In my last post, I described how Carl Sagan sought to explain away the Near Death Experience as a repressed memory of birth. The tunnel, the light, the meetings with deceased relatives can all be explained, argued Sagan, by resurfacing memories of the birth canal, the sudden bath of light in the hospital delivery room and the looming presences of the doctors, nurses and, ultimately, mom.
I will not repeat the many objections to this explanation, which can be found in my previous post. But I do want to extend the conversation I started there a few beats more. Because Sagan’s non-explanation, I think, reveals something about believers and skeptics alike. We are all prone to confirmation bias. And Sagan can only have put forth such a non-starter of an explanation for the NDE for that very reason. In other words, this repressed memory idea fit so well with his understanding of the world that he didn’t question it, didn’t subject his own thinking to the same rigorous inquiry to which he would subject a claim he with which he disagreed.
The question we’re left to answer is: what are we to do about it?
We all know that we are prone to accept arguments that support our pre-existing worldview without thinking critically about them. But how can we break out of this trap?
For an answer, I turn in part to neuroscientist and author David Eagleman, who has advanced a new philosophy of his own creation: possibilianism. A possibilian is quite unlike both hardcore skeptical figures like James Randi or committed religious believers like, say, Pat Robertson. A possibilian enjoys engaging in deep thought on all the possible explanations available to us on any number of subjects and phenomena without, as Eagleman puts it, committing to “any particular story.”
In this sense, the many worlds hypothesis, string theory, the philosophy of materialism, Buddhism, Christanity, Scientology, The Lord of the Rings and even the benefits of aspirin all count as “stories.”
The next step in the exercise, of course, is to consider the evidence for any claim while refusing to commit to any final conclusion until one is truly warranted. And of course, this is where the trouble starts. One man’s data is another man’s detritus. One woman’s evidence is another woman’s anecdote. But I do think, in the contours of Eagleman’s stance, we can perceive the outline for a better way of handling discussions about the paranormal.
For instance, consider any old outlandish ghost tale. A skeptic could profitably point out that the unexplained noises in my old family home—a subject I describe at great length in Fringe-ology—do not comprise evidence of a deceased person’s spirit looming about the house. In fact, the cast of any ghost hunting show would do well to remember as much. An odd noise doesn’t equal a disembodied spirit. A door that closes on its own, without any wind or hand to push it, does not equal a mischievous ghost. It is simply what it is—a door that seemed to close on its own, without any wind or hand to push it. This doesn’t mean no such thing as a ghost could exist. But when it comes time to look for explanations for such an occurrence, given the paucity of data we’re (almost always) left with, we should be willing to consider all the possibilities—from the outlandish (some unseen intelligence with power, however limited, to interact with the physical world) to the mundane (fraud and misperception) to some more exotic, physical theory.
In Fringe-ology, for instance, I write about Vic Tandy’s theory of infrasound and Michael Persinger’s work with Electromagnetic energy and the temporal lobe, both of which might account for various forms of visual or aural hallucination, as well as sensations of being watched.
This is, admittedly, a limited sample of the various possibilities. (William Roll has suggested a kind of unintentional psycho-kinesis.) But I hope you take my point: In committing to some “particular story” about any ghost tale or ghosts as a whole we risk missing other possibilities that may be worth our attention. So for now, what I’d like to get believers and nonbelievers to agree on is simply this: we don’t need to rush to a conclusion before the data truly dictates one; and that, in fact, we will learn far more about the world by exploring various possibilities, however unlikely they might seem.
The benefit of maintaining this mindset should be obvious. We might very well learn things we can use. Surely the military or any intelligence service might be interested in Tandy’s infrasound or Persinger’s neuroscientific work. But not all the applications we might glean from paranormal investigation need be so dark. In Fringe-ology, I find ways to make use of religious and spiritual practices like prayer, meditation and lucid dreaming. I explore an obscure but seemingly powerful and beneficial psychological therapy called Induced After Death Communication. I view the traditional idea of an Unidentified Flying Object as an opportunity to be creative in our thinking and consider all the possibilities, from black military projects to ball lightning or, yes, life from some other planet. If we discover, for instance, that some as yet unknown atmospheric or energetic “anomalies” or some strange aspect of our consciousness explain some UFO reports, we only lose if we were committed to some other outcome (whether it be alien life or ignorant witnesses). Otherwise, we win by learning more about our world.
To bring this back to Sagan and the Near Death Experience (NDE), well, I wonder what we might have learned by now if we had looked at this singularly strange occurrence through the lens of possibilianism.
We know now—people who undergo an NDE are profoundly changed by it, and for the better. People who undergo an NDE report less death anxiety, a greater affinity for their fellow beings and increased tolerance for various beliefs and religious systems. They often change professions and seek deeper relationships. In a truly rational world, I would think, we would for this reason alone embrace study of the NDE. But skeptics are so caught up in maintaining the boundaries of a worldview in which there is no such thing as a life beyond this one that they can’t even see what’s right in front of their face—what is, in fact, implicit in their own way of viewing reality. Because if a truly materialistic explanation of the NDE is correct, if this profound, life-altering event is purely neurological, then there very well could—even should—be some way of recreating it in people without, well, killing and resuscitating them.
Release the appropriate chemicals in the rights amounts and voila!
An NDE (of sorts).
It is, at least, possible. There could be something in the NDE that we can use, regardless of our beliefs about it. But that isn’t a conversation we’re close to having because we’re so caught up in debating the source of the experience. This is, to some extent, understandable. After all, whether or not life continues past the point of physical death is of primary concern. But it seems to me that skeptics and believers might find more common ground with one another if we stopped focusing so much on the questions to which we lack the answers—a UFO, for instance, is by definition unidentified—and started regarding these mysteries as opportunities.
To learn something.
To find ways to better the human condition.
To use anomalies as an opportunity for exploration.
I hold out no great hope that we are about to turn the corner and start thinking or behaving in this way. But I do believe this sort of view is worth pushing for and far more productive than the debate in which we’re currently mired.
Thanks for reading. I have my own blog at stevevolk.com but will try and contribute something to the Daily Grail every couple of weeks. I also invite some pushback to my thoughts here, and of course raving applause is also welcome. I'm just trying to sort out a new way of handling an old subject.