Diehard Secularists Meet Spiritual Possibility

Part 1: I Know Nothing, And That’s Scary And Splendid.

During middle school, a bizarre, destabilizing thought kept beating at me: I have no way of knowing anything. A quiz in school would ask me questions about a historical figure, and I’d think to myself: “How can I know anything about Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Edison? Maybe the first person who wrote about them made stuff up, and then everyone who followed just assumed it was true.” I’d add qualifiers like: “Assuming the woman who wrote the book we read knows the truth…” and receive odd reactions in return: faces drawn in green pen with wavy mouths, question marks followed by exclamation points, a big WOW… all kinds of indications that thinking this way was pushing me off of some kind of expected path.

But how could I be sure that the green face was real, or my teacher, for that matter? How did I know the cars that whizzed past me as I walked to school weren’t part of some dream? There was no certainty about anything when I stopped to consider all the possibilities, which I knew I shouldn’t do.

Oddly enough, a geometry lesson helped me reground myself in the assumptions of this world. With many problems, we were told to start with certain assumptions that we just had to presume were true. Given those assumptions, we could solve the problems. Without them, we wouldn’t know where to start.

For instance, we were told that parallel lines never meet, no matter how far they extend, even if they keep going and going, reaching distances that our human brains could never begin to comprehend. We just had to assume that was true: there was no point in questioning it. Me being me, I did question it. I had watched astronomer Carl Sagan describe black holes on TV. Black holes are regions of space with gravitational fields so intense that no matter or radiation can escape once they find themselves inside. This has implications for time, which shifts dramatically inside the black hole. Most relevant to our geometry lesson, spatial relations are dramatically different inside a black hole than in the spaces humans are used to. Our math classroom, and the assumptions made within it, surely did not consider the possibility of black holes.

I figured that, if two parallel lines went on forever, at some point, somewhere, they might move into a black hole. And if they did, they might meet, because nothing inside of a black hole behaves according to normal human expectations, including lines. So I raised my hand and shared my thoughts. My math teacher started laughing and said, “Good one! But, for the sake of these problems, we are just going to have to assume that parallel lines will never, ever meet.”

That struck me just right. Assume the easiest, most surface possibility so I can get through the day and pass my quiz. The assumption may or may not mirror the objective truth, but worrying about that would only lead to confusion and despair. At a certain point, I had to live in the world that seemed to exist, and not let my questions destroy my functioning within it.

The implications went far beyond math class. I should just go to the mall with my grandmother and enjoy the awesome striped sweater she buys me, and not start wondering whether it was possible that nothing existed outside my brain, including the sweater and my grandmother. It was fabulous and right to relish whizzing down a hill on my sled, never once thinking that maybe the whole experience wasn’t really happening because it was just a metaphor to get me thinking about the real situation that actually was happening. You’re probably confused right now. Don’t worry, I was too. So I figured maybe it was right to make some basic assumptions that most people found natural. This allowed me to live in the world without wreaking havoc on myself or the people around me.

It worked out well, for the most part. But somewhere, in a semi-silenced but secretly active part of my mind, all the questions and possibilities remained. For all I knew the parallel lines on the blackboard would extend so far that they’d hit a black hole and meet; the rendition on the chalkboard was just a pale representation of what might exist with fully realized lines that reached their full potential to spread out into the universe. Maybe the world really didn’t exist in the way that it seemed, or maybe it was a metaphor for something greater, wiser, and more splendid… Who really knew? Certainly not me. I felt then as I feel today: there’s nothing I know for sure.

Part 2: Some Are Certain Of Spiritual Truths.

I take this sense of supreme unknowing into my spiritual journeys, where I often find people who know a lot, at least by their own reckoning. Some are quite certain about various spiritual formulations. Whether they’re strong Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or independent connoisseurs of mystical experience, they have spiritual hunches so intense that they gel into a sense of truth. I know people who have been amazed by textual study, feeling like the words were speaking directly to them, with an incredible line into truth. Sometimes, they’ll recall coincidences that felt extraordinary to them — they randomly read a line in their religious text and, the next day, something exactly like the event recounted happened: some super-specific, odd, very meaningful event. Occasionally, they report downright miracles, at least in their conception. Their mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and given a second, confirming opinion… and then they met with a great rabbi or healer who prayed over her and said: “She is fine. Get her tested again and you’ll see.” Sure enough, cancer free, or so the story goes.

