Lately, as you may have noticed, I haven’t published very many new posts on this blog. The reason is that I’ve been preoccupied with politics, and I’ve found it’s exceedingly difficult to focus on spiritual matters when immersed (emotionally, at least) in the clash and grind of a presidential campaign. With this post, I hope to close the book on this election so I can get back to our usual subject matter.
The election, of course, is not yet over – and yet it is. At least at the presidential level, the outcome is already known. Indeed, one bookmaking outfit is already paying out to its clients who bet on Hillary Clinton. There’s no reason to think the firm will regret its decision.
In coming months, there will be endless debate about whether or not Donald Trump, under other circumstances or following a different strategy, could have won this election. For me, the answer is simple: the Donald Trump we know, the Trump who exists in our universe, could not have won. He simply lacks the right stuff. Nobody handicapped by Trump’s liabilities could realistically have attained the White House. He is a man with zero knowledge of public policy, a man who quite possibly cannot explain how a bill becomes a law or name the three branches of government. Worse, he has no interest in learning anything new, because he believes he’s already a universal expert. Knowing nothing about military matters, he boasts that he knows more than the generals. Knowing nothing about international trade deals, he boasts that he can make the best deals. Knowing nothing about campaign strategy, he ignores his advisers and pursues a hopelessly self-defeating course.
A candidate who won’t prepare for debates, who spends his nights tweeting insults to celebrity journalists, who limits his media appearances to a few friendly venues on Fox News and talk radio, who insults and ridicules constituencies he needs to win over, who foments pointless and destructive intraparty feuds, and who behaves like an emotionally unstable six-year-old ... is simply not going to win. There’s a story that when Donald was a small boy, he became so unhappy at a friend’s birthday party, presumably because the attention was on his friend and not on himself, that he picked up the birthday cake and threw it on the floor. Trump has said his temperament has not changed since he was in kindergarten. This appears to be true. He is still the angry little kid who throws the cake on the floor.
Still, it’s possible to argue that some version of Trump could have won this election – a Trump 2.0, a Trump from a parallel universe, a Trump who could master his worst tendencies, learn a modicum of self-discipline, memorize a smattering of salient facts, and organize a serious campaign with a competent get-out-the-vote effort. A Trump, in other words, who could pivot and act presidential, as the Trump of the primaries promised to do – which is just one of many promises that have not been fulfilled. A better Trump, a more adult, less volatile, less thin-skinned, more serious Trump who actually heeded his advisers and did the things that serious candidates do, might very well have won against the scandal-ridden, socially maladroit, and personally unlikable Hillary Clinton, who represents a continuation of eight years of policies that are widely felt to have been disappointing. This election was the Republican Party’s to lose – and lose it they did.
In an earlier post I pondered the question of whether Trump is a fascist. I concluded that he is probably not a true fascist but more of a right-wing populist with proto-fascist tendencies. To me, this still seems like an accurate assessment of Trump as he came across in the primaries; but in the general election his message became so muddled and his behavior so bizarre that I’m not sure what assessment to make of him today. Most likely, a President Trump would not prove to be a dictator, if only because being a dictator requires a mental focus, determination, and courage that Trump doesn’t possess. He’s a flighty, narcissistic popinjay mainly concerned with protecting his own image and preserving his persnickety vanity. Had he been elected, he probably would have spent most of his time goofing off on the golf course or on social media, while his vice president, chief of staff, and cabinet members did the heavy lifting.
So I don’t think we’ve dodged the bullet of fascism, as some people say. On the contrary, it could be argued that electing Hillary Clinton actually pushes us a tad closer to banana-republic status by cementing the idea that the rich, powerful, and politically connected are above the law. It’s palpably obvious that Hillary and her friends in high office saw to it that the FBI “investigation” into Hillary’s server scandal was fatally hobbled. This is hardly a surprise, but it is a disappointment and a worrying harbinger of the next four (or eight) years. We can expect Madam President to use the machineries of the IRS, the Justice Department, the EPA, and other bureaucratic organs to harass and stifle her political enemies when possible. This is, after all, the same Hillary who, as First Lady, tried to put the career civil servants of the White House Travel Office in prison simply so she could replace them with her Arkansas cronies.
In such a discouraging political environment, it’s easy to give up hope. Some academics argue that, having crossed our own Rubicon, we’ve effected the transition from a republican system of government to an “elective monarchy” not too dissimilar from that of Imperial Rome (though with the key difference that Rome never worked out a rational method for the transfer of power). Even if this perspective is valid, it doesn’t mean the United States is finished. Rome survived for hundreds of years after the republic died, achieving its greatest power, wealth, and influence in its imperial phase.
