Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
METAPHYSICS AND MODERN SCIENCE
Part II: CONSCIOUSNESS BEYOND DEATH
with WILLIS HARMAN, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. This is Part 2 of our two-part series on the metaphysical foundations of science. With me is Dr. Willis Harman, President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Sausalito, California. Dr. Harman is author of several books, including Global Mind Change, An Incomplete Guide to the Future, and Higher Creativity. He is also the editor of an anthology called The New Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. Welcome again, Willis.
WILLIS HARMAN, Ph.D.: Thank you, Jeffrey.
MISHLOVE: In our previous interview, in Part 1 of this two-part series, we looked at the philosophical aspects of the metaphysical foundations of science. Specifically we looked at questions like epistemology -- how do we know what we think we know? -- and ontology, which is, what is the nature of absolute reality? And we talked about the importance of direct conscious awareness in the scientific process, or the importance of intuition. In this interview we're going to focus in on some of the extraordinary evidence that suggests that consciousness is much, much larger than it's conventionally assumed to be, and in particular we'll look at the kind of evidence that has come from over a hundred years of research into the question of the survival of the self after physical death. So with that lengthy introduction to the topic, it might be useful to point out that while in modern culture the idea that our consciousness survives death is sort of strange and maybe even a little spooky, scary to people, at one time this was considered simply the way it was.
HARMAN: Well, it certainly was, of course, in almost every society except modern Western society. But of course this has a long history. First of all, the thing that's pushing consciousness into the scene, I think, these days is not that particular question, but just the fact that really it's not just consciousness as awareness, but consciousness as intention and volition, that aspect of consciousness. Because if consciousness can be cause in some basic sense, well, then that causes us to revise everything we've been thinking about science. But then, as you begin to pursue this further and further, and you think about other levels of consciousness and so on, sooner or later you run into near-death experiences and other out-of-body experiences, and the various kinds of indications that consciousness is not necessarily embodied. And that of course revives the question of the nature of death and after death. But there's really been a century and a half or so of research relating to this. The early hypnosis research was some of it. But there was a peak of activity around the end of the nineteenth century -- partly in England, partly here, to some extent in India -- where an attempt was made to really tackle this question. As a matter of fact, Stanford University was in the eyes of its founders -- it was their wish that Stanford University should be the foremost university in the world in the study of the survival of consciousness after death.
MISHLOVE: The whole scientific community kind of turned to this question in the wake of a huge wave of popular interest in Spiritualism.
HARMAN: That's true. In the early half and the middle of the nineteenth century there was a lot of interest in spiritualism and mediumship and what we now call channeling.
MISHLOVE: One might say it was the nineteenth-century equivalent of rock and roll.
HARMAN: But I wouldn't say that a very large fraction of the scientific community got involved with this. But there were certainly some eminent people, like the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge in England, and Frederick Myers in England, and William James in this country, and many others. And it wasn't just scientists. The inventor Thomas Edison, it was one of his big projects.
MISHLOVE: Arthur Balfour, one of the Prime Ministers of England, was a member of the Society for Psychical Research.
HARMAN: Conan Doyle, writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Anyway, it was good company to be in at that time.
MISHLOVE: Leading intellects of the nineteenth century believed that science could answer the question of do we survive bodily death.
HARMAN: Yes. And at that time the approach was a fairly direct one -- that is, through mediumship to try to establish communication links between those who are now living and those who have recently died, or maybe not so recently. And of course this had a lot of frustrations associated with it, because whatever the medium has to say has kind of bubbled up through the medium's own unconscious mind, so you don't really know what you have. And there were very strenuous attempts to try to pin this down, reduce that effect as much as possible. But even with that faulty kind of evidence, there were lots and lots of instances where information seemed to appear that, as far as anyone could tell, was only known to the dead person.
MISHLOVE: I know I had occasion to read a report by the Smithsonian Institution, published in 1903, surveying the last fifty years of research on survival, and they summarized the work and concluded that, well, the researchers haven't proven survival, but surely they have come up with evidence for telepathy and thought transference and extrasensory perception that could not be denied.
HARMAN: That was of course part of what was going on. And so one of the approaches, then, which was really started by Professor Coover at Stanford University and then later picked up by Dr. Rhine at Duke, was to try to devise some experimental approaches so that you could demonstrate that consciousness could do things that could not be explained in any physical way, or could be instrumental in phenomena that couldn't be understood without invoking some new kind of cause -- what sometimes is called psi, a sort of general-purpose word for phenomena of this sort that we don't seem to understand.
