When I saw the title of this article that said Reasons not to scoff at ghosts, visions and near-death experiences, I assumed that it was going to make the case for the plausibility of things that I definitely scoff at. But what the author is arguing is that such beliefs can be therapeutic for some people and thus of some value and we should not too quickly move to disabuse people of those beliefs.
This brings us back to James, whose arguments in The Varieties of Religious Experience for the pragmatic clinical and social value of such transformative episodes have been mostly ignored by the scientific and medical mainstream. If there really are concrete benefits of personality changes following ‘mystical’ experiences, this might justify a question that’s not usually raised: could it be harmful to follow blindly the standard narrative of Western modernity, according to which ‘materialism’ is not only the default metaphysics of science, but an obligatory philosophy of life demanded by centuries of supposedly linear progress based on allegedly impartial research?
Sure, the dangers of gullibility are evident enough in the tragedies caused by religious fanatics, medical quacks and ruthless politicians. And, granted, spiritual worldviews are not good for everybody. Faith in the ultimate benevolence of the cosmos will strike many as hopelessly irrational. Yet, a century on from James’s pragmatic philosophy and psychology of transformative experiences, it might be time to restore a balanced perspective, to acknowledge the damage that has been caused by stigma, misdiagnoses and mis- or overmedication of individuals reporting ‘weird’ experiences. One can be personally skeptical of the ultimate validity of mystical beliefs and leave properly theological questions strictly aside, yet still investigate the salutary and prophylactic potential of these phenomena.
This is a tricky issue. If someone draws comfort from a false belief, and the belief does not cause any harm to themselves or to anyone else, why try to disabuse them of it? But that conditional clause is what causes problems because as the author says, the prevalence of such beliefs leads many people to think that there must be some truth to them and thus leaves them wide open to either take some harmful action or to be being influenced by unscrupulous people who seek to exploit them in some way.
I think the best way is to argue against such false beliefs in public discourse but not on an individual level, unless it is a fairly academic discussion in which the other person is not deeply emotionally invested. In other words, it is fine to write articles and books and give talks that are critical of such phenomena, that they are merely the product of the brain under certain conditions. But if someone you know tells you that they had a near-death experience that made them less fearful of death and made them decide to devote their lives to helping others, what is to be gained by debunking their experience?