Wednesday, July 11, 2012

One Philosopher's Manifesto

There is a difference between knowing an array of empirical facts and having wisdom (by which I roughly mean a sense, often hard to articulate, of how one ought to be in the world). Wisdom cannot be reduced to any collection of empirical facts. No scientific method can give it to us. Nevertheless, I believe that there is such a thing as a wise word.

There is a difference between accumulating all the knowledge that in theory can be confirmed by other observers, and understanding something about the meaning of it all. The former will never give us the latter. Nevertheless, I believe there is such a thing as a profound insight.

I believe that wisdom and insight are more likely to come to us when we open ourselves up to the manifold world that lies both before us and, if you will, behind and within us--when we pay attention quietly, contemplatively, without agendas or presuppositions, simply opening ourselves up to being touched and moved by the I-know-not-what that eludes the grasp of our usual concepts and modes of perception.

I believe that such contemplative openness is very hard to achieve, that few of us do it well and that none of us do it perfectly, and that often we think we are doing it even when we're not. And I believe that even when we are struck by wisdom or insight, something is inevitably lost in the effort to articulate it, to put it into language and so communicate it to others. There is a distortion and deterioration that becomes more serious the further removed we become from the original moment of insight. And as others pass on the insight, as with the children's game of whispered messages around a room, the original message can be changed, until all that remains is at best a surface resemblance.

I believe that some words which appear wise turn out not to be, and some apparent profundities are illusory--even when they come to us during our best attempts at contemplative openness. I believe that rigorous critical reflection can sometimes expose the illusion, by uncovering inner or outer contradictions. I think such critical assessment is essential but imperfect, and that there is no such thing as an infallible tool for discerning the difference between apparent and actual wisdom and insight. Nevertheless, I think there is such a difference.

I believe that despite the ambiguity and uncertainty, despite the absence of reliable methods of investigation and testing, we can muddle our way towards greater wisdom and insight. I believe that progress is possible even when it is rare, and hence that there is something we are groping towards, something against which our subjective efforts fail or succeed, even when we cannot tell how much failure or success we have achieved.

I believe it is coherent to hope that the effort is not ours alone, that the deepest and most ineffable truths are, if you will, reaching back towards us, trying to reel us in despite ourselves.

I am conscious of the disputability of each of these beliefs. I am aware that they are matters of belief, not knowledge. And I feel that to be true to them, I cannot treat them as beyond critique. Nevertheless, these beliefs sustain and shape my philosophical life.


  1. Eric-

    Fine words, but one would think that a search for truth wouldn't begin with spouting a bunch of lies & myths- heaven, hell, Jesus, god, etc.. Your "faith" starting point obviates a true engagement with the fine sentiments conveyed here. Faith (and piety) are antithetical to a real search. They dictate that one be impervious to exactly the uncomfortable truths from which wisdom may arise. You claim them as starting points, but they seem, frankly, much more like ending points.

  2. Given that the "fine words" here come pretty close to being an articulation of what I mean by "faith" when I use that term, it is funny that my supposed "'faith' starting point" should undermine these very words. It would be helpful, in understanding my perspective, not to mistakenly attribute to me allegiance to "faith" in a sense that I explicitly repudiate. As for "spouting a bunch of lies and myths," you must be mistaking my blog for some different one. So there. Blargh.

  3. And no, I don't know what "Blargh" means.

  4. Eric-

    What do you think of the book of Mormon? For all the well-intentioned uses to which it may be put by well-intentioned people, any critical approach to it would have to characterize it as a pack of lies.. a fraud. What would a philosophy or a book-length discourse depending (presupposing) its various false propositions have to be characterized as? As a massive failure, from the get-go. However "technically" sound, critically considered, etc. If you believe in Moroni, the plates, etc. etc, you are a lost soul, philosophically speaking. There is no way to rescue such work by good writing or judicious temperament.

    Then if one backs oneself into the proposition that... given all my presuppositions, it is "reasonable" for someone to believe in Moroni, etc., what does that accomplish? Nothing at all. It does not cut the mustard.

  5. Burk,

    Come now, we've talked about this, there is tons of evidence for the afterlife! If you allowed yourself to read it (and I mean the actual research, not PZ Myers or Augustine's confirmation-bias giving interpretaion of it), perhaps you'd feel at least more sympathetic towards believers, even if you're unable to overcome your preconcieved ideology. But I think even that baby step would yield better discussions/comments in the combox for readers of this blog.

  6. Hi, Pat-

    That's just the thing. There really isn't good evidence. All the people who give it turn out not to have been dead. So what they tell is about near-death, but not death, let alone post-death. And none of these stories support "belief", in the sense of evidence-based conviction rather the same old faith-ful plunge into the unknown. And none of these stories give the kind of explicit Heaven and Hell (and purgatory, etc.) evidence that support the fabulosities of scriptures and priests anyhow- the "doctrines" Eric works from in his book.

    So I would suggest that we take a step back and "believe" in only things we have warrent to believe in, and leave the rest of it alone. .. or keep investigating it with our critical thinking caps firmly on, not with "hope", "faith", "piety", etc. let alone scriptures known very well to be full of tall tales.

  7. Thanks Burk-

    "That's just the thing. There really isn't good evidence. All the people who give it turn out not to have been dead."

    So, since you hinted before that you're not very well read on the NDE literature, I'll just have to say that this really stands in stark contrast to the conclusion of the researchers in the field. I'd enjoy having the discussion on the finer points of why these sentances are wrong, but it would involve you becoming more familiar with the research, I feel. If you'd like to, though, I'd be more than happy on whatever forum you wish, whether that be this blog or yours.

    As far as not supporting Church doctrine (to the extent those believers would like), I agree. It's one of the things that makes NDE's remarkable. The expereince is notably void of the Biblical image of 'Heaven' here in the West, where one would expect to find more striking similarities. One's religion will alter the interpretaion of the event (calling the light Jesus, Allah), but what they actually see is suprisingly consistent.

    The problem is, whats 'warranted' to some may not be warranted to others, and we see a great deal of resistence based not on the evidence, but rather on what this evidence would mean for the current materialistic paradigm. I'm on board with continued invenstigation, however I do think given the infromation we have now, it's warranted to take that leap across the chasm seperating materialism and theisitc belief. If you want to stay on the other side, awaiting further evidence (or, rather, evidence that supports your ideology), so be it.

    It's been several decades since Life after Life, and the researchers who have worked in the field have not done so with 'hope' 'faith' or 'piety.' Many researchers attempted to disprove the experience, only to conclude its authenticity. It seems unfair to the researchers to discredit their work as fanatical because their conclusions differ from what you'd like them to be.

    "let alone scriptures knwon very well to be full of tall tales."

    Scripture is full of tall tales, but don't let the fundamentalist conception of scrpture detract from the original intent, which was largely allegorical in nature.

  8. Hi, Pat-

    Let me take you up on the life after death issue. Biologically speaking, all cases of NDE are cases where the brain was not sufficiently damaged (i.e. dead) so that the person came back to a fully conscious state. Once a brain is sufficiently damaged, that is the end.. no more reports from the beyond. No one does NDE experiments on long-dead cadavers, burial remains, ashes, etc. Not any more, anyway!

    Obviously, you have a more permissive concept of what "death" is, so that you can say.. WOW, this person was dead (perhaps there was no pulse, thus low or no blood flow for some period of time), but now is alive. I disgree with that way of defining death. Ditto for brain waves, which are, as we measure them, superficial affairs, in the absence of which most of the brain may still be just fine, as it is in sleep and other altered states.

    Given that, I am not sure how you interpret all this evidence in your favor. If you believe as you say, wouldn't you expect souls to be able to transmigrate into other animals or humans, so that we would hear reports of "past lives", etc.? The point is, given your paradigm, we should not be limited to NDE and the original body-soul combination.. it is not clear why that pairing is so inviolable, and thus we should be getting accurate and abundant reports of real post-death experiences, not just NDE.

    On materialism, however all observations make sense.. the body-mind bond is indissoluble because they are the same thing, and all the NDE experiences are just that- various hallucinations and keen experiences near death, but not past it.

    As to my attitude towards the various NDE researchers, there is obviously a great deal of ideology and wishful thinking going on. (Ditto for psi resarch as well, which is a deep mess from what I understand.) Critical thinking is nowhere more important than in such fraught and personally meaningful topics. They have documented some very impressive things about the power and consistency of NDE experiences. But that doesn't mean that they have been able to say anything yet about what lies after death.

  9. Burk-

    You seem to be making three main points here. One, that because NDE'rs return, therefore they must not have been actually dead, only near-death. Second, that we should have other evidence of an afterlife if there exists a 'soul.' And third, that there is wishful thinking involved in NDE research.

    As to your first point, this seems dangerously close to trying to DEFINE near death experiences as obselete right from the get-go. If one defines death as simply irreversable, instead of clinical death, then NDE's will only be near-death. But if we use what we know about clinical death, which says that around 4-30 seconds after the heart stops, the brain will have no activity (and two minutes after, the brain starts to decay), then I think we can hone in on another question, namely: Are near-death experiences medically inexplicable? Maybe we should focus on this question to advance this conversation.

    As to point two, I do know that research has been done on reincarnation and 'past-lives.' I find it less interesting than NDE's, so I haven't looked at too much, but there are other lines of research (deathbed visions, past-lives, mediumship,etc). But also, I think this point is somewhat irrelevant. We only really need one line of evidence to topple materialism, and once that's done, yes, we do have to admit that we won't (and cannot) have all the answers. So I would say that on materialism, all observationd don't make sense, which is why we need 'something else.' It's difficult to have a hallucination when there is no brain activity to support said hallucination.

    As far as wishful thinking, I agree, only my opinion is that most 'wishful thinking' is done by the skeptical side postulating naturalistic expanations, but the sword certianly cuts both ways for sure. I think it is unreasonable to state that only NDE researchers who support the afterlife hypothesis are wishful thinkers.

  10. Pat- very well put. I would speculate that when it comes to mediumship and the like, your interest wanes because its value and rigor are so low. The incidence of wishful thinking approaches 100%.

    One could imagine a metric of wishfulness, derived from the fruitfulness and productivity of a research enterprise. When it remains confined to anecdotes, poor methodologies, and charismatic authorities, etc., and never seems to advance in understanding and explanation, we can assume the wishfulness quotient is very high. Things like theology, and mediumship, etc. Centuries go by with little to show. Psi is the same.

    My point about defining death was to widen your perspective on what the NDE community is aiming at. One point, as you note, is to destroy materialism, and support the existence of life after death, souls, etc. To learn about these things, you can't forever deal with marginal cases, where the degree of activity in the brain is unknown, and is non-zero in my view because it can be re-awakened to full activity. Also note that time is quite fungible in the brain, and what seems like a lengthy hallucination/experience may happen in an instant, as we all experience in moments of mortal danger.

