Near-death experiences as evidence for the afterlife

I stumbled onto a website yesterday called Skeptiko, which, despite the skeptical-sounding name, seemed more like a platform for people trumpeting the validity of near-death experiences (NDEs) as compelling evidence for the afterlife than a forum for the skeptical dissemination of scientific ideas. When I found the site, I stumbled on to the most recent post, in which Steve Novella, neurologist and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, is criticized for apparently missing the boat on the research on near-death experiences. The article is a long-winded and detailed critique of Novella's criticisms, and frankly I had no interest in reading it. I hadn't listened to podcast to which they were referring anyway.

But it got me thinking about how, as a skeptic, I ought to approach something like this. I'm a big believer in following the evidence. NDEs, to me, seem founded on specious premises – the very idea of mind/body dualism is something that has never been substantiated in any other field of research. Nonetheless, if the evidence indicates that there may be good reason to view NDEs as compelling evidence of the afterlife, shouldn't I care? I thought about it, and the following is the conclusion at which I arrived:

I'm not a neurologist. I'm not familiar with the research on NDEs, nor am I qualified to debate the science of such things. That's for people like Dr. Novella. NDEs as evidence of an afterlife is, at best, on the fringes of science, and it seems dubious to me for a number of reasons.

As I see it, the main problem is that all the "evidence" for NDEs seems to come mainly from the analysis of anecdotal claims about these experiences. Which is what we'd expect, I suppose – unless you're trying to recreate the 80's horror flick Flatliners, I'm not sure how you'd study NDEs in a truly scientific way. But the problem with anecdotal experiences – even those supported by eyewitness testimony – is that crucial information is often distorted or omitted. This leaves us with a precarious case of garbage in, garbage out. Further, upon perusing the Skeptiko website and reading some of their rebuttals to criticisms of NDEs, all of the rebuttals simply focus on dismissing scientific explanations for the phenomenon. Nowhere in the materials I read was any kind of working, testable alternative hypothesis proposed. The entire campaign is centered on an argument from ignorance fallacy – there's no immediately apparent rational explanation, therefor these must be actual experiences of disembodied souls in transition to an afterlife. This is also a fallacy of the false dilemma.

I'm not convinced there aren't perfectly rational explanations for NDEs, though I'll leave it to the scientific community to hold the debate over the evidence. These are people who are in an extreme state of stress – they are literally dying, saved from the brink by the power of modern medicine. I don't think that the anecdotal accounts of people in such traumatic circumstances, and those surrounding them in that dire moment, is a good foundation upon which to build a case for NDEs as scientific evidence for the afterlife. The mere proposition raises far more questions than it could possibly answer: What exactly is a disembodied soul? Where does it go? How much of our consciousness is retained in our disembodied souls? Can disembodied souls learn? Can they communicated with each other, or with us? What is this afterlife? What is it like? Is it eternal? Are we re-incarnated? And most importantly, how could any of these questions be studied scientifically?

Right now, I think there is only one reasonable conclusion: there is no evidence for mind/body dualism, nor is there any evidence for the existence of souls or an afterlife. I think that those espousing NDEs as compelling evidence have a long road ahead of them to build their case.

Comments

  1. I agree that anecdotal evidence is unconvincing and I also tend to discard arguments upon which it's based. Like you, I am skeptical that NDEs are anything more than neurological phenomena.

    But, I disagree with your sentiment that anything that cannot be measured scientifically is irrelevant, because it is a personal position, and not one that necessarily more logical. Were atoms irrelevant prior to the innovation of techniques to validate their existence? Possibly, contemporaries of the maverick thinker who boldly speculated that that matter is composed of atoms saw it as ridiculous and unscientific. I, personally, am no more a fan of this sort of rigid, conservative thinking than I am of rigid, crystallized religious dogma. A strict skeptical lens will be correct most of the time, but will most likely be wrong some of the time. Innovators have often dared to look beyond what is currently known and make speculations based on observable patterns. To argue that an idea is wrong or irrelevant because it cannot be verified is narrow-minded, as it is wrong to argue that such an idea is a veritable truth. The intellectually honest thinker says, "I don't know, but this is the way it seems to me."

