Occam’s Disposable Razor

Since new books are kind of rare right now, I’m reading through some of those I’ve collected but haven’t actually read.  One is Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin.  I bought the book because the topic, as addressed by a university press book, is interesting.  Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin approach the subject as philosophers.  Their main focus is on the widely accessible and successful books by Eben Alexander and Todd Burpo.  Also the somewhat less well known efforts of Jeffrey Long and Pim van Lommel.  (Instead of taking up blog space with all these titles, just email me if you’re curious, or read my Goodreads post.)  Applying standard scientific methods to spiritual experiences isn’t easy, and Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are clear that they aren’t trying to take the value out of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), but rather they are challenging how these authors try to make them authentic.

Philosophers parse words finely.  The authors show that “real” is not the same thing as “authentic” and demonstrate how some of the more spectacular NDEs can possibly be explained by science.  Those who’d temporarily died might’ve caught onto things that happened just before or just after brain activity ceased or restarted, for example, and then misremembered them.  As a still-living guy who can’t remember where he left his wallet half the time, misremembering is an authentic reality.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Science and religion ask different questions.  One of the mainstays of scientific method is Occam’s Razor—the solution that requires the least mental gymnastics to explain something is the most likely to be true.  Many times this razor is flashed in the face of those trying to make a religious case for something.

Ironically, the authors here dismiss Occam’s Razor.  They state that sometimes the more complicated solution is the right one.  I happen to agree with them on this, but it proved a real distraction in reading the book.  Many scientists use the exact opposite argument against spiritual things.  It also struck me that a book so brief (less than 200 pages) would necessarily struggle to explain a complex phenomenon convincingly.  Trade books, such as those by Alexander and Burpo, aren’t meant to be held up to the stiff standards of peer review.  They are meant for selling lots of copies.  Their authors aren’t philosophers.  It’s almost a mismatch in categories.  Some academic presses are now publishing on NDEs and asking plenty of questions about them.  It’s no surprise that philosophers favoring physicalism would do the same.  It seems a little hairy, however, to do so with Occam left firmly in the shaving kit.


Heavenly Questions

A lot can happen when you’re in a coma. Or nothing at all. I haven’t read Kevin and Alex Malarkey’s account of the latter’s trip to Heaven during a coma, and it looks like I never shall. A story by Kyle Swenson in The Washington Post explains how Alex Malarkey, now that he is no longer a minor, is suing Tyndale House over the publication of his Near Death Experience (NDE), penned by his father. The story, according to the Post, was a fabrication. Alex awoke from his coma recalling nothing, but Kevin knew a good thing when he saw it and wrote an account of the young boy going to Heaven. Alex says it never happened. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven is now being pulled and pulped as a hoax.

NDEs are real (even if one didn’t happen in this case), but what they actually are is a matter of debate. The mainstream interpretation is that they are the last gasps of consciousness before a brain dies, temporarily. These often comforting thoughts can be quite similar in very different contexts and sometimes include the formerly deceased knowing details that they couldn’t possibly have witnessed in real life. Scientists willing to buck convention explore these episodes less with the intention of proving Heaven is true than with probing the idea that souls are real. That consciousness somehow continues. That life may, after all, be eternal. Since there are no scientific apparatus in the afterlife, there’s no way to measure or quantify such events. This leads most scientists to conclude that these are merely dying thoughts, or, as in the Malarkey case, hoaxes.

Ever since Raymond Moody’s Life after Life, confessional publishers—particularly of the evangelical brand—have promoted such stories. Religion and science, while not necessarily the cats and dogs they’re presented as being, don’t often coalesce around a common nucleus. Part of the problem is that spiritual events are beyond the reach of the scientific method since no laboratory conditions exist to test them. A number of scientists and medical doctors attest the reality of NDEs, but these occur in human consciousness—a realm of which we know little. Religious publishers know a good story when they see one since the doubts cast by science have to be regularly dispelled. The problem is the money such stories attracts also allures those seeking the fiduciary comforts of this material world. In this case, it seems, if you didn’t have the experience yourself you could capitalize on someone who did. Or didn’t. Those eager for proof are always willing to buy and sell the story.


