Jime Sayaka interviews philosopher of religion Michael Sudduth on the topic of postmortem survival. (HT: Dave Lull) Excerpt:
My central thesis is that traditional empirical arguments for survival based on the data of psychical research—what I call classical empirical arguments—do not succeed in showing that personal survival is more probable than not, much less that it is highly probable, especially where the survival hypothesis is treated as a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis. So my objection is first and foremost a criticism of what I take to be unjustified claims regarding the posterior probability of the hypothesis of personal survival, that is, it’s net plausibility given the relevant empirical data and standard background knowledge. Consequently, the classical arguments, at least as traditionally formulated, do not provide a sufficiently robust epistemic justification for belief in personal survival. That’s my thesis.
Our friend Sudduth a couple of years ago made the journey to the East (to allude to a Hermann Hesse title). Thus he states elsewhere in the interview, "I am a Vedantin philosopher, so I certainly accept the idea of survival, at least broadly understood as the postmortem persistence of consciousness." I would have appreciated some clarification and elaboration on this point. I would guess that Michael now no longer believes in the survival of an individuated, personal consciousness, but believes instead in the survival of a pre-personal or impersonal consciousness common to all of us. But I am only guessing. I am aware, though, that one can be a Vedantin without being an Advaitin.
In the recent post Mary Neal’s Out of Body Experiences you state: "No experience, no matter how intense or unusual or protracted, conclusively proves the veridicality of its intentional object. Phenomenology alone won't get you to metaphysics."
I have been attempting to reconstruct your reasoning here, and the following is the best I could come up with.
1) No experience, no matter how intense or unusual or protracted, conclusively proves the veridicality of its intentional object.
2) The subject matter of phenomenology is experience.
3) The subject matter of metaphysics is existence, which includes the quest of proving the veridicality of intentional objects. Therefore:
C) Phenomenology alone won't get you to metaphysics.
I have an issue with (1). Surely, the very meaning of ‘veridical experience’ designates a harmonious pattern of interconnected experiences, the paradigm case being perceptual experiences. Correlatively, when one speaks about the intentional object existing, one means nothing other than the reappearance of the self-same object across this harmonious flow.
Non-veridical experiences, e.g. hallucinations, are then just those experiences that promise, but fail, to endure harmoniously. Whenever non-veridical experiences obtain so do veridical experiences. For example, I was mistaken that there was a cat walking outside on the pavement, and hence had a non-veridical experience of the cat, but I had a veridical experience of the pavement itself. Ultimately, the experience of the world is given as the veridical background that serves as a foundation for all non-veridical experiences. To speak ontologically, the existence of non-veridical experiences depends on veridical experiences and likewise non-existence objects demand existent objects. Therefore, non-veridical experience could never exist on their own, which does not prevent us as talking about them as self-sufficient.
In relation to (2), I would argue that the subject matter of phenomenology is not just experience but also the object experienced just as it is experienced. But if existence is just the reappearance of an object through a harmonious flow of experience, then phenomenology does have metaphysical implication.
I do not think that perceptual experience is the only mode of experience through which existence is experienced; the room is left often for experiences that reveal the divine.
As always, I am very grateful for the existence of your blog.
Thanks for reading, E. C., for the kind words, and for the above response.
First of all, you did a good job of setting forth my reasoning in support of (C). But I take issue with your taking issue with (1). You are in effect begging the question by just assuming that what makes veridical experience veridical is its internal coherence. That is precisely the question. It may well be that coherence is a criterion of truth without being the nature of truth. By a criterion I mean a way of testing for truth. It could be that coherence is a criterion, or even the criterion, of truth, but that correspondence is the nature of truth. One cannot just assume that truth is constituted by coherence. I am not saying the view is wrong; I am saying that it cannot be assumed to be true without argument or consideration of alternatives. Such arguments and considerations, however, move us beyond phenomenology into dialectics.
