All 29 essays from the 2021 BICS essay contest that have been awarded a prize are now available to download and can be read for free from here. Thus far I have only read the winning essay, which was written by Jeffrey Mishlove. I had previously heard of Mishlove, but had not hitherto read anything by him nor had I watched any of his interviews. So I was not previously aware of his specific beliefs on the afterlife and hence am reading this without any preconceived ideas. Here are my thoughts on his winning essay.
Ideally, how should we judge whether there’s an afterlife? I suggest, firstly, that we need to take a look at the totality of the evidence. Not only that which might seem to support the possibility of an afterlife but also that which might seem to contradict it too. But, secondly, we also need to examine and possibly amend our philosophical assumptions regarding the nature of reality, since such assumptions are the lens whereby we view the evidence. Most pertinently, these assumptions will dictate whether we regard an afterlife as being an extraordinary claim or not. At the end, we hopefully will have obtained a well-rounded appraisal of all the evidence and reasons to allow us to make an informed judgement on this issue.
Unfortunately, in reality, regardless of whether we are discussing the possibility of an afterlife or indeed any other topic, there seems to be this pretty much universal pattern whereby people concentrate on the evidence and reasons supporting the particular position that they happen to favour, but they pay scant regard to any awkward evidence or opposing arguments. This is certainly the case when it comes to debating whether there is an afterlife or not, regardless of a person’s specific belief on this issue. Regretfully, this essay by Mishlove doesn’t break that mould.
Mishlove’s essay predominantly consists in outlining people’s experiences – accounts of NDEs, apparitions, and so on. Doing so is, of course, indispensable. We need to be acquainted with the evidence, get a feel for it. But this is the easy part that can, after all, be obtained by a quick Google search. We also need to do lots of digging. It does not seem to me that Mishlove’s essay adequately fulfils this criterion. Let me justify what I say above by considering a few examples from his essay.
Similar to the other avenues of evidence, Mishlove mainly concentrates on the personal experiences of NDErs. Of course, these do sound persuasive, and I do not dispute that a great deal of weight should be attached to them. This is especially so when we consider that, regardless of their prior beliefs, the vast majority of people who have undergone an NDE become convinced there is an afterlife. There are difficulties though for the afterlife interpretation, difficulties that Mishlove neglects to address.
What about, for example, the fact that only something like 10 to 20 percent of people coming close to death recollect an NDE? Is it that only 10-20 percent of us will actually go on to an afterlife with the rest of us simply ceasing to exist? I have actually heard a couple of people independently suggest this, but for reasons I won’t go into here, I find this deeply implausible. Instead, I suggest that only 10 to 20 percent recollect an NDE will either be because:
- They forget the experience.
- Their souls never became detached from their bodies in the first place (an appropriately dysfunctional body will prohibit any experiences until they detach from it).
But I don’t want to get into details regarding my own thoughts. The point being is that Mishlove should have explored this issue himself. It’s not as if this is unimportant. Indeed, I frequently hear people ask why so few people have near-death experiences. Addressing this, and suggesting answers such as I have hinted at, would surely have been far better.
Peak in Darien experiences and encountering apparitions still alive
Mishlove talks about “Peak in Darien” experiences. These are NDEs where the experiencer encounters a deceased person during their NDE that they did not realise were dead. Should these experiences actually occur – and so far as I am aware the evidence seems to be compelling that they do – then this presents very powerful evidence indeed that the people and entities encountered during NDEs are real, or at least have a real element. They are not, that is, total fabrications of the mind.
So far so good. But what Mishlove doesn’t mention is that sometimes people during their NDEs encounter apparitions of people who are still alive! As Keith Augustine states: “NDE’rs have reported seeing friends out of body with them who are, in reality, still alive and normally conscious”. Augustine goes on to say that seeing such living people “make[s] perfect sense if NDEs are brain-generated hallucinations. The fact that living persons are occasionally encountered in NDEs severely undermines survivalist interpretations of NDEs". (From the chapter "Near-Death Experiences are Hallucinations" in the book The Myth of an Afterlife).
