A debate on survival within the SPR
Two different points of view on the same facts
In May 1924 an interesting debate was published on the SPR Proceedings about the survival of the conscious Ego after bodily death, which saw on one side an intervention by Professor Charles Richet (The Difficulty of Survival from the Scientific Point of View) and on the other the answer of another famous scientist, Sir Oliver Lodge (The Possibility of Survival from the Scientific Point of View). The interest of this debate can be focused on the following three points:
It may be interesting to verify how much their observations can still be considered valid in our day, taking into account the further development of scientific knowledge, after giving some brief biographical notes that can help to better understand the views of the two scholars. Charles Richet (1850-1935), professor of physiology at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913 for his research on anaphylaxis. He focused his studies on the human nervous and muscular system, on respiratory processes and on serotherapy, and therefore had good knowledge of the functioning of human body. Man of many interests, he also dealt with aviation and profused a great commitment in the cause of pacifism. He wrote a lot, both as an essayist and as a novelist, and was a tireless experimenter in the field of paranormal phenomenology, which he defined as metapsychic (a term that was widely used until it was replaced by the now preferred parapsychology). He carried out investigations and researches in the field of telepathy, hypnosis, materialized apparitions (he coined the term ectoplasm), experimenting with various mediums such as Piper, Paladino and Béraud. Among his most important works in this field, 30 Years of Psychical Research, first published in 1922. In 1877 he married Amélie Aubry, with whom he had five children.
Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) obtained the chair of mathematics and physics at Liverpool University in 1881. He collaborated with the important scientific journal Nature, and in 1887 became a member of the Royal Society, the most important scientific institution at that time. In 1900 he accepted the position of Rector of Birmingham University, which he held until 1919, the year he retired while continuing his research in the field of radio waves and wireless telegraphy. He managed to send a radio message a year before Guglielmo Marconi, although he used low frequency currents that had a very short transmission range. In 1897 he patented the synthesizer: the patent was later bought by Marconi in 1911. He joined the SPR in 1884, moved not so much by a real interest in psychical research, but because, as he noted in his autobiography, he found that some facts were little appreciated by scientists and for this they were neglected, while to him they seemed worthy of attention. He was president of the SPR from 1901 to 1903, and then again in 1932 together with Eleanor Sidgwick. In 1877 he married Mary Fanny Marshall: 12 children were born from the marriage, six boys and six girls. Four of his sons became businessmen using his inventions, another became a writer and poet, and the sixth, Raymond, died at the front in 1915. On the basis of the results of the research carried out with some mediums, and after obtaining some feedback about his son dead in war, Lodge published in 1916 the famous book Raymond, or Life and Death, in which he supported the thesis of survival: a conviction – matured since 1889 in the course of an in-depth investigation into the relevant mediumistic phenomena produced by the American medium Leonora Piper (1857-1950) – already manifested in The Survival of Man in 1909,and then deepened in other subsequent works such as Why I believe in Personal Immortality in 1928, and The Reality of a Spiritual World in 1930. Another of his works of 1910, important as revealing the philosophical and existential themes that fascinated him, is Reason and Belief: The Impact of Scientific Discovery on Religious and Spiritual Faith.
The point of view expressed in Richet's article was strongly influenced by his scientific knowledge on the functioning of the human body. Richet would not deny a priori the possibility of survival: «There are facts – he wrote – so unexpected, so perturbing, continually cropping up as we continue to study the subject, presenting themselves with such disconcerting rapidity and complexity, that it would be inexcusable for me to deny, without hesitation, all possibility of the survival of consciousness». Nevertheless, the scholar added, the spiritualistic hypothesis not only can not be proved, but rather is contradicted by a good number of the investigated facts. Richet stated that a scholar's judgment should not be influenced either by the human inclination on whether survival is desirable or not, or by any form of faith or personal religious orientation, since knowledge's sole purpose is to seek the truth on the basis of the examination of facts. The medical knowledge of the scientist emerges when he states that physiology demonstrates a strict parallelism between intellectual functions and brain's functioning: consciousness, mobility, sensitivity, memory, are always functions of the nervous system, both in man and in animals. Therefore the survival hypothesis should take into account not only human consciousness, but also the animals' one. We have already seen how, in the course of some mediumistic séances, even animal entities were showed up to a complete materialization: so we can conclude that anomals' survival is not excluded by the spiritualistic hypothesis.