MISHLOVE: I'd like to just step back for a moment, because in the beginning of our talk you mentioned briefly the idea of causation and will and intention, and how, especially in the nineteenth century, the scientific view was that the universe operated like a clockwork mechanism -- that there was no room for purpose, for free will, at all. And the idea that consciousness could exist independently of the body, and that it might have some kind of an intentional influence on physical systems, couldn't have been more antithetical to the scientific mainstream view.
HARMAN: Or even if it were embodied -- that is, the question was usually posed as a tension between free will on the one hand and determinism on the other. And it seemed to be a very real problem, and like the mind-body problem and the science-versus-spirit problem, a great deal of effort was put into them. I think now that we're at the point of reexamining the metaphysical assumptions we see that those are all problems which were caused by the assumptions that science started with, and in that sense they're not such real problems after all.
MISHLOVE: But when we talk about the term metaphysics -- that which is above or beyond physics itself -- I suppose one of the deepest questions of all, and one that philosophers love to dodge -- they don't even consider it a metaphysical question -- is do we survive death. I know this is something that you've looked at closely.
HARMAN: Well, certainly the conventional opinion in the modern world is of course not; what an absurd thing to ask about.
MISHLOVE: In fact one would consider it wish fulfillment, a fantasy.
HARMAN: That's right. And even those who adopt a religion in which that's somehow part of the belief system still have quite an ambivalence about it, because in the scientific world view it seems such an absurdity. But nevertheless psi research has gone on, and the results are still questionable, erratic, but nevertheless there are positive results there. But more convincing to a lot of people are the macrophenomena, the kinds of phenomena that you don't have to search in the statistics to find them. They come up and hit you in the head, like poltergeists and haunting of houses, and various kinds of psychokinetic phenomena that seem to have appeared.
MISHLOVE: Psychokinesis means mind over matter. I suppose if we look at the range of phenomena that falls under that category of psi research or psychical research, or a term I dislike, parapsychology, because it doesn't seem to be para to me at all --
HARMAN: If you don't like it, why say it?
MISHLOVE: I want to say it just to say that I think this field ought to be considered regular psychology. Psychology means the study of the soul, or psyche. But we were talking, Willis, in Part 1 of this interview, about the role of consciousness itself in the research process. And I think the case in point of looking at survival is interesting, because the very researchers who devoted their lives to posing and answering the question, "Do we survive death?" -- well, they ultimately died, and there's some evidence to suggest that even after their death they attempted to help provide answers to that question.
HARMAN: Yes, that's worth reviewing, and it was true of a number of them, but let's take the case of F.W.H. Myers, since that's the most clear case.
MISHLOVE: The author of a wonderful, very complete volume called Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death.
HARMAN: Absolutely -- laid out the terrain for a science of consciousness which we haven't even begun to explore yet, and the book was published in 1903. Myers had been -- he was a scholar at Cambridge, a Classics scholar, actually.
MISHLOVE: Meaning Greek and Latin.
HARMAN: Yes. So this other work was somewhat of a sideline, but nevertheless he clearly considered it to be his most important work, and it's a magnificent two-volume work that he produced. But then, as you pointed out, as with all mortals, he died. But before he did, he had made a sort of semi-facetious promise to his colleagues that they were having so much trouble with this matter of the distortion of communications through the mediums, through the women -- mostly women -- who were doing the channeling, and it was so frustrating. Essentially he said, "When I die I will cook up an experiment that will leave you in no doubt about the reality of survival." Well, he died in 1903. Not much happened until another ten years or so. And then mediums in several places in three different continents began to receive what seemed to be fragments of messages which contained fragments of Classical quotations, and they didn't seem to make any sense at all, except that it was the custom of the time, among those who were involved with this kind of inquiry, to send copies of everything to the Society for Psychical Research in London, which Myers had had a hand in forming, by the way. And so these all gathered together in London, and they fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and they seemed to -- well, it was a message that puported to come from Myers, in which he was clearly identifying himself with a Classical quotation and identifying the reality of the phenomenon, in view of the fact that these transmissions seemed to come to India and the United States and England, and it wasn't until they were all brought together that they made the kind of sense that they obviously made in whatever mind it was that transmitted them.
MISHLOVE: In other words, a medium in India, a medium in England, a medium in the United States simultaneously, independently, without any knowledge of the others, receiving messages purporting to come from an entity, a spirit, who called himself Myers, and these messages contained allusions to ancient Greek and Latin, of which Myers himself had been an expert, and they only made sense when they were kind of put together.
