Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • David Crownfield's Last Presentation

    • Posted on Nov 25, 2013 by Scott Cawelti
    Professor Emeritus David Crownfield died last Wednesday, November 20.   He will be missed, and is remembered.   

    In the late 60s I took "Introduction to Philosophy" with David Crownfield, a new and youngish professor at UNI.  He was funny, intense, lively, and knew how to challenge undergraduates.  

    I remember at the end of one class he looked at us rather whimsically and said, 
    "You always have a choice, and it's life and death.   There's the window" (we had open-windowed classrooms) "And there's the door.  You're always free to choose."  

    The window was probably only a  few feet off the ground, but I took his point.  

    Over the years I knew him as a UNI colleague, and shared many a drink with him and bought books from his used bookstore on the Hill.  And I listened to his presentations for 'Supper Club," a group of professors and non-academics (equally) that met once a month to listen to each other's prepared presentation.  

    I just received this today from Judy Harrington, also a member of the Supper Club: 

    (Used with permission) 


    David's final presentation to  Supper Club was on April 15, 2008.  At the time, he was living at the Western Homes' Stanard Center and was having difficulty figuring out how to use the facility's computer. So, David asked if I would let him stop by my home to type and print his talk. I offered to do the secretarial work for him; but he insisted that he'd be OK at the computer. As I settled him into my desk chair with a fresh Word page on the screen, I glanced at David's legal pad which was full of scribbled handwriting. I left David to his work, skeptical that he would be able to translate scribbling to typed text. Yet, he emerged from the den about an hour later, smiling broadly and ready for me to print out his talk. David also asked that I save the talk "just in case" he wanted to send copies to certain folks later. In fact, sometime following that Supper Club meeting, at his request I made a dozen copies for him.

    I recall that evening's meeting well. David managed to read his paper without much faltering. However, during Q and A, we quickly became aware that it was increasingly difficult for him to hold onto the thread of the discussion. His formerly robust, argumentative, firmly articulated perspectives were to be no more.

    UNDERSTANDING THE OTHER
    David Crownfield 
    April 15, 2008  

    I begin my presentation this evening with a quote from Rodney King: “Why can’t 
    we all get along?"  I want to reflect on the problem of understanding each other: why it is so hard when it is often so important, and what can be done about it?

    We need to understand each other to get along. To understand others, what do 
    we need to understand about ourselves? Our understanding of the world and 
    our sense of right and wrong are shaped by our upbringing, our experiences, our learning, and through the perspective of our hopes and our fears, our cravings and our resentments.

    We tend to evaluate others by how well they live up to our standards, while we 
    disregard the possibility of understanding their standards, rooted in their own 
    experience and context.

    We live in communities and are shaped by the influence of neighborhoods, 
    schools, churches, sports, opportunities, successes and failures, models from 
    family and community, and from parental and neighborhood behavior, teachings 
    about behavior, attitudes expressed by others about what is “not us” “not cool”, 
    “sinful”, or whatever.

    We depend on acceptance by our family and community, and we tend to bend 
    our understanding of things in ways that help us to get along with the family 
    and community. We learn from family and community and from parental and 
    neighborhood behavior, from teachings about behavior, attitude expressed by 
    others about what is bad, not us, not cool, sinful, or whatever.

    We continue to adapt as we seek to secure our acceptance in the family and 
    community, to secure our inclusion together with the others.  The very language we use is acquired from the others, based on the patterns of association, of the sounds of talk with the kinds of things that are happening or are desired or feared. By a back and forth interplay we come into communicative connection with the others, but the uniqueness of each one’s experience and understanding is never fully recognized or overcome, even in learning the language. ]

    We develop a sense of what the sounds mean, and the consequences that come with hearing or using them. As there is never a uniform basis for standardizing meaning, there always remains some unrecognized gap in our understanding of the other. 

    The damage that could come from this gap is held down by our common need to get along, to be included in the family, the group, the good people, the true believers, and such. But the gap in understanding is never entirely overcome.