Besides, it may not be valid. The similarities between the United States and ancient Rome are arguably more superficial than real. And history doesn’t have to repeat itself.
What can we do to improve our prospects? For starters, we can eschew overheated rhetoric and irresponsible fear-mongering. Although it’s become de rigueur for each side to foresee an apocalypse if its candidate loses, the partisanship this time has been more feverish than usual. The hard left predicts a Fourth Reich if Trump wins, while the hard right predicts civil insurrection, even civil war. It’s time to remember Kipling’s advice to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” The American system of government and the American people have both proven exceptionally stable, a fact that has consistently frustrated radicals and revolutionaries of all stripes. In this country there’s still enough innate suspicion of government to prevent a Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini from gaining power, and, for most Americans, life is still comfortable enough to make manning the barricades an unviable proposition.
Another unattractive feature of today’s politics is the assumption that one’s opponents have been hypnotized, duped, and brainwashed – assuming, of course, that they are not actually evil. The possibility of honest, intelligent disagreement is rarely broached. And yet trade-offs are an essential part of democracy, and sensible compromise is the key to good governance. There’s nothing disreputable or traitorous about seeking common ground; the effort to find and uphold shared values has been the cornerstone of American politics throughout our history. Our best hope for the future is to reach out to those with whom we disagree, to respect each other’s differences, and, in the famous words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, to “bind up the nation's wounds” while showing “malice toward none [and] charity for all.”
If we want a better country, we can begin by being better people. Let’s wash the stain of this election season off our hands and get to work.
Rudolf H. Smit tells me that The Self Does Not Die, the excellent study of near-death experiences that he co-authored with Titus Rivas and Anny Dirven, is now available in a Kindle edition. I reviewed the book here.
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A new TV show, The Good Place, presents a quasi-spiritualist view of the afterlife. We are told that a very small, select number of the departed go to a paradisal community of spacious homes, green gardens, and frozen yogurt shops, while the vast majority end up in the terrifying nether regions. The Good Place bears some resemblances to the Summerland of spiritualist tradition – spirits of equal evolutionary development are drawn together, thoughts and feelings directly influence reality, much of the environment apparently consists of thought-forms, and everything is an idealized recreation of earthly life. The show's gimmick is that the main character, Eleanor, doesn't really belong in The Good Place at all, having been a pretty crappy person in her physical incarnation.
At first, the idea that only a minuscule percentage of humanity gets to enjoy a decent afterlife, while nearly all of us end up in damnation, didn't sit too well with me. Nor does it satisfy Eleanor, who argues – plausibly enough – that since most people are neither saintly nor awful but of medium quality, there ought to be a medium quality afterlife for them. Someplace like Cincinnati, she suggests.
However, even by the third episode, it's becoming clear that the situation is more complicated than it originally appeared. In some respects, the show is a sitcom version of Lost, in which an initially straightforward premise is developed in unpredictable ways. My guess is that The Good Place will not turn out to be quite as good as were told, while the bad place won't be nearly as bad.
Anyway, it's a clever idea with an appealing cast. I think it could use more laugh-out-loud moments, and some of the humor falls flat, but it's worth a look.
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I recently read Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book Unbroken, the story of World War II POW Louis Zamperini, whose bomber crashed in the Pacific, leaving him adrift on a life raft for over a month before he was captured by the Japanese and subjected to terrible abuse. Though his suffering was undoubtedly real, I suspect that Zamperini's story became considerably embellished over decades of retelling, especially after he rediscovered Christianity in a Billy Graham revival meeting and went on tour describing his experiences to eager crowds. Some of what he talks about just seems a little bit over the top.
For instance, he claims that the raft was strafed with machine gun fire from a Japanese bomber not once but five times – yet although the raft was peppered with bullets, neither he nor the other two men aboard received a scratch. He recounts epic battles with sharks that went on for hours, as the sharks became ever more crafty and aggressive, carrying out elaborate strategies to pluck the men from the raft. As a prisoner of war, he remembers having once been subjected to punishment in which he was punched in the face more than two hundred times in succession; I'm skeptical that anyone could live through that ordeal, much less recover without disfigurement or brain damage. My guess is that, as terrible as Louis's tribulations were, he felt the need to make his story even more dramatic each time he narrated it.
