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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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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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Experiential Skepticism

And an Exploration of Mediumship and Life after Death

Elliot Benjamin

No I do not know anything for certain, including the validity of my own philosophical speculations...

In the inscription to Michael Shermer's book Why People Believe Weird Things, the following quote from Carl Sagan's 1987 The Burden of Skepticism Pasadena lecture is included:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. (Shermer, 2002, inscription)

It is in this demanding context of skepticism that I consider myself to be a skeptic when it comes to investigating some of the popular current trends in religion and spirituality throughout the world. The title of my 2012 Ph.D dissertation is An Experiential Exploration of the Possibility of Life after Death Through the Ostensible Communications of Mediums with Deceased Persons (Benjamin, 2012), and my approach was a reflexive open-minded agnostic investigation that I believe was entirely consistent with the above context of skepticism as described by Sagan.

However, an essential ingredient in my agnostic/skepticism investigative research is to make use of my own experiences as part of my research exploration. This can be considered to be an extension of the qualitative research methodology of participant observation (Creswell, 2007). In particular, I used this form of qualitative research in my dissertation in the context of autoethnographic research.

Autoethnography was initially developed in the 1970s largely through the efforts of sociologist Carolyn Ellis (2004, 2009), and it involves “the interplay of introspective, personally engaged self-reflections with cultural descriptions mediated through language, history, and ethnographic explanationr (Chang, 2008, p. 46). The basic idea of autoethnography, and the term I have coined as “researcher-based experiential research“ (Benjamin, 2012)[1], is to complement more traditional quantitative experimental research, as well as more traditional qualitative research that focuses on the experiences of others, with the researcher's own relevant experiences in regard to what is being researched.

Autoethnographic research allows for the researcher's deep relevant experiences to be expressed, formulated, analyzed, and evaluated. Needless to say, this enters the subjective territory of the researcher.[2] However, with the assumption that the researcher has been thoroughly trained in both research methodology and self-awareness, along with a balancing of more traditional quantitative and qualitative research approaches to the same research question, I believe that this inclusion adds an extremely valuable dimension to an extensive exploration of what is being researched.

The basic theme of this research methodology is an important part of what philosopher/psychologist William James (1912/1976) described in his theory of “radical empiricism“ over a hundred years ago. The following quote from William Braud & RosemaryAnderson (1998) gives a good illustration of what James had in mind.

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—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)

Nearly three years after my dissertation research was completed, in April, 2014 I engaged in a Mediumship Mastery workshop facilitated by Steve Hermann, who ended up writing the foreword to my Life after Death book (Benjamin, 2014a), which is essentially a condensed and updated version of my dissertation. I concluded a description of my experiences in this Mediumship Mastery workshop in my Integral World essay "An Agnostic Skeptic with Mediumistic Abilities" with the following statement:

Perhaps I need to “raise my vibrations“ in Steve's language, in order to connect to the “spirit world“ if a spirit world truly exists. And then again perhaps the skeptics' interpretation of coincidence, sensory cues, suggestibility, and subjective validation is all that is going on here. My inclination is that the skeptics are right, but at this point I will open myself to Steve's interpretation that there is an actual spirit world that survives death—but that I need to meditate and engage in healing energy work to connect to it. Why? Because it feels “right“ to my inner deeper self to engage in this kind of activity. And thus perhaps I will have more to say about all this at some future time. (Benjamin, 2014b, p. 4)

My dissertation experiential research with mediums included my having engaged in a number of individual sessions (known as “readings“) with them, as well as having attended many Spiritualist camp séances, workshops, group sessions, and church services, supplemented by my experiential research with psychics, shamans, stage mediums, and at afterlife conferences (Benjamin, 2012, 2014a). However, based upon what I experienced in my autoethnographic dissertation and post-dissertation research, as described above, the prospect of life after death in the form of some kind of personal consciousness did not appear likely to me.

