Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Until It Happened to Me."

Recent news stories on near-death experiences crossed my path this week, for very different reasons. They were very different stories concerning very different people and leading to very different interpretations, but in the end they both led me to my conclusion: the paranormal is personal.*

Many in the Establishment have declared war on near death experience, primarily because the newly-disempowered Evangelicals have latched onto NDEs as proof of their interpretation of scripture. The elitist British newspaper The Independent recently ran a story of a man who died (twice!) and didn't experience anything at all. 

This is hardly news. NDEs are the exception, not the rule and the article deliberately avoids any discussion of the man's hospital treatment (if he was anesthetized it would explain his lack of any memory before being awoken). 

(Let me just say up front that the NDEs that most interest me are the ones that are accompanied by anomalous evidence or extraordinary circumstance. Otherwise the topic can become overly subjective).

What actually happened is that the man does not remember an NDE, which may well be a result of drugs or brain injury. But unfortunately we may never know for sure even if he did experience anything since the man in question is a doctrinaire radical atheist. 

The covert political agenda of the article is made clear by his own testimony, though he's surely only preaching to the converted in The Independent: 
"I have always been an atheist, but I have always had a part of me that hoped there was a God or Heaven or something greater than us. I mean, who wouldn't want there to be a Heaven? 
"I am still an atheist, and now I know that there is no such thing as God or Heaven. At least not for me. My reasoning behind that is no God would ever put a person and family through such a experience. 
"I am an Atheist, and always will be. But I believe that your belief is your belief. The only thing we can share is our own experiences and let people make up their own mind. People need to stop forcing their own beliefs onto others."
That last statement is curious, given the general live and let live attitude of near-death experiencers. It would seem the fellow is one of those types who thinks anyone disagreeing with him is an intolerable threat, something we see all too often these days. 

But the point is; If you distrust the "Jesus led me to the Elysian Fields" stories of a devout Evangelical, why would you trust the "I spent all my time in a void" stories of the devout atheist (especially given the fact that there's little reason for such a story in the first place)? Both are seeking to further a partisan agenda and reassure their fellow travelers.

One wonders what would have happened had he gone through the classic NDE. Certainly we've heard of these Road to Damascus events, where onetime unbelievers are so shaken by an experience that it changes the entire conduct of their lives. Near death experiences are well known for having this kind of effect.

Which brings me to my point here: there are people who are interested in paranormal topics but I think people only come to actually believe in the paranormal once they experience it for themselves.

Archskeptic Michael Shermer is the probable inheritor of the Skeptic King crown once that pedantic pedagogue James Randi shuffles off this mortal coil. But aside from the sex abuse scandals that seem to be emblematic of these types, Shermer made headlines recently when he briefly wandered off the reservation in response to the kind of paranormal event that many people have experienced and were once taken for granted*. In this case it had to do with a grandfather's old radio suddenly working after extensive efforts to repair had been in vain:
Anomalous Events That Can Shake One’s Skepticism to the Core 
What does this mean? Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there's bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.
Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.
To which I'd say Shermer is very easily impressed and really, really not qualified to pass judgements on the paranormal. But the point is that it happened to him and so it meant something (if it happened to you he'd be first in line to attack).

It was worth writing about, worth confessing to his fellow consensus/corporate reality-worshippers. Otherwise he would have shredded anyone else who made such a claim.

So you you really do have to wonder how many skeptics out there are simply sour grapes cases, bitter that the paranormal train never stopped at their station. 

And I wonder how many of these are actually incapable of experiencing or even truly understanding the paranormal because of their brain chemistry or some other kind of physiological issue. 

Listen, there's a lot of things I can't do that normal people don't seem to have any trouble with. And it's pretty well documented that a lot of people who can and do experience the paranormal don't exactly lead splendrous lives and usually had horrific childhoods.

Colin Wilson is an interesting case- he had his elite credentials in order, could write his own ticket on the British Sterility Express, but after delving into the paranormal for his must-read, foundational text The Occult in 1971, Wilson confessed what is utter heresy to the system that reared him:
"It was not until two years ago, when I began the systematic research for this book, that I realized the remarkable consistency of the evidence for such matters as life after death, out-of-the-body experiences (astral projection), reincarnation.

In a basic sense, my attitude remains unchanged; I still regard philosophy - the pursuit of reality through intuition aided by intellect - as being more relevant, more important, than questions of "the occult."

But the weighing of the evidence, in this unsympathetic frame of mind, has convinced me that the basic claims of "occultism" are true. It seems to me that the reality of life after death has been established beyond all reasonable doubt.
I sympathize with the philosophers and scientists who regard it as emotional nonsense, because I am temperamentally on their side; but I think they are closing their eyes to evidence that would convince them if it concerned the mating habits of albino rats or the behavior of alpha particles."
I had such trouble with the paranormal as a concept (thanks in large part to all that reality garbage on SyFy) that it took me a very long time to define my own experiences as paranormal and even to realize that experiences I saw as mundane were in fact anything but. But I believe true skepticism isn't saying "no" no matter what, it's only saying "yes" once you've satisfied the need for evidence. 

I actually think all the sloppy, evidence-free paranormal stuff you see out there is just boring. It's just flat soda and stale bread.

But here's an important point: I wasn't able to understand the context of my own experiences until I studied the experiences of other people. So I do think there's a major shortcoming in the solipsistic approach to evidence vis a vis the paranormal. Hoaxes and bullshit are pretty easy to sniff out after a while and it's important to trust other people and not see everything through the prism of your own experience. 

The Internet has certainly been a mixed blessing; it's given voice to the worst possible elements (I mentally file 'hoaxers' with 'child molesters' and 'politicians') but at the same time it offers tools that have never been available before. My 2010 experience may have been forgotten or hopelessly distorted by memory had I not been able to essentially liveblog it as soon as it happened. And that drew other people into the experience as well.

But I often wonder; would I have believed that experience if I read about happening to somebody else? The annals of the paranormal are filled with the testimony, "you know, I don't usually believe in that sort of thing, but..."

The paranormal can be a contagion. If you know a bunch of people who have had weird experiences but don't feel you have yourself, just think about this; the fact that you are attracting these people into your life is a paranormal experience in itself. You are what they call a strange attractor. 

The same goes if someone close to you confides about a profoundly weird experience. You have become part of the circuit now. I certainly feel a weird connection- a sense of being there- when reading about some of the old contact stories (I also very strongly feel that we're dealing with an occult phenomenon here and not an qoute-unquote extraterrestrial one, though someone like Kenneth Grant would chuckle at the distinction).

I'll leave you with this quote from Paracelsus:
Thus these beings appear to us, not in order to stay among us or become allied to us, but in order for us to become able to understand them. These apparitions are scarce, to tell the truth. But why should it be otherwise?  
Is it not enough for one of us to see an Angel, in order for all of us to believe in the other Angels? 

*UPDATE: This piece originally included a story - which has been widely circulated on social media- which a reader pointed out may be a hoax. It wasn't really important to the overall piece and it took up a lot of real estate so I deleted it and stuck with the Independent story. And a good thing too; the piece definitely reads better without it. 

But now I wonder if the Independent story isn't a hoax as well.

* I know of two events in my own extended family where grandfather clocks stopped working when their owners died and despite the best efforts of repairmen, never worked again.