So Peak in Darien experiences and NDE’rs encountering people who are still alive during their experiences, are polar opposites. They are inconsistent with each other since the former suggest these encounters are of a genuine external reality, the latter that they are brain-generated hallucinations. Augustine tries to resolve this by suggesting that some (emphasis as in original) Peak in Darien experiences could arise by chance. Though he then insinuates they might all do so. But he also adds that these visions are rarely documented “prior to learning that the recently deceased persons in question have died leaving plenty of room for inaccurate recall or embellishment about what transpired”. (From the chapter "Near-Death Experiences are Hallucinations" in the book The Myth of an Afterlife).
A crucial question here is whether these NDEs are phenomenologically identical to the standard NDEs where apparitions of dead people are encountered. If they are, then this might suggest that the people and entities seen during all NDEs are likely to be all hallucinations. But, if they are not, and especially if the experience of seeing living people seems less authentic, then this objection loses much of its force.
So we need to know how real the experience of seeing those who are still alive is compared to seeing the deceased. If indeed both experiences are phenomenologically identical, as Augustine simply assumes, then this considerably weakens the evidence for an afterlife provided by NDEs.
It turns out that there are a few NDEs in which experiencers report meeting people who are still alive. In our collection that now includes more than a thousand NDEs, 7 percent involved seeing someone in the realm of the NDE who was still living. But in every one of those rare cases, the experiencer described that person as still living, in most of those cases pleading with the experiencer to come back. None of the NDEs in our collection involved an experiencer mistakenly thinking a person still alive had died.
So this then suggests that those apparitions of people still alive that are encountered during NDEs are phenomenologically dissimilar to those apparitions of people who are deceased.
The point here is that I think it would have made Mishlove’s essay vastly better if he had addressed this difficulty and other difficulties in the evidence. Failing to do so leaves his essay vulnerable to attack and easily dismissed. A $500,000 prize-winning essay arguing for an afterlife needs to be well-rounded and capable of heading off the obvious objections.
Reincarnation process influenced by cultural beliefs
In the psi encyclopaedia entry Patterns in Reincarnation Cases it says:
Sceptics of a reincarnation interpretation of the cases point to the association between beliefs about the reincarnation process and case features such as the presence or absence of sex change and argue that this is proof that people are imagining or constructing the cases in accordance with their culturally-mandated ideas.
Mishlove on this topic in his essay says:
If the afterlife operated independently, according to its own laws and principles, one would expect the intermission length reported by children with past-life memories – as well as gender change between lives – to be unaffected by cultural expectations. This is clearly not so. However, since we are referring to solved reincarnation cases, neither can the results be purely a fantasy based, cultural artifact. Such findings show us we the living can influence the afterlife. People who enter the immediate afterlife will see what they need to see or what they’re prepared or conditioned to see.
Skeptics are saying that our background cultural beliefs should not influence which sex we are born, how long we spend in between our lives before we are reincarnated, and so on. The fact that the research shows they do implies that the evidence cannot be what it seems. And at first blush I’m sure that many, if not most people, would agree with skeptics here. Or at least believe that this constitutes a difficulty for the evidence for reincarnation.
Contrariwise, Mishlove seems to me to be saying that a person’s beliefs on the details of the reincarnation process will carry on into the afterlife and that such beliefs are able to influence the reincarnation process so that it aligns with the implicit expectations of that individual. Why is this explanation superior to the skeptic’s belief that these experiences are simply fabricated? Mishlove thinks his interpretation is required due to solved reincarnation cases -- that is those cases where a previously living person was located and seemed to match up to the previous life memories of a child.
But, of course, this doesn't really resolve the disagreement. What Mishlove and the skeptics both needed to do was dig a bit into the issues. Skeptics implicitly assume that if reincarnation occurs, then the process will be governed by an impersonal natural "mechanism", or in other words a process that is not influenced by a person’s beliefs or desires (what Mishlove describes as the afterlife operating “independently, according to its own laws and principles”). If skeptics could argue that this is indeed a reasonable prior supposition, that is what one ought to expect before looking at the research, then they would have been in a much stronger position to argue that the evidence pointing to reincarnation is unlikely to be what it appears to be. But they don’t. Ideally, Mishlove should have talked about this failure on the part of skeptics and argued -- as I did in this essay -- that skeptics have no good reason to assume it would be such an impersonal natural "mechanism".
