Question from Deco:
Ok, so I don’t know if this is really an “ability”, but my grandmother prides herself on having this sort of ESP where she can apparently detect the death of a person while it is taking place. I was skeptical of it, and I asked her a bit about it. She told me that at least 50 times in her life, she has had this sensation or feeling when someone dies. It has come to her in the form of dreams where she will have a dream about a person and being with them in heaven or some form of afterlife, and then she will wake up, and find out at the time of her dream that the person really did die. She has also had what I assume are hypnogogic hallucinations where she will see a person’s face in what she assumes is in the form of a ghost, and then see the devil’s face, and then later find out the person died. One of the weirdest examples is the time that her cousin died. She had a dream of him coming to her and saying that he had drowned. The next day, she found out that he did in fact drown. She has had these dreams with religious imagery, e.g. sometimes she claims Jesus tells her these messages, sometimes it’s family, seeing devils, angels, etc.
I guess my question is, put aside the fact that these claims sound too good to be true, let’s say if she could prove it, would that constitute proof of souls of the passed on communicating with her? Or, could there be another explanation for it that doesn’t require a supernatural component? Perhaps our brains have a method of picking this stuff up that we are not aware of, and her brain interprets the info in a certain way which causes her to dream with a religious background? Or could it be a combination of an active mind, (constantly thinking of people close to her and worrying about them) so sometimes when she has these sensations they are true? Maybe with this she counts the hits, ignores the misses?
Being an Orthodox Christian, I would like nothing more than for this to be true, but I am asking for an atheist perspective here, which is why I am posting it to an atheist community. I have asked many Orthodox Christians and received their opinions, now I want yours. My grandfather says that he has also seen my grandmother get these hits a lot, and he is very surprised by it, but he himself says he doesn’t think it points to the supernatural, even though he admits he cannot explain it. I guess I’m just curious. I don’t want you guys to just dismiss it as “lying” or “fake”, I mean, you can think it is a lie or fake, but I am asking kind of for fun, let’s just assume for a second that this ability were as true as I am claiming, what would you say? Would you then suddenly believe in afterlife and a spiritual realm, or would you still say “I don’t know, but I can’t conclude it is really anything supernatural”?
Answer by SmartLX:
My first question would be, on any of these 50+ occasions, did your grandmother tell anyone else (e.g. your grandfather) that she’d had one of these experiences before checking to confirm? Ideally, did she name the person or give a description before receiving any information from the outside world? (Someone’s always dying somewhere.) This is what would show that she wasn’t just claiming these after the fact.
That’s the all-important skepticism out of the way, and you’ve done a good job of this too by bringing up two possible sources of confirmation bias. So, let’s play with your enormous “if”. If she really were being informed through visions alone of the deaths of particular people, I’d be satisfied that something supernatural was going on, because visions can’t do that via natural means except by pure coincidence. They don’t convey information from outside the person’s senses, they can only work with what the senses are receiving and whatever the brain conjures up for itself, from memory and imagination.
The question would be by what specific supernatural means she was getting it (assuming someone wasn’t in her bedroom subconsciously feeding her the info). Interaction with the souls of the dying/dead would be one possibility, but not the only one. Someone living could be using conscious or unconscious telepathy to send her images of the newly dead. She could be psychic herself, and able to see the faces of those about to die, slightly before or after the time of death, but without help from their souls.
One specific point against the soul hypothesis is that the visions apparently aren’t consistent in their depiction of the afterlife. They could all be different aspects of the same afterlife system, or they could just be contradictory flights of fancy accompanying the real information regarding the identity or appearance of the deceased.
You’ve realised for yourself the difficulty a religious person would face when discussing even a confirmed supernatural effect: actually claiming credit for it on behalf of the “right” supernatural entities from your model of the spiritual world, as opposed to the countless others people believe in, plus the ones no one has thought of yet. Atheists would be challenged if something like this were proved beyond doubt, but in most cases the first thing to go would not be their atheism but rather their materialism. But then, there are already plenty of non-materialist atheists who do believe in ghosts, souls, psychics and so on, because they have a spiritual model in mind that does not include any gods. I’m not one of them, but they’ve written in before.