Robert Bigelow is a successful businessman with an interest in parapsychology and UFOs, and for a decade he was owner of the notorious Skinwalker ranch. Like others who have suffered personal loss (the deaths of his 24-year-old son in 1992, his 20-year-old grandson in 2011, and his wife in February 2020), he developed an interest in life after death. In June 2020 he founded the Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies (BICS), though he didn’t spend much money on its website.
Rather than an interest in aspects of consciousness per se, as the name might imply, BICS’ primary purpose is to ‘support research into both the survival of human consciousness after physical death and, based on data from such studies, the nature of the afterlife.’ Importantly, it is ‘seeking hard evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” that takes us beyond religion or philosophy.’ There have been efforts in this direction for more than a century and a half, but fresh attempts are always welcome.
This is not Bigelow’s first foray into the issue of survival: in 1997 he and his wife endowed a chair in consciousness studies at the University of Nevada, at a cost of $3.7 million. Charles Tart and Raymond Moody, well known for work in transpersonal psychology and near-death experiences (among other topics) respectively, were the first chairs but, disillusioned by a lack of progress, Bigelow eventually terminated the endowment. He founded BICS because, in an interview with Leo Ruickbie, editor of the Magazine of the Society for Psychical Research, he said he had decided the field needed ‘energising’.
In January 2021, BICS announced a competition for essays summarising the best scientific evidence for the survival of human consciousness after bodily death. Prize money totalling $1 million was announced, though the amount was later increased, and $1.8 million was eventually awarded. As the BICS website put it, ‘‘The purpose of the BICS essay contest is to generate research, discussion and stimulate debate. And perhaps in so doing, BICS may substantially broaden the amount of quality information available to you from a single website source.’ When the story broke in the New York Times, unsurprisingly it attracted a great deal of attention. The deadline for essay submissions was 1 August 2021.
So why a competition rather than some other method of promoting research? In the interview with Ruickbie, Bigelow stated: ‘It’s a faster path, creating a contest. You can achieve greater acceleration and awareness – and that was my objective, to accelerate awareness of the topic. So I thought, let’s have this contest, it’s a way to begin. It hasn’t been done before, certainly at least not at this scope. And what could it hurt, if it were properly put together?’
The amounts on the table were eye-watering in a field notoriously strapped for cash. The top three winners would trouser a cool $500,000, $300,000 and $150,000, with smaller, but still respectable, prizes for the runners-up. The judges were Jeffrey J Kripal, Leslie Kean, Christopher C Green, Brian Weiss, Jessica Utts and Hal Puthoff (all from the United States). They also serve on BICS’ board of directors. Apart from Green, these are familiar, and to varying degrees eminent, names in the field.
Such a rich offering was bound to tempt opportunists and cranks, so rules were laid down to attract the suitably qualified and filter out the tyre-kickers. Not anybody could enter; essayists first had to demonstrate they were serious researchers, with proof of at least five years study in the field, and preferably affiliation to a reputable organisation (the Society for Psychical Research was given as an example). Entries relying on religious doctrine would not be accepted because, as Bigleow told Ruickbie, ‘anybody can quote scripture, so that’s too sophistic to accept.’ Essays were limited to a maximum of 25,000 words, to weed out those who thought quantity would be a substitute for quality.
Even with the rules to guide them, plenty of people either thought they could furnish convincing evidence for the continuation of consciousness after death, or assumed the competition’s criteria were not as stringent as BICS had indicated. Over 1,300 people decided to try their hand, of which 205 from 38 countries were shortlisted. Amusingly, according to an acknowledgement by Bigelow on the BICS website noting the number of entrants, some people sent him ‘gifts’, and one can only assume these were intended as bribes.
The winners were announced on 2 November 2021. There were 29 listed, the three top prizes plus 11 given $50,000 each and 15 $20,000 each. Considering the scope of the competition and the importance Bigleow had attached to it, it was all very muted; in fact, the list of winners was published a day later than scheduled, with no explanation, and no fanfare. There is going to be a ceremony to present the awards in Las Vegas on 4 December 2021, but it may feel a little anticlimactic coming so long after the winners’ names were announced.
