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!
suzanne mays says
Great post, Nancy. Thank you. The strongest point for me was:
“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.”
Suzanne, it’s the strongest point for me, too. So frustrating, the difficulty people have seeing that.
It’s interesting that, in that post on the Paranormalia blog Robert Perry was guest-blogging for Robert McLuhan (the blog’s host).
Robert McLuhan writes in Randi’s Prize, his excellent book countering pseudo-skeptics:
…[A] reluctance to listen continues to be characteristic of professional sceptics. Their defensive posture leads them to talk aboutclaims as opposed to experiences, too preoccupied by the challenge to their imaginations to think at all closely about what is actually being said…
Michael Prescott used that excerpt as a launching pad for an insightful article he wrote in his blog last year, heavily quoting McLuhan (among others) to deftly skewer the “look at the hard evidence, not the subjective impression of the experiencers themselves” mentality.
Dave Woods says
I don’t know if this is relevant or not, but here goes. I’m a musician who composes music, and also improvises on the guitar. In my mind I hear the music I’m composing or spontaneously creating. I KNOW exactly what the music means in terms of emotional communication. It comes out as a reality in my music.
Words alone are totally useless in expressing the reality of what the music is saying. And yet, people try in vain to use words as proof of what the music really means.
It seems that what can’t be proven on a material mechanical level gets relegated to a mystical realm that is beyond human comprehension, or gets dismissed, and the dismissal is vehemently defended. (Fear?)
Either way however, the material reality of the human condition, and those who guard it, is out of competition with it.
On my free website http://www.jazzguitarstarting right.com there’s an improvised solo “off the top of my head” that I did for my family called I Love You So.
On the site It’s under “My Improvisation clips”. If you like it, it’s free, keep it. Maybe you’ll hear what I mean.
Relevant, Dave? Relevant?? See my response to Rabbitdawg. And thanks beyond words to you.
Wow Dave, that’s a beautiful clip! It immediately took me to a better place in my mind. I could feel your expression of love through the music in a way that simply speaking the word “love” would be inadequate to describe. I hear what you mean. I feel what you mean.
Folks, ya really ought to check it out! The song Dave mentions in his post is absolutely beautiful. Plus, you’ll get the added bonus of seeing Dave’s handsome mug 🙂
The link to the site Dave mentioned above is broken, but here’s a ‘glued together’ one:
Direct link to the audio clip of Dave’s solo: http://www.jazzguitarstartingright.com/I%20Love%20You%20So%20.mp3
Thanks, Rabbitdawg, for saying what I was trying to say but couldn’t get the words out. And thanks also for the working link.
Nancy, I just saw that you had posted about my post. That was very nice to see! I think, though, that you may have mistaken the meaning of that one sentence of mine: “We clearly need to look to hard evidence, and not just trust the subjective impression of the experiencers themselves.” With that sentence, I was referencing how NDEs are typically viewed as a kind of baseline from which to jump off to a different point. The overall point was to open a new line of inquiry, which is to look at why NDErs are so convinced, and on that basis make an informed decision about the possibility that perhaps we can “just trust the subjective impression of the experiencers themselves.”
The point of the piece, in other words, was really to question that attitude that we can’t just trust what the NDErs say. Maybe we can. I mean, we trust people all the time to tell us things that we didn’t experience firsthand. I am not currently sitting with the Occupy Wall Street crowd, and have not personally been there and seen them, but I trust that they are in fact there, because I trust the reports of others.
So my piece was really trying to get us to look at this question, rather than just dismiss out of hand the possibility of trusting NDErs. Your response takes issue with that sentence, and I think rightly so. The underlying point of my piece was that I do, too.
Interesting perspective. Sorry if I misread your post.