Sagan and True Fringe-ology: Part II

In my last post, I described how Carl Sagan sought to explain away the Near Death Experience as a repressed memory of birth. The tunnel, the light, the meetings with deceased relatives can all be explained, argued Sagan, by resurfacing memories of the birth canal, the sudden bath of light in the hospital delivery room and the looming presences of the doctors, nurses and, ultimately, mom.

I will not repeat the many objections to this explanation, which can be found in my previous post. But I do want to extend the conversation I started there a few beats more. Because Sagan’s non-explanation, I think, reveals something about believers and skeptics alike. We are all prone to confirmation bias. And Sagan can only have put forth such a non-starter of an explanation for the NDE for that very reason. In other words, this repressed memory idea fit so well with his understanding of the world that he didn’t question it, didn’t subject his own thinking to the same rigorous inquiry to which he would subject a claim he with which he disagreed.

The question we’re left to answer is: what are we to do about it?

We all know that we are prone to accept arguments that support our pre-existing worldview without thinking critically about them. But how can we break out of this trap?

For an answer, I turn in part to neuroscientist and author David Eagleman, who has advanced a new philosophy of his own creation: possibilianism. A possibilian is quite unlike both hardcore skeptical figures like James Randi or committed religious believers like, say, Pat Robertson. A possibilian enjoys engaging in deep thought on all the possible explanations available to us on any number of subjects and phenomena without, as Eagleman puts it, committing to “any particular story.”

In this sense, the many worlds hypothesis, string theory, the philosophy of materialism, Buddhism, Christanity, Scientology, The Lord of the Rings and even the benefits of aspirin all count as “stories.” 

The next step in the exercise, of course, is to consider the evidence for any claim while refusing to commit to any final conclusion until one is truly warranted. And of course, this is where the trouble starts. One man’s data is another man’s detritus. One woman’s evidence is another woman’s anecdote. But I do think, in the contours of Eagleman’s stance, we can perceive the outline for a better way of handling discussions about the paranormal.

For instance, consider any old outlandish ghost tale. A skeptic could profitably point out that the unexplained noises in my old family home—a subject I describe at great length in Fringe-ology—do not comprise evidence of a deceased person’s spirit looming about the house. In fact, the cast of any ghost hunting show would do well to remember as much. An odd noise doesn’t equal a disembodied spirit. A door that closes on its own, without any wind or hand to push it, does not equal a mischievous ghost. It is simply what it is—a door that seemed to close on its own, without any wind or hand to push it. This doesn’t mean no such thing as a ghost could exist. But when it comes time to look for explanations for such an occurrence, given the paucity of data we’re (almost always) left with, we should be willing to consider all the possibilities—from the outlandish (some unseen intelligence with power, however limited, to interact with the physical world) to the mundane (fraud and misperception) to some more exotic, physical theory.

In Fringe-ology, for instance, I write about Vic Tandy’s theory of infrasound and Michael Persinger’s work with Electromagnetic energy and the temporal lobe, both of which might account for various forms of visual or aural hallucination, as well as sensations of being watched.

This is, admittedly, a limited sample of the various possibilities. (William Roll has suggested a kind of unintentional psycho-kinesis.) But I hope you take my point: In committing to some “particular story” about any ghost tale or ghosts as a whole we risk missing other possibilities that may be worth our attention. So for now, what I’d like to get believers and nonbelievers to agree on is simply this: we don’t need to rush to a conclusion before the data truly dictates one; and that, in fact, we will learn far more about the world by exploring various possibilities, however unlikely they might seem.

The benefit of maintaining this mindset should be obvious. We might very well learn things we can use. Surely the military or any intelligence service might be interested in Tandy’s infrasound or Persinger’s neuroscientific work. But not all the applications we might glean from paranormal investigation need be so dark. In Fringe-ology, I find ways to make use of religious and spiritual practices like prayer, meditation and lucid dreaming. I explore an obscure but seemingly powerful and beneficial psychological therapy called Induced After Death Communication. I view the traditional idea of an Unidentified Flying Object as an opportunity to be creative in our thinking and consider all the possibilities, from black military projects to ball lightning or, yes, life from some other planet. If we discover, for instance, that some as yet unknown atmospheric or energetic “anomalies” or some strange aspect of our consciousness explain some UFO reports, we only lose if we were committed to some other outcome (whether it be alien life or ignorant witnesses). Otherwise, we win by learning more about our world. 

