Episode 94 :: Sue Blackmore :: Skepticism, Meditation, and Consciousness

| December 9, 2011 | 15 Comments

Sue Blackmore

Sue Blackmore

Professor Sue Blackmore joins us to speak about meditation, consciousness, and her move from belief in the paranormal to skepticism.

It is fairly well-known that I’m a skeptic. Not to be confused with a cynic, or a denier. As host of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, Dr. Steven Novella of the New England Skeptical Society, has described:

“A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves.”

Our experiences in meditation and other states of consciousness are worth studying. Beneficial, observable effects occur, but we sometimes get tripped up in the conclusions we draw about them, and the causes we think explain them. Skepticism provides us with a way to assess what we think may be happening, and learn. What we find may not be “comforting or convenient”, or even close to what we thought was happening, but our practice is about seeing things as they really are, not how we want them to be. With the cleansing of delusion, we have an opportunity to learn and grow on a stable foundation of knowledge.

My guest today is uniquely skilled and suited to this podcast, as I rarely get to speak with someone who is well known to both skeptics and meditators alike. Sue Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She has a degree in psychology and physiology from Oxford University (1973) an MSc and a PhD in parapsychology from the University of Surrey (1980). Her research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation. She practices Zen and campaigns for drug legalization. Sue Blackmore no longer works on the paranormal.

She writes for several magazines and newspapers, blogs for the Guardian newspaper and Psychology Today, and is a frequent contributor and presenter on radio and television. She is author of over sixty academic articles, about fifty book contributions, and many book reviews. Her books include Dying to Live (on near-death experiences, 1993), In Search of the Light (autobiography, 1996), Test Your Psychic Powers (with Adam Hart-Davis, 1997), The Meme Machine (1999), Conversations on Consciousness (2005), Zen and the Art of Consciousness (2011) and Consciousness: An Introduction (a textbook, new editions 2010 and 2011). Her work has been translated into more than 20 other languages.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Sumatra Black tea.

:: Discuss this episode ::

Videos

Books

 

Web Links

 

Music for This Episode

Hon Shirabe

Rodrigo Rodriguez

The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. The tracks used in this episode are:

  • Aki

Tags: , , , , , ,

Category: The Secular Buddhist Podcast

Ted Meissner

About the Author ()

Ted Meissner is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. He has been a meditator since the early 90’s, has been interviewed for Books and Ideas, Mindful Lives, and The Whole Leader podcasts, spoken about mindfulness with various groups including Harvard Humanist Hub, and has written for Elephant Journal and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society.

Ted’s background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture. Ted teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society, where he is the Manager of Online Programming and Community Development.

Comments (15)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Really awesome interview with Susan! I read her book Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction through Oxford Press a few years ago, and it was one of the most lucid books on consciousness I had read. At the same time, I read Dreaming: A Very Short Introduction, and between the two I got my suspicious about my own out of body experiences. In the end, I discovered the experiences were actually a semi-lucid dreams. And as my meditation practice deepened, I came to realize that I could actually dream while I was awake! The brain seems to let one part drift off into dreamland, while holding awareness alert and on an object. It’s fascinating. But you have to be willing to be wrong about your initial interpretation of experience. They feel every bit as real the physical.

    I can also deeply relate to what Susan said about the difficulty of letting go of certain beliefs, how we come to identify through those beliefs. It took me a year after disproving astrology to myself that I could fully let it go. I had studied astrology from childhood into my 40’s. It’s fun, colorful, and designed to not fail. That’s also what makes it fairly useless, but it took a lot of mindfulness, skepticism, and willingness to let go of that part of me. Getting under our beliefs, our attachment to them, our resistance to giving up the time and energy that had gone into it can be a struggle. But it’s a wonderful freeing feeling to drop those suckers as we can.

    Perfect tie up in this interview with the topic of meditation and the Jhanas. I really hope Susan does take the time to learn them. I’d like to hook her up with my teacher Shaila Catherine, whose main practice is the jhanas. I’ve wanted to learn them too, just so I could really see for myself, bring some skepticism along, and see what benefits it might bring. But I just don’t have the dedication or will.

    Great interview! I highly recommend her books on consciousness!

  2. Tom Alan says:

    She doesn’t say that she’s skeptical about the idea that she had an out-of-body experience. She says that the idea is “ridiculous.” If a person ridicules this idea, we say the person is dogmatic, not skeptical.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hi, Tom. Sue does acknowledge that there was an experience, just that the facts of that do not match her experience. What we can take away from that is a cautionary note to be skeptical about the conclusions we draw on amazingly compelling experiences.

      We all consider some things to be ridiculous — Elvis partying with Bigfoot, for example. That’s not being dogmatic, it’s being honest. Now if valid evidence for OBE’s or Elvis partying with Bigfoot is presented in a more meaningful fashion than it has been in the past, Sue and I will be happy to reevaluate and say our provisional conclusion about them was incorrect, and we’ll thank you for helping us to ascertain factual reflections of reality. Dogmatic stances are not corrective like that.

      But in the meantime, my conclusion is that this is ridiculous, and that is an honest reflection of my non-dogmatic provisional understanding.

