«К вопросу о возможности экспериментального
доказательства существования души»
Revisiting the possibility of experimental proof of soul existence
Igor Bombushkar & Sergii Vakal, Ph.D.
Ukrainian Center for Parapsychological Research
Soul – is the incorporeal and immortal essence of a living being. The idea of the soul is very intuitive and extremely popular all over the world. But what about current evidence-based views on the nature of the soul within conventional scientific community and within parapsychological community? What about views of ordinary people? Is it possible to prove the existence of soul experimentally?
This paper deals with detailed consideration of these questions and describes the authors’ views on possible steps for progress in the field of soul research. Our main goal is to initiate a discussion regarding the novel approaches to experimental validation of human soul existence. This report is a thesis narration of our soon-to-be-published book “Ancient Knowledge or the Book of First Principles” that is devoted to reflections on all those studies of survival phenomena in the light of ancient esoteric and religious views.
According to different surveys performed by Gallup, Inc., European Value System Study Group and Theos, a reasonably high percentage of people across different countries do believe in the existence of the human soul, and a significant part of people believe in life after death and other soul-associated concepts.
The position of official scientific community is fully based on physicalistic and materialistic views explaining the ideas of soul and consciousness as products of brain activity. On the other side of the coin we have so called “Quantum mind” theories like “Holonomic brain” or “Orchestrated Objective Reduction” that are much more compatible with the intuitive idea of soul, but not finally accepted by the conventional scientists. But what about parapsychological community? On the one hand, direct experimental evidence of soul existence is practically absent. On the other hand, there is a lot of indirect supportive evidence accumulated upon the study of out-of-body experience, cases of reincarnation type, and postmortem communications.
Taking all studies of our ancestors with the greatest regard, we strongly believe that a number of changes and factors should be taken into consideration upon planning of further studies dealing with the proof/disproof of soul existence.
1) The most reliable experiment is a verification of exteriorization during an out-of-body experience in controlled conditions with the involvement of skillful OBErs; challenging experiments (like described above soul exchange) should be considered as a promising alternative.
2) Preselected test-subjects with marked psi-abilities should be selected instead of randomly chosen ordinary people; the “group sheep-goat effect” should be taken into account.
3) Researchers should enhance their own psychic abilities, take an interest in religious and esoteric doctrines, and (in the case of hypnotists) remarkably increase their skills.
According to the definition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010), soul – is the incorporeal and immortal essence of a living being. If we consider esoteric concepts, we see that soul together with organism are defined as psychical-energetic-informational structures, but the soul treated as non-physical one, while organism – as a physical one (Esoteric Heritage Study and Consciousness Development Center, 2015).
The first western philosophical ideas from Ancient Greece considered the soul as a life-giving incorporeal or spiritual ‘breath’ that makes (animates) physical body alive. For the past two thousand years humanity accumulated dozens of views on the nature of the soul varying between hard materialistic neurochemical theories treating the soul idea as a result of molecular-biochemical events in our brain, and complex occult-esoteric views treating soul as a particle of God and describing its’ structure in striking details. But what about current evidence-based views on the nature of the soul within conventional scientific community and within parapsychological community? What about views of ordinary people? Is it possible to prove the existence of soul experimentally?
This paper deals with detail consideration of these questions and describes the authors’ views on possible steps for progress in the field of soul research. Our main goal is to initiate a discussion regarding the novel approaches to experimental validation of human soul existence. This report is a thesis narration of our soon-to-be-published book “Ancient Knowledge or the Book of First Principles” that is devoted to reflections on all those studies of survival phenomena in the light of ancient esoteric and religious views.
Surveys of soul-associated beliefs among ordinary people from different countries
The idea of the soul is very intuitive and extremely popular all over the world, but what about serious surveys dealing with the level of beliefs in soul among different countries? Here we should make a specification that the idea of soul should not be considered in isolation, since the existence of incorporeal part of a human being means the possibility of non-corporeal existence of consciousness. Thus, we should simultaneously consider such phenomena as out-of-body experience, hauntings, apparitional experience, cases of reincarnation type, life after death, and postmortem communication experience. So, we should take into account beliefs in these phenomena as well to get a more comprehensive picture.
