A recent posting on this blog was about an amazing individual, Frank Zindler. I’ve had the privilege of corresponding and speaking with him on a few occasions, during which he shared some remarkable recollections from a long and fruitful life.1 There is a common theme to a couple of those stories that deserves its own posting (the one you’re now reading) about extraordinary claims and the commensurate quality of evidence required to support them.
Frank is a prominent atheist who has made skepticism about religion (and other unprovable things) part of his life’s mission. As such, he lives without the expectation of any afterlife, which is an almost universal element of religion—at least for adherents who follow its rules. We were talking about how non-believers reconcile themselves to this finality of mortality, and the sad void left from Ann’s death last year, when the subject turned to—of all things—cats.
The Zindlers each had a cat of their own. Frank’s is Mugsy, an exotic shorthair who he says is a “prototype for the Garfield cartoon.” Mugsy doesn’t appear to know that he’s a cat. He rests his chin on Frank’s left hand while he’s on the computer, and plays fetch like a dog.
Ann is survived by her flamepoint Himalayan, Fafnir. He is very independent, and wouldn’t have anything to do with Frank. At bedtime, Fafnir would come up to Ann’s side of the bed for her to pet him. He’d pay his respects and be on his way. Then, in the wee hours of every night, he would come back into the bedroom carrying his toy mouse, yowling. Ann would say, “Oh thank you, Fafnir, that’s a nice mouse. Now let’s go to sleep.” Then he’d drop the mouse. It was a ritual carried out for years.
On the third or fourth night after Ann died, Frank was in that bedroom, a lonely one now. Fafnir came in yowling. Frank tried to repeat Ann’s litany, to assure the cat what a nice mouse it was. But it didn’t work. He just wasn’t the right one to say it.
Fafnir went on making a racket for a dozen minutes. When he wouldn’t stop, Frank tried to pick him up, but he ran away. It was heartbreaking, Frank says. These animals know more than we give them credit for.
Frank went on to talk about another cat with an even odder story. When the Zindlers lived in Upstate NY, they had a Maine Coon cat named Pnuwer, which is Egyptian for “great mouse.” (Remember, the man is a linguist who uses a dozen languages every week.) This was a very accomplished cat, Frank says. He lived in both the city and the country. He was adept at life outside, inside, in traffic. The cat’s really remarkable skill, though, turned out to be in cardiac home care.
Frank has suffered bouts of atrial fibrillation since the 1980s. In 1984, Pnuwer woke him from a sound sleep by licking his face. The cat had never done that, ever. As soon as Frank awoke, he realized he was in atrial fibrillation. It was the only time he’s gone into that state while asleep, and that’s when it’s dangerous. Things can spiral down without you knowing about it, and there might be no waking up the next morning, or ever.
Thanks to Pnuwer, Frank was able to realize he needed to get to the hospital. He remained there for a couple of days, and was released with his heart still fibrillating. It took a day and a half at home for his heart to convert to a normal rhythm, and this very independent cat remained by his side the entire time. Pnuwer was with him when his proper heartbeat finally established itself, and then, within fifteen minutes, he meowed to go outside. Frank never saw him again.
Somehow, they know. I’ve heard a story like this from another older friend, whose Border Collie herded him into the bedroom where his wife was having a heart attack. And the story of Oscar the nursing home cat, who is said to have accurately predicted the deaths of about 50 patients, is well known.2 In all these cases, though, the answers will ultimately prove to be entirely natural ones. (Possibilities include the animals’ uncanny abilities to read our emotions, note our behaviors, or detect tell-tale smells.) Assigning what is poorly understood to the supernatural has had a very bad track record.
The (Imagined) Frenchman
We returned to the topic of the afterlife and Frank’s deconversion from a tepid Christianity at age 18. Did you ever mourn the loss of a promised life to come, I wondered, as I still do sometimes? Of course, he replied, he would love it if there were such a thing as immortality. But immortality without any of the pleasures of life wouldn’t be much, would it?
Heaven is very poorly defined in Christian theology. Indeed, Paul goes out of his way to say how little it is known: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Islam has a more vivid picture of at least a man’s paradise, Frank noted. Seventy-two virgins and all that. We joke about the vague notions of people playing harps while sitting on clouds, but even that’s more definite than what the Bible describes.
I asked if he ever entertained the possibility of any afterlife after losing his Christian faith. Yes, he did, very briefly a few years later. And here we came to another remarkable story.
In 1960 or 1961, at age 21 or 22, Frank was studying experimental psychology using hypnosis. There had been something of a reincarnation craze due to a best-selling book The Search for Bridey Murphy, about a Colorado woman who had “recalled” a past life under hypnotic regression. Frank wanted to test this idea of age regression. How accurately could people recall their pasts under hypnosis?
During his studies, he found himself asking one hypnotized subject, “Who are you, where are you?”, with the time frame in question being open to even before the man’s birth. Everything was silent. Then his subject began speaking English with a French accent, describing a scene during the French revolution.
Frank asked for details: What are you wearing, what does the scene look like? The reply was amazingly realistic. He described the clothes he had been wearing, where he was, what he’d been doing. Frank went to the library, checking maps and historical records. Everything sounded exactly right. He played the tape back to the man, who was astounded at what he’d been saying under hypnosis. It was a total surprise to him, hearing his hypnotized self recalling all this, now listening to it in a fully conscious state.