To bring this back to Sagan and the Near Death Experience (NDE), well, I wonder what we might have learned by now if we had looked at this singularly strange occurrence through the lens of possibilianism.

We know now—people who undergo an NDE are profoundly changed by it, and for the better. People who undergo an NDE report less death anxiety, a greater affinity for their fellow beings and increased tolerance for various beliefs and religious systems. They often change professions and seek deeper relationships. In a truly rational world, I would think, we would for this reason alone embrace study of the NDE. But skeptics are so caught up in maintaining the boundaries of a worldview in which there is no such thing as a life beyond this one that they can’t even see what’s right in front of their face—what is, in fact, implicit in their own way of viewing reality. Because if a truly materialistic explanation of the NDE is correct, if this profound, life-altering event is purely neurological, then there very well could—even should—be some way of recreating it in people without, well, killing and resuscitating them.

Release the appropriate chemicals in the rights amounts and voila!

An NDE (of sorts).

It is, at least, possible. There could be something in the NDE that we can use, regardless of our beliefs about it. But that isn’t a conversation we’re close to having because we’re so caught up in debating the source of the experience. This is, to some extent, understandable. After all, whether or not life continues past the point of physical death is of primary concern. But it seems to me that skeptics and believers might find more common ground with one another if we stopped focusing so much on the questions to which we lack the answers—a UFO, for instance, is by definition unidentified—and started regarding these mysteries as opportunities.

To learn something.

To find ways to better the human condition.

To use anomalies as an opportunity for exploration.

 I hold out no great hope that we are about to turn the corner and start thinking or behaving in this way. But I do believe this sort of view is worth pushing for and far more productive than the debate in which we’re currently mired.

Thanks for reading. I have my own blog at stevevolk.com but will try and contribute something to the Daily Grail every couple of weeks. I also invite some pushback to my thoughts here, and of course raving applause is also welcome. I'm just trying to sort out a new way of handling an old subject.

 

 

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Tim's picture
Member since:
18 July 2011
Last activity:
3 years 12 weeks

You see I remember very clearly when the first reports of these experiences started to emerge. There really wasn't the scramble that there is now to refute them. All you had to say way back in 75 was 'hallucinations based on oxygen starvation and cultural conditioning.' That did the trick. I scoffed at them and was certain that there was nothing there to take seriously.

But having looked at every sceptical explanation proposed since then, I can't see anything that makes any sense. Sceptics trot out long lists of proposals ranging from G-lock to horse anaesthetic to DMT which is doing the rounds at the moment but although there is a little bit of overlap, they just don't work satisfactorily under scrutiny. So what do we do. I believe that these experiences are almost certainly exactly what they appear to be....it all checks out with the exception of one thing. There is no (as yet) plausible mechanism to allow discarnate entities to exist (Dr Stuart Hameroff excepted).. But 'something' is gathering and processing information and bringing it back. It would indicate we need a new science or a new way of looking at these incredible experiences.

Anyway, thanks for your efforts, Steve, to referee the two sides. Like it.

Master Raven's picture
Member since:
5 December 2008
Last activity:
1 week 1 day

Perhaps someone could enlighten me with a more in-depth explanation on possibilianism, but I don't see the difference between that and agnosticism. It's certainly sounds very Robert Anton Wilson-esque though. I like it. I wish more people would think like you, Steve.

Steve Volk's picture
Member since:
13 July 2011
Last activity:
2 years 24 weeks

Possibilianism is different than agnosticism in that Eagleman encourages active exploration and consideration of the possibilities, whereas he typifies agnosticism as largely consisting of a shrugged "I don't know." I didn't include that bit in my post but it's a big part of Eagleman's stance.

—Best, Steve

Inannawhimsey's picture
Member since:
14 April 2009
Last activity:
1 year 6 weeks

Yes, from what I've seen of , the person who branded possibilanism, I find it model Agnosticism (Robert Anton Wilson)/the true spirit of science :3

See video

There is nothing new under the sun, but that doesn't mean that people shouldn't have fun with ideas and movements and life :3 And anythat that can help people release the tightness of their sphincters is a good thing :3

---------
All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake

red pill junkie's picture
Member since:
12 April 2007
Last activity:
2 hours 1 min

The challenge of course, lies in acknowledging the very real and likely possibility that one will go to his grave never finding out the truth to any of these mysteries.

