenomena are ignored, played down by most scholars and scientists.
There is much to learn, if you are willing to do some homework. For example, there is the work dealing with so-called cross-correspondence case material (a sub-division of mediumship), much of which remains unanalyzed and unpublished to date. It comprises a small library.
Several things in the background of modern life account for the near absence of interest in these matters. I would say the main thing is the iron curtain of materialism that has been draped over the average human consciousness.
The Global Reign of Materialism
The prevailing climate of thought militates against rational belief in survival. The official party line of the academy is that all things are at bottom material, more broadly, physical. The prevailing creed varies in expression; some of the older and cruder forms (behaviorism) are no longer in vogue. Identity theory, however, which identifies mind with brain mechanisms is held by some votaries of neuroscience.
The life sciences, medical and biological, remain attached to the dogmas of physicalism. So powerful are these that ministers and theologians play down the “supernatural” side of religious experience. The idea of a mental entity enjoying autonomy and, wilder yet, surviving the death of the body, is treated as inherently implausible or just irrelevant. Dualism, in some form essential to the idea of survival, is viewed as the worst scientific heresy.
Materialism as a metaphysical doctrine implies nothing as to the way one might actually live. Metaphysical materialists might be unworldly in morals, devoted to lofty causes, real benefactors of humanity. Conversely, those who profess lofty spirituality may be, and often have been, the worst enemies of the human race.
That said, the supreme values of many are not just declared to be material as a matter of dry metaphysics, but are pursued with passion in daily life. The hard driving materialist values of financial and political powers are regularly the cause of conflict, international politicking and military adventurism. Think of the horrific situation of the Middle East today and think one word: oil—a word that epitomizes rank materialism in action.
As far as the quality of everyday life, practical materialism in everyday life leaves little space to encounter the Transcendent. Techno-modern cultures are increasingly mediated by numbers, passwords, wires, screens, logos, etc., etc., Non-machine-mediated experience is gradually disappearing. In classical and archaic societies, the rite of passage offered a chance, opened a space, to those leaps we call transcendent. Ego-death, incorporated into ritual, was part of the fabric of social existence. The rite of passage made consciousness permeable to alternate realities. Also, pre-modern attitudes toward the dead strengthened the sense of continuity with another dimension of reality.
Ancestor worship in Shintoism, for instance, or the practice of saying Mass for the dead are ways of cultivating our links to the unseen. Materialism as a climate of moral perception neglects the unseen dimension, exalting the immediate and the visible. Egoism is a by-product of myopic materialism, and serves to keep us distracted and unaware of the Transcendent.
Absence of a Coherent World View
The presocratic philosopher, Xenophanes attacked the theology of Homer at the dawn of Western philosophy. Instability of worldview has been widespread in Western consciousness ever since. The rise of critical reason represents one of the most fateful events in human history. It threw open new pathways to change and progress, but also brought along new evils and new dangers.
This in part is clearly due to the relentless impact of scientific progress and technology, as Bryan Appleyard describes it so vividly in the book cited above. The inability to see life as a coherent whole is increasingly difficult. The inner perspective is confused and overcrowded. This contrasts sharply with the technical ability to manipulate the forces of material nature. Technical success in all fields of experience has distracted us from questions of meaning we might otherwise feel moved to reflect on.
The Parapsychological Obstacle to Belief in Survival
Having stated some general reasons for the lack of hospitality to survival evidence, we should look at the substantive objections. It is a paradox that the great obstacle to belief in survival comes from within the field of parapsychology.
Students of the best survival evidence—from the founders of psychical research to now—have been driven to various conclusions. After eliminating everything due to fraud, poor reportage, paramnesia, cryptomnesia, and so forth, one retains two options: either that some form of survival is a fact of nature or that the appearance of survival is engineered by deceptive psi from living agents.
After immersing oneself in the details of the mediumship of Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Leonard and other gifted mediums, we are forced to decide between one of two options; no obvious third course seems tenable. Either option is momentous: the reality of an afterlife or the reality of a massive unconscious conspiracy to produce illusions of an afterlife.
Psi permits us to believe that what looks like a message from another dimension is in fact a seductive deception. After all, we know of psi among the living, the creative powers of the unconscious, the fear of death, and all the rest. We don’t know about discarnate existence; it’s a disposable hypothesis.
