The Hand on the Mirror

The Hand on the Mirror June 4, 2015

I confess that when I was included in the book club discussing Janis Durham’s book The Hand on the Mirror: A True Story of Life Beyond Death, I was not entirely enthusiastic. I had blogged about books about near-death experiences by Eben Alexander and Mary Neal, and they left me skeptical.

I was delighted to find that Durham’s book is of a significantly different sort in at least certain respects. While it begins with personal biographical narrative and experience in a very similar way to the others I mentioned, by the end, the book has morphed into an appeal for more research. While there are moments when I don’t think Durham is as skeptical as I would try to be of certain claims, she is fully aware of phenomena like cold reading, and brings to the subject a journalistic rigor.

hand_on_the_mirrorThere has already been discussion of the book by Sam Alexander and others around Patheos, and the book club site includes an excerpt and other such information. And so rather than summarize the book, let me jump right in to a discussion of the question of skepticism and the appropriate attitude towards experiences that can be lumped under the heading of the paranormal. Dunham makes the argument that scientists have, for the most part, veered off from appropriate skepticism into a pseudoskeptical scientism that is actually unscientific and unhelpful (pp.209-220).

I suspect that I may have been guilty of the same thing. Having been, I believe, too credulous in my view of the supernatural and paranormal in my earlier years, it is not only possible but likely that I have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. I know of people who are religious skeptics or atheists, but who have had experiences of ghosts. They may reject the interpretation that they encountered disembodied souls. But they cannot deny that they experienced something.

One major emphasis in Dunham’s book is that a great many people have had such experiences, and the majority of them never share them because they expect to be viewed as insane, and think that their experiences are rare.

I don’t have first-hand access to the things that Durham experienced. Some seem to me to represent examples of the ways we as humans notice things and find significance in them, rather than something paranormal. When the name “Max” appeared on a boat in a photo next to her and her son, it seems to me too much to envisage any force in the universe either compelling them to that spot, or moving a boat with those letters on it into position behind them. But perhaps I am more resistant to determinism than I should be? In other cases, however, the experiences, if narrated accurately, and if they did not involve deception by others, are striking. What they mean, and what the explanation for them is, I do not know. But it seems to me that Dunham’s response it precisely right: we should acknowledge that many people have these sorts of experiences, and approach them with scientific rigor to understand and explain them, rather than dismissing them.

Perhaps the best way to conclude this post is to invite readers to tell their stories. Have you had an experience which you cannot explain? No need to accept any particular kind of explanation of the experience. But have you had such an experience? And if so, do you think that there ought to be more scientific research into such things?

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  • Paul E.

    I have not had such an experience, but would like to see more rigorous research about them. I would add to that a desire to see more research about experiences people call “religious awakenings” or “born again” types of experiences. Having never had such experiences, I find the way people talk about them completely foreign to me. When pressed for explanations, it seems there is a both a lack of adequate language (allowing a “private” experience to be shared publicly in an understandable way – I have often heard the “if you haven’t felt it, you wouldn’t know” kind of explanation, which I find frustratingly inadequate) and a defensiveness which leads to a shut down in communication. I think the defensiveness seems to result from viewing healthy curiosity and skepticism as mockery, and I guess I can somewhat understand in that, especially on the internet, mockery seems to be all too common.

    • Jim

      Andrew Newberg (University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine) has carried out some preliminary work from the neuroscience perspective. He has published a textbook on this, Principles of Neurotheology. I have not yet read his recent trade book, The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought, but hope to get to it soon. He has carried out some preliminary work on brain function and brain imaging (PET and MRI) in analyzing religious and spiritual experiences (speaking in tongues etc), but the work seems to still be at the preliminary stage of gathering baseline imaging data for religious experiences. This new field of neurotheology is at its infancy stage, however.

      • Paul E.

        Interesting, thanks for the suggestions!

  • Nick G

    In other cases, however, the experiences, if narrated accurately, and if they did not involve deception by others, are striking.

    But given what we know about human memory, and the common tendency to exaggerate to make a good story, there’s simply no reason to take such anecdotes at face value. There actually has been a lot of scientific research into various kinds of alleged paranormal or supernatural occurrences (spirit mediums, telepathy, hauntings, precognition, psychokinesis, prayer) over the last century and a half. While occasional positive findings have been reported, none of them has ever led through successful replications to a research programme elucidating the conditions under which such phenomena occur, and how they vary as the conditions are varied; nor is there any coherent account of how they could occur. My conclusion is that no such phenomena exist – but even if you believe they do, you might well conclude from this history that they cannot be studied scientifically.

  • In the late 1990s, my father was recovering from an infection and spent a few nights in the hospital. He recovered and told his family about a vivid vision he had seen with his eyes on two of those nights. He swore he saw a giant black Steam Locomotive, pull up outside his hospital room’s window. He was on the 4th Floor. We tried to convince him that it was only a crazy dream. He was so convinced that it wasn’t a dream, he even wrote a short story about the incident. He passed away in 2000. On the first anniversary of his death, I was sitting outside in the sunshine on my Las Vegas condo balcony, reading a book. I wasn’t thinking about the anniversary at all. Suddenly something covered the entire side of the balcony and I was in a dark shadow. I looked up from reading and there was this huge, 1940s Union Pacific “Big Boy” 4-8-8-4 Steam Locomotive. It was billowing thick black smoke and just hovering feet from my balcony. I stood up and saw my father, who looked to be in his early 30s. He was riding in the cab. He smiled at me and gave me a wave goodbye. As quickly as it had arrived, the steam engine and tender were gone.

    What I saw was a solid materialized Steam Engine and my father. With his good humor still working from the other side of existence, I was happy to see him. He made another interesting stop over a few years later too. Truth be told, I haven’t shared this story with any of my family members. They wouldn’t believe me. 🙂

  • Michael Wilson

    I always love a good ghost story, though I’m highly sceptical we’re dealing with dead souls. I may have to check this out.