Interview with author and consciousness expert Dr. Susan Blackmore explains why Skeptics and atheists cling to her opinions on NDE science.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for and interview with oft quoted near-death experience skeptic, Dr. Susan Blackmore. During the interview Dr. Blackmore acknowledges that dispute her reputation among near-death experience doubters, she has not remained current in the field, “It’s absolutely true; I haven’t written about this subject for a long time and I haven’t kept up with all the literature, either.”
Blackmore continues, “… I gave up all of this stuff so many years ago…if you are a researcher in the field it behooves you to read as much as you can of the best work because otherwise you can’t be a researcher in the field. I’m not a researcher in the field. I have not been for a long time.”
Dr. Blackmore also responds to criticisms of her interpretation of Buddhist teachings. In her book, Dying to Live, Blackmore stated, “… in Buddhism these [near-death and after-life] experiences are not meant to be taken literally”. This statement has been criticized by Buddhists scholars. During the Skeptiko interview Blackmore responds to those criticism, “Well, I’m not a Buddhist scholar. I don’t read Sanskrit or original language. I’m not a scholar of Buddhism in that sense. But I have been training in Zen for 30 years now. I’ve also trained to some extent, much and much less in Tibetan practices. Most of what I wrote there is based on that long practice.”
Check out Dr. Susan Blackmore’s Website
A Critique of Susan Blackmore’s Dying Brain Hypothesis by Greg Stone
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Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome back Dr. Susan Blackmore. She’s a writer, lecturer; in fact, you may have seen her excellent presentation at the TED conference a couple years ago, which is quite an honor itself. She’s also a visiting professor in psychology at the University of Plymouth. Dr. Blackmore, welcome back to Skeptiko.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Thank you very much.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, as I explained in my email, the main reason I wanted to have you back on is because as we’ve dug in this show into near-death experience science and we tried to explore what skeptics have to say about this, and whether this is really evidence for consciousness existing outside of the brain, well, the more we dig into that your name seems to keep popping up. I have always said, “Hey, Susan Blackmore hasn’t published on this in 15 years.” I don’t know where you’re going but nonetheless, I keep getting a lot of “You need to read Susan Blackmore’s book.” So I thought it would be nice to have you back on and clear up some of these questions.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, thank you very much. It’s absolutely true; I haven’t written about this subject for a long time and I haven’t kept up with all the literature, either. I hear about some of the things that are happening. I talk to people involved. I know Peter Fenwick for example, very well. So I kind of know what’s going on to some extent but I got to the point many, many years ago when I just thought, ‘I have done all I feel I can do for the moment, and I just need to get out of the endless round of arguments and do something else.’ So I have.
I’m now spending my time investigating other aspects of consciousness and these particular experiences in meditation and meanings and evolution and all sorts of other things. I’m glad to have gotten out of that. Why people go on with that I suppose, I provided some sort of position for the people to argue about it and people who persist in thinking that near-death experiences are evidence for life after death or evidence of a soul or a spirit or something. We hate any proposals that come from basic physiology or understanding what the brain’s up to and so on.
You know, I did lay out that rather clearly in my book, so I guess I’ll go on referring to it until or unless the whole argument is resolved one way or the other. Either we have truly fantastic physiological explanations which really do the whole job and there’s nothing left to argue with at all, or there’s stunning evidence that I was completely wrong and there really is life after death or a spiritual soul or something like that. So I think many people will go on mentioning that work I did a long, long time ago, even if it’s only what they want to prove wrong.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I don’t quite see it that way and I hope we can tease that out because like the article that I sent you from Dr. Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia, where he does a lit review of the research, particularly the research in the last 15 years. I can’t really say that everyone’s so stuck on some of the ideas that you’re saying, but maybe we can really get into that.
You know, where I thought would be a starting point is really the email that you sent me and you just reiterated here, because when I invited you on this show and I said, “Hey, why does your name keep popping up?” You said, “I know about AWARE, that is Dr. Peter Fenwick and Sam Parnia, their project, but not Jeff Long’s work.” Because I had just told you that Jeff Long has published a book and he had been on the show and I wanted you to comment on that.
And then you said, “I’m not sure I could face reading his book, though. So I probably wouldn’t be much use to you.” So what immediately pops to my mind is I appreciate the honesty that you probably couldn’t face reading the book, but on the face of it that just seems like a stunning statement. I mean, here’s a guy, he’s obviously well-qualified, he’s a medical doctor, he’s done more research than just about anybody. He appears at all the right conferences, publishes all the right papers. And you say you couldn’t face reading his book.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: It does sound absolutely dreadful, doesn’t it? Oh dear, please forgive me.