To say of an experience that it is veridical is to say that it is of or about an object that exists whether or not the experience exists. If so, then the existence of the object in reality cannot be explicated in terms of its manners and modes of appearing. If you say that it can, then you are opting for a form of idealism which, in Husserlian jargon, reduces Sein to Seinsinn. I would insist, however, that it part of the plain sense of outer perception that it is of or about objects whose existence is independent of the existence of perceivers and their experiences. To borrow a turn of phrase from the neglected German philosopher Wolfgang Cramer, it is built into the very structure of outer perception that it is of or about objects as non-objects. That may sound paradoxical, but it is not contradictory. The idea is that the object is intended in the act or noesis as having an ontological status that surpasses the status of a merely intentional object. Whether it does have that additional really existent status is of course a further question.
For example, my seeing of a tree is an intentional experience: it is of or about something that may or may not exist. (Note that, phenomenologically, 'see' is not a verb of success. If I see x in the phenomenological sense of 'see,' it does not follow that there exists an x such that I see it.) Now if you say that the existence of the tree intended in the act reduces to its ongoing 'verification' in the coherent series of Abschattungen that manifest it, then you are opting for a form of idealism. And this seems incompatible with the point I made, namely, that it is part and parcel of the very nature of outer perception that it be directed to an object as non-object. The tree is intended as being such that its existence is not exhausted by its phenomenological manifestation.
But the point is not to get you to agree with this; the point is to get you to see that there is an issue here, one subject to ongoing controversy, and that one cannot uncritically plump for one side. If you haven't read Roman Ingarden on Husserl, I suggest that you do.
As for premse (2), we will agree that there are acts, intentional experiences (Erlebnisse), and that they are of an object. Throughout the sphere of intentionality there is the act-object, noesis-noema correlation. But this leaves wide open the question whether the being of the thing in reality is exhausted by its noematic being, whether its Sein reduces to its Seinsinn. On that very point Ingarden disagreed strenuously with his master, Husserl.
"But if existence is just the reappearance of an object through a harmonious flow of experience, then phenomenology does have metaphysical implications." That is true. But I deny the consequent of your conditional and so I deny the antecedent as well.
My point, in sum, is that you cannot just assume the truth of the antecedent. For that begs the question against realism. From the fact that an object manifests its existence in the manner you describe, it does not follow that the very existence of the object is its manifestation.
It may be methodologically useful to bracket the existence of the object the better to study its manners and modes of appearing, but this very bracketing presupposes that there is more to the existence of the object than its appearing. One could say that Husserl was right to bracket the existence of the object for purposes of phenomenology, but then, in his later idealistic phase, he forgot to remove the brackets.
I am at the moment listening to Dennis Prager interview Dr. Eben Alexander. Prager asked him whether he now maintains, after his paranormal experiences, that consciousness is independent of the brain. Alexander made a striking reply: "We are conscious in spite of our brains." And then he made some remarks to the effect that the brain is a "reducing filter" or something like that.
That is to say much more than that consciousness can exist independently of the brain. For the latter would be true if consciousness existed in an attenuated form after the dissolution of the body and brain. Alexander is saying that embodiment severely limits our awareness.
Well, why couldn't that be true? Why is it less plausible than a form of materialism that views consciousness as somehow dependent on brain functioning and impossible without it?
Let us assume you are not a dogmatist: you don't uncritically adhere to the unprovable materialist framework assumption according to which consciousness just has to be brain-based. And let us assume that you don't have a quasi-religious faith that future science has wonderful revelations in store that will vindicate materialism/physicalism once and for all. By the way, I have always found it passing strange that people would "pin their hopes on future science." You mean to tell me that you hope you can be shown to be nothing more than a complex physical system slated for utter extinction!? That's what you hope for? It may in the end be true, but I for one cannot relate to the mentality of someone who would hope for such a thing. "I hope I am just a bag of chemicals to be punctured in a few years. Wouldn't it be awful if I had an higher destiny and that life actually had a meaning?"
But I digress. Let's assume you are not a dogmatist and not a quasi-religious believer in future science. Let's assume you are an open-minded inquirer like me. You are skeptical in the best sense: inquisitive but critical. Then I put the question to you: Can you show that the Alexander claim is less plausible that the materialist one?
