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Life After Death: When Skeptics Expect To Much.

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Life After Death: When Skeptics Expect Too Much

Posted on 19 July 2021, 10:23

Whenever the mainstream media cover something of a paranormal nature, they are sure to call in a “skeptic” to provide the viewer or reader with the questionable aspects of the phenomenon.  Perhaps the two best-known media skeptics are Michael Shermer, Ph.D. and Susan Blackmore, Ph.D. Actually, I consider them both “debunkers” rather than skeptics, but that may be a matter of semantics. While recently browsing the PSI Encyclopedia, offered by the Society for Psychical Research, on the internet, I read the entries on both Shermer and Blackmore and was a little surprised to learn how they came about their skeptical views. 

I knew that Shermer, an American who studied experimental psychology, was a “born again” evangelical Christian at one time and had plans to be a theology professor, but I wasn’t aware how or why his worldview changed until I read the encyclopedia entry on him. It explains that the change came about as a result of his inability to overcome various ailments by using unconventional health practices.  Also, when his girlfriend was seriously injured in a car accident, his prayers didn’t seem to help her.

I find it very odd that a man with Shermer’s obvious intelligence would revert to nihilism because his prayers and holistic health practices didn’t appear to work for him. If those things had been my criteria for believing, I should have become a nihilist 50 or more years ago.  I feel fortunate in that I have been able to look back upon many adversities and failures in my life and see that valuable lessons were learned, and that in most, if not all, cases the adversity or failure eventually led to a more positive path. To again quote the advanced spirit known as Imperator: “It is necessary that afflictions come.  Jesus knew and taught that. It is necessary for the training of the soul.  It is as necessary as physical discipline for the body.  No deep knowledge is to be had without it.  None is permitted to scale the glorious heights but after discipline of sorrow.  The key of knowledge is in spirit hands, and one may wrest it to himself but the earnest soul which is disciplined by trial.” 

Blackmore, a British psychologist, headed the student psychical research society at Oxford and had a very vivid out-of-body experience (OBE) before doing some experimental laboratory work and finding it did not support a spiritual view.  “I no longer think anything leaves the body in an OBE,” she is quoted in the encyclopedia. “Rather it is the brain’s attempt to construct a convincing ‘model of reality’ from memory and imagination when its sensory input has failed to provide one.”

I also find it equally strange that Blackmore would change her views and convert to nihilism simply because she couldn’t validate her experiences in the laboratory. I can’t make claim to any laboratory experiments, but I will admit to failing in all attempts at automatic writing, remote viewing, astral travel, and the Ouija Board without being discouraged from a spiritual outlook.  I also failed in my youthful ambition to be a baseball player, but I am not one to say I can do anything if I put my mind to it.  I recognize my limitations. Apparently, not everyone does.

Professors William James of Harvard University and Charles Richet of the University of Paris were considered two of the most brilliant men of science during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  James is listed as one of the founders of modern psychology, while Richet, a physiologist, won the 1913 Nobel Prize in medicine for his research on anaphylaxis, the sensitivity of the body to alien protein substance.  He also contributed much to research on the nervous system, anesthesia, serum therapy, and neuro-muscular stimuli.  In spite of their brilliance, both men struggled with the spirit hypothesis, apparently assuming that spirits, if they exist, should be very intelligent, maybe even all-knowing.

“The primâ facie theory, which is that of spirit-control, is hard to reconcile with the extreme triviality of most of the communication,” wrote James, referring to the mediumship of Leonora Piper. “What real spirit, at last able to revisit his wife on this earth, but would find something better to say than that she had changed the place of his photograph? And yet, that is the sort of remark to which the spirits introduced by the mysterious Phinuit (Piper’s spirit control) are apt to confine themselves.” 