I mention this only to warn that his claims have to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, he does tell of an interesting experience aboard the raft, when he was so dehydrated and famished as to be on the verge of death. At this time, he says, he began to relive incidents from his life in astonishing detail, even incidents from his very early childhood that he had never previously recalled. One incident in particular involved his interaction with a dog when he was no more than two or three years old; he had never even remembered that dog before, since it had died when he was still a toddler. He witnessed this event from an impartial, third-person perspective, seeing himself as a small child and taking in every detail of his environment. Around the same time, he also had what would conventionally be called a hallucination in which, looking up at the sky, he saw ranks of angels and heard glorious, ethereal music. In general, the whole episode bears the hallmarks of a near-death experience – the life review, the encounter with the divine. Neither the author nor Louis makes this comparison, but it's obvious to anyone familiar with NDE literature.
In another life raft episode, while he and his one remaining companion lay languishing in the doldrums, Louis experienced an overpowering sense of the beauty and wonder of the physical world, which he saw suddenly as the handiwork of divine intelligence. Even the tormenting sharks now struck him as miraculous creatures of astonishing perfection. He felt no pain, hunger, or thirst, no desire to move, no unhappiness, just a complete sense of peace. Later, the memory of this event played a role in his religious conversion at the Billy Graham tent meeting. To me, his epiphany in the doldrums was strongly reminiscent of what Richard Maurice Bucke called an experience of "cosmic consciousness."
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In one of the comments threads, I mentioned that I was reading a book called An Atheist in Heaven, an account of apparent after-death communications on the part of Forrest J Ackerman, a well-known figure in the science fiction community. Some of these ADCs are pretty impressive, and the author, a long time friend of Ackerman named Paul Davids, went to the trouble of having some physical evidence subjected to elaborate scientific analysis. Unfortunately, I don't know if I'm going to finish the book, because the good evidence is outweighed by a mass of trivial coincidences. It appears that Davids decided his best course of action was to include everything – literally everything – that could possibly relate to the ADC phenomena, even down to the most minor and seemingly meaningless events. It's too bad, because there is a core of a very good book in here. This incidental material should have been either omitted or relegated to an addendum.
Still, for those who have a fond memory of Ackerman's magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, with its endless succession of terrible puns and cheesy horror movie photos, the book should provide a nostalgic smile. Amazingly enough, I even remember reading about an amateur movie contest sponsored by the magazine which the author entered; the title of his movie, Siegfried Saves Metropolis, had somehow stuck in my mind for more than forty years.
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Throughout the first half of 2016, I was under an unusual amount of stress, and when I look back now, I can see how it affected my thinking in unexpected ways. For one thing, my memory recall was way off. I had trouble remembering names, even very familiar ones – the names of classic movie stars, say. A name like Gary Cooper would elude me for hours. I found it difficult to concentrate. More than once I tried to read the Agatha Christie book Funerals Are Fatal, but I bogged down in the first four or five pages, finding it impossible to keep the characters straight as they were introduced. Even writing my own book, I would forget exactly what plot developments had already taken place or even the names of some of my characters!
My problems became so annoying that I tried to diagnose them. I'd read that Lyme disease can cause memory recall issues, and since I had a bull's-eye pattern on one leg that could be consistent with that illness, I decided to be tested for it. But the test came back negative. I wondered if maybe I was getting some kind of early onset dementia or if I was lacking some vital nutrient in my diet.
Eventually, however, the problem eased, and I can now see that stress itself was responsible. In fact, just recently I tried reading Funerals Are Fatal again, and though I still found the opening scene a little too exposition-heavy, I had no difficulty with it.
The episode reminded me of something I read in one of the Seth books by channeler Jane Roberts. I don't remember the exact source, but somewhere Seth says that conscious awareness varies much more from day to day and even from hour to hour than most people realize. To drive the point home, he temporarily adjusts the level of consciousness in Jane's husband, who reports feeling progressively foggier and more confused. This always struck me as an interesting idea. My guess is that we tend to remember the parts of the day when we are most alert, while forgetting other parts of the day when we are in more of a daze. I think it's likely that we spend much more of our daily activities on autopilot than we realize.
In any case, my experience drove home the close connection between mind and body. No, it doesn't follow that mind is reducible to an emergent phenomenon of physical processes, but it does suggest that there is continuing feedback between mental states and physical states, and that what we call "mind" is both more complex and more fragile than we ordinarily assume.
Matt Rouge gives us another insightful guest post, this time exploring the possibilities inherent in higher dimensions of reality. Enjoy!
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When we ask ourselves whether the Afterlife exists and make attempts to explore its nature and properties, we are, by implication, trying to explain Reality itself. Thus, it’s no surprise that Michael has written many posts about the nature of Reality on this blog, one of which was the recent The VR Thing. This post dealt with different levels of reality: is our experience “less real” at a lower level (this world) but “more real” at a higher level (the Afterlife)?
