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Does Dismissing the Afterlife Make Life More Meaningful?

Posted on 25 January 2016, 11:01

Does dismissing belief in an afterlife make life more meaningful?  C. J. Blair, a columnist for The Oberlin Review, tells his or her fellow students that such is the case in the December 4 issue of the college newspaper.  “When I accepted death as the definite end, I was far more excited to embrace things that had previously scared me before, and much less eager to do things I knew I’d regret,” the philosophical student writes in explaining his/her rejection of religion. 

C. J. begins the column by admitting that he/she is afraid of death and saying that this fear was largely responsible for his/her having embraced Christianity as a child.  CJ goes on to say that he/she has now discovered humanism, a belief system that rejects all supernaturalism and says that human matters should be given primary importance.  The bottom line seems to be that CJ feels much happier now and is living life to the fullest.

I’m sure that C. J. is not alone among his/her peers in making a transition from religion to some form of humanism.  As stated in my blog of December 14, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicates that “nones” – people who have no religious affiliation – now make up 23 percent of the American adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007.  Some nones are atheists, some agnostic, and some so indifferent or so wrapped up in our materialistic world that they haven’t taken the time to figure out what they believe or don’t believe. The upward trend in nones is due to an increasing number of millennials – those people born since 1981 – turning away from religion.

Here is my response to C. J.:

Dear C. J.,
Like you, I don’t claim to have it all figured out, even though I have had some 60 years more than you to do so.  And, like you, I believe organized religions, including Christianity, haven’t done much to help us figure it out.  In fact, they have led us into very murky waters, even into some muck and mire.  I suspect, however, that you mistakenly assume, as so many people do, that the teachings of orthodox religions represent all there is to consider about the afterlife.

My understanding of humanism is that it is materialism, secularism, and rationalism bundled together with ethical and moral concerns and constraints. Without the ethical and moral added in, it might be called hedonism, possibly Epicureanism, the philosophy being pleasure-seeking self-indulgence or eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.  A century ago, a humanist was called a moralist, someone able to live a life of dignity and morality without subscribing to religious beliefs.  That sounds like a very noble and honorable way of living, one governed by discipline, moderation and courage rather than fear of punishment in an afterlife.  But that should not be taken to imply that the religionist is controlled only by fear and is devoid of discipline, moderation and courage. 

All well and good if humanism gives you the necessary peace of mind and happiness at this time in your life.  It is clear, however, that the ethical and moral concerns and constraints are not observed by a large percentage of young people and that humanism, as idealistic it might be, so often gives way to hedonism, as we see in much of our country and the Western world today.  At least the fear of punishment can curb that tendency to some degree and thereby benefit society.

Beyond that, it has been my observation and that of many friends in my age group that the pillars of humanism erode and crumble as one ages – when a person’s loved ones gradually begin dying off and when the humanist himself begins approaching the abyss of nothingness.  “Living in the moment,” which is what humanism seems to advocate, is much more difficult as we see ourselves nearing “extinction.”  The escape mechanisms we use to repress the idea of death simply don’t work like they did when we were in our young adult years and so occupied with establishing ourselves in careers and raising a family – when there was little or no time to do any real deep thinking about what life is all about and what might or might not come after.   

I infer from your column that you think that a belief in an afterlife means that the focus should be on that afterlife and not on this life.  There may very well be a few religious people who believe that, but I’m sure it doesn’t apply to the vast majority.  I like the way Steward Edward White, a popular author of the early part of the last century, explained it in one of his books.  Believe the source or not, but at least consider the wisdom of it.  White’s wife, Betty, was a medium and a group of spirits dubbed the “Invisibles” by White were communicating with him through her.  They referred to the desired awareness of spiritual matters, including death, as “habitual spiritual consciousness.”  Concerned that White might misunderstand and assume that they were saying that the focus should be entirely on the spiritual world, they explained: “This does not imply any retirement into some state of permanent abstraction, nor any priggish watchfulness to determine that your every move is transcendental.  It means simply that each day, when you finish your practice, you do not close the experience like a book, but carry it around with you like a treasured possession.  Instead of being completely forgotten, it remains in the back of your mind, communicating its influence automatically to your actions and reactions, and ready at any moment, if specifically called upon, to lend a helping hand.”

The Invisibles called “balancing” the earthly life with the immortal life the “art of life.”  They stressed that one must be able to deal with life’s adversities by viewing them from the higher consciousness.

