This is an interview for my blog with philosopher and author Chris Carter about consciousness, philosophy and parapsychology. Carter is author of the books Parapsychology and The Skeptics, and Science and the Near Death Experience (recently released). Enjoy.
1)Chris, tell us a something about your background?
I’m Canadian, but I was educated in England, at Oxford University, in both economics and philosophy. I currently teach internationally.
My first book, Parapsychology and the Skeptics, was primarily concerned with understanding why a substantial minority of the scientific community has been vehemently denying the existence of psychic abilities such as telepathy for well over a century.
My second book, which has just been released, is titled Science and the Near Death Experience, and deals with the mind-body relationship, and what the near-death experience (NDE) can tell us about that.
2)Do you think a basic training in philosophy is useful to weigh and evaluate the evidence and controversy about parapsychology and the afterlife?
Yes, of course. But most philosophers simply ignore the evidence. Like the so-called skeptics, their thinking is wedded to an out-moded worldview based upon classical physics, which has been known to be fundamentally incorrect for almost a century. The irony here is that they think they are being very scientific in their thinking.
Psychologists and philosophers tend to be the most closed-minded in their thinking on these topics. Physicists and physicians tend to be the most open-minded. But there are exceptions, of course. Many philosophers, such as Curt Ducasse and William James in the past, and Neal Grossman and Robert Almeder today, have written extensively on these issues.
3) Most books on parapsychology present and discuss the experimental evidence for psi. In your book Parapsychology and the Skeptics, in addition to discussing the evidence for psi and examining the criticisms against it, you adopt an original approach: You examine the background assumptions of the debate, and argue that the controversy is not primarily about evidence, but about the interpretation of it. Why did you decide to approach this problem in this way?
Well, as I said earlier, I was concerned with understanding why a substantial minority of the scientific community has been vehemently denying the existence of psychic abilities such as telepathy for well over a century. At first glance, this may seem very puzzling: Reports of psychic abilities date back to the dawn of history, and come from cultures all over the world. Surveys also show that most working scientists accept the possibility that telepathy exists, and many leading scientists have endorsed and supported psychical research.
Essentially, I argue that this debate is not primarily about evidence. It’s not even about the interpretation of evidence, as most so-called skeptics simply ignore the evidence. When they can’t ignore it, they dismiss it. When they can’t dismiss it, they try to suppress it. The problem is that the evidence conflicts with their preconceived opinions.
It is important to remember that the deniers are defending an out-moded world view in which psychic phenomena are simply not allowed to exist. Most of the deniers and phony-skeptics are militant atheists or secular humanists. If they conceded the existence of psychic abilities, then materialism - one of the main pillars of their opposition to religion and superstition - would crumble. Hence, their dogmatic denial of the evidence.
4) In your first book, you discuss the philosophy of science of Karl Popper and its relevance for evaluating the scientific status of parapsychology. Do you think Popper's thinking has been correctly understood? What are the main misrepresentations of Popper's ideas, in your opinion?
Popper is one of the very few philosophers whose work is praised by working scientists. His work on the philosophy of science – which I summarize in a chapter in my first book – is a masterpiece of thought. However, I have never read a single criticism of his work which was not based on a misunderstanding of it.
Popper’s basic premise is that for a theory to be considered scientific, it must be testable. That is, it must make predictions that are capable of being falsified in principle. One criticism which you will find again and again in the literature is that the principle of falsification is not itself capable of being falsified. So there! But what these critics do not understand is that the principle of falsification is not meant to be a scientific theory. That is, it is not a conjecture that attempts to explain a relationship between empirical facts. Rather, it is a methodology that provides a program of action which enables science to learn from its mistakes, and thereby progress.
Falsification is a criterion of demarcation between science and non-science, and not a criterion of meaning. Popper never maintained that philosophical ideas or theories are meaningless; they are just not capable of being tested.
5) In your first book you mention that, in forthcoming books, you'll address and examine critically the evidence for life after death. Can you tell us something more about your forthcoming books on the afterlife?
Well, as I said earlier, my second book, which has just been released, is titled Science and the Near Death Experience. It deals with the mind-body relationship, and what the NDE can tell us about that. There is an extensive discussion of the NDE, and a comparison of NDEs from different cultures around the world. It turns out that here is a lot of cross-cultural similarity between Western and Eastern reports, and between reports from modern civilizations and from tribal cultures such as the Maori and Native American.
In my new book I also deal with all of the alternative explanations: oxygen deprivation, carbon dioxide poisoning, and so on. Ultimately, none of these materialistic explanations holds up.
6) In your excellent article "Does Consciousness depend on the Brain?" you argue that the transmission theory of consciousness is a better explanation than the productive theory. But some people say that, from a scientific point of view (even from a Popperian stance) the productive theory is better because it is in principle falsifiable. But the transmission theory doesn't seem easy to refute since that it is consistent with all the facts and with any imaginable fact, making it untestable. What do you think of this objection?
In the first place, the production theory – the idea that the brain produces the mind – has been convincingly falsified by the evidence. And holding on to a falsified belief is the antithesis of scientific thinking – it is ideological thinking.
But we need to be more clear here on what we mean by “theory,” and what we mean by “fact.” For instance, gravity is a fact of nature, yet we have theories of how gravity works. Similarly, evolution appears to be a historical fact – after all, there is the fossil record. Yet we also have theories of how evolution works.
Scientific theories are not speculation about isolated facts; they are tentative explanations about how certain facts fit together. When Isaac Newton proposed that a planet and the sun are attracted by a gravitational force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, he proposed a relation between masses and distances—a relation that of course became celebrated as the Newtonian theory of gravity.
