Is it scientific to believe in weird things such as ghosts, hallucinations and near-death experiences?
Transcription: Dr Suresh Gupta
Question: Is it scientific to believe in weird things such as ghosts, hallucinations, and near-death experiences?
Answer: Let us look at these many different experiences from a point-by-point perspective and analyze as to how they are scientific or not.
Today, science has adopted materialism as its default metaphysics. Science also considers that materialism should be the chosen philosophy of life for everyone as it is the result of linear studies extended over centuries. However, such a belief is unwarranted. Materialism is more of a pre-supposition than a conclusion. As far as scientific research is concerned, the father of modern psychology, William James, suggested that we focus more on the utility of psychological experiences than on whether they agree with current scientific orthodoxy or not. It means that from a pragmatic perspective if a particular experience has a beneficial effect then it should be considered seriously.
Initially, this line of thought was ignored. However, over a period of time, more and more scientific research started accumulating which suggested that actually people are benefitted from the kind of experiences that mainstream society may call weird or even pathological. For example, study on the experiences of the widowhood showed that a significant number of people who were recently widowed (men or women) actually became better when they had some kind of encounter with their deceased spouses. Through such experiences, they felt that it helped them to move on. Most of them reported not just the presence but also some tactile, visual, or audio sensation that seemed non-different from real-world experience. Only a small percentage said that they found these interactions disconcerting, but many found them to be healing, pacifying which enabled them to move forward. Over the years this line of study has caught up. Now in hospice care if people have some death bed experiences with some revered figures then that staff is trained to see such experiences positively because they help people to prepare for the impending arrival of death.
Such hallucinations can be considered unscientific but that raises a bigger question: What is science? Is science an objective evaluation of observed phenomenon to arrive at some conclusion? Or is science a world view that has to be sanctimoniously protected irrespective of the evidence? If we consider these observations or near-death experiences from the effect perspective, it has been observed that such experiences change the experiencers. This has been observed with a large number of people where there is a dramatic decrease in the competitiveness and consumerism of such people. There is a significant increase in empathy, altruism, and environmentalism. Basically, we could say that the higher values of life or sattva (qualities of goodness) increase and rajas (qualities of passion) decrease.
Now a skeptic may argue that just because some experiences feel good that does not mean they are right, e.g. intoxication provides some short-term feeling of high, but intoxication does not inspire people to take long-term positive changes in their life. Often it has a long-term negative consequence. On the contrary, near-death experiences (NDEs) can have enormous positive consequences on people.
At present, science is unequipped to evaluate the metaphysical status of what people experience during such situations because the scientific methodology in itself is largely methodological naturalism i.e. looking for a natural explanation for natural phenomena. Hence, whether there is something nonmaterial or not? Scientific orthodoxy would argue that there is nothing non-material whereas open-minded researchers might be a little more open to the presence of some higher reality. Either way, unless there is a radical redefinition of science, the higher reality will be difficult for science to investigate. However, the effects of such experiences can be investigated, and their therapeutic benefits can be understood.
What could be a reasonable explanation for such experiences? Are these placebos? A placebo is basically a treatment that seems to be a “real” medical treatment — but isn’t. It could be a sugar pill, a shot, or some other type of “fake” treatment. Although, placebos are not real medicines, but they do have real medicinal effects on people. At least for some people and to some degree. One may ask, are placebos real? Even if we assume that placebos are not real medicines, but it cannot be denied that they do have real medicinal effects and heal a certain number of people. The understanding here is that the placebos activate the mind’s innate healing mechanism.
Now, if some people are cured by placebos there is no justification for ridiculing, stigmatizing them. Similarly, if somebody’s life is radically transformed by having some kind of mystical experience then that needs to be acknowledged and not ridiculed or derided. One way to know whether the experiences are real is to look at some veridical experiences where the perception of those experiences coincides with reality. Could it be that people report accurate observations which they could not normally have known by any other means and yet they knew it accurately? There has been a significant amount of research in this area. In my book Demystifying Reincarnation I have given many cases of people having veridical perceptions during extraordinary events like near-death experiences.
At the empirical level, we can only see the event and its effect. At the empirical level, accurate perceptions are happening and also beneficial effects are happening. Therefore, to stigmatize and deride mystical experiences is definitely unscientific or anti-scientific. That raises a bigger question – as in the placebo effect brain releases chemicals to heal the body itself, so could the paranormal mystical experiences also be a result of brain phenomenon alone? Sometimes, experiences like NDEs can be simulated by some psychedelic chemicals but not everything, and no psychedelic chemical can give people veridical perceptions which coincide with reality.
Hence, we could say that there is reasonable case for being open minded about these paranormal experiences in terms of their metaphysical content. However, there is a strong case for accepting their beneficial therapeutic effects. Therefore, the scientific basis for many of the paranormal events is undeniably strong.
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