At the same time, I believed that there was justification to consider what has been referred to as “Anomalous Information Reception“ and “Living Agent Psi“ (better known as “super-esp“ or “super-psi“) as a “possible“ partial explanation for what may be transpiring in some communications by mediums some of the time (Braude, 2014; Sudduth, 2014; Beischel, 2014). At any rate, 4 or 5 months after I participated in Steve Hermann's Mediumship Mastery workshop, in August and September of 2014 I engaged in further autoethnographic experiential mediumship research, once again trying my best to open myself up to Steve being authentic in his communications as a medium, in the context of what I currently think of as “experiential skepticism.“

My Recent Experiential Mediumship and Afterlife Research

Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp

I would like to now illustratively describe some of my recent experiences at a series of workshops and at a Spiritualist church service, all of which were conducted by Reverend Steve Hermann at Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp, which is where I had done my original Ph.D dissertation research. My descriptions of these activities are once again given in the context of my researcher-based experiential research (see above). I attended the following six events conducted by Steve Hermann during the last day of August and first week of September, 2014.

  • Sunday afternoon workshop entitled “Reiki, Jesus and Beyond: Healing Mastery and the Aura“
  • Sunday afternoon church service
  • Tuesday late night workshop entitled “Psychic Surgery and Spirit Operations“
  • Thursday late night workshop entitled “Let's Have a Séance: Experimental Trance and Physical Phenomena“
  • Saturday morning workshop entitled “Mechanics of Mediumship: Receiving Spirit Communications
  • Saturday afternoon Medium/Agnostic Lunchtime Dialogue[4]

Reiki, Jesus and Beyond: Healing Mastery and the Aura workshop

I attended this workshop with my “significant other“ Dorothy, and it was good to see Steve again and have Dorothy meet Steve. Steve was very friendly to me, and Dorothy and I both appreciated the opportunity to meditate and unwind from how busy and fast-paced we each had been living the past few weeks. Yes we both agreed that the workshop had beneficial healing effects for us, but not anything different from what one could experience at a typical meditation or Reiki[5] or mindfulness[6] workshop that has nothing to with mediums or Spiritualism. Steve did his thing and talked rapidly and enthusiastically about connecting with our “spirit helpers“ for healing, but once again I interpreted this as getting in touch with my own deep self resources, and I believe that Dorothy experienced this similarly.

Church Service

Steve Hermann
Revd. Steve Hermann

Steve had urged me to come to one of his church services at Temple Heights after he read about my disappointing experiences at Temple Heights church services in my dissertation (Benjamin, 2012, 2014a). I did not have high expectations of having much of a different experience with Steve leading the service, but I wanted to at least give it a chance, and therefore Dorothy and I stayed for the Sunday afternoon church service that was scheduled to begin soon after our “Reiki, Jesus and Beyond“ workshop ended. We moved to the more formal church building for the service, and we sat in rows, everyone singing church hymns, followed by most people (including myself and Dorothy) going up to designated healers for what was essentially Reiki healing. Then Steve gave his church sermon in his typical fast-talking charismatic style, and followed up with giving a number of “readings“ to selected individuals in the audience.

Steve's readings appeared very hit or miss to me, full of all what I have previously described in my dissertation and book (Benjamin, 2012, 2014a) and summarized above: sensitivity cues, reading body language, subjective validation, generic statements, and coincidence (Carroll, 2005; Hyman, 2003; Jinks, 2014; Roe & Roxburgh, 2014; Sagan, 1996; Shermer, 2002). But then Steve chose Dorothy for his last reading, and I must admit that Steve came out with some interesting bits of information. Steve focused on an elderly woman in the spirit world who he said had been very persistent and industrious, had written some books, and that Dorothy was something like her, but not to the same extent. I knew that Dorothy's aunt would come to her from Steve's description, and this was certainly the case, as we discussed afterwards. Steve also said a number of things that had no meaning to Dorothy at all, and we ended up giving Steve a 50% hit mark for his performance with Dorothy. Actually, compared to how Steve's other readings at this church service looked to me, a 50% hit mark was pretty good—and all things considered, both Dorothy and I were impressed with what Steve came up with—and I must admit that a part of me was rooting for Steve.