I don't believe that there can be talk of proof either way, assuming you use 'proof' strictly. You have to decide what you will believe and how you will live. In the shadowlands of this life there is light enough and darkness enough to lend support to either answer, that of the mortalist and that of his opposite number.
So I advance to the consideration that for me clinches the matter. Bring the theoretical question back down to your Existenz. How will you live, starting right now and for the rest of your days? Will you live as if you will be utterly extinguished in a few years or will you live as if what you do and leave undone right now matters, really matters? Will you live as if life is serious, or will you live as if it is some sort of cosmic joke? Will you live as if something is at stake in this life, however dimly descried, or will you live as if nothing is ultimately at stake? It is your life. You decide.
Now suppose that when Drs. Mary Neal and Eben Alexander die the body's death, they become nothing. Suppose that their phenomenologically vivid paranormal experiences were revelatory of nothing real, that their experiences were just the imaginings of malfunctioning brains at the outer limits of biological life. What will they have lost by believing as they did?
Nothing! Nothing at all. You could of course say that they were wrong and were living in illusion. But no one will ever know one way or the other. And if the body's death is the last word then nothing ultimately matters, and so it can't matter that they were wrong if turns out that they were.
If they were right, however, then the moral transformation that their taking seriously of their experiences has wrought in them can be expected to redound to their benefit when they pass from this sphere.
The personable Dr. Neal recounts her experiences during this 13 and a half minute video clip. The following from an interview with her:
The easy explanations—dreams or hallucinations—I could discount quickly, because my experience—and the experience described by anyone who's had a near death experience or other experiences that involve God directly—is different in quality and memory from a dream or hallucination. It's just entirely different. The memory is as precise and accurate now, years later, as it is when it's happening.
So then I thought it must be due to chemical changes or chemical releases in a dying brain. I did a lot of reading about that. If my experience had lasted five, six, seven minutes, maybe even eight minutes, I am sure that no matter how real it seemed to me, I would have said that's a reasonable explanation. But the people who resuscitated me would say that I was without oxygen for up to thirty minutes.
It took them ten or fifteen minutes to figure out, first, that I and my boat were both missing. Then once they identified where they thought I was, they started their watch. They're used to doing this—you have to know the timing so you can recognize whether you're trying to rescue someone or you're trying to go for body recovery. So on the watch it was fifteen minutes, but about thirty minutes in all. I tend to stick with the fifteen minutes, because that's an absolute timing. But even at fifteen minutes, that is way longer than can be explained by a dying brain. The human brain can hang on to oxygen for maybe five or six minutes, and so even if you give it another four minutes to go through its dying process, that still doesn't add up to fifteen minutes. And so after I looked at all that, my conclusion was that my experience was real and absolute.
To paraphrase Pascal, there is light enough for those who want to see and darkness enough for those who don't. Atheists and mortalists will of course not be convinced by Neal's report. Consider her first paragraph. She underscores the unique phenomenological quality of OBEs. Granting that they are phenomenologically different from dreams and ordinary memories, there is nonetheless a logical gap between the undeniable reality of the experiencing and the reality of its intentional object. Into that gap the skeptic will insert his wedge, and with justification. No experience, no matter how intense or unusual or protracted, conclusively proves the veridicality of its intentional object. Phenomenology alone won't get you to metaphysics. Everything I am perceiving right now, computer, cup, cat, the Superstition ridgeline and the clouds floating above it (logically) might have a merely intentional existence. How do I know I am not brain in a vat? If I cannot prove that I am not a brain in a vat, how can I know (in that tough sense in which knowledge entails objective certainty) that cat, cup, etc. are extramentally real? The skeptic can always go hyperbolic on you. How are you going to stop him?
The other consideration Dr. Neal adduces will also leave the skeptic cold. Her point is that her brain had to have been 'off-line' given the amount of time that elapsed, and that therefore her experiences could not be the product of a (mal)functioning brain. We saw in an earlier post that Dr. Eben Alexander employed similar reasoning. The skeptic will undoubtedly now give a little a speech about how much more there is yet to know about the brain and that Neal is in no position confidently to assert what she asserts, etc.
