Monday, June 12, 2006

The Electronic Voice Phenomena conference

The AA-EVP conference this weekend offered a battery recharge for everyone who laments that the psychical research Establishment has settled into a dull routine of learning more and more about less and less. Of course, at the handful of universities where parapsychology, as the academic-minded prefer to call it, is on the menu, careerists and gradgrinds do what they can to make it irrelevant to everyone else. They'll carry on doing the same lab experiments testing PK effects on random-number generators and suchlike cud chewing till the cosmos is marked down for quick sale. Fortunately, plenty of people, credentialed and non-credentialed, retain a thirst for inner truths that matter, and are devising their own ways to part the curtains of ignorance.

Some of those seekers were gathered at the conference. With over a dozen presenters, it would be impossible to give a reasonable account of them all in a blog posting. (I don't know of any plans to publish proceedings, but that would be a good idea for the next such event.)

The basic technique for electronic voice phenomena recording was discussed in a recent posting. Naturally, we heard a fair number of examples, both pre-recorded and spontaneous. My impression was that about 25 percent could not clearly be identified as speech; perhaps 65 percent of the samples sounded like speech, but the interpretation of the words was at least in part open to question; and around 10 percent of the examples were comprehensible words and short sentences.

Ten percent may not seem like much — but given the ostensible source of the speech, to wit, persons who had died previous to the recordings — hearing them was a striking experience. Psychical researchers like to quote a remark of William James's that, to disprove the statement that all crows are black, you only have to produce one white crow. In other words, evidence that anyone survives tends to disprove the hypothesis that there can be no life after death.

I say "tends to disprove," rather than "disproves," because this is an area where it is almost impossible to obtain absolute proof — a "smoking gun" — or even to agree about what proof would consist of. All you can do is weigh the evidence and decide what seems most likely.

Not surprisingly, there were in the audience and on the podium quite a few parents who had lost children to accidents and illness. Many claimed that they recognized the voices and habits of speech of their departed offspring in the EVP recordings. The skeptic will say that they were grasping at straws, desperately looking for consolation, perhaps being played for suckers. Only they (and perhaps not even they) can say for sure how much truth there is in such judgments. But most of those parents had done their own EVP experiments, so at least no one else was trying to con them. And nothing about them suggested they were gullible or fantasy-prone. The need for reality testing was a recurrent theme during the conference.

Although EVP was the main focus, other evidence for post-mortem survival was presented. Two of the Scole mediums, Alan and Diana Bennett, described their new line of investigation. They showed photographs of human faces that appeared in crystals under certain kinds of reflected light. Gary Schwartz, Ph.D., a University of Arizona researcher, talked about a triple-blind experiment in which he and his students tested exceptionally talented mediums, who produced accurate, statistically significant results. He also presented a theoretical basis for survival, namely, that the brain is a receiver of consciousness, not a generator of consciousness, so that consciousness can still exist without a physical reception apparatus. (As far as individual awareness is concerned, there must be some kind of mind as the site of impressions, but this theory assumes that it can exist in a more subtle dimension than the material world.)

Add it up: the evidence from near-death expriences, out-of-the-body experiences, mediumistic communication, dream communication, automatic writing, the (relatively few) apparitions of the dead that seem to have conscious volition, and EVP … as well as religous and folkloric traditions going back as far in the past as we have any knowledge. Survival of the transition called death seems at least as likely as the alternative. There seems to be a semi-permeable membrane between this world and the next through which information and communication leak from time to time, perhaps more often if we look and listen for it. This life is a temporary and, it may be, limited expression of who we really are. As the English Quaker John Wilhelm Rowntree expressed it, "We are not human beings following a spiritual path but spiritual beings following a human path."

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