Kübler-Ross, Mrs. Schwartz, and the Note
Mishlove outlines an anomalous experience that Kübler-Ross alleged that she had. The story goes that she was approached by a woman, a certain Mrs. Schwartz, who had been dead for the past 10 months. This Mrs. Schwartz insisted that Kübler-Ross must not abandon her work on death and dying. Most significantly, Kübler-Ross asked Mrs. Schwartz to write a note, which she duly did! So the deceased Mrs. Schwartz was aware that Kübler-Ross was about to quit her job, implying she could read Kubler's mind or was aware of her emotional state, and could intentionally appear to her and even write a note using a pen. Mishlove considers this case to be “significant because it combines evidence of identity, spirit materialization, and evidence of intentionality with a life transforming event”.
What are we to make of this episode? As an aside, I do not consider the prospect of an afterlife to be an extraordinary one. Indeed, the supposition that the prospect is extraordinary seems to presuppose some broadly materialist conception of reality, hence is essentially question-begging. However, this is not to deny that some of the alleged evidence might be extraordinary, and this episode related by Kübler-Ross seems to be a good candidate. We might ask ourselves that if the deceased are able to do this, why do they not do so far more often? Of course, this might be a rare talent amongst the deceased. Nevertheless, we have to be leery about accepting this evidence as being significant as Mishlove does. There is surely a good possibility that Kübler-Ross was mistaken, or indeed that she simply fabricated the entire alleged incident.
Evaluating the Evidence
I’ve mentioned a couple of areas where Mishlove needed to go into somewhat more detail. This advice extends to much of the other evidence too. More specifically, he needed to address the obvious objections that skeptics are liable to mention. Doing so would have made the essay more impartial, objective, and generally well-rounded. Of course, this would have used up more of the allotted word limit. But I think he might well have been advised to skip some of the evidence altogether, particularly rarely encountered anomalous episodes such as the one recounted by Kübler-Ross.
Let’s now turn to the philosophical issues.
The Mind-Body Correlations
Bertrand Russell once said:
"The mind grows like the body; like the body it inherits characteristics from both parents; it is affected by disease of the body and by drugs; it is intimately connected with the brain. There is no scientific reason to suppose that after death the mind or soul acquires an independence of the brain which it never had in life". (Quotation from here).
Many people seem to take it for granted that the brain produces consciousness and they surmise this because when the brain is damaged the person’s mind is also damaged. Such damage not only can result in the diminishing of one’s mental capacities, it often seemingly changes the actual personality. The obvious conclusion is that the brain produces consciousness, otherwise why should the mind be affected?
Indeed, it often seems that this is the sole argument against an afterlife. For example, in The Myth of an Afterlife where each chapter was written by a differing author, the majority of the authors contented themselves with harping on about all the ways our mental life is affected by the brain, going into great detail and frequently repeating each other. In that great huge thick book, it scarcely got beyond that.
So it is imperative that this alleged problem is comprehensively addressed. What does Mishlove say about it? He says:
Gardner built upon William James’ 1897 filtration theory of brain function. This hypothesis likens the brain to a filter or reducing valve, not the source of consciousness. The brain accesses mind-at-large, or universal consciousness, in all its magnificent potency. Then the brain places into the spotlight of awareness a reduced level most useful for biological survival. James presented this theory as a way of accounting for life after death.
Would all those impressed by the fact a damaged brain leads to a damaged mind and therefore surmise that the former produces the latter, have a sudden change of heart on reading this? I doubt it. Yes, Mishlove makes the very important point that the brain could merely alter consciousness rather than create it, but it surely needs to be elaborated on and fleshed out a great deal more than this.
For example, there’s the very important issue of personal identity. Will I meaningfully be the very same person after death as I was before? Mishlove links to several short video clips of him interviewing Bernardo Kastrup. In one of them here (in his essay the link is dead for me, but it has the address in footnote 221), Kastrup says:
[Death is] a dramatic change, you have a physical body and then you don't have one any more. It's naive to expect that it will be just your good old self. What age would you have then, will you be your child self, will you be the self the moment that you died. I mean all kinds of issues open.