The mortalist starts and ends with an assumption that he cannot give up while remaining a mortalist, namely, that there just cannot be mental functioning without underlying brain activity, and that therefore no OBEs can be credited. In the grip of that materialist framework assumption, he will do anything to discount the veridicality of OBEs. Push him to the wall and he will question the moral integrity of the reporters. "They are just out to exploit human credulousness to turn a buck." Or they will question the veridicality of the memories of the OBEs. The human mind can be extremely inventive in cooking up justifications for what it wants to believe. That is as true of mortalists as it is of anyone. To paraphrase Pascal again, there is enough darkness and murk in these precincts to allow these skeptical maneuvers.
Our life here below is a chiaroscuro.
There is no proof of the afterlife. But there is evidence. Is the evidence sufficient? Suppose we agree that evidence for p is sufficient just in case it makes it more likely than not that p. Well, I don't know if paranormal and mystical experience is sufficient because I don't know how to evaluate likelihood in cases like these.
So let's assume that the evidence is not sufficient. Would I be flouting any epistemic duties were I to believe on insufficient evidence? But surely most of what we believe we believe on insufficient evidence. See Belief and Reason categories for more on this.)
Those who believe that it is wrong, always and everywhere, to believe anything on insufficent evidence believe that very proposition on insufficient evidence, indeed on no evidence at all.
It is gratifying to know that I am getting through to some people as is evidenced by the fact that they recall my old posts; and also that I am helping them think critically as is evidenced by the fact that they test my different posts on a given topic for mutual consistency. This from a Pakistani reader:
There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.
But that dimension—in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states—is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world: a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.
Two questions arise. Were Dr. Eben Alexander's experiences while in the coma state veridical? This question must be asked since the mere having of an experience is no guarantee of the reality of its object. The second question is whether the experiences, veridical or not, occurred wholly independently of brain functioning. The two questions are connected. If it could be shown that the experiences were generated by a minimally (mal)functioning brain, then then this would be a reason to doubt the veridicality of the experiences. (Analogy: if I know that my unusual experiences are the result of the ingesting of LSD-25, then I have reason to doubt the veridicality of the experiences.) The author deals with these connected worries in the following passage:
All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.
Although I reject materialism about the mind and consider it reasonable to believe that conscious experiences do not require a physical substratum, and that it is possible to have such experiences in a disembodied state, I don't think the the author has proven that the possibility was actual in his case. For how does he know that his cortex was "simply off"? Failure to detect the functioning of the cortex does not entail that the cortex was not functioning. It might have been functioning below the detectability of the instruments and might have been generating the experiences all along.
A second concern of mine is this. How does Dr Alexander know that his wonderful experiences didn't suddenly arise just as the cortex was coming back into action just before his eyes popped open? So even if his cortex was for a long time completely nonfunctional, the experience he remembers could have been simply a dream that arose while the cortex was coming back 'on line.'
My point is not the the doctor has not given us evidence that mental functioning occurs in the absence of brain activity; I believe he has. My point is that the evidence is not compelling.
Our predicament in this life is such that we cannot prove such things as that God exists, that life has meaning, that the will is free, that morality is not an illusion, and that we survive our bodily deaths. But we cannot prove the opposites either. It is reasonable to maintain each of these views. Many arguments and considerations can be adduced. Among the evidence is a wide range of religious, mystical and paranormsl experiences including near-death and out-of-body experiences. The cumulative case is impressive but not conclusive. It rationalizes, but does not establish. Philosophers. of course, are ever in quest of 'knock-down' arguments. This is because you are no philosopher if you don't crave certainty. Ohne Gewissheit kann ich eben nicht leben! Husserl once exclaimed. But so far no 'knock-down' arguments have been found.
In the final analysis, lacking proof one way or the other, you must decide what you will believe and how you will live.
I would add that the 'living' is more important than the 'believing.' It is far better to live in a manner to deserve immortality than to hold beliefs and give arguments about the matter.
