Dr. Antti Savinainen’s new book on the Finnish Mystic, Pekka Ervast adds to our understanding of the afterlife.
photo by: Skeptiko
(scary music and sounds from Jacob’s Ladder)
Where do you go when you die?
Actor, Tim Robbins got a glimpse in this cult classic, Jacob’s Ladder. And I guess that’s how it is with the afterlife. I mean, we know it’s probably going to work out okay, but what if it doesn’t?
So, we keep asking the questions, we keep looking for the answers and once in awhile we come across people who seem to know.
Dr. Antti Savinainen: There are no devils in hell, there are just human beings who have evil thoughts and habits and then, as Richard mentioned, there are some kind of thought forms, which are formed by people, but using those evil and murderous, those kinds of thoughts, and they have so much power that they exist there for some time. If a person has, kind of an affinity, harboring those negative feelings and thoughts throughout their life, or at least to some extent, then it might be that this is somehow attracting these lower levels in afterlife. I find it interesting that negative near-death experiences, they tend to reveal that these stages are felt by people who go briefly to the other side, so to speak.
That’s today’s guest, Dr. Antti Savinainen, Antti Savinainen, who along with Jouni Marjanen and Jouko Sorvali, has written a new book about the Finnish mystic, Pekka Ervast who, back in the 1890s had a series of amazing mystical experiences that revealed to him what really happens after we die.
It’s an interesting book because it has so much overlap with the modern-day near-death experience research. And it raises some of the same questions we always come back to, regarding science and materialism and our need to try and know and understand this topic from reason, and at the same time, our appreciation for the fact that we know, deep down, reason can’t really get us there.
In this interview we’re also joined by the very excellent biblical scholar and spiritual scholar, Richard Smoley, who wrote the introduction for this book. So it was great having him on as well.
Before we get started with the interview, let me just mention that Antti has informed me that the book is available, actually right now, as a free eBook. It’s an excellent book, I’ve read it, it’s nicely formatted, it’s not like a cheap freebie, throwaway kind of thing, well-researched. Again, with an excellent introduction by Richard Smoley, it’s just a great book that’s available for free (From Death to Rebirth). So, that’s kind of a cool thing and I’ll of course have the links to that in the show notes.
This was a fun interview for me, we talk about all sorts of topics, all the way from the idiosyncratic nature of these mystical experiences and how much are we to trust, My Big Toe, kind of simulation theory, kind of things, versus a total full-blown spiritual or even Christian mystical experience. We talk about backdoor materialism and medicine in particular and whether a proposed head transplant, that’s supposed to happen in 2018, will reveal anything more about how we might understand consciousness.
Then, we even venture off into biblical scholarship and biblical studies, just a little bit, because when you have a chance to talk to Richard Smoley, you can’t miss the opportunity to talk about that stuff as well.
So, don’t let this creepy music and creepy introduction freak you out too much. It’s really kind of an upbeat and fun interview. I hope you enjoy it and I hope you stick around for this episode of Skeptiko.
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome two guests to Skeptiko. Dr. Antti Savinainen, he joins us as someone who contacted me because he’s listened to Skeptiko and then I came to find that he was writing a very interesting book, right up our alley. The book is titled, From Death to Rebirth and it’s about the Finnish mystic, Pekka Ervast. Now, before I go further, how do we really say that name?
Dr. Antti Savinainen: Peek-a Ear-vast.
Alex Tsakiris: Good enough, okay good. He was a Finnish mystic, a Christian mystic, back in the late 1890s. So, we’re going to talk about that book.
We’re also going to talk more in general about mysticism and in particular, Christian mysticism and we’re also joined by the very excellent spiritual scholar, that many of you will be aware of, that is Richard Smoley. His work I’ve referenced several times on this show because it’s so excellent, so extraordinary and many, many people regard it very highly.
Richard is the author of several books, one that you may be aware of is his most recent, How God Became God. So Richard, thank you for joining us as well.
Richard Smoley: Thank you very much Alex, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Alex Tsakiris: As much as we try and get away from scientific materialism and that we put it over and we want to hold it up and say, “No, you don’t understand, science is a method, it’s not a position statement,” which I totally agree with. At the same time, we want to pull it back in. We have this desire for backdoor materialism, I call it, where we want to say, “Oh yeah, but look at this study, where we show that NDEers have this kind of experience 42.6% of the time.” We want to somehow hold onto that and give that meaning and elevate that up in a way that again, tries to add some kind of scientific legitimacy to it, that, I don’t know, I mean, I feel torn with that because I understand the appeal of that and I certainly do, as someone who likes to be logical, likes to be rational, but I also see the limits of that.