Jefrrey Mishlove, host of the Thinking Allowed/New Thinking Allowed interview series, took home the $500,000. A few of the essays were joint efforts, so a total of 43 individuals will share the money. These are the 29 named winners, most, as one would expect, well-known in psychical research circles:
1st Prize: Jeffrey Mishlove, $500,000
2nd Prize: Pim van Lommel, $300,000
3rd Prize: Leo Ruickbie, $150,000
Runners-up ($50,000 each): Michael Tymn, Stephen Braude, Nicolas Rouleau, Bernardo Kastrup, Elizabeth Krohn, Sharon Rawlette, Jeffrey Long, Michael Nahm, Julie Beischel, Alexandre Rocha et al., David Rousseau et al.
Honorable Mentions ($20,000 each): Robert Mays et al, Chris Carter, Steve Taylor, Christopher Kerr, Bruce Leininger, Vernon Neppe, Helané Wahbeh et al, Chris Roe et al, Peter Fenwick et al, Walter Meyer zu Erpen, Akila Weerasekera, Greg Taylor, Nick Cook, Andreas Sommer, Sam Parnia et al.
The first essay to be published (by himself rather than BICS) is Mishlove’s, offering an early opportunity to see how the winner interpreted the aims of the competition, and a standard by which to judge the rest. It is certainly lovingly put together, a multimedia presentation drawing on his extensive Thinking Allowed and New Thinking Allowed interviews, with links to segments of the films amplifying the text, and it is copiously illustrated.
It is titled Beyond the Brain: The Survival of Human Consciousness After Permanent Bodily Death (not to be confused with the long-running Beyond the Brain conferences organised by the Scientific and Medical Network). In it, Mishlove has produced a kind of psychical research’s greatest hits, albeit necessarily selective and somewhat superficial, drawing on his interviews and mixing personal testimony and scholarship.
In the introductory section he recounts a powerful personal experience which convinced him of survival. He notes the problems parapsychology has had achieving recognition as a valid scientific discipline and, championing metaphysical idealism (for which he relies heavily on the work of Bernardo Kastrup), lays out reasons for taking the survival evidence seriously. He goes on, adopting a ‘bundle of sticks’ approach, to discuss what he considers the most important themes: near-death experiences, after-death communications, reincarnation, Peak in Darien cases, possession, instrumental transcommunication, xenoglossy, and mental and physical mediumship, plus miscellaneous topics such as psychedelics, terminal lucidity, the filter theory, and criticisms of the living agent psi hypothesis.
Whether one is convinced by his essay rather depends whether one had previously been convinced by his many interviews. The essay adds little to that body, and he could be accused of recycling his previous work, remarkable though the number of his interviewees and the range of subjects discussed over the years have been. He has compiled a useful introduction to the various strands adduced by researchers suggestive of survival, but if he had been given a book deal for this material, he would not have received $500,000 for it.
It is an interesting, wide-ranging and accessible read, but the tone of much of it feels like a distillation of the SPR’s Psi Encyclopedia. I was hoping for some twist, something which broke new ground in our efforts to determine whether or not there is post-mortem continuation of consciousness, but came away disappointed. Mishlove has contributed hugely to the field, and this award felt a little like the actor who wins an Oscar for a particular role which is not their best work, but really as covert recognition of a career’s achievement.
One can see why, though, Bigelow would have been happy with Mishlove’s approach, because their views align closely. In the interview with Ruickbie, Bigelow contends: ‘materialism has become another religion, science has become another religion. That has dominated the twentieth century and probably will do so for the rest of this century.’ After Ruikbie asks for his thoughts on consciousness, he says in part, ‘Thought is key, so even forming the universe, if we want to go out on the super macro scale,’ and he espouses the same filter theory of the brain as Mishlove. Mishlove argues that ‘Metaphysical idealism is the most logically consistent position as it eliminates the problems of both materialism and dualism,’ and he is critical of scientism.
Mishlove’s and the other winning entries will be placed on the Bigelow website in due course. They will also be published in 5-6 volumes intended to be ‘collector’s items’, and ‘each volume will be hard cover, richly bound in faux leather with gilted pages and ribbons’, which sounds lovely. These will be distributed free to university libraries, hospices (which should cheer the residents up) and some religious institutions. Unfortunately, the print format will work against Mishlove’s careful selection of videos to complement his text.