    The very language that we use develops originally at home, in a unique context 
    for each of us. When we get outside the family, we adjust enough to understand 
    each other, but the difference between what we understand and what the other 
    understands is never eliminated. Over time we adapt our sense of meanings 
    to fit with the others, but the gap is never reduced to zero. Dictionaries map 
    statistically calculated definitions in order to help reduce the problem but it never finishes the task. The differences remain ambiguous, an unrecognized gap in the understanding of one another.

    The same kind of problem occurs in the area of values and in the development 
    of community goals, practices, and points of view. Again, conciliation develops 
    by mutual adaptation to the context up to the point where a stable sense of 
    community agreement and inclusion is achieved. [But the agreement always 
    retains the ambiguity of all these adaptations, so the agreements, and the 
    security itself, remain ambiguous.]

    As the process builds enlarging spheres of conciliation and consensus, a sense 
    of membership and security develops, while the ambiguity is unnoticed, and the 
    stakes of solidarity are raised as success increases the value of the (always 
    imperfect) stability. This reduces the margin of tolerance in the community, 
    making conciliation at the same time both more urgent and harder to obtain when a difference occurs.

    These conflicts can develop between neighborhoods, religious groups, schools, 
    business competitions, ethnic differences, sporting enthusiasm, attitudes about 
    the people on the other side of the tracks, or the river, or whatever.

    The gradual escalation of both the need for conciliation and the sense of 
    threat create a high risk of conflict, even violence. Between large, similar, but 
    differently conciliated groups the sense of threat can lead even to war.
    If we understand the problem of understanding, we should understand the crucial importance of mutual conciliation. At the same time, we can see that the more successful the in-group conciliation, the more it increases the sense that any concession, any conciliation other than on our terms, would threaten the security achieved by the existing, challenged perspectives, a threat experienced on both sides of the conflict. 

    Add major killing-power, and there is an urgent need to conciliate the differences and at the same time a felt urgency to suppress the other’s non-conforming ideas and behavior which threaten our identity and security—which means breaking off conciliation. A dominant power may feel secure in breaking off, but a dominated group may cause a lot of havoc through terrorist tactics, which anonymously hit and run in order to strike while bypassing the overall power of the dominating force.

    Louise Richardson, a recognized scholar of the history and dynamics of terrorism (who lectured at UNI a year or two ago), notes that terrorism is typically a reaction to colonial domination and exploitation. She supports this thesis in an examination of colonial terrorism over centuries and virtually all continents. 

    In my terminology, the root of terrorism grows among dominated and exploited 
    peoples where no conciliation of conflicts about standards and values can be 
    achieved, since the colonizing power feels no need to conciliate. Mohandas 
    Gandhi achieved conciliation in India by a different tactic, an extraordinary path 
    of accepting the oppression and sacrificing safety and risking life to expose 
    the false claim that the exploitation was benevolent and also in accord with the 
    British consensus of values and of Britain’s own interests – and compatible with 
    Britain’s self-image.

    We prefer that those hostile to us follow Gandhi’s approach rather than that of 
    the terrorists. But the preference suggests that we believe that without terrorism 
    we wouldn’t have to respond to their grievances, because we think peaceful 
    resistance wouldn’t succeed against us.  We were horrified and outraged by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Our response tended to be an impulse to find them and smash them. They didn’t protest their situation like Gandhi, and we didn’t respond to our situation like Gandhi. The question of conciliation was ruled out on both sides as being impossible to achieve. We simply called the terrorism Evil, which essentially declares that conciliation can not possibly be considered. 

    This is a common use of the word “evil” to indicate an action which we exempt ourselves from understanding or conciliating.

    Don’t misunderstand me. I abhor terrorism, as I do war, and especially war that 
    rains on non-combatants. I believe the holier-than-thou perspective suggested 
    in our reactions has as its effect the declaration that conciliation is unthinkable, 
    grievances have been disqualified from redress, the problems that motivated the 
    reaction are not subject to conciliation, regardless of the problems for which they in an era of environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation, or the fear of it, the exclusion of conciliation could lead to the destruction of the human population.  

    I hold that the survival of human life in this world depends on our learning to 
    prioritize understanding over killing, and over the so-called understanding rooted in the outrage and horror that motivates us to strike back violently. The growth of large communities of conciliated values and understandings has escalated the importance of defending the values and principles that secure that solidarity, and escalated the sense of threat and the response to it, to a level that the long term can not abide, and the extremities already enacted escalate the risk that we will strike back and/or others will strike out. 

