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Philosophy & the Paranormal

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Astral Projection and Out of Body Experiences

Joe Fearn asks whether the idea of out of body experiences is intelligible.

I talked to Jean Gittins, a 57 year old Leeds woman who told me about the out of body experience she had during an extended and exhausting labour while giving birth to her son Thomas. Her labour pains were eased by gas, and she became ‘detached’ from the events around her. Then she saw a ‘tunnel’ through which she appeared to be rushing. When the room appeared again, she was surprised to find herself looking down from the ceiling onto the heads of the doctors and nurses. She saw the room in general, and noticed some things in great detail, such as the doctor’s hair being grey in places, and the roots of the blonde nurse’s hair showing the tell-tale black of their original colour. The experience was accompanied by a tremendous sense of well-being.

Leaving aside hallucination, what are we to make of her experience, which is far from unique? In what sense, if any, could consciousness be located anywhere, never mind outside the body? If we are to talk of Jean Gittins’ consciousness ‘leaving the body’ then first we have to define it in such a way that it has a location, and is normally to be found in her body. It has been suggested that consciousness is neither wholly ‘in’ nor ‘out’ of the body — perhaps one part is always outside, and in an out of body experience your mind becomes aware of that fact. Let’s take it that such a location is at least imaginable: you are sleeping in your bedroom. Then you somehow ‘project’ your consciousness to a location near the ceiling. You look down and see your physical body on the bed. But what are you seeing with? You have no eyes, nothing with which to encode sensory information. Why can you see only downward? Why not see in all directions at once? This should be possible without the limitations of visual field imposed by having a head. What would such an experience be like? Seeing in all directions at once would produce no perspective at all; free-floating astronauts still have top and bottom ‘handles’ to hold on to simply by reference to a head and legs, luxuries denied to a free-floating consciousness. Imagine now moving towards a mirror. You see it coming closer, appearing to grow larger. But you possess no spatial perspective with which to go toward it! Being in a body seems to be necessary for the possibility of such a perspective. In redefining consciousness to accommodate having a locality outside the body, we may find that we are no longer talking about ‘consciousness’ at all. (See my discussion of the ‘primacy of the normal’ later.)

In this article I will argue that the notion of disembodied people is unintelligible. In the end I shall argue this based upon a principle I call ‘the primacy of the normal’. But first let me ask you: what would a disembodied person be like? Simply the personality? But personality is rightly attributable as an aspect of a physical person; it is the body which behaves, the brain which controls actions, and without a body we cannot have those dispositions to act in certain ways in response to certain stimuli that we interpret as having a personality. So maybe personality is an aspect of the self. But what is that? Memory? Mental continuity? Don’t we need bodily continuity for such a definition, and for occupying the same temporal and spatial track throughout your life? Whatever constitutes personal identity seems to have some, if not complete, dependence on having a body and cannot therefore in any meaningful sense be said to leave the body.

If there be no physical way for a living being to recognise a disembodied person, then information may come from a ‘re-embodiment’ through a medium. I visited the Spiritualist Church on Catherine Street in Doncaster, where the Medium — a door to the other side in sensible shoes — said “Can I come to you, dear? I have your mother here.” (It is debatable what she meant by ‘here’.) The lady she was addressing asked “Is this woman and my mother the same person?” Her question highlights the problem of individuating disembodied minds. Dress, memories, and character traits were offered as proof, but proved inconclusive. Parapsychologists themselves must surely admit that the information could have come from Descartes’ Malicious Demon, or some other discarnate impostor, or else self-deception or fraud.

Disembodied Consciousness? No Thanks!

Professor Antony Flew dismissed the whole notion of the incorporeal person in an article in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1972. He said:

Consider some of the things which we easily and regularly say about people, and think of how few, if any, of these things could be intelligibly said about incorporeal entities. We meet people, we shake hands with them, eat with them, see them, hear them, they get up, go to bed, sit down, smile, laugh, cry... all these activities and many, many, more could only be predicated intelligibly of corporeal creatures.

Pondering the statement “That person is eating” forces us to conclude that evidently at least part of the meaning of ‘person’ in this particular context is corporeality, for one could not say without obvious contradiction that a bodyless thing was engaged in eating. Flew concluded:

I cannot see where I have offered any definition of the word ‘person’... what I have done in fact is to remind myself and the reader of what everyone who understands the meaning of that word must know, people are corporeal, not incorporeal.

According to Flew, the notion of a soul, or wholly incorporeal personal being is incoherent because it is impossible...

...first to provide a principle of individuation by which a being could, at least in theory be distinguished from another such being; and second, to provide a principle of identity to permit us to say that one such being at a later time is the same as that being at an earlier time.