In addition to the winning entries, we can expect to see losing entries finding their way into the public arena. Some are already available, such as James Beichler’s and Tom Butler’s. Anthony Peake for some reason has chosen to read his out in a series of YouTube videos. We can expect quite a few of those papers which did not place to circulate in the coming months, so those who agree with Bigelow on the importance of the survival issue will have plenty to chew on in addition to the canonical 29, and they will offer an opportunity to assess the losers against the winners to see how they compare.
Ian Wardell’s initial thought following the announcement of the winners was that, because of the way the terms of reference were framed, ‘My suspicion is that most of these essays will largely regurgitate the evidence that is already out there and will do little to persuade skeptics.’ Such was predictable, as the competition sought ‘papers that summarize the best evidence available for the survival of human consciousness after permanent bodily death.’ It will be interesting to see whether any of the other winning entries actually dig deeper or are rather ‘the best of the rest’, a procession of summaries of already-available data.
If it turns out Mishlove’s is indeed the best, it will be hard to escape the conclusion that while Bigelow may have achieved his goal of providing a pool of information and generating debate, the examination of the survival of bodily death has not advanced further. On the other hand, Michael Tymn, a runner-up, saw the problem with the competition differently, believing the necessary evidence had already been accumulated as long ago as 1920, and any gathered since is merely ‘icing on the cake’. By that standard, the competition was bound not to produce anything new.
So, did Mr Bigelow get his money’s-worth? Based on Mishlove’s essay I would say not. I’m sure he has made 43 people very happy, but I can’t help feeling the field would have been better served if he had set up a grant-giving foundation (with a larger pool of referees) and handed out smaller sums on a more sustainable basis for specific projects that help to progress our understanding, rather than make a big gesture for a handful of essays retreading old ground. An organisation like the SPR could I’m sure have done a lot with nearly $2 million.
It does seem likely Bigelow will continue to put money into survival research, judging by his remarks to Ruickbie. Asked what next, he replies: ‘We’ll be thinking about 2022, as to what we can do for that year. Is it going to be another contest? Is it going to be something that is going to involve some of the applicants, some of the people generating these essays? We would want to come up with something that certainly wasn’t just a repeat. We’re interested in ideas as to what could constitute a new kind of contest for 2022.’
One hint he threw out is that he wants to extend his effort from asking whether consciousness survives bodily death to trying to determine what ‘the other side’ is like, as the next logical step – the second strand of the Institute’s aims, according to its website. Only time will tell if the generous sums of money Bigelow is sinking into research have produced worthwhile results, and really moved the field forward significantly.
Beichler, James E. ‘Best Evidence for the Afterlife is Something to Die for’, Academia.Edu, 2021. Retrieved 12 November 2021.
The Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies, https://bigelowinstitute.org/index.php
Blumenthal, Ralph. ‘Can Robert Bigleow (and the Rest of Us) Survive Death?’ New York Times, 21 January 2021. Retrieved 5 November 2021.
Butler, Tom. ‘Case for the Survival Hypothesis’, Tom Butler’s Etheric Studies, November 2021. Retrieved 13 November 2021.
Mishlove, Jeffrey. Beyond the Brain: The Survival of Human Consciousness After Permanent Bodily Death. 2021.
Ruickbie, Leo. ‘Death: The Final Frontier’, Fortean Times, issue 405, May 2021, pp. 36-39. Reprinted as ‘The $1,500,000 Question: Is there Life After Death?’ in The Magazine of the Society for Psychical Research, issue 3, 2021, pp. 4-7.
Society for Psychical Research, The Psi Encyclopedia, https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/
Tymn, Michael. ‘Aerospace Magnate Robert Bigelow Searches for Answers on Life After Death’, White Crow Books, 8 November 2021. Retrieved 9 November 2021.
Wardell, Ian. ‘Bigelow Competition for the Best Essay on the Evidence for an Afterlife.’ Ian Wardell: Philosophical Thoughts, 10 November, 2021. Retrieved 11 November 2021.