According to the latest Gallup survey (2005) performed among 1002 adult Americans, 37% of respondents believe that houses can be haunted, 32% – that the spirits of dead people can come back in certain places/situations, 21% – that people can communicate mentally with someone who has died, and 20% – that the soul can rebirth in a new body after death (reincarnation). This Gallup survey was performed five times since 1990 (Table 1). If we compare the changes in belief levels, we see the following picture: beliefs in haunting increased from 29% in 1990 to 37% in 2005, beliefs in ghosts increased from 25% to 32%, beliefs in the possibility of postmortem communication increased from 18% to 21%, and only beliefs in reincarnation slightly reduced – from 21% to 20% for the same period.
Table 1. Percentage of persons in the USA who believe in different soul-associated phenomena. Data collected by Gallup, Inc. in 1990-2005.
Remarks: * – survey was performed not on 24-27.10.1991, but on 16-18.12.1994.
Another serious survey of soul-associated beliefs that we would like to mention is The European Values Survey that was carried out in 1999-2002 by European Value System Study Group (Haraldsson, 2006). If we sum up the results of this survey (Table 2), we find out that on the average one in four (24%) all over the world believes in reincarnation, and one in two (54%) believes in life after death. The highest levels of believers in reincarnation can be found in Iceland and Lithuania, while the highest number of believers in life after death – in Malta, Poland, Ireland, Iceland and Italy.
Table 2. Percentage of respondents in the Nordic, Eastern and Western European countries. Data collected by European Value System Study Group in 1999-2002 (Haraldsson, 2006).
|Country||Reincarnation||Life after death||Believers in life after death who also believe in reincarnation|
|Western European countries|
|Eastern European countries|
Remarks: * – data for Germany was calculated as the mean of Western and Eastern Germany indices.
And the only respectable survey in this century, in which respondents were directly asked whether they believe in the existence of the human soul or not, was performed in the United Kingdom during ComRes/Theos Cathedral study in 2008 (Spencer & Weldin, 2012). According to this survey, 60% of respondents from general population answered that they believe in human soul, while only 23% of atheists did the same. The same survey demonstrated that 26% of ordinary people believe in reincarnation (against 14% believers within atheistic community) and 41% believe in life after death (against 15% believers within atheistic community).
If we sum up the results of all surveys mentioned above, we conclude that a reasonably high percentage of people across different countries do believe in the existence of the human soul, and a significant part of people believe in life after death and other soul-associated concepts. And we also can conclude that people believing in life after death totally unnecessarily believe in reincarnation (≈45% according to Table 2), thus assuming other forms of postmortem existence of the human soul.
Current scientific attitude and available evidence of soul existence
Given that such a big part of the population believes in the existence of life after death and/or other phenomena that require the existence of soul out of necessity, it is especially intriguing to ascertain what evidence of soul existence we have.
The position of official scientific community is fully based on physicalistic and materialistic views explaining the ideas of soul and consciousness as products of brain activity (Carter Snead, 2010). According to Greene and Cohen (2004), cognitive neuroscience is the “understanding of the mind as brain”, and we can easily substitute the word “mind” with “consciousness” or “soul”. On the other side of the coin we have so called “Quantum mind” theories like “Holonomic brain” (Pribram, 2004) or “Orchestrated Objective Reduction” (Hameroff & Penrose, 2013) that are much more compatible with the intuitive idea of soul. Attitude of official physical and neurobiological communities to these theories is ambiguous, since there is both pros (e.g. Osborne, 2014) and cons (e.g. Seife, 2000).
But what about parapsychological community? Do we have serious evidence supporting the existence of the soul as an incorporeal part of human being that is able to function without a physical body? Yes and no. On the one hand, direct experimental evidence of soul existence is practically absent. On the other hand, there is a lot of indirect supportive evidence accumulated upon the study of out-of-body experience, cases of reincarnation type, and postmortem communications. This paper is not a comprehensive review of the topic, but it makes sense to briefly indicate the most convincing evidence of soul existence here.
