Welcome to the final part of my Near Death Experience series! I recently had the privilege of providing my thoughts on the evidential value of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s) to philosopher Beth Seacord. After some fruitful email correspondence on the problem of evolutionary evil, she asked if I would be willing to give her some of my thoughts on NDE’s, as she will be writing a paper on their evidential value for the SCP Conference this upcoming April.
In this series of posts, I will provide my thoughts on the evidential value of near-death experiences that I shared with Dr. Seacord. In particular, I hope to focus on whether or not they are evidence for a disembodied, non-physical self and/or evidence for an afterlife.
The NDE dilemma
The vast majority of what has been said so far has resulted from me puzzling over and analyzing the evidential value of NDE’s. I have not read any articles (yet) on their evidential value. In a later portion of this document, however, I will give some thoughts from other philosophers surrounding NDE’s and their evidential value. I will continue, however, with my own analysis.
In a NDE, the mind either leaves the body or it does not.
If the mind does not leave the body in a NDE, then NDE’s don’t seem to provide good evidence for immateriality/disembodiment (since, then, the experience of being separate from the body is, by definition, non-veridical).
If the mind does leave the body in a NDE, then we seem to have an interesting problem concerning the “re-entering” back into the original body.
In traditional theological metaphysics, once the soul/mind is separated from the body, the person is dead. In other words, a substantial change has occurred. The body with no soul in it is categorically a different kind of thing than it was when it was ensouled. The body with no soul in it is, metaphysically, a completely different substance compared to when it was ensouled. The body becomes, when separated from the soul, just another ordinary material object among other material objects like trees, plants, and apples. In that sense, a body without a soul is categorically alike any other physical thing.
A question now arises: how does the mind “know” to enter the original body again? Why does it not re-enter any other physical thing, like an apple, or a tree, or a plant? After all, the body without a soul is not a human being anymore — it is categorically alike any other physical thing. What, then, explains why the mind re-enters that specific body rather than another physical thing, or rather than someone else’s body? That lifeless body is no longer “you” once your soul has been separated from it.
Perhaps it used to be a part of you, but once the soul has been separated from it, it is no longer you. It has undergone a substantial change. But if it is no longer you nor part of you, and is categorically alike any other physical substance, what explains the re-entrance into that same body? It may seem obvious that it should, but this seems like a mere prejudice; to stress the point, that body is no longer yours. It does not even seem to be “your body” anymore, for it has undergone a substantial change into a fundamentally and metaphysically different thing.
By “theory”, I just mean a hypothesis or explanation of a given set of data. In the case of NDE’s, the data involves the experiences, the reports of the experiences, and the neurophysiological knowledge we have obtained from the scientific study of NDE’s.
We can now ask: which hypothesis/theory better accounts for or explains the evidence concerning NDE’s: naturalistic explanation, or non-naturalistic explanation?
By “natural explanation,” I mean an explanation or hypothesis that cites the activity and/or existence of objects/processes that physicists, chemists, and biologists investigate. It would only involve mechanisms and objects regarded as “physical” or “material.”
By “non-natural explanation,” I mean an explanation or hypothesis that cites the activity, existence, or explanatory power of things not within the scope of the inquiries of physicist, chemist, or biologist. It would involve supernatural and/or non-physical/immaterial things. Note that a non-natural hypothesis or explanation will likely involve natural facts, but it is characterized by the use of one or more non-natural facts serving as explanations.
So, which hypothesis better accounts for the data: a naturalistic one, or a non-naturalistic one?
To answer this question, we need to take into account the commonly recognized theoretical virtues. A few most important ones are listed below:
(a) explanatory power: the breadth and depth of data that the hypothesis explains. How much of the data does the hypothesis explain? Does the theory predict the data? Is the data to be expected given the hypothesis? How much of the data does the theory explain? In how much detail/depth does the theory explain the things it applies to?
(b) simplicity: how many claims does the theory make? How many entities are postulated by the theory? How many types or categories of entities are postulated by the theory? How complex are the claims made by the theory? What are the theory’s ontological commitments? Does it multiply entities or processes beyond what is needed to fully account for the data?
(c) predictive power: does the theory make correct and/or useful predictions? Are the predictions verified? If so, how many and to what extent? Is the theory falsifiable? Under what conditions?
(d) coherence with established knowledge: does the theory fit well with what we justifiably believe to be true? Does it conflict with current scientific and/or philosophical knowledge? Are the mechanisms and/or entities proposed by the theory compatible with our present knowledge? Or do they conflict in some way with our established knowledge?
