April 04 2012

A Visit With Carl Sagan

By The Philosophy Channel Editorial Staff

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That brings up again the eternal question: is the whole of life visible to us, or isn’t it rather that this side death we see one hemisphere only? For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it, but to look at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots of a map representing towns and villages. Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? If we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. --- Vincent Van Gogh

Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist, research scientist and co-founder of the field of transpersonal psychology, recounts an exchange he had one day with Carl Sagan, the renowned astronomer and host of the popular and award-winning series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, originally broadcast on PBS in 1980. 

Sagan contacted Grof regarding material in a book Grof had published in 1975 entitled Realms of the Human Unconscious. The book detailed, among other things, the re-living of birth events by Grof’s patients undergoing LSD psychotherapy. Grof had identified a number of experiential episodes that Sagan believed invalidated certain mystical and NDE (Near-Death Experience) claims and he wanted to discuss the matter further with Grof. Sagan had, by this time, become very active in the skeptical community and was excited by what he felt was corroborating evidence coming directly from a major figure in frontier psychological research. 

They met at a hotel in Boston with their wives and a mutual friend, Harvard psychiatrist and writer, John Mack. After a brief round of greetings, Sagan initiated the discussion by reminding Grof of his responsibility, “as a professional trained in medicine and psychology to be careful what information I release to the public because the words of educated people with academic titles are taken more seriously by lay audiences.” Sagan further emphasized the need to offer only unvarnished “scientific truth” to the non-professional public, so as to minimize potential confusion on complex and, possibly, controversial topics. Grof and company fully concurred with Sagan’s framing of the professional responsibilities thus far outlined.

Sagan then began citing a number of “hoaxes, scams, and frauds” that had been perpetrated on an uninformed public over the years, including one involving a German horse named “smart Hans…  which was (supposedly) able to perform mathematical computations.” Interrupting Sagan’s recitation of wrongs visited upon the benighted masses, Grof spoke up and suggested that the claims Sagan was describing were irrelevant to the larger matter at hand and, indeed, the subject they had gathered to discuss.

Upon hearing Grof’s objection, Sagan asked what he thought was relevant to such a discussion. Grof responded, “It is the problem of the ontological status of transpersonal experiences, such as experiential identification with other people and other life forms, veridical out-of-body experiences, visions of archetypal beings and realms, or ancestral, racial, karmic, and phylogenic memories. Are they hallucinations and fantasies without any basis in reality or instances of authentic connection with dimensions of reality and sources of relevant information that are normally inaccessible for our consciousness?” 

“Give me examples!” Sagan replied, with a (understandably) puzzled and confused look on his face. Grof then went on to describe instances of individuals who appeared to experientially identify directly with animals or as intimate participants in historical events. Sagan, now regaining his composure, authoritatively suggested that what was going on was that, in non-ordinary states of consciousness, the sum total of our individual experiences and education is brought to bear in ways that yield unusual thoughts and recollections. But, he insisted, none of these situations can really be interpreted as the result of receiving information in any way other than through the five senses.

Grof suspected that more was going on here and he wasn’t convinced that traditional sensory input was necessarily the final word. He pointed out recent studies on near-death situations that had appeared to confirm the capacity of disembodied consciousness to perceive the immediate environment, as well as remote locations, without any functional sense awareness. Such visual awareness was even described among the congenitally blind, experiencing a near-death episode. Highlighting a case described by the cardiovascular surgeon, Michael Sabom, Grof noted that a patient of Sabom’s had been able to recount his resuscitation to such a level of detail that he could delineate the movements and readouts of the medical equipment in the surgical theatre, in direct correlation to the various interventions undertaken to save his life, as they were being executed. It would have been unlikely that any single, fully conscious individual in the surgery during this event could have possessed this level of recall!

“How would you explain this?” Grof asked. Pausing for a moment, Sagan replied, “This, of course, did not happen!” Grof says he was incredulous upon hearing Sagan’s reply. “What do you mean, this did not happen? What do you think all this is about?” After a longer pause, Sagan said, “I’ll tell you. There are many heart surgeons in the world. Nobody would have known the guy. So he made up a wild story to attract attention to himself. It’s a PR trick!” Grof indicates he was surprised and shocked by Sagan’s take on the matter.

At the beginning of this small gathering in a Boston hotel room, in an area probably as densely populated with major colleges and universities as anywhere in the world, Sagan had cautioned Grof on the pressing necessity of at all times adhering to a strictly scientific approach in presenting findings and evidence to the public. But, for Grof, it appeared that Sagan’s worldview had veered away from the scientific and into the more narrow confines of the scientistic. It had taken the form of “an unshatterable dogma that was impervious to evidence” and that their “discussion had reached an insurmountable impasse.” Sagan appeared to be far more willing to “question the integrity and sanity of his scientific colleagues before considering that his belief system might require revision or modification to fit the new data. He was so convinced that he knew what the universe was like and what could not happen in it that he did not feel the slightest inclination to examine the challenging data.”

The multifaceted and controversial question of what exactly constitutes our reality is one that we will revisit regularly at TPC. How it all will develop and where it may lead is anyone’s guess. And that’s what I’m looking forward to.

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