    The threat of breaking down of our solidarity and security makes conciliation very hard to attempt even as the same problems and risks escalates its urgency, and technology escalates the scope of damage that can be done. We need to discover how to get beyond this impasse between escalated need for conciliation and escalated resistance to it. If we won’t love our enemies, we need at least to listen seriously to their concerns, and see the co-existence not “with them” but between all of us (them included).

    I end, as I began, with Rodney King’s question: “Why can’t we all get along?” 
    That’s a question about us, not about whom to blame!












































     












































     











































     










     


    UNDERSTANDING THE OTHER

    Presented by David Crownfield at Supper Club, April 15, 2008

    I begin my presentation this evening with a quote from Rodney King: “Why can’t 

    I want to reflect on the problem of understanding each other: why it is so hard 

    when it is often so important, and what can be done about it?

    We need to understand each other to get along. To understand others, what do 

    we need to understand about ourselves? Our understanding of the world and 

    our sense of right and wrong are shaped by our upbringing, our experiences, our learning, and through the perspective of our hopes and our fears, our cravings and our resentments.

    We tend to evaluate others by how well they live up to our standards, while we 

    disregard the possibility of understanding their standards, rooted in their own 

    experience and context.

    We live in communities and are shaped by the influence of neighborhoods, 

    schools, churches, sports, opportunities, successes and failures, models from 

    family and community, and from parental and neighborhood behavior, teachings 

    about behavior, attitudes expressed by others about what is “not us” “not cool”, 

    “sinful”, or whatever.

    We depend on acceptance by our family and community, and we tend to bend 

    our understanding of things in ways that help us to get along with the family 

    and community. We learn from family and community and from parental and 

    neighborhood behavior, from teachings about behavior, attitude expressed by 

    others about what is bad, not us, not cool, sinful, or whatever.

    We continue to adapt as we seek to secure our acceptance in the family and 

    community, to secure our inclusion together with the others.  The very language we use is acquired from the others, based on the patterns of association, of the sounds of talk with the kinds of things that are happening or are desired or feared. By a back and forth interplay we come into communicative connection with the others, but the uniqueness of each one’s experience and understanding is never fully recognized or overcome, even in learning the language. ]

    We develop a sense of what the sounds mean, and the consequences that come with hearing or using them. As there is never a uniform basis for standardizing meaning, there always remains some unrecognized gap in our understanding of the other. 

    The damage that could come from this gap is held down by our common need to get along, to be included in the family, the group, the good people, the true believers, and such. But the gap in understanding is never entirely overcome.

    The very language that we use develops originally at home, in a unique context 

    for each of us. When we get outside the family, we adjust enough to understand 

    each other, but the difference between what we understand and what the other 

    understands is never eliminated. Over time we adapt our sense of meanings 

    to fit with the others, but the gap is never reduced to zero. Dictionaries map 

    statistically calculated definitions in order to help reduce the problem but it never finishes the task. The differences remain ambiguous, an unrecognized gap in the understanding of one another.

    The same kind of problem occurs in the area of values and in the development 

    of community goals, practices, and points of view. Again, conciliation develops 

    by mutual adaptation to the context up to the point where a stable sense of 

    community agreement and inclusion is achieved. [But the agreement always 

    retains the ambiguity of all these adaptations, so the agreements, and the 

    security itself, remain ambiguous.]

    As the process builds enlarging spheres of conciliation and consensus, a sense 

    of membership and security develops, while the ambiguity is unnoticed, and the 

    stakes of solidarity are raised as success increases the value of the (always 

    imperfect) stability. This reduces the margin of tolerance in the community, 

    making conciliation at the same time both more urgent and harder to obtain when a difference occurs.

    These conflicts can develop between neighborhoods, religious groups, schools, 

    business competitions, ethnic differences, sporting enthusiasm, attitudes about 

    the people on the other side of the tracks, or the river, or whatever.

    The gradual escalation of both the need for conciliation and the sense of 

    threat create a high risk of conflict, even violence. Between large, similar, but 

    differently conciliated groups the sense of threat can lead even to war.