Alex Tsakiris: It sounds very unscientific for anyone who claims to be a researcher in the field.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: But I don’t. You’re absolutely right. I wouldn’t have said that before I gave up all of this stuff so many years ago. Of course I wouldn’t have said that because if you are a researcher in the field it behooves you to read really as much as you can of the best work because otherwise you can’t be a researcher in the field. I’m not a researcher in the field. I have not been for a long time. And because I felt I had to get out-it’s the same with all of the parapsychological things which I really stopped doing about 10 years ago.
I was sent a mass of material on the Stargate affair, a very big argument about U.S. government funded research on remote viewing and so on. And I thought, ‘If I’m going to make any comment on this, I have got to read all of this stuff.’ And I had come to the point when I had had enough and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I had to reorganize my life and say I’m not going to do that anymore. Because what I was never prepared to do and still I’m not prepared to do is to say, “Yeah, I’m an expert on this; I know about this,” and then not go and read the book. So quite honestly, I haven’t done that for a very long time and that’s why I don’t think I’d be of much use to you.
I mean initially, I didn’t want to do this interview because I’m not a researcher in the field and I’m not up to date with the work. I’m not the right person for you to talk to. And then you said, “Well, people still refer to your work so if you want to talk to me,” and to me, to let me talk as honestly as I am, I am ignorant about quite a lot of what has gone on in the past 15 years. Let me say one more thing. Why I couldn’t face reading it has nothing to do with something to do with the content because I don’t know what the content is.
I’m thinking of my desk now, of the piles of books and the urgent “must-reads” that I’ve got to review by next week pile, then the “oh, I’d love to read” in the next pile, and then the really hopeless, huge pile as tall as my desk of books people have sent me and they want me to read. And God knows when I’m going to read them. Actually, that’s the background of that comment.
Alex Tsakiris: We can all relate.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Of course you can. Of course you can. So I wouldn’t read his book because that’s not the field I’m working in anymore and I’ve got other things to do.
Alex Tsakiris: I appreciate that but Sue, that’s not exactly what you said even in the email to me. And you kind of reiterated it in the early part of this broadcast. You said that you don’t want to get back to it unless there’s some really fantastic evidence. And you say in your email, “Of course, there may be some really fantastic evidence in Long’s book, but I doubt it.”
Dr. Susan Blackmore: I do doubt it.
Alex Tsakiris: …and no one has told me…
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Come on then, prove me wrong, then. Prove me wrong. Tell me what there is.
Alex Tsakiris: But hold on.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Maybe there is, you know?
Alex Tsakiris: But hold on. You’re still a public figure, a public intellectual, public scientist, and to remove yourself, I think is fine, but you still express a very strong opinion about this. And when we juxtapose that with what you just said, that I’m completely uninformed; I really have no opinion because I haven’t studied the literature in 15 years and a lot has happened in 15 years. I mean, don’t we need to resolve those to a certain extent?
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, that’s a good question. I think because of the way it went with that research, and in particular all of my research in parapsychology, it was always very, very frustrating. What happened is you have any number of claims of things which you say were true are fundamentally overthrown-everything we understand really about the nature of the mind-and if it were true it would be amazing and would change everything.
We don’t investigate new things. Over the nearly 30 years I was involved in parapsychology I investigated lots and lots and lots of things. Some of them turn out to be very easy to solve the mystery and you find very quickly that there’s some normal explanation. Others you can spend years getting to the bottom of them and you ultimately get there and you say somebody cheated or somebody made a mistake or whatever it might be. And then some others you never resolve.
But in my experience all those years those ones were never convincing enough; there were never any witnesses or any written records independently of the main claim of whatever it was to force me to say, “Yes, this overthrows everything we know.” That is where my remark, “I doubt it,” is coming from. It also comes from another source, which is that I still know enough people-I don’t see them much or communicate with them that much–but I still know people in the field and I suspect that if there were the kind of-if something happened that was really compelling, for example the success of some project like AWARE, somebody would tell me. Then I would go back and have a look. It would throw me. It would be kind of challenging and difficult but also very exciting, but that’s really where my “I doubt it” is coming from.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. So then people you know. I assume you’re talking about like Dr. Peter Fenwick, and who else are you talking about, and what are they telling you in terms of their not being in the fantastic research?
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, as an example, a few months ago Peter came down to Plymouth where a bunch of us had been invited to take part in a day organized by some schools near us. It was a very nice day. There were discussions about near-death experiences and he told me about the AWARE project and various other things that were going on. And I gave a lecture. This was for school kids so this was not a scientific conference. I feel perfectly able to do that when invited, although I don’t very often do it.