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  2. Ehhh, I sort of agree with what you're saying, but I differ in an important way.

    It's one thing to suggest that something cannot *currently* be measured, but there is a theoretical basis for it that could at some point be experimentally verified. String theorists recognize that the theory can't yet be rigorously tested, but there is at least a hypothetical model on how it could be tested. And until it is, no one is going around asserting that string theory is anything more than an intriguing possibility. Until it *can* be empirically tested, it's of no use to us.

    That's distinct from appeals to "supernatural" events, which by their natural are purportedly "untestable". If it were testable, even theoretically, it's not supernatural. It's science. If someone is going to argue that a phenomenon has no impact on our world or ourselves that can be measured or independently verified, they're essentially just saying it doesn't actually do anything, and we can safely dismiss it as pseudoscience or superstition.

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  3. Noah, where did he say it was wrong or irrelevant? He simply said there isn't sufficient evidence to convince him one way or the other.

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  4. Andrew DoolittleMay 16, 2010 at 10:24 PM

    Hey, bro,

    Interesting post. I should preface what I'm saying by making clear that even if hard scientific evidence of mind/ body dualism develops via study of near-death experiences (and perhaps they're better referred to as "temporary death experiences", as the threshold for actual death as it's presently medically defined is, I believe, a flat EKG and flat EEG, conditions which are met in the studies of these experiences) that I agree with you that it's just the tip of the iceberg, and really a poor indicator of what an afterlife might really be like, both because I think one can reasonably suggest that final death is the precursor to the fullness of the afterlife, especially in light of the fact that a common feature of NDE's as folks self-report them is they don't enter into the fullness of the afterlife.
    That said, I do have to give some credit to guys like Dr. Sam Parnia, who are trying to explore this in a scientific way. The results of his three year, multi-site study should be out at the end of this year or the beginning of next, but he's talked about his methods a bit and some are really intriguing. For example, one thing he's done is to hang pictures facing the ceiling in trauma centers, the idea being that a patient in that room reporting the commonly reported sensation of floating above his own body should be able to see the pictures and identify them after the fact, despite the fact that he never physically saw them.
    Anyway, this in certainly a peripheral topic both for science and spirituality. While proof of mind/ body duality in the context of NDE's would be interesting, I don't think a lack of evidence would (or should) take anything away from people of faith. After all, if there is indeed both an afterlife and a creator who bestows that afterlife upon us despite keeping it veiled during our earthly lives, I'd also tend to assume He's probably competent enough to keep it hidden from us during "near death" experiences.

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  5. Bro,

    I mostly agree and get what you're saying, but there's an approach you have that doesn't sit well with me. It's inherently fallacious to make assumptions a priori, then try to find things consistent with those assumptions. You can always find something, and if something comes along that's inconsistent, it's easy to cook up some rationalization.

    Nobody's ever needed evidence for NDEs to believe in the afterlife. It's just something that seems like an intriguing possibility for science to offer a real, tangible insight into a long-held spiritual belief. If science can't do that, it's not going to crush anyone's faith because they can simply cook up some rationalization as to why it didn't work, which is exactly what you did.

    But that's the problem. What's the basis for assuming we have a soul which survives our bodily death in the first place? What's the basis for assuming there's an afterlife?

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  6. Hey, bro,
    Thanks for your response. I understand what you're saying about me cooking up a priori assumptions (despite the fact that I qualified them with "IF there is indeed..."), but I think there are a couple important things you need to consider:

    1) You're absolutely right that the outcome of something like Parnia's work would have no bearing on my beliefs about life after death. And you're correct in observing that I already distanced myself from the outcome of the studies (even before they've come in) when I mentioned my belief that NDEs, by their very definition, do not constitute actual death and therefore aren't overly relevant to the question of what happens when we die. Because I find these studies intriguing but not crucial in shaping my faith, you're off base in suggesting that I'm trying "to find things consistent with those assumptions". Further, if at the end of your post you're asking ME why I assume we have a soul and what my basis is for assuming there's an afterlife, those questions are hardly relevant to the research being discussed. This isn't a dodge, as I'm happy to delve into my beliefs, but in the interest of staying on the subject of the NDE studies...