Richet then claimed that he could not believe that human memory could exist without the anatomical and physiological integrity of the brain, an attitude that some critics – including Lodge – reproached with benevolent irony, saying that Richet was a devoted worshipper of the brain fetish. Certainly Richet could have a good game in proving that chemically introduced alterations in the cerebral physiology modify, inhibit or completely delete all functions associated with consciousness. Although survival's supporters state that the brain is only an instrument, it seems undeniable that throughout the experience of human life our consciousness is subordinated to the functioning of this instrument which – according to Richet – can give rise both to normal and paranormal experiences. But, as we have seen, the latter are precisely those that, at least in some cases, can give rise to some doubt about the fact that every psychic experience always depends on the brain. However, it must be recognized that, even in the light of our current knowledge, there are not sufficient elements and facts to oppose Richet's position with irrefutable evidence. In fact, it would be necessary to demonstrate the existence of psychic phenomena connected to individual consciousness even in complete absence of brain activity, but our information on the functioning of the brain is still far from being able to give exhaustive indications on the correlations between some psychic phenomena and the corresponding brain activity. As we have seen by examining various cases of NDEs, we can not exclude the possibility of dealing with conscious experiences whose dependence on brain functioning is possibly doubtful. Nevertheless, the difficulties that arise when trying to formulate a coherent hypothesis to sever the consciousness-brain link that characterizes human experience seem insurmountable, if we try to take into consideration the possibility of a conscious experience independent of brain activity. Richet, despite his remarkable stature as a scientist, could not overcome this obstacle.
«We have understood nothing, absolutely nothing»
As for the phenomena of that wide field of investigation that he defined as objective metapsychics (mediumistic communications, materializations, etc.), Richet was well convinced of their reality, but could not consider them enough demonstrative as proof of survival. He thought, quite rightly, that many statements obtained from the spirits were imbued with psychic elements typically linked to human experience, confused, often contradictory, and – from the point of view of an intelligence such as his own – not infrequently simply ridiculous. For these reasons he preferred to attribute to the human body and mind (which he considered as a function determined by cerebral activity) extraordinary powers, whose modes of showing were still to be investigated or discovered. So, even if he did not want to support the sulvival hypothesis, he was then forced to admit the existence of phenomena on which (these are his words) «we have understood nothing, abolutely nothing». This proves once again, if needed, how strong is the influence of individual psychic tuning in the evaluation of observed phenomena. Being the psyche a phenomenon – experienced in the course of our human existence – whose origin and purpose remain a mystery to us (like other phenomena of this universe), we are always faced with the limits of our possibilities of know and understand, and we must therefore note how Richet's conclusion is at the same time unsatisfactory and disheartening. If a century ago a person could have hopes, however naive, on the discovery of new energies that would allow to physically and humanly explain the phenomena of objective metapsychics, today such expectations have lost credibility, so much so that we often prefer to remove or deny these phenomena tout court, instead of wasting time studying or pondering over it.
Lodge's position on the subject was more articulate and in some respects much more actual and convincing. It must be remembered that Lodge was a physicist and a mathematician, who had already tackled in his books some problematic aspects both gnoseological and epistemological about the interpretation of the universe, using the scientific discoveries of his time as a test bench for his evaluations. It also happens in our days that physicists, dealing with a field of knowledge that we could define as fundamental (as it is the basis of other scientific disciplines), are much more attentive than biologists or doctors to the problem of the causes of what happens in this universe and the relations between the laws that govern it. In particular, Lodge dealt in his books with two aspects of the physical universe – the transmission of certain effects at a distance in the void and the origin and evolution of life – on which he anticipated some concepts that today are unanimously recognized as valid.