In the post, Michael provides several famous quotes that reflect this view, as well as a concise summary of his virtual reality model:
[E]arthly life is a fully immersive role-playing game. This game is designed by our higher self, with which we are in only tenuous contact while embodied. The game is meant to be challenging and instructive. The stakes are, in one sense, real — we gain real wisdom and personal growth. In another sense, the stakes are illusory —[film critic Roger] Ebert's “elaborate hoax.”
As so often happens, this post led to an interesting discussion in the comments, with many concurring to some degree with the view that “realness” can vary. The question was also raised of how the game-like aspect of the model can jibe with the seriousness of human suffering.
On the whole, the VR model appeals to me as a New Ager. We regularly talk about “dimensions” and “Ascension,” the process by which we as individuals and the physical world is rising through dimensions and increasing in vibration. I think the concept of dimensions matches well the VR model, which requires at least two: the less real or “hoax” dimension and the more real or “Higher Self” dimension. Since VR is based on some concept of information, could it be that information itself transforms based upon the dimension in which it is experienced or “presented”? Further, is it possible that our perception of “less real” and “more real” is based upon the interrelationship of information and dimension?
I think so.
Most of us have probably played the video game Tetris at some point. Pieces come down from the top of the puzzle, and the player must to rotate them so that they form solid horizontal lines, which disappear, making room for more falling pieces. Let’s take a look at the pieces:
In the second dimension, the three pieces on the left have no chirality (they are the same as their mirror image), whereas the four on the right (two pairs) do have this property (they are different from their mirror image). Those who have played Tetris will know that it is easier to deal with the three pieces on the left than the four on the right: the latter require more brainpower to understand what spaces they will fit when rotated.
Yet, the four pieces on the right completely lose this limitation in the third dimension, since we can simply pick them up and flip them over. In 2D, the green L-shaped piece is an object different from the yellow reversed-L-shaped piece. In 3D, aside from their color, they are the exact same object.
Chirality also exists in the third dimension. I first learned the word when I worked in the drug industry, as molecules can be chiral. A good everyday example is gloves: a glove for the left hand is the same for the right, except for chirality; yet this simple difference prevents a glove for one hand from being worn on the other. In the fourth dimension, however, a glove for the left hand can simply be “flipped over into” a glove for the right hand. The “flipping” process is very difficult for us to imagine, since we are used to 3D geometry; nevertheless, in 4D, a left-handed glove is the exact same object as a right-handed glove.
These are examples from geometry, but the properties of higher dimensions, as we New Agers understand them, are not limited to those pertaining to physical space. Further, “information,” as understood in the VR model, refers to much more than concrete objects and mathematically definable objects; the term would relate to virtually (no pun intended) everything we can experience, including emotions, abstractions like “justice” and “beauty,” and thought itself. Chirality, or an analogous property (binary or otherwise), could apply to any aspect of or thing within Reality; indeed, even to the category of real/unreal itself.
For an example of this, we turn to the book Reimagination of the World: A Critique of the New Age, Science, and Popular Culture by David Spangler and William Irwin Thompson (Bear & Company, 1991). (I was turned onto this book by a very smart guy named Jason Wingate, who has commented on this blog in the past.) The two authors have been leaders in the New Age movement, and their intellectual depth is impressive. Although the book is 25 years old (and some of its content comes from lectures older than that), I am pleasantly surprised at how consistent it is with current New Age thought. Or perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised if in fact our philosophy and model of Reality is “right” or “righter,” relatively speaking, than some others.
On page 120, David Spangler writes,
You may remember the story of Flatland, in which a two-dimensional square encounters a three-dimensional sphere. At first, the square cannot comprehend what the sphere is because it has no experience of that third dimension along which part of the sphere’s being extends. Viewing the sphere along the linear dimension of the two-dimensional plane that is the square’s home, the sphere appears cut up into a succession of ovals. Our experience of higher dimensional beings can be very similar.
When we try to imagine these beings, we often leave out these additional dimensions. The result is to flatten them into human caricatures. This may be important for us to initially contact and understand one of these entities, but we should remember that it is a simplified representation, often bearing as much relationship to the real entity as a stick figure does to one of Michelangelo’s paintings.
I’ll note in passing that Michael has cited on multiple occasions on this blog the novel Flatland by Edwin Abbot (1884). On page 130 of Reimagination, in a different chapter that comes from a lecture, there is this interesting exchange that deals directly with the matter of “realness”:
AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT: Are you saying that the beings who come through channels, like Ramtha and Ma Fu and Lazarus, aren’t real or are only psychological crutches? […]
DAVID: […W]hether these beings are real or not is less important to me than the impact our images of these beings can have in our lives. […] The job of the inner worlds is not to tell us how to live but to empower our ability to unfold our own higher dimensionality. We are not born individuals so we can turn our individuality over to another being, becoming a clone of his or her opinions, beliefs, and attitudes. We are individuals so that we can add a unique perspective to the universe and make a unique contribution to a higher geometry of co-creation and compassion.