Sects These Days

fisherreligionNew Religious Movements (NRMs) have long fascinated me. As a natural historian, looking back over where we’ve been has been my usual source of orientation. The idea that a new religious truth could emerge used to strike me as unlikely, especially in the western hemisphere. All major religions of ancient times have come from Asia. (I’m using “major” here only in terms of numbers, not importance.) I wasn’t sure if Mary Pat Fisher’s Religion in the Twenty-first Century was going to be about those traditional religions or NRMs. Both, it turns out. This little book, spun off of a bigger book, looks at very brief histories and contemporary expressions of traditional religions as well as some newer expressions of the spiritual quest. As such, it really doesn’t strive to reveal too much that’s new, but I found it interesting nevertheless.

To begin with Fisher reveals a bit of her own spiritual journey. This may be the first time I’ve ever read of a major textbook author (her larger world religions books are bestsellers) admit to having had a near death experience (NDE, as long as we’re using abbreviations). I know for a fact that Fisher is not the only academic to have experienced such, but trying to get anyone to admit as much requires, well, the confidence of a bestselling textbook, I guess. The fact is, human beings have a spiritual sense. Even academics. It can be effaced, sublimated, buried, or neglected, but it is there. There’s no other way to explain the persistence of religion. Even Nones, to update the discussion a little, often list themselves as spiritual, but not religious. It is part of the human condition, and it is well worth trying to understand.

This little spin-off text, at seventeen years old, does look a bit dated. Some of the predictions for the then coming new millennium were a touch optimistic. I suppose that’s the danger of any description of contemporary developments. Interfaith dialogues and initiatives, I suspect, still continue although we hear little of them. We continue to use religions as a way to divide between insiders and outsiders. Although our common yearning for spirituality has great potential to bring people together, historically it has wrenched them apart. I’m not sure that this particular book by Fisher is still available any more. Or it may have been updated. As one who tends to look back over history, however, I find the optimism refreshing. Perhaps as we continue to struggle with what it means to be human we will come to realize that religion is about what is inside, not out.


Our Gods, Ourselves

The near-death experience, made popular by Raymond Moody in the 1970s, has hit the cultural mainstream with movies like Heaven Is Real. The now-familiar scenario of going through the tunnel toward the light and meeting something like God is so widespread that mention of “staying away from the light” can be a metaphor for remaining alive. Although experts (one of which I’m decidedly not) disagree on interpretations, nobody doubts that the dying often report such things. Some say it is the impression left on an oxygen-starved brain about to implode, while others postulate a soul has made an actual bid for freedom only to be returned to sender. No matter what you believe, it’s hard not to be intrigued. Not all the experiences are identical, however. A friend recently sent me a story from World News Daily Report that headlines “Catholic Priest Who Died for 48 Minutes Claims that God Is a Woman.” The story by Barbara Johnson, which ran earlier this month, is an interesting variation on the standard. Often the “being of light” met at the end of the tunnel is kind of asexual. After all, there are no physical bodies there.

This story has me thinking. Traditional Christian, indeed, Judeo-Christian thought posits that God is neither male nor female. Of course, given human experience, many people find that difficult to conceive. It does occur in intersex persons, and it is actually pretty widespread in nature where some animals change gender over their lifespans. Still, when it comes to the Almighty, people want to know with whom they’re dealing. Think about it. When you walk into a doctor’s office and meet a physician for the first time, your response will differ depending on their gender. The same is true of going into a car dealership, or a daycare facility. We use gender to give us the first hint on how to respond. A genderless God, let’s admit, is somewhat disquieting. What is the message you want to send to a person without knowing their gender? Or maybe like me you’ve read a book and discovered halfway through that you had the gender of the author wrong. Doesn’t it impact how you read the rest? So, what if God is a woman?