But did this give me any substantial reason to increase my openness to a bona fide afterlife interpretation? Even if Steve did accurately pick up something meaningful about Dorothy's aunt (which is certainly quite debatable, as I think the combined factors of subjective validation and coincidence have at least equal merit here), it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the explanations of super-psi and a bona fide afterlife.

Yes it was interesting, and I was glad Steve had some beneficial impact on Dorothy, though it was also apparent to me that Steve very much “wanted“ to have this kind of impact on Dorothy, to continue his efforts of persuading me that mediumship and the spirit world was “real.“ Nevertheless, Steve's reading of Dorothy helped me keep an open mind to what I was investigating. But it certainly stopped short for me of anything approaching “evidence“ of afterlife communications from a deceased spirit.

Psychic Surgery and Spirit Operations workshop

I began my Fall semester teaching with a long evening math class on Tuesday, and then got home and ate a quick dinner and drove to Temple Heights for Steve's late night Psychic Surgery and Spirit Operations workshop, carrying with me my Life after Death books to sell. I was particularly interested in the “psychic surgery“ part of this late night workshop, as I had a great deal of skeptical reservation about this and it was not something I had heard Steve talk much about before—and certainly not attempt to perform. However, it turned out that basically Steve did more of what he had done at his Sunday Reiki/Jesus/Healing workshop—except that this time a few people chose to lie down on Steve's Reiki/massage table and receive what appeared to me to be a straightforward Reiki treatment5 from Steve. This did not look any different to me than what I experienced as Reiki treatments in Steve's Mediumship Mastery workshop that I had attended in April, 2014. I find these Reiki/healing sessions to be relaxing and meditative in a good way, but I certainly do not feel any inclination to think they are performed by “spirit doctors“ doing “psychic surgery“ on me. However, this is what Steve apparently believes, and his charismatic convincing way of explaining things appeared to be influencing most of the people at this workshop to believe this as well.

Experimental Trance and Physical Phenomena workshop

Medium Helen Duncan with ectoplasm
Medium Helen Duncan with ectoplasm

This late night Thursday workshop was the workshop I was most anticipating, as Steve's description in the Temple Heights brochure included the following: “see, hear, and feel the reality of spirit materializations and physical manifestations. Topics to be explored include: Materializations, Levitation, Ectoplasm, Trumpet and Independent Voice, Transfiguration and Spirit Chemists.“[4] Once again my skeptical reservations were in full force, especially from the disappointing experiences I had previously encountered with table-tipping and transfiguration sessions at Temple Heights (Benjamin, 2012, 2014a). Supposedly mediums are able to incorporate spirits of the deceased to take over their facial features so that they look like these former deceased people, which is what is called Transfiguration. I knew that Steve shared some of my own reservations about famous historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington appearing in a transfiguration, but apparently Steve also believed that all the different manifestations of physical mediumship described in his workshop had the potential to actually take place. And I figured that this time either I would see Steve conducting outright fraud, which I truly did not want to either observe or believe, or that I would witness something stupendous happen and transform myself into a “believer.“

Well neither of the above happened. What happened is that we first sang a bunch of children's songs, commonly done in physical mediumship workshops and something I had previously experienced in one of Steve's workshops, and then Steve talked and talked and talked. Yes that was pretty much it—Steve talked all about how physical manifestations could happen, how he had previously emitted the mysterious physical/mental substance of ectoplasm, how the atmosphere in the room needed to be very open and receptive to the spirit world in order for the physical manifestation effects to take place, etc. Then Steve turned out the lights and sat in the chair and we all watched him, looking for spirit manifestations to take over his facial features. Steve had encouraged us to be light and merry and call out whatever came to us, but people were not saying very much. However, this was actually a relief to me, as at least I could not say that Steve was committing fraud or pretending to manifest spirits. In actuality Steve said that this was a very good group and we had a welcoming spirit atmosphere, but that it takes time for spirits to emerge and that groups often sit in circles every week for long periods of time before they experience physical spirit manifestations. Of course I could picture all the social influence, wishful thinking, subjective evaluation mechanisms at work here, but I was still very glad that I did not have to conclude that my friend Steve was a fraud.