But Peter was coming and I wanted to see him and I thought this would be a nice day, which it was. And he presented the arguments from his perspective. And we had a discussion with all the school kids. Now, he didn’t tell of anything there which was of the stunning kind of evidence that would change anything for me. It was very interesting but it wasn’t that kind of thing like ‘Wow! Maybe I should get back into this. Really something has changed remarkably.’
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. I don’t think we can really push that too far because we just kind of set the parameters that I don’t think it’s really an area…
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, if you could now tell me of some amazing piece of evidence that would make me change my mind, then that would be interesting. But in the absence of that I think we have to accept there are lots and lots of possible ways of interpreting NDEs. People differ, and the evidence is not conclusive on most studies.
I mean, some things we know very well, don’t we? We know what proportions of people have them; we know that people are positively changed afterwards; we know something about those kinds of changes. We know that various drugs in particular, painkillers and those kinds of things, we mention that 11:30 our experiences and blur them rather than enhancing them. We know that levels of carbon dioxide are positively correlated with those experiences.
Alex Tsakiris: No, we don’t. And I don’t think we should get into that because you just said that you haven’t followed it for 15 years. If you want to get into it then I would put you opposite a researcher, Pim Van Lommel or like I said, Dr. Jeff Long, or Dr. Bruce Greyson.
People who are really up to date on the research, who have published, have collected data for 20 or 30 years rather than-you’re doing this thing again where you say, “I’m completely removed from the field. I don’t have anything to say. I haven’t researched. I haven’t read any of the literature. I have a stack of books I haven’t read and none of them are even NDE books. They’re not even on my table.” And then you’re going to spout off all these things that you believe or that you assume to be true without looking at the research. I appreciate just having an opinion, but I’ve got to ask how well-informed is it?
Dr. Susan Blackmore: I’m really trying here to be as truthful as I can and as correct about, to be honest about what I know and don’t know. I know that certainly those things I have just said are things that over the years I have learned about. Now, it won’t surprise me at all if you come up with something else that contradicts one of these or something, but those are the things which I do know have been researched. You jumped in on the carbon dioxide, well, there’s a certain paper-quite a lot of near-death experiences, 50-something of them, were studied in correlation and found between levels of carbon dioxide…
Alex Tsakiris: Hold on. They actually studied 11. The carbon dioxide levels really weren’t elevated. They were statistically elevated slightly by one statistical measure between the two groups that they studied, but the levels aren’t even higher than someone has when they’re scuba diving. So it’s really not strong evidence. We’ve dissected it quite a bit on this show with several experts, so yeah, that’s not strong…
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, I will defer to those experts because they know more about it than me.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk about something else that came up actually in our last interview and then in a subsequent interview after that. It’s something you’ve written more about and talked about. And that’s Buddhism. This is a little bit of a hot topic here because when I had you on as a Zen practitioner and in your book on consciousness you talk somewhat about the Buddhist tradition and how it fits in. So if I could, I want to play you this clip from Dr. Alan Wallace. He’s a Buddhist scholar and he had this to say about your work. Can I play this for you?
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Okay.
Dr. Alan Wallace: What I found here in Susan Blackmore’s writings, because I haven’t read her primary book, her big book on consciousness, is when she surveys Western studies of consciousness and so forth, I think it’s really quite a laudable effort. When she comes to her presentation of Buddhism I have to say rather sadly, it was the worst presentation of Buddhism I’ve seen in the English language.
And I’ve been studying Buddhism for 37 years now. I’m fluent in Tibetan. I’ve studied Sanskrit. A Buddhist monk for 14 years. And I don’t know how many books I’ve published on the topic. But it was simply uninformed and it was not only uninformed but it was good, straightforward ignorance. But this radical misconstrual and misinterpretation that I think no reputable Buddhist scholar could possibly accept. And so this was really quite discouraging. I find it’s not infrequent among people who are working in this field. They’ll be very professional on one side and completely amateurish on the other.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay and I realize that’s a pretty harsh statement but I wanted to get your response.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Oh, it certainly is harsh and I wish he had come to me. I would love to have the chance to talk to him about that. Yes, I don’t claim to be a Buddhist scholar. I was giving an overview–what I was trying to do, this is a big textbook on consciousness, which is intended for undergraduate and probably master’s level students in Britain and the United States primarily, studying consciousness. And they will mostly be studying physiology, neurophysiology, neuropsychology, all different aspects of consciousness and some more subjective stuff, as well.