    If we understand the problem of understanding, we should understand the crucial importance of mutual conciliation. At the same time, we can see that the more successful the in-group conciliation, the more it increases the sense that any concession, any conciliation other than on our terms, would threaten the security achieved by the existing, challenged perspectives, a threat experienced on both sides of the conflict. 

    Add major killing-power, and there is an urgent need to conciliate the differences and at the same time a felt urgency to suppress the other’s non-conforming ideas and behavior which threaten our identity and security—which means breaking off conciliation. A dominant power may feel secure in breaking off, but a dominated group may cause a lot of havoc through terrorist tactics, which anonymously hit and run in order to strike while bypassing the overall power of the dominating force.

    Louise Richardson, a recognized scholar of the history and dynamics of terrorism (who lectured at UNI a year or two ago), notes that terrorism is typically a reaction to colonial domination and exploitation. She supports this thesis in an examination of colonial terrorism over centuries and virtually all continents. 

    In my terminology, the root of terrorism grows among dominated and exploited 

    peoples where no conciliation of conflicts about standards and values can be 

    achieved, since the colonizing power feels no need to conciliate. Mohandas 

    Gandhi achieved conciliation in India by a different tactic, an extraordinary path 

    of accepting the oppression and sacrificing safety and risking life to expose 

    the false claim that the exploitation was benevolent and also in accord with the 

    British consensus of values and of Britain’s own interests – and compatible with 

    Britain’s self-image.

    We prefer that those hostile to us follow Gandhi’s approach rather than that of 

    the terrorists. But the preference suggests that we believe that without terrorism 

    we wouldn’t have to respond to their grievances, because we think peaceful 

    resistance wouldn’t succeed against us.  We were horrified and outraged by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Our response tended to be an impulse to find them and smash them. They didn’t protest their situation like Gandhi, and we didn’t respond to our situation like Gandhi. The question of conciliation was ruled out on both sides as being impossible to achieve. We simply called the terrorism Evil, which essentially declares that conciliation can not possibly be considered. 

    This is a common use of the word “evil” to indicate an action which we exempt ourselves from understanding or conciliating.

    Don’t misunderstand me. I abhor terrorism, as I do war, and especially war that 

    rains on non-combatants. I believe the holier-than-thou perspective suggested 

    in our reactions has as its effect the declaration that conciliation is unthinkable, 

    grievances have been disqualified from redress, the problems that motivated the 

    reaction are not subject to conciliation, regardless of the problems for which they in an era of environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation, or the fear of it, the exclusion of conciliation could lead to the destruction of the human population.  

    I hold that the survival of human life in this world depends on our learning to 

    prioritize understanding over killing, and over the so-called understanding rooted in the outrage and horror that motivates us to strike back violently. The growth of large communities of conciliated values and understandings has escalated the importance of defending the values and principles that secure that solidarity, and escalated the sense of threat and the response to it, to a level that the long term can not abide, and the extremities already enacted escalate the risk that we will strike back and/or others will strike out. 

    The threat of breaking down of our solidarity and security makes conciliation very hard to attempt even as the same problems and risks escalates its urgency, and technology escalates the scope of damage that can be done. We need to discover how to get beyond this impasse between escalated need for conciliation and escalated resistance to it. If we won’t love our enemies, we need at least to listen seriously to their concerns, and see the co-existence not “with them” but between all of us (them included).

    I end, as I began, with Rodney King’s question: “Why can’t we all get along?” 

    That’s a question about us, not about whom to blame!

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    Posted in
    • Personalities
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Death
  • What Happens When We Die? Religion, Science, and NDEs.

    • Posted on Nov 20, 2012 by Scott Cawelti





    11-20-12
    Here's a long talk I offered just over a year ago to the Cedar Falls, Iowa town/gown Supper Club, a group that has met monthly.  It's composed of academics and non-academics (gown/town) and has met since the 1940s.  

    Each member gives a talk on a subject that interests him/her, but is OUTSIDE his/her area of expertise.  The talks are supposed to be designed to provoke discussion and controversy, to get members thinking outside the box.   

