Interview With

Dr. Neal Grossman
Dr. Neal GrossmanInterviewed by Michael E. Tymn

“The evidence for an afterlife is sufficiently strong and compelling that an unbiased person ought to conclude that materialism is a false theory.”

So wrote Dr. Neal Grossman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in the Fall 2002 issue of the Journal of Near-Death Studies.

As Grossman sees it, this evidence is largely ignored because our current cul¬ture would not survive if the implications of the research were taken seriously, pri-marily because of the ego-driven material¬ism that exists in the world today.

Grossman earned his bachelor’s from MIT, and his master’s and Ph.D. from Indiana University, the latter in the history and philosophy of science in 1971. He has been teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago for the past 36 years. His courses include Philosophy of Death and Dying, Philosophy of Religion, Evidence and the Afterlife, Mysticism and Eastern Philosophy, Plato, and Spinoza. He is the author of Healing the Mind: The Philosophy of Spinoza Adapted for a New Age, published in 2003. His special focus in recent years has been in making students aware of research in the area of the near-death experience.

Dr. Grossman, what do you see as the most “strong and compelling” evidence against materialism? Do you see that evidence meeting the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in criminal law?

"Researchers have different views about what constitutes the ‘most’ strong and compelling evidence against materialism. Certainly the history of mediumship, beginning with William James’ investigations and culminating in the recent work by Professor Gary Schwartz, who has studied mediums under controlled laboratory conditions, constitutes very compelling evidence. But I personally reserve the ‘most compelling’ category for the near-death experience. The research of Drs. van Lommel, Greyson, Fenwick and others establishes conclusively that coherent conscious experience can occur at a time when the brain is known to be ‘dead.’ The Pam Reynolds case is an obvious example. According to the materialist paradigm, our consciousness is produced by the brain. The empirical fact that there are clear cases of lucid conscious experience when the brain is known to be non-functioning falsifies the materialist doctrine.

"As far as assessing the strength of the evidence, yes, I do think it meets the criminal law standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Why do you think there is so much resistance to the evidence?

"Academics and scientists matricu¬late in an environment…or paradigm, if you will…that ridicules the concept of an afterlife. So it is psychologically difficult for them to take seriously the idea that there could be hard evidence for something they have been ridiculing all their professional lives. Using myself as an example, in the 25 years or so that I’ve been looking into these matters, not once has a colleague ever asked me why I am interested in it and take it seri¬ously. On the contrary, they take my interest in these matters as evidence that I’ve ‘lost it’ or ‘gone off the deep end.’

"However, I think there is another factor, perhaps even more significant than the usual resistance to ideas that don’t fit into the materialists cherished belief system. Ken Ring says in his latest book that the near-death experience is in a way subversive to the ‘American Dream.’ I think Ken is right. NDEers come back from their experience claiming to know what the purpose of life is. That purpose is to seek knowledge, and, most importantly, to grow in our ability to give and receive love. Now academics and scientists are pursuing the American Dream just like everyone else…they want as much fame, reputation, respect as they can get, and competition for these ‘goods’ can be quite fierce. So an academic who has been relentlessly pursuing his own career, seeking approval from those in authority over him, publishing in the ‘right’ journals on ‘approved’ topics (parapsychology is definitely not on the list of approved topics!)…such a person does not want to hear that he has been pursuing false gods, and that the important thing is love, not career or reputation. The purpose of life, according to NDE research, and strongly corroborated by mediumship studies, is not publishing, winning arguments, being thought clever by colleagues, etc…but rather, extending to others as much love as possible. We live in a very competitive society, in which people are taught that their value, their self-worth, depends upon being better than others. So academics, like everyone else who has bought into the ‘American Dream,’ will resist the message of universal love; hence they kill the messenger…that is, they ignore, resist, and ridicule the evidence.”

What can be done to overcome the resistance?

“There is a story that an early 20th Century physicist, frustrated by his colleagues’ inability to wrap their minds around the new concepts of relativity and quantum theory, said that the mechanism for scientific change is…not new evidence or better theories…but death. The older generation dies off, and younger, more flexible minds take their place. Perhaps this will have to happen with respect to survival research. My students, many of whom will become the scientists and physicians of the next generation, generally have no problem absorbing the evidence, and most embrace it. For now, I think what needs to be done is (i) more and more research and (ii) dissemination of the results of survival research both to undergraduates and to the general public.”

Would you mind summarizing the content of your Philosophy of Death and Dying class?

"About one-third of the course examines the process of dying from the perspective of people who are dying. What can we learn about living by studying the thoughts and feelings of those who are dying? Tuesdays With Morrie, The Death of Ivan Illych and Final Gifts are the basic texts for this part of the course. The rest of the course is concerned with evidence that consciousness survives the death of the body. My students learn about children with verified past-life memories, current research on mediums (Schwartz), the NDE, after-death com-munications and death-bed visions.”

Generally, do you see students today being more closed-minded than students in the past?