Let me throw one tiny more piece on the table there, and that’s that I was surprised to find this same kind of, what I call spiritual physics, in the work of PE again. He was writing in the 1890s and he was saying, “Well, suicide works like this and it can be broken down these ways, and we spend this much time here and this much time there in the afterlife.” Again, I want to challenge that and say, why do we want to reduce this down to some kind of physics again, like we understand it, we can measure it? We understand time, time is linear. Maybe it wasn’t commonly understood in the 1890s, but it certainly is today, that this concept of time and this linearity to it, is just a convenience that makes us comfortable with what we experience, but doesn’t have any reality to it. So, what about that?
Dr. Antti Savinainen: Well, let me first say something about science. I’m a science teacher, physics teacher and I’m enthusiastic about it. I’ve produced some science myself, so I have an idea of how science works. Of course, listening to your Skeptiko shows have allowed me to see a different perspective.
What I find interesting in these NDE studies and children who claim to remember their past lives and some psi research, is that using the scientific method, or scientific methods, which do not assume any metaphysical assumptions about soul or anything else but material world and energy information. That’s the package basically.
So, that’s fine. I have no trouble with that. As a physics teacher I know that these laws of physics, they work well in the lab and can be reproduced and the better luck you have, the better you can reproduce them. So, there’s no problem in that. However, when these topics that I just mentioned, when they are investigated using scientific methods, you end up with the data, which is not any more best explained by reducing all these concepts within the materialistic framework, but you need to look at the data and then you are forced to have a different explanation, which opens the door to other things besides the material world. I think this is what Skeptiko research has very clearly solved.
I find it fascinating that using the scientific method, you just end up with something which isn’t anymore within the realm of scientific method for those who believe in natural axioms, that there can be no other explanation besides natural ones, and that’s defined in a narrow sense.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes, let me just emphasize that point, because I think it’s an awesome one, that the greatest contribution science has made is to obsolete itself.
Dr. Antti Savinainen: At least that’s one assumption, which is, skeptics, they want to believe in that, there can be nothing else. Of course, it depends on the skeptic you’re talking about. But that’s what they seem to be adhering to, very strongly, that there can’t be any other things besides what you can find in the natural world. So, in a way you’re right, yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: Richard, can you jump in there?
Richard Smoley: I would myself say that there’s a great deal of evidence that is not only scientific but, to use a bad word and I hope you don’t mind that I use it on a show like this, but anecdotal. Nevertheless, I think there’s something to be said for the existence of these alternate planes and the survival of a human entity on them, some way after death. But I agree with you about a lot of it where it says, “Well, this is how long you stay on X plane if you commit suicide,” and that kind of thing. That, I simply don’t know about and I’m not wildly inclined to take it at face value.
Alex Tsakiris: Richard, let me pull you back, because I know I talked for a long time. What do you make of this, what I’m calling backdoor materialism? I’ll tell you where it really comes into play. If you are familiar with the work of Thomas Campbell, My Big Toe, it’s very popular on YouTube and on the lecture circuit. The Monroe Institute, if anyone knows, would give you an idea. But, what I see coming from that is even a further pullback of the mystic, so he’s in the mystical realm but he’s saying, “Oh, no, no, it’s a simulation.” Think of it as a computer simulation, and I’ve done the math, I’ve done the physics, it’s a 60 frames a second simulation. I mean, there is a continuum of mystical experiences that get slotted into some very materialistic sounding expressions of this, that, I want to say concern me, give me pause, I don’t agree with, I mean, I don’t know. Backdoor materialism, what do you make of that?
Richard Smoley: I’m not familiar with Campbell’s work at all, so I don’t really feel qualified to comment on it. I think that, even if you go that way you can say, “Well it’s all a simulation, it’s all a simulacrum constructed by the mind.” Well, that’s true, no doubt, but I think cognitive science has proven that your ordinary sensory encountered experience is also a simulacrum that is constructed by your nervous system. So, to privilege one and say, “Well, this is real,” and to turn this other aside and say, “This is false,” I think is fallacious arguing, but that particular argument that you’re talking about, of Campbell’s, I don’t know enough about it to comment on.
Dr. Antti Savinainen: There’s a perspective to put here, if I’m referring to PE’s work, he tells that, however it’s not his own opinion, of course there are many others who say the same thing, that the afterlife stage is just a very, very tiny fraction of the other planes or other worlds that exist there. Usually, when somebody leaves his or her body, they will end up in that different realm, but not in the realm where the dead people are residing. So, it’s kind of, in PE’s words, it’s sacred, it’s guarded in a sense and you can’t end it in that world without good cause.
