Sunday, July 22, 2012

Following Breadcrumbs Through The Woods

Alex Tsakiris recently interviewed Nancy Evans Bush regarding negative near-death experiences (NDEs). They also discuss some other paranormal phenomena of a negative nature. For example:
Alex Tsakiris: No, no, fair enough. I’m glad you straightened that out and that’s great. So please continue on with a little bit of that cross-fertilization that we can get into and that’s to talk about DMT or psychedelic experience in general and how that might inform our understanding of near-death experience. You know, one of the things I’ve found really interesting in talking to Strassman is that the surprise finding for him was free-standing entities, if you will.

Nancy Bush: Sometime back, for several years, I was studying some mindfulness meditation with the American Buddhist teacher, Shinzen Young, and he tells the story of as you get into advanced meditation you may begin to encounter these creaturely entities and they can be quite frightening. They seem to be absolutely real and some of them are insectoid.

He tells the story of himself encountering in a deep meditation, once encountering things like six-foot-tall grasshoppers. He says, “Don’t worry. Just don’t worry. You’re not going crazy. You’re not being assailed by demons. This is simply your subconscious just divesting itself of some imagery.” The thing that made Strassman stop his experiment was because that’s precisely the kind of encounter that some of his study participants were having.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. You know, Shinzen Young is a very interesting guy. He’s been a guest on this show. I have to say I find that answer unsatisfying. He may be right; he may be completely right. But I don’t know where that gets us. I look at it from this world, from this reality, which may not be a reality at all. I’ll accept that going in.

But I say why would these cross-cultural, cross-time entities appear in all these different situations exactly as they are? Free-standing, free-formed, interacting with these individuals. To say, “Okay, don’t worry. Go past it,” if you’re talking about practical means to advance your meditation, fine. But I’m curious to stop there and say, “Wait a minute. What does that mean in terms of how I’m supposed to understand this reality?”
Regarding how much we can conclude about the afterlife based on NDEs:
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, it makes perfect sense to me. There’s a fine line there because I think we all appreciate that we’re embedded in this materialistic culture who constantly repeats back to us that this is impossible, this is ridiculous, you’re crazy. So I think when people break through that, then there’s a certain need to go just as far as they can with this. And I can appreciate that because it also serves this deep need that we have to answer these questions. We all want to answer them so it’s kind of hard to pull in the reins.

But to an extent it leaves us with what can we really say at the end of the day? I mean, we can say that materialism is clearly a failed proposition and that to the extent that we’re still mired in it we need to consider what lies beyond, but I’m not really sure what else we can say beyond that. How do we venture forth into this great territory of what lies beyond? How do we get there?

Nancy Bush: You think I have an answer for that?

Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] Yes. I think you do.

Nancy Bush: Well, in one of my favorite quotes from Bruce Greyson when somebody asked him something similar, “So what does it mean?” And Bruce looked thoughtful and said, “As the pre-eminent researcher in this field for 30-some years, huh, beats me.”

I think there’s no single answer. I think for me one of the frustrations, as you’ve just said, and you’re asking a great question, but for me one of the frustrations is the numbers  of people who given a little bit of information will jump in and say, “Oh, I get it. I had one of these experiences. I can tell you what it means.” But I think we are still following breadcrumbs through the woods.

Alex Tsakiris: I think we are, too.
That's not the picture of NDEs that we're commonly presented with by proponents of an NDE-based view of the afterlife. It's often suggested that we can construct a highly consistent, highly detailed landscape of the afterlife from NDEs.
I also recommend reading the comments section of the thread. Gerald Woerlee (screen name Gerry) cites some resources on inconsistencies among NDEs. Woerlee is an atheist and a materialist. I don't agree with every aspect of his view of NDEs, but he makes some good points and cites some significant resources.
What this Skeptico thread illustrates, among other things, is that NDEs are much less positive and consistent than they're often made out to be. None of the three individuals I've cited above (Tsakiris, Bush, and Woerlee) are conservative Evangelicals. I disagree with all three of them to some extent. But there's a lot of valuable information in the thread. I recommend reading through it.
For those who are interested in my view of NDEs and how I would respond to NDE-based arguments against a conservative Evangelical view of the afterlife, see here. I want to note that my argument is significantly strengthened by the extra-Biblical Christian miracles discussed in Craig Keener's recent book on the subject. I've been discussing Keener's book in a lot of posts lately, and I intend to put together an index page linking to all of those posts once I'm done. I'll probably link that index page on my NDEs page, since Keener's material is so relevant to that subject. One of the ways we distinguish among competing supernatural worldviews is by comparing the amount of supernatural power produced by each system. If Keener is right about such a large amount of supernatural power being produced in Jesus' name, across the world and spanning so many generations and so many lives, that's significant.
I agree with Alex Tsakiris and Nancy Evans Bush when they say that we're just following breadcrumbs through the woods as far as NDEs are concerned. And I agree that we should look to other places for further information, so that our view of the afterlife isn't shaped only by NDEs. But when we look to other places for information, we can't exclude places that are traditional, exclusivistic, or different than we'd like them to be in some other way. What if exclusivism is true? What if some form of traditional Christianity is true, as I believe? We can't just ignore things like Biblical prophecy, Jesus' resurrection, and extra-Biblical Christian miracles, like the ones Craig Keener discusses, when we're making such judgments. There's more than just breadcrumbs in the woods to lead us, if we're open to it.

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