Let’s let the naturalistic hypothesis, NH, be the theory that NDE’s are ultimately explained in terms of physical, natural causes and events (most likely resulting from neural states). Let the non-naturalistic hypothesis, N-NH, be the theory that NDE’s are ultimately explained in terms of non-natural, non-physical entities, causes, and/or events. We can compare the two hypotheses based on the criteria listed above in (a)-(d).
(a) Explanatory power
One could argue that NH (and, more generally, physicalism) makes much more sense of a whole host of mental phenomena including NDE’s compared to N-NH (and, more generally, non-physicalism).
More specifically, NH better explains mind-brain dependence both generally and in the case of NDE’s.
Philosopher Paul Draper of Purdue University puts it this way: “Consciousness and personality are highly dependent on the brain. Nothing mental happens without something physical happening.”
Philosopher Michael Tooley cites the following five pieces of evidence:
(One) When an individual’s brain is directly stimulated and put into a certain physical state, this causes the person to have a corresponding experience.
(Two) Certain types of damage to the brain make it impossible for one to enjoy any mental states at all — either temporarily or permanently, depending on the nature of the damage.
(Three) Other injuries to the brain destroy various mental capacities. Which capacity is destroyed is tied directly to the particular region of the brain that was damaged.
(Four) The mental capacities possessed by animals of other species become increasingly complex and impressive as the brain becomes more complex.
(Five) In the case of individuals belonging to a single species, the development of mental capacities is correlated with the development of neuronal circuitry in the relevant regions of the brain.
One may argue that NH not only predicts these facts (in other words, these facts are expected under the hypothesis of NH), but NH also better explains them than the competing N-NH. And one may apply the same general line of argument to NDE’s. It seems plausible that NH better explains why NDE’s occur only when there is a surge of brain activity, why so few patients actually have NDE’s, why the NDE’s vary quite a bit in their content, and why NDE-like experiences can be artificially stimulated in laboratory settings via stimulation of certain brain regions.
For instance, when the brain experiences hypoxia (as happens to jet fighter pilots in centrifuges), feelings of euphoria, tunnel vision, hyper vividness, clarity, and hallucinations can result.
Drugs, such as ketamine, can induce NDE-like experiences. This is relevant because the brain contains naturally occurring agents which bind to the same receptors and could naturally produce the experience. When Dr. Olaf Blanke (from my very limited research) implanted electrodes in the brains of patients, he triggered supernatural-like and out-of-body-like experiences by stimulating the temporoparietal junction.
In addition, all else being equal, a hypothesis with a plausible mechanism as to why/how something occurs is to be preferred to a competing hypothesis that lacks a plausible mechanism. In the case of NDE’s, NH seems to have a plausible mechanism in terms of the neurophysiological goings-on in the brain, while N-NH seems to lack a mechanism by which the process occurs.
Moreover, all else being equal, it seems that the hypothesis which removes more mystery and spawns less mystery is to be preferred over competing hypotheses which do not remove mystery and/or spawn more mystery. In other words, it is a theoretical virtue to remove mystery as to why or how something occurs, while it is a theoretical vice to multiply mystery. One might apply this principle to N-NH in relation to the interaction problem, which multiplies mystery rather than reduces it. It seems mysterious how an immaterial thing could causally interact with and act upon something material.
While this is a problem facing dualism in general, it seems to cut against the theoretical value of N-NH as well.
(It is worth noting of course that it also seems mysterious how any material thing could have any experiences at all, let alone ones which feel like they are out of the body. In that sense, there is also mystery on NH).
Finally, NH seems to better explain an interesting fact about NDE’s found in Dr. Sam Parnia’s work. The following excerpt is from the research paper I linked earlier in the series:
“To assess the accuracy of claims of visual awareness (VA) during CA, each hospital installed between 50 and 100 shelves in areas where CA resuscitation was deemed likely to occur (e.g. emergency department, acute medical wards). Each shelf contained one image only visible from above the shelf(these were different and included a combination of nationalistic and religious symbols, people, animals, and major newspaper headlines). These images were installed to permit evaluation of VA claims described in prior accounts. These include the perception of being able to observe their own CA resuscitation from a vantage point above. It was postulated that should a large proportion of patients describe VA combined with the perception of being able to observe events from a vantage point above, the shelves could be used to potentially test the validity of such claims (as the images were only visible if looking down from the ceiling).”
