Religion continues to search for solace in the 'gaps' of human knowledge!

Bob Potter

(Investigator 114, 2007 July)

A problem associated with "being human" is our preference for "beliefs" that confirm instinctive wishes. Unlike the lemming, species tend to choose 'life' rather than 'death'; many individuals prefer to seize upon any conceivable 'evidence' supporting belief in 'personal survival' following death, rather than accept the 'grim'(?) reality. 

A 'comforting thought' for such people, as Harry Edwards suggests, is "anything that appears to be evidence (of post-mortem survival) is…welcomed and accepted by believers without question" ('Life after death – fact or fiction?', Investigator 111, p 14).

The concept of a 'spirit', contained within the 'body', is found in the cultures of almost all societies. Given that death and bodily decomposition were universal everyday experiences in ancient communities – only in today's Western world is human mortality 'obscured' in day-to-day life – it was hardly surprising the existence of a 'non-material human essence' was hypothesized, probably the first perceived 'evidence' of this being 'dream' experiences.

On waking, the dreamer was convinced of having temporarily 'left' his sleeping body and entered 'another' realm. The dream provided the hypothesized 'gateway' through which imagined 'angels' and/or 'demons' came – appearing, communicating, even provoking 'inspired' writings destined to become Holy Scripture.

The work of Sigmund Freud and his associates was the culmination (rather than the 'origin'!) of later psychological interpretation, replacing mystical explanations of 'dream meanings'. Subsequent laboratory investigations by William Dement provided a more physiological base and offered the phenomena a more scientific explanation. The more laboratory-based explanations, although varying in detail from one another, succeeded in destroying, for most people, the earlier, more primitive 'mystical' basis of understanding. In today's world the "dream" has ceased to be a 'gap' area in human knowledge.

Other 'gaps' were eagerly sought. More recently a favourite 'unexplained' vacuum area has been the Out of Body Experience(OBE). Some 10% of the population claim, at least once, to have had this experience. Typically subjects report viewing the world from a location 'outside' their physical body; their "mind", "spirit", "centre of consciousness" temporally moves elsewhere – usually "above" their physical position.

OBEs frequently take place at times of stress, sensory deprivation, deep relaxation, or when the subject is allegedly 'close to death'. Usually, recipients of the OBE assert being deeply affected, causing them to change fundamental beliefs and attitudes. Experiences are usually very brief; consistently, the world is vividly perceived, everything appears "very real" – often there is awareness of 'distant' events about which they could not possibly have known. All the characteristics of a 'religious' experience! One is reminded of Abraham Maslow's "peak experiences".

Research into apparitions 'at the moment of death', mediumistic communication and other forms of 'evidence' supporting personal survival continues, but not to the extent it did in the early days of para-psychological research. However, Near Death Experiences (NDE) reported by those close to death who none-the-less survive, remain an area of 'hope' for those in search of evidence of post-mortem 'survival'.  

NDErs typically feel peaceful, even joyful, often seeming to float or rush quickly down a dark tunnel with a bright light at the end – a light described as 'warm and friendly'; subjects often report feeling "greeted" and encouraged to evaluate their life and its meaning. NDE often accompanies an OBE.

So why are these such encouraging reports less vigorously pursued than they were just a few years ago?

Firstly, significantly, it has been found a number of subjects of OBEs seem readily able to learn to 'induce' these experiences at will!    

Secondly, more-recent research has found that NDEs, first described in detail by American physician Raymond Moody (1975), led to the discovery of isolated cases confirming the experiences take a consistent form and are independent of the cause of the close brush with death or the drugs taken at the time. Numerous cases of identical 'symptoms' have been reported by people who think they are about to die but, in fact, are not, thus pointing to a 'psychological' explanation being more appropriate.

Some researchers aspiring to make OBEs and NDEs 'evidence' for "after-life", postulate a 'double' able to leave the body while continuing with 'thinking' and 'acting' as an independent entity. The 'logic' of such a 'possibility' is in no way implied by the occurrence of the experience itself. Even if, "under stress", the physical body remains alive, often quite well, there is no reason to suppose it is no longer responsible for the organized thought and consciousness involved. The logic of the evidence is increasingly to seek the "other body" as a psychological response to abnormal conditions.  This latest "mystical gap" is following its predecessors and fast 'leaving the scene' as research continues!  

Religious mystics determined not to accept the bitter reality of their own eventual demise, continue to search for 'new straws' to clutch at. Like Sisyphus of old theirs is a non-ending, frustrating and insoluble endeavour. If they must cling to their superstitious 'after-life' expectations, perhaps they could choose the "gaps" conjectured in attempts to 'explain' "quantum physics" – an area where scientific explanations are far less likely to be forthcoming in the immediate future!