15 years ago that would have bothered me greatly. Now I'm at peace with that, along with the fact that now I'm more appreciative of the rewards of the journey, rather than worrying about the destination :)

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

Greg's picture
Member since:
30 April 2004
Last activity:
2 min 58 sec
red pill junkie wrote:

The challenge of course, lies in acknowledging the very real and likely possibility that one will go to his grave never finding out the truth to any of these mysteries.

15 years ago that would have bothered me greatly. Now I'm at peace with that, along with the fact that now I'm more appreciative of the rewards of the journey, rather than worrying about the destination :)

Similar to this Jack Kirby quote:

http://dailygrail.com/Religion-and-Spiri...

I'm a guy that lives with a lot of questions. I say "What's out there?", and I try to resolve that. And I never can. I don't think anybody can. Who's got the answers? I sure would like to hear the ultimate one. But I haven't yet. And so I live with a lot of questions.

And I find that entertaining... If my life were to end tomorrow, it would be fulfilled in that manner. I would say, "The questions have been terrific.

:)

Kind regards,
Greg
-------------------------------------------
You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

RealityTest's picture
Member since:
16 August 2006
Last activity:
3 weeks 3 days

If there is an afterlife of some sort, a survival of some sense of self, might this not exist now, while we are still living?

(This is simply another way of restating very old ideas, of course.)

If so, how might we access it? Would it not be found in what we tend to call the "unconscious?"

We have some tools for communicating with this region of awareness -- quite a few, in fact. These include hypnosis (including utilizing the services of a hypnotist and self-hypnosis), and any number of physical objects or devices, such as pendulums, ouija boards, tarot cards, divining rods, and what-not. Others might include certain variations of meditation as well as forms of mediumship, trance writing, channelling, etc. I suppose we can include crystal balls and the mirrors and containers of waters used in the Elizabethan practice of scrying as well.

A computer keyboard would suffice just as well, given a sufficient degree of trance, replacing the pencil and pad of "automatic writing."

We might obtain amazing results -- many have, in fact -- but even if after doing so we maintain completely open minds as to what is actually happening, we'll still run into the confirmation bias situation Steve mentions.

We can adopt a Possibilian stance and continue our explorations but no matter what we might discover, how likely is it that any of our discoveries will be taken at all seriously by those invested in beliefs that suggest all of the results we might obtain are strictly the work of imagination and nothing more?

O.k. -- so we continue, anyway, ignoring skeptics and critics, getting on with our explorations.

Many have done so over the centuries, and many do so today; but no one, so far as I know, has ever been very successful at linking their discoveries to what might be termed "official scientific opinion." Even the very interesting results obtained by very bright and careful investigators has tended to be ignored, whether in 1910 or 2010.

The more optimistic enthusiasts of science -- who are sufficiently open minded to accept the possibility of a "spiritual" dimension -- express beliefs that science will eventually find ways to measure and detect aspects of this "non-physical" area. Maybe so; maybe, too, science will expand beyond its present limitations and assumptions and thus become capable of encompassing what is now frequently limited to subjective experience.

It's even possible to ask those highly intelligent beings found lurking in the unconscious (one way to put it; another might be to suggest that the unconscious isn't unconscious at all, but rather extremely conscious -- the confirmation bias of the egoic mind may make it _seem_ that the unconscious is, well, unconscious.)

Regardless of how excellent answers may be, they are still "unprovable" by present standards (there are exceptions to this, but once again, those who don't believe in such possibilities ignore them; those who do may readily accept them, but official belief remains wedded to what may be termed material explanations).

The given answers may also refer to changes in consciousness that have yet to occur and may not occur for decades, beyond our lifetimes.

All of this may be seen as challenging at best, very frustrating at the worst.

Wouldn't it be fun to find something in this zone so absolutely compelling so as to be a key factor in generating widespread belief change?

Bill I.

Gwyllm Llwydd's picture
Member since:
24 January 2006
Last activity:
5 hours 42 min

This is the exact reason I visit Daily Grail.

Thanks ever so much, wonderful writing btw!

Blessings,

G

Kathrinn's picture
Member since:
10 August 2004
Last activity:
8 weeks 5 days

Very well put, Steve - thank you. I spend my life looking for answers about so many things, mostly coming up with dozens of new questions, but in the process I learn much. Most of what I learn is probably totally irrelevant, but it was great fun looking for it, and side-tracks often appear that start leading me in a completely different direction - also fun.