  3. Tom Alan says:

    Ted, “ridiculous” is a word we would expect a Time or Newsweek editor to use when confronted with an article suggesting that Elvis partied with Bigfoot. Would the managing editor of The Lancet, one of world’s most influential medical journals, refer to the study “Near Death Experience In Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands” by von Lommel and colleagues, as “ridiculous?” The Lancet published the study in 2001.

    “We do not know why so few cardiac patients report NDE after CPR, although age plays a part. With a purely physiological explanation such as cerebral anoxia for the experience, most patients who have been clinically dead should report one.”
    — von Lommel et al.

    Certainly. the von Lommel study is controversial, and, as I’m not competent to discuss the issues with expert knowledge, I’m not saying that criticism is unwarranted. I’m simply pointing out the difference between criticism and ridicule. My understanding is that the Lancet staff are not to be blown off like the local palm reader.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hi, Tom. I agree, The Lancet is not the local palm reader, totally with you! Though I do have great respect for their work over time, The Lancet is not perfect and has been less than effective in the recent past. Case in point, Andrew Wakefield’s “study” on autism being caused by vaccinations, which ended up being redacted by the journal. My understanding is that Wakefield has since lost his medical license. Current knowledge is that there is no such evidence or scientific basis for such an assertion — it is also “nonsense”. Dangerous nonsense at that, as people refuse to have their children vaccinated, reducing herd immunity, and now we have deaths from pertussis.

      Also, Sue is not The Lancet. She’s making a personal assessment about the idea of non-material fabrics for consciousness. Others are perfectly welcome to disagree with that assessment, that’s fine and your right. What evidence is there for that assertion? The authors of the study (which I have read in its totality) do state, “We did not show that psychological, neurophysiological, or physiological factors caused these experiences after cardiac arrest.” That simply means they did not find such cause, they did not state it proves a non-material cause. In fact, a moment later they state very clearly, “And yet, neurophysiological processes must play some part in NDE.” Again — this proves *nothing*, they simply conjecture and discuss that they did not find any direct cause.

      The question then becomes, how do we do good research such that we can find a cause? If we write off the material by invoking the non-material, we stop looking, and that ends our learning.

  4. Tom Alan says:

    When did I or van Lommel 2001 make any such “assertion?”

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hi, Tom. We may be talking about the same thing, my apologies if it’s gotten muddled in the conversation.

      My understanding of Sue’s view is that NDE experiences having a basis in something non-physical is the assertion with which she disagrees. I’d thought the use of ‘ridiculous’ about that was what you were considering dogmatic rather than skeptical?

      Again, I’m sorry if I’d misunderstood — I’m appreciative of your participation in the discussion.

  5. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    I would say our first interpretation of an out of body experience as a real outside the body experience is not ridiculous but lazy and banal. Our skepticism and willingness to be wrong allowed us to figured out what was really happening, and to then see the first interp as ridiculous. When you see how we create a constructed self and that there is no static everlasting self or soul, anything that suggests leaving the body is regarded as absurd. It kind of like expecting it to literally rain cats and dogs.

  6. Tom Alan says:

    “I haven’t written on the subject for a long time and I haven’t kept up with all the literature either.”
    — Susan Blackmore, on near-death experience research

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZ1nOiwHlLI

  7. Tom Alan says:

    “… and then you spout off all these things you believe to be true!
    — Alex Tsakiris, interviewing Susan Blackmore

  8. Tom Alan says:

    “When [Susan Blackmore] comes to her presentation of Buddhism, I have to say rather sadly that it’s the worst presentation of Buddhism in the English language, and I have been studying Buddhism for 37 years.’
    — Dr. Allen Wallace (from the Tsakiris/Blackmore program, above )

  9. Candol says:

    Excellent podcast Ted. I’ve halfway through reading her book on consciousness too. Its a bit drier than alain de botton though.

    But what was really good for me to hear was her talking about her own early paranormal experiences. The thing she neglected to analyse (but maybe she does it elsewhere) is the effect of the drugs and the role they played. Nevertheless, i found it really useful to hear her experience of studying the whole lot and finally coming round to seeing it for what is was not.

    It also reminded me of an early out of body experience i had. Actually i had two strange experiences when i was a child. One was me flying over the valley at the foot of our house and the other was a memory about having my plaits cut off. Neither of these could have really happened – I didn’t have plaits. The thing is although i had a memory of them, i never attributed to them any reality ultimately. I was always skeptical of them.

    This would probably be one talk that a transcript would be good to have. Although i know that takes work. Just saying, it would be handy.

    Ah and this reminds me – she started talking about consciousness in a way that reminded me of a book i’ve read recently by Alva Noe. At first i thought he was using the buddhist idea but only recently i realised he was drawing on phenomenology and the work of Merlot Ponty. Are you familiar with this book. Its called Out of my Head. I am sure you would like reading it. If so, could we have a podcast with him too. I actually never got to the end of the book which is quite typical of me these days. So i was never able to finally come to a view as to whether i was persuaded or not. His idea is along the lines of what SueB was saying when she was tallking about the possibilities of what consciousness was. Alva noe says it is something that happens in the spaces between us and the object. Or maybe its not in the spaces but its when we meet our object. Anyway you’ve probably already read the book and know what i mean.

Leave a Reply