Yes I consider Steve to be “my friend“ and I know the feeling is mutual for Steve. I like Steve, and I choose to believe that Steve believes what he conveys to people even though I think it is not true, as I have frequently conveyed to him. Once again Steve tried his best to promote by book and our upcoming planned Saturday medium/agnostic lunchtime discussion at the end of his workshop. However, I felt increasingly uncomfortable; I had the feeling that something was not “quite right“ with Steve promoting me and my book to this Temple Heights audience of mostly aspiring mediums.

“Mechanics of Mediumship“ workshop, Medium/Agnostic Lunchtime discussion, and Conclusion of My Series of Temple Heights Events with Steve

I believe my experiential exploration of mediumship has finally come to its natural end.

The following is the description of my Saturday morning Mechanics of Mediumship workshop, Saturday afternoon medium/agnostic lunchtime discussion, and conclusion of my series of Temple Heights events with Steve that I wrote soon after these events took place.

And the skeptic in me once again takes the lead as my mediumship exploration week with Steve comes to its close. My experience of Steve's Saturday morning Mechanics of Mediumship workshop was basically similar to my description of my Mediumship Mastery weekend workshop with Steve in Massachusetts a few months ago (Benjamin, 2014b; see above). Steve teaches prospective mediums to develop their imagination and visualizing images, and to have the confidence to convey whatever creative images they are visualizing, as veritable messages from the “spirit world.“[7] He says not to worry if people don't “understand“ these images—that people will likely eventually discover that they are accurate. I perceived that what people came up with in our mediumship exercises with one another, a good portion of which could not be subsequently established by the recipients, was not at all impressive as an illustration of either psychic abilities or tapping into the “spirit world.“ But once again I will give Steve the benefit of the doubt and conclude that he truly believes what he preaches to people about this being the way to tap into communications from the “spirit world.“

And then we had our lunchtime medium/agnostic discussion. Steve tried his best to promote me, and the atmosphere was initially light and social, in the open dining room of the Spiritualist camp. Steve managed to get four people from our morning group of nine to sit at the dining room table with us, with a fifth person standing up and suspiciously (as it appeared to me) watching me. Some of the Temple Heights workers were curiously observing our interactions and occasionally chiming in, and it looked to me like some of them had concerns about how appropriate it was for this to be taking place at a Spiritualist camp. This was not what I had in mind, but I did the best that I could to present my agnostic perceptions of my week with Steve, and I took out all of my Life after Death books. The upshot was that we had a discussion that lasted over an hour and a half, which was primarily a dialogue involving me, Steve, and a woman from the morning group who was a very responsive, curious, talkative, friendly, and mystical neophyte medium-in-training. At the very end of the discussion, one of the men from our morning group who was sitting at the table the whole time without saying a word, asked me not to leave yet, and then shared with me his own agnostic perspective to mediumship—both his openness to his experiences as well as his doubts and conflicts. I appreciated this, and it was a good ending to my mediumship exploration week.

I believe my experiential exploration of mediumship—at least in the context of the mediumship of Reverend Steven Hermann—has finally come to its natural end. As I thought, mediums and prospective mediums are not a good audience to listen to my agnostic approach to studying mediumship, in spite of Steve Hermann's noteworthy perspective of openness to include alternate perspectives of mediumship—for educational reasons. But I believe that my approach of experiencing mediumship through an open-minded agnostic perspective is an important illustration of an authentic skeptical approach to studying mediumship.