The argument cannot be ignored. The problem is that there is no way it can be falsified. One’s “reasons” will prevail over every contingency of fact. But then to assume unlimited psi ability in human beings already provides a hospitable climate for an afterlife. For if mind is up to performing with unlimited ESP and PK (which is what super-psi implies), the idea of survival gains a new air of credibility. If the mental apparatus of a human being can shapeshift reality so effectively, it might well be able to operate without a body.
The claim that deceptive psi accounts for apparent survival evidence runs into another problem. There is no experimental evidence for the existence of such godlike psi abilities. Yet we are asked to believe that mediums (like Mrs. Piper) or children with detailed reincarnation memories, skills and behaviors, and who do poorly at ESP tests, suddenly acquire extensive, copious and complex psi abilities, exclusively in contexts that suggest survival.
The powers of unconscious self-deception must be vast and relentless. That should give us pause about all our cherished beliefs and theories. We are all liable to be duped by that “incomprehensible enchantment” and “all powerful force” of which Pascal wrote concerning self-deception. If we are that subject to the deceptive powers of our own subliminal selves, we should be radical skeptics and suspend all our beliefs and judgments.
It is best in this area of study to take each case as it comes and examine it for fraud, cryptomnesia, psi influence of the living, and so on. This is the general method of Ian Stevenson and is the basis of Alan Gauld’s book, Mediumship and Survival. Gauld’s book is a sustained critique of the superpsi attempt to explain survival evidence, making explicit the assumptions in specific cases where deceptive psi competes with the survival view.
Take a relatively simple case, frequently cited, perhaps because it is written in the legal history of North Carolina. My summary is based on the report made by W. H. Salter, who prepared the case for publication for the English Society For Psychical Research, and who exchanged letters with the American lawyer engaged in the probation of the will.
In 1921, a farmer, James Chaffin of North Carolina, died accidentally from a fall, leaving all his property to his third son, Marshall, who himself died about a year later. In June, 1925, James, the second son, began having vivid dreams or waking visions of his father at his bedside. On one occasion his father, wearing a familiar black overcoat, said, pointing: “You will find my will in my overcoat pocket.”
The coat was found in the older brother’s house, and inside a sewn-up pocket was a roll of paper which read: “Read the 27th. Chapter of Genesis in my daddie’s old Bible.” The Bible was found in the presence of witnesses, and a new will dated January 16,1919, was discovered, dividing the property equally among his sons.
At first, Marshall’s widow contested the will but yielded when she saw the documents. The second will, though unattested by witnesses, was admitted to probate and validated by the State. Although the Testator’s action with his second will seemed odd, the lawyer assured Salter there was nothing suspect in the case.
Although it’s not clear why Chaffin senior paltered with the second will, it is easy to imagine what may have happened. Chaffin seems to have favored the third son, Marshall (shown by his first will), but was moved by duty and Bible to produce the second will. The devious manner of disposing the second will reflects the farmer’s lack of resolution.
The alternate interpretation is that young Chaffin, who stood to gain by discovering the second will, used his clairvoyance to retrieve it. (Recall that no living person knew of the existence of the second will.) But why do all this through the halting procedure of a series of dreams or waking visions of his father? Why not a hunch or a dream or a well-timed “accident” targeted on the Bible itself? If Chaffin had been using his own clairvoyance, he would have had to have “cognized” the location of the will hidden in the Bible, because the rolled paper in the overcoat said nothing about a will. All it said was something about reading a passage in the Bible. The assumption that Chaffin used his psi ability here strains credibility because it is too complicated and because it presupposes (in a man not known for any psi ability) an extraordinary and sudden capacity for psi.
The term I’ve been using is “deceptive psi.” In all cases of apparent survival, the superpsi explanation assumes an unconscious tendency to engineer deception. Once we make this clear, we can make another assumption more explicit: where there is deception, there must be a need for deception. Deceptive psi in survival cases must be need-relevant.
Consider the Chaffin will case. No one could deny the need to use psi here; young Chaffin obviously stood to gain by using his psi. However, it turns out that Chaffin continued to have apparitions of his father even after the latest will was recovered.
The need for deception could be at work in many cases of apparent survival, but not in all. For instance, a teenager reported the following. She was about to step into a room at a funeral parlor where her father lay dead; she was distressed and disconsolate. As she approached the casket (along with her mother and brother), an apparition of her father, radiant, smiling, appeared before her. The girl’s mood lifted dramatically. Clearly, need is apparent in this case. It might have been the hallucination of a needy soul.