    To make the case, you need to deal with people who are really dead.. dead and gone. A tough task? Indeed, certainly from a naturalist perspective. But that is really the job you need to do.

    "Are near-death experiences medically inexplicable? Maybe we should focus on this question to advance this conversation."

    As you know, medicine is still in a pretty primitive place. We simply do not routinely and comprehensively know what goes on on the brain, in normal let alone abnormal states. So any pronouncement of what is medically inexplicable is a matter of assertion more than fact. It resembles the creationist debate, where any particular biological phenomenon is typically only explicable, within the evolutionary paraadigm, in a relatively general and hand-waving way, however reasonable and logical given the overall theory of the field. It is that theory which is well-supported and which provides the scientific backbone for making what are relatively weak assertions for individual cases.

    In my view, all the better-attested observations of NDE are consistent with what we know of the brain, while I speculate that many of the farther-out anecdotes dealing with clairvoyant knowledge and the like are not reliable enough to take seriously. This follows both from the particulars of the cases, but also, as above, from the strength of the general naturalistic theory of brain/mind function, which has a huge amount of data and coherence going for it.

    On the opposite side (theoretically) lies mostly our intuition of dis-embodied-ness and imortality, which is admittedly powerful, but is itself susceptible of evolutionary and neurological explanations.

  11. Hi Pat

    Clearly any death-experience experiments that falsify materialism would be of crucial importance to our understanding of the world. If such exist I am slightly surprised they haven't made more impact on the general scientific community, they would surely represent the most exciting discovery of the last century.

    So my question is, have we such evidence, and what does it look like? Simply, what is the novel prediction made by this field that is not equally accommodated by the materialistic world view, and how has the repeatable experiment been carried out? I understand that attempts to verify out of body experiments by using hidden images etc haven't borne fruit yet, is this right? You seem to be hinting at conscious experience not matched by brain activity, but it's not immediately apparent to me how the timing of such experiences can be verified, nor how the absence of physical brain activity is established.

    From the outside it feels as if you may be over-hyping this somewhat. My instinctive response is, if we'd found this, a Higgs-boson type response might have been expected in the media world, and yet I've heard nothing. Is there really a conclusive study out there, or is more a lot of people being, as Burk puts it, hopeful?


  12. Bernard & Burk,

    Thanks for responding. As an aside, I've read so many of these blog posts, including the comments, and I have, and continue to enjoy both of your contributions. You're both exceedingly bright. I'm going to try and respond to both of your posts together, and hopefully I can address enough of the points raised, and perhaps add a few of my own.

    First, as to what mainly Bernard is saying, I too had never heard of NDE's not that long ago. Apparently they get publicity on Oprah, but I've never watched Oprah. I'd heard of the "light at the end of the tunnel," but didn't know it corresponded to an actual phenomenon. When I began to do research, I realized the amount of work that has been done. One man I know has read over 350 books on NDE's. But I think the larger issue is that naturalistic scientists understand the implications that dualism would have.

    Not to be mean, but I think, Burk, you'd be a good example of this. Are you in the sciences yourself? Burk knows the phenomenon exists, but I'm guessing most of his knowledge on it is transmitted to him by skeptics, debunkers, etc. I doubt you've read any material from the researchers themselves, unless of course their skeptical. I had to actually read the research, look at the statistics, pull up the objections, responses, etc, before I got a good understanding on which side of the debate was sophistry.

    As a quick background, the NDE usually involves the sensation of being out of the body (OBE), leaving through a tunnel, encountering a ‘Light,’ meeting deceased relatives, having a life review, and being told you need to return to your earthly body. Approximately 4-5% of the population has had an NDE, and they are notably independent of age, sex, race, religion, etc. They are also notably void of ‘Scriptural’ references to heaven, other than it being an afterlife, containing God, etc.

    Burk, you acknowledge that medicine is in its infancy, but we do know, from we've observed, that within 4-30 seconds post heart-stoppage, brain activity ceases. There should be no experiences at this point, this nearly all people would acknowledge. But how can we know if the person actually has the experience when their brain activity is null? Measuring it directly would be impossible, but we can attack it from other ways.


  13. One of the ways this is done was by Sartori, who questioned survivors of cardiac arrest (most studies are done on cardiac arrest patients because it’s the most medically understood), those who have had an NDE and those who hadn’t. Those who had an NDE were 83% accurate, I believe, with almost no inaccuracies, while those who didn’t have the NDE could only guess.

    Long (and I believe Von Lommel) both did a similar experiment, where a control group was placed in the corner of the room during a cardiac arrest, and later asked to recall the details of the operation. In this case, too, the NDE’r could recall far more accurately the details of their operation than the person watching it from the corner. Long’s study found, also, that NDE’r were correct 96% of the time on observations occurring both in the room, and in locations outside of their room (conversations had by family members while following them around in their OBE state).

    So the question seems to become – what enables NDE’rs to acquire the information they have about their surroundings at a time when others under, seemingly the same situation, cannot? How is it possible at a time when their brain should be extremely compromised? They should be experiencing less clarity, not lucidity that is “more clear than life itself,” to quote NDE’rs. More oxygen to the brain? Thoroughly studied – oxygen levels are constant for survivors having an NDE and those who don’t. Same with CO2 levels. Woerlee has suggested those patients had cardiac massage to enable a flow of blood to the brain, but the study shows only 25% of NDE’rs had cardiac massage. This raises another interesting point, I think, and this is that in order for a naturalistic explanation to account for this disparity, it needs to be true of all cases.

    One line of evidence that can help are veridical experiences verified by the doctors. This can be anything from the patient commenting on the doctor saying a prayer mid-operation, to the way he walked, the actions he performed at a given time in the surgery. It can be in other rooms, such as observing the inappropriate breaking of a test tube, or commenting on a doctors conversation about their upcoming vacation in the employee lounge. It can be the drawer the patients dentures were placed in mid-operation.

    I’ll let you both respond to this for now, but I’d like to talk about other lines of evidence too if you have the time, to see what you both think. Such as, NDE’s with people under general anesthesia, NDE’s in very young children, sight in NDE’s from persons blind from birth (probably one of the best lines of evidence). Even if you guys never see these in the same way I do, hopefully this conversation will increase everyone’s knowledge of the topic at hand.

  14. Thanks Pat

    That's a good introduction and very interesting. I think my first response is I would want to distinguish between testing after the event (what happened during the operation, how could you know that?) and a slightly more rigorous approach where one defines before an event what might be looked for. Clearly this is tricky to set up, by their very nature NDEs are responsive, but I do know of an experimenter trying to get around this by placing items above eye level in emergency rooms where only the true out of body experience might access them. I think this type of experiment has the hallmarks of science and would be accepted by many as something demanding an explanation. The examples you discuss here I find less compelling, because they involve after the event interpretation and there are clearly materialistic explanations available. In essence, they don't provide an opportunity for falsification, interesting though they are.

    A second point would be that the scientific method asks us to take care not prejudge issues. So, at the point where we assume that the brain ceases function and begins its decay after a certain period of time, we must be open to the possibility not that we are witnessing out of body experiences, but rather that this starting assumption is wrong. So, for example, I've read an article in another context that suggested there's been a significant rethinking of this idea of instant shut down and decay recently, and if this is the case then some of the conclusions being drawn here needn't necessarily hold.

    So, I don't wish to dismiss this work as uninteresting, clearly it's not. But, it seems to me, if we are very careful to apply those investigative methods that have worked best in the past, then we are some distance from providing what we would think of as good cause to accept the hypothesis being proposed. And this, rather than any scientific fear of dualism, may explain well the current lack of coverage. Indeed, little would be more exciting to the scientific community than evidence of dualism. When everything we believe turns out to be wrong, that's when science really comes alive.

    As a slight aside, apparently in some cases colour blind people with synesthesia experience colours they do not physically perceive, which suggests there may be a physical mechanism by which visual experience can exist independently of sensory input. So, again, the reporting of sight experience in the blind may be a good starting point for further experiment, rather than conclusive evidence of dualism.


  15. Pat-

    I agree that this is a fascinating topic. I've had at least one out of body experience myself, and don't doubt many of the observations made. I have had interesting anesthesia and drug experiences as well- it is clear that the brain can do some very weird things, whether induced externally, or from its own resources. And that our normal consciousness doesn't exhaust its capabilities. The Buddhists make a job of accessing some of your more esoteric states by natural means.

    All this is consistent with materialism, given that a good bit is yet to be learned about the brain. Your mention of blind sight during NDE is particularly interesting. It indicates, to a materialist, that the NDE experience is a relatively deep aspect of brain structure, not always tied to the mode of perception that it presents itself as. Specifically, hearing seems to account for the sensory inputs that get transmuted into the floating, etc. observations. Such phenomena are not unknown in the half-asleep situation. Some professors are known to listen intently while sleeping through seminars(!)

    Studying people who are deaf would be a very good way to address this sort of model, actually. Most of your cited observations are aural- they are sounds, or could be inferred from listening carefully.

    So it is all very interesting, and the more repeatable items on the NDE checklist are clearly real and not an existential problem for materialism. Where it gets trickier are in the marginal anecdotes, told in dramatic ways, perhaps leaving out key details, etc.

    Getting back to the definition of death issue, the brain can take a lot of abuse. Dementia can take out large amounts of brain tissue before becoming apparent. Strokes can kill off large sections, with specific, but partial, impairments. So the issue of surmising "death" from a few minutes of no blood flow is not at all cut and dried. Even if the brain, in electrical terms, has shut down completely, (which is impossible to tell by current means, I think), how do you make the correlation between the self-reports during this period of time and the externally observed period of "death"? Presumably, the anecdotes speak of things that only happened precisely during the supposed interval, but this is exceedingly hard to control. I would suggest that NDE's happen while the brain is very much working, at some level.

    So here is a research program, putting aside the possibilities of contacting souls once they have fully left the building, as it were. 1- Study the cardiac arrest NDE and OBE in fully deaf patients. 2- Devise better ways to ascertain the full electrical activity of the brain in a rapid way that can be deployed at these times- better than surface electrodes. The brain may well have ways of shutting down in an orderly sequence in response to general lack of blood flow, where sight is sacrificed as hearing is spared, etc.. I wonder who would want to be the guinea pig? Speaking of which, some of this could be done in animals, to observe the death-related electrical activity profile, for instance. An example.

  16. Bernard-

    Thanks for your response. You mention the AWARE study, directed by Dr. Sam Parnia. Even though we don’t have results yet, it’s already causing a lot of discussion in the NDE community as far as how the methodology is being carried out. Obviously, seeing these images would be very important evidence to the validity of the OBE. However, when one listens to the OBE’rs, they usually say they are only a few feet above their body, not at ceiling level. In short, many think the images are being placed too close to the ceiling, where people’s consciousness isn’t going during the OBE. But we’ll see how this study turns out, I’ve heard some reports say positive results, some saying negative results, and the study has largely been kept under wraps.

