Reflections on Ken Wilber's The Religion of Tomorrow (2017) - Parts I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII - PDF
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Elliot BenjaminElliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 150 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. See also: www.benjamin-philosopher.com.

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The Alleged Phenomenon of Life after Death

1st Person/2nd Person and 3rd Person
Integrated Perspectives

Elliot Benjamin

NOTE: In this article I continue to use the term “integrated” to describe an approach that unifies diverse perspectives, which is consistent with the basic framework of “integral,” but without utilizing the particulars of Wilber's theory of four quadrants, eight perspectives, levels and lines, traits and types, etc. (see my previous Integral World essays in this context).
The results of the 1st person part of my research with nine mediums involved in a Spiritualist camp in Maine were personally disappointing to me.

In a recent series of Integral World articles, Don Salmon [1], ]2], [3], David Lane and Andrea Lane [4], and Andrew Smith [5], [6)] intelligently discussed what we are and are not able to discover about the universe and our place in it through an exploration completely based upon science. Salmon [1], [2] in particular cited writings from late 19th century and early 20th century American psychologist and philosopher William James [7] to support his analysis of scientific research as at best a critical but open-minded systematic exploration that is not limited by preconceived mindsets or boundaries. Salmon [3] also discussed the possibility of the development of science, which he said is “not necessarily a religious or 'spiritual' alternative” that could eventually “develop an understanding of consciousness that is quite different from the currently accepted one.” I am in agreement with Salmon's discussion of the development of science, which I have written about in the context of “extended science” and “experiential science” [8]. However, I am also appreciative of Andrew Smith's caution in regard to the temptations of too easily believing that one's personal “mystical” experiences are legitimate “scientific” evidence [6].

I resonated with Salmon's portrayal of William James in the context of open-ended scientific inquiry [1], [2], and I will add my own portrayal of James in the context of his formulation of “radical empiricism,” as described by Braud and Anderson [9] as follows (with italics as used by Braud and Anderson, given as bold italics):

Any and all sources of evidence, ways of knowing, and ways of working with and expressing knowledge, findings, and conclusions can be brought to bear on the issues being researched....both subjective/experiential and objective/observational modes of knowing, are recognized and honored. There is an epistemological stance of what William James (1912/1976) called radical empiricism—a stance that excludes anything that is not directly experienced but includes everything that is directly experienced, by anyone involved in the research effort. Thus, the research participants' subjective experiences and self-perceptions are treated as valid data, as are the experiences and perceptions of the investigator. There is an important place for intuitive, tacit, and direct knowing; for various arational ways of processing information; and for a variety of forms of creative expression in conducting and communicating research. (p. 241).

William James [10] described the challenge of doing open-minded, thorough, and extensive scientific research as follows (with italics as used by James given in bold italics, and personal pronouns used by James at that time):

Who can be sure of the exact order of his feelings when they are exceedingly rapid?....Who can compare with precision the quantities of disparate feelings even where the feelings are very much alike....Who can be sure that two given feelings are or are not exactly the same?....Who can enumerate all the distinct ingredients of such a complicated feeling as anger....introspection is difficult and fallible...the difficulty is simply that of all observation of whatever kind. Something is before us; we do our best to tell what it is, but in spite of our good will we may go astray, and give a description more applicable to some other sort of thing. The only safeguard is in the final consensus of our farther knowledge about the thing in question, later views correcting earlier ones, until at last the harmony of a consistent system is reached. (pp. 191-192).

David Lane and Andrea Lane [11] have conveyed the difficulty of describing a 1st person (Wilber's “I”) perspective that can be considered legitimate scientific research: “It's the first-person sense of being conscious that defies explanation....NO mechanistic theory will ever solve that.” I agree with the Lanes in this respect, and in my view of “extended science” [8] I discussed the integration of 1st person, 2nd person (Wilber's “You”) and 3rd person (Wilber's “It”) perspectives. This in fact was the research perspective in which I engaged in my recent Ph.D. psychology dissertation: An Experiential Exploration of the Possibility of Life after Death through the Ostensible Communications of Mediums with Deceased Persons [12]. I interviewed mediums to learn about their experiences in receiving ostensible afterlife communications (2nd person research), I engaged in experiential sessions/sittings with these mediums to explore my own understanding of alleged afterlife communications (1st person research), and I did an extensive review of the literature to understand the arguments and theories of both advocates and counteradvocates (skeptics) regarding the authenticity of the alleged phenomenon of life after death (3rd person research).