Interestingly, the case of Father John O’neal comes from a Catholic context. Along with Evangelical Christians, Catholics are among the most likely to hold a residual maleness to God’s identity. Theology of the Trinity, always beginning with “the Father” makes it hard to escape. Perhaps what Fr. O’neal unexpectedly encountered was a God-concept without judgment. That would certainly be disorienting to a faith that has a multi-layered afterlife including limbo and purgatory as well as heaven and hell. A deity who decides the fate of souls must be a judge, and although Judge Judy rules daytime television, the church still has a traditional mensch on the bench. What if Fr. O’neal really did get to heaven? What if he found God really was female? Could human religions ever recover? I, for one, am intrigued. Still, I’m content to wait another few decades before finding out. And maybe for the time we have down here we should all start practicing by realizing that gender is always far less important than the personhood that we all share.

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Heaven Can Wait

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” So the jingle goes. Or went. I’ve only met my upstairs neighbors once. Twice now. Apparently last weekend I slept through the fire alarm—one of the dangers of awaking ridiculously early on a daily basis. The neighbors found the source of the smoke and turned off the furnace in the basement, but told me first thing in the morning before the coffee really kicked in. I avoided a close call, perhaps. What if they’d not been home?

I have no delusions about understanding how the Internet works. I’m still trying to figure out the telegraph. Perhaps having this inconsequential blog has put me on somebody’s radar, or maybe it’s just some bored robot that searches for strange combinations of words in the wee hours of the night. In any case, I ended up with an email with the trailer for Heaven Is For Real embedded in it. I recall when the book was on the New York Times bestseller list, and I suppose the Easter weekend release date is no coincidence, but the trailer still bothered me a bit. It’s not the resurrection part—the film industry wouldn’t get very far without that trope—but it is the implications of what heaven would be like. I haven’t read the book, but apparently Colton Burpo had a near-death experience and then for a considerable time afterward began describing things that were impossible for him to know. A miscarriage where his sister died, what his grandfather looked like as a young man, what his parents were doing when he was dead in the hospital. Talk about your spooky effects at a distance!

Despite my penchant for watching scary movies, I don’t think I’ll see Heaven Is For Real. There’s just too much emotional build-up here, and Life After Life traumatized me for weeks a couple decades back. Still, I am very interested in the possible explanations for what might have been going on. Near-death experiences have never been adequately explained. Scientists suggest that a lot can happen in a complex brain in a matter of nano-seconds, and we have no chronograph precise enough to know whether the thoughts and images happened before death, during death, or during resuscitation. Still, how people frequently know precisely where others were, who were not in the room at the time, and how they heard things that, medically speaking, they couldn’t have heard, remains eerie and hopeful at the same time. What does appear to be without question is that consciousness is far from being explained.

Botticini's vision

Botticini’s vision

Heaven is always described as pleasant. That concept differs radically for people, and you have to wonder how it can be one-size-fits-all. Some people prefer to be in crowds, while others like to be alone. Some like it hot. Some like it cold. And those who experience near-death phenomena often report having a body of some sort “up there.” Some people would prefer a different body. According to the trailer, Colton says we’re all young over yonder. For me, such things are far more about questions than answers. We don’t know what goes on after death. Nearly every religion ever invented says that clearly there’s more to the story. Some say we come back, others say we stay away. Maybe it is different for each. Maybe it is just a matter of having good neighbors after all.


Beyond Science

The nature of reality is not easily parsed. As a society we are still under the spell of rationalism, that wonderful left-brain system that seems to explain everything. Until we break down in tears and don’t know why. Like the proverbial chicken-and-egg, reductionists say it all comes down to electro-chemical reactions in the brain, to which non-reductionists reply “believe that if you want to.” Knowledge and belief, belief and knowledge. The truth is nobody knows. So when I see Heaven on the cover of Newsweek, I can’t resist wondering what’s inside. Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard-educated neurosurgeon, has just written a book called Proof of Heaven. In the Newsweek article he explains how during a week-long coma he had the most vivid experience of his life. While his brain was shut down. It might be more accurate to say he had the most vivid experience of his afterlife.

