Out-of-Body Experiences: Seeing with Astral Eyes
Part IV: Is astral projection a useful theory, and can it be tested?
Posted Jul 08, 2019
I began this series of posts by describing a long out-of-body experience I had many years ago, and then turned to exploring how it might be explained. Astral projection is the most obvious and popular ‘explanation’ but, as I described in the previous post, it hits a big problem. Indeed, this problem applies to all types of OBE. It is this. The astral body (or any type of out-of-body entity) needs to see the world it is apparently experiencing, but how? Does it have eyes, and if so what are they made of and how do they work?
The distinguished Cambridge vision scientist, William Rushton, provided my favourite argument against any astral version of events. Writing in a letter to the Society for Psychical Research in 1976 he asked...
"What is this OOB eye that can encode the visual scene exactly as does the real eye, with its hundred million photoreceptors and its million signalling optic nerves? Can you imagine anything but a replica of the real eye that could manage to do this? But if this floating replica is to see, it must catch light, and hence cannot be transparent, and so must be visible to people in the vicinity. In fact floating eyes are not observed, nor would this be expected, for they only exist in fantasy" [Rushton 1976 p. 412].
Is his argument as damning as it appears? I think it is. Astral projection theory entails there being a fully mobile, light and invisible double that can see clearly, vividly and in full colour. Why then would evolution bother with all the complex paraphernalia of eyes, muscles, nerves and a massive brain in which about twenty percent of its cortex is devoted to vision, if we all have an astral body that can do the job without them?
The answer, from believers in astral projection, is that the astral body is not seeing the physical world at all but is travelling in the astral world; it is not seeing physical objects, but their astral counterparts, as well as thought forms and all the non-physical beings that live in these other realms (Muldoon & Carrington 1951, Ophiel 1961).
The problem with this answer is that it is infinitely flexible and totally untestable. If you ask any difficult question, astral projection theory will provide an answer. Why were the gutters and downpipes I saw in my travels not the correct plastic ones? Why – because astral counterparts are not identical to physical objects in this world; because there were old metal ones long ago, and people have left thought forms of them; because my astral vision was not clear enough and I fantasised the old type. Answers like this can be concocted at will to ‘explain’ anything, and that means they can explain nothing.
This is a fundamental point about science and about finding good theories. If we want to understand anything, we need to think up possible theories to explain it and then investigate which theories do best at explaining the phenomena we find. We reject theories that make false predictions and carry on investigating ones that make good predictions. The most useless types of theory are those that can give glib explanations of anything at all and make no specific predictions. Astral projection theory is like that.
Are there really seven planes or could there be more, or fewer? There is no way of finding out, and Theosophists, spiritualists, mediums and promoters of astral projection disagree about what they find on each plane and how many there are. Does the etheric body really provide energy to the astral body? If it does, this ‘energy’ is conveniently invisible, unmeasurable and ‘subtle’; in other words, we cannot find out.
In my early enthusiasm for astral projection and magical thinking, I not only sat with spiritualist mediums and joined séances to summon up the dead but began training in magic and briefly joined a coven. I learned to see images in my beautiful crystal ball, read Tarot cards and the I-Ching, and diligently studied the theory of astral projection. Eventually I saw through it. Like so many other popular theories, it is appeals to the desire to be free, powerful and to live forever, but it cannot give us that. All its planes, energies and bodies are invented fantasy, and they cannot explain why I, or anyone else, seems to leave their body and fly around the world.
In my next post, I turn to another aspect of occult lore that I was lucky enough to experience myself and this is one claim that can be tested – the human aura.
Muldoon,S. and Carrington,H. 1951 The Phenomena of Astral Projection. London, Rider & Co.
Ophiel 1961 The art and practice of astral projection, New York, Samuel Weiser
Rushton,W.A.H. 1976 Letter to the Editor, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 48, 412-3