“Cartesian Spectres” was an essay I submitted in 2021 to the Bigelow Institute competition on evidence of afterlife communication. While the essay was not shortlisted, probably because of its focus on essential philosophy (rather than experimental psychology), I thought it worthwhile to refine, truncate, and re-write some of the core ideas for this blog.
The question I am asked most consistently and frequently as an academic is about the divide between physicalist materialism and panpsychist point of views — One most well represented by the Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmores of the world, and the other by thinkers such as Ervin Laszlo (who hypothesised ‘biocentrism’ – that consciousness underlies physical reality).
Having the luxury of being trained in both classical philosophy as well as experimental psychology, my perspective on the topic is less polarised than that of most scientists.
Broadly, the dualism question can be encased in whether there fundamentally exists one base reality (monism), a mind/body distinction (dualism), or multiple ‘substances’ which are ostensibly opaque, or not immediately apparent. Well-known monists within the biological sciences advocate for the ecological basis of a strict materialism, with mind contrived as epiphenomena (illusory appearance of a stream of consciousness without a tangible substance). Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling are two exemplars worth mentioning here.
More rarely, some scholars assume the idealist (again monist) stance instead, advocating for a simulation hypothesis or mind-as-matter argument – brain-in-a-vat type thought. Some arguments are more tempered (David Chalmers for instance), stipulating a property rather than substance dualism distinction – that is, we may posit that we live in a materialist reality, but the nature of our experience contains both a non-material (mind) and material property (brain), by which we interact with our lifeworld. From Descartes to Spinoza, myriad philosophers have speculated about how, precisely, that interaction occurs.
The veridical thesis is situated in experimental psychology and proposes the dualism argument can be advanced by considering out-of-body and near-death experiences (OBEs/NDEs). The thesis supposes that (a) one’s consciousness actually departs one’s body and (b) one perceives the real-time environment around them and (c) one can retain and recall the information one saw upon return to one’s body. I argue that point 1 is not as farfetched as it sounds on first instance, because non-local theories of consciousness (e.g., spooky action at a distance, panpsychism, liberal interpretations of double-slit phenomena etc.) are tenable. More problematic are the subsequent two premises. The way iconic memory works in relation to light passing through the cornea and the pupil involves the transmission of electromagnetic energy that is converted into neural electrochemical impulses; so, when we look directly at an object, our eyes rotate, and the image falls directly onto the fovea.
Likewise, it is well understood that memory is activated in the brain via key neuronal regions and numerous implicated associative connectionist networks. Various regions central to the representation of vision and memory (such as the thalamus and the hippocampi respectively) present curiosities in the representational coding of accounts in one’s brain. The epistemic problem with landmark accounts such as those of Eben Alexander is that unless they took their perceptual and memory apparatus with them as part of their OBE/NDE, it is difficult to speculate on how they could have consolidated their encounter of post-physical memories during temporary clinical death (i.e., if the regions to do with sensory perception and recall were truly offline).
In his writing on OBE, German artist Jurgen Ziewe recounted a psychonautic experience, in which he regarded veridical and seemingly imaginary accounts as of equal interest, and potential equal worthiness of investigation, as veridical ones. Ziewe, an avid OBE practitioner, requested that his brother pin a specific word to one of the walls in his (brother’s) home overseas. The next time that Ziewe self-induced an OBE he attempted to travel to the location and perceive the word. In his OBE, he perceived various notes pinned to the wall in his brother’s house. One that he focused on read: “4 o’clock, Thursday, take car to MOT”. He telephoned his brother, who told Ziewe that he had only pinned one word to the wall and that it read “love”; clearly, he had gotten wrong the information. Yet, as part of the same dialogue, Ziewe’s brother told him that he had planned to have his car checked in for a MOT (a vehicle inspection) that following Thursday, at 4.00pm.
“The archetypal realm is not a figment of human fantasy and imagination; it has an independent existence of its own and a high degree of autonomy. At the same time, its dynamics seem to be intimately connected with material reality and with human life.” – Stanislav Grof
“Underlying reality there is a world of archetypes, and reproductions of these make up the real things in the material world. The world of archetypes is heaven, the world of reproductions is the earth.” An interpretative translation from the I Ching (the Book of Changes)
The realm that people appear to engage with in such accounts is not Descartes’ but Spinoza’s. The shift from dualistic to holistic although self-evident to scholars such as Spinoza and Jung, seems only tenable via dramatic and life-changing experiences like the NDE and DMT-encounter to others. Could it be that the higher focus levels in Monroe’s taxonomy, high-dosage DMT accounts, and reports of samadhi in the meditative traditions reference a similar singular encounter with the greater Self? Jung appeared convinced that separating the world of metaphor from the world of veridical perceptions is not as straightforward as one might gather. To this point, most scholars critique the focus on evidence as a virtue of the positivist paradigm, but what if evidence relates to a broader re-evaluation of a worldview that embraces both the rational, the mythical, and that emergent from an evolution of both?
The closest empirical evidence we have of rhizomic consciousness has been done at the Qualia Research Institute, which has mapped the DMT state. Evidence of hyperbolic geometry in DMT experiences mirrors the matrix-like patterns and shapes often encountered in NDE/OBE, what Peake has termed the Bohemian ‘IMAX’ and those such as Campbell have referred to as a mega simulation. Archaic sacred geometries painted on the walls of ancient caves and symbolic artefacts are echoes of internal geometric harmonies, mirrored in intersects of refractive light – the inner and outer are truly interweaving forces.