Regarding the transmission of effects at a distance, Lodge theorized the presence of ether in each point of the universe, an ubiquitous function that made possible, for example, the gravitational attraction between bodies. Today the concept of ether has been abandoned, to be replaced by that of field which, especially after the recognition of Einstein's theory of relativity and the existence of space-time, has no longer been questioned: the gravitational and electromagnetic fields are present in every point of the universe, regardless of whether or not matter exists in that point or in the immediate vicinity. Thus they represent an aspect of physical reality that completely escapes our sensory perception, but which undoubtedly produces physical effects. And since, according to Lodge, when some mediumistic phenomena occur we observe physical effects, how can we exclude the presence of other energies of the ether (today we would say: other energy fields) that we have not yet discovered? As is evident, Lodge's position does not present any proof of survival in itself, nevertheless it is interesting because it highlights the effects exerted by energy fields not perceivable by our senses on the physical reality that we perceive instead. These effects are well known to everybody, now that we live in the telecommunications era. Moreover, as regards astrophysics, one of the most interesting current debates regards the presence in the universe of the dark matter (and energy), so called because it completely escapes our possibilities of observation, both sensory and instrumental.
The complexity of life
The other aspect that Lodge strove to highlight was that relating to the complexity of life. The law of conservation of energy, considered one of the cornerstones of physics, states that in a transformation from one system to another, energy is neither created nor destroyed. According to this law, in the past, many scientists claimed that there was no difference between a living organism and a decomposing body, since in the transformation of the substances which formed the two systems, the global energy does not change. This is certainly true, said Lodge, but something else has changed, since the living organism has characteristics of complexity in its organization that are lost in the decomposing corpse. At his time, Lodge did not yet have the cognitive and conceptual tools to elaborate in a more appropriate way his intuition about the organizational complexity of living beings (which he attributed to a not better identified formative principle), while today we can use – as it has been pointed out in the section on life – a precise system of knowledge to understand what is missing in a body that passes from life to death: there is a full loss of information, in the sense in which this term is used in the field of informatics. We could also consider information as a kind of abstract intelligence that applies to physical reality. In this case, therefore, Lodge had hit the target, emphasizing the influence of nonphysical entities and energies on physical reality and showing a valid intuition about the future developments of human knowledge. Richet too, as we have seen, referred to forces and energies of an unknown nature, but preferred not to expose himself further in the search for a correlation between physical phenomena, psychic events and possible intelligences transcending the physical dimension.
The thesis on survival
Lodge's arguments are preparatory to his thesis in favor of survival: if we have evidence of the existence of energies and non-physical entities able to act on physical reality – affirmed the scientist – we can not exclude that even individual consciousness may have its own independent existence with respect to the physical support that allows it to manifest itself in this dimension. Lodge immediately cleared the field from what in the Christian context was referred to as the flesh resurrection, that is the exhumation and the return to life of corpses, now decomposed or transformed into completely different substances, of people who lived on this earth. By the laws of nature, the body of a living creature dies once and forever and can no longer be brought back to life. He also observed that the body does not come to the world already fully formed, but molds itself, grows and organizes itself through a process of transformation, involving the acquisition of elements and substances which – although already present in the physical environment – are reorganized in a very different way, much more complex in terms of information content, due to what he called the formative principle. In fact, to the microscopic dimension of a fertilized egg or an embryo in the early stages of development, corresponds an enormous amount of information already contained within them, which causes the potential status to be transferred to the implementation phase, by assimilation and transformation of substances available in the external environment, through the execution of already predisposed programs present in the cells themselves.
The energetic body
Lodge then referred to the fact that communicating entities often declared (and tried to demonstrate) that they too had a body, even if different from ours. And so it can not be excluded, he said, that a similar informatics program of accretion and transformation of energy may occur within the ether, up to the formation of an energetic body that lives alongside the physical body, and acquires its independence at the latter's death. Certainly Lodge was much more inclined to accept the information contained in the communications of spirit entities (with the exception of those that were incontestably absurd or contradictory) than Richet was. His arguments also present some weak points: first of all, his concept of ether (which, as we have seen, today must be substituted with that of field) was still referred to the physical reality of this universe, while – according to what the communicating entities generally stated – the spirit dimension is separate from the physical one, and can interact with it only in particular conditions and circumstances. Moreover, just as the physical body of living beings is subject not only to a process of growth and organization, but also to one of disintegration involving the inevitable terminal destruction, Lodge did not explain to us why a similar process in the etheric plane should give rise to an indestructible and eternal body. As for the autonomy of the etheric body from the physical one in the course of human life, Lodge solved the problem by affirming – like other scholars – that the etheric body is normally completely inhibited by the presence of the physical body (whose energetic valence appears to us extremely stronger), and yet in exceptional cases (psychics, clairvoyants, etc.) it may have its own activity. At death the etheric body frees itself from the physical, and a person's consciousness tunes on that new dimension.