I was reading your post on Religious Belief and What Inclines Me to It and was struck by a statement you made at the end regarding "mystical glimpses, religious vouchsafings, paranormal experiences." By this you seem to confirm a developing series of thoughts I have had for a few years. As a benefit of my modernist education my categories of thought roughly corresponded to natural and supernatural. It seems to me that this type of thinking is wrong and there have been a lot of things crammed into the "supernatural" category by moderns just because they are not "natural." It would be interesting to see how you break these things out and why they are different. Specifically as someone who has the religious inclination.
The reader is right: a lot of rather different things have been lumped together under the rubric 'supernatural' just because they are beyond the natural. But distinctions need to be made. Now this is a huge topic, and I am not up to doing it justice.
Corresponding to the phrase the reader quoted, "mystical glimpses, religious vouchsafings, paranormal experiences," I will say a little about mysticism, religion, and occultism. Some of this is excerpted from a much longer post that discusses the relations among philosophy, mysticism, religion, and wisdom.
Turning now to mysticism, we may define it as the activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need for direct contact with the Absolute, disgusted with verbiage and abstraction as well as with mere belief and empty rites and rituals, seeks to know the Absolute immediately, which is to say, neither philosophically through the mediation of concepts, judgments and arguments, nor religiously through the mediation of faith, trust, devotion, and adherence to tradition. The mystic does not want to know about the Absolute, that it exists, what its properties are, how it is related to the relative plane, etc.; nor does he want merely to believe or trust in it. He does not want knowledge by description, but knowledge by acquaintance. Nor is he willing, like the religionist, to postpone his enjoyment of it. He wants it, he wants it whole, and he wants it now. He wants to verify its existence for himself here and now in the most direct way possible: by intuiting it. ‘Intuition’ is a terminus technicus: it refers to direct cognitive access to an object or state of affairs. The intuition in question is of course not sensible but intellectual. Thus the mystical ‘faculty’ is that of intellectual intuition.
Religion (from L. religere, to bind) is not fundamentally a collection of rites, rituals, and dogmas, but an activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need to live in the truth, as opposed to know it objectively in propositional guise, seeks to establish a personal bond with the Absolute. Whereas philosophy operates with concepts, judgments, arguments and theories, religion proceeds by way of faith, trust, devotion, and love. It is bhaktic rather than jnanic, devotional rather than discriminative.The philosophical project, predicated on the autonomy of reason, is one of relentless and thus endless inquiry in which nothing is immune from examination before reason’s bench. But the engine of inquiry is doubt, which sets philosophy at odds with religion with its appeal to revealed truth. If the occupational hazard of the philospher is a life-inhibiting scepticism, the corresponding hazard for the religionist is a dogmatic certainty that can easily turn murderous. For a relatively recent example, consider the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. (This is why such zealots of the New Atheism as Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling, et al. are not completely mistaken.)
The philosopher objects to the religionist: "You believe things for which you have no proof!" The religionist replies to the philosopher: "You sew without a knot in your thread!" I am not engaging in Zen mondo, but alluding to Kierkegaard’s point that to philosophize without dogma is like sewing without a knot in one’s thread. The philosopher will of course reply that to philosophize with dogma is not to philosophize at all. Here we glimpse one form of the conflict beween philosophy and religion as routes to the Absolute. If the philosopher fails to attain the Absolute because discursive reason dissolves in scepticism, the religionist often attains what can only be called a pseudo-Absolute, an idol.
The Difference Between Mysticism and Religion
Roughly, mysticism is monistic while religion is dualistic, presupposing the ineliminability of what Martin Buber calls the 'I-Thou relation.' Here is a passage from his I and Thou:
Nor does he [Buddha] lead the unified being further to that supreme You-saying that is open to it. His inmost decision seems to aim at the annulment of the ability to say You . . . . All doctrines of immersion are based on the gigantic delusion of human spirit bent back into itself -- the delusion that spirit occurs in man. In truth it occurs from man - between man and what he is not. As the spirit bent back into itself renounces this sense, this sense of relation, he must draw into man that which is not man, he must psychologize world and God. This is the psychical delusion of the spirit. ( pp.140-141 / part 3 : Tr.Kaufmann, Ed: T&T Clark Edinburgh 1970)
The context of the above quotations is a section of I and Thou that runs from pp. 131 to 143. Here are some quickly composed thoughts on this stretch of text.