    2) I think it's important for you to acknowledge that you're no more able to approach these studies from a neutral vantage point than I am. Any belief about life after death is (thus far) quite unfalsifiable, and given that our ability to peer into what happens during clinical death is new (or at least greatly expanded due to modern medicine), it's just as relevant to ask what basis you have for assuming we DON'T have a soul that survives bodily death. About the only thing you can say that it hasn't been proven. From there I'd point you to the anecdotal evidence of NDEs, which while certainly far from conclusive suggests that it's probably a phenomenon worthy of more research if we're seriously interested in better understanding the natural world.

    3) I think a more relevant consideration might be what a priori assumptions Parnia holds, but even then, it begs this question: What does it matter what motivates Parnia (or me, or you or anyone else) to inquire further into an aspect of the natural world? Sure, I'd agree that someone launching into a study with strong a priori assumptions may be MORE LIKELY to construct research poorly and to wrongly interpret the results, but ultimately if the studies are well constructed, replicable and verifiable, they contribute to the advancement of our understanding of the world, regardless of the researcher's feelings.

    Limiting the basis of our inquiry to only what we can understand or infer from the observable rather that what people dare to imagine or to take on faith would constitute a drastic dulling of our appetite for wonder. While I wouldn't endorse public funding into research based on fringe ideas, I'm all for, say, a privately funded study via satellite imaging into whether unicorns live on the surface of the sun; even if none are found (which a researcher with a priori assumptions, or a unicorn devotee might say means that they're just invisible to us) the data gathered may help us learn other important things. In short, neither our assumptions or Parnia's matter (in his case so long as the studies are conducted with integrity); the only thing that matters is what the research contributes to our collective knowledge.

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  7. Just to clarify real quickly, nothing I said in my response was directed at you. So when I say that it's a fallacy to make a priori assumptions and then attempt to find things consistent with them, I'm speaking in generalities. It's the fallacy of begging the question.

    Anyway, here's the problem with what you're arguing bro. The very phenomenon of so-called "near-death experiences", in order to be viewed as anything but the odd behavior of a brain in a severely distressed body, requires the a priori assumption of the existence of some sort of mind/body dualism. Sorry, but people having hallucinations in dire circumstances cannot in any reasonable capacity be construed as evidence – even anecdotal evidence – for any kind of supernatural phenomenon. To do so is begging the question.

    To answer your question about why I would assume that a soul does not exist, it's simple – because there is no evidence that it does. This isn't proof that a soul doesn't exist, of course, but skeptics do not bear a "burden of disproof". We all disbelieve in an infinite number of things that haven't been disproved.

    And finally, it doesn't matter what someones motives or biases are. The scientific method is designed to account for the fact that no individual can approach any subject free from bias. What matters is that people do good research.

    But, I think you misstep when you say that it would dull our appetite for wonder to limit our inquiry only to what is observable instead of including the things people "take on faith". To take something on faith is, by definition, to beg the question. I'm reminded of this quote from PZ Meyers, in discussing the accomodationalism of places like the Templeton Foundation:

    God is irrelevant. These guys always seem to use "science" as a word demarcating a very narrow field of endeavor involving white lab coats, test tubes, and strangely colored solutions, but it isn't. Science is simply a process for examining the world, and anyone can do it, even if you don't have a lab coat. If something has an effect or influence, you can try to examine it using the tools of science — so when someone announces that gods cannot be detected by observation or experiment, they are saying they don't matter and don't do anything, which is exactly what this atheist has been saying all along.

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  8. Hey, bro,
    Thanks for the response. I wish your site was set up to send me a notification when you post a reply. Anyway, a little further commentary:

    You said "Sorry, but people having hallucinations in dire circumstances cannot in any reasonable capacity be construed as evidence – even anecdotal evidence – for any kind of supernatural phenomenon." I would agree with you in part. True, hallucinations could not be construed as evidence. I'm curious, though, what your basis is for dismissing all NDEs as hallucinations. While I wouldn't be surprised if drugs administered or brain chemicals released during attempts to revive a patient caused hallucinations, I'd be surprised if drugs were uniformly administered among patients who experienced NDEs (as high as 18% of cardiac arrest survivors in some studies), and even more surprised if they resulted in the set of features common to the NDEs themselves. I mean, if we drugged twenty people from disparate places and cultures into sleep, would we expect them to all have similar dreams? That's my point - the sample size for NDEs is quite large, and yet they tend to bear numerous common traits. I think that alone elevates it to a level where it's worthy of more rigorous study.