Obviously Flew is appealing implicitly to a general principle: that the notion of an X (where ‘X’ stands for any alleged sort of thing having temporal duration) is incoherent unless it is possible to provide a principle of individuation for X's and a principle of identity for X's. However, as the late, great Willard Quine pointed out,

The truth is that you can bathe in the same river twice, but not in the same river stage. You can bathe in two river stages which are stages of the same river, and this is what constitutes bathing in the sane river twice. A river is a process through time, and the river stages are its momentary parts.
(W.V.O.Quine, From a Logical Point of View, 1964)

So we ought to recognise that a thing which endures through time is a process: it consists of a succession of distinct momentary stages. Only then can we account for the fact of change existing compatibly with sameness. In Buddhism, the self is a causal process that is not annulled by death.

Let’s take a look at some other objections to consciousness without a body.

“Any experience requires a substance to be the experience of, in exactly the same way that a grin requires a face to be the grin of. Since it makes no sense to talk of a pain or a joy or any other sort of awareness without an owner, the Humean suggestion that a person might simply and solely consist in a collection of such ‘loose and separate’ experiences must be rated as, strictly, nonsense.”
(W.V.O.Quine, From a Logical Point of View)

Ideas of sense cannot significantly be said to exist unsensed, and how are experiences to be identified if it is not as the experiences of the corporeal person who has them. A stubborn neo-Humean might argue that my experiences, unlike my possessions, are owned by virtue of their intrinsic nature. But this does not involve that my experiences, like my possessions, could significantly be said to survive my death, or in any other way to exist separately. It is precisely and only because the contrary is true that my experiences are not substances, whereas my possessions are, that the former can be said to be intrinsically owned, whereas the latter have to be spoken of as owned only contingently. The neo-Humean bundle theory has it that ‘the notion of experience ownership’ is purely mentalistic; in the relevant sense of “not presupposing the existence of some material body or bodies.“ But this has no warrant. Owning experiences should be construed in a non-relational way: our experiences are not themselves substances, in relations with us.

“Beyond the wholly empty assurance that it is a metaphysical principle which guarantees continuing identity through time, or the argument that since we know that identity persists some such principle must hold in default of others, no content seems available for the doctrine. Its irrelevance ... is due to its being merely an alleged identity-guaranteeing condition of which no independent characterisation is forthcoming.”
(Terence Penhelum, Survival and Disembodied Existence, 1970)

The Parapsychologists Strike Back

These considerations haven’t been lost on parapsychology. The ‘Etheric double’ suggested by Theosophists such as Annie Besant in the 1890s is one way of countering these problems — Besant claimed that the discarnate person occupies an occult but nonetheless physical body which is supposed on death to occupy a sphere occluded from our senses. However, a possible realm of undiscovered material seems unlikely in the light of modern physics.

H.H.Price (1899-1984) was a prominent Oxford philosopher and was also President of the Society for Psychical Research. He contended that there could be a world of mental images, ‘imagy’ but not imaginary. This of course addresses the different question of whether there could be disembodied people in some fanciful non-physical world. We may object that we can only be said to have experiences at all if we are aware of the stimuli of some sort of world. However, Price points out that in sleep we are cut off from sense perception but still have experiences. Price argues that experiences could occur that were not causally connected with a physical organism. This would allow us a ‘psychological life’ if not a biological one. We do, after all, feel alive while dreaming. In Price’s world of images, Antony Flew’s comments about what it is like to meet people would be satisfied by a version of telepathy in which I thought up an apparition resembling the body I had in this life, and which I could clothe in any way I saw fit. This world avoids solipsism (the idea that only I exist, and everything else is the content of my mind) by being telepathic continuously. People could bring with them their desires, memories and so forth. There is nothing self-contradictory or logically absurd in the hypothesis that memories, desires and images can exist in the absence of a physical brain. This is a wish-fulfilment world.

I can see problems for Price, though. Firstly how is the wish-fulfilment, non-corporeal world different from this world? For instance, if I meet Price in my wish-fulfilment world, but I don’t want to talk to him, can I wish him away? Wish him into non-existence? If yes, how is it an objectively real world? How is Price a real ‘other mind’? The problem is, of course, if I cannot then how is it a wish-fulfilment world? If I cannot — why not? If the Price that I meet and his world are real, then in what way? And how is Price’s world different from this world? A question I should like to put to Price is “How do you know that you are not already in such a world?”

Many theorists of the occult or parapsychology favour a non-physical range of worlds in which roam similarly non-physical entities. A materialist attributes thoughts, feelings, and other mental events as dependent upon physical events in the body and brain. The dualist however can believe in models of the mind that admit of no brain processes, and also that the mind can exist independently of matter; an essentially Cartesian outlook. So when such a person speaks of mental or non-physical events, she may refer to a non-physical but objective reality where we can find our discarnate individual, inhabiting their non-physical astral body. Some parapsychologists believe that all physical bodies down to atoms have an astral ‘envelope’ which constitutes a replica of the physical world.

