I didn’t do A levels. I was lucky enough to go to a school where we were given the option to do the more colourful and varied International Baccalaureate Diploma. Part of this delightful programme was a course in “Theory of Knowledge”. I still don’t know what that means, but in practice it consisted of us being divided into small groups every Saturday morning (yes, we had school on Saturdays!), and assigned to a different teacher each week for a double period. This teacher could choose a subject for us to study, seemingly at random. We looked at humour in different countries (this mostly involved watching the famous “Germans” episode of Fawlty Towers then asking the German kids what they thought: – “not funny” was the verdict); we designed our ideal house; we explored existentialism (I still don’t know what that means either) and one week we ended up in the room of Dr Govan, a small, enigmatic Eastern-looking physics teacher, reputed to be the brainiest person in the school.
We discuss Near Death Experiences
Dr Govan was an unusual teacher: for example, he wouldn’t readily discipline disruptive pupils. He didn’t even ask them to be quiet. Instead, if we eventually asked him to shut someone up, he countered with a philosophical debate over whose responsibility the discipline of the class was: ours or his? He had chosen to discuss the phenomenon of near death experiences as our Theory of Knowledge topic. I think it might have been the first time I had heard of them.
He told us that some people returning to consciousness from the brink of death would tell a similar story. They had gone along a tunnel towards a white light and met deceased relatives. Sometimes their life flashed before them. “What do you think might explain this experience?” he asked. Now I thought fast and furiously. I wanted to impress Dr Govan, as I had heard he was so very clever. Very quickly I came up with the obvious answer to his question. My hand waved in the air, “As you die, there is a pattern in which the cells in your brain shut down, and the pattern in which it switches off must somehow create that image of tunnel and light, and maybe stimulates other memory areas which recreate memories of your life and people who were most important to you.”. I felt quite pleased with myself and waited for an approving metaphorical pat on the head. He didn’t seem particularly impressed. He said something like “Ahh.. So you are saying that it is a pattern of neurons which creates the impression of certain experiences. Who can think of some other explanations?” He moved on.
Dr Govan refuses to approve my intelligent answer
Wait a minute. I was pretty sure I’d got the answer roughly right. “What else could it be?” I asked, confused. His gaze came slowly back to me. “Can you think of any other possibilities?”. Well, I couldn’t at that moment; so certain was I of my first answer I simply couldn’t contemplate another. He kept looking at me, waiting. I’d got his attention now, but I could tell I looked mystified, and I was speechless. “Perhaps they are really meeting their relatives in an afterlife” was what he absurdly came out with next. I must have looked like the aunt PG Wodehouse memorably described as “a tomato struggling to express itself”. “But they can’t be” I replied. “Why not?” he asked. I was confused, disbelieving, angry in fact. I could see he was looking at me more and more curiously. He seemed totally unmoved but interested in my reactions. “Well, people don’t survive after death” I said, scornfully.
I had stopped believing in magic and fairy tales
I had outgrown such fairy stories. I was doing the Oxbridge exam, for goodness sake. I had stopped believing in the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and finally the man with the beard who never actually appeared, but who seemed to be quite instrumental in making children feel they shouldn’t be naughty. I was clever. I was nothing like those soppy kids who met for lunchtime prayer meetings, or went on coach trips to see Luis Palau, deluding themselves with a fantasy to satisfy their personal needs. I didn’t need a crutch in life. Neither did the other sensible, clever kids, nor did the cool kids. Realising that God and religion were not true was a mark of growing up and an acceptance of personal responsibility. It felt like enlightenment to me, and I assumed it would only be a matter of time before the whole world grew up and that dangerous kind of superstition stopped fuelling wars and distorting people’s view of the world.
A reversed power gradient
What was different about Dr Govan and me, was that the power gradient which Neil Maltby recently described was reversed. Usually the skeptic is the cleverest person in the debate. Somehow the critical mind assumes seniority, by virtue of its being the critical mind. I can’t argue with Richard Dawkins, or Simon Singh, about consciousness or the value of personal experience. They are not only much brainier than me, they have been studying and debating this stuff for years. The fact that they are probably cleverer and more informed than most people they disagree with must only confirm them in their belief that they are right, because they are so clearly more intelligent than the person they are talking to, and because they have the scientific method on their side. What shocked me in my encounter, was that Dr Govan was indisputably the more senior, more intelligent one, but he seemed to be entertaining an idiotic argument which anyone with a modicum of rationality could tell was wishful thinking which didn’t hold up to a moment’s serious scrutiny.
I’ve no idea what Dr Govan said next. To this day I have no idea what his actual beliefs were. What sticks in my mind was how I felt when he refused to condemn the idea that meeting your relatives after you die was an allowable hypothesis in a 6th form discussion. He seemed to consider it as having equal merit to a materialistic, scientific hypothesis. The state this brought me to was a mixture of confusion, impatience, exasperation, frustration, disbelief and anger. I saw it in Richard Dawkins when he was interviewing a homeopath for a TV show. I see it in tweets (and even research studies!) mocking Deepak Chopra. I hear it in the writings of Skeptic society members who simply can’t understand why alternative health practitioners refuse to condemn colleagues for treatments which they think don’t work. I don’t really know why they feel like they do, and I don’t know why I felt like I did, but I do recognize that state and know I was in it once.
Circles and Lines
I also remember the curiously impassive look on Dr Govan’s inscrutable face as he observed that state in me. I couldn’t understand him or relate to him then, but I can now. I think in the same sort of debate, I would now react like he did. I have a skeptical attitude, for sure, borne of curiosity mixed with doubt and some unfathomable need to seek the truth, but I am not a self-defined Skeptic with a capital S. And I have no interest right now in condemning those who cling to beliefs I find irrational, or who practise folk medicine, or who want to spend money on homeopathic remedies. (I once pompously rubbished an evidently flawed, cultish, meditation group that a younger colleague was excited about getting involved in. I still feel ashamed of that smug sense of power I felt, when I put it – and by implication, her – down.) My mind has been changed on the basis of that most unreliable of testimonies, personal experience. And until Skeptics have had experiences which they can’t explain away, or an illness which defies the best efforts of evidence-based medicine, they will carry on thinking the way they think. They will keep writing their brilliantly entertaining books, furthering our scientific knowledge and striving to make medicine safer and more effective. And that’s great. I love them. The world would be a poorer, more benighted place without them and they are in the main a huge force for good. But they will remain mystified and disappointed by those of us who can’t totally buy into their scientific creed; who think that though they are absolutely right in much of what they say, their understanding and method has its limitations. Remember, a circle looks like a line in Flatland.