    As far as rethinking the instant shut down, I’m fine for speculation that the brain may have some slight activity for longer than we realize, something the EEG doesn’t pick up. But remember that these experiences are highly lucid, complex experiences involving conversations with deceased family members, God, OBE, etc. I just listened to an interview with an EEG specialist, who commented on this, saying that even if there was some activity, which goes against the things we believe about the brain, this experience is far too complex to be produced and remembered in the way NDE’rs do.

    As far as what the scientific community covers, I will still maintain there is more going on that simply not believing the evidence is good enough. Most scientists seem hesitant to even consider the evidence, and from interviews I’ve seen, are quick to produce conjectures that have long been established to be incorrect. I certainly think it should be exciting, but I think you might be slightly playing down the impact this would have on science. If dualism turns out to be true – in what other areas of science will our materialistic models need to be altered? What does that do to Quantum Mechanics, medicine, and neurology? I think dualism is threatening to many scientists, which is why there is a tendency to suppress the evidence where possible.

    Going back to what you said in the first paragraph, I’d be curious to hear your materialistic explanations of why only patients having NDE’s are able to recall the details of their experiment, while non-NDE’rs are unable to make even good guesses. I think there are several paths you can take away from this, which have been shown to be incorrect. I think what this shows is that somehow, someway, NDE’rs are gathering information during their experiences that non-NDE’rs are not. Obviously, the NDE’rs are convinced it was because they actually saw it happen, separate from their body, but one can think of other ways. I don’t believe any of these ways actually hold up to the evidence, however.

    As an aside, I’m interested in what it would mean for someone to confuse actual sight with merely reconstructing things in their mind, as if you were to visualize Saturn. It’s hard for me to imagine confusing the type of content that would occupy a dream with the type of content that would result from sight. But maybe my dreams are just bland…

  17. Burk,

    Thanks. I think some of the comments I put in my above response apply to yours as well. I think we’re really stretching our definition of what the brain can do when we postulate an experience that is, “more real than life itself,” at the time when our brain should have, from what we understand about the brain, no activity, unless deep within in the brain. We also stretch our concept of what is even possible to conceive. I’m not sure if I can conceive of sight being clearer than I’ve ever seen before. It seems the best I can do is imagine the time in my life my vision was best. I’m also unsure if I can conceive of 360 degree vision, but this is also what’s reported. So I think there are a lot of lucid, near inconceivable experiences, which we’re attributing to a brain that, from what we know medically, should have no activity.

    “Even if the brain, in electrical terms, has shut down completely, (which is impossible to tell by current means, I think), how do you make the correlation between the self-reports during this period of time and the externally observed period of "death"? Presumably, the anecdotes speak of things that only happened precisely during the supposed interval, but this is exceedingly hard to control.”

    I think the study I gave before really nails this down, and I’m not sure exactly what would be too difficult to control about it. For those who had an NDE, Sartori asked them to describe the procedure they saw during their OBE state. Then she went to the doctors and asked them to describe the procedure done on the particular patient. Even if either side of this forgot certain things, this should only lead to more disagreements, as the doctor was not prompted with the NDE’rs results. I think the way to move from here is to suggest a mechanism as to how the NDE’r could have acquired the information at this time.

    You mention anesthesia, which is another jumping off point. In Long’s study, he had 23 patients who had NDE’s under general anesthesia. First off, awareness under general anesthesia is extremely rare, anywhere from 1:1,000 to 1:50,000. Secondly, people who do have awareness under general anesthesia report: panic, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, pain, loss of memory. It is unheard of to have visual awareness under general anesthesia. Yet, the patients in the report had the same type of NDE as is typically reported, which report euphoria instead of anything negative. It should also be noted that the odds don’t match up. Of cardiac arrest patients, only a certain percent of those survive. Of the survivors only a certain percent have an NDE. Of NDE’rs, only a certain percent have an OBE, etc, etc. To have 23 persons with these experiences is an aberration from what we’d expect.


  18. (cont)

    “Most of your cited observations are aural- they are sounds, or could be inferred from listening carefully.”

    Most of those veridical examples I gave were conversations happening in the room next door, down the hall, or just simply remote from their body where they couldn’t simply overhear, even if they could overhear from their impaired state. I think one can make lots of stretches and accommodate some of this evidence, but the veridical experiences really demand a new mode of consciousness, in my opinion. There are simply too many stories of conversations overheard from across the hospital, which are later corroborated.

    Another problem, in my opinion, is the lack of any reasonable competing theory. Lots of skeptics have their own ‘pet’ theory, none of which is mentioned by other skeptics, and all of which are easy to point glaring holes in. They all do agree, as skeptics do, that the cause is material, even if all current theories are flawed. Obviously, just because no current theories satisfy the evidence doesn’t mean a competent theory won’t come along, but the evidence certainly seems to be triangulating on a dualistic explanation, more so than a material one. At least that’s my take on the evidence. I think it’s a reasonable position to withhold judgment. I do, at the time, think it’s unreasonable to dogmatically state that these are, certainly, products of the brain. I think, however, that the most reasonable position, given the evidence, is to say that in some way we don’t fully understand, consciousness appears to survive biological death.

  19. Hi Guys,

    Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is some phenomenon that appears inexplicable – say, a near-death patient seeing stuff he shouldn't be able to see. I wonder how saying “it's the soul that did it” constitutes an explication at all. Doesn't invoking something like a “soul” creates more problems than it claims to answer?

    For one thing, how would such a thing be able to see at all?

    We are far from knowing all there is to know about vision but we know enough to say it's a mind-bogglingly complex process, involving a large number of brain modules. There is nothing immediate at all about vision: different parts of the visual cortex cooperate in processing the different aspects of the raw sensory input (colours, vertical lines, depth, shapes, etc.), combining this with information from memory, and so on, leading eventually to an internal model of our visual environment that can certainly be called a construction of the brain. This is nothing at all like a photographic process: there is no “image” in the brain corresponding to what's visible out there.

    So, the brain is intricately involved in vision, a necessary and immensely complex system allowing us to build an internal representation of the world – all this in real-time. We know that much. Damage to specific areas of the brain can affect vision. For example, Oliver Sacks writes about a man who lost all colour vision after an accident: not only was he unable to see in colour, he couldn't remember or even imagine colours. In blindsight, blind persons can nevertheless process visual information they don't consciously see. Others are blind but don't realize it.

    How could a soul see without all that? This needs to be explained. If a soul does not need eyes or a brain to see, then what's the use of our visual cortex? This also needs to be explained. If a soul uses the brain when the body is alive and don't need it when dead, what exactly is going on? If the soul can see in NDE, how is the visual memory transferred to the brain (considering how complicated is the storage of visual memory in the brain)?

    Now, this is just the most obvious question, and there does not seem to be any end to the problems arising when we try to explain how dualism would work.

    It seems to me these are major issues and it must be shown that they can be addressed in some rational manner before seriously considering dualism. Otherwise, saying “it's the soul that did it” does nothing more than throwing words at a significant but tractable problem, and replacing it by a complete mystery. How can this be an explanation?

  20. Hi JP-

    Thanks for your response. Excuse me if this is inadequate, but you seem to be saying something along the lines of:

    1. Since a soul would presumably be immaterial, and sight involves a physical transfer of information, it’s unclear how something immaterial would be able to experience a phenomenon induced by the physical.
    2. Postulating the ‘soul’ opens up more questions than it does answers.

    This is more-or-less the problem of interaction for dualism, namely, how can the material interact with the immaterial? First, this objection seems to be question-begging, to me. If we assume that all interaction has to be physical in nature, then dualism is ruled out from the onset. But this objection works only if we assume correct the principle in question, physicalism.

    Furthermore, even if we are unclear about how an immaterial object could interact with a physical one, we also need to think about the implications of physicalism on the mind. Can physicalism adequately solve intentionally? Can it be responsible for agency? Can we not conceive of information that is non-physical in nature? Take the following argument (which is probably well known by the readers here):

    Mary is born in a black and white room, with the only object inside being a black and white television, which only receives black and white channels. On those channels, she constantly watches neurologists talk about the brain, and through this learns all the physical facts there are to know about the brain. Does Mary know all there is to know? Will Mary not learn what it’s like to see ‘red’ when she leaves the room? And if you answer yes, that Mary learns what it’s like to see red when she leaves, then aren’t there some facts that are irreducible to physical processes?

    This is getting off topic now, but my main point was that we need to compare all the pros and cons of a theory of the mind before deciding. On issues of parsimony, I agree, that physicalism wins out. But can it adequately account for the range of phenomenon we experience daily?

    As to your second point, I agree, that it does open up a lot questions. But it seems to me that we need to follow where the evidence takes us. If people, upon dying, are able to witness conversations across hospital, doesn’t that call for a new theory of the mind, one that can take this into account? We can call it something other than the soul if you don’t like the thought of religious ideas intruding on scientific grounds.

    Also, I sensed a ‘God of the Gaps’ reasoning fallacy, as well. Take the following:

    1. We’re unsure of the cause of the universe, therefore, it was God.
    2. We’re unsure of the cause of NDE’s, therefore, it was the soul.

    One of the obvious differences is we have ‘positive’ evidence for believing #2, not just the unknown, like in #1. When approximately 97% of NDE’rs are positive their experience was real, not hallucinatory, the option they are presenting at least needs to be among the competing hypotheses. Furthermore, we may have gaps in our understanding with our knowledge of the brain, but we still have a good idea of what physicalism would entail. The mind is produced by the brain, which means it can’t just go wandering around the hospital mid-cardiac arrest.

  21. Hi Pat

    I think this comes down to how one sees scientific methodology. What we have is a puzzle of sorts. Reported experiences where we can't precisely explain a physical mechanism by which they occur. In fact, science is full of such situations. At every frontier we are confronted with new problems, new holes to be explored.

    When it comes to exploring the physical world, the method that has worked best is to accept the unexplained as unexplained, and then set about proposing testable hypotheses. When a hypothesis emerges that is testable, we use the test to generate novel evidence, and test the hypothesis against its predictions. I would suggest that jumping off this bus, so to speak, and instead opting for, well here's a hole, so we think there's a non-physical process at work, doesn't get us far. In this I endorse the point JP is making.

    What the dualists, to my mind, would need to do, is propose a form of repeatable experiment. The evidence you offer confirms the phenomenon of NDE is real, but I'm not sure any one is contesting this. What we need here is some way of testing whether there is a non-physical basis to the experience, and to say, well we don't yet have a complete physical explanation is indeed a God of the gaps type argument. Some of the things Burk suggests strike me as important. Do we have records of NDEs in the profoundly deaf? What happens to animal brains in near death scenarios? What are the similarities/differences between NDEs and better studied forms of hallucinations? And of course, the more general project of chipping steadily away at our understanding of brain function.