Whether these beings are real or not in themselves, as they enter into our nested sphere, into our dimensionality, they must take on characteristics that allow communication to take place. In many instances, this means entering into a body of manifestation that is built up from the unconscious needs and desires of the channel and of the audience. In this instance, the being speaks to us through an interface that is part window, part mirror. […]
Channeling is an art. We oversimplify it when we think of it as an entity entering into a person’s body. That image really belongs to an earlier conception of the body and soul as truly separate things. These images abound in our spirituality and metaphysics: the body as vehicle, the soul as driver, and so on. The relationship is really more subtle and complex. The body is part of the soul and vice versa. They interrelate and co-create each other in profound ways, and both are aspects of a larger geometry that might be called our spirit. […]
Wow. There is nothing here that doesn’t sound completely fresh, modern, and insightful to me. In the space of a few paragraphs, he has cogently commented on many issues that this blog has explored, including the “transmission model” of consciousness (I think he implies here the hybrid model, which I myself believe). Further, I think Spangler’s words have deep implications for the VR model itself: instead of there being a pure dichotomy of hoax versus real or game versus higher purpose, we may be experiencing tiered co-creation in which the levels are interdependent and the hierarchy can find itself turned on its head. His use of the word “interface” is perhaps also not coincidental.
Let’s look at an example of how a channeled entity that is “unreal” here could be “real” in a higher dimension. Leonora Piper (I cited the Psi Encyclopedia!) was a famed medium whose “control,” or guide to the spirit world, in many sittings was “Phinuit.” This spirit talked about himself as though he had been a real person on earth, but research failed to provide verification of his actual existence (there is a lot about this issue at the link).
Spangler’s viewpoint, however, shows us how a spirit like Phinuit could still be “real” on some level. Phinuit could be both window and mirror, a co-creation of himself, Piper, and the sitters.
Further, going back to the example of chirality, from the viewpoint of the spirit in his higher dimension, it may appear that the “unreal” facts of his life on earth are no different than facts that to us are “real.” As we progress to higher dimensions, some differences may disappear, yet new ones may appear. The chirality of Tetris pieces disappears in 3D, but the chirality of gloves appears (since 3D objects can’t exist in 2D) and then disappears in 4D. Similarly, some distinctions between real and unreal may appear and then disappear as we go up from 3D.
The issue of human suffering may also transform as we progress through the dimensions. If you grew up a Christian as I did, you probably heard something to the effect that God would right all wrongs and dry all tears. This may be a metaphor for what I speculate “actually” happens: the “information” of suffering does not disappear in higher dimensions but rather transforms into something bearable, perhaps even desirable. Frequent commenters Art and Bruce tend to emphasize Oneness and Love as the ultimate Reality. In contrast, among the regulars here, Eric and I have tended to insist that evil is an actual issue that can’t be waved away (though I would also say we do not necessarily disagree with Art’s and Bruce’s observations, generally speaking). Perhaps we are all correct. Perhaps Oneness and Love are the “end result,” not because other aspects of reality simply go poof, but because they exist in a different manner in higher dimensions.
Obviously, this is a big topic, and I find it hard to think of any neat conclusion to my speculations and observations above. Perhaps, in a higher dimension, one already exists.
Yeah, that's right. En-psi-clopedia. See what I did there?
It's my way of introducing the new online Psi Encyclopedia created by the Society for Psychical Research. Screenshot of the homepage:
Click on a topic, such as "Mediums & Psychics," and you get a list of articles:
Choose a story, and you get a treatment of surprising depth:
The article on Palladino is balanced, reporting her apparently genuine phenomena as well as her willingness to cheat:
Though still a work in progress, the online Psi Encyclopedia promises to be an invaluable alternative to the often deliberately slanted coverage of psi in Wikipedia, where self-styled "guerrilla skeptics" have run amok, deleting any pro-psi citations. ("Why?" they ask. "Because evidence is cool." Sure ... that's why.)
Thanks to Robbie for sending me a heads-up on the encyclopedia.
Incidentally, the SPR has also revamped its website.
I'm currently reading The Self Does Not Die: Verified Paranormal Phenomena from Near-Death Experiences, by Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven, and Rudolf H. Smit. As the title indicates, it's an in-depth study of NDEs with veridical content. The book was originally published, in a slightly different form, in a Dutch edition.
