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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Elliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 180 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. See also: www.benjamin-philosopher.com.
Agnosticism and Fundamentalist Mediumship
I try my best to remain skeptical in regard to what I hear from all the “believers” in these things.
In Richard Dawkins' provocative and controversial 2006 book The God Delusion , he has a chapter entitled "The Poverty of Agnosticism". In this chapter he describes the origination of the term “agnosticism” by one of Darwin's staunch supporters of his theory of evolution, Thomas Huxley, who described agnosticism as follows (with standard 19th century sexist language):
Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle....Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other considerations. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him. (cf. , p. 72)
Although in general Dawkins has much respect for Huxley, he gently criticizes him (rather unusual for Richard Dawkins to do anything “gently”) for applying an agnostic perspective to a belief in God:
To a scientist these are noble words, and one doesn't criticize T. H. Huxley lightly. But Huxley, in his concentration upon the absolute impossibility of proving or disapproving God, seems to have been ignoring the shading of probability. The fact that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of something does not put existence and non-existence on an even footing. (cf.  p, 72)
Dawkins goes on to explain why he considers himself to be a “de facto atheist”:
I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there. (cf. , p. 73)
When it comes to belief in God in any kind of traditional religious sense, I must say that I find Dawkins' analysis and arguments quite convincing. And I have previously described how I found Julian Jaynes' ideas about how religion originated and developed, as he expressed in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind , to be intriguing. But when I refer to myself as an agnostic, I am not thinking in terms of God in a traditional religious sense. Rather I am thinking in terms of “meaning” and “purpose” and the possibility that we have non-material “souls” that possibly could survive our bodily deaths . But I try my best to remain skeptical in regard to what I hear from all the “believers” in these things; i.e. from all the believers who from my perspective are conveying their “faith” without any kind of legitimate or scientific knowledge to support what they believe. Let me give you an example.
I recently decided to cancel my membership in an organization that sponsors conferences regarding “afterlife research,” in which a few years ago I had attended some conferences and gave talks pertaining to my agnostic experiential afterlife research with mediums (see my dissertation/book in ). I will leave this organization unnamed to preserve anonymity, but my reasons for deciding to cancel my membership are directly related to a change in the leadership of this organization that has resulted in their belief that “the afterlife has been proven,” and consequently to a rejection of my agnostic perspective on the question of the existence of life after death. And I will also say that the more I read and study, especially from many of the commendable articles written on Integral World, the more difficult I find it to maintain my agnostic perspective in regard to the possibility of the existence of an afterlife. For I am finding myself slowly and gradually moving in the direction of Dawkins' characterization of a “de facto atheist” in regard to belief in an afterlife. But what is especially starting to clinch this for me is that my own experiential test of the matter is not looking good for the “believers” in an afterlife, as I described in both my Life after Death book/dissertation and my recent Integral World essay An Agnostic Skeptic with Mediumistic Abilities (cf. ). But what do I mean by the term “fundamentalist mediumship”?
Steve Hermann, the medium who conducted my recent Mediumship Mastery workshop and who wrote the forward to my Life after Death book (cf. ), is an example to me of a highly unusual open-minded medium. Well that is “open-minded” to listening calmly and receptively to the perspectives of others who think and believe differently than he does (like myself), although never diverting from his own unshakable beliefs in the authenticity of the afterlife and in the abilities of some mediums to convey genuine communications from people who have died. I was initially very impressed with Steve before I ever met him, largely from his recommendation to me to read George Lawton's 1932 book The Drama of Life after Death . Lawton did experiential research at Lily Dale Spiritualist Camp  in a way that reminds me of my own afterlife research investigations of mediums, and was very critical of what he observed. But Steve thinks that Lawton's conclusions are very important to publicize, to understand the shallowness and lack of authenticity, and even fraud, that Steve readily admits occurs all too often today in the world of mediumship.
In contrast to Steve Hermann, the president of the organization I referred to above is an example of someone I consider to be a “fundamentalist” in regard to mediumship. Here are what I perceive as some illustrations of this from our recent communications.