    I would also agree that an atheist doesn't carry a "burden of disproof" (as you rightly state, there are tons of things we each believe that we haven't disproven), but my point is that in something like a rigorous study into NDEs, neither belief or disbelief in mind/ body dualism is either a crutch or a benefit (at least until the results come in). One who enters into such a study with a strong belief that the research will ratify their worldview faces a deconstructing of said worldview if the study fails to ratify their belief, but one who enters such a study disbelieving in mind/body dualism also faces an unraveling of their worldview if the study provides evidence to the contrary.

    Finally, I think you misunderstand what I mean by "taking something on faith". All I'm suggesting is that, in this day and age, I don't think it's unreasonable, where resources are available, to attempt to investigate fringe questions that aren't necessarily preceded by (and hence the next logical extension of) a vast body of research, so long as there's actually a falsifiable hypothesis involved.

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  9. FYI, you can subscribe to comments at the link below that says "subscribe by email". You'll be notified when someone comments on the post.


    Yes, I wholly agree with your last statement. There has to be a falsifiable hypothesis. The studies must be both valid and reliable, and must be duplicated by other researchers.

    But that's not really taking anything on faith is it? I mean, I suppose you could call it "faith" in some nebulous sense, like the way string theorists have "faith" that their theory will ultimately be demonstrated as true. But to defer to evidence in the form of a falsifiable hypothesis is quite a different thing from saying, "I have faith that God exists" or "I have faith that I have a soul."

    So basically I have no problem with someone suggesting that NDEs are evidence for the afterlife so long as they can construct a falsifiable hypothesis for doing so. But my objection in the original post is that those who are espousing NDEs as evidence are doing so simply through an argument from ignorance ("science can't fully explain it"). The notion of NDEs being evidence for souls or afterlives begs a litany of assumptions which must each be independently verified.

    Too many people seem to want to suggest that skeptics like myself shouldn't be so dismissive about these kinds of things. Well, sorry, but just because something isn't scientifically supported doesn't mean there's a 50/50 chance it will be and we should all be totally open-minded about it. The more assumptions a theory begs, the less apt I am to take it seriously.

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  10. Ahh, I think we've found a topic where we can largely agree. Yes, in this context I'm viewing "faith" more as an educated guess at the outcome. For example, Parnia's initial research into NDEs was into anecdotal cases. I believe that, based on those, he may be reasonably confident that his current studies may yield objective results affirming a mind-body dualism in NDEs. I don't think that anyone has elevated these studies to the point where they could reasonably be used as evidence of the afterlife, but I think you'd agree that valid, reliable, replicable evidence of mind-body dualism would be quite a significant discovery.

    And that, to me, is a cool thing about the era in which we live, and also a reason why it's worthwhile to explore such fringe areas now that we have the capacity to do so. I don't know if you ever read the NPR bit I sent you awhile back about "The Love Study", but I find it interesting (start reading under "The Love Study"):

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104351710

    Ordinarily I'd be very reluctant to give much heed to a study coming out of a place called "The Institute for Noetic Sciences", but I find it more compelling in light of the fact that "three dozen double blind, randomized studies by such institutions as the University of Washington and the University of Edinburgh have reported similar results". Whether it's ultimately attributable, as some have suggested, to quantum entanglement or some other quantifiable phenomenon, I'm inclined to believe that a growing body of such studies at least suggest that there's more to us (and perhaps much more to us) than flesh and blood.

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  11. We appear to be in agreement here. As for the study, I would say this is something that requires a lot more research. Her study was not performed double-blind, which is very serious methodological flaw, and she proposes a theory that cannot be tested to explain it. The other three studies weren't referenced, and searching through Google and Google Scholar turned up nothing. I call bullshit.

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  12. Whose study are you referring to? BBHaggerty didn't carry out the study yourself, so if she's the "her" you're referring to, I don't undertsand. And to what "theory that can't be tested" are you referring?

