Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The After Death Experience: A Review

This review was written some years ago in the 1980s for the Channel Island Mensa Magazine, "Thinks". Since then, thanks to the work of Elisabeth Loftus, the whole phenomena of false and implanted memories has become the subject of much more detailed experimental studies, and it is clear that false memories can become entrenched and solidified by "rehearsal" even without hypnosis, just with simple suggestion.

Memory was assumed to be a static affair, something laid down like a tape recorder or film, but we now know from a significant body of experiments that this is completely false, and memory can become very malleable. I myself have been totally deceived in a visual memory that I had about the sitting of a statue, and could call up an image of it in my mind. Once a false memory is in place, rehearsing it only strengthens the memory, and the mind adds all kinds of extra details, as if to give verisimilitude to the experience.

Given that, I would consider that "past life experiences" certainly fit into that category of fabricated memories very well.  It is also notable that hypnosis, before false memories were properly understood, gave rise to telling of alien abductions which were taken at face value as "evidence".

I've also had an "out of body experience" in which I was floating above my sleeping body, but not on the operating table, just in normal sleep. However, at the time, I had been reading Dennis Wheatley's "Strange Conflict" where most of the action takes place precisely with astral bodies and out of body experiences, so it was not perhaps unexpected!

Yet while there are very plausible alternative explanations for many strange phenomena, like regression, mediums, and out of body experiences, I would not totally rule everything out on philosophical grounds. There is a strong empiricist and reductionist tradition which rules everything out, and finds an explanation for everything in terms of cause and effect, as interpreted in a vary materialistic sense, but causality of this kind (causal determinism) is in fact a philosophical assumption, not a proven fact. It is an effective assumption, but that does not mean we should be limited by it, and it is unprovable.

After all, Euclid's axiom regarding parallel lines was and still is an effective part of Euclidean geometry and applies to much of the world in
which we live, and substantially informed Newtonian mechanics, which was extremely successful in providing engineering solutions regarding motion and gravity. But that didn't mean that other geometries were not possible, or might have a better fit to some aspects of the complex universe. So I reserve judgment on what might be true or not on a case by case basis, rather than some philosophical dogma. Or, as M.R. James famously said on ghosts:  "I answer that I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me."

"The After Death Experience " by Ian Wilson: A Review

In this book, Ian Wilson makes a detailed investigation of ideas and experiences relating to the possibility of life after death. He is by no means uncritical in his handling of the evidence and yet admits that while certain theories about life after death are based upon spurious facts there still remains evidence of a sufficiently perplexing nature as to throw doubts on the idea that death is the final curtain to life.

One theory with a seemingly good scientific basis is that of reincarnation. Under hypnosis, subjects have been taken back to revisualise memories of their early childhood; further regression of this kind to before the date of their birth has resulted in memories of past lives. Moreover, unlike other so-called evidence of the paranormal, the results can be replicated - "in this regard the phenomenon has the satisfaction of something genuinely scientific in the sense that if certain guidelines are followed it can be repeated and demonstrated by people who have never tried it before."

However, closer scrutiny of the phenomenon of regression reveals various problems. If a man is regressed by hypnosis to childhood and asked to write, he will do so in a childish scrawl - yet that has been found not to correspond to the actual handwriting of childhood!. In other words, under hypnosis, the person will produce a simulation of their childhood handwriting, not the actual handwriting.

It would appear, therefore, that the hypnotised subject is "going through an act, just like he will if told he is a typewriter or a chimpanzee, because he has effectively allowed himself to become a puppet for whatever strings the hypnotist may pull." This hypothesis is corroborated by the fact that the person's understanding of reincarnation mirrors that of the hypnotist - if the hypnotist believes a person to begin a new life on death, the past lives reflect this, but if the hypnotist expects a gap between past lives, this too is revealed!

Another area of Investigation into life after death is mediumship. Ian Wilson looks at the record of the most famous medium of recent times - Doris Stokes. Initially, the conversations produced by her supposed contact with the dead seemed startlingly accurate, but further scrutiny revealed that Doris Stokes was most accurate when giving messages to people she knew well, and this accuracy deteriorated markedly with strangers.

What is even more suspicious is that her demonstration of powers at large auditoriums, such as the London Palladium and the Sydney Opera House appear to have been "rigged". Her success was spectacular with a number of members of the audience, but "not only had these key individuals been known to Doris beforehand; each had been specially invited to the show by none other than Doris herself."

A more critical experiment in spiritualism has been the sealed packet test. Here a packet is sealed up with a message known only to one person. After the person's death, the medium - supposedly in contact with him - should be able to reveal the message. The packet can then be opened, and the messages compared. As Wilson points out, where deception can be proven not to have taken place, the results of the type of experiment have usually thrown up incorrect messages from the medium; one example is a message which was "If I could revisit any place on earth, I would visit Hampshire" being revealed by the medium as "a passage from Plato on the eternal nature of love"! However, such a disparity is often overcome by ad hoc explanations, such as "he used to read Plato when in Hampshire"!'

A better test was devised by one scientist, who prepared a coded message of a passage in a book. The key to decipherment was known only to him. After his death, mediums attempting to contact him, reported that he told them that his memory was not as good as it had been and therefore he was unable to reveal the key to his coded message, which sounds suspiciously like a convenient excuse. The simplest explanation is that he could reveal the code, because the medium was not, in fact, in contact with his dead persona,
but only believed themselves to be.

Another exceedingly odd phenomena explored by Wilson is the out of the body experiences perceived by people close to death, usually on the operating table while undergoing some major surgery. These people feel that they are floating above the operating theatre, and looking down at the surgeons operating on them The experience is so vivid that it appears to be real, I.e. quite unlike a dream. Moreover, it is retained as a memory of a real event, rather than fading quickly like a dream. Wilson thinks this provides at least some evidence of the continued existence of consciousness outside the body and possibly after death. I think he has failed to consider the possibility that under the peculiar states of consciousness involved, it may be possible for dream and reality to become confused, so that an artificial (but plausible) construct is taken as real, like an hallucination.

This is a fascinating book, which covers a wide variety of "after death experiences". and provides some intriguing and controversial conclusions.

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