    When people say, 'but the patient can't possibly have known that by physical means', it sounds exactly like the many people I meet who assure me that they have met fortune tellers etc who knew things about them they could not possibly have guessed. Covert filming of such sessions invariably shows how unreliable we are when it comes to reporting our own experiences. In this case, the patient is of course not dead when they report on their experience, how then can we ensure the intervening period of consciousness has not coloured the memory? This is why a means of falsification is so important. Until then, shouldn't we just add this to the pile of mysteries we are slowly working our way through? People are of course quite free to colour these mysteries in with narrative, but this process is not the scientific one.


  22. Hi Pat,

    You mention a case of a conversation heard from a distance. I can’t comment on anything specific but, as Bernard pointed out, it seems to me that when an air-tight case comes up, it would be so big that we would know about it. That’s why I choose instead to comment on what I see as some significant issues with the dualist solution. By the way, isn’t the study of out of bodies experiences (OBE) an easier way forward? For obvious reasons, it’s very difficult to run a control experiment with NDE (the guy is dying) while it seems tractable with OBE.

    I mentioned the brain involvement in vision to point out that vision is nothing like photography: there is no image of our visual environment in our brain waiting to be scanned and analysed. What we intuitively consider a more or less direct representation of our surroundings is in fact a very elaborate construction requiring the interplay of a large number of brain modules. The raw sensory input consists of nothing more than a number of photons of various wavelengths striking receptors at the back of the eye.

    Now, how would an immaterial soul be able to do the same without any brain support? This, and other questions, is what I hinted at by saying dualism creates more problems than it solves.

    You write that the problem of interaction exists only under physicalism. I don’t see why. Whatever “ism” we happen to enjoy, the immaterial soul is nevertheless assumed to interact with physical matter. We cannot simply brush this away. And the interaction, as I think the complexity of our visual system illustrates, presents what looks like intractable problems.

    Just a simple example: in some NDE cases, I understand, the patient reports seeing his body from a point at some distance above him – just like it would be if he was up there, eyes, brain and all. For this to work, the soul/consciousness/whatever must, somehow, intercept photons coming from the scene (raw electromagnetic radiation), process them just like the brain does and then, later, imprint the result in the patient’s brain.

    Besides the extraordinary difficulty of doing all this, it is quite surprising (and significant) that this soul works in a way that exactly parallels what the brain is doing.

  23. Bernard,

    Thanks for the response. Perhaps I’m just naive when it comes to the scientific method, but I can’t help but feel that this scenario is much different than ‘well here’s a hole, so we think there’s a non-physical process at work.’ The researchers who do the work in the field are not speculating that, ‘well, here’s something we can’t explain, therefore, it must be the soul.’ The research moves from what we know about how the brain works to the conclusion that consciousness exists separately outside the brain. Defining research in this way seems, to me, to be very close to defining any ‘dualist’ explanation as forever inadequate because, in the end, it will raise a lot of questions, open a lot of doors, and in some ways be perpetually ‘unexplained.’

    I think I’d argue that the situation is more of a ‘materialism of the gaps.’ The evidence that we get from the field seems to consistently supports the afterlife hypothesis, yet alternate theories are constantly conjured up that simply don’t match the data. In some ways, it seems to resemble creationism science a bit. It’s sort of this, ‘don’t give up home, we still might find a materialist explanation yet.’ It doesn’t seem like this is how science should operate, in my opinion. If what I said above is true that, if dualism is true, the explanation will always be somewhat mysterious, then that door to insert a possible materialist conjecture will always be open, even if just a crack.

    In regards to the first part of your last paragraph, it’s important to remember that some of the best cases of veridical perception have come from Moody’s work. Moody, who coined the phrase NDE, actually worked as a doctor while doing this research, thus he was there to witness the events as they transpire, which usually involve the patient first waking up from their accident to the reaction on the hospital assistant who is told of what they were doing in the room next door. So these cases are not the type of thing where they are interviewed days or weeks later, but rather incidents witnessed directly by the researcher. It was inevitably these veridical experiences that convinced Moody of the authenticity of the experience, who came into the study of life after death assuming consciousness died with the body.

    So I guess to respond to the general thrust of your argument, I don’t think this should be added to the pile of mysteries, because I think we have enough information to affirm a hypothesis. Again, to me, when consciousness is able to navigate through the building while the body is confined to one room, that’s the end. And I think we have enough reason to believe this is actually what is happening.

  24. Hi JP,

    Thanks for the response. I was listening to an interview today with Carol Tarvis, who wrote a book about cognitive dissonance. One model she uses to explain it is a pyramid. Take the example of cheating. Two students in a class are taking a test, and one decides to cheat, the other doesn't. Both people immediately justify the choices they made. The one who cheats would say that it really doesn’t harm anyone else, that lots of people do it, that he needed the A, etc. The one who didn’t cheat would say it does hurt others, it’s the wrong thing to do, etc. Both persons then begin to slide away from each other, caused by the ramifications of their initial choice, and in order to stay consistent, people often uphold the same standards they used to justify their initial action.

    My point with all this isn’t to say that you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance, per say, but to say that everyone, including scientists, undergoes this process of justifying their choices after the fact. One way we do this is by looking at evidence that supports our worldviews, and ignoring, or being overly critical of evidence that goes against it. I think, in general, you and Bernard both have a slightly romanticized view of science where it takes the ‘scientist’ out of it, and replaces it with this ideal, perfectly objective person. This is all a round about and, probably unnecessary way of addressing your first sentence. I’ll move on. I guess I just found the whole cognitive dissonance talk interesting.

    I think this is clearly illustrated by some of the arch-skeptics. Richard Wiseman, for instance, is quoted as saying, ‘If it were any other field of science, remove viewing would be a proven fact.’ So, do we need different standards for different fields of science? What qualifies as an extraordinary claim, and what qualifies as extraordinary evidence? There needs to be a way to keep the goalposts from moving.

    And you correctly point out that the OBE is the most testable part of the NDE experience.

    Perhaps I was unclear about the interaction problem. It’s not that the interaction problem exists only under physicalism. The interaction problem doesn’t exist under physicalism. But the interaction problem, in its most basic form, assumes only interaction between the physical is possible, which only the physicalist will accept. In order for the interaction problem to be a defeater, it needs to assume the very thing it attempts to prove. Kim adds some ‘meat on the bones’ of the interactionist problem, but he really just seems to force the dualist to hypothesize about the nature of the soul, something difficult to do indeed, but something that should be no fault of the dualist. Now, all this said, I think you’re right to say that we cannot simply brush this away.

    I had mentioned qualia for two reasons. One, I wanted to illustrate a potential argument for something inexplicable by physical facts. Dualists will be dualists because they believe the problems for physicalist theories of the mind are much more severe than problems for dualist theories, and the evidence with NDE’s is just wood for the fire. But qualia also show us, I think, how consciousness perceives things that are irreducible to the brain. Thus, while there are clearly brain states that correlate with mental states, this correlation is merely one of transmission, not of production. The typical analogy is that of something like a telephone. If you press certain buttons on the phone, you are going to hear similar voices (assuming the same person answers in each house), and by pressing certain buttons, you are also going to be affecting the persons living in the house. But it would be a mistake to think that the phone produces the voices heard. In NDE’s, we consistently hear that upon leaving the body, consciousness is more lucid than ever before. This seems to suggest that, on dualism, the brain actually filters the consciousness. As astronomer David Darling put it, “We are conscious not because of our brains, but in spite of it.”

  25. Hi Pat

    You are quite right, the danger is always that we filter our experience in order to make it more palatable, and the risk for both sides is that the participants will create narratives that best accommodate the evidence without disturbing their cherished world views.

    It is for precisely this reason that we should, in terms of scientific endeavour, be forever seeking sneaky ways of subverting tour confirmation bias. The best, to my my mind, is the experimental method. Here, rather than take observations and fit them to a model, we use our hypothesis to generate novel predictions which contradict/falsify the alternative proposition. It is then the carrying out of the experiment that decides the relative status of opposing hypotheses.

    As you describe it, the NDE work is still very much at the stage of developing hypotheses, in essence speculating about non-physical causes of conscious experience. Such speculation is interesting and useful, do not think I dismiss it at this level. I'm not saying it can't be true, of course. Perhaps, one day, we will develop experimental methods that will allow us to confirm/reject aspects of this hypothesis in a scientific manner. Unless I'm missing something, you are not proposing any form of falsification experiment and it is for this reason I don't yet find your narrative compelling.

    Perhaps it is worth remembering the great deal of evidence also accumulating on the materialist side. Whatever the process by which consciousness occurs, it is very closely tied to physical brain processes. Were this not so, the soul would not be so predictably altered by drugs, brain injuries, degenerative diseases, sleep deprivation etc. How remarkable it is the colourblind person with synesthesia experiences colours they never 'see', how remarkable that certain brain states associate with feelings of having detached from one's physical form, how remarkable that particular types of damage can lead to a soul believing a limb does not belong to them, or to experience pain without feeling it is their own, or to physically experience the pain of another when certain mirror networks fire, or to experience the terrifying belief that a loved one is an impostor. All these quirks of the soul have physical counterparts, slowly pieced together by remarkable researchers, and provide a compelling case for brain as mind. It may be that at time of death all these rules break down, but that is an extraordinary hypothesis, and I think we are best then to demand extraordinary evidence, which will surely come in the form of a repeatable, falsifying experiment.

    Perhaps the way forward will involve studying, with their consent, the brains of the terminally ill, so that can better map the precise physical processes of shut down. Perhaps it will involve carefully controlling trauma room environments in such a way that we can distinguish between sound and visual cues, or control out for aspects that might be reliably imagined (like the hidden objects approach). We're looking for methods where we might be able to measure the reliability of reportage (what percentage of out of body experiences accurately report the colour state of a randomly set light in the trauma room, where we control out the possibility of anybody else being aware of it/reporting on it... etc) There will be ways forward here, if people are sufficiently motivated to discover them. The sorts of things you are discussing might well provide the researchers with the motivation they need. Time will tell.


  26. Hi Pat,

    Just a few words – got to go soon.

    I see the interaction problem not as a defeater as such but as a major problem that must be recognized and addressed in some way. From what I see it seems to be largely ignored. Seems to me that invoking immaterial consciousness or soul to explain OBE is replacing a difficult problem by an intractable one. This is very puzzling to me.