And then there are those lucky enough to remember experiences that felt like communications with the divine, or with mystical forces, or… something beyond the scope of life that most of us consider as we go about our daily rounds. People who became critically ill and felt they touched a valid afterlife state (events that physician Raymond Moody famously dubbed “near-death experiences” — NDEs — in his classic 1975 book Life After Life). People who recall feeling an overpowering oneness with some kind of love that animates all of nature during an afternoon by a beautiful lake. People who are absolutely certain that they have communicated with deceased friends, relatives, or even previously unfamiliar souls.

You might think I’d dig into these stories with gusto, creaming them with evidence that we actually can’t know anything, let alone something as farfetched as spiritual forces, immortality of soul, or the holiness of written documents. But I don’t. When it’s coupled with genuine openness to people who might have different takes on these issues, this sort of spiritual assurance draws me with great force. I’m open to the answers all kinds of people come up with.

Anyone who knows me well is well aware that I desperately want some assurance that there is an underlying meaning and purpose to our world, and that each human consciousness survives and thrives after death. But my openness goes far beyond wish fulfillment. I’ll listen with great heart and empathy to takes on the spiritual world that diverge radically from my ideal formulation: interpretations that require dietary restrictions, sap freedom during the Sabbath and other holy days, define gender in stark ways, and otherwise diminish the joy and contentment of people like me who live for freedom, quirky expression, and pure, easy pleasure.

Though I’ll probably express my reservations, I’ll hear your side with fascination. If you’re describing an event that you found mystical, I’ll harbor some skepticism since the experience was not mine, but I’ll also wonder if maybe you experienced something real that’s beyond my current understanding or perception. Recently, someone told me: “If I don’t see it, I don’t believe it.” I largely agree. I’m deeply skeptical towards other people’s claims. But skepticism does not mean rejection.

When people share their allegedly mystical tales, I sometimes wonder whether my inability to perceive spirituality with an intensity that leads to conviction is akin to blindness or deafness. Maybe some people have a kind of sense that many others lack. This lack is not considered a disability simply because we don’t need this spiritual sense for any kind of basic functioning. If we had a culture where accurate divination of the future or ability to see into alternate realms of existence were essential to earn a living or to achieve social acceptance, those who are “blind” in these ways would be viewed as having a problem.

From my own perspective, if vivid spiritual perception is a valid gift tapping into truths that have objective validity (like an ability to communicate with very real consciousnesses who no longer reside in living bodies), inability to experience it is a monumental deficit that creates profound impoverishment of soul and spirit. I don’t know for sure whether these alleged talents are ever real, but I find it very possible.

Part 3: Some Reject All Spiritual Possibility.

Then we have people who are absolutely certain that nothing spiritual exists. It’s all scientific law, randomness, biological evolution, and natural instinct: basic forces that are undiluted by any kind of underlying plan, order, intelligence, or ethical system. I can relate all too well to a subset of this group: those who have called out into the universe and heard nothing back, or who sense a gaping, cold hole that feels absolutely unfillable. If you want emotional warmth but it comes much too rarely, or you seek kindness and compassion but never seem to find it, or you keep running into disaster that falls into hopelessness, you might conclude that it’s crazy to believe in any kind of positive force or loving spirit undergirding our world.

I hear you, much as I’d prefer to cover my ears. I have felt very similarly. Though I’ve been lucky enough to find love, pleasure, and friendship in the midst of the traumas, maybe you haven’t found enough goodness to retain any openness to a spiritual world. If so, that’s your reality, and I could never call it false or insufficiently open to possibility.

I have a bit more trouble with another group: those who argue that nothing spiritual is possible because spirituality is just plain silly and anti-scientific. When I publish essays and poems about my spiritual musings, this group is often the first to pounce, criticizing any suggestion of spiritual possibility as a sign of mental flabbiness, or of desperation so intense that I’m willing to throw my analytical skills into the dustbin. “We are fans of science,” they say, “while you are willing to forsake the brain you were born with to help you believe in foolish possibilities.”

It’s perfectly valid to strongly suspect that nothing spiritual is out there based on scientific theory or empirical observation of the world. In my saddest, most pessimistic moments, I agree with that stance. But complete certitude, to the point of berating anyone who expresses an interest in spiritual questions, makes no sense to me.