I was trying to put meditation and mindfulness and a little bit of basic Buddhist ideas into that book because I think the science of consciousness is rapidly expanding now and really going somewhere and I think it would be very sad if it concentrates entirely on the neuroscience and leaves out the personal practice. So that was the aim of putting that in there.
Now, he says I’m uninformed. Well, I’m not a Buddhist scholar. I don’t read Sanskrit or original language. I’m not a scholar of Buddhism in that sense. But I have been training in Zen for 30 years now. I’ve also trained to some extent, much and much less in Tibetan practices. Most of what I wrote there is based on that long practice. Of course, he doesn’t agree, you know, like Christians disagree and Muslims disagree and I don’t know why he was so scathing about it. It may be because I take a pretty radical interpretation of many of the Buddhist teachings, but that’s kind of in the Zen tradition.
Zen is kind of one end of the Buddhist tradition in the sense it’s sweeping away doctrine, sweeping all sorts of doctrine. I think the basic practice of Zen, you sit there and look at a white wall, shut up, and see what’s there. And it has very much less in the way of doctrine. Without knowing more of what he’s objecting to, I’m not sure I can say much more about it. I would welcome taking it up with him.
Alex Tsakiris: Sure. Well, we can arrange that if you think that would be useful. I tell you what I think…
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Oh yeah, that would be very interesting.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. I think a couple of things that he objects to is what you just alluded to and one is that from a scholarship standpoint I think we can say certain things about certain religious texts in the same way that a practicing Roman Catholic for 30 years wouldn’t be qualified to really speak on historical interpretations of these texts as much as a scholar would. And..
Dr. Susan Blackmore: That’s true. But the Buddhist scholar I know best and admire greatly is Stephen Batchelor and he’s written many books on Buddhism and he does read Sanskrit and Pali and other early languages. He’s translated books from those original languages. He’s written critical books of those kinds. He’s written wonderful books such as my favorite, Buddhism Without Beliefs. And he’s a life-long practitioner and was a monk in Florence for many, many years before he came back to Britain and started writing.
And he’s a great Buddhist teacher and quite a lot of my knowledge-when I need to check something I always check it with him. And I certainly checked for the content of that book with him and with other Buddhists to find out, because I’m really not a Buddhist. I’ve been practicing Zen.
I’m not trying to be a Buddhist. I haven’t signed up for all these things; I have not taken any vows. I’ve practiced meditation and mindfulness and Zen for over half of my life, but not as a Buddhist. But I did ask some Buddhist friends to check the book and I made some changes in line with the discussions that we had. Obviously they thought it wasn’t-you know, not making terrible mistakes. They were happy with it, I could say.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. Fair enough. You know, because what I was alluding to before is I think sometimes the details matter. Sometimes they don’t. It’s purely an interpretation, personal experience thing and that’s okay. But sometimes…
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, if there were some little details in there that were wrong, I’m sure the people that I–John Cook, my then teacher who at one point wrote a book about Buddhism, he saw it as well. If there had been something there that probably could be wrong, it would have been thrown out, I can assure you. So there must be a disagreement that Alan had with me, not be just some little erroneous details. There must be some more fundamental difference of interpretation there.
Alex Tsakiris: There is, and I can send you the complete interview. I will do that after the show. I’ll send you a link to it so you can listen to it.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Okay. Thank you.
Alex Tsakiris: But here’s what I was referring to when I was talking about the details. In your book, Dying to Live, you say this: “The difference between these, that is Tibetan Buddhism teachings and the folk tales we’ve encountered…” ie, you talking about the near-death experience folk tales, “…and it’s a very big difference,” you state, “…is that in Buddhism these experiences are not meant to be taken literally.” Now, there you’re saying something quite matter-of-factly that I think is just, as far as I can tell from talking to researchers, Buddhist scholars, that’s just flat-out incorrect.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: What exactly are we talking about that are not be taken literally? I’m sorry, I’m not understanding this. What exactly are these experiences or claims that are not to be taken literally?
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so this from your book, Dying to Live. You’re talking about what’s described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, right?
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Oh, right, yes.
