April 11, 2018. I was sitting in the second row of the very large and totally packed Paramount Theater, located on the downtown mall in Charlottesville, Virginia, not far from Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.
When John Cleese of the legendary Monty Python Circus stepped on stage, the applause was overwhelming. John retreats to offstage and the applause dies down. Out on stage again, the roars of approval resume, and again he vanishes. Next time the audience gets the hint, and lets him speak.
“Hello Charlotte villains,” I hear him say—first laugh--and we’re off.
This and a presentation the following day were benefit performances that Cleese was giving on behalf of the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS). It was an attempt to raise money to support the unusual research conducted by this Division.
This evening’s talk is titled, “Why There Is No Hope.”
Donors have paid hundreds of dollars for their seats and couldn’t wait to listen to Cleese explain why there is no hope. As it turned out, the hour or so it took for him to make the case left me and an audience of well over a thousand in fits of uncontrollable laughter. The man showed us no mercy. It was an event of group transcendence by laughter.
But what’s funny about the hopelessness of the human condition? Well, that depends on the Cleese wit, tone, and timing.
And why do we laugh when told we’re doomed? Bit of “gallows humor” maybe?
The big idea—and inlet to a sea of laughs—is that the world is largely run by ignoramuses and incompetents of low moral caliber.
So, beside all the hilarity, Cleese advanced with lawyerlike precision a grimly serious argument. He wasn’t joking. He went through reasons we might have for being hopeful that “we will ever live in a rational, sensible, well organized, kind, intelligent society.” The answer will be a faintly qualified “NO!”
The starting broadside was against so-called “experts,” concluding that the authentic ones in any field are few and far between—and just as often ignored. He made this point by noting that the “experts”—critics, producers, etc.—all began by panning Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and A Fish Called Wanda--all today deemed classics in the world of comedy.
Cleese notes that it took 250 years for economists to figure out that economic behavior has nothing to do with rational self-interest. We may look to religion and science for hope, but we find in religion hypocrisy and fanaticism and in science egotism and dogmatism. No hope there.
The problem of course is deep within. At all costs, everybody wants to be right. We suffer from a thing called confirmatory bias. We are biased against anything that contradicts our views. All we know in the last run is how to confirm our almighty selves, and this no matter how intelligent we are. Hope keeps falling on its face.
Getting down to some really basic reasons for losing hope is a phenomenon that Cleese may be the first to identify and name: pure stupidity. The speaker had a very entertaining story to illustrate the phenomenon, concerning the weird loss and recovery of his shoes in a hotel.
But no less deadly is learned stupidity. Cleese gives the example of the famous biologist, Francis Crick, who doubted the reality of dreams because his own dream life was boringly defective. Ditto for the learned stupidity of intellectuals who project their limited experience on everyone else around them.
Cleese reminds us that in tests, the stupid vastly overrate themselves; whereas the smart tend to underrate themselves. Chalk up another for hopelessness.
Cleese suggests that our brains have not evolved to favor the love of truth; they are primarily about saving our own hides, not about being kind, fair, or nuanced in matters of truthfulness. So you can be as smart as an angel but choose to hook up with the devil.
This certainly detracts from hope, and so does the miserable greed of the unhappy, insatiable rich. Finally, we were told, the so-called millennials provide no hope because their attention span is seven seconds, trailing behind goldfish who can stay focused for nine seconds.
Overall, what emerged was a plea for awareness of our ignorance. Channeling Socrates, he said we need to realize what we don’t know. And given that so far there is no reason to hope, we might at least be more curious, less uptight in our imagination of what is possible.
So on the following day, John Cleese returned to the Paramount Theater to conduct a dialogue with some real experts on one of the perennial problems: what happens to people when they die?
So, is there any evidence that the mental life of people goes on after their bodies are dead?
I arrived at the Paramount Theater, expecting to see a much smaller crowd. Wrong! I barely snagged an aisle seat. I was surprised that so many people—a full house, in fact—now showed up to listen to Cleese engage experts on death, near-death, and after-death—not exactly grounds for a laugh-fest. He was going to interview five people from the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS).
A few facts worth noting. DOPS may be the only academic department of its kind in the United States. And yet the subject-matter is, and has always been, of compelling interest to most people. But it has become an outsider if not a pariah to mainstream academic culture. Why this is so is not a hopeful story.
On balance, it’s fair to say that today’s mainstream scientific culture shows very little interest in the topic. We might as well admit that the way things are, the real research money, the real interest is in making people dead—not in trying to figure out what happens to them after they’re dead.
Excuse me if what I say is not fake news. The U.S. runs the most expensive military apparatus in world history, has 800 bases planted around the globe to keep the empire rolling, and is the biggest arms dealer on the planet. But no money for research on life after death is available—nothing, zero! All the money is wrapped up in the killing business.
And so here we are, this second night of the benefit, meant to inform the public about the unique work of DOPS and raise some money to advance their research.
The DOPS personnel spoke about 15 minutes, each giving the gist and highlights of their work. Each speaker brought out a particular facet of what is really a complex field of research. Psychiatrist Bruce Greyson is one of the pioneers of near-death studies, and the longest, having been at it for forty years. Greyson recited a series a cases, each like a James Joyce short story, with an epiphany hinting of afterlife. Child psychiatrist Jim Tucker has been enriching the data-base of reincarnation studies, massively launched by the late Ian Stevenson. Dr. Tucker has been traveling around America investigating cases of the reincarnation type, proving the phenomenon is not culture-bound. People everywhere on earth report remembering past lives; the Division has amassed a data-base of 2,500 case histories suggestive of reincarnation.
Psychologist Dr. Emily Kelly discussed older types of survival evidence such as crisis apparitions (people appearing to loved ones at the moment of death), deathbed apparitions, and striking accounts of mental mediumship. Again, there are facts, observations, narratives that force us to think, to wonder, to want to explore more deeply. Psychotherapist Jennifer Pemberthy brings a threefold background as therapist, teacher, and meditation researcher. Dr. Pemberthy vividly described one of her clients, an angry substance abuser, who took up meditation and was transformed by a voice that spoke to him. Finally, psychologist and neuroscientist, Edward Kelly, who has edited two massive tomes, Irreducible Mind and Beyond Physicalism, the former an overview of data that destroys physicalism and the latter that explores theories that might explain the extraordinary data. A careful study of these two books should alter any reader’s perception of reality. The pleasure, however, will cost you a certain amount of intellectual energy.
Thus some vignettes of fascinating phenomena, in response to Cleese’s questions and comments. Much to explore! Much that prods and invites science to expand. The problem is that science is beholden to the powers of the military-industrial complex and voracious capitalism, all tethered to the Leviathan of materialism.
And yet, science is poised to hone in on the mystery of consciousness and possibly even death. But the perversity of our times is the scientific non-interest in the possibility of more life even as science creates the greatest technology of mass murder in the history of human viciousness. Certainly bad news for those still clinging to hope.
Some one asked John how she could inject a little life into her moribund hope. For that he said we need to let go, relax our whole self until the laughter and the creative spirit gush up freely from deep within.
Finally, the liberating aim of Cleese’s talk—but let’s hear it from the man himself:
“If I can persuade you this evening to abandon this hope, you will find yourself a lot more relaxed, you'll worry less and laugh more. I promise you that.”