It has seemed to me that one of the most important questions about our existence is what happens to us at or after death. It is a question with far-reaching implications. If some sort of sentience can have any detectable independence of the human body, either in life or after its death, the proof would affect the fundamentals of morality, psychology and neuroscience, and (I presume) the more obscure realms of physics that deal with multiple dimensions and mysterious quantum energy states.
Besides the challenges it would make to current scientific understanding, the affect on religion and culture in all its forms are almost beyond imagining as it impacts upon every single person alive at the time. The possibility of some sort of survival of death is not just a personal matter, but must extend to all those who have lived and died before us. In turn it would raise questions about the nature of consciousness, personality and society itself. We'd even have to redefine death and what we mean by the 'dead'.
Obviously, we have no idea what such a survival may entail or what form it might take. Yes, we have a wealth of literature purporting to be communications with the deceased, full of accounts of dying and the world beyond, but it is narrative not fact. The best you can say is that they are the experiences of those who think they are in contact with the deceased, for we have no practical way of distinguishing between the real and the imagined here, especially when it might be based upon misperception or misinterpretation.
Does the mind exist independently of the biological organism? If it does, even in part, does this mean survival, in some form, of death? Current scientific materialism gives an emphatic 'no' to the first question rendering the second ... er... immaterial. But (and that's a big but), given the magnitude of the implications, both scientific and personal, of any other conclusion, we have to ask why more isn't being done to find out.
It is a perennial gripe of both the religious (of all types) and those generally interested in the 'paranormal' that science (or scientists) do not take these topics seriously enough to themselves investigate and that they enthusiastically (and often unfairly) rubbish the work of others (necessarily amateurs) who have sought an answer. This is a gross simplification, I know, as anyone with an acquaintance with the literature will be aware that studies of the psychological experiences of the dying - particularly so-called out-of-body experiences (OoBEs) - by doctors and other medical experts have proliferated over the last few decades.
It has been argued that the eminent medics involved were likely too emotionally involved with their subject and somehow skewed the data. It has also been said that despite the eminence of these medics their 'data' is in the end simply narrative. Now, two new studies - in Science, 24 Aug 2007 - claim to have induced OoBEs in ordinary people under lab conditions - source: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/317/5841/1020a and summaries in: http://news.
In separate experiments Dr Henrik Ehrsson and Prof Olaf Blanke induced sensations of consciousness locating outside the body by deliberately confusing the senses of subjects with contradictory data, putting it down to "faults" in the way the brain combines information from different senses. All the media coverage of their reports convey the conclusion that science has 'explained' out-of-the body and near-death experiences (NDEs).
But wait ... gratified that we are that learned scientists have turned their attention towards the phenomenon and provided us with some solid neuro-psychiatric data ... have they really explained anything, never mind OOBEs and NDEs? They acknowledge that there are many conditions under which a personal sensorium can become dislocated and confused: fever, drugs, epileptic seizures, major trauma and perhaps even simple disorientation. Moreover, the subjects were all healthy young people in a laboratory and in no danger.
What is not said is how any of this equates to the fatal shut-down of all biological systems however gradual. If there is one consistency that OoBE researchers have highlighted in experiences across age groups, cultures and even decades it is of the transformative nature of the experience. Repeatedly we are told of a sensation of calmness, of heightened perception, of the removal of the fear of death, and of other experiences that parallel the ecstasies of mystics. I do not understand how this can be accounted for by the explanation - embraced by many OOBE sceptics - that the 'illusion' of being separate from the body is due to hypoxia, the accelerating depletion of oxygen in the blood. Surely, hypoxia would lead to mental confusion as sensation is dulled as neural pathways die or succumb to chaotic collapse?
Dr Susan Blackmore - who was a believer in OoBEs herself before she lost faith in ever finding any positive proof - is quoted in the BBC report (ref above) as commenting: "This has at last brought OBEs into the lab and tested one of the main theories of how they occur. Scientists have long suspected that the clue to these extraordinary, and sometimes life-changing, experiences lies in disrupting our normal illusion of being a self behind our eyes, and replacing it with a new viewpoint from above or behind." All very well, Susan, but these experiments are set up with visual and other stimuli to trick the subject into identifying with an external viewpoint. Those claiming to experience the 'real' thing do not have the benefit of dedicated trickery; indeed, some of them are quite unconscious, through trauma or anaesthetic, at the time. It begs the question why, under those dire circumstances, a personal viewpoint should be externalised at all?
I think what worries me about this report is the way it has been reported. Without reading the original papers in Science, I have no idea if these experimenters actually claim to have solved the riddle of OoBEs. The implication from the tone taken by the media is that we'd like it to be true, to lead on to more focused trials which relocate consciousness outside the body for long, controllable periods that relay accurate and reliable information. Would the old SF theme of a roomful of psychic spies, hooked up to machines while their minds rove elsewhere, be a step nearer?
But I digress. I agree that ideas and data should be exposed to criticism. Criticism doesn't have to be destructive. I do not agree with Michael Roll - of the Campaign for Philosophical Freedom: http://www.cfpf.org.uk/ - that the scientific establishment has consistently enacted a conspiracy in suppressing knowledge of 'survival of death'. Science does what it always does, pushes at the boundaries of knowledge, although we may not like the way sometimes this is done. Militant and narrow-minded sceptics are quick enough to jump on any amateur - and that includes a well-meaning scientist who makes statements beyond his official field of expertise - who makes grand claims based on slender information. They do not seem so quick to apply the same rigor here, when the same happens to the work of accredited scientists operating within their speciality.
What has this to do with the CFI? I hope the CFI will take an active role in criticising science - and any other relevant discipline - to get the best and most reliable interpretations of data and to make clear their meanings. But as Forteans - who are not necessarily scientists - we elect to stand outside the pale of science hoping to see a bigger picture. Scientists and materialistic sceptics should not be surprised when we scrutinise their work, motives and pronouncements with the same rigor they apply to heretics, cranks, eccentrics and dilettantes.