When I was 35 I met “by accident” a couple on the beach on Fire Island who were Tibetan Buddhists. They suggested I read “The Third Eye” by T. Lobsang Rampa. I did, and became hooked on his stories, so I read everything he wrote. The interesting result was I reached the inescapable conclusion that there had to be a Supreme Creator. It was the only thing that made sense....You are not convinced of the spirit world, yet try to visualize a spirit as simply being a soul that is vibrating at a higher frequency than a human. The more spiritual the soul, the faster their vibration. Imagine the vibration level of the Creator. You wrote that you were disappointed in your mediumship results. I'm disappointed that I have a great deal of difficulty in trying to meditate. That doesn't mean that what I'm trying to accomplish doesn't exist, or is simply my imagination.
Now thus far perhaps it may be unfair to characterize the president's perspective on spiritual matters as “fundamentalist,” but as our communications continued, any kind of agnostic characterization seemed to me to be further and further removed:
Elliot – This is why I recommended that you attend our Afterlife Communications conference. You'll be given ways for you to connect with the Afterlife by experts in the field....As an attorney, there is no conclusive “proof” that God exists, but how else can one explain the unusual events that have been recorded throughout history. As to proof of just an afterlife; what if someone whom you've never met before can accurately describe how a departed loved one looks? Last year I met a young lady who is a neutral shaman. She has the ability to see spirits around people 24/7. I asked her to describe any spirits she saw around me and she described my mother to a T. If there was no afterlife, how could she see her? I also watched her describe spirits to other people who were there as well.
And finally, the president reprimands me for concluding that what I experienced at my Mediumship Mastery workshop (cf. ) was most likely nothing more than the result of imagination, and suggests that I join deceased famous psychic Edgar Cayce's A.R.E. organization :
In the few instances of some psychic activity occurring, you dismissed them as being from your imagination. If your research has been thorough, then you know that spirits communicate with us through our subconscious, or as some might say, our imagination, especially when we are at rest, or in our dreams. We are more receptive at these times....Sorry to see you won't be at our conference. If you are truly interested in learning about the Afterlife, I would think you wouldn't let a simple thing like logistics stop you. There is another afterlife conference being held about a month ahead of ours, also out west. I know it can be difficult to get to a conference, as I have driven thousands of miles when it was something I considered of major importance to me. Why not join A.R.E? Their headquarters are in Virginia Beach, which is much closer to Maine and they have conferences all year long on numerous spiritual topics, or do you think that everything Edgar Cayce said in his readings was just his imagination?
My reply to this communication from the president/attorney was essentially an affirmation of my agnostic perspective to the question of the possible existence of an afterlife:
I can see we could go on and on here for a long time,..so it's probably best to accept our different perspectives and let it be. But I'll say again that my agnostic perspective looks at all possibilities, and the interpretation of coming from my imagination for what I experienced at my Mediumship workshop is a very reasonable one, and I know the process I was using at the time and it felt to me very artificial, and there are all kinds of interpretations that do not involve either an afterlife or psychic interpretation for anything I heard in the responses from people that I worked with at my conference. But I am still open to psychic phenomena in general, and I have had experiences as part of my afterlife research that my best explanation actually is some kind of psychic connection (beyond our current scientific knowledge) that certainly does not need an afterlife interpretation. The kind of environments I am looking for to become involved with as a researcher are ones that are truly open to diverse perspectives as well as a researcher's personal experiences and interpretations....
This concluded our communications (thankfully), but it left me wary of encounters with any more “fundamentalist” mediums or afterlife believers. I find it interesting to compare the above communications from a “fundamentalist” medium with that of some communications I received from Steve Hermann as part of our recent e-mail correspondence. Here is Steve's “liberal/progressive” perspective as a medium (and I thank Steve for his permission to include the following excerpt from his personal e-mail to me in this essay):
I think that in general regardless of their philosophical orientation people tend to be dogmatic in their conceptions and have little tolerance for individuals who do not share the same views. This is a major problem and besides limiting people's growth potentially leads to conflict between parties sharing different ideas. While I have pretty strong ideas in general about all sorts of things from what I consider good music to religions I still try to be broad-minded and accept others for where they are at. Most of the die-hard skeptics are pretty narrow and as you have experienced so are most people accepting the survival of the personality after physical death.
