Thursday, March 18, 2010


50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 200 Susan Blackmore “Giving Up Ghosts and Gods”

Very interesting. A very practical look at human experiences and how to approach our understanding of ourselves. Susan does not discuss her religious history. Instead she spent 25 years as a parapsychologist, that’s right, looking for ghosts and psychics. She did this on her on own volition because of a profound experience.

In 1970 while a student at Oxford, she had an out-of-body experience that lasted for two hours. She was convinced it was real and that it could not be explained by the science she was studying. She slept in haunted houses, investigated poltergeists, even trained as a witch in her search for knowledge. She eventually realized her experience was explainable, as well as all of the other phenomenon she was investigating. What is really great is that she is not angry about it.

Science has advanced in 40 years. An out-of-body experience can now be induced in a lab. Her experience was real, and it did change her life, but it was not paranormal. She can now listen to someone’s near-death experience and validate it. She can also explain it. She can’t explain everything, but she has seen enough to conclude that there are “probably” no paranormal phenomena. Having had a profound experience herself, she also has a very good sense of where science and explanations “run out”. As she says,

“Here we meet the mystery of consciousness itself.”
We all feel that we are a mind inhabiting a body. We talk of a voice inside our head. Sometimes called “dualism”, it is not scientifically supportable. That voice is created by the firing of neurons, although precisely how that is done has not yet been explained. We can externally stimulate a nerve and make someone move their finger, and the mind has the thought that it controlled that movement, but we can’t map out a thought, or create the memory of a nonexistent event.

Susan points out that even in mystical language, the goal is “to become one” or to “drop the illusion of the separate self.” As she says,

“These claims do not conflict with science, for the universe is indeed one, and the separate self is indeed an illusion.”
She hopes, as do I, that science and experience can come together and figure this out. She sees that these experiences won’t just go away and that they can help us in our understanding of our consciousness. We don’t need to ridicule those who have them. Nor should we provide them with explanations that are pure fantasy.


  1. Interesting stuff, this. I'm not ready, personally, to write off personal experiences of the transcendent, or to explain away their capacity to illuminate. Of course neurons are firing. They fire when anything is happening in the brain. Firings can be induced that produce the sensation of actual vision, actual touch, actual sound. Such laboratory events do not in any way diminish the significance of the human neural capacity to interpret actual light and sound waves and actual textures.

  2. I don't think Susan is writing them off either. I don't like the dogma of science that says since we can explain what used to be mysterious, we will be able to one day explain all things mysterious. That is an unscientific statement. Experience and a sense of wonder have always driven our desire to know. Science is a good way learn more, but it should not invalidate the wonder.