So, that might explain some of the differences you just mentioned, that people go to this vast [degraded 00:08:02] world, which is called the astroworld in theosophical language and some other people are using that as well. Then, there is this tiny, tiny, kind of area, which is the land of the dead or the Blue Island or whatever you want to call it.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes, but Antti, go and read, like I’m saying, Tom Campbell or go and read Robert Monroe of The Monroe Institute, those guys, their process, they’re very rigorous scientifically how they did it, you know, 50 or 60 years ago and they’re still doing it today. You can go to Virginia and you can sit down and attend a weekend and they’ll give you the hemi-sync things that you put on your head and you’ll have the out-of-body experience. But they’ve mapped it all out too, that’s my point. I think they call it, you know, you go to room nine or level seven, I mean, they have this elaborate system of mapping out all these realms too.
So again, you would probably find similarities to PE’s mapping, but you’d also find differences and then, if you go back to Marilyn Hughes, like I said, she also produced and was featured in a documentary on Armageddon and she’s very convinced. Again, a devout Catholic and someone I, if you want to say tested, tested and found her to be effective at what she can do, in terms of out-of-body. But, you know, she’s predicting Armageddon and that passed, the date that she said it was going to happen and that passed, and all the stuff that drives people nuts about those crazy mystics again. Do you know what I mean?
Dr. Antti Savinainen: Yeah, I was thinking about Jurgen Ziewe, you had him on the show some years ago, I’ve read his books and it seems to me that what he’s describing about the afterlife stage, it coheres quite well with what PE is saying for instance and he even said that, he had guidance to begin with. He met this person, I’m not sure if he called him a master or some exalted being who was really, kind of, familiar with all these states that were going on and he helped him to move between different phases and states, so he got guidance. This is explained in PE’s book as well, how this is organized in a way.
I found it fascinating that Ziewe, who had nothing to do with theosophy to begin with, even though he was aware that it exists, his experience is [much well 00:10:26] in this regard with what PE is saying.
So, it depends, if you go unprepared, you might see very different things, than if you are prepared and, you might say, purified or having these mystical experiences and I found Ziewe’s work quite impressive in that respect.
Alex Tsakiris: Go ahead, I’m sorry Richard.
Richard Smoley: Let me just say briefly, for one thing, let us assume that there are these alternate realities. They are not necessarily earthly reality, right? But, our cognition is totally shaped by our experience of earthly reality. It is impossible, for example, just try to visualize a color you’ve never seen. I find that impossible.
So, what you’re doing is taking, arguably, these experiences of alternate realities and bringing them in the language of this reality and there are bound to be differences, even apparent contradictions. I myself, would not privilege any one of these accounts radically over the others, whether it’s Robert Monroe’s or Swedenborg’s or anyone else’s.
So, I think those things taken into account, I think they’re pointing to something. Let’s not be too, 100% certain that we know X, Y, Z, about exactly how it is.
Alex Tsakiris: Materialistic atheism, I think, is waning, has really been, for the most part, supplanted by people who’ve really looked at it and examined it. I’d say, it’s a jumping off point, the starting point for what we might consider is next. As part of that, I guess I jump into, again talking about PE and I throw out a word here, ‘idiosyncratic’, because that’s the word that keeps coming back to me again.
Let me, if I can, tell you guys a story, digress a little bit, a Skeptiko story. This was years ago, years ago, probably six or seven years ago. I was embattled in this, kind of ongoing debate with a group of skeptics that produce a very popular podcast show and the guy is from Yale. His name is Dr. Steven Novella and he’s quite well-known, quite prominent in both the scientific and in this atheistic community. The nature of this debate, which turned into a demonstration, was on mediumship and I said, “It’s been proven in the lab, you know, over and over again and it’s a reality for many, many people who’ve had these encounters with, there’s no better way to say it, people who are deceased, consciousness that is beyond the physical form.”
So, I contacted a woman, her name is Marilyn Hughes, and Marilyn’s a very interesting woman. I talked to her and she goes, “I don’t really do mediumship readings,” she goes, “what I do is out-of-body travel.” Now, this is right along the lines of PE and that’s why I bring it up.
Marilyn is a devout Catholic, but for a lot of Catholics she has a lot of ideas that maybe wouldn’t jive with their Catholic upbringing. But the importance of this story for me is, we actually did a demonstration, where I contacted, I had a volunteer of a woman who had tragically lost her teenage daughter to suicide and Marilyn said, “Well, let me see what I can do.”
Marilyn then went, and according to her, ventured into the after-death state, found her daughter and brought back a bunch of information that was confirming of the fact that she, for lack of a better word, had travelled to these other dimensions, she brought back this information that I think, to any reasonable person who is listening to this show would say, “Gee, there’s no way someone could know that stuff,” but more importantly, it seemed to be extremely healing and meaningful to the mother who had lost this daughter.