    Death and dying interests us all, and I researched the subject at length for this talk.   I would also now add Eben Alexander's book  PROOF OF HEAVEN to the books cited at the end.   




    Nov. 15, 2011  

             For certain Christians, what happens after we die makes perfect and certain sense: we go to meet Jesus and his Father in a celestial realm, mysteriously accompanied by the Holy Ghost, and we live in bliss for eternity.  For saved evangelicals, that is--those who have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal savior.    The unsaved billions—Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Catholics—will roast in eternal fire for their ignorance and/or wrong beliefs.   

             I heard this same story over and over in sermon and song weekly for the first twelve years of my life at Calvary Baptist Church in Cedar Falls, and came to believe it.  Eventually I too became saved--saved from eternal damnation, and to hell with those wrongbelievers.  To paraphrase the great old hymn:  “’twas the church that taught my heart to fear, and the church my fear relieved.”  What a deal. 

             Saved or not, we’ve all attended memorial services where a grieving loved one insists that the deceased has gone to a better place. Often they’re said to be smiling down, amused and honored by our comments. This happens even at relatively secular mourning events.          

             In one way, I still believe this message of comfort:  if cessation of pain is a good thing, I know they’re better off.  Death ends bodily pain, since pain begins with nerves located in the physical body.

             However, if the “better place” is the fundamentalists’ celestial realm where Jesus and his Father reign like Kings of a Sky-Utopia, it seems preposterous. I lost my born-again evangelical religion before I could legally drive, and stopped believing in all formal religion not long after.

             So I had none of the comfort that religious certainty provides when I lost my mother at nineteen, my close friend Dick Rackstraw a decade later, my brother Jim some 13 years ago, my father three years ago, and my oldest and dearest male friend Dale Phelps two years ago.

             Except for their no longer suffering, never did I think of my mother or Dick or Jim or my dad and Dale as having gone to a better place, though at times I wondered if they had gone to a different place. 

             Much, much different.  They might have discovered, as Walt Whitman asserted, “To die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.”   To even call it a “place” misleads.  

             Over the past five years I’ve been entertained by a lively and articulate bunch of atheists, partly as a reaction to my fundamentalist upbringing.  I’m speaking of Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, Dan Barker, Christopher Hitchens, Roger Dawkins, and Carl Sagan, all of whom reinforced my semi-certainty about the fairy-tale nature of literal heavens and hells. 

              Just getting a religious person to define “God” is enough to reveal they stand on shaky ground, as Hitchens points out.    Ask them to explain the massive suffering visited regularly on mankind and they stand on no ground at all, if their God is both omniscient and good.  If He’s not neither good nor omniscient, what makes Him God?  This, from former fundamentalist Bart Ehrmann, who cannot reconcile a loving and all-knowing God with massive suffering visited regularly on mankind. 

             Still, semi-certainty remained, my doubt about doubt.

             I always felt when reading these atheists that they were just too sure of themselves, too set in their opposition to everything that religion supposedly represents.  In a way, they themselves seemed like fundamentalists, the flip side of that same coin. 

             As a result, recently I’ve turned to a long-time favorite writer and thinker on these matters: Karen Armstrong.  You may have heard of or read some of her books:  A History of God, Buddha, The Prophet Muhammad, The Spiral Staircase, and her 2009 book The Case for God.   Armstrong is a former nun who fell away from religion too, but unlike most, came back to it with new eyes, partly as a reaction to those specific atheists I just mentioned.   In The Case for God she asserts that she cannot believe in religion as an ideology, but rather as an activity that leads toward respecting the vast mysteries of existence.        

             Armstrong insists that seriously undertaking the discipline of regularly contemplating what religions reveal at their mysterious best should incite not dogmatic faith-based belief so much as awe and wonder about the nature and mystery of the universe.  

             In her conclusion she describes the truly religious person who has found success in practicing what religion offers at its best:  “Instead of being a mere workaday cup, they aspired to transform themselves into a beautiful ritual vessel brimful of the sanctity they were learning to see in life.  They tried to honor the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being and create societies that protected and welcomed the stranger, the alien, the poor, and the oppressed.  Of course, they often failed, sometimes abysmally.  But overall they found that the disciplines of religion helped them to do all this.  Those who applied themselves most assiduously showed that it was possible for mortal men to live on a higher, divine, or godlike plane and thus wake up to their true selves.”