Surely, a man of James’s standing should have recognized that the trivial messages are the most evidential. When physicist Sir William Barrett began communicating with his widow, Florence Barrett, a physician and surgeon, through the mediumship of Gladys Osborne Leonard, he at first told her of his current existence and explained that at death the conscious and subconscious unite but that when he came back to talk with her through a medium they again separate and there was much he could not remember or relate.  Lady Barrett found all that interesting, but she didn’t see it as evidential and asked Sir William how she might satisfy people that she was really talking with him.  He replied that it depends on the type of mind, commenting that reference to a tear in the wallpaper in his old room might satisfy some people and not others.  Lady Barrett noted that a month before his death he had pointed out a tear in the wallpaper in one corner of his room.  Sir William then said that some higher minds have gone well beyond the need for such trivial verification, mentioning another distinguished British physicist, still in the flesh, Sir Oliver Lodge.  “Lodge is nearer the bigger, greater aspect of things than most,” he stated. (See Personality Survives Death: After-Death Communication from Sir William Barrett by Florence Barrett, White Crow Books)

Richet had similar concerns. He wondered why these “deceased personalities” were not providing advances in science to help mankind. “They have not helped us to a single step forward in geometry, in physics, in physiology, or in metaphysics,” Richet wrote. “They have never been able to prove that they know more than the ordinary man on any subject soever. No unexpected discovery has been indicated; no revelation has been made…”

Neither James nor Richet gives any indication of being familiar with more informal psychical research that took place between 1850 and the formation of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882.  Much of that research was carried out by scientists and scholars of the time and while not subject to strict controls there was much in the way of knowledge, truth, and wisdom that came from the spirits – knowledge that far exceeded that of the medium and was often in conflict with the ideas of the medium. To that extent, it might be considered evidential.  Judge John Edmonds, Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court, and Dr. George T. Dexter, a New York physician, collaborated in a 1953 book simply titled Spiritualism.  Its two volumes extended to nearly one-thousand pages of “teachings” given through Dexter’s automatic writing from the spirits of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th Century Swedish scientist, and Lord Francis Bacon, a 17th Century English philosopher. 

Add in the “teachings” given to Cora L. V. Scott (Richmond) and French educator Allan Kardec during the 1850s along with the teachings of the Imperator group through Anglican minister William Stainton Moses during the 1870s and you’ll have a library of references on every conceivable subject relating to the purpose of this life and the nature of the larger life, including God, universal space, the spirit world, Christ, spiritual evolution, spirit bodies, reincarnation, relationships beyond the grave, spirit influence, spirit possession, war, capital punishment, slavery, dreams, free will, suicide, and fear of death, to name just some. I cannot think of any subject covered in books published over the last 140 years that are not discussed in those references.  Much discernment is required in reading them, just as there is in reading the Bible.

If James and Richet were familiar with those four references, how they could have complained about the triviality of spirit messages is beyond me.  If Richet expected the spirits to offer scientific knowledge that would significantly advance our materialistic pursuits, he must not have considered the inability of humans to emotionally and morally adjust to progress in science, the problem we seem to be having in today’s world.  If James thought that the spirits should have provided greater enlightenment, he probably didn’t read these words of Swedenborg, as given through Dexter: “What would be the benefit conferred on man by opening to his comprehension all the mysteries of spirit life and all the beauties of the spheres – revealing the truths belonging to his material and spiritual nature, if we were not able to teach him how that life on earth should be directed; how to govern his passions, how to progress, how to live that his death may be productive of life everlasting in happiness?”

But back to Sir William Barrett.  He further explained to his widow that his objective in communicating with her was not simply to add to the mass of evidence already given concerning the survival of consciousness at death but to help find a working philosophy to guide those on earth who are struggling with finding a purpose in life.  “It seems to me from where I am most people are not even struggling but meandering on purposelessly, blindly, because they have no definite philosophy as a starting point,” he communicated.  He went on to say that knowledge of the afterlife opens the gates of inspiration and makes the intuition keener.  With that comes greater enthusiasm, greater understanding of the beauties of life, even the perceiving of beauty where ugliness had appeared to exist.

“Life on my side seems so extraordinarily easy compared to earth,” Sir William offered in a 1929 sitting with Leonard, “because we simply live according to the rules of love.”  The bottom line to all this is that one can be brilliant, yet not especially wise. Of course, the nihilist simply scoffs at that idea.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow book

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