Alex Tsakiris: And you say that these Tibetan Buddhism teachings, leaving your body and going to another place, you’re saying these are not to be taken literally and yet you say “the folk tales of NDE,” which is a very derogatory term, but given that millions of people have had these experiences and consider them very much real and very significant but to you they’re folk tales. And you say that in Buddhism, these experiences, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, are not to be taken literally. I just don’t see any support for that. I just don’t think that’s correct.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, I suppose I was speaking from my Zen background where these things are not taken as literal adventures in literal other worlds, but when you…
Alex Tsakiris: Hold on, hold on. That’s the point I’m making. Now we’re talking about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a writing from-I think it’s from 800 AD-but it’s part of the works of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and it’s either-you know, that part isn’t open to interpretation from a Zen perspective from someone who’s a Zen practitioner. You’ve got to be right about that.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: It’s open to interpretation in all sorts of ways. I mean, if you think of the other religions in the world at that time, there were plenty of scholars and historians who would argue that we’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick in modern times. I’m using at the moment the case for God and where historians are taking lots of historical details and argue that the Bible is like that. It wasn’t read literally. The whole idea of taking the Bible literally is actually a modern invention of the last hundred years or so.
And people didn’t use it as guidance for their own life, for their own practice, to understand their own minds, but not meant as literal. Now, I don’t know perhaps I shouldn’t have worked in that in 1993. I don’t know-I don’t remember the context. I’d have to go and look at it again. But there must be lots and lots of ways of understanding the Tibetan Book and of using the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I don’t know in the time that it was written, centuries and centuries ago, in what way it was intended, nor do I know through how many translations it has gone through to be the form that we know it now and how that has affected the way it is to be taken.
I do know something from long, long Zen practice about the power of some of these ways of thinking about the mind to affect one’s meditation, to affect one’s state of mind. Not by taking them literally but by taking them as a conduit and guidance to mental space or something like that.
And that interests me far more deeply and I’ve certainly met many, many very, very impressive practitioners of meditation and mindfulness who don’t take these things literally but use them in their practice for all sorts of purposes to deal with encouraging compassion, understanding, emptiness, for the mental oneness or one mind and these kinds of things rather than taking them literally. That’s the sort of place that I would have been coming from in making that statement.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, and I certainly appreciate that from both a spiritual perspective and just from the contemplative tradition that is Buddhism. I appreciate all of the things that you’re saying but we are again dealing with this kind of interplay and I realize you are a very entertaining both presenter and writer and you’re obviously very intelligent and well-informed. And at the same time, I do think there’s some fair criticism in the way sometimes you construct your arguments in a way that isn’t really a fair fight. I mean, you said that the these experiences from the Tibetan Book of the Dead are not to be taken literally.
And now you’re saying something that I can agree with, which is, hey, we’re not sure whether those should really be taken literally in all cases. But that’s not how you constructed the argument. And I think that one of the reasons-back to the original point of this interview-one of the reasons that skeptics latch on to your work is the style. They like someone to just say, “These Tibetan experiences that are well documented, they’re not to be taken literally.”
What you’re flushing out now is that that’s not really a very scholarly or scientific way to approach things. And the same way skeptics love when you say, “I don’t know if I could make it through Jeff Long’s book and I doubt that there’s much there,” they love that. But when you really dig into what you’re saying, and say, “Hey, the guy did compile 2,000 cases. He’s a medical doctor. He’s published in many peer-reviewed journals. And I haven’t read any of his work. I haven’t read any of Pim Van Lommel’s work. So I’m going to withdraw from making public scientific statements.”
Okay, I think we could all get onboard with that. But you’re kind of throwing meat to the crowd, here, this other crowd, the skeptical crowd that loves to hear you say these other things. Do you understand where I’m coming from?
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, yes, you’ve said a lot of interesting things. Towards the beginning I was thinking I wanted to say, “Well, yes, this is the point about how great discussion is in sciences but I knew the criticisms because it’s all too easy to spring out ideas, to have lots of ideas that might lead to criticism, to then know which ones that I have to work on when to hang them up and so on.
But I think you’re kind of dragging me away from what’s important to me and what I would like to talk about more, really, which is what is all this panning out about the mind and about who we are and about what the potential of the human mind is…
Alex Tsakiris: It’s telling us that the mind is not reducible to brain function. That is as clear as it could be. And once we cross that chasm, you and I could have a really interesting discussion, but if you want to stay on the other side of that cliff and hold onto something that’s totally not true, and it’s so clearly not true…
Dr. Susan Blackmore: [Laughs] I don’t know that the mind is totally reducible to the brain. That’s a completely-I mean, reducibility is a very, very strong demand. I don’t think–I wouldn’t say that. I would say that you don’t have mind without a brain and a body and a world for it to emerge from, but that’s different from it being reducible.