There is much to be said for “living in the moment,” “living in the now,” “living in the present,” “living for today,” “carpe diem,” however you want to put it.  But so many people your age seem to interpret that to mean “have fun at any cost.”  Moreover, they do not appear to make a distinction between fun and happiness.  They don’t know where to draw the line between humanism and hedonism, between self-discipline and self-gratification. They opt for short-term pleasure seeking over long-term peace of mind.   

You seem to assume that because organized religion has gone astray in its search for meaning that it necessarily follows that consciousness does not survive death.  However, there is strong evidence coming to us through various phenomena, including the near-death experiences, credible mediumship, deathbed visions, past-life studies, and out-of-body experiences, all suggesting that consciousness does survive death.  And, you don’t even have to believe in a god, at least an anthropomorphic God, to accept that evidence.

Yes, I know that you can find many “know-it-all” professors around your campus that scoff at such phenomena, finding it more convenient to accept the debunking theories of materialists who claim to have studied it.  But the scientists and scholars who have thoroughly studied the phenomena can easily discount the debunking theories.  Those professors who scoff at it are victims of scientific fundamentalism, just as you apparently were once a victim of religious fundamentalism.  Scientific fundamentalism is a religion in itself and is just as misleading as religious fundamentalism.

The evidence further suggests that the humdrum heaven and horrific hell of orthodox religions is just so much hogwash.  I can’t blame you for turning away from religions that teach we spend eternity floating around on clouds, strumming harps, and praising God 24/7.  How boring all that sounds!  Modern revelation indicates that we build up in this life a “moral specific gravity” that determines what level or dimension we initially find ourselves after death and from which we continue to evolve.  What religion calls hell is really a temporary fire of the mind on the lower levels, much like having a nightmare.  Those who have led a decent life apparently gravitate to a level that is much more pleasant and exciting.  We are told that it is pretty much beyond human comprehension and language, but it is clearly not the monotonous afterlife that various religions teach.   

“Let one realize the absolute continuity of existence and at once life becomes worth living,” was the advice of philosopher Lilian Whiting.  That advice is in complete opposition to what you have suggested.  I suspect that in all your youthful wisdom you will smirk at that advice, as it is so difficult to grasp at your age.  If nothing else, I hope that it will plant a seed and be retained in your subconscious when despair begins to set in during your second half of life, when those loved ones start dying and you, too, begin approaching the abyss. Between now and then, I hope that you are able to make the distinction between “having fun” and “being happy” – happy in spite of the challenges which will provide you the opportunity to learn and advance spiritually.  And I also hope you will keep in mind the sage words of pioneering psychologist William James that one cannot effectively live in the present without some regard for the future.


Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.

His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.

Next blog post:  Feb. 8

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The “Third Hand” Eludes Catch 22 Science

Posted on 11 January 2016, 14:57

In the annals of psychical research, Eusapia Palladino, an illiterate Neapolitan woman, and Mina Crandon, the wife of a respected Boston, Mass. physician who was given the pseudonym “Margery” to protect her privacy and that of her husband, were perhaps the two most controversial mediums subjected to extensive investigation.  Anyone relying on Wikipedia or other popular sources for information will likely conclude that both Eusapia and Margery were clever tricksters.  But anyone taking the time to really dig into the subject of physical mediumship and study the detailed reports relative to these two ladies of yesteryear will not be so hasty in writing them off as charlatans.

Eusapia Palladino:above

Mina Crandon:above

The phenomena produced by the two women were somewhat similar.  Most of them were physical, including levitations of a table, (as with Eusapia in photo)  apports (objects mysteriously transported into the room), unusual lights and breezes, paraffin gloves purportedly produced by spirits, the ringing of a bell not within reach of the medium, a scale in which the weighted side went up as the unweighted side went down, and other strange happenings seemingly contrary to natural law.  Especially common to both of them was a mysterious “third hand” and arm that materialized and assisted in the production of some phenomena.  Because of the darkness required in such séances – light being harmful to the ectoplasm emitted by the medium to produce phenomena – many of the investigators concluded that the medium had somehow freed one of her hands from the restraint and thereby carried out the trick before placing the hand back into the restraint.  (Margery’s “Walter hand” is shown on the table in the photo above as her two hands are controlled.)