HARMAN: That's exactly right.
MISHLOVE: Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
HARMAN: So it was fairly convincing, and at the time there were many who were convinced that here at last we have really nailed this down; now there's no question about the phenomenon. Of course that was very rapidly forgotten, so that the cross-correspondences, as they were called, they just disappeared into history. They were published, of course.
MISHLOVE: They did disappear, but my understanding is they actually went on for about thirty years.
HARMAN: Yes, it was a long time.
MISHLOVE: And involved some thousand communications, coming not just from Myers, but from some of the other deceased members of the Psychical Research Society.
HARMAN: Yes. So it was impressive to those impressed, and it was nonsense to those who were not.
MISHLOVE: Well, you had to be something of a Classical scholar yourself to understand many of the subtleties.
HARMAN: You had to be interested enough to do a lot of reading in the -- you only became impressed when you looked into the details.
MISHLOVE: If you wanted to.
HARMAN: It didn't make a big dent with regard to the attitudes of the scientific community, because they were in the process of moving toward what we now know as the behaviorist era and the positivist era, and so on. But we haven't finished with Myers yet, because in the late 1920s an automatic writer -- a person who is a medium but instead of the message coming through an oral communication it came in an urge to write, and her hand would write things that she was not consciously aware of at all. She never knew, with many of these writings, what had been written until the whole thing was assembled, because she had an assistant who would exchange pieces of paper for her, and she just went on.
MISHLOVE: Automatic writing.
HARMAN: Automatic writing. And this turned out to be scripts for two separate books, Beyond Human Personality, and another one whose name I forget at the moment. But both of them purported to be accounts of the explorations of Frederick Myers since the time of his death some quarter of a century earlier. And he went on to explain how it is. And the important thing about these particular books is not just them by themselves, because you could treat them as any other kind of fiction. But what he had to say checks pretty well with a lot of other mediumistic communication; it checks pretty well with various near-death experiences; it checks very well with various kinds of other spiritual traditions; it checks pretty well with some of the far-out psychedelic experiences that various people had. So we really have a tremendous amount of anecdotal data that converges on some sort of a picture of what it is that happens when we die.
MISHLOVE: In other words, the old adage that nobody has died and then come back to tell us about it simply may not be true.
HARMAN: That's exactly right. Now of course people do tend to get a particular picture of what this experience is like, and I think of it somewhat as in the days when Africa was the dark continent, and one explorer goes to the Sahara Desert, and another one goes to the tropical jungle, and another one lands somewhere else, and then they all make their reports, and each one is convinced that he's seen Africa. Well, of course Africa is all of those things, and it's a similar sort of thing here -- that what happens to you immediately after death is very much a function of what you expect to happen, apparently; very much a function of what you want very much to happen, perhaps.
MISHLOVE: In other words, you live in a world populated by your own thoughts.
HARMAN: Well, and by other people that you bring into your own thoughts, perhaps.
MISHLOVE: No different than this world.
HARMAN: That's right. But then, as time goes on, you recognize -- I have to say apparently and purportedly and all those kind of guarding words, but it seems that the picture is something like this, that as time goes on -- and it's not time in our physical sense, but anyway, things happen in sequence. And you recognize that your learning is to continue; you're not to stay there and play in whatever kind of heaven you've created, but to move on, to learn more and more -- or, if you want that kind of terminology, to go to higher and higher levels of awareness or levels or consciousness, where you become more and more part of the unified, the oneness, the whole -- well, become aware of being that; you are that all the time. I think that's the most important point that comes out of all of this, is that you don't go somewhere when you die. You just remember where you have always been, and you are less distracted by the physical body because you don't have the live one anymore.
MISHLOVE: You join that larger part of yourself that's sometimes called the higher self.
HARMAN: Well, it isn't even joining it, because you're already joined. There's nothing to do about it. You just become aware. And some people do while they're still living, of course, in this body, temporarily become aware of some of these other levels. And of course we've tended in modern society to sneer at that as some kind of medieval mysticism, and we don't have to pay much attention to it, until the last thirty years or so, and then more and more people have been getting interested in the traditions in which that sort of experience is sought after.
MISHLOVE: And there's an enormous literature developing on near-death experience, and channeling, even electronic communication with the deceased.
HARMAN: Well, there always has been a fascination with the physical manifestations, whether it was table rapping or slate writing, where writing seems to appear on a slate, even though there's no one around to move the chalk. And there have been many, many such manifestations; I'm kind of groping for which one would be the most interesting one to talk about.