I don't think I've come to any conclusions about anything, but that doesn't bother me. Maybe there's more to find out, so I'm happy to leave things as they are in the 'maybe' stage.

I wish more people would, as you suggest, spend more time being open-minded regarding possibilities and less time banging a drum about some pet theory they have decided is the ultimate truth. That way we might all learn something!

Look forward to your next post. Regards, Kathrinn

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
24 min 19 sec

It is amazing how much more one sees when one learns to really relax, and that can mean letting go of questions questions questions. It is hard to do.

RealityTest's picture
Member since:
16 August 2006
Last activity:
3 weeks 3 days

Questions are quests; quests can often be great fun. It's good to relax between quests, however, powering down and turning off the questing gear, stilling the thought programs, and so on.

Bill I.

RicoYung's picture
Member since:
1 June 2004
Last activity:
29 weeks 22 hours

This is wonderful! (maybe) I finally have a label, a group
I can identify with, I'm a Possibilian. Sounds kinda like
a cross between a Possum and a Reptile ;D

"We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them." (Albert Einstein)

Inannawhimsey's picture
Member since:
14 April 2009
Last activity:
1 year 6 weeks

Truly a transfictonal entity :3

---------
All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake

Gwedd's picture
Member since:
8 April 2006
Last activity:
1 hour 40 sec

I long ago came to realize that there are only 2 possible outcomes to death: There either is, or is not, an afterlife.

If there is an afterlife, then all well and good, and I'll be all a-twiddle & duck bumps to explore it. !!!!!!!

If there isn't, then we'll never know, so why worry about it?

Seems to me that "possibilianism" is the cowards way out, the way that leads to living life as a beta-male, never really committing to anything for fear of..... what? Failure? Being laughed at? Scorned? Pshaw.

If you've never been laughed at, or scorned or made someone angry, then you really haven't ever lived, then have you?

Anyway, it will all be answered soon enough for us, and to each in our own turn. Myself, I'm going to pour another whiskey, and enjoy the journey. :)

Respects,
Gwedd

fredspage's picture
Member since:
3 October 2004
Last activity:
30 weeks 2 days

I was, for 20 years, a sailor. A true sailor who used the wind to get from A to B, not one who burnt fuel to do it. I came to realise that the main difference between the two is that for the non-sailor a boat is a means of transport. For a true sailor the boat is the objective, using the natural means to get from A to B - wind, currents etc. When I untied from the dock I was there, I didn't need anything else for my pleasure.

Now I have become involved with the NDE problem, not because I expect to solve it, although that would be nice, but because of what I will learn on the way.

My first line of enquiry, since I believe there must be something else in addition too the physical brain, is to check out Rupert Sheldrake and his Morphic Field as I think that wave theory isn't going to be applicable. If there is a field effect that would explain much of the problem.

I read about morphic fields many years ago but suddenly they seem to have an application that appeals to me.

Off to Sheldrake.

Fred.

Fred Lovett

nochickenheart's picture
Member since:
11 July 2011
Last activity:
2 years 50 weeks

I have more than a few friends who are emergency room nurses . if the nurse can see anything at all, all of them have told me that more times when people die, more people than they care to count go or come back screaming and in fear .
now they all said but the really freaky and odd thing was that if you give them all a few hours and those patients will always concoct a beautiful experience of light and fantasy that was in no way explained what the Nurse saw happening to the person.

so which one was the truth ? is mankind capable of self delusions, because they can't deal with what really was happening ? oh you bet!

I say what the nurses see is the reality . and that most people will be shock at what is on the other side. They also say that the only difference is always it is someone who does not believe in God , savior who creates the fairy tales of peace and light when it was really something that scared the crap out of them.
I personally am convinced that when I die , IF I see the light from afar ,then I will be very disappointed in myself..,if I see life from afar I will have no part in it , I am lost and will go to hell. you can't be part of the light, warmth , real life and view it from the darkness too..

Inannawhimsey's picture
Member since:
14 April 2009
Last activity:
1 year 6 weeks

Like I've said to some of my friends who believe in the Rapture that if that ever happened, with the chosen leaving for Heaven and everyone else left behind, that even if I was to be one of the chosen I would stay behind.

I wouldn't be a traitor to the human race :3

---------
All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake