Lately I've started reading the novels of Agatha Christie. Before this year, I'd read only a couple of them and wasn't really a fan. But after reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a masterpiece of its type, I was hooked. Since then, I've been working my way through her books, concentrating on her earlier efforts.
I know almost nothing about Agatha Christie's personal life, but from her writings I suspect she had a genuine interest in spiritualism. I say this because the subject often crops up in her books, and because she seems familiar with spiritualist language and concepts, and even with some famous cases in the field. I'm not saying she was a convinced spiritualist, only that she seems to have more than a passing interest in the subject. And unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, who – despite his passionate commitment to spiritualism – never allowed his most famous fictional creation to opine on séances and skeptics, Christie did allow her famed Hercule Poirot to sound off on the topic. Here's an excerpt from the 1937 novel Poirot Loses a Client, also published as Dumb Witness.
Poirot and his sidekick, Hastings, have just concluded an interview with the eccentric Tripp sisters, who hold regular séances. The discussion centered on the deceased Emily Arundell, who sometimes attended the sittings. Hastings, a stolid but unimaginative fellow along the lines of Holmes’ Watson, remarks to Poirot:
“And it certainly looks as though Emily Arundell was much too sensible to believe in any tomfoolery like spiritualism.”
“What makes you say that spiritualism is tomfoolery, Hastings?”
I stared at him in astonishment.
“My dear Poirot – those appalling women –”
“I quite agree with your estimate of the Misses Tripp. But the mere fact that the Misses Tripp have adopted with enthusiasm Christian Science, vegetarianism, theosophy and spiritualism does not really constitute a damning indictment of those subjects! Because a foolish woman will tell you a lot of nonsense about a fake scarab which she has bought from a rascally dealer, that does not necessarily bring discredit on the general subject of Egyptology!”
“Do you mean you believe in spiritualism, Poirot?”
“I have an open mind on the subject. I have never studied any of its manifestations myself, but it must be accepted that many men of science and learning have pronounced themselves satisfied that there are phenomena which cannot be accounted for by – shall we say the credulity of a Miss Tripp.”
“Then you believe in this rigmarole of an aureole of light surrounding Miss Arundell’s head?”
Poirot waved a hand.
“I was speaking generally – rebuking your attitude of quite unreasoning skepticism. I may say that, having formed a certain opinion of Miss Tripp and her sister, I should examine very carefully any fact they presented for my notice. Foolish women, mon ami, are foolish women, whether they are talking about spiritualism or politics or the relation of the sexes or the tenets of the Buddhist faith."
In his rejection of “quite unreasoning skepticism,” his “open mind,” and his acknowledgment of the opinions of “many men of science and learning" who’d investigated the phenomena at first hand, Poirot appears to be on our side! This only makes me like Dame Agatha that much more.
In the comments thread of the last post, Bruce Siegel made an interesting point. Saying he trusts direct experience over intellectual theorizing, he wrote, "I've yet to hear someone emerge from a deep mystical experience and say: 'Wow. Now I understand! It's all about information!'"
This got me wondering if anyone actually has emerged from a mystical experience talking about information as the essence of reality. Google searches for "pure information" (bracketed by quotes) in conjunction with terms like "mystical insight" and "near-death experience" supplied a few possible examples, though none of them is a slam-dunk case.
First, an account found on NDERF, a database of NDEs:
White light is what I remember and the simplest way I can explain the moment is to say, "I saw God." This is what I ultimately came to understand as a mystical experience but at the time, I had never heard of such a thing. This is what Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus Christ, Meher Baba and many others were talking about. This is what Meister Eckhart wrote about only I didn’t know about Eckhart at the time. It is what I have referred to as a non-experiential experience and there is nothing to be remembered. The moment is eternally now and memory serves no function. I am, however, left with impressions. I sense that in some way I was exposed to pure information at a rate that far overloads the capacity of any physical entity. It was all that is all at once and it is Love.
Here the reference to "pure information" is a bit ambiguous. Does he mean that he felt immersed in a sea of information, or does he simply mean that a lot of ideas were conveyed to him very rapidly or even instantaneously?
In an interview, Eben Alexander, author of Proof of Heaven, discusses the ideas that he was led to by his NDE:
At the core, it’s all One and at the deepest Core it’s all divine — all One with God. Even the materialists — the scientists, cosmologists, those who do string theory and quantum gravity; they’re all basically converging to say that pure information is the core of all that exists. Everything we see as space, time, mass, energy … can be essentialized into vibrating strings of energy and higher dimensional space-time. And at the very deepest level, everything is entangled into one. Sir James Jeans said long ago, “The Universe begins to look much more like a great thought than a great machine.” That’s a crucial understanding of what this all really is. And if you’re able to go far enough, it all is around that Consciousness — that One is divine, that this whole material world is a very cleverly wrought illusion, that time and space are all illusion. You have to know that Consciousness is not this epiphenomenon of the brain, but is, in fact, a far richer thing that completely precedes and is outside of (and supporting) all of the material realm and this apparent reality.
This is a more explicit statement about pure information as "the core of all that exists." Of course, it could be objected that Alexander came to this viewpoint as a result of intellectual study after having his NDE, rather than from the NDE directly.
Next, we have a passage from an unlikely source - a book by Mark Singer called Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. It's about a comic book artist with a unique vision. Singer writes,
His comics dramatize his beliefs in magic and occultism, share his stories of divine revelations and near-death experiences, and articulate a quasi-Gnostic cosmology that maintains the physical universe is a construct suspended in a higher-dimensional space of living information ...
The incident that reshaped his world-view and inspired many of his comics transpired in 1994 on a hotel roof garden in Kathmandu, Nepal. As he tells it, he was visited by silvery blobs who took him outside of spacetime and into a medium of pure information, where they explained the structure of the universe to him ... He not only insists that the encounter happened, he rejects the possibility that it was a hallucination caused by the hashish pellets he had eaten ... Morrison argues that the contact had much more in common with shamanic initiations and alien abduction experiences than with any drug trip, a subject in which he claims some expertise.
Whatever we may think of Morrison's silvery blobs, we do have here an intense subjective experience that apparently left the experiencer convinced that pure information is the matrix out of which the space-time universe arises. The idea was so powerful to him that it became the basis of much of his creative work.
Finally, we have a discussion of experiences reported by people who've used the powerful psychoactive drug ketamine. One person, who took 100 mg of ketamine via intramuscular injection, said he encountered something like ...
a cosmic assembly line that was constantly churning out the alternate universes that some physicists theorise about in which every conceivable possibility becomes an actual reality. I even had brief flashes in which I experienced some of these alternate realities as they sprouted forth out of this cosmic womb ... quick glimpses into what felt like other incarnations, other lives I could have led, darting journeys through seas of pure information.
Naturally, it's always possible to question whether a ketamine-induced experience is anything more than a vivid hallucination. (The same is true of NDEs, but at least in that case, there are sometimes veridical observations to lend weight to the testimony.) But if we take this story seriously, it sounds as if the experiencer was exposed to a realm of "pure information," in which all potentialities were explored simultaneously, much as a quantum entity (photon, electron, etc.) exists as a cloud of potentia plotting all possible trajectories and positions, until interaction with other quantum entities or with an observer causes the wave function to collapse to a single discrete point.
I would bet that more extensive searches, using a wider variety of search terms, would turn up more stories of this kind. But I'd also say that we ought to be careful about taking such accounts at face value. By their nature, these experiences are ineffable; any translation into language is automatically going to limit, redefine, and reshape them. Presumably the expectations and beliefs of the experiencer have a considerable effect on the words chosen to express the inexpressible.
There's also the problem of knowing which revelations to believe. If two experiencers have dramatically different stories to tell, whom do we trust? There's no objective standard by which to discriminate, so we're left to our own judgment, which often means preferring the story that just happens to match our own preconceived assumptions.
Still, I think there is at least some basis for saying that the information-matrix idea receives support from people who've "been there" - people who have had powerful NDEs or vision quests.
The Immortal Mind, by Ervin Laszlo and Anthony Peake, is a briskly paced, logically structured exploration of the issue of postmortem survival that presents some of the best empirical evidence and then ties it in with information theory. Since I'm interested in the idea of an information field as the fundamental substrate of physical reality, I found the latter section of the book particularly interesting.
It's by no means a difficult read. The style is conversational, and even the more complex case studies (such as the cross correspondences) are boiled down to their essentials. For readers of this blog, many — perhaps most — of the specific cases will be familiar, though there were a few that were new to me. One is a case investigated by Erlendur Haraldsson involving the Icelandic medium Indridi Indridason. In a 1905 sitting, the entranced medium began speaking in Danish, though Indridason knew only a few words of that language. The communicator, a "Mr. Jersen," reported that a major fire was underway in a factory in Copenhagen. An hour later he returned to say that the fire was now under control. He described himself as having been a "fabricant" or manufacturer. In a subsequent sitting Jensen
informed the group that his Christian name was Emil, that he was a bachelor with no children, and that he was "not so young" when he died. He added that he had siblings but they were "not here in heaven."
Because communication between Iceland and Denmark was so slow, it took more than a month after the first séance for news from Copenhagen to reach Iceland. The Danish paper Politiken carried a report on a fire at a lamp factory that took place on November 24 and was contained by midnight. This was the same date as the first sitting, and Jensen's update on the fire's status had come in at midnight, Copenhagen time. Haraldsson looked through copies of the same newspaper for the period two weeks before and two weeks after the fire and found none that matched the timing or details of the one reported by Jensen. He then went through the records in the Royal Library in Copenhagen and found an entry for a manufacturer named Emil Jensen, who had lived only two doors down from the factory that caught fire. Jensen had died in 1898 at the age of 50, was indeed a childless bachelor, and his six siblings were in fact alive ("not … in heaven") in 1905.
Other cases of interest are presented also. In general, I found the authors' choices to be quite good, though I would not have included the ITC investigations of Jules and Maggie Harsh-Fischbach, whose work has always seemed dubious to me.