In this section Buber offers a critique of Buddhism, Hinduism and other forms of mysticism (including Christian forms such as the one we find in Meister Eckhart) which relativize the I-Thou relation between man and God by re-ducing it (leading it back) to a primordial unity logically and ontologically prior to the terms of the relation. According to these traditions, this primordial unity can be experienced directly in Versenkung, which Kaufmann translates, not incorrectly, as 'immersion,' but which I think is better rendered as 'meditation.' As the German word suggests, one sinks down into the depths of the self and comes to the realization that, at bottom, there is no self or ego (Buddhism with its doctrine of anatta or anatman) or else that there is a Self, but that it is the eternal Atman ( = Brahman) of Hinduism, "the One that thinks and is." (131)
Either way duality is overcome and seen to be not ultimately real. Buber rejects this because the I-Thou relation presupposes the ultimate ineliminability of duality, not only the man-God duality but also the duality of world and God. Mysticism "annuls relationship" (132) psychologizing both world and God. (141). Verseelen is the word Kaufmann translates as 'psychologize.' A more suggestive translation might be 'soulifies.' Mysticism drags both God and the world into the soul where they are supposedly to be found in their ultimate reality by meditation. But spirit is not in man, Buber thinks, but between man and what is not man. Spirit is thus actualized in the relation of man to man, man to world, man to God.
At this point I would put a question to Buber. If spirit subsists only in relation, ought we conclude that God needs man to be a spiritual being in the same way that finite persons need each other to be spiritual beings? Is God dependent on man to be who he is? If yes, then the aseity of God is compromised. A Christian could say that the divine personhood subsists in intradivine relations, relations among and between the persons of the Trinity. But as far as I know Trinitarian thought is foreign to Judaism. Anyway, that is a question that occurs to me.
The "primal actuality of dialogue" (133) requires Two irreducible one to the other. It is not a relation internal to the self.
Buber is not opposed to Versenkung as a preliminary and indeed a prerequisite for encounter with the transcendent Other. Meditative Versenkung leads to inner concentration, interior unification, recollectedness. But this samadhi (which I think is etymologically related to the German sammeln) is not to be enjoyed for its own sake, but is properly preparatory for the encounter with the transcendent Other. "Concentrated into a unity, a human being can proceed to his encounter -- wholly successful only now -- with mystery and perfection. But he can also savor the bliss of his unity and, without incurring the supreme duty, return into distraction." (134)
Buber's point is that the mystic who, treading the inward path, arrives at the unitary ground of his soul and experiences sat-chit-ananda (being-consciousness-bliss) shirks his supreme duty if he merely enjoys this state and then returns to the world of multiplicity and diremption. The soulic unity must be used for the sake of the encounter with God.
Buber seems to be maintaining that Buddhist and other mysticism is an escape into illusion, an escape into a mere annihilation of dual awareness for the sake of an illusory nondual awareness: "insofar as this doctrine contains directions for immersion in true being, it does not lead into lived actuality but into 'annihilation' in which there is no consciousness, from which no memory survives -- and the man who has emerged from it may profess the experience by using the limit-word of non-duality, but without any right to proclaim this as unity." (136)
Buber continues, "We, however, are resolved to tend with holy care the holy treasure of our actuality that has been given us for this life and perhaps for no other life that might be closer to the truth." (136-7, emphasis added)
This prompts me to put a second question to Buber. If there is no other life, no higher life, whether accessible in this life via Versenkung or after the death of the body, and we are stuck with this miserable crapstorm of a life, then what good is God? What work does he do if he doesn't secure our redemption and our continuance beyond death? This is what puzzles me about Judaism. It is a worldly religion, a religion for this life -- which is almost a contradiction in terms. It offers no final solution as do the admittedly life-denying religions of Buddhism and Christianity. Some will praise it for that very reason: it is not life-denying but life -affirming. Jews love life, this life here and now, and they don't seem too concerned about any afterlife. But then they don't have the sort of soteriological interest that is definitive of religion. "On whose definition?" you will object. And you will have a point.