Sometimes as I read more and more of the overwhelming facts of science that appear to demonstrate so convincingly that there is nothing “spiritual” at all that is going on in the universe, I think about Alfred Russel Wallace, the largely unacknowledged co-founder with Darwin of evolution . As I have described in two previous Integral World essays (cf. ), Wallace was an avid Spiritualist, fully believing in the afterlife, and it still astonishes me how he was able to maintain his lifelong beliefs in Spiritualism and simultaneously be on a par with Darwin as being a co-founder of evolution. But apparently Wallace believed that the material aspects of life were very well explained by evolution (though he had reservations about evolution fully being able to explain the evolutionary steps that led from apes to human beings), but that there was a separate whole spiritual aspect to life that was essentially eternal and co-existing along with the material world (cf. ). Thus somehow Wallace did not find it contradictory to believe in both evolution and life after death. And I think that even if Wallace were alive today and were confronted with all our astounding scientific knowledge in the areas of physics, astronomy, and biochemistry, he would still retain his spiritual afterlife perspective. But these are musings which we of course cannot know the answer to—although I have no doubt that there are some mediums who convey Alfred Russel Wallace giving them messages from the “spirit world.”
Before concluding this essay, I would like to express my appreciation to David Lane for his respectful, sensitive, and interesting Integral World essay Consciousness Interruptus: The Temporal Context and the Self-Referential Trap  (written with Andrea Diem-Lane), in response to my recent Integral World essay Life, Death, Meaning, and Purpose (cf. ). However, I will also remark that it has left me somewhat puzzled when Lane says:
I have noticed that whenever we are happy—very happy—at a particular juncture in life we may also feel a certain anxiety, a certain fear that it may end. Yet, if we are deeply depressed or extremely ill, we don't worry as much (if at all) about death or non-existence.
I can understand the possible anxiety we may be simultaneously feeling when we are very happy, in regard to the fear that this happiness may end. But to say that “we don't worry as much (if at all) about death or non-existence” when we are “deeply depressed or extremely ill” goes against my grain from all that I know about depression and suicide, and I think Soren Kierkegaard would agree with me—as is evidenced from the title of one of his most well-known books: The Sickness Unto Death . But perhaps I am not understanding what Lane means here, and he may be intending to convey that we just accept our depressing state of affairs in these circumstances without worrying about it; i.e. we just kill ourselves and don't worry about doing it? Admittedly I am somewhat confused as to what Lane means here.
And along these lines, I must also say that I don't find it particularly comforting to know that I will eventually fall asleep and consequently all my unsatisfying ponderings about the lack of universal meaning in a materialistic universe will not be troubling me while I am sleeping—as long as I am not dreaming about it, which I apparently am safe from when I am in the dreamless deep sleep state. I mean, sure the extremely depressed person eventually gets some respite when he or she falls asleep, but this does not stop this person from committing suicide the next day.
But I don't mean to harp too much on these particular points of difficulty I have with Lane's essay. Once again I appreciate Lane's sensitivity to all I expressed in my own essay that he correctly characterized as “a brutally honest essay about his existential angst when contemplating about how life may have no ultimate meaning or purpose” (cf. ). And it is very much this “existential angst” that I believe is the counterpart to the kind of “fundamentalist mediumship” that I have described above, and is part of my continuing narrative that journeys interchangeably throughout the worlds of atheism, agnosticism, and spirituality.
1) See Richard Dawkins (2006), The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
2) See Julian Jaynes (1976), The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton & Mifflin and my 2013 Integral World essay "The Origin of Consciousness: Wallace in the Light of Jaynes". Retrieved from www.integralworld.net
3) See Elliot Benjamin (2014), Life after Death: An Experiential Exploration with Mediums by an Agnostic Investigator. Swanville, ME: Natural Dimension Publications (available at www.lulu.com); see also my 2014 Integral World essays "An Agnostic Skeptic with Mediumistic Abilities: My Reflections at a Mediumship Mastery Workshop", and "Life, Death, Meaning, and Purpose". Retrieved from www.integralworld.net
4) See George Lawton (1932), The Drama of Life after Death: A Study of the Spiritualist Religion. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
5) Lily Dale Spiritualist Camp in New York State is the world's largest Center for Spiritualism and has been in operation for 134 years. See http://www,lilydaleassembly.com
6) See http://edgarcayce.com
7) See my 2013 Integral World essays "Alfred Russel Wallace and “Evolution in Four Minutes”: Setting the Record Straight", and "The Darwin-Wallace Debate Continues: “Metaphysical” Intelligence Not Just for Humans: My Response to David Lane". Retrieved from www.integralworld.net
8) See David Lane & Andrea Diem-Lane (2014), "Consciousness Interruptus: The Temporal Context and the Self-Referential Trap". Retrieved from www.integralworld.net
9) See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sickness_Unto_Death