As it happens, I don’t agree with Kastrup here. I think we might very well be our good old selves. That is, immediately after death there will be no discontinuity in my sense of self, it will feel that I am simply transitioning out of my body. That is not to deny that my mental faculties might not improve and that my mood, my emotional state, and so on might not change. But it will still be me. I'll leave it at that since I have already comprehensively argued for this in several places already in this blog. See here, here (where I also comprehensively address objections to the filter hypothesis), here, here, here, here, and here.
But it is of little avail for me to comprehensively address this damaged brains cause damaged minds argument. I am an unknown who virtually no one will read. For such a crucially important, if not really, the only objection to an afterlife, a comprehensive rebuttal needed to come from someone with a high profile and who will therefore be widely read. The winning essay of the BICS contest would have been the ideal place. The failure to do so is a tragically lost opportunity.
The alleged impossibility of dualism
Dualism, a major metaphysical school of thought, has the unresolvable problem of how two metaphysically unique substances – mind and matter – can interact.
This is something that those who subscribe to materialism constantly allege.They rarely justify this assertion, and I regard it as nonsense. Indeed, I do not regard this as being a problem at all, least of all an unresolvable one. Essentially, it seems to me that the objection presupposes the mechanistic view of reality, a view that is closely aligned with materialism. I explain more fully my thoughts on this in the following blog post, A Causal Consciousness, Free Will, and Dualism. Go to “Various Objections, 2. How can the immaterial impact on the material?”
Why do I regard Mishlove’s claim here to be such an important issue? It’s important because dualism is the commonsensical position that we all instinctively believe. If we are told that it has an unsolvable problem, and we are naïve enough to simply accept this, then the other choices available to us are either some flavour of materialism, or some flavour of idealism. Some might well feel that if this is the choice, then materialism is the sensible option. But materialism, at least the main view, is untenable as I explain here. Moreover, all flavours of materialism are incompatible with an afterlife, at least in the form of an essence or soul surviving death. So we really need some excellent reasons for rejecting dualism. I agree dualism has some problems, though not this particular alleged problem. Idealism has problems too. But the problems with dualism and idealism do not approach the seeming irreconcilable problems that confront all versions of materialism.
The mysterious undefined Hyperspace
Near the beginning of his essay, Mishlove has a subheading, “Hyperspace and consciousness”. Immediately underneath this, he says, “Gardner’s instinct about hyperspace was correct”. However, hitherto, the word “hyperspace” had not been used. Moreover, Mishlove never explicitly defines what he means by this term. Apparently, Gardner subscribed to the notion of a “higher-dimension self”. But if this has anything to do with “hyperspace” as the essay alludes, it is entirely unilluminating since I have no idea what could be meant by such a self. Regardless, I assume not defining the word “hyperspace” was an oversight on Mishlove’s part. But surely he or others must have proofread his essay?
The way that Mishlove uses the word hyperspace appears to refer to any location that isn’t within our usual 3D space. He further indicates that he is sympathetic to the notion that our normal 3D space is within a much greater hyperspace, a hyperspace that will include any afterlife realm. But, within idealism (which Mishlove subscribes to), space is not some thing or reality existing independently of any conscious entity, rather space is an artefact of minds (see an essay of mine on Berkeley’s idealism). It might be useful to compare it to the virtual reality when we put on a VR headset. Any afterlife realm we find ourselves in we could label “hyperspace” if we so choose. But it would then just be a word signifying nothing. The idea that normal 3D space is within a much greater hyperspace makes as much sense as saying virtual reality is within normal 3D space. In short, I’m not sure that in introducing the word “hyperspace” that anything substantive is being said at all. It just sounds impressive!
I think this essay gives a good overview of all the evidence, but that is where the praise ends. The essay never delves into the evidence and never considers any difficulties for the afterlife interpretation. The philosophical considerations suffer from the fact that, quite frankly, there aren’t any. The only attempt is when “hyperspace” is mentioned. But this is never explicitly defined and I found its meaning to be elusive.
This essay seems rather reminiscent of the countless popular books extolling the reality of an afterlife. Books that concentrate on the evidence for an afterlife but accept it uncritically. Typically, difficulties with the evidence are rarely, if ever, addressed. Alternative hypotheses are seldom considered. The philosophical thought, if any, tends to be superficial. Those books are all about persuasion. Persuading people it is utterly foolish to reject an afterlife. I would place this essay into the same category as those books.