Alex Tsakiris: But we’re not sure, and I’d say we’re not sure on that second point, but that’s what they…
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, yes, and I would say I’m on one side and you’re on the other on that one.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, but then I’d also suggest that if you look at the trend line and you look at where you’ve moved, where science has moved in the last 20 years, last 50 years, is certainly the trajectory is to jump over the chasm, not to stay on the other side. And to say that mind is not reducible, but we’re going to hold onto this idea that it only works inside of this little box here that’s on top of your head, I think that’s harder and harder to hold onto.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, it’s casts a lot-there’s a huge change going on in public in science in the last 10 years or so towards embodied theories of consciousness and embodied theories of perception and so on. And it’s happening over in work in artificial intelligence and consciousness, realizing that you can’t just talk about a brain on its own. It’s just a bunch of neurons and that’s why a moment ago I said when I was jumping on this interview to the energy stability business, I mentioned a brain and a body and a world. Because I think you have to have all of those three things interacting before the mind or mental phenomena, or experiences or subjectivity or energy to self or whatever else it might be. Not that the brain-the brain on its own is just-you know-it can’t do anything.
I want to think about another cavern. See, there’s a vast cavern of dualism that is at the heart of all these problems that we face in trying to understand the mind and trying to understand death and so on. The natural human way to think seems to be dualist. It seems to be that mind and brain are somehow separate. And we struggle to try to make sense of them. Now, in the scientific realm, you have this awful dualism which led to swinging backwards and forth and particularly the relationship between psychology and what is now becoming neuroscience.
The whole past history in behaviorism, which is a large part of the 20th century, was not being able to cope with dualism, well, just make it all brain power, ignore that there’s any mind at all and simply push it away and not do anything with it. And that’s what behaviorism did and was successful in keeping anyone from talking about mind for a very, very long time. Well then along comes trying to work back again and then we struggled and struggled for the last part of the 20th century and the first part of this to try and make some kind of connection between the two. And I narrowed my textbook on consciousness trying to keep those in there all the time, interacting.
But the way the science goes very often is it’s too difficult to cope with experience and subjectivity. We’ll try to understand it all in terms of just what the brain is doing. And then people start this constant to-ing and fro-ing over the problem of dualism. And interestingly, now there’s lots of research coming in now from young children showing that that way of thinking is very natural to young children from three or four or very early on when they learn language. We stop thinking of mind and brain as separate.
Then we have the whole religious and spiritual traditions in which again and again, not just in Buddhism, I’m talking about the Christian mysticism and naturally occurring, spontaneous mystical experiences. Again and again people will describe the end of dualism. They will say they had this experience, and I’ve had many of these experiences myself, where simply mind and brain are no longer separate. Just self and other is no longer separate. There is complete harmony and oneness of self and other and you can laugh at how could I have thought that I was out and separate from everybody else and everything else?
The attitude then is quite resolved. And you can say, turning to Buddhism in particular, it’s sometimes said in them that the end is the realization of non-duality-the realization that makes it real, making real non-duality. And that all our religions and hatred and delusion and greed, all of this stems from this false sense of being separate from the universe that we inhabit. Now that dualist background, that’s what I think is really at the heart of what I’ve been trying to do all my life, in struggling around that, and trying to make sense of it. Trying to find a way so this is not separate, that does not encourage selfishness and greed and delusions.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s an interesting path you just took us on. It really is. And especially it’s a topic I’m very interested in, is this kind of looking at both our scientific empiricism and our spiritual traditions and trying to somehow sort out what is true-as much as true is really kind of a funny thing, the concept to latch onto. But having said that, I go back to the very first part that you talked about in terms of dualism. Where you come around full circle is saying that this whole idea of dualism, this whole little jaunt we’ve taken in science was a mis-step, and I think that recasts the whole thing.
I mean, if science has really been on this in terms of consciousness, has really been on this sidetrack that really doesn’t work, then don’t we kind of make too much of it when we say, “Oh, and look at how interesting it was when we looked at behaviorism and took all the side tracks,” when it’s like yeah, that was wrong. And the first point I have to disagree with and that’s where you said you think that human being naturally gravitate towards-what did you say?-towards a dualistic kind of a…
Dr. Susan Blackmore: That mind and brain are seen to be such different kinds of things. And we talk about them differently and think about myself-my experiences as not-the world as being there is causing my experiences if you think about experiences as separate from the world and mind and brain being different things.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. But there’s also a long tradition of non-dualism, right? I mean…
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Right. Absolutely. And that is the tension between the people who have somehow seen through this dualism but the normal way that’s embedded in our language and in much of our culture is dualist. That’s why Descartes is so popular. Descartism, if you remember, the separatism of the mind and the world. But it doesn’t bear the scientific and the scientific evidence keeps saying that we’re wrong. The whole behaviorist tradition had some good things in it but that attempt to kind of do away with mind or subjective experiences is wrong. We must come back to it. And that, I’m happy to say, has happened in my lifetime.