In one study of Eusapia, 23 researchers participated.  In the end, 10 were convinced of the supernormal character of the phenomena, while seven were uncertain but accepted that they could not have been due to ordinary mechanical agency. Thus, 17 of the 23 did not believe what they had witnessed was trickery.  Two were inclined, with certain reservations, to deny the supernormal character of the manifestations, and three concluded it had to be fraud of some kind, even though they couldn’t prove it.  One refused to express any opinion. And so it was with nearly every study of Palladino – some convinced she was a genuine medium, some convinced she was a fraud, and some not knowing what to believe. 

While I could find no such statistics with Margery, the various reports and books about her suggest somewhat similar numbers.  And like Eusapia, some believed that Margery was a “mixed medium,” producing genuine phenomena at times and at other times, when her powers failed her, faking it so as not to disappoint those observing.  There was also a question of whether the fraud was conscious or unconscious, the latter taking place during the trance state and the medium not being aware of what was going on. It was just too bizarre for many of the researchers to process.  To put it another way, it exceeded the boggle threshold of many researchers. 

One researcher who was very quick to call Margery a charlatan was Dr. Joseph B. Rhine, who went on to found the parapsychology lab at Duke University.  Rhine sat with Margery on January 1, 1926 and claimed that he saw the shadow of Margery’s foot kick a megaphone.  That observation plus some speculation as to how Margery “could have” or “might have” deceived him and others led to Rhine branding her a charlatan.  A little over a year earlier, the Great Houdini, the master magician, claimed that he detected Margery’s foot moving when a bell box supposedly out of reach of her feet rang.  Houdini also said that Margery must certainly have had confederates sneaking into the dark room to assist her.  “All fraud – every bit of it,” Houdini is quoted in David Jaher’s recent book, The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, which reports on the fascinating story of Margery and the scientific investigation surrounding her. 

Jaher devotes quite a few pages to Houdini and his quest to debunk all mediums.  He mentions earlier in the book that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous British author of “Sherlock Holmes” and an enthusiastic promoter of Spiritualism, had attempted to convince Houdini of the reality of mental mediumship by having him sit with his wife, Jean, an automatic writing medium.  Lady Doyle is said to have channeled 15 pages of automatic writing purporting to come from Houdini’s mother.  Houdini was apparently stunned, validating every word of it. However, since it came through in English and his mother did not speak English, Houdini concluded it had to be a trick, though he couldn’t explain how Lady Doyle came upon much of the information.  When Sir Arthur tried to explain to Houdini that languages often come through in thought transmissions rather than in languages or by means of a “control” (a spirit guide on the other side), Houdini ignored him.  Apparently, nothing was going to deter him from proving that he was the greatest magician in the world, and no medium – obviously a magician of some kind, he believed – was going to put one over on him. 

On one occasion an eraser was found in the bell-ringing mechanism and was believed to have been planted there by Houdini to prevent the bell from ringing, while on another occasion a fold-up six-inch ruler was found in a cabinet built by Houdini to restrain Margery, apparently a plant by Houdini to frame her by claiming she extended the ruler to reach out and effect certain phenomena.  Jim Collins, an assistant to Houdini, is said to have later confessed to putting the ruler inside the box. 

The “master of ceremonies,” or “control” at the Eusapia séances was a “spirit” calling himself John King, while Margery’s control was said to be Walter Stinson, Margery’s older brother who had been killed in a train accident in 1911.  Walter would speak through his entranced sister and also independently of her through a trumpet, would carry on conversations with the sitters, joke with them, whistle tunes, and do automatic writing through Margery.  Whether by Walter or some other spirit, she even produced script in Greek and Chinese.  With both Eusapia and Margery, the voices were masculine and not totally in character with the medium.  Eusapia’s “third hand” was said to be John King’s hand, while Margery’s extra hand was referred to as her “Walter hand.”

The spiritistic explanation for both Eusapia and Margery was that medium vacated her body when she went into trance, while the spirit control took over management of the medium’s body.  This had been observed earlier by researchers studying the mediumship of Leonora Piper, also a Boston trance medium, although a mental medium rather than a physical medium.  Many of the characteristics of the purported communicating spirit were observed in Piper.  For example, on one occasion, Mrs. Piper appeared to be twirling an imaginary moustache, something the entity supposedly using her vocal cords frequently did when alive in the flesh. 