So what were the conclusions of my 1st person/2nd person/3rd person integrated dissertation research? Well I must honestly convey that my conclusions were not what I was hoping to find. The 2rd person part of my research, which was done through semi-structured taped and transcribed interviews with eight mediums involved on varying levels in a Spiritualist camp in Maine, conveyed to me in no uncertain terms the tremendously strong beliefs in these mediums of the authenticity of life after death and their communications with deceased persons. The 3rd person part of my research, i.e. the extensive readings I engaged in for my dissertation review of the literature, left me in a quandary of appreciation of both sides of the debate—the perspective of both the advocates and counteradvocates. Thus the stage was set for me to add the 1st person part of my research, i.e. my own experiential perspective to what I was studying in an extended science context of trying to understand if there really could be life after death.

From reading the historical accounts of previous researchers who did personal experiential research with mediums, I realized the extreme danger of subjective bias that could enter into the picture, as frequently described by psi critics (see for example Carroll [13], [14] and Hyman [15], [16]; this is consistent with the caution discussed above by Smith [6]). I also realized that virtually all the late 19th century and early 20th century experiential investigations of mediums, including William James' [17] experiential investigation of the famous medium Leonora Piper, included the researcher engaging in “sittings” for extended sessions with these mediums. These extended experiential sessions resulted in virtually all these initially agnostic researchers changing their initial perspectives to a belief in the authenticity of life after death (see Gauld [18]; Lawton [19]; Wallace [20]; once again this is consistent with the above caution described by Smith [6]).

This kind of experiential research with mediums was essentially discontinued in place of quantitative experimental laboratory studies of psi phenomena, prompted by the experimental psychic research of J. B. Rhine in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s [21]. In recent years these kinds of laboratory studies were extended to ostensible life after death communications with mediums (see Schwartz, [22], [23]), inclusive of investigations with mediums in more natural settings [24]. A number of these recent studies involved “double-blind” and even “triple-blind” research methodologies, where the mediums, sitters, and sometimes investigators were “blinded” to information that could bias the research results. However, this recent research was not “researcher-based” experiential research, i.e. the researcher did not directly experience ostensible afterlife communications from mediums, and the legitimacy of these research methodologies remained controversial, depending upon the perspective of who was evaluating the research—i.e. the psi advocacy or counteradvocacy of the evaluators.

The focus of my dissertation was to bring back “researcher-based” experiential work with mediums, but to do so in a carefully designed and systematic research context in which the researcher (i.e. myself) would not be unduly influenced by having extended relationships with the mediums. I therefore made the stipulation that I would not engage in more than one experiential session with any particular medium—which proved to be a very important research guideline that I had put into place.

The results of the 1st person part of my research with nine mediums involved in a Spiritualist camp in Maine were personally disappointing to me. In the conclusions of my research I could not affirm that there was anything pertaining to a bona fide life-after-death interpretation of communications of deceased persons that I experienced. The dominant interpretation that I formulated to explain what I experienced with the mediums involved the standard arguments of skeptics that are described as “cold readings” (see Carroll [13], [14] and Hyman [15], [16]), and involved factors such as sensory cues, generic statements, subjective evaluation, environmental influence, and coincidence [12]. I stopped short of “fraud” in explaining my communications from the mediums, giving them the benefit of the doubt on this, but of course there is no way of knowing for sure the level of ethics of any particular medium. I also kept open the possibility of a generic form of “psychic communications” to explain some of the surprising and uncanny communications from a few of the mediums that I experienced [12]. This included the alleged psychic mechanisms of telepathy and clairvoyance, and Sheldrake's “morphogentic resonance” theory of possible non-personal continuations of some of a person's attributes that could survive death (see Radin [25], [26]; Irwin & Watt [27]; Sheldrake [28]). But even if there is a reasonable basis for remaining open to some kind of psychic interpretation (and I do believe this is the case in an extended science context), it is much more difficult for me to justify remaining open to a bona fide afterlife interpretation from anything that I experienced in my dissertation research.