Now, the reason that I say that whole story is because, it does kind of have this intersection of science, spirituality, mysticism, that says, here’s someone who’s having a mystical experience, this out-of-body experience, which if you push it is extremely idiosyncratic. I mean, there’s a lot of details to her experience that would be in conflict or would appear to be in conflict with what PE is saying or with what Tom Campbell is saying. If anyone knows Tom Campbell from The Monroe Institute, author of My Big Toe, who has a very simulation, has also travelled to these other realms, but has a very techno simulation kind of view of it. Again, idiosyncratic.
If we jump over to the near-death experience accounts, again extremely idiosyncratic. One person’s reporting one thing, one person’s reporting another.
So, I’ve laid a lot on the table there, but maybe we can approach this idea of, as we put our arms around this, what are we to make of what seems to be the differences of these very real, as you pointed out Richard, we can’t just blow past them and say, “Well alright, it doesn’t matter, because they’re all illusion anyway,” there seems to be some reality to them, but there seems to be some differences, almost bordering on contradictions to them? I would like you both maybe to talk about that.
Richard Smoley: Well, what I would say is this. Let’s say, you don’t believe in the existence of Africa, you just don’t believe in the existence of it. You want proof. So, there are all these descriptions of Africa, ranging from the Sahara to the pyramids, to the source of the Nile, to the Congo, to South Africa and all of these things seem very idiosyncratic. They all seem so different. How could they be true? How could all of these descriptions be true? They’re all talking about Africa, all we can really conclude is that these people who are talking about Africa are just making it up in their imaginations or it’s an illusion.
My point is, that the afterlife, if it exists, if these other realms exist, we have every reason to believe that they are, at least, as multi-varied and disparate in nature as the perfectly earthly continent of Africa.
So, you can make a lot of idiosyncrasies but I think it would be foolish to expect every last report to be the same.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, but hold on, let me interject, because that’s all well and good but if one person comes back and says, “The Nile runs north,” and the other person says, “The Nile runs south,” we have something there that we can’t just say, “Well wow, isn’t that interesting? Everybody kind of sees the world differently.” It’s like, no, there’s nobody to really resolve that.
Dr. Antti Savinainen: May I say something here?
Alex Tsakiris: Yes.
Dr. Antti Savinainen: So, I really like that analogy, it seems to be appropriate, but first let me make a point about science. Different people have different experiences, not all people who go through the NDA do not have the same phases, they have partial phases or they have different types of experiences. That’s where we need science. When we gather a large database, if we use quick scientific rigorous designs, like [P. Monroe’s 00:06:44] study and some others, which are the best we can have in medicine for instance, then we know what the big picture is in these cases. Then we can discern different phases and then we can start counting how many reach different phases and so forth, [unclear 00:07.02] work with this. But, my point is, you can’t really know if you just listen to one person or ten people, you need to have a rigorous scientific study on many of them, and when you have many of them, then you have a scientific map. That’s how I think science works. Not one single study, but many studies supporting each other eventually, then we know something about it. Despite differences between individuals, that’s how we know the big picture, what’s going on.
What is interesting to me is, I’ve been interested in various accounts of afterlife for many, many years, spiritualistic and theosophical and many others, and kind of looking at what they say about it. When I’m speaking for the book, when I compare what PE had to say about these afterlife stages, the early stages especially, and when I compare this big picture, emerging from what the NDE studies tell, they seem to match almost perfectly. Well, not perfectly but extremely well, you might say. There are minor differences but if you take a look at leaving the body, looking at their surroundings, going to the light, meeting their relatives and the deceased and perhaps some holy beings, and then seeing your life review, it’s all there. There might be some differences, when the life review, for instance, takes place, in theosophical accounts and [unclear 00:08:32] it takes place at least, shortly after you leave your body. In many NDE cases it takes place in the light, but in some cases it does take place when you leave the body. So those kinds of differences might be there.
What is interesting is that PE is not the only one to tell about these phases. So, you really can’t just have a couple of cases and then, kind of, try to guess what’s going on, but when you have the scientific studies, which are reliable enough and then you take a look at what these esoteric occult people are saying and then you compare them, you find something which is amazingly a good match I would say.
Alex Tsakiris: Richard, would you like to add anything here?
Richard Smoley: There are certainly differences in state, but I’d like to know what science is. Science is, ideally, some kind of discipline that pulls and considers all the relevant data, but skeptical materialism does not do that. What it does is bracket all things that it counts as paranormal, that is somehow out of sync, with say the way an eighth grader, who’s just learned Newton’s Laws of Physics, would describe the world and you’d bracket that on it, it’s imaginary because it’s not scientific. Well, this is part of the data. This is a human experience that goes so universally, so far back, has to be counted as part of the data to begin with. If you dismiss it a priori as unscientific because it is not of the material world, it does not accord with our preconceptions, as the typical skeptic does, you, my friend, are begging the question. That is what I see a lot of, in what proudly calls itself scientific materialism.