    Concerning plain OBE (without NDE), there is no doubt these experiences do happen – the question is: what is going on? If some immaterial thing (IT) really leaves the body and is able to roam about, shouldn't it be a simple matter to establish it? Certainly OBEs happen often enough to allow for a controlled experiment to test the hypothesis that IT can gather information through non-material means? Moreover, the positive results of a well-designed experiment would be very difficult to ignore.

  27. "Richard Wiseman, for instance, is quoted as saying, ‘If it were any other field of science, remove viewing would be a proven fact.’"

    Hi, Pat-

    I think you fail to appreciate how much those in this field may suffer from exactly the cognitive issues you point out. The WIKI page summarizes why Mr. Wiseman seems to be such a case. A quote may signify faith, but it doesn't constitute evidence.

    The field is replete with anecdote. We have had the same down through history immemorial. Only when scientists were confident enough in observation to throw out authority and narrative did empiricism really take hold and progress take place.

    So, as a first objection, first person reports/anecdotes collected by what I take to be highly biased parties are not the greatest fodder for good science. Unfortunately, the nature of the field (consciousness studies) doesn't leave much room for other data. So perhaps in some respect that is the best we can do for now. That does not give you warrant to claim that there is "tons" of evidence. The evidence is intrinsically poor, and however much of it you have, quantity doesn't make up for quality.

    So do we need different standards for different fields of science? Not at all. What we need is to not be lulled into the idea that if we can't get the proper data in a particularly interesting area of study, that our desperation ("hope"!) for an answer justifies us in accepting a lower standard of evidence.

    As is the case in religion, we are not "forced" to make a choice here, and we have every right to require extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims- ones that claim to destabilize a great deal of settled science.

    As others have mentioned, the argument from inexplicability has a very checkered history, such as in the creationism debate. Many things have been explained in the materialist paradigm that had casually, even fervently, been claimed to be inexplicable. This is particularly notorious in the case of subjective events, consciousness, brain powers, spoon bending, etc. Miracles abound, which generally deserve no attention at all, just as those perpetual motion machines desereve no attention.

    I do hear about most of this through a skeptical filter, as you note. Thus it has been interesting to hear your rather enthusiastic approach and view of the evidence. But skepticism is generally a good approach, as long as it isn't blind to strong evidence (birthers, creationists,,, etc.)

    ... cont ...

  28. Let me turn to qualia. This word denotes subjective experience. Any system that is conscious is going to have qualia. Our computers are starting to monitor their internals (cpu temperature, disk status, etc..), leading to some kind of opinion about their internal states. I don't think they have achieved consciousness, but a few more steps in that direction, especially a meta-system that engages emotionally with all these states, (I hurt!), and we will be very close indeed. In this case, we may or may not really know how the feeling works for the machine, even though we will have programmed it and know all its mechanics. That will be a real test of dualism, I think, complementing a sufficiently thorough brain analysis that lets us throw up on the screen all the internals of that organ.

    In any case, it seems to me that qualia are phenomena like any other in the material world, but they are private to the system experiencing them, making them "hard", if not impossible, to know externally. It is a problem, but it isn't in itself an argument for dualism. It is another argument from ignorance, if not inexplicability, with a very large dollop of intuition.

    Dualism has been called on to explain many things, none of which it has explained successfully. Vitalism, for instance, was a form of dualism- that life (i.e. the body+brain nexus) had some special supernatural essence to it in addition to the material, etc... The fact that dualism (and supernaturalism generally) has retreated to the brain only doesn't excuse it from all its past failures, and they are epic failures, as it were.

    "We are conscious not because of our brains, but in spite of it."

    I have to ask you, in all honesty, what you see in this, other than a snappy turn of phrase. How enthusiastic are you to lose your life and brain, to escape this mundane husk? I doubt very much. I think it is reasonable to suppose, based on all we know and you have presented, that near death, we (some of us) have some amazing experience based on the highly unusual states the brain finds itself in, after which we cease entirely.

    And what explanation do you have for the lack of consciousness about happenings before you were born? By the dualist hypothesis, you would have existed, right? What was going on then? Why are we so intimately tied to our bodies at that stage of existence, only to become untethered when it becomes unbearable to leave the stage again?

  29. Bernard,

    Thanks again for your comments. I don’t think any dualist would deny that there is an extremely close relationship between mind and brain, only that it is one of production. In the case of drugs, injuries, disease, sleep deprivation, alcohol, etc, I believe all those things are equally explainable by the transmission model as they are by the production model, with the only disadvantage being that of parsimony. As far as falsification, I can imagine lots of things that would point away from the NDE’s being transcendent in nature, but a lot of this would contradict earlier data. I would say if the OBE’rs recount incorrect observations, that would clearly count against a ‘legitimate’ OBE. Or if it shown that the people who had NDE’s had more oxygen in the brain. Actually, now that I type this, I’m having problems thinking of things that won’t contradict prior data. What would you consider a falsification for the afterlife hypothesis? What would you consider falsification for a materialist explanation?

    Perhaps I should apologize if I seem too hasty to force you to accept the conclusion I drew. For me, when I first started reading about NDE’s it was incredibly fascinating, and I asked myself the same questions of: why don’t more people know about this? why don’t more people accept this? I read some of the skeptical books which proclaimed to show that the NDE’s were illusory. Then I’d read the books of researchers who believed them to be authentic. Through all of this, I began to see science itself in more of a skeptical way. Here was something that I had always assumed to be so removed from bias and prejudice, but there was clearly something else at work besides the data. I had to dig deeper to find out which side was actually trying to promote truth, and which was trying to suppress it.

    I found that NDE’s have consistently passed the tests placed upon them. Could they be simply because of religious influences? They’re found to be completely independent of religiosity. Could it be Anoxia? Hypercarbia? Temporal Lobe Seizures? The culmitive effect of the dying brain? REM intrusion? Heart massage? Dissociative states? Wishful thinking? Once these garnered evidence against them, and the possible materialistic explanations began to run thin, more tests were done for the afterlife hypothesis. The cases of veridical perception were more fervently documented. It was tested to see if the experience was happening at a time when the brain was clinically dead. NDE’s occur under general anesthesia, in extremely young children, in the blind, and have long-lasting, transformative effects, including the fear of death being almost completely washed away.

    So I see this history that is consistently pointing one direction, and consistently away from another. And with it, we’ve seen skeptics consistently shift the goalposts of what counts as extraordinary evidence. So, with regards to your approach, it makes me wary because I’ve seen this attitude of, “well, if they can just see the images on top of the lights, then that will be enough evidence” result in the sidestepping of the conclusion. But yet, I see it is a mistake to assume that the tide cannot change. So, since it seems like we might not be able to take this conversation too much further, I’d just say that I hope whatever comes from future studies, everyone involved will be able to adjust their theories of how the world works to accommodate the evidence, and acknowledge that at one time, this may have been considered extraordinary evidence if not for the pressure of having to change one's beliefs.

  30. JP,

    Thanks for your brief comment. Hopefully you remember to return to this conversation and add more. I agree that the interaction problem is a problem and needs to be addressed, as it seems nonsensical by the nature of what’s being claimed. I think you summed it up well when you said that by invoking an immaterial soul to explain the OBE is replacing a difficult problem with an intractable one. It’s of my opinion that by removing immaterial consciousness, we are replacing a difficult problem (one of interaction) with an intractable one. As Locke said, "it is impossible to conceive that ever bare incogitative matter should produce a thinking intelligent Being." But, I think, to be realistic, both sides need to adequately acknowledge the difficulties of their theories. It’s my hope that NDE’s can help shed some light on the topic of consciousness.

    My instinct is to say it would not be simple to establish OBE’s. In order to test the type of OBE that NDE’rs have, at least in the sense that Bernard would like, we need to do something like what Dr. Parnia is doing by placing images on the top of lights in hospitals. OBE’s also can occur under situations of extreme stress, or even under certain drugs. I’d say it’s difficult to know whether all these types of OBE’s are the same. Clearly, the ones occurring under drugs involve many other side-effects not seen during the NDE OBE’s. Does an OBE during extreme stress mean the ‘soul’ is preparing to leave the body, anticipating bodily death (as some NDE’rs have reported has happened to them), or is it a result of brain function brought on by stressful scenarios? I think it’s difficult to know if there is a link between all of them. Obviously if materialism is true, the link is that they’re all produced by brain function. If dualism is true, one or several could be a legitimate leaving of the body by the soul, while the others be hallucinatory.

    I like your optimism towards the ‘inignorablity’ of certain positive results. I think Dr. Parnia’s study has the type of hype, and scale, needed to provide those results. As I mentioned earlier, however, I’m unsure if the methodology of his experiment will yield positive results, given what is told to us by OBE’rs. I also hope that there is a line in the sand where a certain amount of evidence will be regarded as extraordinary, but I’m not sure if that will be the case. Some people are extremely invested in their worldviews, and there is always going to be a way to postulate some avenue around the seemingly inevitable results, no matter how far-fetched. It’s my humble opinion that we’ve already reached that point, but I do hope Dr. Parnia’s study will help us shed more light on this phenomenon.

  31. Burk,

    Thanks for your response, I was starting to wonder whether you’d come back to this discussion or not. There’s a lot to address in your post, so it might be pretty scattered.

    I agree with you that Wiseman suffers from cognitive dissonance, but I obviously feel it is in a way that doesn’t allow him to accept results he would otherwise accept if he wasn’t so invested in his worldview. I was merely trying to illustrate the even an arch-skeptic, who is always acknowledged, even by those critical of him, to be well informed of the evidence, admits that the evidence for remote viewing is significant. As I admitted earlier, I haven’t got into PSI yet, but I have a book or two coming to try and really analyze the evidence being presented, and then go through the objections, similar to what I did for NDE’s. As far as the state of the PSI field being full of anecdote, that may be correct. I can’t say at this point too much at this point, which is why I’m going to try and sift through the literature myself, even though your opinion on the matter is duly noted.

    I only ever claimed there was tons of evidence for the afterlife, and indeed, we didn’t even get into other areas of study with regards to the afterlife, only NDE’s. But I don’t think it’s fair to tie a field that I really can’t defend at the moment, PSI, say it’s poor, and then use that bash NDE studies. As I’ve tried to discuss, I think the evidence stretches what the brain can possibly do right to the breaking point, and then given the verified veridical studies, severs that connection. As you correctly point out, we have quantity. Bruce Greyson has a whole handbook of veridical experiences. What would make them quality for you? Verified by the doctors? Witnessed by researchers live, not in a post-incident interview? I certainly feel like both of those add to the quality of the evidence. I also, obviously, will take offense to you assuming that the parties (the researchers themselves?) are biased. As I’ve stated before, many of them went into the field with the intent to disprove, only to have their minds changed. So if there was bias, it was in the other direction. Also, I’d say I have more warrant to make a statement on the evidence, since I’m the one in this conversation who has actually looked at the data from both sides of the argument.