“The astral world consists of astral matter in seven grades; and all physical objects have a replica.” said Besant, but should we accept this, we would be admitting of a very bloated universe.

Antony Flew objects that we can’t use the word ‘person’ correctly in denoting something incorporeal. He insists that “People are what you meet”. Sight without eyes can be imagined, but a Wittgensteinian objection would be that:

“our concepts of seeing, hearing, pain, anger, etc, apply in the first instance to human beings, we willingly extend them to (say) cats, dogs, and horses, but we rightly feel uncomfortable about extending them to very alien creatures and speaking of a slug’s hearing or an angry ant. Do we know at all what it would be to apply such concepts to an immaterial being? I think not.”
(Peter Geach, God and the Soul, 1969)

We can’t get very far by saying “An immaterial spirit feels the same way I do” for similar reasons. The concept of seeing can only be maintained with connection with non-psychological concepts, otherwise the concept of seeing collapses. This concept is a sensation concept, not applicable to a disembodied spirit. Any misty, nebulous ectoplasmic astral body would need eyes, and if it gained information from this world, it would be detectable, and we know it is not.

“...if an astral floating eye is to see, it must catch light, and hence cannot be transparent, and so must be visible to people in the vicinity. In fact floating eyes are not observed, nor would this be expected, for they exist only in fantasy.”
(William Rushton, letter to the journal of the Society for Psychic Research)

For an astral body, the same problem exists as for the disembodied consciousness; why can’t astral bodies see out of the backs of their heads?

Wittgensteinian objections make it apparent that there are no activities which could be carried on by a disembodied human person because all of our mental activity words are necessarily linked to common forms of life. We never really understand a concept unless we have some criterion for applying the concept, and a criterion must be something public. The possibility of a private language leads to solipsism if we allow any real privacy to our mental goings on. Words such as ‘you’, ‘person’, ‘I’, ‘people’, ‘woman’, ‘man’, ‘Obi Wan’ are all used to refer to objects which you can point at, touch, hear, see, and talk to. Person words refer to people. And people are beings which display psychological activity in physical behaviour. How can such objects as people survive physical dissolution? “The empirical self is inconceivable apart from the body”, said A.J.Ayer and “Most thinking words refer wholly or partly to various actual or possible proceedings that are necessarily corporeal” said Flew. Terence Penhelum argues powerfully that the idea of disembodied survival is meaningless, since we have no criterion by which a disembodied spirit could be identified as the soul of a particular dead person. Penhelum says our only criteria for personal identity are bodily continuity and memory. Bodily continuity is ruled out obviously, and memory is not an independent criterion, but is logically dependent on bodily continuity. Thus memory cannot serve as a criterion for identifying a disembodied spirit as the soul of a dead person. Thus we have no criterion. Therefore the idea of disembodied survival is meaningless.

A ‘born-again’ Cartesian Dualist might feel cheated by the arguments that I have just described. He or she may protest that Penhelum, Flew and company are demanding that any questions regarding spirits be settleable in principle by observation with senses, and thus they make it impossible to give any non-bodily criteria for identity. So let me finish off with a different kind of argument.

Finally, the Primacy of the Normal!

It is prudent to finally consider what I call ‘the primacy of the normal’. There is no reason why what can be imagined or what can be conceived should be confused with what is possible. David Wiggins argues (in Sameness and Substance, 1980) that in identifying any particular, the ability to re-identify, and the allowable changes in the appearance of something that are consistent with its persistence as the same particular, are intimately tied to our concept of the sort of thing that it is. (Leibniz has it that the activity of a substance is part of its essence) This implies that what we are prepared to credit as possible in an instance of a sortal concept is constrained by the physical laws which apply to items of that kind. Consider the idea of an iron bar floating on water, or carnivorous rabbits on Mars. These are readily imaginable. (H.H.Price take note) But iron cannot do just anything if it is still to count as iron. If rabbits were no longer herbivorous and timid burrowing creatures with long ears to detect predators, and legs strong enough to sprint to safety, what would be left of the idea of a rabbit? What happens in fact is the basis of all our concepts, and constrains the conceptual connections inherent in our use of language, so this must be considered when we ask whether disembodied people are metaphysically possible. Therefore as Wiggins says:

“We have to be continually referred back to the extension in this world to work out what is essential to something being the thing that it is.”

For people, this extension is living, embodied, human beings. “Can there be disembodied people?” is like asking “Can my grin exist independently of my face?” H.H.Price would have us believe in Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat.

Wanting to meet a disembodied person is like wanting to go to the Isle of Man T.T. Races and bring home a bucketful of speed!

© Joe Fearn 2003

Joe Fearn studied for a PhD on moral realism at University College Northampton. (

• This article was inspired in part by suggestions made during discussion of the ‘individuation of disembodied minds’ at a seminar given by Dr R.W.K. Patterson at Hull University way back in 1990.


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