"Any student who elects to take a philosophy course is probably more open-minded than most, but with respect to my admittedly biased sample of students, no, I don’t think they are more close-mind¬ed than students in the past. Students, especially undergraduates, have not been indoctrinated into their professors’ materialist paradigm, so they are better able to see the evidence for what it is. Last year, for example, a student came up to me and observed that Schwartz’ book had been out for three years. He found the data Schwartz presents to be extremely compelling, and wanted to know why this very important material…and we must remember that there is no question more important than the question of survival…was not included in the syllabus of his Psych 101 class. His innocence was charming, but the point is that, not being indoctrinated into the materialist paradigm of his professors, and perhaps still young enough to remember his Sunday School lessons about love and the Golden Rule, he was able to see the evidence for what it is.”

Do you see academia as being any more receptive to the evidence for survival and paranormal phenomena?

"I would like to say ‘yes,’ but that might just be wishful thinking on my part. However, the evidence, from so many different sources, is accumulating so rapidly, that it is becoming increasingly more difficult for academics to ignore. For example, I don’t know of a single article, published in a responsible journal that attempts to ‘refute’ the findings of Dr. van Lommel published in Lancet several years ago. Even noted skeptic Susan Blackmore seems strangely silent these days. However, academia is still a long way off from actually embracing his findings.”

In your article for the Journal of Near-Death Studies, you say that near-death researchers are playing the fundamentalists’ game when they utter caveats that their research does not prove the hypothesis of an afterlife. Would you elaborate a little?

"This pertains to the difference between ‘evidence’ and ‘proof.’ In the article I say that ‘proof’ is a concept from mathematics and logic. It is not a concept relevant to empirical science, although it is sometimes loosely used in an empirical context. Let’s consider a few simple examples: the evidence that carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming is overwhelmingly strong. It is irrational, given the evidence, to believe otherwise. But it is incorrect to say that the hypothesis of global warm¬ing has been ‘proven.’ Nothing in science, nothing that involves an inference from data to hypothesis, is ever proved in this mathematical sense. So if a ‘skeptic’ of global warming challenges the scientists by saying that the hypothesis has not been proven, the scientist must agree with that. But that does not mean the hypothesis has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt.

"So when a survival researcher is asked whether the evidence ‘proves’ that we survive the death of the body, he must answer ‘no,’ but he should quickly add that ‘proof’ is not the relevant concept with which to discuss empirical hypotheses, and insist that the evidence is just about as strong as evidence ever gets in science.”

Do you have any thoughts as to why the quality of mediumship is not what it was a hundred years ago?

"I am not sure I agree that the quality of mediumship was higher then than now, but perhaps the quality of medium research was a bit higher. There is no doubt that the research of the early investigators…James, Sedgwick, Myers, Lodge, Hyslop, Hodgson, etc…is of the very highest quality. I think that one of the main reasons the quality of mediumship research is not now what it was then…with one very important exception…is that there was not then the kind of intense fundamaterialist bias against this kind of research. Even though James et al were ridiculed and marginalized by materialist colleagues, just as researchers are today, they could still do their work and publish their findings. Today, there are not many psychology departments that would grant a Ph.D. to any graduate student doing this kind of research. No university would give tenure to any faculty who took medium research seriously. So it is virtually impossible, in the present climate, for someone with both the interest and the credentials to do this research to function within the current academic establishment.

"Also, mediums today are much more wary and skeptical of academics than they were 100 years ago. Because the fundamaterialists, the behaviorists, the academic ‘skeptics’ have not always been intellectually honest in their pontifications against mediums, it is not surprising that mediums today are skeptical that the academics who might want to study them are acting in good faith.”

Who is the important exception?

"Professor Gary Schwarz, at the University of Arizona, has conducted research on mediums under controlled laboratory conditions. (Schwartz reports that the mediums he studied needed assurance that he was honest and sincere, before they would submit to being studied) His work goes beyond that of the early researchers, virtually ruling out the ‘superpsi’ hypothesis that befuddled many of the early researchers, and establishes ‘beyond a reason-able doubt’ that mediums can indeed communicate with the deceased.

"Now, you may be right in saying that the quality of mediumship is not what it was a hundred years ago. But how could we know that? We only know about those mediums who come forward and allow themselves to be studied. Mediums trusted academics then much more than they do now. So it might very well be the case that today there are just as many ‘trance’ and ‘direct voice’ and ‘physical’ mediums as there were in James’ times; we just don’t know about them. But even this has to be qualified. We don’t know about them in this country. A former graduate student of mine, now back in Brazil, tells me that mediumship is widely accepted in his country, including the more dramatic forms just mentioned.”

Is it difficult for you to teach material that falls outside the paradigm of what your discipline accepts as “legitimate”?

"Yes and no. It has not been easy for me…or for any other academic who gets interested in survival research…to be surrounded by colleagues who sincerely believe that this area of research is just a lot of nonsense. Moreover, there is a human tendency to judge oneself according to the standards of one’s peer group, so there have been times, although not recently, when I have found myself wondering whether my colleagues might be right. Maybe I have gone off the deep end? But these self-doubts dissipate whenever I put this survival research in front of my students; they take it and run with it. And it is because of my students’ overwhelmingly positive reaction to this material that I know I’m not nuts. At this point in my life, it is a joy and a blessing…if I may use that term…to teach this material. It has the power to change lives.”

[an error occurred while processing this directive]