Efforts of direct soul existence validation are known from the very beginning of XX century, when MacDougal (1907) published his anecdotal research findings on soul mass that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Much more serious experimental data come from investigations of Osis (Osis, 1974) who received evidence supporting the extrasomatic explanation of out-of-body experience. The classical experiment of Tart with so called “Miss Z” gave additional evidence for the possibility of some part of human being to separate form physical body (Tart, 1968). Another direct evidence comes from the studies of Palmer (1978) and Smith & Irwin (1981), who not only showed that data from OBEs can be verified, but also found dependence of veracity from the type of experience.
But there is much more indirect supportive evidence for the existence of soul. First of all, there is an impressive amount of data collected by legendary Ian Stevenson during his multiyear studies of past-life memories across different countries (Stevenson, 1975, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1997, 2000, 2003). Some data are strikingly convincing, for example, findings on birthmarks and birth anomalies that clearly correspond to wounds on the bodies of alleged previous incarnations (Stevenson, 1993; Pasricha et al., 2005). Another body of indirect evidence comes from a few cases of postmortem communication with supposed human souls. A large list of such (sometimes really convincing) cases not disproved by conventional scientists can be found in smashing book of Chris Carter – “Science and the Afterlife Experience: Evidence for the Immortality of Consciousness” (2012). Investigations in the field of near-death experiences give another portion of support to independence of human consciousness (≈soul) from the body. Parnia & Fenwick (2001), van Lommel (2001), and Greyson (2003) argue that there is clear evidence for active consciousness work during brain inactivity upon clinical death suggesting their independence. In some degree the data on hauntings and postmortem apparitions can also be used in support of the soul existence, although their extrasomatic interpretations currently look doubtful.
Taking all the aforesaid into consideration, we can conclude that indeed there is some supporting evidence (both direct and indirect) of the existence of the human soul that, taken together, looks reasonably convincing. Extrasensory interpretation (“Super-ESP”) of these data seems to be doubtful and less parsimonious than soul existence idea. At the same time we have to agree that the amount of direct experimental evidence is too low to fully convince materialistically-oriented scientific community. Some considerations on possible solutions to this problem are provided below.
The question of experimental proof of soul existence
Taking all studies of our ancestors with the greatest regard, we strongly believe that a number of changes and factors should be taken into consideration upon planning of further studies dealing with the proof/disproof of soul existence. For convenience, let us categorize these suggestions into three groups.
Experimental design. It goes without saying that design of experiment targeted to validation of different survival-related phenomena can vary depending on specific studied phenomenon. Considering experimental proof of human soul existence, we believe that experiments testing ability of people to get sensory inaccessible information is an ideal option. As an illustration we can mention the experiment of Osis (1974) one more time. This experiment was aimed at testing the extrasomatic (ecsomatic) theory of the OBE: test subjects were asked to exteriorize to a sensorially inaccessible location and look at a target imaged placed there, which was generated inside a box and was visible only through a special viewing window on one side of the box (Irwin & Watt, 2007). This experimental design allows researchers to distinguish the way of information acquisition – through the exteriorization or through the extrasensory perception, since the composite target image is not in a single place and could be only seen from one side of the box. Of course, one can object that acquisition of information could be reached through super-ESP in such conditions, but this idea is less parsimonious, since firstly we have to prove the existence of ESP + there is no single evidence that ESP could be of such a great power.
Needless to say that the size of test group should be large enough for better credibility. A nice illustration of such research is a famous AWARE study, in which 152 cardiac arrest patients were surveyed. But given the rarity of NDE and OBE even larger test groups are required. For example, in the AWARE study only 1 of 152 patients gave information that could be verified (Parnia, 2014). At the same time, the size of test groups can be smaller if we use not randomly-selected people from the general population, but people having some skills in OBE (described in section “Test subjects” in details).
One additional detail that should be considered in such experimental design is a permanent video monitoring of experients by the research staff in order to exclude fraud. This clause is a common point of criticism of the classical research performed by Tart (described above).