             Armstrong here articulates what I’ve been feeling about these ultimate issues.   And I agree with her that hard-core atheists are refuting a straw deity.   Armstrong calls fundamentalist beliefs aberrations, at least in the larger scheme of centuries of theologians wrestling with questions of faith and knowledge.

             But non-evangelical Christian theologians believed that certain Bible passages pointed to a great mystery, and that whenever humans pretend to understand it on their own terms, and especially if they take any of it literally, they become idolaters.   In other words, many Christian theologians were non-believers in a literal God too—they believed that religion at its most valid challenges us to contemplate the mysteries behind the veil, which must forever remain beyond our ability to even begin to understand, much less presume to use for daily needs.  Just undertaking that journey requires a rare mix of humility and curiosity, a willingness to remain a permanent beginner.  And a willingness to reject religions that have turned idolatrous. 

             Modern atheists don’t seem to notice or care about this powerful insight, which sits firmly in the Christian and Jewish tradition, according to Armstrong.  We can attempt to explain what God is not, but can’t begin to comprehend what He/She/It is.

             Armstrong’s insights have helped me explain some experiences that anti-fundamentalist atheism cannot.  

             I’m speaking of NDEs, or Near-Death-Experiences.  Atheists of the Hitchens variety will dismiss what follows as patent nonsense.  For them, life begins in the womb and ends in the tomb.  I’m not so sure.  

             I’ve had two experiences, one first-hand and another second-hand that have made me wonder whether the tomb is the end of our road.

              The first happened the night after Dick Rackstraw, a dear friend and colleague, committed suicide in 1974.  He died by inhaling carbon monoxide from his car exhaust in his garage the previous night about four blocks from where I was sleeping near the UNI campus.  The next night he came to visit.

             I woke from a sound sleep well after midnight and realized that some version of Dick Rackstraw was sitting in the living room, waiting to talk face to face about his passage to another realm.  Understand, he didn’t talk out loud; there was no human voice literally speaking to me.  But I understood everything he was communicating.   

             Dick insisted that if I wasn’t ready to talk, it was no big deal.  He knew I would find meeting my deceased friend beyond strange. 

              I wasn’t exactly scared, but I knew that communicating directly with a spirit I could actually see was going to change my life forever. I had no frame of reference that allowed me to talk to ghosts, holy or otherwise.   So I didn’t.

              I still wish I had, and would now in a heartbeat, assuming my heart could take it.   However, if I had, I doubt I would ever talk in public about it; it just sounds too crazy.

             The second experience involved two conversations I had with a friend’s wife.  I visited them in Arizona years ago when she first talked about it and again at the end of September when we dined before my fiftieth class reunion.  Both times she grew too emotional to talk about it, and after catching her breath, talked about how utterly beautiful it was, how much she wanted to stay there, on the other side of this bright tunnel.  She regretted coming back, since she had gone through a car windshield and was in considerable pain.    After that, she never feared death at all; in fact, she was looking forward to it, realizing that she had in fact come back from being dead, or near-dead. 

             So, what is this “Near-Death Experience,” or NDE?  What do materialist-minded scientists say about it?  Religions, by the way, are fairly quiet about it, some of them even claiming that such visions are the work of the devil.

              I’m drawing here on Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, by Pim van Lommel, Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death, by Chris Carter, and Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences, by Jeffrey Long with Paul Perry.  There are many others, beginning with Raymond Moody’s 1975 book, Life after Life, and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s earlier studies on death and dying.   There’s also a web site you may want to visit if you find this subject engaging:  NDERF, for Near-Death Experience Research Foundation.  

             So, what is an NDE?  A “Near-Death Experience” is actually fairly well-reported among humans in all cultures and times.  Plato reports on the story of Er, a soldier who died and came back on his funeral pyre after 12 days and reported on what he saw, which bears a few striking resemblances to modern NDEs.    According to Pim Van Lommel, “a near-death experience is the (reported) recollection of all the impressions gained during a special state of consciousness, which includes some specific elements such as witnessing a tunnel, a blinding light, a panoramic life review, meeting deceased relatives, or observing one’s own resuscitation.  This special state of consciousness can occur during a cardiac arrest, that is, during period of clinical death, but also in the course of a serious illness or without any apparent medical indication.” 