Beginning in the mid-1990s when it began to be possible, scientifically acceptable, to talk about consciousness again, and this great sort of flowering of people being able to talk about it. And then the constant kind of dragging back to pin it down to some little bit of the brain or something. And kind of finding it terribly hard to do justice to the nature of personal experience while studying the brain. It’s a terribly hard challenge. It’s called “the hard problem of consciousness.” The hard problem of consciousness is to find out-trying to understand how subjective experience can arise from objective brain events. And that’s a massive challenge.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. I think as you alluded to earlier in our discussion, and as you said in your book, Dying to Live, is if it is proven that consciousness might exist without a functioning brain, then you really have to rethink all of your ideas.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Absolutely.
Alex Tsakiris: I think if we look at the research in the last 15 years that’s been compiled by the best researchers in the field of near-death experience, I think we’re there. And I think people who hold off in saying that we’re there are really kind of just trying to hold back the wall. I think that’s why this research is so important and so relevant and really needs to be studied so thoroughly.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: But if we are there then we should have evidence that would explain why near-death experiences are the way they are. For example, why…
Alex Tsakiris: We cannot say that one doesn’t lead to the other. The fact that we’ve compiled some very impressive evidence highly suggestive of the fact that consciousness survives bodily death does not automatically lead to some timeframe during which we should have developed well-formed theories about how it works. Those two don’t necessarily follow.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, you could say that it hasn’t happened yet but it will. But people who think that near-death experience is evidence for life after death are-expect those of us who think that they’re not can come up with complete theories and complete predictions and all sorts of evidence. And we’ve done fairly well but certainly not provided in the…
Alex Tsakiris: No, no, you haven’t done so very well. The history really is that all the nice ideas that have been put forth have been really handled pretty well from-and we’ve had those folks on the show. You’ve got Kevin Nelson in the last few years coming along with REM intrusion, you know? Well, that’s handled pretty well. You have those Slovenian doctors as we mentioned with the carbon elevated levels, the CO2 in the blood. That’s addressed pretty well in the evidence that we have.
There really isn’t a lot of stuff hanging out there yet to be addressed. The point that you’re making is that yeah, we have the evidence that suggests it’s not these other things but we don’t have a complete theory about how it works. If you want to make that criticism, fine. Yeah, that’s true.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: But you don’t have anything. All you have is a statement that there’s a mission here and you’re proposing a complete non-explanation. In other words, there’s something like a spirit or a soul or something of that kind that survives death. But that doesn’t say anything.
Alex Tsakiris: But Sue, hold on. But when the mystery is that we’re observing a highly advanced, cognitive process of consciousness when there is no brain activity, well, that’s more than just total mystery. It is the central issue. So just jump over that.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Okay. And I have yet to be persuaded that the evidence really suggests that.
Alex Tsakiris: You haven’t read anything in the last 15 years.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Well, I think we’ve been over that discussion enough.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, okay, all right. All right.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Let me say something. You concentrate on some aspects, understandably, certain aspects of the work I did a long time ago on near-death experiences. You don’t mention what the book was really about, or my conclusions at the end of it and what drove me to this critical work in the first place. The truth is, my alternative theory is not how good a theory-well, let’s say what it is, not what it’s not.
My alternative theory is something like this. Most of our lives is an illusion. We think that we are somehow a separate mind inhabiting our body, that we are in charge of our body, that we are consisting entities that live our lives and that is in some way separable from our body and therefore it makes sense for it to leave our body. This radical kind of ordinary human dualism is the kind of ordinary state most of us live in. It’s not actually a very happy state to be in; it’s not a very compassionate or loving state to be in. But it’s kind of the basic human way to live.
Now, some people have the luck to have spontaneous mystical experiences in which waft out of that and realize that it’s possible to be outside of that cage, if you like. To see the world differently. To understand immediately the interrelatedness of the universe or oneness of everything. And the fact that these little sounds are actually not important obviously or the way we felt the other before.
Other people learn through prayer and contemplation within the mystical traditions in any of the great religions or in some alternative religions, as well, they will find by long practice or through fasting and other techniques they will also find the same thing. Or you have in some aspects of Humanism and within Buddhism, practice is actually directed at seeing through reality and understanding oneness and the emptiness. All over the world these great traditions.
