A friend sent me an article about Melvin Morse, who has spent much time investigating Near Death Experiences (NDE’s). These aren’t entirely unfamiliar in public discourse. I remember seeing a TV program about them some years ago, and finding it pretty interesting. Morse focused primarily on children who had had NDE’s, but the stories don’t come only from children. Adults have them too. They may or may not be a universal experience, perhaps conditioned by various psychological atitudes. Morse mentions that some come from children old enough to describe their experiences, but not so old as to have acquired fears about death that an older person might have. Not that his conclusions are uncontroversial. One scientist is quoted as saying that the experiences come from brains that are disintegrating into death, and don’t prove life after death. A good many scientists, though, now tend to believe that the whole universe is conscious, and is set up to produce consciousness. There are still scientists who believe that the production of life, on this planet or any other, is accidental. While their evidence may not be entirely wrong, I’m inclined to think there are too many things that such a mechanistic view fails to explain. I’ve mentioned some of them in a previous post.
Morse’s primary interest in NDE’s, he said was to be able to heal families grief at death of a family member, especially a child, though his data seems to have a lot of other implications. That certainly seems like a worthwhile goal, so it’s surprising to discover that he and his wife had been arrested for allegedly “waterboarding” their 11 year old daughter. What could have induced a man with his apparent inight to behave in such a way?
Waterboarding, if what he did was anything like the controversial method used in interrogation of terrorists some years ago, is an extremely severe sort of discipline to practice. It suggests an element of sadism in his personality, to say the least. But the friend who sent me the article pointed out the other aspect of what he had done, which I hadn’t be astute enough to notice. Beginning with Morse’s conviction that NDE’s are valuable experiences, that people who have had them enjoy life, are much less frightened by death, and are able to live in more balanced ways than they previously had, one cam understand that he wanted his daughter to experience this. As the article about him pointed out, stories may be impressive, but the real benefits come from experience. So trying to get her to experience an NDE was the next logical step. Logical, but not ethical.
For one thing, the method used (waterboarding) seems a particularly cruel way to induce an NDE, especially for one’s own daughter. Besides that, his daughter was still a child, and a child is incapable of informed consent. If an adult wished to undergo that sort of experience, in hopes of experiencing an NDE, one might question his or her sanity, but not that they had the right to make that choice. There are a whole range of examples of people who have had a spiritual experience or insight who attempt to convert others to their point of view. Some manage to do so responsibly, others don’t. Jim Jones is an example of someone with a peculiar power over people, and perhaps much insight, whose attempt at building a movement went tragically wrong. As the friend who sent me the article pointed out, that’s the effect of ego. Wanting to save the world is all very well, but if ends and means don’t harmonize, the results are rarely good.
The same has been true of larger movements as well. No less a figure than Saint Augustine of Hippo justified forcible conversion to Christianity. The general Christian perception at the time was that paganism was demonic, while Christianity was the truth with a capital T. Given that assumption, all kinds of behavior can be justified. Christianity still remembers pagan persecution of Christianity; what is less well-remembered is that Christians, once they got political power, persecuted pagans even more, to say nothing of heretics, Jews and witches later on.
The same was true of Communism and Nazism, which notoriously persecuted people for their beliefs. I’m sure the list doesn’t end there. In the case of religion, as well as other forms of understanding, there are different levels, and very few can truthfully claim to completely understand any phenomenon in totality. Unfortunately, that kind of claim can be very tempting, as well as the actions that kind of belief can provoke.
The friend who sent me the article gave, I think, a very good perspective on it. “The scientific w0rk being done in this area can never be more than a statistical analysis of those who experience NDE’s. Thus, the views of Huxley, Heard and Gurdjieff is just their perspective of the experience. I grant you that the experience of some is expressed more beautifully than others, yet the truth is in the individual experience.” I certainly can’t disagree with that. Some accounts of spiritual experiences that I’ve read have really resonated with me, but that’s no guarantee of their truth, since I haven’t had such experiences myself. Anti-black and anti-Jewish sentiments resonate with others, which is no guarantee of their truth either.
One possible test of the truth of such views is the ability of the person who becomes a teacher to lead his students into similar experiences. There’s a good deal of testimony that George Gurdjieff, mentioned in some of my previous posts, was able to do this. One of his students, recounting such an experience (which I wouldn’t characterize as an NDE), said he had always thought (as a writer) that it was ridiculous to say that such experiences couldn’t be described, but that he found this to be the case with his own experience. He said it was deeply personal, and that he suspected that such an experience must always be so. That seems to validate my friend’s view. The experience is always personal, but the teacher with sufficient understanding of how humans work can lead people into making the efforts that will produce experiences beyond ordinary experience. This gives the teacher a great deal of power over the student, though, and he or she must be careful not to misuse that power. The point is not the teacher’s fame or power, but the student learning to become what he or she is capable of being. Teachers seduced by power or fame will be unable to be honest enough with themselves to avoid damaging students or others around them.
Another student of Gurdjieff’s recounted a number of unusual experience he’d had, which one might charcterize as spiritual. How much of them he was able to describe remains questionable, though. He said that in one, he suddenly thought, This is why God hides himself from us, but was later unable to remember why this had occurred to him. Gurdjieff called what he taught “the science of being born again, the greatest in the world”. His own experiences would have been crucial to the teaching, and the means he used to teach, but what would ultimately count would be the ability of his students to go beyond their usual boundaries, experience for themselves whatever they could find there, and then make good use of their experience. From the outside, it would appear that he never succeeded in succeeded on the scale he would have liked to, but quite a number of people have written books about his positive influence on their lives, and it may well be that his teaching continues under the radar, with what effect it’s difficult to say.
So it seems to me that Morse’s scientific work was valuable, but that in “waterboarding” his young daugher, he took it too far, which is why my friend entitled the letter about his activities, Prometheus. He quotes, “In the Western classical tradition Prometheus became a figure that represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowlege, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. In particular, he was regarded in the Romantic era as the lone genisus whose efforts to improve human existence could also end in tragedy: Mary Shelley, for instance, gave The Modern Prometheus as the subtitle to her novel Frankenstein (1818).” We have plenty of examples of scientists and others pursuing knowledge that might turn out to be useful, but could also easily be misused. Morse, unfortunately, is one of the scientists who went too far.
Let me give my friend the last word here. “The point of this glorious existence and the mystery of it is: each of us must continually fight to be ourselves, and understanding that is both the meaning and mystery of all.” I can’t improve on that.