Sunday, April 13, 2014

Rethinking The Basis Of My Outlook

The following is a brief excerpt from Steve Stewart-Williams' several-years-old Psychology Today blog post Evidence for Life after Death? This is his response to alleged empirical evidence for life after death accorded by what he calls "reported paranormal phenomena":
To begin with, much of the putative evidence for life after death is easily explained in purely naturalistic terms. For example, although there's no reason to doubt that people have OOBEs and NDEs, these experiences are plausibly explained in physiological or psychological terms. Similarly, memories of past lives may be false memories, and ghost sightings may be hallucinations or misinterpretations of ambiguous stimuli. These alternative explanations do not in themselves prove that there's nothing supernatural going on. However, wherever there is a plausible alternative explanation for a phenomenon, we must concede at the very least that we have no strong reason to accept the supernatural interpretation.
Stewart-Williams thinks deeply about such things and is the author of the book Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life. He is a believer that the naturalistic explanation trumps the supernatural (oh, how I dislike that loaded term) explanation of life, and I would make myself a fool if I said he is wrong in his outlook.
But just as he admits that his plausible "alternative" natural explanations "do not in themselves prove that there's nothing supernatural going on." I feel free to disagree with his outlook, or to at least seriously consider the alternative.
I was raised in a religious tradition which taught (1) humans have an eternal soul and (2) that our post-this-life existence would entail a resurrection of our bodies. Along with that came some confusingly indistinct "intermediate state" where our souls exist apart from our bodies until the Resurrection. After much reflection I came to think the above was a bit too unnecessary and non-parsimonious.
Much thought has at the least led me to an appreciation of some of the theories of Plato and Plotinus. This would tie in well with some of the people I personally know who have had near-death or out-of-body experiences, including my mother and one of my stepfathers. A family acquaintance was the late Dr. Maurice Rawlings, who wrote several books about NDEs, the best known was made into the move, Beyond Death's Door. He was my mom's cardiologist.
I would suggest that if the most you know about near-death experiences is what has been written from the skeptical viewpoint, you've really done yourself a disservice. There is a good deal of information around that merits honest investigation, I think.
The subject of reincarnation is one I admit to having trouble appreciating. No doubt part of the reason is because it is so foreign to the way I was at first indoctrinated. Also, it can easily be made to seem quite ridiculous (see my last post). However, I'm finding the work of the late Ian Stevenson is not so easily dismissed, unless one has a firmly entrenched naturalistic bias.
Then there is the matter hallucinations. Here too I think there may be more than one might first think. For the sake of argument, allow that there may be other dimensions in existence. If we first rule out the possibility of our senses giving us accurate information about such things, we really are just arguing in a circle, aren't we?
It's not that I don't recognize that hallucinations exist. I tend to think such things are very psychologically relevant. A one-size-fits-all is never fully satisfying. Maybe some hallucinations aren't really hallucinations at all. I've been forced to consider that possibility when coming to terms with some of my own. (And in case you're wondering, I'm not now and never have been a drug user or abuser.)
So for those of you who have managed to stay with me this far, I must say that I do disagree with Steve Stewart-Williams conclusion, "we must concede at the very least that we have no strong reason to accept the supernatural interpretation."

No, we mustn't. However, for those who feel they must, c'est la vie. The animistic outlook is probably as old as reasoning humanity. It is instinctive. The Cosmos is not made up of dead matter, but matter which is alive, powered by purpose and thought, and of such matter we consist. At least that is what the majority of us have thought since the beginning.  


  1. Hi Doug, I have only read a little about NDEs, but there are certainly NDE researchers like Sam Parnia who would disagree with the statement "these experiences are plausibly explained in physiological or psychological terms".

    And these are not the only experiences that we might question in this way. Philosopher Phillip Wiebe has collected accounts from about 30 people in the part of Canada where he lives who claim to have seen visions of Jesus. He considers possible supernatural, psychological and neurophysiological explanations, and concludes that no single explanation or class of explanations is capable of explaining them all (see Visions of Jesus?).

    In a later book, Wiebe looks at other apparently supernatural experiences, some of which he gathered himself, and others which come from a database of 6,000 accounts of religious experiences maintained by the Religious Experience Research Centre, formerly at Oxford University but now at the University of Wales. He suggests that these experiences should be classified and studied in a way similar to how NDEs have been.

    Finally, NT scholar Craig Keener has compiled a list of hundreds of plausible accounts of healing miracles which occurred after prayer to the christian God (see More healing miracles). He estimated from studies into healing miracles that more than 300 million people worldwide claim to have observed or experienced such a healing miracle.

    Of course there are many possible explanations of all these apparently supernatural events, but they surely give some reason to question whether purely naturalistic explanations are adequate for every one of them.

    Interesting stuff.

    1. Thanks for your interesting comment and the links. I'm going to have to wait until I have more time, perhaps this weekend, to peruse them.

      You are right that "there are many possible explanations of all these apparently supernatural events." I think that's the crux.

      For my part, I was raised a Pentecostal Christian. We were taught not that divine healing was a real possibility, but that divine healing was provided for in Christ's atonement: "By his stripes are ye healed."

      I have to say I saw more psychosomatic "healings" than I did, say, restorations of blind eyes and missing limbs; in fact, I saw none of the latter. We had a one-handed man who attended our church and I wondered why he would have to await the resurrection for restoration if healing was in the atonement.

      These things have lead me to a view that the Divine Mind most likely works through the laws of nature rather than above them (which isn't to say we know exactly how those laws might work in their entirety), which is why I am more of an evolutionist than a believer in creation by fiat.

      Does that make sense? Anyway, I'm still trying to work my way through all this.