But not all apparitions of the dead are obviously need-relevant. Consider the following (abbreviated) account of a story I investigated. A young couple moved into an apartment in Irvington, N.J., in 1979 and had been living there for six months. During that time, Grace would often wake Alan at night and say she heard the closet door opening and slamming shut. Alan usually heard nothing and, in fact, was annoyed.
One day, after Alan had gone to work, Claire was hanging draperies in the bedroom. There was no one else in the house, but Claire heard the living room door open and close. She poked her head outside the bedroom into the living room and saw a strange man sitting on the couch looking at her. She panicked, ran into the bedroom and grabbed a hammer; meanwhile, the closet door in the living room was heard to open and slam shut. It became silent, and Claire peeked into the living room. Nobody was there. She ran off to her mother who lived nearby.
The incident made problems for Claire and Alan, although the latter’s skepticism was soon undermined. Claire was able to identify from a photograph the apparition of the man she saw sitting on her couch; he was the younger brother of Mrs. Lewis, had previously lived in Claire’s and Alan’s apartment and was stabbed to death in a bar in Newark nine months previously.
The disturbances did eventually cease, and in accord with advice from a local priest, the house was sprinkled with holy water. A Bible was also opened and placed on the living room table. The couple, shaken from the experience, moved away soon after.
After speaking with the people involved, there was little doubt in my mind over the facts of the story. Surely we cannot dispose of this by uttering the magic word, Superpsi! If superpsi is deceptive psi, where is the deception here? One could see deception at work with the teenager who saw a consoling apparition of her father. But Alan and Claire? It seems absurd to say that the young couple needed to have this experience. It served no purpose for them at all, but was, in fact, a very large nuisance.
Deceptive psi seems out of court here. Was it after all an indication that some soul had actually survived bodily demise?
But now comes another twist in the cosmic detective story. Perhaps, it is often said, such haunting apparitions are merely traces without consciousness, echoes of cha rged moments trapped in the corridors of time and space; inwardly vacant images, with nobody home. But the facts don’t fit the theory; the murdered man’s apparition didn’t behave like a lifeless, psychic photograph; it appeared conscious. It looked directly at Claire. It had an expression of puzzlement mingled with anger.
Three points suggest survival. First, against “superpsi,” the apparition seems irrelevant to the percipient’s needs. Second, the apparition was veridical; Claire knew nothing of the former occupant of her apartment and yet was able to identify him through a photograph. Third, the apparition displayed a responsive intelligence. It could not reasonably be described as appearing like a detached and mindless psychic photograph.
Reincarnation is a widely-held form of belief in life after death. The human personality is not bound to the lifespan of a single body. Since the painstaking labors of psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, we have impressive empirical evidence for cases suggestive of reincarnation. Based on extensive travels and on-site investigations, Stevenson collected about 25 hundred cases, a body of data enriching the mythology of transcendence. Reincarnation suggests that we are connected in intimate ways with our past and even our future lives.
But it also raises some difficulties. Suppose aspects of my personality appear to be continuous with a previous personality. Memories, behaviors, skills, even bodily marks may be shared. Does it really make sense to say that the previous personality—or just some isolated trait?— survived in me?
The transformation from one embodied person to another (often with change of sex) is too catastrophic to justify claiming identity with the previous embodied personality. Suppose my burly, gravel-voiced uncle died and reincarnated, with memories and (even say) some behaviors intact, but in the form of a little girl from a nearby town. I would find it difficult, if not impossible, to think of the little girl as my uncle, no matter what memories or behaviors they shared.
Continuity of traits of personality would therefore not entail continuity of person; the former may be thought of as an abstraction, but not as a substitution, for the latter. According to Stevenson, most reincarnation memories fade in early childhood. But if memory is the measure of continuity, then continuity would fail as memory failed. Survival would then be restricted to those short-term memories that are retained in the recipient person. Continuity may exist with a previous personality but just as a faint or occasionally active residue in the new personality.
There is a story that when the Buddha was enlightened under the Bo tree all his past lives came before him. This resembles reports of near-death experiences in which people witness the details of their whole lives flash before them. The Buddha witnessed all his past lives, not just all the events of one life.
