“You understand how to fly using wings, but you have not yet seen how to fly without them,” wrote Chuangtzu, the great Taoist. I have been thinking about levitation and life after death. A strange combination, for sure. My research convinced me that levitation is a fact of nature, having focused on the dramatic, well-documented case of St. Joseph of Copertino. A mass of eyewitness testimony of very high caliber leaves it a no-brainer for me.
The question I’d like to raise here: assume the reality of levitation -- or of any supernormal mind-body effect. Would it detract from or enhance the prospect of an afterlife?
To ask about levitation is to ask about a paranormal form of mind-body interaction, called psychokinesis (PK). It is also referred to as telekinesis, a term that brings out the goal-oriented character of PK. By bringing PK into the discussion, we add to and complicate the problem of “super-psi”, according to which, much that appears like evidence of postmortem survival may be the product of psychic powers of living people. In other words, we super-psych ourselves up into believing in one or another afterlife narrative that we construct. Once we include PK, the power to induce the illusion of survival is hugely magnified. No matter how rationally compelling and emotionally convincing an afterlife claim may be, you can always explain it away by making up a coherent “super” psi story.
There is, however, a different point I want to make about levitation. First of all, it’s a mistake to think of it as an isolated oddity, a wild flourish of whimsical nature. It is a highly expressive form of mind-body interaction, part of a spectrum ranging from normal (like voluntary action) to supernormal (like levitation.)
All our efforts to control and modulate our bodies, in ordinary life; in dance, music, and the plastic arts; in sports, medicine, physical labor, and so on. The range of the “normal” is vast. So is the range of what we can call “abnormal,” as in the variety of psychosomatic illnesses.
And there’s the supernormal end of the spectrum. This includes such things as reported cases of poltergeists, materializations, stigmata, unexplained healings, bodily incorruption, and the phenomenon I have focused on in The Man Who Could Fly, namely, levitation.
What to make of this phenomenon? And what’s the connection with the afterlife? Levitation represents a force of nature, first identified by the Victorian physicist, Sir William Crookes, who described it as a psychic force associated with human organisms. Crookes did many experiments involving levitation with the famous Victorian medium, D. D. Home.
We should remind ourselves: This is a force that directly countervails one of the fundamental forces of nature, gravity. It needs to be said that Einstein was explicit about gravity not being a force but a distortion caused by mass that bends space. In that case, the levitator may be bending space, not by increasing or reducing mass but by means completely unknown to science.
The one variable clearly tied to Joseph’s levitations is an extreme state of consciousness, a state in which the levitator’s mind is void of all referents, and focused on images of the Madonna, Christ, the saints, the blue sky, good will toward his friends, the unearthly sounds of Palestrina’s music – the immediate triggers varied. The word ecstatic—being “out” of oneself–describes the levitator’s interior state.
The range of documented psychokinetic effects is quite wide, and we need a taxonomy of supernormal mind-body effects. A more complete, detailed picture would help us see more clearly the implications of PK for the afterlife hypothesis. My view is this: if consciousness can causally influence physical systems, it hardly seems an ineffective, secondary attribute of physical reality. Consciousness seems rather to be an irreducible reality, a basic aspect of nature with unique causal powers.
Another type of supernormal mind-body interaction is materialization. The phenomenon of materialization is found in accounts of mediumship, yoga, and saintly ecstasy. There are, for example, well-documented cases of statues that weep and bleed. Materialization, albeit rare like levitation, is a phenomenon hinting of godlike creative power we may collectively possess in germ.
Evidence for the so-called odor of sanctity is another paradigm-busting effect. Bernini devotes a chapter to Joseph’s strange talent for leaving unexplained fragrances on various objects, clothing, utensils, that touched his body. These effects retained their power to refresh the moods and spirit of people for months and in many cases for years.
One more quick example. Bernini’s Vita of Joseph deals with another of his PK talents, his healing powers. The power to heal and restore the life of the body by extraphysical agency may well be a power able to survive the sea change of bodily death.
Among saints, yogis, and shamans one hears stories of their prodigious fasts, their ability to live without material nutrition—thirty-three years in the case of the Austrian stigmatist, Theresa Neumann—is another dramatic display of consciousness transcending physicality. The prolonged inedia of modern Hindu ecstatics has been validated by contemporary Indian scientists. Inedia may be viewed as anticipating survival by proving it is possible to break loose from the normal constraints of biology.
One type of PK anomaly has symbolic significance for the idea of life after death – reports of bodily incorruption. Among holy persons the world over we hear of their bodies being exhumed years, decades, even centuries later, found to be partly or sometimes completely incorrupt, even supple, looking surprisingly expressive, almost alive, occasionally exuding fragrances and oozing blood. It is hard to imagine a more potent symbolic performance of a gesture in defiance of death. The incorrupt body seems to be telling us of a force that can suspend the putrefying mechanics of bodily death.
Jeffrey Schwartz’s book, Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, argues that the brain is a plastic instrument that can be modified by carefully executed attentiveness and focused intentionality. Not only is consciousness irreducible to the brain but there is now evidence that it can willfully refashion its own brain circuitry. This seems to show the otherness and independence of mind from the brain’s physical mode of operation.
The point that concerns us is this: If, as William James said, we are free to assume that irreducible consciousness “pre-exists” the brain, it is reasonable to suppose that it must also post-exist the death of our brains.
Since so much hangs on the concept of consciousness, I want to mention Martin Rees’s Before the Beginning (1998), and his “anthropic reasoning.” The main idea is that any significant variation in the basic constants of modern physics would have rendered the complexities of life and human consciousness impossible. The implication is that the universe evolved in order to manifest consciousness. Consciousness, according to Rees, seems therefore to be central to the story of cosmic evolution.
Freeman Dyson is quoted as saying that the universe knew we were coming! In particular, Rees describes the delicate role of gravity in evolving the kind of universe necessary for consciousness to manifest on Earth. He writes: “If the physical constants were indeed uniquely fixed by a final theory, it would then be a brute fact that these universal numbers happened to lie in the narrowly restricted range that permitted complexity and consciousness to emerge.”
This is a truly stupendous idea. And I can’t help wondering: Could the universe have gone through 13.7 billion years of evolution to allow consciousness to manifest, and then cut if off arbitrarily with death when most individuals are just beginning to consciously awaken?