Personal Thoughts | September 2015 | BPS talk on Out-of-Body-Experiences; cherry-picking from religion; the arrogance of nu-atheist academics

EDIT: I could have gone on a bit longer with the polemics but I wrote this post for the student newspaper of my university. For example, when I mentioned I was switching to sociology Blackmore threw her head back and laughed as though sociology is a sham. She referenced and quoted Sam Harris and Deepak Chopra seriously. When I mentioned Deleuze, she responded by saying “oh dear”. It wasn’t a great evening and I’m glad I had whisky at home waiting for me.

On 17th September, I attended a talk, hosted by the British Psychological Society and open to the public, on Out-of-Body-Experiences (OBEs) by Professor Susan Blackmore. The talk began with some background about Prof Blackmore’s earlier years in academia which led to her research interests.

Back in the ‘70s while she was studying at Oxford, Blackmore had her first OBE after smoking, what must have been some incredibly strong, dope. Combined with being a bit of a hippy (her words) and being surrounded with friends interested in such unusual ideas as astral projection, this led to her starting a career in parapsychology. After years of research into the paranormal, Prof Blackmore came to reject her beliefs in the occult and metaphysical dualism, moving on to topics like evolutionary theory, memes and consciousness.

The meat of the talk began with a statistic about OBE prevalence, with some estimates going as high as 20% of the adult population claiming to have had an OBE. OBEs were then defined as experiences in which a person perceives themselves to be in a separate place from their physical body. Of course, if you are your brain, then how is this kind of thing possible at all? Prof Blackmore’s research investigations find that our body schema (mental representation of where are body physically is) which is coded somewhere in the temporal-parietal junction (TPJ), is heavily involved in OBEs- not any sort of metaphysical “soul”.

Blackmore went on to explain how some religious folk had interpreted this kind of research as showing that the TPJ is the entry point of the soul, which to her was obviously ridiculous. It was at moments like these in her talk I began to feel uncomfortable. This esteemed professor came across as a typical militant nu-atheist, turning herself ridiculous whenever she spoke about religion, in a sly attempt to ridicule the religious without being explicit about her contempt. This also came across as hypocritical considering she is, although would deny being, a secular Buddhist.

Having trained in some aspects of Mahayana Buddhism like Blackmore also has, it came across as ignorant to infer that one must be a Theist in order to be a Buddhist as there are plenty of Atheist or Secular Buddhists, myself included. Blackmore seems to cherry pick parts of the religion that work for her, such as Zen meditation, known in the West as “mindfulness”, and said she was also going to train in some aspects of the Theravada tradition. Despite this, she denied she was a Buddhist and re-affirmed her atheism multiple times as though being religious is somehow a sign that one cannot be as good a scientist or sceptic.

Another few moments of agitation came at the end of the talk, during closing questions and in my own conversation with her. At one point, a member of the audience, a psychologist and shaman, talked about how during some of her work, she could sense when a person’s soul had returned to their body by seeing a glint in their eye. Blackmore’s response to this was, I felt, patronising, congratulating this shaman on how she, despite her views, was able to come and learn some proper science from a truly enlightened one.

In my own discussions, I was mostly curious about what made her so certain rather than sceptical about many of her claims, especially about topics I am personally interested in such as free will and consciousness. Blackmore is a hard determinist, or fatalist, meaning she believes that every action, including human action, has some cause going back to the start of the universe, which also means free will does not exist. Perhaps I was unable, in the short time I had, to explain my compatibilist position, which I believe follows from dialectical monism; however it seemed disingenuous for someone with academic authority to assert nomological determinism (fatalism) so confidently.

To conclude, I would just like to say that this experience is another example I hope fills students with some confidence that we should not simply follow the authority of our teachers as proof of the infallibility of their ideas. We should not hesitate to converse and challenge our teachers when we feel we can because even if we are wrong, and I am sure if Professor Blackmore reads this article she will disagree with much of it, I feel it shows our teachers that we are truly engaged with our subjects.

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