So Frank spent a week investigating, and the vocal atheist managed to convert himself to a belief in reincarnation. Just in the nick of time, though, before he called a press conference to announce this amazing development, a friend of Frank’s returned from a trip to South America. He was a doctoral student in anthropology. Frank didn’t tell his friend anything about the hypnosis, but simply played the tape to him.
The anthropology student’s reply began as follows: “In the movie version of the story…” Frank laughed at the memory: His friend was a movie buff, and was well acquainted with the story that had been “recalled” by his subject. It was, of course, about the French Revolution. He knew the actors who had starred in it, and who had produced it.
It turned out that Frank had been interrogating an insomniac whose habit was going to sleep with the TV on, playing late night movies, whatever was airing at the time. Frank’s best reconstruction is that his subject, half asleep, had seen this movie about the French revolution. Under emotional duress, to satisfy the inquiry of the one who had put him under the power of hypnotic suggestion, he had been forced to pull out memories of what he’d seen playing out on the screen. He conveyed them as his own, from the past life whose existence he was being suggested to recall.
Parting Ways With the Paranormal
“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good,” writes the author of the First Epistle to the Thessalonians. It’s a remarkably sensible bit of advice from one of the books in this collection we call the Bible, which has been responsible for so much tragically irrational behavior based on blind faith. Really, though, such caution is out of place even in the book in which it appears. The preceding words urge prayer, openness to the Spirit, and respect for prophesyings—none of which involve much in the way of proof.
It’s very difficult for us to be rational about things. We are mammals evolved to see patterns everywhere and flee from noises in the brush.
Dr. Susan Blackmore devoted 25 years of her life to investigating paranormal phenomena, and finally “had enough of fighting the same old battles,” of “being told that I do not have an open mind.” She had long since discarded her “own previous beliefs in a soul, telepathy and an astral world.” But, even then, she “kept on searching for evidence that [her] new skepticism was misplaced, and for new theories that might explain the paranormal if it existed…” It doesn’t, and so she didn’t find them.
She turned to claims of psychic powers, doing experiments and investigating. But, finally, “I have given up that too.” 3
For Frank, nearly getting duped by the hypnosis fiasco fifty years ago was a close shave with Ockham’s razor. As he explains in his essay “What Does it Mean to be Scientific?”, that principle discourages basic assumptions from being
multiplied beyond necessity. According to this principle, when there are competing explanations for a fact or phenomenon, the simplest adequate explanation should be chosen, the explanation that requires the fewest basic assumptions or postulates.4
It is far from simple to envision how any aspect of self—memories or consciousness or a fondness for departed family members—could possibly survive the death and decay of the billions of neurons whose intricate networks form all that inside our skulls. The idea of hypnosis dredging up and personalizing memories of a drowsy late-night TV session is a bit odd, amusing even, but compared to the utter implausability of post-mortem memories (preserved where?), there’s no contest.
Now, the Sunday school catch-all “God did it” is indeed a very simple explanation. Creationists across the spectrum from Answers in Genesis to the Discovery Institute all fall back on it at some point, no matter how sophisticated they try to be in their varying grudging acceptances that some sort of evolution might be going on. But it is not adequate. It’s just intellectual surrender.
If “God did it” is your only assumption, then Okham instructs you to invest in another one. That rainbow in the sky is the heavenly signature memorializing a promise from a regretful deity after he carried out a worldwide genocide? Look a bit further, please. The alternative that every sane thinker now accepts (prism refraction from suspended water droplets) is not much more elaborate, and it has the immense advantage of being plausible.
The scientific thinker feels that everything is explainable in principle, Frank writes, and only by natural explanations:
Supernatural explanations are ruled out not because scientists are prejudiced against them, but rather due to the practical reason that they exemplify the fallacy known to old-time logicians as ignotum per ignotius—the attempt to explain the unknown in terms of the more unknown.5
It can be painful to lose trust in comforting and familiar assumptions, in the words of beloved old men who authoritatively preach from their oaken pulpits. But there is also a delicious clarity that opens up in the mind like a sparkling stream. The truth matters, and it can indeed set you free: from a nightmare of fear, superstition, and needless guilt. Come on in, the water’s fine.
I remain grateful to Frank for the very kind words he had to say about Evolving out of Eden: “If I ever have to teach another workshop on how to debate creationists, this volume will be my textbook. Everything is there: comprehensive deconstruction of the Christian bible and its several myths of creation, comparative mythology and folklore, and all the relevant science from astronomy and quantum physics to molecular genetics and population biology. It clearly exposes the fatal flaws of biblical creationism, scientific creationism, creation science, intelligent design, and, yes, theistic evolution.” ↩
Susan Blackmore, “Why I Have Given Up,” in P. Kurtz (Ed), Skeptical Odysseys: Personal Accounts by the World’s Leading Paranormal Inquirers, Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books, 2001, pp. 85-94. Available online at susanblackmore.co.uk/ Chapters/Kurtz.htm. ↩
In Through Atheist Eyes (American Atheist Press, 2011), Vol. 2, pp. 119-35, at p. 122. ↩
“What Does it Mean to be Scientific?”, Through Atheist Eyes, Vol. 2, at p. 123. ↩