Science and Spirit: Exploring the Limits of Consciousness


Are you out of your body? At least part of you may be, if consciousness can extend beyond the brain in your skull. In Science and Spirit, authors Charles F. Emmons and Penelope Emmons explore some intriguing questions: What evidence is there for consciousness apart from the body, and what evidence is there for survival of consciousness after bodily death?

Through ethnographic interviews with scientists, observations at conferences, and visits to research institutes, they ...

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Science and Spirit: Exploring the Limits of Consciousness

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Are you out of your body? At least part of you may be, if consciousness can extend beyond the brain in your skull. In Science and Spirit, authors Charles F. Emmons and Penelope Emmons explore some intriguing questions: What evidence is there for consciousness apart from the body, and what evidence is there for survival of consciousness after bodily death?

Through ethnographic interviews with scientists, observations at conferences, and visits to research institutes, they investigate the existence and meaning of ESP, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, reincarnation, spirit mediumship, lucid dreaming, and ghost experiences. In this study, they share a variety of scientific frames for looking at these questions and happenings, and they disclose their own paranormal experiences.

Science and Spirit uses a unique blend of strong academic and scientific theory and methodology and applies it to the examination of paranormal topics.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781475942620
  • Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/22/2012
  • Pages: 202
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.46 (d)

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Science and Spirit

Exploring the Limits of Consciousness
By Charles F. Emmons Penelope Emmons

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Charles F. Emmons and Penelope Emmons
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4759-4262-0

Chapter One

What Inexactly Are the Questions?

As in most scientific research and, as philosophers will tell you, in clear thinking in general, the most important step is to define the question clearly. I'm asking two questions: what evidence is there for consciousness apart from the body, and what evidence is there for the survival of consciousness after bodily death? I must admit that these questions are very difficult to clarify.

To begin with, what exactly is consciousness? Several times my review of the literature on the subject came across statements like, "Science has no clue about what consciousness is, or how to locate it in the brain." This could be a problem.

I remember at one meeting of the Society for Scientific Exploration, a highly respected member who had researched the mysteries of consciousness for decades stood up and chided (or perhaps commiserated with) fellow members by pointing out how the term "consciousness" was being used in so many different ways that we didn't really seem to know what we were talking about. Is it awareness, self-awareness, being awake rather than unconscious, some transcendental mystical state, or what?

And yet we all know when we are conscious. We may not know what it is, but we know when we've got it (or when we're "conscious" of it). Right now, I am conscious of myself typing on a MAC. Wouldn't you think that with all of our modern neuroscience somebody could explain how I know that, and how I know that I know that? It's maddening and fascinating at the same time. There's a lot more like this, just wait.

Another major issue has to do with what we mean by "survival after death." How would we know if Uncle Harry's "spirit" survived death? Or rather, what would we mean by saying that his spirit survived (how we would know it is another tough issue, as you will see later on)? Would he have to remember his life and identity as Uncle Harry? If he has no memory or sense of self, and he reincarnates as little Susie Q., in what sense is that a surviving Uncle Harry?

As it turns out, there are really a number of interconnected and inexact questions involved in the subject area of consciousness and whether it can exist apart from or beyond a living body. As noted in the Introduction, some of the reported phenomena that suggest consciousness beyond the body are ESP (or psi, for psychic phenomena in general), OBEs, NDEs, reincarnation, spirit mediumship, and apparition (ghost) experiences. All of these phenomena have been variously explained in different scientific frames as nonexistent, as misinterpreted normal events, as evidence for survival after death, or as evidence for psi but not necessarily for survival.

Chapter Two

Why Would We Ask These Questions?

In the introduction I said that it was hard to imagine people not being curious about consciousness and about whether consciousness (or spirit) survived death. I was being a bit ethnocentric when I wrote that; in other words, I wasn't taking into account cultural variations worldwide or even within the United States. As a sociologist and anthropologist I actually know better, having encountered points of view all the way from traditional Chinese who have taken the afterlife of their ancestors for granted to some mainstream scientists in Western society whose attitude seems to be, "Why are people so silly as to believe in survival?" In other words, some people's answer to "Why would we ask these questions?" is, "We wouldn't."

Of course religion has a lot to do with how people understand or question consciousness and survival. In the research I did in Hong Kong for the book Chinese Ghosts and ESP (Emmons, 1982), most people took the existence of ghosts for granted and sometimes minded being asked whether they believed in them ("Why do you ask me about such unlucky things?!"). Chinese ghosts are considered very unlucky or dangerous if they are not worshipped properly.

