The Role of Evidence

I’ve just watched the first Headcast of John Cleese, which I mentioned in the previous blog entry. He makes some good points – and he also begs the question a number of times.
For example, he, rightly, notes our natural tendency to ignore evidence. But he also assumes that there is good evidence to begin with. He quotes approvingly from Irreducible Mind (written by people he knows) in the argument to demonstrate that not all aspects of mind are generated by brain activity. The authors state that there is evidence that psi-phenomena and PK do exist, and that’s therefore good enough for him. He implies that not accepting this ‘evidence’ is equivalent to the academics who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope to see the evidence of craters on the moon, because they knew that the moon did not have craters. Well, I don’t think it’s equivalent at all. I’m perfectly prepared to look at the ‘evidence’ – and so far, the ‘evidence’ has turned out to be anecdote for the existence of psi and P.K.
Another example quoted by Cleese shows more clearly what I mean. He quotes the recollection of Stanislav Grof of a conversation with Carl Sagan. Grof is recounting the story of a Near Death Experience documented in the book of surgeon Dr. Michael Sabom: Light and Death – a documentation of nearly 50 NDEs. Sagan apparently rejected the story, brusquely claiming that Sabom was merely hyping up the events in the operating theatre for the benefit of book sales. Cleese invites us to shake our heads sorrowfully at this refusal to accept the evidence.
Well, let’s look a bit closer at the evidence, shall we, John?
I think it’s reasonable to assume that the event described by Grof to Sagan was the case of Pam Reynolds, since it forms an integral part of Sabom’s book. If so, then the ‘evidence’ certainly does not point unequivocally to the interpretation that Sabom, and those who believe that the mind exists at least partially separate from brain activity, would like to put on it. The data in the case can be read both ways. It’s also interesting to look at the context of Sabom’s book (which I freely admit I have not read). I note this review on Amazon of the book:
This book is written from the perspective of a conservitive [sic] Christian with extensive knowledge and access to NDEs. Scripture is used to interpret NDEs. When NDEs agree with the Bible, they become prof [sic] that the scriptures are inerrant and when NDEs don’t, it is because evil has tainted the experience. Purely from a Christian point of view.. Not recommended for those looking for a more universal or balanced perspective. 
The sound of an author grinding an axe seems to come through to me – a reaction not too dissimilar from that of Sagan’s, I feel.
To sum up, I try not to discount evidence, but I do ask that evidence comes with a measurable quality – and I will have no compunction or guilt in rejecting that which has dubious quality. As I’ve said before, I do try to keep an open mind, but not so open that my brain will fall out.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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