    I agree that skepticism can be fruitful, but it obviously has its limits. I could tell you heard it mostly through a skeptical filter when you so boldly claimed that there was no good evidence. I think it’d be interesting to see what happens if you actually read some of the researchers books, as I suggested to you several months ago. I can briefly outline points, but I cannot explain it as well as the medical doctors that do the research. It would be a shame to miss out on something as fascinating as NDE’s because of confirmation bias.

  32. “ I don't think they have achieved consciousness...”

    I’d have to agree with you that my computer is not conscious. I know this was a lead in to another point, but it made me laugh. As an aside, if a conscious (it needs to be defined what consciousness actually IS) robot is ever made, i’d accept that as falsification of dualism.

    You’re right to say that it isn’t itself an argument for dualism. I disagree that it’s an argument from ignorance. I agree that it involves intuition. The argument revolves around what physicalism necessitates, not from what could one day be discovered to be true under physicalism. And yes, the problem is ‘hard’ indeed!

    Please explain the epic failures of dualism. As I see it, dualism is, has been, and will always potentially be able to explain things. Dualism is explanatory by its very nature. As I’ve said before, materialism wins out on parsimony, assuming all else is equal, but this doesn’t mean that dualism somehow has lost its potency to explain known phenomena, since that is precisely its job when introduced, even if it’s found out to have been done so unnecessarily.

    I admit, using a quotation to end my response was a little cliche. I should have used the quotation, but left out the citation, since the quote has value under my philosophy. I obviously believe the data we have at this time strongly contradicts your claim that these experiences are just in the brain. As I’m sure you’re aware, my several pages of data cannot do justice to the hundreds of books and articles that have been written in the area. Again, it seems that in order to formulate your opinion on what happens at death, one should read some books concerning what happens to those who die.

    Your last paragraph seems to be trying to force the dualist into hypothesizing about the nature of reality given dualism. If dualism is true, however, reality is going to be mysterious to an extent. I see no reason why dualism would necessitate the soul always existing. That being said, many NDE’rs say they feel a sense of homecoming upon embarking to the afterlife, so it may be the case. As to your other questions, I could take a stab, but I can’t offer any more than conjecture without knowing the mind of God.

  33. Hi, Pat-

    Unfortunately, I do not have the time to pursue this to its bitter end. Speaking of Mr. Greyson and OBE's, the first link I pulled up mentions what seems like a quite relevant experiment, and his mealy-mouthed response that just because OBEs can be caused by simple brain manipulations doesn't mean they are always caused that way, etc.. It is just the thing that someone backed into an uncomfortable corner might say.

    Let me remark on the use of the word "veridical". I usually use it sarcastically these days, since it has been thrown around so cavalierly on this blog. That label is one that a proponent should never use, since it presupposes exactly what you are trying to show. It is a poor rhetorical device. One can say.. evidence which I find compelling, or .. that seems strong to me.. etc. Or just expalin just what the observation was. It should be up to the listener/reviewer to determine veridicality or not. Someday I may find the propositions of NDE veridical.

    The psi issue is interesting and relates to this because, frankly, it is methodologically far more advanced than the NDE field. They do controlled experiments, with statistics, blinded trials, research institutes, etc.. and there is tons of "evidence". Yet what I believe is that it is all worthless. The volume of "evidence", numbers of books written, etc. has no relation to the truth of the proposition. One could hardly be an atheist otherwise(!).

    It is the quality that is critical. And the quality of the data and methods in the psi field, while formally very much patterned after "real" sciences, is of a much lower standard, either trying to dredge (nonexistent) statistical significance out of fairly conducted experiments, or allowing key loopholes in their methods to betray them at the outset. Much medical science is unfortunately conducted on similar terms, so this is not entirely confined to fringe science, sadly enough.

    A key point is that, unfortunate as it seems, an entire field can be tarred with a brush of distrust if its products have both been historically defective, and been remarkably un-fruitful in terms of follow-on research. Where are the graduate students who have gotten rich taking their psi skills to Las Vegas, for instance? I have to say that I view the NDE field with similar distrust.

    You have tried to state some of the NDE stories that are particularly compelling. The question is 1- whether the stories are truly accurately related and do no leave out key details, and 2- whether the story is indeed incompatible with materialism, given that the this is far and away the default theory over all these issues, and that truly contrary findings would need to be extraordinarily solid.

    ... cont ...

  34. "Witnessed by researchers live, not in a post-incident interview? I certainly feel like both of those add to the quality of the evidence. I also, obviously, will take offense to you assuming that the parties (the researchers themselves?) are biased."

    How can NDE be witnessed live? Doesn't the experience remain locked up with the subject until they divulge it later on? I very much believe that the NDE researchers are biased. One wouldn't otherwise be in the field. All researchers are biased to some (usually large) extent. The question is whether enough empirical meat exists in the field so that biased observers can still make a compelling case, or whether like analytical psychologists (to take potshots at yet another random field), they can just keep making up one story after the next. And whether these researchers have the training and integrity to frame these questions properly and accept the answers. It is a deep cultural issue as well as a technical one.

    Here is another research program. Now that we can generate OBE's with some regularity, we could arrange rooms with all sorts of hidden/raised compartments, and do blinded trials, with deaf or ear-plugged subjects, etc, and so forth to really dive into the question of whether the OBE allows any scintilla of "observation" from the external perspective. My admittedly vague sense of the field is that its researchers are going to be rather reluctant to do this, since the chances of definitive falsification are quite high, obviating their reason for existence.

    PS- Perhaps you could suggest one book which you find the best exposition of the NDE field.

  35. Burk,

    Just a few thoughts on your posts since this conversation seems to have run its course. I was hoping for dramatic conversion, but alas, I'll have to settle for this:

    "PS- Perhaps you could suggest one book which you find the best exposition of the NDE field."

    I think a good summary of related issues is done by Irreducible Mind [expecting comment about the negative reviews it gets by materialists. Could anything else be more obvious? (not your future comment, the negative reviews)]. Plus, the 800 pages should be a nice, quick read since you're short on time. No, but I'd say Dr. Long's 'Evidence of the Afterlife' is a good warm-up.

    "Unfortunately, I do not have the time to pursue this to its bitter end."

    Are you using the term 'bitter' in the cliched sense, or are you implying that the end of NDE studies will be a bitter one?

    "very much patterned after "real" sciences"


    "The question is 1- whether the stories are truly accurately related and do no leave out key details, and 2- whether the story is indeed incompatible with materialism"

    Yes - this is exactly the point. It's what we've been debating this entire time. There seems to be some need for you to rehash this every time you post.

    "How can NDE be witnessed live? Doesn't the experience remain locked up with the subject until they divulge it later on?"

    The section your commenting on was about veridical (or, perhaps I should say, as you pointed out, potentially-veridical) experiences. By this I mean at the time of the patients resuscitation, not the experience they are having itself.

    "obviating their reason for existence."

    As a pharmaceutical engineer, I certainly hope that if all current and future pharma projects are cancelled, I'd still have a reason for existence.

  36. Hi, Pat-

    Thanks for the book recommendation. Dr. Long's book is in my library and I will read it.

    As you say, we have reached a terminus without any real way to proceed without better information. On your side, you believe a pile of anecdotes which contradict far better-attested general theories, while I clearly don't have faith that the people conveying these anecdotes are giving us the full story, or are interpreting the actual observations correctly.

    I guess the only point I can productively make is that real research programs have sequelae and make progress. Electricity leads to lightning rods and batteries, fission leads to nuclear bombs, etc. Not all knowledge about the real word has practical applications, but it always leads to more questions and almost always to new ways answer them. If NDE is as true as you seem to think, it would have effects like I have suggested, with continued consciousness before and after our earthly life that has some discernable effect, as any number of hollywood and religious works describe. If the "life after death" just immediately winks out anyway or has no effect, then what is the point? Wouldn't it be a little bit of a letdown to be engulfed in a happy white light forever?

    1. Burk,

      “As you say, we have reached a terminus without any real way to proceed without better information. On your side, you believe a pile of anecdotes which contradict far better-attested general theories, while I clearly don't have faith that the people conveying these anecdotes are giving us the full story, or are interpreting the actual observations correctly.”

      Honestly, do you think this is fair? Is this the part of this discussion where we revert back to 5th grade ad-hominem tactics during recess? Can’t I just as easily say, “On your side, you are clearly too entrenched in your preconceived notions to give any contradictory evidence a chance, and will do everything in your power to continue your confirmation bias, while I clearly don’t have faith that the thrust of what the ‘majority of scientists believe’ are objectively judging all the evidence available.”

      “as any number of hollywood and religious works describe.”

      I’m at a loss for why Hollywood’s notion of what happens after death matters at all. Presumably because they use the NDE material? If so, it’s most likely in a superficial way, although I haven’t seen movies like Hereafter (?), if that’s what you’re referring to. As far as religious works – if the NDE’s paralleled exactly what was in the Bible, wouldn’t that just add more reason to believe a psychological cause was involved? As I mentioned before, it adds credibility that, while there are some basic similarities with the Biblical narrative (as far as I know it), most things contradict it, or are not mentioned, most importantly being (although this need not be a problem for all Christians, as our host here demonstrates), that one’s religion, or belief in God in general seems to have no effect on what people get in to ‘Heaven’ or not. Furthermore, the ‘justice’ described is nothing like is described in any religion at all.

      “Wouldn't it be a little bit of a letdown to be engulfed in a happy white light forever?”

      Well, from the sounds of it, no. But more importantly, it’s difficult to say what the entirety of the afterlife would be like, given that these people only see the very beginning. As some NDE’rs will say, there is clearly a boundary, where they understand that to pass that boundary is to die, permanently. All that these people experience is on the outside of that boundary – who can say what’s beyond? Typically, these people are given the choice of whether to return or not. Most will cite their family as reason to return. Some will be told their job isn’t finished yet. I realize this is mostly irrelevant to you, since you don’t believe their accounts are transcendent in any way, but perhaps some more background like this can be interesting on its own. So, to answer your question directly, I’m not sure if we’re going to be engulfed in a happy white light forever.

  37. Hi, Pat-

    Let me try out an evolutionary argument on you. If our minds were capable of extra-body sight, wouldn't this capability be a whole lot more useful in normal life than on one's deathbed? Wouldn't it be great to know what is around the corner, what people in a closed meeting are saying, or what predator was outside the door?

    It sure would, so it stands to (evolutionary) reason that such capabilities would surely be harnessed where such uses exist. Similar stories happen with other senses- electrical senses, magnetic senses, sonar ... all kinds of real senses have been developed, but always by normal material means, as far as we have been able to document.