Amazingly, 72% in my random-sample survey of the residents of modern Hong Kong still practiced ancestor worship in 1980. Worshipping ones ancestors (ones ghostly relatives) rests on the assumption that they live an afterlife similar to this one and require symbolic objects or effigies of practical things like money and material goods to be sent to them by burning the effigies. People go to spirit mediums to find out what their ancestors want. This is very practical, because the living help the dead in return for favors in their own lives, in terms of health and wealth.

One day I was sitting in the waiting room of a very popular spirit medium in Hong Kong, waiting for a reading. All the others in the room were Chinese women, who started gossiping about me in Cantonese (which they never dreamed a foreigner like me could understand). Some of them recognized me as having been there before, and they had eavesdropped on my previous readings, a common practice. "Here comes the Westerner again [me] to chit-chat with his auntie!" In other words, I was being ridiculed for just "visiting" with my dead aunt through the spirit medium, instead of asking important questions like, "Did you like the [Mercedes] Benz effigy I burned for you last week?" and "Will you help me win the housing lottery?"

Aside from ancestor worship there are other Chinese traditional religious perspectives, which also take for granted survival of consciousness after death, but that are not necessarily consistent with ancestor worship. Some spirit mediums in Hong Kong who are also Buddhists hesitate to try to contact spirits who have died long ago, saying that they have probably reincarnated already.

In addition, some forms of Buddhism and other Asian religious traditions emphasize less of an individual consciousness and more of a communal afterlife (Moreman, 2006: 36-37), at least between incarnations. Rao (2002: 216-304) says that Eastern religions tend to conceive of pure consciousness, without any thought content, which of course violates both Chinese and Western assumptions about surviving consciousness with a self attached (like Uncle Harry).

Usually we think of the dominant Western way of thinking to be science, and mainstream science seems to be agnostic at best when it comes to paranormal consciousness and a spirit world. However, the situation is complicated. When it comes to paranormal aspects of consciousness, individual scientists are more accepting than you would think. Mayer (2007, 229-230) refers to a survey of 1,100 college professors in which 55% of natural scientists, 66% of social scientists, and 77% in the arts/humanities/ education thought that the existence of ESP was already established or at least likely.

However, survival is even harder to swallow than ESP from a scientific perspective, and it receives less support. Blackmore (2006: 8) noted that most of the prominent researchers in the field of consciousness studies she interviewed at a conference did not believe in life after death. And as we shall see later, mainstream science as an institution (no matter what individual scientists think) is unlikely to fund studies of paranormal consciousness, whether it involves survival or not.

Just because scientific willingness to investigate these subjects is lacking, that doesn't mean, however, that most Westerners are disinterested or disbelieving. Most Americans report having had a psychic experience (Targ, 2004: xxiv). As Andrew M. Greeley (1991: 367-374) says, "The paranormal is normal." Opinion polls have also found a majority in the U.S. believing in life after death (Storm and Thalbourne, 2006: 6; Blackmore, 2006: 8), although it is only about 25% in some European countries.

Beauregard and O'Leary (2007: 5) ask the interesting question, "Why hasn't materialism killed belief?" In other words, why hasn't the dominant scientific view, that everything obeys natural physical laws, convinced the general population that paranormal/spiritual phenomena either do not exist or are unknowable? One reason, no doubt, is that, as Greeley (1991) pointed out, most people think that they have had a paranormal experience. The answer to this is complex, but for our purposes it is sufficient to note that there is disagreement within this culture, as well as among international cultures, about how or even whether to ask questions about consciousness and survival.

Why and how we ask these questions, even in parapsychology, which has been more willing than most of mainstream science to investigate consciousness, has changed over the past century and a half in the U.S. Scott Rogo (1979: 59-60) points out that the case of the Fox Sisters in the mid-nineteenth century was the first investigation of spirit mediumship that saw it in terms of "spirits of the dead" rather than demons. Even today the mediumistic activities of Spiritualists are sometimes condemned by conservative Christians as demonic. Rogo also identifies elements of witchcraft beliefs and demonic possession in claims of the paranormal among Roman Catholic saints and in other early spirit possession (or poltergeist) cases. And since the 1930s parapsychology has moved more into the laboratory and has relatively deemphasized both the study of apparently spiritual/religious phenomena, like spirit mediumship and hauntings, and the spiritual interpretation of these phenomena.