Suppose we’ve been reincarnated many times. Then all the layers of our previous lives must form part of the deep structure of our unconscious mental life. This suggests an intriguing possibility. In a new dispensation of human potential, we might acquire the skills to draw upon the great well of wisdom and experience each of us may secretly be. In the future consciousness we’re trying to imagine, we learn to live in rapport with our ancestral selves. We become custodians of our soul history that stretch backward in time and forward toward unknown futures.
Much depends on knowing what we don’t know. We may not consciously remember our past lives, but they may still be influencing us. Stevenson believed that phobias, philias (stuff we like), special talents, skills and other personality traits may be traceable to previous lives. His suggestions are based on documented case histories. The carryovers may be quite powerful, even though we consciously forget their origins.
The situation is comparable to memories repressed in this life that influence us. Stevenson cites examples in which memories of a previous life crop up in dreams, which raises the possibility that dreams or other altered states put us in touch with memories of former lives, even though probably not verifiable as such. It’s hard to say how pervasive these nonverifiable interactions with past lives may in fact be. The amnesia of ordinary life may be covering up a wide but entirely latent outreach.
Studies by Stevenson along with C. G. Jung’s work on transpersonal imagery substantiate Van Lommel’s claims about NDEs and their “endless” outreach of consciousness. They add to our attempt to articulate a democratic, science-based, art-inspired, and soul-infused mythology of the Transcendent.
Reincarnation cases cannot reasonably be described as need-relevant, we should add. Consider what Stevenson himself has to say about children caught up in the reincarnation scenario:
I wish to say that I find it puzzling that anyone should want to remember a previous life . . . Persons who remember a previous life are by no means always happier for having done so. The majority seem to me less happy than other persons until they forget their memories. As children they are often involved in painful conflicts with their parents when they remember a second set of parents, and perhaps a wife and children as well! And many of the memories recalled by subjects of these cases are of unpleasant events such as domestic quarrels, crimes, and violent death.
It makes very little sense to describe this behavior as gratifying any self-serving wishes. Like the apparition of the murdered man that caused a disruption in the lives of Alan and Claire, reincarnation memories seem more like external intrusions.
Winding Up On This
To review survival research as a whole is beyond the scope of a short chapter. I do maintain that we are entitled to remain open to the mystery of death; the records are full of well-documented cases not at all easy to dismiss; there is evidence suggestive of another dimension of being, invisible but sporadically interactive with our mental life.
Evidence exists in various forms and with degrees of persuasiveness. There is one really big issue at stake: Can minds exist without brains? Can they flourish after complete divorce from their brains? Will they, in short, continue to hang around after the last farewell to the body?
Two obstacles to belief in a life after death stand out. One lies in the background of modern intellectual life: the pervasive dogma of materialism, which constrains our perception of the possible. The second comes from parapsychology itself: can evidence for survival be explained by the psychic talents of the living?
The super-psi hypothesis is too vague and barely qualifies as a scientific hypothesis. When it is defined precisely by its deceptive and need-serving function, it seems to apply less readily to much of the evidence, such as certain apparitions and reincarnation memories.
Neither does it easily apply to at least one type of mediumistic phenomenon, the so-called “drop-in” communicator. A stranger to the sitter and the medium intrudes, communicating through the medium, and identifies itself. And sometimes it provides verifiable details of its premortem life. No one present could explain the appearance of these visitors.
It is also hard to see “no-consent” cases reported in Hindu deathbed visions and “hellish” near-death experiences as the products of wish-fulfilment.
Some of these phenomena strongly suggest external agency. I have had several experiences of the sort, and one night was physically attacked by a ghost in a house was said to be haunted. There was absolutely no doubt about there being something “out there” that came toward and engulfed me, briefly paralyzing my body. It’s a stretch to call this wish-fulfilling.
There is another difficulty. No experimental studies lead us to believe that anyone can synthesize from a diversity of sources information unknown to any living person, and reproduce attitudes, points of view, appearances of meaningful intention, and specific skills and behaviors known to belong to deceased persons. On the other hand, we can’t say with confidence that this is impossible either.
“Proof” of survival we may not have; but still the cosmic detective story deepens, and we keep finding good reasons for revising our picture of what is possible in nature. And psi, or if you like, superpsi, is itself the single most powerful basis for raising questions about the scope and boundaries of the human personality. Modern science is catching up with the intuitions of the ancient thinkers for whom the limits of the soul were thought to be undiscoverable.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published September 2017
Size: 229 x 152 mm