When I started it, I wasn't too excited about the prospect of reading yet another book about NDE's. I felt a little burned out on the subject. But The Self Does Not Die proved to be different from most other books of this type. It is never sensationalistic or overheated; the authors carefully consider the strengths and weaknesses of the various cases, ranking each according to how well documented and authenticated it is. The collection of professionally researched cases is the most comprehensive I've seen. Cases that don't meet the authors' strict criteria are omitted. The overall tone is serious, even a little dry, an approach I like much better than the carnival barker style of some popular accounts.
Though right now I'm in the middle of the book, I did skip ahead to read the authors' conclusions and their coverage of skeptical objections. In the latter section they concentrate on the debunking efforts of anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee, who has written extensively on the subject and devotes a website to it.
There are far too many cases to summarize, but the one I read just this morning – case 3.33, "Howard," on pages 112-113 – was particularly intriguing. It is drawn from Laurin Bellg's 2015 book Near Death in the ICU, and involves a man who suffered cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated. After he had recovered sufficiently to talk, he described an NDE that took place while he was unconscious:
I felt myself rising up through the ceiling and it was like I was going through the structure of the building. I could feel the different densities of passing through insulation. I saw wiring, some pipes and then I was in this other room.
It looked like a hospital but it was different.… It was very quiet and it seemed like no one was there. There were individual rooms all around the edge and on some of the beds were these people, except they were not people, exactly. They looked like mannequins and they had IVs hooked up to them but they didn't look real. In the center was an open area that looked like a collection of work stations with computers.
Dr Bellg, a critical care physician, says her jaw dropped when she heard this. She writes:
I stole a look at the nurse who looked equally surprised. What we knew that Howard didn't, is that right above the ICU is a nurse-training center where new hires spend a few days rotating through different scenarios. There are simulated hospital rooms around the perimeter with medical mannequins on some of the beds. In the center there is indeed a collection of workspaces with computers.
The patient also repeated statements made by Bellg during the resuscitation effort, when he was being defibrillated, and accurately reported who was present during the event.
Though not all the cases are this dramatic, the sheer number of them and the obvious efforts that have been made to substantiate the patients' accounts add up to a powerful argument for the significance of NDEs – not as the hallucinations of a traumatized brain, but as ontologically real events. Readers who are serious about the scientific study, analysis, and interpretation of near-death experiences can't go wrong by reading this important book. My only complaint is that there's no ebook edition. Soon, I hope!
Materialism is a badly flawed philosophy, at least when taken as a comprehensive explanation of reality. As a partial explanation, it fares much better. I've sometimes used an analogy with the history of physics: Newtonian physics was once seen as offering a complete picture of reality, but then was superseded by quantum physics, which subsumes classical physics while going beyond it. Newton wasn't wrong — he was right in a certain (very large) context — but his description of the world was incomplete and therefore unhelpful in certain areas. Materialism, too, is right in a certain context — it has immense explanatory and descriptive power in dealing with large areas of reality — but it is incomplete and leads its proponents into error when they go too far afield. It, too, needs to be subsumed within a larger system of thought that can address those parts of reality that materialism is unequipped to face.
Materialists often tout the track record of scientific and technological success in recent centuries as proof that materialism works. But this argument misses the point. No serious person denies that materialism works. Classical physics also works; using nothing but Newton's laws, it is possible to chart a course for the moon and land a spacecraft there. But just as classical physics breaks down when dealing with black box radiation or the double slit experiment, so materialism breaks down when dealing with psi phenomena, after-death communications and experiences, and consciousness itself — not to mention spirituality, love, art, and morality, among other things that materialism is at a loss to explain (and prefers to ignore, debunk, belittle, or dismiss). It is not that materialism doesn't work, but that it works only in certain limited (albeit large and important) areas. Outside those areas, it fails. Materialism is like the proverbial drunk looking for a lost item under a lamppost; even though he didn't lose it there, it's the only place where there's enough light to see.
Old Mutt 'n' Jeff cartoon strip illustrating the "streetlight effect"
All of which brings us, naturally, to Silicon Valley billionaires who want to become vampires.
Say what? No, really. There are such people. Peter Thiel, who recently made news as the first openly gay person to address a Republican convention, is one of them. Well, he doesn't actually say he wants to be a vampire. But he does want to extend his life indefinitely, and he hopes to do it with chronic infusions of younger people's blood.
Now, let's just stop and take a look at this little notion. And let's assume it could really work (doubtful). What are the practical implications?
