A Philosopher's Blog

Out of Body

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2016

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

When I was young, I had my first out of body experience (OBE for short). While I did not know about them at the time, I later learned that my experience matched the usual description: I felt as if the center of my awareness and perception had left my body. It seemed as if I could perceive normally from that location, albeit with greater vividness (retrospectively, it seemed like high definition). After that, I had OBEs from time to time, especially when I was under great stress—such as all my years in graduate school.

When I was a kid, I only had two explanations for the experiences. One was supernatural: my soul was leaving my body and looking about. The other was paranormal: somehow, I had sensory capabilities that differed from the normal limits of the sense organs. As I learned philosophy and science, I came up with other explanations. As a bit of light and fun philosophy, I’ll go through some of them.

When I learned about metaphysical dualism in the context of Descartes, I found that I had a theory that would explain my experience. For the dualist, there are two types of stuff: the mental and the physical. The mind is made of mental stuff which thinks, but is not extended in space. The body is made of physical stuff that does not think, but is extended in space. On the dualist view, a person is their mind and this mind somehow interacts (or syncs) with the body. Since the mind is distinct from the body, it could presumably leave and someone still interact (or sync) with the physical world. Roughly put, an OBE would be having the ghost leaving the shell and looking about, but then returning to the still living body.

This account of the OBE does face all the challenges of metaphysical dualism and some of its own. In terms of the usual problems, there is the difficulty in proving the existence of such a mind and the classic mind-body problem of accounting for how the mind and body interact causally. In terms of a specific problem with dualist OBE, there is the obvious problem of how a disembodied mind would still perceive the physical world without its body. If it could do this, then there would be no need for sense organs and people would not lose their senses due to physical damage or disease.

Another approach to the OBE experience is to make use of Occam’s Razor, which can be taken as the metaphysical principle that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. That is, if there are competing explanations for a phenomenon, then the one with the fewest posited metaphysical entities has an advantage. The principle is also applied to the number of assumptions required by explanations and it is sometimes crudely put as the notion that the simplest explanation is best.

In the case of my OBE experiences, an application of Occam’s Razor would cut away the metaphysical account in favor of one with fewer entities/assumptions. In this case, the more economical explanation would be that my experiences were the result of unusual activity in my nervous system that created (hallucination or dreamlike) the impression that my awareness was outside my body. Since such malfunctions do exist and there is no need to postulate a wandering soul, this explanation has the most scientific appeal. It is also a disappointing one; like learning that a magic trick is not magic, but misdirection and deceit. Fortunately, it can be fun to briefly pretend to ignore the most plausible explanation and consider some other philosophical options. After the fun is over, the most plausible explanation should, of course,  be reseated on its throne.

One interesting possibility is that the mind has the capacity to receive sensory data in non-standard ways. That is, that our epistemic capabilities extend beyond our sense organs or that we are someone able to pull in sensory data from an unusual perspective. OBE experiences involve, at least in my case, only sight and hearing—which involve energy. It could be imagined that the nervous system is somehow able to shift its perception point by manipulating this energy. The easy and obvious counter to this is that studies of the nervous system would have presumably found evidence of such a strange system. Since there seems to be no biological mechanism for this, this explanation seems rather defective.

To close, it is worth considering the philosophical view known as phenomenology or idealism. This view was most famously held by Berkeley.  His view made it into the popular consciousness with the classic question: “if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer, for Berkeley, was that there is always someone there to hear it. This someone is, of course, God. God perceives everything all the time. This might explain why when you shower, you always feel like someone is watching.

Getting back on track, Berkeley’s philosophical view is a rejection of dualism. Unlike the metaphysical materialist who rejects the mind and accepts matter, Berkeley accepted the mind and rejected matter. For him, what we regard as physical objects are collections of ideas in minds. For example, the device that you are using to read this is not a physical machine—it is ideas. On this view, all experiences are OBE—there are no bodies in which to have experiences. However, one could have experiences as if one was outside one’s body.

Another way to look at phenomenology is to think of virtual reality—only reality is all virtual with no physical entities. This provides a way to explain OBEs—they are glitches in perception. To use a video game first person shooter analogy, the game is supposed to have the game “camera” set so that it is as if you are seeing the world from the eyes of your character. This “camera” can glitch due to a software error, causing you to see the game world from a point “outside” your character’s head. This would be a game OBE. If phenomenology is correct, then perhaps OBEs are these sort of glitches—the point of perception is briefly in the wrong place. Since the world is clearly imperfect, such glitches are not inconceivable. Alternatively, it need not be glitch—perhaps this sort of perceptual capability is a feature and not a bug.

While I would like to regard my OBEs as supporting metaphysical dualism (and thus the possibility of existence after death), the best explanation is the least fun—that it is a malfunction of the brain; a strange hallucination.

 

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  1. TJB said, on December 29, 2016 at 12:27 am

    Seth speaks.

    • WTP said, on December 29, 2016 at 2:52 pm

      Heh…problematic right off the bat:

      I can quite literally be called a ghost writer, though I do not approve of the term “ghost.” It is true that I am usually not seen in physical terms. I do not like the word “spirit,” either; and yet if your definition of that word implies the idea of a personality without a physical body, then I would have to agree that the description fits me.

      What do you suppose Seth’s gender is? Was it assigned at birth? Did it change when Seth went over to that other world (which it would be wrong of us to call the “spirit world” because Seth does not like the word “spirit”)? Do you suppose Mike is still a boy when he has an OBE? Does one carry one’s gender with them when they OBE? If they’re not carrying their body with them, as by definition they are OB, their sex is even open to interpretation. Would an hermaphrodite still be an hermaphrodite? What does that even mean?

  2. DH said, on December 31, 2016 at 10:49 am

    I have also had OBE’s, and have thought about them in much the same way – but I find it interesting that in your discussion you don’t offer a critique of empiricism, which is kind of a default position for me.

    Empiricists, as you know, rely entirely on their senses for data about the outside world – and in the case of an OBE would probably conclude, as you do, that there must be something haywire with their receptors. I would be inclined to believe that there are things “out there” that we just cannot know by sensory input alone.

    Color, and the perception of color, is a great example of this. We are able to perceive a range of the electromagnetic spectrum with our eyes, but we know that there are creatures (like dogs) who can perceive a far narrower band, and others (like the Mantis Shrimp) that can perceive a range of colors almost beyond our imagination. This perception not only extends well into the ultra-violet and infra-red ranges, but also into the “in-between” colors. An analogy to this would be a number line – which will extend infinitely in both directions, but also present an infinite number of fractions or decimals between any two numbers.

    To take this example just one step further, there has been some research into people called “Polychromats”, those who, by virtue of an extra receptor in their retinas, are able to perceive far more colors than mere mortals. It’s kind of the visual equivalent to perfect pitch.

    So do these colors exist, even though we can’t see them? Empiricists would say “no”, but agnostics would say “maybe”.

    In the “tree-forest” example, what is missing in the question is the “hearer” or the interpreter. Through scientific measurement we can easily conclude that *something* is happening out there, we just cannot take the logical leap that it is actually sound – without a person there to interpret it. Computers act in a similar way – color is represented by zeros and ones, which are then organized into a grid of pixels as numeric RGB values which are then translated into something that we mere mortals can understand.

    Rather than view such phenomena as OBE to be “glitches”, I prefer to think of them as “glimpses”,


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