Survival Research Today: An Essay Review of Parapsychology and Thanatology

Article excerpt

Parapsychology and Thanatology is the latest in the series of proceedings of the conferences sponsored by the Parapsychology Foundation, and as such it follows the format of previous volumes in the series. The book consists of the eight papers presented at the 40th conference, held in Boston in November 1993, as well as transcriptions of the discussions that followed each paper and that followed the morning and afternoon sessions of each of the two days. As the title indicates, the topic of the conference was thanatology, which means the study of death; but as the opening remarks of Lisette Coly, Eileen Coly, and the moderator Hoyt Edge suggested, the focus of the conference was intended specifically to be on the problem of survival after death. Presumably, the intent of the conference was to highlight recent efforts to address (in Lisette Coly's words) "questions presented by the survival hypothesis" and recent efforts to conduct "relevant inquiries raised in the science of parapsychology" (p. xi). Regrettably, however, the primary thing that the conference highlighted for me was the distressing state of survival research today.

The eight papers are grouped more or less thematically. John Palmer and William Roll opened the conference by describing two widely divergent theoretical perspectives on survival. Palmer recognizes that the major problem confronting survival research is the lack of progress on resolving the stalemate between the survival hypothesis and the superpsi hypothesis. As he correctly points out, what is desperately needed is a theory that can reconcile these two apparently opposing interpretations of survival-related phenomena - that is, "a general theory of psi that Palmer's offering is a dualistic theory of a universe consisting not only of matter but of a general mental space whose sole feature is consciousness, or a potential for subjective awareness that becomes "actualized" through brains (p. 10). Palmer's theory is also a decidedly atomistic one, in that what survives the death of the brain is not the conscious self or "I" (which Palmer attributes to a person's "bodily concept" [p. 8]), but discrete mental representations called "psiads." As Palmer put it, his theory is "definitely a minimalist view of survival" (p. 28).

Roll's view, in contrast, is intransigently holistic. Roll describes again his by-now familiar idea that the mind or psyche is most fundamentally a transpersonal phenomenon, in that it is inextricably embedded in a matrix of connections to people, places, and matter. While it is embodied, the psyche falls under the illusion of being a discrete, individual entity; the small, disconnected, "personal" self overshadows the larger, connected, "transpersonal" psyche. After death, however, the personal self disappears and what remains is the larger transpersonal matrix of interconnections.

The next two papers, by Michael Grosso and Eugene Taylor, illustrate two general methodological approaches to the survival issue. Like Palmer, Grosso recognizes that the progress of survival research depends on our ability to unravel the survival-superpsi problem, and that "whether or not these two alternatives are disjunctive or conjunctive is the great issue" (p. 71). Rather than approaching the problem theoretically, however, Grosso suggests "broadening the database" as a means of breaking the stalemate (p. 73). Thus, he urges researchers to compare survival-related phenomena with other kinds of phenomena, such as UFO reports, Old Hag experiences, and altered states of consciousness.

Eugene Taylor contends that parapsychologists have erred by remaining trapped in the belief that Western science is the appropriate method for understanding the phenomena that they study. Taylor believes that survival research, as well as parapsychology in general, fall in the domain of "inward experience," "inward meaning," and "personal transformation" (p. 239), a domain where "direct experience is superior to scientific knowledge" (p. …