This planet's human population is already growing out of control. The only thing holding it in check is mortality. If everyone became immortal, the population would surge to hopelessly unsustainable levels. Unless, of course, people stopped having children altogether, in which case the present generation would be the last generation. Neither alternative sounds appealing.
But of course the would-be vampire billionaires already know this. They are blissfully unconcerned, because they have no intention of making everybody immortal. Immortality is for the special people, the movers and shakers — you know, them. It's not for the hoi polloi. They can continue dying off as usual. Who will miss them? One hamburger flipper or landscaper is the same as another.
No, the gift of immortality will be enjoyed only by a select few, who already enjoy massively concentrated wealth. But what of the morality of using young people's blood to keep septuagenarians and octogenarians and nonagenarians forever youthful? Pish posh — morality is a fable told to keep the masses in line; it doesn't apply to the superman. What, then, of the sheer creepiness of it? Well, perhaps it is creepy. Perhaps it is even a bit insane. But anything is justified, if the goal is to stave off death.
Because death is the end, utter extinction, eternal oblivion, and it must be postponed as long as possible, no matter the means or the cost.
And here we circle back to materialism. The hopeful vampires think their project makes sense because they can imagine no reality beyond physical reality. They're unconcerned with morality because materialism has taught them that morality is an arbitrary construct. They're willing to go to insane lengths, even to risk social strife and political upheaval, because their number one priority is the perpetuation of the ego — the ego being the facet of the self that is most directly focused on and connected to the tangible physical world.
Now, I'm not saying we should sit back and accept whatever nature wants to do to us. This was the position of doctors who opposed anesthesia because, they thought, God intended man to suffer. It's the position of today's "deep ecologists," who want to undo most or all of the advancements of the scientific era and revert to a pre-technological lifestyle.
But it's one thing to make life better for oneself and others. It's another thing to make the perpetuation of one's own life the be-all and end-all, trumping all other considerations. This impulse, I think, displays both a spiritual poverty and an embarrassing immaturity. Coming to terms with the inevitability of one's earthly demise is a big part of growing up. Adolescents, who typically think of themselves as immortal, are notorious for their self-involved thoughtlessness. The realization of mortality deals a blow to the ego which allows for the development of empathy and concerns larger than self.
Adults who haven't accepted this reality are not really adults in the full sense. They cannot see past the boundaries of the ego. They're blind to a larger and more interesting world.
Could they see farther, they would regard the inevitability of death not as shocking, cruel, and unfair, but as normal and even comforting — a chance to rest after a long earthly struggle and to prepare for further growth and personal evolution. They would prepare themselves mentally and spiritually so as to make their transition as gracefully as possible. And they wouldn't be tempted to batten, leechlike, on the next generation in order to keep their physical bodies going on ... and on ... and on.
If Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that this plan rarely works out well.
I haven't been posting much lately, in part because I had computer problems that finally obliged me to get a new MacBook. But the other reason is that I find myself increasingly less interested in the endless back-and-forth of the survival debate. It seems that the same arguments are endlessly rehearsed, with Skeptics propounding some non-paranormal explanation for every NDE, OBE, apparition, past-life memory, and after-death communication ever reported, and treating each as if it were an isolated and rare event, while the pro-survival side comes up with more and more cases, only to be told that it's not enough (and even, according to some Skeptics, that none of it qualifies as evidence at all). Barring some breakthrough that will settle the matter once and for all, the debate, such as it is, appears likely to continue forever.
What does interest me these days is going beyond the empirical evidence, which has been aired pretty thoroughly on this blog and in countless books and on many other websites, and trying to formulate some kind of model that will make sense of things. Now, the first point to make about this is that it's an enterprise that cannot really succeed. What I mean is, no model is ever going to capture the full reality of what's going on. Any theoretical construct (much less a mere analogy or metaphor) will fail to encompass the complete range of the phenomena it's trying to cover. The menu is not the meal, the map is not the territory, etc. The value of a model is not that it is a complete or even an accurate representation, but that it can be useful. It is a way of organizing disparate observations into a more coherent whole. Its value is epistemological, not ontological; it can be an aid to thinking, even though it is by no means a perfect reflection of reality.
With that in mind, I'd say that the model that currently appeals most to me is the virtual reality model. I realize that this approach is open to the standard objection that we're just using the latest and most fashionable technology to conceptualize our world. As Newton's clockwork universe reflected the intricate clockwork mechanisms of his day, so we now turn to VR, the newest and coolest tech, to explain things in our time. This is true, but again, the goal is not to capture what is really going on, but to find a useful way of visualizing it. That being the case, it's not surprising that each new iteration of technology should provide us with new opportunities for metaphors and analogies. As long as we don't mistake the menu for the meal, we should be okay.
