THE BLOG

Is Paranormal Research Pseudoscience?

05/29/2014 01:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2014
  • Stafford Betty Professor of religious studies, California State University, Bakersfield

"I am appalled that pseudoscience such as this is occurring at UVA and also appalled that the Virginia Magazine would stoop so low as to promote this 'research' as a cover story."

This was one reader's reaction to an article on Dr. Jim Tucker's reincarnation research at the University of Virginia.

"What we won't do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of 'true scientific discourse'."

This is how Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, recently described members of the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP), a highly respected organization dedicated to holistic healing.

"What a load of hooey."

This was a reader's assessment of an article written by a University of Lethbridge sociologist surveying Canadian attitudes on life after death.

"We know everything there is to know about life after death. It doesn't exist," another reader commented.

Each of these critics is contemptuous of spiritual claims, whether they come from religion or from research that they label "pseudoscience." Is their position rational? Are they being "scientific"?

For a number of reasons I don't think so. The great majority of them assume it is a proven fact that our brains produce consciousness and that when the brain dies, that's the end of us. But this is an assumption, not a proven fact. It's also possible that the brain, far from being a generator, is a receiver and transmitter of consciousness. Dr. Pim van Lommel, one of the world's leading researchers into the near-death experience (NDE) and the author of Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death, compares the brain "to a television set that tunes into specific electromagnetic waves and converts them into image and sound." If the TV is damaged, it won't work correctly, but the waves are still present. It's the same with consciousness, he says. Our consciousness is undamaged but cannot express itself in the normal way because its transmitter, the brain, is damaged. Put another way, it's as if our computer gets a virus and our messages are all jumbled up. The problem is not in ourselves but in the computer.

Van Lommel's conclusions are shared by most specialists who work closely with patients who have had an NDE. Why should this be? After all, the principle known as Occam's razor requires a rational human being to choose the simplest explanation for observed data. And claiming that the brain is the generator of consciousness is a lot simpler than claiming the brain and consciousness are two entirely different things working in tandem with each other. The former is simple, the latter messy.

Is there a good reason for choosing the more complex explanation? There is. As a starter, "NDErs" who have experienced hallucinations at some point in their lives say that their NDE visions felt real -- so real, in fact, that they became convinced that death is not the end, even if they previously believed it was. Their critics will insist, of course, that they are mistaken. But who are the experts: the critics, or the NDErs themselves? Nevertheless, the critics have a point.

A second facet of some NDEs is the experience of travel to a distant place and the report back of what was seen at that place, when the report proves to be accurate in every particular. The critic who would like to dismiss study of the NDE as pseudoscience will not be able to explain how this could be.

A greater challenge to the critic is the experience of some blind people who see for the first time in their lives what the rest of us see all the time. The University of Connecticut NDE researcher Kenneth Ring has shown that slipping out of their body with its blind eyes makes sight possible. His book Mindsight should be enough to make his critics do some serious soul searching. Mysteries do remain, however. With what does the blind person see? One thing is certain: They don't see with anything physical.

But the best reason of all for rejecting NDE research as "pseudoscience" is downright clinical. Van Lommel explains:

When the heart stops beating, blood flow stops within a second. Then, 6.5 seconds later, EEG [brain] activity starts to change due to the shortage of oxygen. After 15 seconds there is a straight, flat line and the electrical activity in the cerebral cortex has disappeared completely.

It is during this shutdown of the brain that NDEs occur, and according to the physicalist worldview, there is no explaining how this could happen.

The research that Van Lommel and other NDE researchers carry out with patients hooked up to machines does not strike me as pseudoscience. And the conclusion they reach -- that consciousness is not generated by the brain -- doesn't either.

I think the real reason that so many scientists are inclined to view NDE research, and paranormal research in general, as pseudoscience is that the implications strike them as "religious," and their attitudes toward religion are often deeply antagonistic.

But in reality paranormal research owes nothing to religion. The fact that the NDE implies we can exist apart from the body and its brain -- a claim affirmed by almost all religions -- is purely coincidental. Such research should not be confused with theology or linked to any religion, any more than research into exoplanets or plate techtonics.

The continents of matter and spirit, still far apart, are slowly drifting toward each other and give hints of an eventual partnership, each respecting the other's domain and making room for it.