    Similar rationales extend to other drug-induced mystical states, etc.. The mind may be capable of highly deranged and unusual impressions, but those states, while highly affective, are not typically "veridical" as you might say.. they do not model reality accurately. And for that reason, to that extent, they also do not point to any non-material super-mechanisms behind them.

    I guess you would say that this is somehow a property of the mind, that once trapped/linked into a body, it can't get out other than by death. (Or near-death, or OBE... the line seems rather curiously vague.) But that is one of those convenient escape hatches, rather than a compellingly natural/logical part of a dualist theory. The naive observer would suppose that the mind travels freely every night during sleep and should be having "veridical" experiences then as well.

  38. Hi Pat,

    To your point about scientists feeling threatened by dualism... this being the reason they don't accept the evidence, and so forth. I don't know about individual cases – humans will be humans – but I don't see this plays a lot.

    The point, I think, is that we know quite a lot (far from enough of course) about the brain, about how it evolved, about how consciousness is correlated with brain states, and so on. Not to mention about physics. The problem with dualism is that it contradicts (or at least calls into question) so much of what we know, what we really know because we've made so many experiments and we have so much hard evidence. It's not that dualism is rejected out of habit or principle – but, before throwing away much that we know, we'd better have pretty good evidence we need to. Just as in the case of these alleged faster-than-light neutrinos.

    What would be needed is a really foolproof experiment – very carefully designed with all necessary safeguards. Reproducible evidence. From what I gather, there is nothing like this for dualism – yet.

    Are scientists too picky in demanding that much? Are they calling for unreasonable standards? I don't think so: these are just the standards applicable throughout all science. And for a good reason: anything less has been shown not to work, not to be enough. This may slow things down somewhat but this is what makes the scientific process so reliable.

    There are just too many problems with dualism to require any less. If it were true, much of evolutionary theory would be affected. Burk has given an example, here's something else: if this soul is able to see and form memories, and so on, what would a large part of the brain evolve to serve the same needs? I've mentioned the interaction problem, but there is much more.

    Another problem here is this: there doesn't seem to be any theory of dualism (while the idea has been out there for thousand of years). It's just a word we use in place of an unknown. Suppose there is evidence of something that cannot be currently explained. To say, well, dualism explains it is saying nothing at all. What is the theory? What does dualism predict that we can test experimentally?

    How can memories be transferred between a soul and a brain? No problem, the dualist says, it just works this way. How can an immaterial soul intercept electromagnetic radiation (photons) and, without the help of the brain, convert all this into the very same mental images produced by the brain? No worries, it's just a problem under physicalism, or whatever. This is too easy.

  39. Hi Pat

    I very much agree with what JP says above, so won't repeat it.

    You do however ask what I would consider as a falsification of a materialistic theory of the brain. I think both the claims NDE enthusiasts point toward would do the trick, actually. If we could verify either that the mind is collecting experiences while the brain is completely inactive, or if we could verify the mind is collecting experiences to which the brain has no access (images only available from above, for example) then we would absolutely have cause to question the current materialist models of the brain.

    So, the question becomes, how we should set up such experiments? It seems clear to me that we have no such experiments yet, rather we have people recovering from near death experiments and reporting on what appear to them to be memories of compelling experiences. We know from experience that such reportage and interpretation is open to a range of explanations, and the danger is that the incurious choose simply to weave their own preferred narratives about their favoured world views. Science asks we do better than this, and design experiments where the interpretive wiggle room is minimised/eliminated (look at how much effort we went to track down the Higgs boson, it wasn't enough to accept how well it fitted existing models).

    To me it is striking how little information the wandering soul collects. Never tales from the future, never information gleaned from another city, just tales from the immediate environment, constrained in other words by the same time and space as the brain into which the memories are ultimately fed. Equally striking is that the out of body experiences appear to amount to little more than the very common feeling of disembodiment/floating that many of us have had while moving between waking and sleep. Add in, as JP notes, the complete lack of a model for how dualism would actually work, and yes, there's an awful amount of room for scepticism.

    I understand that many people with a strong prior commitment to an immaterial soul will enjoy constructing narratives about NDE's, and I've no objection to that, but for an agnostic like myself, requiring standards of scientific evidence seems appropriate. I'm interested in whether you have thought about how such experiments might be designed?


  40. Hi Bernard,

    One problem with these experiments you mention is what to make of the results. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that such an experiment observes transmission of information that positively cannot be explained by known mechanisms. Now what?

    Suppose the subject reports events/conversations that happened elsewhere. In this case, telepathy appears to be a much more reasonable hypothesis than a travelling soul (I’m conveniently ignoring a century of failed attempts at proving telepathy is real). Perhaps a dying or resuscitating brain could pickup thoughts from a person some distance away.

    Hidden targets might eliminate this possibility (if absolutely no one knows what they are, perhaps generated by computer). How could we explain a positive identification? Who knows, perhaps a brain can pickup stuff from a computer. Or, why not, precognition.

    Far-fetched, of course. But no more so than the idea of an immaterial thingy roaming about, having a position in space and time, a point of view and blessed with binocular vision.

    The point, of course, if that once we have passed that threshold, anything goes – we’re almost into magical territory and designing experiments that would allow us to steer rationally among all the possibilities seems quite difficult.

    I don’t expect experiments will turn out this way but, it they do, this would be fascinating to watch.

  41. JP,

    Thanks for responding. You allude to dualism contradicting so much of what we know. What are these things? I’ll continue to address how dualism fits into the objections you bring up.

    I think all three of you are answering ‘no’ to the question ‘Do we need a higher standard for certain phenomenon?’ However, all three of you also seem to be saying that ‘If a given phenomenon goes against established, or thought to be established theories, it does need a higher standard.’ Does this sound accurate? In the case of NDE’s, I would argue that dualism doesn’t contradict any piece of neuroscience, other than the philosophical add-on of materialism. It clearly makes us rethink certain theories currently held, but I don’t believe any piece of evidence will need to be discarded.
    You ask under evolutionary theory, why would a large part of the brain evolve to serve memory functioning. Dualists don’t deny the easy problem of consciousness cannot be answered, only the hard problem. In other words, there are clearly parts of the brain that correspond to certain mental states (even Descartes knew this). In the case of memory, a larger memory portion will allow a higher amount of memory to be recalled. I have no doubt there are problems with dualism. There are also many problems with materialism. The crucial point is how well each theory can answer the objections.

    Obviously there have been some theories of Dualism, Descartes for one. There are certain metaphysical assumptions inherent in Descartes’ view that would be changed (non-spatial). With Quantum Mechanics, there have been several dualistic theories of the mind, all utilizing the Copenhagen Interpretation. However, I think, your main problem is that dualism is sort of ‘giving up,’ so to speak. Science is stifled as a result. I can understand this, but there are aspects typically ascribed to dualism that can be tested. Consciousness surviving bodily death is only possible on dualism, so any evidence along those lines clearly helps dualism. It’s typically thought that any ESP, or remote viewing phenomenon would support dualism, but it’s unclear how exactly. Like you hint in your response to Bernard, dualism would open the floodgates to some ‘eerie supernaturalism’ (Dennett?).

    In your second post, you mention a century of failed attempts to prove telepathy. As I’ve admitted, I’m unfamiliar with the field, although I’m going to start digging deeper to see what the situation is. However, I do know that proponents of PSI say it’s been ‘100 years of sweeping positive results under the rug,’ or something along those lines. I have no idea who’s right, of course, which is why I want to check it out and determine for myself.

    “No worries, it's just a problem under physicalism, or whatever.”

    No, not quite. I really felt like I explained this well. Again – I’m not saying it’s not a problem, but merely that the entire argument, depending on how it’s formed, is very close to question begging.

    I’m sure you guys enjoy focusing on the problems of dualism, and for the most part, I’m happy to talk about those. But this all ignores the problems with physicalist theories. Just out of curiosity, in the hopes that perhaps we can start this branch of the discussion as well – where do you guys side on the Dilemma of Determinism? Compatibilist or Incompatibilist? Hard Determinist? Libertarian?

  42. Bernard,

    “…rather we have people recovering from near death experiments and reporting on what appear to them to be memories of compelling experiences. We know from experience that such reportage and interpretation is open to a range of explanations, and the danger is that the incurious choose simply to weave their own preferred narratives about their favoured world views.”

    I’m curious what you’d think of the following case:
    Another of these experiences happened to an elderly woman I was resuscitating. I was giving her closed heart massage on an emergency room examining table and the nurse assisting me ran into another room to get a vial of medication that we need. It was a glass-necked vial that you’re supposed to hold in a paper towel while breaking off the top so you don’t cut yourself. When the nurse returned, the neck was broken so I could use the medicine right away. When the old woman came to, she looked very sweetly at the nurse and said, “Honey, I saw what you did in that room, and you’re going to cut yourself doing that.” The nurse was shocked. She admitted that in her haste to open the medicine, she had broken the glass neck with her bare fingers. The woman told us that while we were resuscitating her, she had followed the nurse back to the room to watch what she was doing (The Light Beyond, p.19-20).

    Moody has several cases like this. The interesting part, in my opinion, is that Moody actually worked on these patients and witnessed them coming-to, which was followed by the revealing of information to a nurse standing in the room. Where would you say the error could come into this account? Clearly, Moody could simply be lying about how this happened. But there doesn’t seem to be any instance in this report where the patient could have overheard some information, and confused it for something they actually witnessed. I admit, it’s not as fail-proof as images on the tops of lights. But even then, I think, there’s always room for error. One could claim the doctors mentioned the image (although, I doubt they know). Or perhaps someone cleaned the top of the light, saw it, and mentioned it. At what point does the implausibility of the alternatives compel us to accept the account?

    Also, I’m a little confused by your second to last paragraph. Barring you fervently reading lots of NDE literature in the last several days, how could you make these assumptions? As to your first mention, several researchers have observed cases where the life review reveals aspects of the person’s future. It’s entertaining listening to the initial attempt to describe a piece of machinery that hadn’t been invented yet, only to realize later on what exactly it was. As far as information gleaned from another city, I’m not sure how that would fit into the NDE narrative at all. Indeed, if someone randomly visited Chicago upon dying, I think it would cast doubt on the NDE by breaking the consistent structure we see. Obviously, the NDE’rs themselves are very quick to point out that this experience was nothing like dreaming, hallucinating, or for that matter, any other experience they’ve had, which would include the transition from sleep to walking.

    It’s interesting how we both critique each other’s viewpoint as being unscientific. I think Dr. Parnia’s study is a good way to proceed, although, as I’ve mentioned, I’m unsure if the exact location of the image is going to produce results, given what the OBE’rs themselves tell us. Time will tell.

    (Burk, I’ll be responding to your post as well, just can’t right now)

  43. Hi Pat

    Thanks for this. You're right, I have no extensive knowledge of the NDE programme, and consider this conversation with you as something of a short cut. If I make a claim that is entirely inconsistent with the research, you'll doubtless draw my attention to it.