The virtual reality model is perhaps best summarized by words attributed to Roger Ebert shortly before his death: "It's all an elaborate hoax." Or perhaps by a well-known campfire song, which is more philosophically acute than most campers realize:
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream
Or by Prospero's soliloquy in The Tempest:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
It has much in common with Plato's theory of Forms or Ideas and with his allegory of the cave. It also has points in common with the broodings of mystics throughout the centuries, and with the insights of all those who are said to have experienced Cosmic Consciousness.
For me personally, it seems the richest and most satisfying model — though again, only a model, and not even a fully developed one, as yet — of reality. So what exactly is the virtual reality model?
Basically, it's the view that earthly life is a fully immersive role-playing game. This game is designed by our higher self, with which we are in only tenuous contact while embodied. The game is meant to be challenging and instructive. The stakes are, in one sense, real — we gain real wisdom and personal growth. In another sense, the stakes are illusory —Ebert's "elaborate hoax." Our physical gains and losses are of no real consequence, and even our joy and suffering are transient and ultimately trivial, no matter how powerfully they may affect us here and now. What matters is what we take away from our travails. As Kipling wrote in his most famous poem, If:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
The game is about winning and losing, but the real victories are those of the mind and spirit. Being embodied, we tend to forget this. And as might be expected, our immersion in the fully convincing virtual environment tends to become more complete over time, as we gradually forget whatever we knew of our origins. Children are known for not treating reality as fully real, blurring imagination and facts, and engaging in endless play. Adults usually grow out of all that. We settle in to our circumstances and become more firmly nested in the familiar "real world." Or as Wordsworth wrote in Intimations of Immortality:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Those who don't quite grow up, the mystics and dreamers, are derided by those practical types who, having more efficacy in the workaday world, tend to dominate the action here. But while these hardheaded realists are on top now, they often prove least insightful and least spiritually mature, and they are not learning the lessons that matter most. Ultimately, the last shall be first and the first shall be last; unless you become like a small child, you will not enter heaven's kingdom; the only treasure worth having is spiritual mastery, which is the pearl of great price.
Life on earth is hard and painful. There is no getting around this fact. Dr. Pangloss's encomia to "this best of all possible worlds" simply do not ring true for most of us. The "problem of pain" has vexed spiritual seekers of all descriptions. Why would a loving God or a beneficent universe allow so much pointless suffering? The usual explanation, that original sin and plain old human cussedness are responsible, doesn't account for such purely natural calamities as earthquakes, tidal waves, and malarial mosquitoes. And even human-caused catastrophes like war and tyranny plague those who are innocent of any wrongdoing. So what's it all about?
Well, just how interesting or instructive would any role-playing game be if there were no obstacles, hazards, and challenges? We seek conflict and drama in movies and novels — why not in the ultimate fictional story we've devised, the story of our own lives? An author does not shrink from making things difficult for his characters; he knows that the more they struggle, the better the narrative. Our higher self, with a kind of pitiless creativity, lays traps and snares for us as we navigate the virtual environment of our personal drama. To us, it may seem like sadism, just as an animal may perceive nothing but hostile intent in the jab of the veterinarian's needle. It takes a higher intelligence to know that the pain of the injection is the necessary price of avoiding rabies.
Moreover, while the game is planned in some respects, it is not planned out in detail. The players themselves can and will make pivotal decisions, writing their own script, which may deviate significantly from what the planners had in mind. Sometimes our higher self will nudge us back on track when we threaten to go too badly off course; others times, we are on our own. Like children learning to walk, we have to be allowed to fall.
But the real answer to the problem of pain is that the game, however real it seems to us while we are immersed in it, is only a game, and a brief one at that. It's a cliche that as people age, they look back on their lives and wonder where the time went. All those years look like only a moment — a lifetime seems like little more than a waking dream. I think this perception is correct. It is only a moment, only a dream. When viewed from the perspective of the higher self (a perspective as alien to us as the perspective of Spaceland is to a Flatlander), all this Sturm und Drang is only the passing agitation of troubled sleep.
Better be with the dead ...
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further.
Life's fitful fever is the restless excitement of the chase, the urgent pursuit of elusive goals, the playing of the game. Our seemingly real world — our virtual reality — affords us endless opportunities to strive and suffer. By playing the game, we learn and grow, or we fail to learn and repeat the same self-defeating mistakes. Either way, "it's all an elaborate hoax," and to the extent that we see through it, we become better players — more focused, more aware, less fearful.
And when we lose the need to win ... we've won.