Now it seems to me from both having had these experiences and having practiced meditation for 30 years, having taken a lot of very interesting drugs, found a lot of strange techniques for mind altering, from all of this experience, it seemed to me that the near-death experiences are not a one of these types of things that can happen. The reason it happens is because of the breakdown of the normal capacity of the brain which is where all the common 41:29 and so on come from.
But the important thing about all this to me, is that it’s a way in which the illusion of separate self can be broken through. And then that’s what I say at the end of the book, this is why people are changed for the better after near-death experiences. Because they have experienced, perhaps for the only time in their life, the possibility of knowing that they are not separate from everybody and everything else.
In fact, 42:00 one and that separate self that makes it all so important is actually just a passing story and not important. And that’s why we become more compassionate, more caring, less interested in fame and glory and money and so on. That’s what my book was about. That’s the context of me trying to understand what’s happening in the brain when people come close to death and survive.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, philosophically we could sit down and have a really nice chat, and I’m much closer to you philosophically than further apart. I mean, this is my spiritual practice, my Yoga tradition, my Hindu and Buddhist leanings, are all in line with that. But I really draw a distinction-I love science and I know you love science, too. I love the scientific method, the means of understanding. And where I pull back from a lot of what you’re saying is that I think people should be very skeptical of a lot of the things that you’re saying because they’re opinions.
They’re interesting opinions, but they step way outside of the realm of what we know, what we can prove by scientific methods. That’s what I guess I react to and I think I was really trying to tease out. I appreciate your openness in having this dialogue that’s critical and really pulling at each other and stuff like that. But it’s like you know what? When it comes to the ideas in your book and the thoughts, philosophies and musings of your book, awesome, great.
What I really want to do is try and tease out the science. What do we know by the best means we have? Knowing full well when we walk in that we’re never really going to know anything-that there isn’t any truth. It’s all relative to some extent, but we do have this common shared experience that we can get to and we’re going to call that for sake of argument, truth. And that’s where we have to try and get.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: Yes, I agree with you.
Alex Tsakiris: Hey, see?
Dr. Susan Blackmore: It’s painful, in a way, this discussion. You’ve pushed very hard and it’s quite painful and tough but it’s what it’s about. If you throw yourself into things like I do and 44:09. You know, it’s part of what you’re doing. It’s to hear these different points of view and try to deal with them as best I can. And try to think and try to always develop my ideas and my opinions in light of what I know. I learn a lot from discussions like this. I’m fine.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. So where is all this thinking and all these interesting exchanges, where is that taking you right now? What are you working on now? Where will people find you in the next year or two? Books, lectures, those kinds of things.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: [Laughs] In my garden by a little river just south of Dartmoor in South Devon. I am trying to do less work, less writing. I’m not writing any book at the moment. It’s very, very hard. The modern world, you know, people can easily get to you and it’s very hard to extricate yourself. But I do realize that I have burdened myself very much with the enjoyment, really, of fairly successful books and lots of lectures and all of that stuff.
And I am now doing more in practice and meditation. I’ve taken up painting again, and above all, I’m doing a lot of gardening and so on. We have seven acres on the edge of this little river in Devon. I grow a lot of vegetables; we have chickens. We are trying to get our carbon footprint as low as possible. We keep the house mostly, not entirely, but mostly with our own wood so it’s carbon neutral. We do an awful lot of time spent stripping and chopping wood to prepare for this winter, which we’re doing at the moment. We’ve installed solar panels of both kinds and so we’re working on these kinds of things and trying to find ways to grow more food and so on.
I realized that I’ve spent quite a lot of time with my teacher because he’s not been well and with all these other people I’ve been helping to look after him for a bit. And that’s been a wonderful opportunity for practice. And he’s got me inside and he’s making instructions. It’s enjoying slowly.
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs]
Dr. Susan Blackmore: You laugh. You can see where that’s coming from, can’t you? Because I’m pathologically unable either to just enjoy things for their own sake or to do things slowly. So that may not have been the answer you were expecting, but that’s kind of what I’m up to at the moment.
Alex Tsakiris: All right. I think that’s wonderful and I think it is very much a part of this discussion because it’s a balancing act and we are living a life. We’re not just-you’re talking about the balance you have between being a public figure and standing behind a lot of works that people identify with you. And carrying on with a life that may take you in slightly different directions that people don’t know about. So I certainly appreciate the fact that you’ve been so open and you’ve taken the time to join us. I thank you very much for that.
Dr. Susan Blackmore: A pleasure. I have enjoyed it despite the tough grilling you’ve given me. I enjoyed it. Thank you very much, indeed.