In this chapter we have seen perspectives or "frames" ranging from the traditional Chinese assumption that an afterlife is taken for granted and doesn't need to be questioned, to the modern mainstream scientific point of view that everything obeys material, physical laws, and therefore it is pointless to ask about a nonmaterial afterlife. Somewhere in the middle are those, including parapsychologists, who entertain the possibilities of both consciousness beyond the body and the survival of consciousness after death, and who attempt to investigate them scientifically.

So, for the people who are willing to ask such questions, what makes you think that science can answer them?

Chapter Three

What's Science Got to Do with It?

It is easy to find authors who say that mainstream scientists are unwilling or unable to deal with questions of consciousness and survival (e.g., Becker, 1993: 1). Science writer Rita Carter (2002: 6-7) wrote at one point that conventional psychology had tended to ignore "the hard problem" (consciousness), and that no one knows "the secret of consciousness," even assuming that it is a normal scientific phenomenon.

When allegedly paranormal aspects of consciousness are considered, the resistance from mainstream science can be even greater. James McClenon (1984: 68) stated that paranormal phenomena are considered a priori impossible because they cannot be given a reductionist explanation, or broken down into simple observable physical actions in a laboratory, and therefore parapsychology is "doomed to remain a pseudoscience" (in the eyes of the scientific establishment). For example, we may be able to observe a subject (A) in a parapsychology lab making a high level of correct guesses about the pictures that someone else (B) down the hall is selecting from a larger sample of pictures, but we cannot (yet) find a mechanism for how that information is shared between A and B.

There is also a political aspect to this, because even though parapsychology uses a scientific orientation, its experimental data threaten the "metaphysical foundations of science" (McClenon, 1984: 195). This is because psi phenomena, such as allegedly being able to predict numbers produced by a random-number generator, make no sense in terms of normal-science paradigms. As one scientist reportedly said, "These are things I wouldn't believe even if they were true." Or, as I like to characterize this overly skeptical point of view, "It can't be, therefore it isn't."

I have a thought experiment to illustrate the point of how "paranormal" phenomena (or "anomalies") are treated in mainstream "normal" science. I ask students in my Gettysburg College class "Science, Knowledge and the New Age" to imagine what would happen if they attended a Philadelphia Flyers hockey game one night, and the referee tried to drop the puck in a face-off, but the puck just hovered in the air. The players and the ref stand back for a few moments, time for the paranormal puck to be caught on video from several angles. Finally the ref takes back the puck gingerly and with some hesitation he does the face-off again, and the game proceeds normally.

I ask the students to imagine how the rest of the world would react to this incident. Would there be a headline in the New York Times, "Physicists Agree Law of Gravity Invalid"? Most think not and come up with media reactions like an assumption that it was a publicity stunt rigged to increase fan attendance at Flyer games. People might think it was a holographic image of some kind.

How about suspecting that there were anti-magnets under the ice and in the puck that could be switched on remotely? What if a famous psychic had been in the audience who was known for creating psychokinetic (mind-over-matter) phenomena? Would the National Science Foundation give a large grant to a parapsychologist to study large-scale PK (psychokinesis) with this psychic? Odds against a study like this being funded by the NSF are perhaps greater than the odds against witnessing an anomalous hockey-puck drop. If the psychic's success with elevating pucks happened only rarely, would the effect be dismissed as nonreproducible? And even though the face-off had been seen by thousands, would this evidence be dismissed as "anecdotal" because it had not occurred under controlled laboratory conditions over many trials?

Another problem with using science to explore paranormal aspects of consciousness, in addition to the above, is that the subject matter appears to enter the realm of spirituality or religion, from which science has been trying to differentiate itself since the Age of Reason. John Horgan (2003: 11) reminds us that sociobiologist "Edmund O. Wilson has decreed that you cannot tread the path of spirituality and the path of reason; you must choose." For an interesting attempt to do both, see one of my favorite books: Dialogues with Scientists and Sages (Weber, 1986).

At this point it is time to move beyond what are mostly ideological objections to using scientific methodologies to study paranormal/spiritual topics, and to examine some more practical considerations. For example, Freeman Dyson (in Mayer, 2007: viii-ix) said that he thought that ESP exists but is scientifically untestable because it is associated with strong emotion, which is eliminated in a laboratory setting. Certainly it is a challenge to observe ESP and spirit mediumship in a lab setting without "killing the phenomenon," but it has been done rather effectively (cf. Radin, 1997 and 2006, and Schwartz, 2002), if I may editorialize.

Becker (1993: 129-138) identifies what he considers rational objections to the scientific study of the paranormal, including the problem of repeatability and the difficulty in creating an adequate theory. He also argues, however, that repeatability is not always needed or possible in science (as in some astronomical observations), and that physics sometimes can only describe, as in the case of gravity, which remains a mystery.

One of the major methodological issues we'll have to explore in greater depth later on is the use of subjective reports. Blackmore (2006: 37-38) for example discusses the problem of trying to equate reductionist studies of the brain in neuroscience to people's subjective experiences of their own consciousness. Earlier Rao (2002: 130-131) stated that most academics were skeptical about consciousness simply because they could not connect such subjective reports with neuroscientific observations.

Paul Rademacher, Director of The Monroe Institute, pointed out in his interview with me that people have known about consciousness from their own experience long before science, and that although science is useful for discovering commonalities in such experiences, there is too much of a tendency for science to become the dominant "belief of our culture."

Frederick "Skip" Atwater, who was director of research at TMI for twenty years, has great respect for scientific method, but put it in perspective for me by saying that he had done a lot of research to provide "support for what I know is obviously true." In other words, his own OBE experiences as a child were enough for him to know that OBEs exist. My favorite Skip story is about how he used to be embarrassed as a child by his bed-wetting. One night he was very certain that he had just become fully awake and had gone to the bathroom, when upon returning to bed he wet the bed again. His mother heard his outraged, frustrated cries and came running. After she had listened to Skip's complaint that he had just gone to the bathroom, his mother said, "Skip, next time you go to the bathroom, take your body with you."

Raymond Moody (1999: 113) declares that the study of near-death experiences (NDEs) has produced "very little scientific evidence; [it's] all anecdotal." Many people would think that the personal reports of NDE experiencers in Moody's famous book Life after Life (1975) were significant evidence for understanding NDEs, but Moody (1999: 7) states that the editor took out a "lengthy section at the end in which I explained in greater detail why near-death experiences can't be counted as scientific evidence of life after death."

Moody (1999: 153-154, 158-162) also points out the scientific problem of NDEs not being reproducible or replicable. And yet I thought that the whole point of Moody's using his "psychomanteum," a laboratory setting designed to generate the kind of meetings with spirit beings that occur in NDEs, was indeed to make the phenomenon somewhat reproducible (cf. Moody's Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones, 1993). The plot thickens.

Surely one of the basic problems with the application of scientific methodology to something as slippery as paranormal experiences is the expectation that everything amenable to science must be material or tangible, in other words a "thing" that will sit still in a test tube. Consciousness or spirit (if we dare use the word) sounds as if it might not be material; maybe it's "mind" and not "body." This gets us into "dualism", which we'll revisit later.


Excerpted from Science and Spirit by Charles F. Emmons Penelope Emmons Copyright © 2012 by Charles F. Emmons and Penelope Emmons. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Chapter One: What Inexactly Are the Questions?....................1
Chapter Two: Why Would We Ask These Questions?....................3
Chapter Three: What's Science Got to Do with It?....................7
Chapter Four: Who's Going to Pay for This?....................13
Chapter Five: Skepticism, Ridicule, and Smart-Ass Journalism....................21
Chapter Six: There's Nothing Like an Experience....................37
Chapter Seven: Subjectivity....................47
Chapter Eight: A Gallery of Frames....................54
PART THREE: TYPES OF EVIDENCE....................63
Chapter Nine: Consciousness....................65
Chapter Ten: OBEs and NDEs....................76
Chapter Eleven: Lucid Dreaming....................84
Chapter Twelve: ESP and Remote Viewing....................92
Chapter Thirteen: Ghosts or Apparitions....................102
Chapter Fourteen: Physical Effects (PK, Healing)....................113
Chapter Fifteen: Spirit Mediumship....................125
Chapter Sixteen: Reincarnation....................136
PART FOUR: MAKING SOMETHING OF IT....................147
Chapter Seventeen: Practical Applications....................149
Chapter Eighteen: Summing Up and Looking to the Future....................154
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