Stay away from this stuff! Everything reputable that I have read warns against it. The occult region is a sort of borderland between the natural and the properly supernatural which is the sphere of religion and mysticism. One who meditates deeply and long enough will probably encounter 'items' from this region such as photisms and unearthly voices. Certain paranormal powers may be released, the siddhis of the Hindus, such as pre-cognition. Don't get hung up on this and maintain a skeptical attitude. What's real will be able to withstand skepsis & scrutiny. If you are trying to plumb the depths of the self, these are just more objects of consciousness, not consciousness itself in its innermost essence. Hearing a sound, or seeing a light, inquire: who hears this sound, who sees this light? Who is the subject for whom these strange appearances are objects? That being said, photisms and such are signs that you are attaining meditative depth. There may also be, for all you know, Horatio, angels and demons and disembodied souls hanging around in this border region, and some of these 'entities' you don't want to mess with. Some of them are stronger than you are. So you might begin your session on the black mat by asking for the assistance of any guardians you think there might be.
In any case, meditation is not a hunt for weird experiences or for paranormal powers. The pursuit of the latter is a corruption of meditation just as crass petitionary prayer is a corruption of genuine prayer. Grades of Prayer fills this out a bit.
Fascinating. Stephen Braude is a very good philosopher who writes on the paranormal. I am currently reading, and recommend, his Immortal Remains. He evinces the right blend of skepticism and openmindedness. Here is his website.
I had a strange experience in the late 1980's. Although my main residence at the time was in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, near the bohemian district called Coventry, I was teaching at the University of Dayton and during the school year rented rooms not far from the University. One night, spirited philosophical conversation with a graduate student aroused the ire of a bitter old man by the name of Charles Doughty. He occupied an adjoining efficiency and thought we were being too loud. So he started shouting at us through the closed door: "I'll kill you, you son of a bitch, God damn you, etc." Just to be on the safe side, when back in Cleveland Heights I fetched my snub-nosed Colt .38 Detective Special -- which I had purchased from yet another graduate student -- but luckily did not have to use on old Doughty.
The lonely and miserable old bastard obliged me some time later by dying of a heart attack. Conversation with Mrs. Brunner, my landlady, confirmed that he had had a heart condition and knew that he was not long for this earth. Since Doughty's apartment was bigger and better situated than the ones I usually occupied, I took it over. I dubbed it the Charles Doughty Memorial Suite at the Paul Brunner Estates.
Now in those days, I never ever listened to the AM band on the radio. I was still something of a liberal and stuck to the FM band where not only the frequency is modulated but the voices of the announcers are as well. I listened mainly to WYSO out of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a sleepy little dorf redolent of the '60s where the scents of sandalwood and patchouli still hung in the air. WYSO was the local NPR affiliate, and I listened regularly to "All Things Considered." (For more on Yellow Springs and Antioch College, see my Death By Political Correctness.)
One night after moving into Doughty's old digs, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of the radio in the living room. I would not have left the radio on, being a very careful and cautious sort of fellow. So I got up to investigate. The radio was indeed on, but what amazed me was that it was set to the AM band, which, as I said, I never listened to in those days.
Was the ghost of Doughty still hanging around the place? He was a bitter old man who ended his miserable life without family or friends in a crummy, shabbily furnished couple of rooms in an old 1940's building in a third-rate Midwestern city. Did he have nothing better to do than screw around with the radio of a sleeping philosopher who once disturbed him with the sounds of his dialectic?
So there you have it. The facts are that I awoke that night to a radio tuned to the AM band. Is that good evidence of a ghost? No. Did I sleep well on succeding nights? Absolutely. I've trained myself to be skeptical. You can't be a philosopher without being at least a methodological sceptic. Doubt is the engine of inquiry and the mother-in-law, if not the mother, of philosophy.
But when Halloween approaches, and black cats cross my path, I give a thought to old Doughty and his crummy efficiency, the Chas. Doughty Memorial Suite at the Paul Brunner Estates.
If you want to read an excellent, balanced book on the paranormal by a very sharp analytic philosopher, I recommend Stephen E. Braude, Immortal Remains: The Evidence of Life After Death (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).