    I've been meaning to pick up her book, and hopefully it will contain citations for the "three dozen double blind, randomized studies by such institutions as the University of Washington and the University of Edinburgh..." to which she refers. If not, I'll e-mail her. If she then can't produce them, then I'll join you in dismissing the study.

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  13. Ah, I thought she conducted the study. But that's the one I was referring to. Her theory of using quantum entanglement to explain it can't be tested, and it's a dubious application of the phenomenon.

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  14. Oh, no, not at all. It was conducted by the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, CA.

    She's also not the one who theorized about using quantum entanglement to explain it. She mentions it in her piece, but only to provide differing viewpoints on it. Here it is from the original piece:


    So how do you explain this? No one really knows. But Radin and a few others think that a theory known as "quantum entanglement" may offer some clues.

    Here's how it works. Once two particles have interacted, if you separate them, even by miles, they behave as if they're still connected. So far, this has only been demonstrated on the subatomic level.

    But Radin wonders: Could people in close relationships — couples, siblings, parent and child — also be "entangled"? Not just emotionally, and psychologically — but also physically?

    "If it is true that entanglement actually persists, by means of which we don't understand," he says, "if they are physically entangled, you should be able to separate them, poke one, and see the other one flinch."

    This idea — that we may be connected at some molecular level — echoes the words of mystics down the ages. And it appeals to some scientists.

    But it infuriates others — like Columbia University's Sloan. The underlying idea is wrong, he says. Entanglement just doesn't work this way.

    "Physicists are very clear that the relationship is purely correlational and not causal," Sloan says. "There is nothing causal about quantum entanglement. It's good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out."

    Radin and others agree that that's what science says right now. But they say these findings eventually have to be explained somehow.

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  15. Lol... yeah, I looked up the institute on Wiki... woo galore.

    I did read the original article, so I'm familiar with the part you posted. When I said "her" I was thinking Marylin Schlitz, who did the "love study".

    I mean really, if it's valid research, it will spread, be duplicated and gain consensus. If it's woo like it almost certainly is, it'll be relegated as such.

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  16. I'm getting the impression you skimmed the article (and hey, there's so much to read out there I can hardly fault you.) Schlitz wasn't the one who proposed quantum entanglement as a possible explanation - that was Richard Sloan, professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, who earlier in the NPR article is commenting on whether prayer effects outcomes (he gives a pretty resounding no).

    Again, I'm curious to find out more about the "three dozen double blind, randomized studies..." mentioned in the article, and I'll report back to you once I have Haggerty's book in hand.

    While I'd certainly join you in being somewhat skeptical of anyplace called the "Institute of Noetic Sciences", I think that your "woo galore" comment is indicative of what I previously referred to as a dulling of your "appetite for wonder". After all, the folks at the Institute are clearly bright folks (one of the founders is an Apollo astronaut, and they clearly bring in very credentialed people). While one has every right to insist that their research be subject to rigorous critical review, I think a true appetite for wonder at least demands a "live and let live" attitude towards such research, if not a genuine interest in their lines of inquiry.

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  17. That's incorrect. QE was proposed by some Radin guy who works at the Institute. Sloan explicitly rejects quantum entanglement:

    But it infuriates others — like Columbia University's Sloan. The underlying idea is wrong, he says. Entanglement just doesn't work this way.

    "Physicists are very clear that the relationship is purely correlational and not causal," Sloan says. "There is nothing causal about quantum entanglement. It's good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out."



    To that end I think that last sentence summarizes what you think is a dulling of my appetite for wonder. I have a dull appetite for hocus-pocus woo that misuses science and adheres to dubious rationalizations.

    I mean look. Ideas about paranormal things, psychics, and much of the other hocus-pocus "researched" by the IoNS is stuff that's been repeatedly and consistently scientifically discredited for decades. Skepticism isn't about dismissing anything outright, but when people make extraordinary claims, we ought to expect them to have extraordinary evidence. And certain things like NDEs, psychics, the paranormal, etc., have a dubious scientific history that should give us good reason to be extra-skeptical about them. That's not dulling your appetite for wonder. That's being careful about what you eat.

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