On out-of-body experiences
2012-11-06 0:00

By Andrew Brown | Guardian.co.uk

The idea of an untethered consciousness is something we can understand, even when we donít suppose it is found in nature.


I was standing at the urinal in the brightly lit downstairs cloakroom at Lambeth Palace when I realised that to talk about the spiritual dimension of life is perfectly ridiculous Ė because the spiritual, disembodied dimension is where we live all the time. We can only get out of it with a deliberate effort. The physical dimension comes to us at second hand. Consciousness is the form in which experience comes to us.

This is hardly original Ė perhaps itís one of those insights which recurs in different forms throughout your life. But it goes some way to explaining why out-of-body experiences seem so natural to us. Almost all our daily life is an out-of-body experience. When I write this, I am conscious only of the words on the screen, and, faintly, of my fingers somewhere underneath. Least of all am I conscious of my brain, where all this stuff is supposed to be happening.

But what about other peopleís out-of-body lives? Again, these make intuitive sense, because disembodied spirits are something we deal with all the time. When you read this, your mind is reacting (I hope) to my mind. Youíre certainly not reacting to my brain. If you destroy the brain, the mind is also destroyed, but the link between them is still entirely mysterious. The idea, then, of a consciousness that comes completely untethered from its body and survive the bodyís destruction is something that we can understand even when we donít suppose it is to be found in nature. Itís not logically impossible: just contingently so.

An interesting sidelight here is that consciousness seems to be something we associate with purpose and desire: an angry ghost is believable in a way that a computerís ghost is not. Even people who believe that computers can be conscious canít believe in one whose consciousness persisted even after the electricity was turned off. I donít think this is just a matter of materialism. Itís also because computers donít have desires.

Of course, the fact that it is easy and natural to imagine ghosts, or disembodied consciousnesses, does not mean they exist. Science proceeds on the assumption that they donít and that our imaginings are simply illusions produced by the evolved compulsion of our minds to jump to conclusions. When we see Pac-Man pursuing the dots in a crude video game we see a pursuit, which is a purposive activity, and we see it without any conscious reflection at all.

But suppose there were evidence of disembodied consciousness in scientifically monitored situations? The most interesting experiments I know of take place in intensive care units. Since one classic version of the near death experience involves looking down from a great height at your own body Ė come to think of it, I may have had one of those myself when bicycling to my heart attack Ė the obvious scientific test is to place things in an intensive care unit that could only be seen from above, and then to ask whether the experiencer noticed them.

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Read the full article at: guardian.co.uk







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