Giving up ghosts and gods

In 50 Voices of Disbelief
Ed. Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk
Wiley-Blackwell, 2009 pp 200-203

Note that this is the version submitted in 2008. It may have been edited before publication.

Why don’t I believe in God? Because the idea of God is vacuous and untestable, because there’s no supporting evidence, because God is a dangerous meme, or because people of faith fight over competing gods? Not really. Although I have written about all of these reasons and many more, my own reasons for disbelief are rather more complicated than this.

I spent twenty-five years of my life as a parapsychologist, hunting for, and never finding, such paranormal phenomena as telepathy, clairvoyance, ghosts and premonitions. My adventures began in 1970 when, as a student in Oxford, I had a most extraordinary out-of-body experience. For more than two hours, wide awake and reporting what was happening, I seemed not to be inside my own body looking out but free to roam the world. Beginning with vividly realistic flights over Oxford and the countryside, the experience morphed into extraordinary visions, and culminated in what I can only describe as a classic mystical experience of light and oneness. I was no longer a separate self, and the universe was one.

This experience seemed more real than waking life, and somehow both numinous and ineffable (traditional features of mystical experiences). The effect was so powerful that it led me to reject any sensible career in physiology or psychology and turn instead to parapsychology. From this one dramatic experience I concluded the following: 1) that this experience could not be explained by the science I was studying; 2) that my soul or spirit or astral body had left my physical body and could function without it; 3) that life after death was therefore possible; and 4) that parapsychology was the way to prove all this and overthrow materialist science. It took me several decades to realise that 1) was true and the rest are false.

During those years I designed and carried out dozens of experiments on telepathy, in which people in separate rooms had to try to communicate without the use of their ordinary senses. I tested twins and young children, I trained people in imagery skills, I put them into altered states of consciousness, and the results were always at chance. I slept in haunted houses, investigated poltergeists, trained as a witch, learned to read Tarot cards, tested mediums, and never found any convincing evidence for paranormal phenomena. Instead I found lots of wishful thinking and misinterpretation, a good deal of self-deception, and a few examples of out and out fraud.

People often ask me whether all that research wasn’t a complete waste of time – aren’t you depressed that you spent so much of your scientific life doing something so pointless and unproductive? – they ask. I say no. From the point of view of what I set out to achieve it was total failure, but from many other perspectives those years taught me a great deal. Gradually I was lured back towards that original experience and to wondering what had been going on and why. Instead of looking for the paranormal I studied unusual experiences: not only out-of-body experiences (which happen to something like 15% of people at some time in their life) but near-death experiences (which are reported from every age and culture studied), alien abduction experiences (which appear to be mostly occurrences of sleep paralysis) and simple misjudgements of probability that convince people that they predicted someone’s death or knew when someone was ill.

Again and again I found that people were genuinely trying to describe their strange experiences, but were jumping to all the wrong explanations – just as I had done with my own out-of-body experience – invoking spirits, divine intervention, extra dimensions, subtle bodies, chakras, forces unknown to science, and quantum effects (without knowing any physics)

Since then, research has revealed things I could never have known at the time, such as how OBEs can be induced in the lab, and which part of the brain is responsible. I no longer need to believe that my soul left my body because I have a better explanation. Nor do I need to deny the validity of that deep and vivid personal experience. It really did happen. It really did change my life – and no, it wasn’t paranormal.

Similarly, when I meet people who have had near-death experiences I don’t need to choose between denying their experiences or agreeing with their religious or psychic interpretations. I can explain how the tunnel is created in the visual cortex, how the emotions depend on endorphin release, and how the life review originates in the temporal lobe. I can sympathise with how real it seemed and understand how it could change their life, even though it was not a glimpse of heaven.

So what has all this to do with God?

Both God and the paranormal entail concepts that are irrational, unsupported by evidence, and go against everything we know about how the universe works. Both are comforting to people and fit easily with the way they naturally think about the universe and would like it to be. Both inspire deeply-held beliefs, and have spawned highly evolved memeplexes that are very infectious and difficult to root out once they are installed in a human mind.

All those years of studying the paranormal taught me that there probably are no paranormal phenomena at all, that people rarely change their mind because of the evidence, and that the overwhelming reason people give for belief is their own experience.

All this applies perfectly to belief in God. Most claims about God are completely untestable but those that can be tested, like the power of prayer or the existence of miracles, fail the tests. Yet this negative evidence rarely convinces anyone. Anecdotes from friends, TV shows about faith healing, and results from small, poorly designed studies that seem to show miraculous effects all have far more power over people than the best scientific evidence seems to do.

As with the paranormal, people’s own experiences create powerful convictions. Here, I think, is the lesson we should learn from all of this. People – lots and lots of people – have what we might call spiritual yearnings. They long for something beyond materialism and greed, or feel that there must be some higher purpose or meaning to their lives. Others – lots and lots of them – have dramatic and unexplained experiences. Some border on the paranormal, such as visions and voices, and having prayers answered, while others are better described as religious, mystical or spiritual experiences, including ecstacy, absorption into light, becoming one with the universe, and the loss of the sense of self. All these experiences leave people wondering – what is this? Who am I? Why am I here? What happened to me and why did it feel so real?

Religions provide answers. You have a guardian angel; you saw Jesus; you went to heaven; you found your soul. These answers are false but people are not going to give them up while they have nothing better to replace them with. Science gives answers to some of the bigger questions about human origins and the nature of the universe, and explains many previously inexplicable experiences such as OBEs and sleep paralysis, but many experiences go deeper than this, as mine did, and here the science (so far) runs out. We have no idea yet even how to think about experiences of selflessness, timelessness, or oneness with the universe – whether in spontaneous mystical experiences, drug induced experiences or in meditation.

Here we meet the mystery of consciousness itself. How can a physical brain be responsible for our subjective lives? Neuroscientists are at last enthusiastically tackling consciousness, but the mind-body problem still lurks in every attempt. On the one hand we humans feel as though we are minds inhabiting our bodies. On the other, this cannot be true; dualism does not work; our seemingly separate mind or self must be an illusion. Yet the illusion persists because we simply cannot see how the activity of billions of nerve cells can create, or be, or give rise to subjective experience. We can’t even describe the problem of consciousness without implying dualism.

Oddly enough the most profound of mystical and meditative experiences claim to transcend precisely this illusion. “Everything is one” claim mystics; “realising non-duality” is said to be the aim of Zen; “dropping the illusion of a separate self” is the outcome for many meditators. These claims, unlike paranormal ones, do not conflict with science, for the universe is indeed one, and the separate self is indeed an illusion. I hope (perhaps hopelessly optimistically) that science and experience can come together here in finding a way out of dualism.

My own experience of nearly forty years ago set me on a long route, a route that involved finding and then giving up belief in the paranormal, psychic phenomena, the soul, life after death and worlds beyond. The lesson I take from it is that psychic, mystical and religious experiences will never go away, and may even help our understanding of consciousness. If we finally get to understand them properly, there will be no need for anyone either to ridicule these life-changing experiences or to take them as evidence for ghosts or gods.