When people dig in and refuse even to consider any spiritual possibility because spirituality just doesn’t fit with their scientific worldview, I am clearly reminded of the most small-minded, dogmatic religious fundamentalists. The adamance is virtually the same. These groups mock each other with equal distaste, making each other symbols of everything false and absurd. The “science” people imply that they speak from a place of pure enlightenment, while their fundamentalist peers wallow in dark benightedness. But the science people seem just as benighted, just as poor in mind and in curiosity.

Ultimately, while I seek out everyone’s point of view (as long as it’s expressed civilly and even, ideally, with friendliness) I feel the most kinship with those who have a spiritual take, or are at least open to spiritual takes… but who do not try to ram a specific worldview into my face as the only truth. This does not mean that I am anti-science. I find the suggestion that science and spirituality are natural enemies absurd. To those who sense mystical forces or holy realms that I don’t perceive, I say… maybe you see things that I can’t, just like musically gifted people probably hear nuances that I don’t pick up. To those who insist that there is nothing at all spiritual, anywhere, I ask: how can you possibly know for sure?

Part 4: What Does The Evidence Say, And What Do I Think?

Diehard non-spiritual sorts will often declare: “Look, you can believe or want to believe whatever makes you happy, but there is absolutely no evidence to support any spiritual speculation.” Diehard spiritual types will ask, with equal passion: “How can you possibly not sense spiritual forces?” So where does the evidence fall? As with so many questions, it depends on how you look at it.

The main question in my own spiritual quest has been: “Does the self/soul/consciousness survive the death of the body?” I’ve played with this theme in all kinds of published writing, and, when the adamantly non-spiritual find my work, they typically argue that the evidence that the self dies with the body is incontrovertible. “Just look at how dementia decimates intellectual functioning and personality,” they say. “And look at the profound effect neurological damage in general has on a person’s perceptions, mood, intellectual functioning, and behavior. If you know how the human brain works, you can predict very accurately how certain kinds of damage will influence a person. We are our brains as they interact with our bodies. No more and no less.”

I know someone who believes that his mother with dementia is on a long spiritual journey, but he backs that sense up with hunches and emotional responses, not clinical evidence. Understandably, this sort of thing does not impress the “science is my entire worldview” sort of mind.

But the story doesn’t end there. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) famously devoted her professional life to death and dying, spending countless intimate hours with patients close to death. Her research is highly respected in many circles, and her 1969 book On Death and Dying is an undisputed classic, to the point of being required reading in high school, college, and university courses around the country. Some question aspects of her work, of course — that’s inevitable when your ideas reach diverse readers — but no one can deny that she was a very bright, passionate physician who spent considerable time in death’s presence.

Fascinatingly, Kübler-Ross wound up convinced that the self/soul survives the body’s death. In 1991, she published the book On Life after Death, describing her observations and thoughts in this realm. Kübler-Ross spent considerable time with dying children. She asked these kids who they would want to have with them always, and the overwhelming majority named their parents. Some of the children had visions of afterlife experiences that involved people they loved. Somehow, not one child envisioned a parent in this context unless that parent was deceased. So, according to Kübler-Ross, these weren’t just wish-fulfilling dreams. People have dreams of all kinds, often including living people they know from waking life — and dying children would, of course, want their living parents to join them wherever they might be going. But these particular visions only included deceased people, with no exceptions, even though many of the children were too immature to understand that living, healthy parents were unlikely to accompany them in death (they tended to range in age from five to seven). If parents had died even a minute beforehand, they could appear in one of these visions, but it never happened with living people.

She found one case particularly intriguing. A twelve-year-old girl had a profoundly moving, love-filled vision of her brother in an afterlife realm. The child shared the experience with her father, but said she found the whole thing strange because she didn’t actually have a brother. Her father started crying and explained that, in fact, she did have a brother who had died before she was born, but nobody had ever discussed him with her. The implication is clear: her visit to this realm was valid because it gave her verifiable knowledge that she didn’t have access to in any other way. Kübler-Ross uncovered many cases like this through the years.

She also described a surreal experience where she was convinced that a deceased colleague visited her and reminded her of the importance of her work studying death. What made this particularly compelling was that she asked this deceased woman to write a note and handed her a pencil and a piece of paper. She kept the resulting note as tangible evidence of her encounter.