But the scientific explanation was that these so-called spirit controls were “secondary personalities” or “dream personalities” buried away in the subconscious of the medium and somehow manifesting in the trance state.  When evidential information came through the medium, the scientists theorized that it came by way of mind reading, or telepathically.  When information came through that even those present did not know but which was later confirmed as correct, the scientists theorized that telepathy was more cosmic in nature and the medium could therefore access information from minds not present in the séance room.  As far-fetched as that seemed, it was more “scientific” than spirits of the dead.  With mediums producing physical phenomena rather than mental phenomena, such as with Eusapia and Margery, the evidence was more in the defiance of natural law than in facts communicated. 

The most common debunking theory offered by the various investigators for both Eusapia and Margery was that they were able to somehow release themselves from the restraints and tippy-toe around the room in the dark, ringing bells, touching people and otherwise producing the strange phenomena while disguising their voices, or, in the case of Margery, having a servant or a friend assist her in the deception, somehow crawling into the room and under the table and stealthily exiting before the lights came back on. 
One skeptical theory advanced by Harvard investigators was that Margery’s husband, a gynecologist, surgically enlarged her “anatomical storehouse” so that she could smuggle her “bag of tricks” into the room.  This included the mysterious “third hand” hand that sometimes appeared. 

Dr. Charles Richet, a French physician, professor, and researcher who won the 1913 Nobel Prize in medicine, reported ectoplasmic arms and hands emerging from the body of Eusapia, adding that they appeared to act independently of Eusapia’s will.  At his private retreat on Ribaud Island in the Mediterranean, Richet, along with renowned physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, Frederic Myers, and Dr. Julian Ochorowicz, conducted experiments with Eusapia in 1894.  “I held one of Eusapia’s hands firmly in each of mine,” Richet recalled one experiment.  “I then felt a third hand touch my shoulder, my head, and my face.  This was not in darkness; there was a lighted candle in the room.”  The other three scientists could see what was going on and confirmed that Richet had control of Eusapia’s two hands at all times.

While convinced that Eusapia had supernatural abilities, Richet remained skeptical as to whether the evidence suggested spirits and survival.  “I oppose it (spirit hypothesis) half-heartedly, for I am quite unable to bring forward any wholly satisfactory counter-theory,” he wrote. 

Lodge, a pioneer in electricity and radio, reported on a test involving a spring dynamometer, which, when squeezed, measured hand grip strength.  Lodge recorded that in one test, Eusapia was giving a feeble clutch when she suddenly shouted, “Oh, John, you’re hurting me!” and the men observed the needle go far beyond what any of them could exert.  “She wrung her fingers afterwards, and said John (King) had put his great hand around hers, and squeezed the machine up to an abnormal figure,” Lodge explained, noting that “John King” occasionally showed his hand, “a big, five-fingered, ill-formed thing it looked in the dusk.”

Dr. Filippo Bottazzi, an Italian physiologist, observed a “synchrony” between Eusapia’s hands and feet and whatever displacement or movement was going on away from her.  That is, her fingers, hands, and feet seemed to be moving in harmony with activity producing a certain phenomenon out of her reach.  Like Richet, Bottazzi was convinced that Eusapia was not playing tricks, but he was reluctant to accept the spiritistic explanation, as it would not have been “scientific.”

If the scientists studying Margery some 20-30 years after the Eusapia research had given any consideration to the spiritistic explanation, they might have been able to explain Margery’s movements seen by Rhine and Houdini as evidence of fraud, as well as her “third hand,” without claiming trickery.  But it would not have been “scientific” to recognize the possibility of spirits being involved.  They would have had to hypothesize spirits to prove spirits.  It was a Catch 22 situation.  Is it any wonder that no progress had been made in the research involving physical mediums? 

Jaher recently announced that his book is being made into a movie.  While Jaher leaves the reader wondering if Margery was the real deal or not, I suspect that the movie will have a Hollywood ending with Houdini as the hero.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.

His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.

Next blog post:  January 25  



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The Only Planet of Choice: Visitations – Many people use the word ‘Alien’ to describe a visitor from outer space. Extra terrestrial is another word, which is rather more user friendly. For the sake of the question and answer format, the word used by the questioner has been left, though even Tom questions our use of‘Alien’. Should we wish to foster openess between all beings of the Universe perhaps we should also look at our vocabulary? In a discussion between Andrew and Tom many years earlier, Andrew had asked Tom about UFOs and whether they were created manifestations. Tom had replied: “Many of the flying things that you call UFOs come from our place, but they come from other places also, and they do come in physical form. But many of them are not physical. They are like your movie screen”. Read here
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