             I’m convinced Walt Whitman had such an experience, and in fact all mystics, including the founders of world religions, seem to have undergone a visitation to an afterlife realm or beyond life realm—another form of existence, but not really “life” as we understand it.  When someone asks me whether I believe in either God or life after death, I offer my best answer:  Depends on what you mean by God and life.  Definitions change everything.

             Now, thanks to new and widespread use of resuscitating devices after heart attacks, people can be revived after losing consciousness and in some cases all signs of life, including heartbeat and brain waves.  Flatliners returning to talk about what’s over there.   

             In some cases, doctors had completely given up (these are rare) yet the person seems to snap back to life spontaneously.   These people have been reluctant to report what they saw and heard, but now they’re actively sought out and interviewed at length.  (See the NDERF web site) [Near-Death Experience Research Foundation]

             They describe these aspects, and I’m giving them here arranged here from most to least frequently reported:

    • feelings of peace or joy
    • out of body experience
    • encountering a light
    • meeting the deceased or a being of light
    • unearthly realm
    • entering a tunnel or darkness
    • life review

             How does science explain these anomalous reports from

    people who were supposed to be deeply unconscious?  Pim Van Lommel explains,  “I grew up in an academic environment where I was taught there was a reductionist and materialist explanation for everything. And up until that point, I had always accepted this as indisputably true.” 

             His large-scale NDE research project changed his mind completely.      

             Conventional science (and common sense, for that matter) leads to what seems clearly and obviously true:  brain and mind are one and the same.  Whatever happens to the brain affects the mind, directly and indisputably, and whatever happens to the mind seems to connect to and directly affect the brain.  This is the standard “materialist” explanation, and would lead to the logical conclusion that when the brain dies, the mind dies, along with all memories and personality of the brain’s owner.  Just like our senses tell us the earth is flat and sits still while the sun orbits around it.  

             As both Van Lommel and Chris Carter argue, the materialist explanation does not fit what research is beginning to reveal, nor what many relate as first-hand experiences.   In fact, as Van Lommel observes, “On the basis of . . . studies of near-death experience, recent results from neurophysiological research, and concepts from quantum physics, . . . consciousness cannot be located in a particular time and place.  This is known as nonlocality.”

             He continues:  “Complete and endless consciousness is everywhere in a dimension that is not tied to time or place, where past, present, and future all exist and are accessible at the same time . . .”

             “Our brain may be compared both to a television set, receiving information from electromagnetic fields and decoding this into sound and vision, and to a television camera, converting or encoding sound and vision into electromagnetic waves. Our consciousness transmits information to the brain and via the brain receives information from the body and senses.  The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness.”   

             Of course at the level of mere speculation, this assertion amounts to a Twilight Zone episode or ruminations of spiritualists and theosophists.

             It’s the doctors and scientists, many of whom were former skeptics like Van Lommel who provide compelling evidence beyond anecdotes and wishful thinking.

             Van Lommel devotes a chapter to reviewing the materialist explanations for NDEs and convincingly refutes them, at least for me.

             Here’s an overview of his main refutation.  NDEs, which are now accepted (even by skeptics) as actual experiences that about five percent of the population have had, are nothing more than an oxygen deficiency, which causes the brain to go into a kind of overload and produce so called “Near Death” hallucinations. 

             As Van Lommel states, “This used to be my own firm belief.”

    Hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, however, and a related increase in carbon dioxide, will in fact produce fragments of an NDE experience, but not the whole integrated experience that affects people so deeply that it changes their lives.  Nor can other chemical release explanations, since the experiences people report are more like extended lucid dreams, and in fact they can sometimes relate actual verifiable conversations among the living which took place while they were being resuscitated—hardly possibly while unconscious and barely breathing.     In effect, Van Lommel insists, none of the many explanations—whether physiological, psychological, or hallucinogenic drug related—explain the NDE in all its complexity.  He asserts “there appears to be an inverse relationship between clarity of consciousness and loss of brain function.”