The last third of the book offers a theoretical basis for these empirical anomalies. The authors talk about an underlying plane of pure information that gives rise to the space-time universe. They call this plane the Akasha — a matrix that is "more fundamental than any of the particles that appear in it; the latter are critical points, crystallizations or condensations within it." The Akasha
harbors all the fields and forces, constants, and entities that appear in spacetime. It is not part of physical spacetime; the cosmic matrix is beyond spacetime and prior to it.
Recent discoveries and innovations in physics are cited to provide support for the Akasha:
In the fall of 2012 a discovery was made of a new state of matter, known as the FHQ (fractional quantum Hall) state. This discovery suggests that the particles that compose "matter" in spacetime are excitations of an underlying non-material matrix. According to the concept ..., the entire universe is made up of these excitations [which] appear as waves as well as particles ...
The matrix itself is a string-net liquid in which particles are entangled excitations: "whirlpools." Empty space corresponds to the ground state of this liquid, and excitations above the ground state constitute particles ...
[A] new discovery – the geometrical object called amplituhedron – suggests that spatiotemporal phenomena (the world we observe) are consequences of geometrical relationships in a deeper dimension of the cosmos. Encoded in its volume are the basic measurable features of the universe: the probabilities of the outcome of particle interactions.
The discovery of the amplituhedron permits a great simplification in the calculation of the "scattering amplitudes" in particle interactions. Previously, the number and variety of the particles that result from the collision of two or more particles – the scattering amplitude of that interaction – were calculated by so-called Feynman diagrams … But the number of diagrams required for these calculations is so large that even simple interactions could not be fully calculated …
In the mid-2000's patterns emerged in particle interactions that indicated a coherent geometrical structure. This structure was initially described by what came to be known as the "BCFW recursion relations" … The BCFW diagrams abandon variables such as position and time and substitute for them strange variables – called "twistors" – that are beyond space and time. They suggest that in the non-spacetime domain two fundamental tenets of quantum field physics do not hold: locality and unitarity. This means that particle interactions are not limited to local positions in space and time, and the probabilities of their outcome do not add up to one. The amplituhedron is an elaboration of the geometry of the BCFW twistor diagrams. Thanks to these diagrams, physicists can now calculate the scattering amplitude of particle interactions in reference to an underlying non-spacetime geometrical object.
A multidimensional amplituhedron in the Akasha could enable the computation of the interaction of all quanta, and of all systems constituted of quanta, throughout spacetime. The locality and unitarity that appears in space-time appear as consequences of these interactions.
According to Nima Arkani-Hamed of the Institute for Advanced Study and his former student Jaroslav Trnka, the discovery of the amplituhedron suggests that spacetime, if not entirely illusory, is not fundamental: it is the result of geometrical relationships at a deeper level.
All of this is tied in with the perhaps more familiar idea of the holographic universe – the idea that the physical world is projected out of a nonphysical substrate that has many of the properties of a holographic plate.
But the information field called the Akasha is not simply a geometrical structure, cosmic hologram, or giant database; it is a cosmic consciousness — ultimately the only consciousness there is.
As the authors put it:
The beyond-the-brain consciousness – the consciousness we encountered in our review of near-death experiences, after-death communication, medium-conveyed and instrumental transcommunication, past-life recollections, and experiences suggestive of reincarnation – is not a material entity in the manifest world. It is an intrinsic element in the Akasha, the deep dimension of the cosmos ...
Just as particles and systems of particles in spacetime are projections of codes and relations in the Akashic deep dimension, so the consciousness associated with living organisms is a manifestation – a holographic projection – of the unitary consciousness that does not merely exist in, but actually is, that dimension ...
The deep dimension of the cosmos ... receives information from the manifest dimension, and it "in-forms" the manifest dimension. In the perspective of the manifest world the deep dimension is an information field or medium; it "in-forms" things in the world. But "in itself," this dimension is more than a network of in-forming signals. It is a consciousness in its own right.
This tenet is supported by the experience of our own consciousness. We ... do not observe our consciousness – we experience it. We also do not observe the Akasha (it is a "hidden" dimension), but we experience it: more precisely, we experience its effect on things we can experience: things in the manifest dimension … If we were the cosmos, we could introspect on its deep dimension. Our introspection would very likely reveal what introspection reveals in regard to our own experience: not sets and flows of signals, but the qualitative flow we know as our consciousness. Our cosmic-level introspection would reveal a cosmic consciousness.
This elaboration of the information-field idea in terms of a creative, self-aware consciousness is something I've been thinking about myself. The most common objection to the idea of a plane of pure information is that, as far as we know, information always has to be stored in some medium. So how can it exist independent of any medium, as "pure" data?
But if we say that the storage medium is consciousness – if the information is a vast array of ideas "contained' in a cosmic Mind – then that particular objection seems to go away. Instead of consciousness being an emergent property of the information field (which is how I've tended to think of it), it may be more correct to say that the information field and consciousness are the same thing viewed from two different perspectives, as Laszlo and Peake suggest.
The Immortal Mind is a worthwhile contribution to the growing literature on both the empirical evidence and the theoretical underpinnings of an afterlife. I enjoyed it, and I think you will too.