My conclusions from my past week of experiential mediumship exploration have reinforced my conclusions from both my dissertation research as well as from my post-dissertation mediumship workshop. I lean toward the skeptic perspective of explaining mediumship—creative imagination, subjective validation, environmental influence, and placebo effect.

However, some things still whet my appetite to leave a bit of room open for other possible explanations—such as Steve's 50% accurate reading of my “significant other“ Dorothy at the Sunday church service. Do I know for sure that Steve did not somehow “psychicly“ sense from Dorothy the accurate information he conveyed to her? And stretching myself even more, do I know for sure that Steve did not somehow convey a message from Dorothy's deceased aunt? No I do now know anything “for sure.“ My best guess is that Steve used his psychophysical sensitivity to Dorothy, whom I am quite sure he had no biographical knowledge of, to come up with his creative images, and interpreted this as a message from the afterlife.

But when I put on my philosopher hat, as I have frequently done in my previous Integral World essays, if all there is to life and the universe are psychophysical perceptions, and we can trace the origin of the universe to some kind of physical matter in the form of subatomic particles, then where did these first subatomic particles come from? My logical philosophical mind tells me that either these subatomic particles were “always“ there, or they came from some kind of “energy,“ or they came from “nothing.“ Now something coming from nothing implies there was already a “potential“ for something to occur (Krauss, 2012); so where did this “potential“ come from? Coming from some kind of “energy“ leaves the same puzzling questions—where did this “energy“ come from? Being “always there“ contradicts our whole mainstream science framework of the universe beginning some 14 billion years ago with the Big Bang[8]. Thus the philosopher in me is not at all satisfied with the materialist explanation of the universe—as I conveyed to the mediums and prospective mediums during my medium/agnostic lunchtime discussion.

And this is essentially why I cannot completely rule out the possibility of some kind of “spiritual intelligence“ to explain the formation of the universe; and perhaps if there is some kind of “spiritual intelligence“ then it is not impossible that there is some kind of “spirit world.“ But this is precisely what the foundations of mediumship are based upon, of course along with the belief in the possibility of receiving communications from this hypothetical spirit world for people who have “left their physical bodies behind.“ But where are the lines drawn between my own logical philosophical interpretation of all this, and my very human need to find meaning both in life and in death, as I described in my 2014 Integral World essay "Life, Death, Meaning, and Purpose" (Benjamin, 2014c). No I do not know anything for certain, including the validity of my own philosophical speculations—in consideration of my human subjective needs. But in conclusion, in all I have learned from my experiential study of mediumship, I now consider myself to be an agnostic skeptic and an “experiential skeptic,“ at least at this point in time.

Notes

1) McLeod (2010) has used the term “personal experiential methods“ to describe similar research methods to what I am describing.

2) See Lawton (1932), Meintel (2007), Emmons & Emmons (2002), and Hunter (2009) for previous researcher-based experiential accounts of mediumship.

3) See Benjamin, in press, for a more extended description of how I used autoethnography as a research methodology in my experiential dissertation research on mediumship and the ostensible phenomenon of life after death.

4) See http://www.templeheightscamp.org for a description of all of Steve Hermann's 2014 Temple Heights workshops

5) For information about Reiki see Doi (2000), Rand (1991), and the Reiki sections in my Modern Religions book (Benjamin, 2013).

6) For information about mindfulness see Kabat-Zinn (1990).

7) Steve has recently published a book available on Amazon describing his Mediumship Mastery workshops (see www.stevehermannmedium.com)

8) For an alternative theory to the Big Bang theory, see www.princeton.edu/pr/pwb/02/0506/0506-cyclicuniverse.htm

References

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Benjamin, E. (in press). Transpersonal psychology and an experiential exploration of mediumship and life after death. International Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.

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