The classic debate for Near Death Experiences—so common they have their own acronym, NDEs—revolves around timing. Reductionists say the thought could have happened very, very quickly, just as the brain was shutting down. We all know how dreams can feel like they last far longer than we’re asleep, and how vivid they are. Those who accept the reality of an afterlife argue that many of the classic symptoms such as seeing your own body from above, or being able to describe in detail what was happening in another room at the time, count as evidence. It is the problem of the occasional phenomenon again. This is something no lab can measure, but it happens just often enough to make you wonder. The shaman might say, along with Inception, that the dream is the reality. That might explain why so much of “real life” is unpleasant.

As comfortable as the belief that reality is solid, material, quantifiable, may be, it does not count for the totality of human experience. Alexander’s heaven may not be the same as mine. Reality may not be one. Maybe Occam was wrong. Reading about shamans over the past couple of weeks, it became clear that some believe humans have more than one soul. (I can hear the reductionists rumbling—one soul is already too many!) Some cultures recognize as many as seven souls in a single individual. These, they suggest, account for the uncanny experiences of human life. Why do some people see ghosts and why are dreams so vivid and how does faith healing work? Reductionism calls them all illusions, tricks of the brain. Until his coma Dr. Alexander would have agreed. Now the newsstands suggest a different paradigm may be emerging. Dare we believe that the truth is out there?


NDEs

I love science. Like many young boys, I was probably enticed to science through science fiction. While I didn’t follow science to a career, I used it to study religious texts. Those who’ve never undertaken the challenge of trying to figure out what something written thousands of years ago—on clay!—really says may be surprised to learn just how much science is involved. Nevertheless, as comforting as reductionism may be, something just doesn’t feel right about it. Science is how we explain and understand our world, and it does a spectacular job of it. The problem arises when science becomes what Stephen Jay Gould called a “magisterium.” Magisteria have all the answers. Yes, science explains how matter and energy work and interact, but it has yet to explain satisfactorily what it feels like. Most days I feel like the person I’ve become accustomed to show to the world. That person is very much like every other—being born, eating, breathing, dying. Medical science can explain most of it, but what about the parts it can’t?

I just finished reading Ornella Corazza’s Near-Death Experiences: Exploring the Mind-Body Connection. I remember when the craze about this hit in 1981 with the release of the movie Life After Life. I was fascinated and terrified by it. Since a materialistic view of science dismisses anything that has the residue of spirits or souls, the phenomenon of the resuscitated dead reporting seeing their bodies from above, shooting through tunnels into the light, and sometimes meeting the dead (or God), were explained as last nano-second hallucinations as the brain prepared to shut down or reboot (upon resuscitation). That’s that. The answer, however, didn’t satisfy everyone. What about those cases where the dead person reported, in detail, what happened in other rooms, or things they couldn’t have seen in their own room, had they been conscious? Corazza takes these considerations seriously and tries to understand what may be going on. Obviously, her explorations will not convince a reductionist, but they may give pause to some of us.

What makes her approach so interesting is that Corazza takes into account an alternative way of looking at consciousness. While the facts of science are, by definition, universal, the contexts within which those facts are viewed are not. Having spent considerable time with Japanese scientists exploring consciousness, eastern ideas of the body inform her research. In the western world we have an easy familiarity with the Cartesian dualism of body and soul that does not fit into other worldviews. Corazza takes the interesting step of asking what if we apply an eastern paradigm of the body (one that understands soul as body, and not just in a materialistic sense) and apply it to the question of Near Death Experiences. The results are mind-stretching. I feel as if my consciousness got up from months of laziness and ran a marathon (or at least a 5-K). It’s a bit winded and parts of it are starting to ache a little. No reductionists need worry, however, because in that worldview none of this exists.