    What I'm interested in here is essentially the philosophy of science. How do we go about replacing one theory with another? And the short answer is, we do it through prediction. A new theory replaces an old by creating and verifying, through repeatable experiment, a prediction not made under the old theory.

    We insist upon repeatability not becuase we think researchers are dishonest, but because we know that all researchers are prone to error. Repeatability also allows us to produce a sense of statistical probability (see the Higgs boson example) where we can agree at what level 'unlikely to be coincidence' morphs into 'confidence we are seeing something significant'.

    So, the broken phial example has all sorts of obvious problems. How do we control for the possibility of verbal cues unconsciously given during questioning, of misremembering of interpreting responses, of aural information being passed during the procedure, pure coincidence (we tend to notice successes and ignore failures)etc? Remember, fortune tellers are extremely convincing until they are covertly filmed and analysed. (At the very least, filming of the interventions and subsequent interviews would be a start).

    If you are critiquing my position as non-scientific, I'm sorry but I've missed that. In what sense? Intuitively, it is easy to believe heavy objects fall to earth more quickly than light ones. The prediction made by this intuition is however easily overturned by experiment. This is the sort of verificaton your hypothesis needs. So again, what type of repeatable, controlled experiment do you have in mind? And why, in the absence of such evidence, is belief anything more than narrative?

    My problem with dualism is that I don't understand what you mean by it. Is it that thought exists independent of physical brain states? Could my mind feel hungry, even while my brain is having hunger signals repressed by a bout of food poisoning? If the food poisoning causes my lack of hunger, then the mind state is caused by the brain state. If not, then we are saying my mind is hungry, but I do not know it, which rather subverts what I thought we discussing with regards to mind. Perhaps you could expand upon what you understand the term dualism to mean.

    I too have a great problem with why a brain would need to evolve when a functioning brain exists. If it is to allow the capacity for memory to develop, the question becomes in what sense is a mind without memory a mind at all? (and note that according to NDEs memories form without the brain's help so this can't be right either).

    So, three questions: Again, what type of repeatable experiment would you like to see? What do you mean by dualism? What pressures lead to brain evolution if the mind can exist independently of a brain?


  44. Hi JP

    Yes, I think you are quite right. Experiments, should they ever be carried out, might cause us to doubt the current model of the brain. At this point, a new theory would need to be developed and judged on its own merits. Like you, I doubt dualism would get a start, just because I can't clearly see what it even means, let alone how one would go about establishing it. I'm hoping Pat can clarify this a little.


  45. Pat-

    1. Dualism seems to me quite at odds with what is otherwise known. For instance, memory is being increasingly pinned down as a physical brain function. Synapses store patterns of stimulation, which can, hologram-like, be read out again with related stimulation. What is the point of all this brain activity, if the "real" activity happens elsewhere? A conduit has a different design from a CPU+Disk+memory = computer. A net appliance, to pursue the analogy, as a different design from a stand-alone PC. The same goes for all the processing going on the brain, like the laborious steps of the visual pathway. What is the point?

    Similarly, one may ask, once the brain has done its bit, whatever that might be, and of which we find more and more, what is left for that "other" bit to be and do? Does it hold memories? Why and how? Does it do facial recognition? Why and how, if the brain already does so by known mechanistic pathways? Does it execute risk-reward calculations and get screwed up by cocaine? Etc. and so on. The field of brain science is moving inexorably against dualism in more and more explicit terms.

    You may not appreciate how far off-base you are here. It has customarily been easy and convenient for a liberal spirituality to insist that whatever mystical super-thing they need for their belief just "adds on" to known science and all is hunky dory. But if you look at it in detail, that is not the case here and rarely is elsewhere.

    2. As to standards, you are right to say that we are indicating that higher standards apply to amazingly paradigm-shattering science than to one's mundane newest-gene-for-baldness science. And the frustrating thing is that NDE and related fields are struggling to get to first base ... they have not demonstrated conclusively anything out of the ordinary yet (apologies to your sense of the evidence). If they had done so, they could have gone on to find out what this dual being is, what it eats, what it thinks, etc. etc... all the many questions one would have, and which would form the meat of a normal science in this area.

    Examples include meteorites, lightning, and nuclear radiation- phenomena that were disbelieved by contemporaries and/or thought supernatural, until key experiments got done and were then folded into normal science. That process is in its infancy for NDE, to put it charitably, and it is not the job of doubters to make the compelling case.

    3. Conversely to all this, I should point out that dualism and NDE and the whole lot can be accounted for on a material basis by way of faulty intuition. Our minds evolved to deal with external stimuli, keeping us alive, eating, etc. The sense of self and internal affairs is sorely lacking, because there is no evolutionary point. We have no idea how our minds work, and that is as it should be, for efficiency's sake. So it all seems magical and amazing, even disembodied & dual.

    Add in a few odd brain phenomena like the white light near death, (during the last brain wave, as the mice experienced in the link I posted), and acute semi-hallucinatory hearing ability as we sometimes experience in dreams, (though clearly not as acutely), and everything is pretty well explained, a few outlying anecdotes excepted. Both the intense desire to transcend death and the easy intution of dualism are understandable enough in these terms.

    4. To the nurse story, one of those outlying anecdotes, I find it intriguing. But it is conceivable to me that the patient heard what was going on in the other room and reconstructed a OBE to suit. I think that the issue of intensely acute hearing and OBE phenomena are really what are scientifically interesting here, and indeed worth more study, though the conditions are obviously difficult to control. I would focus on hypotheses that lead to more experimentation within a reasonable and practical paradigm, rather than running off to dualism, which is, as others note, sort of a blank slate.

  46. Hi Pat,

    In NDE, what we have is a lot of anecdotal evidence (of which you quote an example) indicating there may be something inexplicable going on. So, what's the next step?

    I don't think the question is whether physicalism/materialism is true or false. I don't find this question very useful: it is not really well defined and does not seem to lead to any more understanding (if we ever settle this, what then?)

    So, what should be the next step concerning NDE? I think it's obvious: verify by carefully designed controlled experiments what is actually going on; establish rigorously what phenomena are really happening and try to circumscribe exactly what we're facing. And then, continue with more targeted experiments. Given that the anecdotal evidence is allegedly so strong, shouldn't this be a simple matter? What is obvious should be simple to demonstrate.

    What is puzzling to me is to see proponents of dualism (or the like) reach their desired conclusion and then – full stop, “let's get on with our lives” they seem to say. Nothing more to understand. But shouldn't the confirmation of the existence of a phenomenon be the beginning of the process and not the end?

    You ask how dualism contradict what we know. Memories are stored in the brain, as Burk explains, but the soul is also said to build them. Emotions, also, are very much correlated with brain states but, I suppose, souls would also have them. Vision, we have discussed before, and this function is also duplicated in the soul – as well as hearing and, presumably, smell too (remarkably, these functions are exact duplicates). A soul has a position and does not float away in outer space: it acts as if it had momentum (to continue moving with, say, the operating room) and is affected by gravity (otherwise it would not follow the Earth orbit and fly away in a straight line). It interacts with matter (photons, sound waves, smells) but can pass through it easily (to move through walls).

    In other words the soul has much of the attributes and functions of a real brain/body – except it isn't. Instead, we have complete duplication (and synchronization) of functions and mechanisms. Moreover, it adds nothing new, doing nothing more than what a floating body could do.

    If this isn't odd, I wonder what it.

  47. Hi, Pat-

    I have read Jeffrey Long's book on NDE, and thank you for recommending it. Whatever view one takes of the matter, it is fascinating to read about. To know that people have such intensely positive experiences near death is at least very reassuring.

    Long is a very enthusiastic guide to the field and actively engaged in it. I agree that what he is getting from his interviewees is quite accurate.. i.e. people are not lying. That may be what you meant by veridical. But that is not the same thing as having the correct interpretation- i.e. that these episodes are necessarily portrayals of an afterlife.

    For instance, he presents world-wide consistency of the phenomenon as one form of "proof". Scientists rarely talk about proof anyhow, but this is not proof at all, if one pits the afterlife theory against an alternative where the brain generates the phenomena as some deep physiological response to imminent shutdown. Physiology like this would also be universal, more or less. It is not really a differentiating form of evidence.

    The family reunion "proof" is another odd one. He does not dwell on this, but apparently 4% of people met in the afterlife are not yet dead. This sort of goes against the idea of afterlife as we would typically understand it, yet would be consistent with a instinctive mechanism that dredges up memories and focuses on deceased relatives, but is only a tendency rather than a physical reality.

    Lastly, there was one muslim NDE experiencer who heard the universe shout "Allahu al Akbar!" I certainly hope that doesn't happen when I die! It is a sign that there are after all some culturally-specific elements to these experiences, which would be expected if they are instinctive constructions from our deepest unconscious.

    On the other hand, there are certainly enough uncanny and very weird reports, principally of OBEs with accurate observation, to make this phenomenon inexplicable by currently known means. So both sides of the debate are dealing with significant unknowns. On the supernatural side, the whole nature of the soul, the interaction problem, the point of this life after death, etc.. it is all a series of very difficult problems and unknowns.

    .. cont ..

  48. On the naturalist side, there is a profound lack of understanding of how the brain works. We still do not know how consciousness arises in the brain, nor how several alternate states of consciousness arise, like sleep, LSD, peyote, and others. The drug Ayahuasca is perhaps the closest to creating NDE-like experiences, from what I read. The ability of EEG to tell us comprehensively what the brain is doing is probably non-existent, though it clearly tracks some conventional forms of consciousness pretty closely. But a great deal of the brain (i.e. most) is out of reach of EEG, and the more we learn about the brain, the more of its activities are involved in repressing each other (e.g. the frontal cortex suppresses more habitual instinctive responses), so it is hard to conclude from a superficial EEG flatline that nothing else is going on- something that may feel subjectively extraordinarily profound.

    Indeed, many of Long's NDE subjects relate the sense of having the knowledge of everything opened up to them. This sensation happens in other drug and religious experiences as well, and frankly, the results are not impressive. One would think that such knowledge would have more practical fruits than we see. So this is one more sign that the experiences are akin to something the brain can cook up on its own.

    To me the overall problems on the supernaturalist side are substantially more severe than those on the materialist side. But all that aside, methodologically, the only practical way forward is via the naturalist / reductionist methods of delving deeper into the brain and figuring out what is going on and what it is capable of. If it is not capable of this form of flat-EEG consciousness, then your interpretation of NDE certainly gains ground. Likewise, gathering more NDE first person reports with as much of that extraordinary OBE observation would be very helpful as well. Long's database had several deaf subjects, none of whom seemed to have validated observations of this kind.