What dreams may come

Hemant Mehta gleans a piece of news from the Templeton Foundation that must give us pause.

Anecdotal reports of glimpses of an afterlife abound, but there has been no comprehensive and rigorous, scientific study of global reports about near-death and other experiences, or of how belief in immortality influences human behavior. That will change with the award of a three-year, $5 million grant by the John Templeton Foundation to John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality. …

Mehta responds: “There’s no evidence of an afterlife and no amount of research is going to change that.”

Ay, there’s the rub.

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns has not remained undiscovered due to a lack of research funding. And $5 million isn’t going to change that.

Investigating “how belief in immortality influences human behavior” may be a fruitful area of study. But that other business about “near death and other experiences” seems like an ill-conceived, and possibly ill-intentioned, waste of money.

They have Moses and the prophets and the playwrights, they should listen to them. If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets and the playwrights, neither will they be able to learn anything even from “comprehensive and rigorous study” of near-death experiences.

* * * * * * * * *

Speaking of death, Caleb Wilde shares Alan Wolfelt’s “Mourner’s Bill of Rights.”

“You have the right to experience your own unique grief,” this wise and compassionate charter begins. Please do read the rest of it. It’s excellent advice for anyone who is grieving, or who knows anyone who is grieving, or who knows anyone who one day may be grieving — which of course includes all of us.

Wilde is a funeral director, so this Mourner’s Bill of Rights is important to his profession. Pastors and counselors and those in the field of medicine will also have a professional interest in this.

But so should police, prosecutors and judges. And so should potential jurors.

My wife likes the “Investigation Discovery” channel as ambient TV when she’s working in the kitchen. One of things I’m frequently horrified by in the true-crime shows on ID is how often police fixate on a potential suspect due to what they regard as that person’s insufficient or inappropriate expressions of grief. It seems these officers have in mind some standardized, uniform notion of grieving, and anyone who fails to conform to this expected, mandatory pattern will fall under suspicion.

This makes for bad police work that wastes time and resources. It also often results in astonishing cruelty to victims who wind up being treated as perpetrators. And it’s just abysmally obtuse. How does someone get to be the age of these detectives while still imagining that there is a single, typical, “proper” or “correct” human expression of grief?

I’ve often thought that police departments could benefit from training seminars conducted by mental health experts, grief counselors, the chaplains from the local hospice or local funeral directors. It would help them to become smarter detectives. And it would help them to become better humans.

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  • ako

    Way to strawman me there.  At some point during the research process, there’s a very real possibility that you’ll end up saying what people think they experienced isn’t true, and to do science, you have to be prepared to face that.  That’s not the same as going “No, you’re wrong” to everything they say.

    If it’s an untestable claim like “I spoke with the spirit of my dead mother up in Heaven”, you can’t do science on it, so it’s not scientific to accept or reject it.   However, there are a whole bunch of testable claims involved in reports of near-death experiences, such as people saying they had out-of-body experiences in the hospital where they could see what was actually happening, or people claiming to get information from the afterlife they couldn’t otherwise have known.  If one wishes to do a scientific study on such claims, one must be prepared for conclusions such as “These people incorrectly described what was happening” or “Their initial account of the event didn’t include any information they couldn’t have known at the time, however six months later they say they recall a pile of impossible information” or other things where people are wrong on facts.

    You don’t go “Wrong, wrong, wrong” at everything a person says while researching (or whatever it is you imagine I’m arguing for), but unless you are prepared, at some point, to go “This subjective account is verifiably factually inaccurate”, you’re not doing science