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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Mechanism of Mediumship

Over the last few days, Mark and I watched many of the speakers online from the Chopra Foundation's 2012 Symposium "Sages and Scientists: The Merging of a New Future." It was really interesting and sparked a lot of conversations in our living room!

Speakers included Stu Hameroff (who had the cajones to actually use the word "afterlife"), Candace Pert, Laura Liswood, Vandana Shiva (I can't even find the right words of awe to put in these parentheses!), Leonard Mlodinow, Henry Stapp, Elissa Epel (who really got me concerned about my telomeres), Rinaldo Brutoco, and the infamous Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.

While I expected only nonsense to come out of Shermer's mouth, he did make some logical points (that really almost anyone could have made): just because there is a word for a concept doesn't mean it exists in true reality (e.g., mind); saying we don't know how something works (e.g., local consciousness) doesn't prove an alternative explanation (e.g., nonlocal consciousness); and---the best and most obvious one---there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural; there are only the normal, the natural, and the things we can't explain yet.

And while he lauded speakers who openly reported not knowing the answers to certain questions, he made blanket statements with no objective support about the impossibility of an afterlife: "Where does Aunt Millie's mind go when her brain dies?  Nowhere!"

Now, I get it that if he changes his story, he will lose his job, his reputation, his income, and the drooling adoration of sheep-like followers everywhere, but it surprises me nonetheless when a grown, educated man gets up in front of a crowd and makes claims that clearly refute each other: (1) there are things we can't explain yet and (2) it is a fact that consciousness is created by the brain and cannot survive death.  He can make claim #2 only by ignoring the numerous phenomena demonstrating that responsible scientists need to at least entertain its opposite (e.g., terminal lucidity, out of body experiences, near-death experiences, mediumship, etc.).  I have other thoughts about his presentation, but I didn't transcribe it and I have a point I'd like to get to...

One of the main criticisms lobbed at mediumship, other psi phenomena, homeopathic remedies and the like (collectively called "X" here) is that because we can't define clear mechanisms for X, any laboratory demonstration of X must be the result of fraud, error, chance, statistical manipulation, etc. 

For example, in a debate about the afterlife between Michael Shermer and Deepak Chopra from a few years ago, Shermer stated, "If the data shows that there is such a phenomena as psi that needs explaining (and I am not convinced that it does), then we still need a causal mechanism."

This demand is based in faulty logic.  There are numerous "normal" Xs and we can't really explain how or why they happen but we all agree that they exist and are potentially worthy of study.

Some of these Xs are simple things we all have experience with like yawning, dreaming, and blushing and some are diseases and conditions we have at least heard of like multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson's disease, eczema, psoriasis, glaucoma, fibromyalgia, and any disease with "idiopathic" in its title.

Because I was trained as a pharmacologist, the Xs that come to my mind are the many drugs on the market that work through mechanisms we don't fully understand.  These include Botox and Fosamax; aspirin for most of its century of use (though now we know how it works); certain drugs that treat Parkinson's (pramipexole), cancer (procarbazine, targretin), tuberculosis (ethambutol), malaria (halofantrine); and epilepsy (levetiracetam); the antibiotics clofazimine and pentamidine; many psychotropic drugs (e.g., lithium); and the general anesthetics that keep patients unconscious during surgery.

So I guess if skeptics need to have surgery, they forego the general anesthesia since the doctors cannot define the precise mechanisms of action of those compounds and they are forced to conclude that any previous loss of consciousness demonstrated in other patients when exposed to these drugs was surely due to error, fraud, chance, or statistical manipulation.


At the Windbridge Institute for Applied Research in Human Potential, we are primarily concerned with the applications of X ("applied" is right in our name!) regardless of the causal mechanisms.  The drugs listed above all work in treating their target conditions and our initial research shows that mediumship readings from credentialed mediums are helpful in the treatment of grief --- each irrespective of known mechanisms.

I think you can see the fallacy in claiming that the absence of an understood mechanism for X is reason to dismiss the possibility of X or the value in its investigation.

PS - For some other things science can't explain thus providing evidence that thinking we understand everything is pompous and ignorant, see: