New York Times Columnist Writes About Ghosts, and Confusion Ensues

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The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier has already taken a satisfying whack at T.M. Luhrmann, the occasional New York Times columnist who writes about spirituality and religion. But Luhrmann's Thursday column, written in honor of Halloween, begs several questions, none of which she attempts to answer. Instead the piece represents a type of muddled thinking that is usually only allowed if the subject is faith.

Here is her basic point:

As many as 80 percent of those who lose loved ones report that they sense that person after death. These are real sensory events. People hear a voice; they feel a touch; they recognize a presence. A friend told me that a year after her husband’s death, she would still find him sitting on that bench in the park, waiting for her. She liked that.

Luhrmann adds:

One study found that one in 10 people had sensory experiences so rich and frequent that they felt their dead spouse was always with them. “Part of my life is gone,” Dame Thora Hird, a British actress, told The Daily Telegraph in 2000, about the loss of her husband after 58 years of marriage, “but he isn’t a long way away. Don’t think I’m being silly, but I sit in his easy chair in the loft andso often, I have a feeling he’s there.”

It's hard to interpret exactly what poor Ms. Hird means, but the beginning of her quote, about part of her life being "gone," provides a clue. As with Luhrmann's friend mentioned above, Hird appears to have some sense that the "sensory events" she is experiencing are different from the sensory event of, say, eating dinner. There is an acknowledgement, however grudging or unintended, that whatever is going on is not reality. This doesn't mean that people are making the experiences up; there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. But it is an important distinction to make. Luhrmann, always anxious to treat every spiritual experience with the utmost respect, never bothers to make it.

 

Written By: Isaac Chotiner
continue to source article at newrepublic.com

12 COMMENTS

  1. All experience of reality is an hallucination. You weave that theatrical production in your head from some digital, pulse frequency coded sensory data processed through your wetware and software. It is like a guided dream. So it is odd that your experience of reality is not more dream like than it is.

    Synthesthesia shows how your brain can incorporate data, mislabelled with the sense it came from. The same thing can happen when memory or imagination is the source. Almost nobody appreciates just how indirect their experience of reality is. By analogy, someone might make a film, then from that make an animated cartoon. The viewer sees that and confuses it with reality.

    A simple experiment. Ask a dozen people who all witnessed an accident to tell you precisely what happened. They all experienced something quite different, but each one is convinced they perceived raw reality directly.

    Another experiment. Look at some glowing embers in the fireplace or at clouds. You will see faces, animals, buildings. The person beside you will see quite different things. We humans have a way of projecting images on random patterns. Our order-seeking circuits tend error in the side of seeing patterns that are not there. (There are good evolutionary reasons for this.)

    • In reply to #1 by Roedy:

      All experience of reality is an hallucination.

      No, experience is more accurately called a simulation: a model of the real world distinct from the real world itself, a model that has to fit into a limited mind of finite resources and solve a lot of almost-unsolvable reverse engineering problems (for instance, reconstructing a 3D object using only the 1D series of codes coming from the 2D pattern of lights on the retina). To describe the whole thing as a hallucination leaves us without a word for those cases where it dramatically departs from the real world’s happenings.

    • In reply to #1 by Roedy:

      All experience of reality is an hallucination.

      No it’s not. All experience is constructed reality, it’s not that there is some external world and we have perceptions of it it’s that we construct a model of the world and use that model to define and interpret our sense data. It’s rational to say that model is as much an element of “reality” as the external stimuli that provide the model with input.

      If you study AI you find that even solving what humans think of as the simplest tasks: finding edges on an image, extracting phonemes from an audio stream of spoken language, are incredibly hard to do. There are so many alternative interpretations of the data. What context — a model of reality — does is to vastly reduce the possible search space so that those problems are solvable. It’s one of the things that really impressed me when studying phsysiological psych, things like vision, how much of what we think of as perception is really construction, there are lots of solid experiments that demonstrate this.

      That is not at all the same as saying that all experience is hallucination. Hallucination is when there is a major disconnect between the model(s) we are using to define reality and the input data. When the model takes over or when some internal input over rides the actual external input data (i.e., neurons firing send visual data to the brain that seems as if it’s coming from the external world via the eyes) THAT is an hallucination.

  2. Perception is a well documented area these days. We have illusionists like Penn &Teller, James Randi and Derren Brown sharing their knowledge about the real workings of the human brain, and entertaining documentaries showing our fallibilities by way of experiment. Anyone still ignorant about what’s happening has only themselves to blame. I think one would have to deliberately avoid television programs or TED talks and articles on this subject, to continue to be ignorant.

    • In reply to #2 by Nitya:

      I think one would have to deliberately avoid television programs or TED talks and articles on this subject, to continue to be ignorant.

      There are millions of people in the world who fit in this very category. I’m willing to go out on a limb and postulate that this category is most likely to be the vast majority of people in our so-called “developed countries”. I think you give people way too much credit. The level of ignorance in North America (what Bill Maher refers to as “low-information voters”) is staggering.

      TED talks?…. Documentaries??? Puh-lease… The average Joes of this world don’t watch those. They watch “reality” shows and football or hockey.

      Intelligent, educated people with an attention span of more than 10 seconds is a minority in the USA and Canada. People who are interested in Science and Philosophy is also a minority. On the bright side, the people who are bright and educated somehow succeed in making up for all the stupidity and still manage to maintain the USA as the country where most of the scientific breakthroughs occur. To me, that is a testimony to how utterly brilliant the best American scientists, philosophers, writers, musicians, etc. are. But with the threat of bigoted religious nuts getting into the White House, this state of affairs is under serious threat.

      • In reply to #5 by NearlyNakedApe:

        In reply to #2 by Nitya:

        I think one would have to deliberately avoid television programs or TED talks and articles on this subject, to continue to be ignorant.

        There are millions of people in the world who fit in this very category. I’m willing to go out on a limb and postulate that this category…

        Sad but true. I think people must purposely avoid exposure to any information that will help them understand the world they live in. There’s just so much information in this area!! Terms like ‘placebo effect’ are now mainstream.

        I love @crookedshoes act of subterfuge #6. I’ve considered doing a similar thing with a psychic. My plan was to respond inappropriately when the rapid fire stream of past happenings was put to me. I’d raise my eyebrows in pleasant surprise at the mention of a fact completely at odds with reality. That’d show them!

        • I always tell my students that if they go to a psychic, they should walk out without paying. They almost always get it. Or,just lurch across the table and punch the psychic in the face. If the catch your fist in midair, they might just be psychic…..if not?

          In reply to #9 by Nitya:

          In reply to #5 by NearlyNakedApe:

          In reply to #2 by Nitya:

          I think one would have to deliberately avoid television programs or TED talks and articles on this subject, to continue to be ignorant.

          There are millions of people in the world who fit in this very category. I’m willing to go out on a li…

  3. @OP quote – Don’t think I’m being silly, but I sit in his easy chair in the loft andso often, I have a feeling he’s there.”

    There are plenty of reminders of dead friends and relatives. As in this case chairs -or other furnishings, garden features, decorating in houses, gifts from them etc. – Not to mention intellectual skills they may have helped friends and relatives develop.
    In the modern age of recording, works of art, architecture, landscape gardens, films, videos, music, songs, books, lectures and presentations, last well beyond the life of their producers! -
    Nothing to do with ghosts, but they can easily trigger memories!

  4. I was at a party a few years ago and there was a “psychic” there. He claimed to be able to talk to the dead. I engaged him and acted like a believer. I asked him as sincerely as I could muster if he could talk to someone for me. He said sure. I asked to talk to Einstein. I asked him what Einstein’s middle name was. I asked if he and Oppenhiemer and Bohr had gotten together and come up with andy new ideas. I asked if he could channel Tesla. It was funny in a really uncomfortable way.

    I asked him just how many dead people there are. I mean there are 7,000,000,000 ALIVE. Damn the number of dead is staggering! How does one sort through all the dead to find the ONE you are requesting an audience with?

  5. Sometimes when my wife goes to the store and I am alone, I call for her and or think she is still at home, “Hey honey can you bring down a shirt from my closet.” Then I realize, oops, she ran to the store. I feel like she is still there. She isn’t dead, but her presents remains because it is the environment that our relationship thrives in. After one of us pass, we will certainly miss the other. Posthumous conversation is a sign of mental disease, not the existence of ghosts.

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