Two sentences practically jumped off the page at me from Robert Perry’s interesting article (see previous post):
“We clearly need to look to hard evidence, and not just trust the subjective impression of the experiencers themselves… They are overwhelmingly convinced that their experience was real. If we can gain some genuine understanding of why, then perhaps that will help us decide how much we can believe them.”
I’ll be interested in hearing your responses.
As I read these sentences, they suggest that the question is whether we are to understand the essence of what experiencers say about their own experiences or to believe that they are returning from those experiences with ‘hard evidence,’ something like lab data. And yet, these are the types of events Joseph Campbell described as being “metaphysically grounded in a…realm beyond space and time, which, since it is physically invisible, can be known only to the mind.” It’s important to science that we work with the right set of inputs.
If a perception is unverifiable, does that mean it is false? Is it possible that the hard evidence about them is that NDEs and similar experiences give people a clear perception that __x__ is happening? If, as you die, your last flicker of cognition is that you are being greeted by the person you most love in all the world, how much does it matter that a research observer would agree? Within the experience, it is real.
But that is pure speculation. How much can we know about these odd events? Andrew Newberg says of his brain scans of monks and nuns during peak instances of meditation and prayer that the altered states of mind which the meditators “described as the absorption of the self into something larger were not the results of emotional mistakes or simple, wishful thinking, but were associated instead with a series of observable neurological events, which, while unusual, are not outside the range of normal brain function.”
Those “observable neurological events”—the hard evidence—demonstrate that something measurable (i.e., “real”) is happening in our familiar time/space universe; they give satisfyingly concrete data about when and where the activity occurs. However, just as a map is not the territory, the scans are incomplete: they are not the experience, any more than a book of photos is a trip to Niagara Falls.
In that same way, a near-death experience is a real experiential event–but only in the life of the individual who has it. This is the problem with subjective events: that only one person is the “subject”; there can be no witnesses. At the very instant in which an experiencer begins to describe it, the experience vanishes; for everyone else in the world what remains will be a conceptually ordered and interpreted story, a narrative that cannot be “known” in all its dimensionality. Of course the narrative is coherent; that is the business of language and reason; yet to force an experience down through the restrictiveness of language and concept is like trying to draw an accurate picture of sunrise with only primary color crayons; it may be suggested but can’t be captured, and the interpretive result cannot be precise. For instance, “I saw Jesus” from a child may mean that, in truth, he saw Jesus; or it may mean, “I was with a presence that felt the way the stories of Jesus talk about him, and I don’t know what else to call that, so I guess it’s ok to say it was Jesus.” One is as experientially real as the other.
We must learn to live with NDEs as we do with subatomic particles, which disappear when observed, their portraits showing not the particles themselves but only where they have been. There may be no known physical, geographical locality that matches what is described in an NDE. On the other hand, NDEs have demonstrable consequences that are often real enough to disrupt and reshape human lives—the “footprints” of experiential reality. Can we accept those as convincing data?
To make matters worse, Campbell’s “realm beyond space and time, which, since it is physically invisible, can be known only to the mind” is a realm that lives not by denotation but by connotation, not by the sharp lines of photography but by the soft edges of watercolor. This is where the archetypes live, not in the sense of neatly lined up definitions but as limitless cascades of suggestion and possibility. When we say, “It’s only in your mind,” we mean something isn’t real; but here, only the mind can know what is true. It may be experientially true yet factually wrong. (Example: Genesis 1 & 2)
We will continue to drive ourselves crazy if we do not recognize that the reality of the “real world” of material, physical objects does not always accurately describe the “real world” of invisible, interior personal experience that happens somewhere (and somehow) in our mind. The materialist view of the past 300-plus years, which has been ferociously defended during the past century, has been to insist that only the physical reality is “real” reality; the rest is too often derisively dismissed as illusion, when in fact the problem may be with our understanding of how to listen. When our culture says, “It’s all in your mind,” what if that’s where this particular reality is?
A sophisticated young blogger makes some useful observations:
For the Pentecostal Christian communities in the bush in Africa, the spiritualist aboriginal cultures in the Pacific islands, and the Shamanistic nature religions in the remote mountains of South America, humans and spirits walk the same ground and live life side by side in a way a westerner cannot fully grasp. Seemingly miraculous healings/exorcisms/ demon sightings can and do occur—any cultural anthropologist will tell you this. But you will find alongside the “spiritual” explanation a “scientific” one that accounts for the same phenomena through psychology, deceit, or nature. Acknowledging these other explanations should not force us to choose either side. It should simply make us wary when determining what can and cannot exist based solely off of what we can and cannot observe in the material realm. (http://theophiliacs.com/2008/09/14/demons/)
Can we believe what experiencers say about their NDEs? Are they real? Well, do you mean, in a Western sense, are they materially verifiable, or are they true? To mistake the difference is to create a great distortion.
Remember–you’re invited to talk back!