In our opinion it also makes sense to repeat the Osis & McCormick study (1980), in which they tested the extrasomatic theory of the OBE through the usage of sensing elements. On that time they received ambiguous results. But given that technological level is much higher nowadays, in comparison with 1980, it is very challenging to repeat that experiment with novel (superior) sensors. The positive result of this experiment can give a strong evidence of possibility to separate and exteriorize a part (soul?) of the human being. At the same time, we cannot ignore the possibility of existence of the soul, which is nonphysical and, thus, non-sensible by material devices.
But what about experimental proof of postmortem soul survival? It is obvious that we cannot verify the content of such experience experimentally; firstly, we should prove the existence of the soul per se, and, secondly, upon successful realization of the first point, we should acquire the information on the place of stay for separated souls in a totally incomprehensible way. The idea of postmortem existence (between incarnations) is not falsifiable and, thus, cannot be treated as scientific at all. Numerous studies performed by Newton, Moody and others cannot be used as an evidence in such case due to their unverifiability.
What seems to be more realistic (but extremely complicated at the same time) is a validation of the soul migration idea. This point can be considered from two sides:
- reincarnation – migration of soul from one individual after his death to a newborn person;
- soul exchange – migration of the soul from one person to another and vice versa (death is non-mandatory).
Up to date, the only retrospective approach was used for the study of reincarnation hypothesis. All data collected by Stevenson et al. are of this type. There was only one research tried to overcome the limitations of retrospective approach and bring some elements of experimental approach into the field – the study of experimental birthmarks carried out by Tucker and Keil (2013). Unfortunately, this religious practice is not very common, so it is not possible to collect a lot of data.
Recently a new methodological approach to reincarnation studies was developed in the Ukrainian Center for Parapsychological Research (Gonzalez, Medvedeva & Bombushkar, 2015). This approach is a prospective, not a retrospective type. We started out from the careful analysis of esoteric descriptions of reincarnation process (Esoteric Heritage Study and Consciousness Development Center, 2008), and we found out some very intriguing ideas. For example, the subconsciousness of each single person is described as a depersonalized combination of all previous incarnations of the soul. Human attention can be shifted into subconscious layers by deep hypnotic or meditative techniques. Regression hypnosis is treated exactly in this way. We developed this idea into the prospective method of “hypnotic anchors” (Fig. 1). The point is that researchers should take a relatively small territory, for example, few closely located villages, and perform a huge number of separate hypnotic sessions with an elderly population of this territory. During these hypnotic sessions, researchers will try to inoculate some phrases, codes or images (“anchors”) into deep layers of test subjects’ psychics. They should ascertain that “anchors” were not perceived by subjects’ consciousness. All test subjects should be surveyed in order to know if they alive or dead. After the death of first few test subjects, all newborns within 100 km from the place of death should be registered and surveyed within further ten years. At the earliest possible age these children should be interviewed and hypnotized in order to try a collection of earlier inoculated “anchors” from any one of them. If any positive results will be achieved after investigation of few hundreds of children from the test territory, then the hypothesis of subconsciousness as a combination of previous personalities and the existence of soul per se can be judged as proved.
This method has some obvious limitations and drawbacks. Firstly, really qualified hypnotists able to work with a lot of subjects are required. Secondly, an experiment with such methodology will require many years, even decades to be carried out, so it will require a lot of supporting staff and a multiyear enthusiasm from researchers. Thirdly, the method is based on an unproved hypothesis about the essence of subconsciousness that can be wrong.
Another even more bold idea is to verify the soul existence through “soul exchange” experiment. This point needs detail explanation and little digression. For years the first author has collected information on occult rituals of the ancient tribes of Haiti, Madagascar, Oman, India, Oceania etc. And there are such intriguing rituals performed by modern shamans as soul exchange. Two years ago Mr. Bombushkar even arranged his own participation in such ritual in the Dominican Republic for big money (10000 USD), but at the supreme moment the participation was cancelled due to dishonest behavior of an agent, who established the agreement.