So, the question is: do the facts seem to indicate that the brain produces the mind? Or on the contrary, do they seem to indicate that the brain works as a receiver-transmitter for the mind? I argue in my new book that an examination of all of the evidence indicates the latter. The evidence is not consistent with production, but is consistent with transmission. In other words, it seems to be a fact that the brain works as a receiver-transmitter. A scientific transmission theory would propose to explain how the brain works this way. There have been several such theories, most due to brain scientists such as John Eccles, or to physicists such as Henry Stapp and Evan Harris Walker. To the extent that these transmission theories are testable, they are scientific theories. And Walker’s theory makes several testable predictions – it is not, as you put it, “consistent with any conceivable fact.”
So, in a nutshell, that objection is based upon a common misunderstanding of what a scientific theory really is, and so confuses fact with theory.
7) Do you think the super-ESP hypothesis is a reasonable alternative explanation for the evidence suggesting an afterlife?
No, I don’t think ESP or the hypothetical super-ESP can explain the best cases. I deal with this issue in considerable depth in my third book, which I intend to release within the next two years.
8) Do you see any contradiction between reincarnation and evolutionary biology? Reincarnation seems to suggest a spiritual path parallel to the evolutionary process; but evolution being a purposeless and blind process, it seems implausible that there is exist an independent spiritual line corresponding to such evolutionary process.
Well, the key phrase here is “evolution being a purposeless and blind process.” That is an assumption, not a fact. It is an assumption that is based on a materialistic, atheistic worldview. Darwin himself could never fully believe this. If the facts strongly suggest or even indicate the reality of reincarnation, then it is pointless to say that “it seems implausible” given a certain assumption. That is dogmatic, a priori thinking. And by the way, I also deal with this issue in my third book.
9) Do you think that some cases of NDEs provide evidence for the survival hypothesis?
Yes, I deal with this at length in a full chapter of my new book Science and the Near Death Experience.
10) Do you think quantum mechanics is relevant for the discussion on consciousness, parapsychology and the afterlife?
Yes, of course! The problem with most of the so-called skeptics is that their worldview is based upon classical physics, which has been know to be fundamentally flawed since the early years of the twentieth century. As I said before, most of the deniers are psychologists and philosophers, not physicists. For instance, prominent deniers Ray Hyman, Richard Wiseman, and Susan Blackmore are all psychologists. Many prominent quantum physicists, such as David Bohm and Nobel prize winner Brian Josephson, have repeatedly stated that nothing in quantum mechanics rules out psychic abilities.
I have a whole chapter in my new book Science and the Near Death Experience called “Physics and Consciousness” which deals with this issue.
11) Some critics say that contemporary science is essentially naturalistic and secular; and has no room for supernatural, religious or quasi-religious concepts like the "soul", "reincarnation", "afterlife" or "God"? What do you think of this point of view?
Well, there are a lot of loaded terms in that question – “naturalistic”, “supernatural”, “quasi-religious.” By the way, when you read or hear criticisms that contain a lot of loaded terms such as “supernatural” and “quasi-religious,” that’s a good sign that you are dealing with a sophist.
If there is good evidence for reincarnation or the afterlife, then it is unscientific to ignore or deny that evidence. If they exist, then they are part of nature, and are not “supernatural.” The history of science shows that our view of what nature contains has been enlarged and expanded again and again; that is called scientific progress.
David Bohm defined the main characteristic of the scientific attitude as “openness to evidence.” The writer David Marshall wrote recently: “The best scientist -- or theologian -- is not someone who shouts 'heresy!' when he hears strange views, but one who listens carefully and responds with reason and evidence. When it comes to ultimate questions, 'openness to evidence' is the definition that counts."
12) In addition to your book (and forthcoming books), what books or literature on philosophy, parapsychology and the afterlife would you recommend to the readers of this interview?
I would recommend physicist Nick Herbert’s very entertaining book Elemental Mind. It’s a great introduction to the implications of the new physics for the mind/body problem.
13) Something else you would like to add to end the interview?
Yes. I would briefly like to say something about materialism and science. Materialists sometimes claim that the successes of modern science have been due to a materialistic outlook. But this is nonsense. The three men most responsible for the scientific revolution – Galileo, Kepler, and Newton – were not materialists. One of the reasons Galileo recanted his views is because he feared the Church would excommunicate him. Newton spent the last years of his life writing books on theology.
Materialism is an ancient philosophy that basically asserts that everything has a material cause, and it dates back at least to Democritus. It was thought to gain support from the physics of Isaac Newton, although Newton himself did not agree with this, and instead endorsed the dualism of Rene Descartes. It was the eighteenth century philosophes, such as Diderot and Voltaire, who spread the doctrine of materialism and mechanism, with the intention of combating the religious fanaticism and superstition common in their time.
The success of modern science has not been due to any particular philosophy of the relationship between mind and body, but rather to the principle of empirical hypothesis testing. Materialism as a scientific hypothesis makes two bold and admirable predictions: psychic abilities such as telepathy do not exist; and we will find no convincing evidence that the mind can operate without a properly functioning brain. But both of these predictions have been violated again and again, by evidence that stands up to the most severe critical scrutiny. Hence, it is unscientific to continue to believe in materialism. Those who do so today are either ignorant of the evidence, or have ideological motivations to dismiss it.
By the way, those who are interested in my new book Science and the Near Death Experience can learn more about it on Amazon, or by visiting the website of Inner Traditions publishers.
Links of interest:
-Website of Carter's new book Science and the Near-Death Experience.
-Chris Carter's article "Does consciousness depend on the brain?"
-Chris Carter's interview in Alex Tsakiris' podcast (here).
-Physicist Henry Stapp's recent paper "Compatibility of contemporary physical theory with personal survival"
-Read William James' lecture "Human Immortality"
-My other "subversive interviews"