Kübler-Ross studied near-death and out-of-body experiences for decades and wound up certain, beyond any doubt, that the soul survives death: “The dying experience is almost identical to the experience at birth. It is a birth into a different existence which can be proven quite simply. For thousands of years you were made to ‘believe’ in the things concerning the beyond. But for me, it is no longer a matter of belief, but rather a matter of knowing.”

Does she convince me? Not at all. I can find all kinds of potential holes in her arguments. For all I know, her story about her seemingly resurrected colleague stemmed from sleep deprivation, anxiety, or even embellishment to drum up attention. But she fascinates me, and if one of the most eminent researchers on death — who studied the topic from every angle she could imagine — wound up convinced that the self is immortal, I have trouble respecting the argument that science in all worthy forms categorically opposes the possibility of a soul beyond the physical body. Sometimes, surely, science and spirituality merge and inform each other in a many-layered, many-minded quest for truth.

Kübler-Ross is far from the only medical researcher who comes out in favor of soul survival. Many like-minded peers continue to work in that vein. Sam Parnia is a professor at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine who studies cardiac arrest resuscitation. According to a 2015 newsletter published by Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, a recent Parnia-led study showed that “40% of those who survived a cardiac arrest were aware during the time that they were clinically dead and before their hearts were restarted.” This is significant because it suggests awareness precisely when the patients’ brains had completely stopped functioning. In Parnia’s words, “The evidence thus far suggests that in the first few minutes after death, consciousness is not annihilated.”

If consciousness persists when the brain is not functioning at all, during a time when medical death has set in, it may endure indefinitely after death, independent of the brain and the body. Basic logic suggests that this is a strong possibility. Of course I realize that Parnia’s cases don’t necessarily generalize to the permanent death we all must eventually face. But an open mind would consider the possibility that they might.

I’ve also been intrigued by reincarnation research through the University of Virginia, begun by psychiatrist Ian Stevenson (1918-2007) and continued by his protégé and fellow psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker. Their work is careful and rigorous, focused on children who seem to remember past lives. Though Stevenson is deceased, Tucker remains hard at work in this arena and has published two books that detail his findings: Return to Life (2013) and Life Before Life (2005).

They’ve compiled many cases that seem unexplainable by standard means. A girl may discuss specific enough details about a family she’s never met during her current life that Tucker and his colleagues locate a clan who fits the bill. The girl’s sense for their lives is stunningly accurate, and she also has a birthmark in exactly the place where the person she claims to have been in a past life was shot before she died. The coincidences are often deeply striking.

Tucker is skeptical and analytical by nature, and he had no particular assumptions about death or the paranormal when he began his work. He doesn’t have Kübler-Ross-like assurance about the implications of his research: his thinking is more layered and nuanced than hers. But his years of investigation in this realm have caused him to sharply question the notion of consciousness arising out of and dying with the brain.

Jesse Bering, an academic psychologist and self-described skeptic who typically recoils from any suggestion of reincarnation or truth to parapsychological claims, reluctantly admits in a November 2, 2013 Scientific American essay that Ian Stevenson’s work convinced him to open his mind to possibilities he never thought he’d consider. Bering concludes his essay with these thoughts: “‘The mind is what the brain does,’ I wrote in The Belief Instinct. ‘It’s more a verb than it is a noun. Why do we wonder where our mind goes when the body is dead? Shouldn’t it be obvious that the mind is dead too?’ Perhaps it’s not so obvious at all. I’m not quite ready to say that I’ve changed my mind about the afterlife. But I can say that a fair assessment and a careful reading of Stevenson’s work has, rather miraculously, managed to pry it open. Well, a tad, anyway.”

I deeply respect him for that. An open mind is a beautiful instrument that constantly learns and grows. A mind that’s slammed shut, whether against spiritual possibility or against anything that contradicts a specific religious formulation, is half-dead.

So what do I think about this question of soul survival? I don’t know. I never know what to think. I’ve had plenty of experiences that push me towards belief, but my skeptical side is fierce, alert, and unrelenting. I’m not even convinced that I’m sitting at my desk, writing this essay. That could be an illusion, or a simple scene that I perceive only because I can’t process the deeper, more complex reality. All I know for sure is that I don’t know for sure. About anything, really. Except that, on some deep, fundamental level, I have a mental lens that should never close itself against learning more and challenging its assumptions. And so do you.

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