             Moreover,  “There is no explanation for the fact that people across all ages and cultures have reported essentially similar experiences.” 

             Van Lommel conducted a large study in the Netherlands in the first part of this decade, which was published in Lancet, and replicated with essentially the same results in America and Britain.  All three studies concluded that NDEs are real, they reveal a definite conscious awareness when the patient was unconscious, and that “This finding all but forces us to reconsider the relationship between the brain and consciousness.”    “The fact that clear, lucid experiences were reported during a time when the brain was devoid of activity does not sit easily with current scientific belief.” --This, from Penny Sartori, the British researcher who replicated Van Lommel’s study.

             These studies led Van Lommel to conclude  “We have no direct evidence to prove if and how neurons in the brain produce the subjective essence of our consciousness.”  

             Now here’s the mind-boggler:  Van Lommel asserts there’s no way our physical brains can both store and process the information needed to create consciousness.  It’s like a computer putting out information with a processor that’s too small to have processed it.      Van Lommel mentions Simon Berkovich, a computer expert, who calculated that “despite the brain’s huge number of synapses (each cubic centimeter has approximately 10 to the 11th power of dendrites connected to synapses, which means that the brain contains a total of about 10 to the 14th power of synapses.”

             Yet at any waking moment the brain’s output in terms of processing and short and long-term memory requires approximately 10 to the 24th power of synaptic action.   That’s not possible, given the number of connections within the brain itself, according to recent brain research.

             Or as Van Lommel puts it,  “On the basis of these findings, we are forced to conclude that the brain has insufficient capacity for storing all memories with associated thoughts and feelings or retrieving capacity for stored information.”

             The only explanation for this disparity is that memories are stored not in brain tissue itself but in electromagnetic fields of the brain.  Again, Van Lommel explains: “Neurosurgeon Karl Pribram was equally certain that memories cannot be stored in brain cells, but only in the coherent patterns of the electromagnetic fields of neural networks.” (p. 194) LOCATION 3678 of Van Lommel book.

             To Pribram, the brain is less like a central processing unit and more like a hologram, which is “capable of storing the vast quantity of information of the human memory.”  Some 90 years ago, psychologist Karl Lashley proved that “memories are not stored in any single part of the brain but throughout the brain as a whole.”        

             Moreover, the brain is highly plastic, meaning it can be physically altered by thoughts—thoughts can alter physical structures in the brain, which explains a good deal about the placebo effect, not to mention hypnosis.

             The conclusion of all this speculating?  The brain facilitates consciousness, but does not create or merely contain it.

             And here’s the larger point:  consciousness can be experienced independently of brain function.   That’s what NDEs reveal.

    We can and do leave our bodies at times, to put it more directly, since consciousness is not located only in our brain.  

             Van Lommel concludes, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that our endless consciousness preceded birth and will survive death independently of the body and in a nonlocal space where time and place play no role.  According to the theory of nonlocal consciousness there is no beginning and no end to consciousness.”

              Jeffrey Long, a doctor who founded the Near Death Experience Research Foundation and author of Evidence of the Afterlife:  The Science of Near-Death Experience, asserts that “I long ago quit believing that death is the cessation of our existence.  I was born into a scientific family. My father was the chair of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Iowa and a onetime contender for the Nobel Prize.  Through him and others in our family I developed great respect for science.      

             By scientifically studying the more than 1,300 cases shared with the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation, I believe that the nine lines of evidence presented in [his] book [mentioned earlier] all converge on one central point: There is life after death.”

             Again, I want to remind us that it’s not “life” as we know it—it’s an ineffable state of consciousness free of time and space—whatever you choose to call that.   I would avoid calling it “heaven,” which sounds like a place with definite features—clearly a projection that arises from our bodily attachment to time and place.

             To close, I’d like to quote what Mona Simpson related about her brother’s death.  In her printed eulogy printed recently in the New York Times she said that he spoke three sets of two monosyllables as he looked over his family’s shoulders:  Oh wow.  Oh wow.  Oh wow.   Those were his last words.  

             Mona Simpson’s brother, of course, was the lucky Steve Jobs.  

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