Of course my dissertation research was limited to a small number of mediums who were involved in a particular Spiritualist camp in Maine, and I certainly do not know if the 1st person part of my research would have had different results with different mediums. I also cannot say with complete certainty that my interpretation of possible psychic factors could not “stretch” itself to include some kind of bona fide afterlife communications. But what I can say from my 1st person/2nd person/3rd person integrated research into the alleged phenomenon of life after death and ostensible communications of mediums with deceased persons, is the following:

  1. The mediums I worked with very strongly believed in the authenticity of the alleged phenomenon of life after death and communications with deceased persons.
  2. The literature conveys both sides of the debate in relatively equal levels of intellectual merit, depending upon one's perspective on the legitimacy of the research methods being utilized to investigate the alleged phenomenon of life after death and communications of mediums with deceased persons.
  3. Through my own experiences with mediums I must conclude that the most plausible explanation of my experiences are along the lines of the arguments of the skeptics, with a secondary possibility of some communications related to “psychic” factors. I found very little justification to remain open to a bona fide afterlife interpretation to explain my experiences.

REFERENCES

[1]: Salmon, D. (2011). Shaving science with Ockham's Razor: What, if anything does science tell us about reality? www.integralworld.net

[2]: Salmon, D. (2011). Shaving Visser, Goswami, Lane, and Carter with Ockham's Razor. www.integralworld.net

[3]: Salmon, D. (2011). Up the evolutionary stream without a paddle: Response to Visser. www.integralworld.net

[4]: Lane, D., & Lane, A. (2011): The Disneyland of consciousness. www.integralworld.net

[5]: Smith, A. (2011). Do we need an absolute? A response and extension to Lane and Salmon. www.integralworld.net

[6]: Smith, A. (2012). Séance, psi-ence, and science. www.integralworld.net

[7]: James, W. (1976). Essays in radical empiricism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (original work published 1912).

[8]: Benjamin, E. (2011). Extended science, experiential analysis, and an experiential exploration of the possibility of life after death through the ostensible communications of mediums with deceased persons. Academy of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies: Annual Conference: 2011 Proceedings.

[9]: Braud, W., & Anderson, R. (1998). Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences: Honoring human experience. London: Sage.

[10]: James, W. (1950). The principles of psychology. New York: Dover Press (original work published 1890).

[11]: Lane, D., & Lane, A. (2008). The physics of being aware. www.integralworld.net

[12]: Benjamin, E. An Experiential Exploration of the Possibility of Life after Death through the Ostensible Communications of Mediums with Deceased Persons. Saybrook University Ph.D. psychology dissertation, available from www.saybrook.edu

[13]: Carroll, R. T. (2005). Gary Schwartz's subjective evaluation of mediums: Veritas or wishful thinking? The Skeptic's Dictionary. Retrieved August 1, 2008, from http://skeptic.com/essays/psandsv.html

[14]: Carroll, R. T. (2005). Subjective validation. The Skeptic's dictionary. Retrieved November 1, 2008, from http://skeptic.com/subjectivevalidation.html

[15]: Hyman, R. (1996). Evaluation of a program on anomalous phenomena. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 10, 31-58.

[16]: Hyman, R. (2003). How not to test mediums: Critiquing the afterlife experiments. Skeptical Inquirer, 27(1), 20-30.

[17]: James, W. (1909). Report on Mrs. Piper's Hodgson-control. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 23, 2-121.

[18]: Gauld, A. (1982). Mediumship and survival. London: Paladin.

[19]: Lawton, G. (1932). The drama of life after death: A study of the Spiritualist religion. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

[20]: Wallace, A. R. (2011). Miracles and modern Spiritualism. Lexington, KY: Forgotten Books (original work published 1874 and re-published 1895).

[21]: Rhine, J. B. (1973). Extra-sensory perception. Brookline Village, MA: Branden Press (original work published 1934).

[22]: Schwartz, G. E., with Simon, W. L. (2002). The afterlife experiments: Breakthrough scientific evidence of life after death. New York: Pocket.

[23]: Schwartz, G. E., with Simon, W. L. (2005). The truth about medium. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads.

[24]: Kelly, E. W., & Arcangel, D. (2011). An investigation of mediums who claim to give information about deceased persons. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 199(1).

[25]: Radin, D. (1997). The conscious universe: The scientific truth of psychic phenomena. New York: HarperEdge.

[26]: Radin, D. (2006). Entangled minds: Extrasensory experiences in a quantum reality. New York: Paraview.

[27]: Irwin, H., & Watt, C. (2007). An introduction to parapsychology. London: McFarland.

[28]: Sheldrake, R. (1981). A new science of life: The hypothesis of formative causation. Los Angeles: Tarcher.




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