The shamans from Dominican Republic agreed to perform a ritual with full video monitoring and in the presence of a few scientists. So we suggest another type of experiment that can be done for the proof of soul existence. The point is that we can recruit a group of unfamiliar volunteers (e.g. 20-30) that will agree to participate in the soul exchange ritual, and transfer them together with researchers to one of the above mentioned countries. Communication between participants should be excluded in order to prevent information spreading. Each test subject should be interviewed preliminary, and his personal traits and habits should be recorded. The place of ritual performance should be analyzed before the start in order to find out the best points for video monitoring and predict possible ways of fraud. The ritual should be accurately observed and recorded by researchers from the very beginning till the very end. Each participant should be interviewed immediately after the ritual, and all changes in personal traits, habits and self-definition should be written down. If dramatic changes in the personalities of experients be fixed after the ritual, and if some participant begin to identify themselves as others, then the hypothesis can be judged as proven. Of course, it can hardly be treated as a fully experimental research, but rather as a field investigation. An obvious drawback of such type of study is a need for serious funding to cover transport and living expenses, services of shamans etc. And, of course, a preliminary check of shaman abilities is needed. But in the case of successful realization, such experiment can provide irrefutable evidence of human soul existence. This type of experiment is in tune with the research of human personality changes after transplantation (Pearsell, 1999). But investigations on organ transplantation can’t provide evidence for the soul existence, since changes of personality after the operation can be caused by unknown mechanisms of memory storage, where each organ store some portion of human memory, so the results can be explained from biochemical positions.
Test subjects. We strongly believe that one of the main drawbacks of the overwhelming majority of parapsychological investigations is the use of ordinary test subjects from the general population. This approach is based on the unproven and not intuitive idea that psi is ubiquitous and universal. And the low level of psi-hitting and effect size in ESP or OBE experiments is a natural consequence of such approach.
The ideal experimental design described in the previous section requires the ability to induce an out-of-body experience on a voluntary basis. It is obvious that ordinary people have no skills of this type, and they can hardly perceive a hidden image under the ceiling if they cannot control their state of consciousness. Thus, experimental validation of soul existence should involve test subjects with an ability to induce and control OBE. Even in post-USSR countries, there are few groups of OBE experts and practicers who train an ability to induce and control OBE for months and years. Some groups even perform their own investigations of details and possibilities rendered by OBE, and train other people how to become an OBEr. Such people are usually curious about parapsychological investigations, so it should be not a super-task to persuade them to participate in the experiment. We should clearly understand that extraordinary evidence can be acquired only with extraordinary test subjects.
It is logical that in the case of preselected test subjects we will need a smaller group size, since the probability that each participant will experience an out-of-body state in such case is much higher than in the case of random test subjects. The above mentioned AWARE study is a good illustration: among 152 interviewed cardiac arrest patients only two really experienced out-of-body state (Parnia, 2014). But if we recruit 20 OBE-experts, and at least one of five is able to induce OBE in experimental conditions, it will give us more information than in the whole AWARE study.
Unfortunately, we are bound to acknowledge that professional researchers (even parapsychologists) have a very primitive representation of modern occult practicers and esoteric schools. Since authors deeply studied this question and they are familiar with a lot of modern serious esoteric organizations, they experienced firsthand the real abilities of professional esotericists (Unpublished data). And we want to assert that these people should be tested in parapsychological experiments instead of ordinary people, if we want to get convincing results.
An the last consideration of this section is based on our own notice that can be called as “group sheep-goat effect”. Simple “sheep-goat effect” is a different level of psi-hitting in believers (“sheep”) and disbelievers (“goats”) in ESP experiments. During our own observations over psychics during a Ukrainian version of popular TV-show “Psychic challenge” (Gonzalez, Medvedeva & Bombushkar, 2015) we repeatedly noticed that in the large company of believers the level of psi-hitting and frequency of psi-associated phenomena increases dramatically. According to esoteric concepts, firewalking is based on the same mechanism of collective impact. By the way, impossibility to demonstrate substantial psi-effects in the face of skeptics can be due to the same effect, but in inverted manifestation.