Interestingly, though, none of the patients who reported floating above their bodies saw the images placed on the shelves. It seems that, regardless of the evidential weight of this fact, NH at least makes more sense of the data given that NH entails that the people do not actually float above their bodies.
Nonetheless, one may argue that N-NH much better explains the reports of patients feeling utterly detached from their bodies and experiencing the afterlife. One may claim that N-NH provides a simple, encompassing explanation: the reports are veridical rather than being an elaborate neurological hoax.
(b) With regard to simplicity, it seems that NH is simpler. First, NH has less ontological commitments (it is only committed to the physical brain, while N-NH posits both the physical brain and an immaterial mind). Furthermore, NH only posits one type of event/entity, whereas N-NH posits more than one type of event/entity (not only does it posit two types of entities (immaterial ones and material ones, but it also posits two types of realms, viz. our current lives and some form of immaterial afterlife).
But perhaps the N-NH proponent could say that it is actually simpler to believe that NDE’s are veridical compared to the alternative hypothesis (NH) which entails they are elaborate illusions concocted by our brains. Whether that seems plausible is up to you.
(c) N-NH seems unable to predict why only 9% have them, and also why the experiences vary quite a deal, while NH seemingly can explain these in terms of the sheer abnormality of the brain conditions which give rise to them and the laboratory induced experiences of a similar character.
(d) It certainly seems that NH coheres better with our overall scientific worldview increasingly being revealed by neuroscience. In particular, many of the things previously thought strange about the mind have succumbed to the inevitable march of neurophysiological explanation.
I also think that one may be able to apply Draper’s evidential argument from the success of naturalistic explanations to a new situation: NDE’s.
Draper’s argument can be stated informally as follows:
“If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most scientific theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, implausible, even on the assumption that theism is true. Such explanatory success is antecedently more likely on naturalism–which entails that all supernaturalistic explanations are false–than it is on theism. Thus the history of science is some evidence for naturalism and against theism.” (Jeff Lowder)
Applying this to NDE’s, we get:
The explanatory success of naturalistic neuroscientific theories is antecedently more likely on NH than it is on N-NH. In other words, NH coheres much better with our neuroscientific knowledge and, in general, the success of natural, physical, neuroscientific explanations, and this is something we would expect on an account like NH. By contrast, N-NH gives us little reason to expect such success given that N-NH posits immaterial events/entities that do not give any clear reason to expect there to be such triumphant successes of natural, physical explanations of mental phenomena.
A word of caution: it is nonetheless implausible that naturalism can better explain/cohere with our knowledge of the mind. For instance, in my view the hard problem of consciousness is difficult to square with naturalism.
Most generally, it seems that any naturalistic explanation is antecedently more likely to be true than any supernatural one, given the past success of natural explanations and failure of supernatural ones. This gives some defeasible inductive evidence to think NDE’s are not veridical.
Avenues for further analysis
Something interesting to think about: does the hypothesis of veridical NDE’s entail the possibility of reincarnation?
Another interesting thing to think about:
Suppose that someone’s soul genuinely leaves their body in a certain NDE. Suppose, further, that the doctors make an atom-by-atom identical copy of your physical body on the operating table, which they are able to do with a sufficiently futuristic gadget. There are now two physically identical bodies on the operating table. Which will you return to? What if the doctors destroyed the one you used to inhabit but yet the physically identical one persists? Would you re-enter that one? Or would you be permanently dead? And if you do enter this newly created body, is it still “you” in a robust sense after your NDE? Do you persist?
Also, one could mount a decently plausible empirical argument based on claims of NDEr’s that their experiences are veridical. For instance, from my very limited research, some NDErs were blind from birth but saw things in their NDE. I leave this for further thinking and inquiry.
If you want my personal view on their evidential value, I have to remain agnostic. While I find them fascinating, I think there are considerations favoring both the positive and negative position. I also have a tendency to place much more evidential weight to philosophical argumentation over personal, private experience. I will admit that this is somewhat of a prejudice, and perhaps it is not wholly justified. It stems from my ingrained dispositions, however.
Something also to think about is Martin Fischer’s paragraph:
“There is room to doubt that the subjects of near-death experiences really had these experiences at the time it seemed to them that they had them. … It is possible, and seems quite likely, that we will come to find out that our current methods for measuring brain activity are shallow, capturing only activity above a certain threshold. This raises the possibility that we may come to find out that our current methods are unable to capture all brain activity, or even all brain activity relevant to conscious experience. We may come to find out that some of those patients whom we thought had lost all brain function in fact had brains functioning at a level undetectable by our current methods” (Fischer).