The limits of our knowledge: the black-out of consciousness
As we have already observed, our knowledge of the brain functioning and the origin of consciousness is still too limited to allow us to positively evaluate Lodge's hypothesis, which could have some basis only if we could establish what is the force that binds the etheric body to the physical one, and for which causes in some individuals and in certain circumstances this bond can be lost even during this life. In particular we should understand why the etheric body does not show its autonomy with respect to the physical body, keeping alive the consciousness in all those cases in which there is a blackout in the brain functioning (fainting, anesthesia, coma, vegetative state, and so on). As a rule, in the course of human life consciousness seems to be associated exclusively with brain activity, and it does not appear that it is switched on the etheric body in the event of a temporary crisis of the functions of the cerebral organ. This also applies to psychics and mediums, who during an anesthesia or in a coma state lose consciousness like everybody else, or in the case of those mediums who have no awareness of what happens during the trance in which they fall.
The anomalous character of NDEs
It is true that experiences such as some NDEs or bilocation states can endorse the hypothesis that consciousness is activated by an instrument distinct from the physical in particular critical conditions of brain activity, but it can not be said that these events occur regularly, as evidenced by the fact that the majority of people subjected to anesthesia, fainted or otherwise entered into a state of temporary unconsciousness, have no other memory, upon awakening, but the perception of a consciousness blackout. It would make little sense to imagine a state of complete dissociation of consciousness similar to that for which many people, while dreaming, do not remember their dreams when they wake up: if the events consciously experienced through an etheric body were completely forgotten upon returning to the ordinary conscious state associated with brain functioning, there would be no continuity of consciousness and personal identity. One of the most interesting aspects of NDEs is that those people who experienced them keep an indelible memory and are strongly influenced by them for the rest of their lives.
In light of the scientific and technological progress of our time, and taking into account the data obtained from those paranormal phenomena that we consider ascertained (in particular those of mediumistic origin), we can propose some other considerations. The computer (considered as hardware and software), which among the devices created by humans is the one that has the greatest informatics capacity, was designed and implemented by an external (human) intelligence, and even the users of the processed information are humans. Since we are led to rule out that a computer has its own conscious activity, if by hypothesis such an activity emerged in the context of its functioning, it would be a total surprise even for the human intelligence that created it. Living organisms are much more complex information systems than computers, and at such level of complexity we are certain, through direct experience, that the particular function that we call consciousness emerges in them. The conscious Ego of some people is able to wonder (among other things), as we have seen in the section dedicated to the psyche, about the intelligence that organizes the development of living organisms, and on what will be its own destiny, once that the living organism in which it has developed is dissolved.
The conscious experience of the human robot
As described in a charming short story by Asimov, the human being could be considered similar to a robot – that is, to a computer endowed with body, thought and consciousness by an alien intelligence that designed and programmed it – which, at least apparently, lives for him/herself and for his/her survival, and not at the service of some external operator, but in this way continues to carry out the task for which he/she was programmed. However, precisely because this robot lives, it develops its own conscious experience that grows, evolves and is gradually registered within a suitable system. When the robot is destroyed, it may happen that the content of the recording was transferred from one device to another by some external intelligent system. In this hypothesis consciousness, like information, would turn out to be a non-physical entity that needs a support to manifest itself, and if it is true that this support must be physical in order for it to operate in the physical dimension, it could also be of a different nature in another dimension.
When I say, «it may happen», I should add that it is not certain that this will happen in any case, since the activation of this process of consciousness transfer from one dimension to another would depend on the action of an intelligent program outside our control, just as our existence in this life and in this world depends on a process that transcends our will. It may be that the transition of individual consciousness from this physical dimension, linked to the existence of our human body, to a different dimension, is already implicit and planned since our coming into this world, and therefore ensured and guaranteed for every conscious organism (animals included), and yet – since we are creatures and not creators – we have no conclusive proof in this regard, apart from the communications of a certain number of spirit entities, who take for granted the transition of consciousness to another dimension as for them, apparently, this transition already occurred. The nature and function of communicating entities deserve in some cases to be studied and deepened, since the information received through them is ultimately based on some non-religious hypotheses on survival. We should nevertheless remember that every human creature can claim the right not to be considered only as an insignificant, meaningless and temporary fragment of the physical universe.