MISHLOVE: Well, let's step back for a moment, Willis, and let's just take another look philosophically at what we've just discussed. How does this kind of material impact our scientific thinking?
HARMAN: Well, we're going to include consciousness in science. I think the die is cast. We're going to do it somehow. Now, one way of approaching that is to say, "Well, let's start out with the most narrow, specific definition of consciousness we can, namely, conscious awareness. Let's see what we can learn about that."
MISHLOVE: Some scientists say let's just see if we can explain visual perception. That alone is hard enough.
HARMAN: Now, the other approach is to go clear the other way and say, look, the big advance in biology was Darwin; we all agree with that. Now Darwin could have studied finches in the Galapagos all of his life, but he didn't. He said, "What we need is a framework in which we can put what I've observed here, and what others have reported somewhere else, and so on; we can somehow put all of that in the same framework." Now according to this second point of view, that's what we need in the consciousness research area, is some kind of framework in which we can put conscious awareness, we can put intention and volition, we can put creativity and intuition, we can put life after death, we can put psi, and so on and on. Not that we know all about all of these things; not that we've proven in some sense that they all exist every time they're reported; but that there seems to be enough of that kind of data that we seem to need a framework to include it all. And that's where you get driven to the metaphysical assumptions and their reexamination.
MISHLOVE: Sure. So the question is, do we want to first explain ordinary conscious awareness, and then look at the so-called paranormal? I don't like the "para"-normal part of it, because my own prejudice -- if I can interject myself a little bit into this interview -- is, how can we explain normal consciousness if we don't take into account all the data?
HARMAN: Well, there are two points of view, and they're both legitimate. Because a lot of the advances in science were made by saying let's start with the simple, elementary phenomena first, and go on from there. But a few, like evolutionary theory, were made the other way. So they're both valid points of view, and they produce something.
MISHLOVE: But you seem to be suggesting that at least it ought to be legitimate for some people to try and look at all the data.
HARMAN: Yes, without necessarily losing tenure or losing all reputation for good sense. And of course that is going on, but mainly it's not going on in the major research universities. Mainly it's going on with poor -- poor in the sense of no money -- researchers who gather together and give one another comfort and inspiration. But some very interesting things are going on, and some of it is in this area of physical phenomena. You can imagine -- see, one of the things that seems to have happened is that people like -- well, I mentioned Thomas Edison for one, or Dr. Raudive in Latvia for another, who nobody has ever heard of except in this small group, but he was one of the foremost of the researchers who was recently trying to establish these kinds of communications.
MISHLOVE: Electrical voice of the deceased.
HARMAN: I'm getting to that. It had to do with -- let's just imagine for the moment that there are some persons alive -- persons, entities, what do we call them?
HARMAN: Something's alive, in a certain sense -- conscious anyway. And they're saying, "You know, we've been trying for decades to get these knuckleheads to get their beliefs straight about death, and they just don't get it." And then after World War II the German-invented tape recorder came along, and it wasn't very many years after that before what seemed to be voices began to appear on tape recorders that were presumably just turned on, but just receiving noise. And then some interest developed in that in Europe, not so much in the United States, and one of the researchers was this Dr. Raudive, who then himself died but seemed to retain his interest in this. So now we seem to have a collaborative effort, if you can put it this way. You know, in most circles I would feel a little bit foolish talking about this so glibly, but again, we'll cover ourselves by saying it seems to have happened.
MISHLOVE: Well, we're almost out of time, so unfortunately we can't get into more of the details. But you seem to be saying that just as Myers seemed to have collaborated from the other side, it's happening today.
HARMAN: That's right, and messages and pictures seem to be coming through, on audio tapes, videotapes, television screens, computer disks. You know, there's no way you can make sense out that with our ordinary way of looking at things, no way at all.
MISHLOVE: And it's substantial enough that a scholar such as yourself -- and I will add, for purposes of your credibility here, a former professor, a professor emeritus of engineering at Stanford University, and emeritus Regent of the University of California -- you've inquired into this area and believe that we ought to take it quite seriously -- that this isn't just flim-flam.
HARMAN: I think we will be taking it seriously, because it's not going away. I know my own feelings when I first ran into it, and they were very strange feelings down in the solar plexus area, and they were very uncomfortable.
MISHLOVE: Well, Willis Harman, I want to applaud you for your courage in being willing to discuss these areas that get pushed aside over and over and over again, and suggesting that maybe those of us who are looking seriously at consciousness need to look at this. Thanks so much for being with me.
HARMAN: My pleasure.
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