Welcome to part two 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.
Considerations in favor of NDE’s
I think the following defeasible epistemic principle is very plausible. Let’s call it Sensational:
Sensational: All else being equal, the sensation of X provides prima facie evidence for the proposition that X is true/exists.
This principle is defeasible. So, unless one has independent reasons to think X is false/non-existent and/or to think that the sense in question is unreliable, then one has prima facie reason to believe the deliverances of the sense.
This modest principle certainly seems true. All else being equal, when I sense something, I have at least some reason to think the object of my sense is existent (or, alternatively, true). The meaning of sense refers to more than just sense perception; it applies to intuitive sense, emotive sense, moral sense, rational sense, and so on.
So, for instance, the fact that I sense that a given state of affairs is morally evil provides at least prima facie, defeasible evidence that the state of affairs in question is, in fact, bad. The fact that I sense a table in front of me provides support for the proposition that there is, in fact, a table there.
A probabilistic, defeasible argument thus arises in favor of the claim that NDE’s have evidential value:
P1) All else being equal, the sensation of X provides prima facie evidence for the proposition that X is true/exists.
P2) A number of people have sensed disembodiment (i.e. a number of people have sensed the immateriality of their mind).
C1) Therefore, all else being equal, there is prima facie evidence for the proposition that the mind is immaterial.
Denying Sensational seems to be highly implausible, as it amounts to the claim that the sensation of something provides absolutely no evidence for the existence/truth of the thing in question. Among other things, this seems to entail a number of unpalatable skepticisms, most notable among which is perceptual skepticism.
Consideration of criticisms
(1) A problem one may level at Sensational is that it only applies to the subject who is the one with the sensation. The evidential value, then, really only seems to “accrue” to the subject who actually has the sensation. In other words, the principle largely or perhaps even exclusively applies only to the one with the experience. If this is true, then those of us who have not actually had NDE’s have little to no evidential support for the immateriality of the mind and/or the afterlife.
Of course, one can relay his or her experiences to another individual via testimony, but the testimony is limited since the phenomenon in question is inherently characterized by “private” or “privileged” access for the experiencer. This is yet another limitation for the evidence of NDE’s as a whole: they are inherently private, third-person, and not directly empirically verifiable except through verbal report and recall. These facts alone inspire caution when considering the value of NDE’s, especially given our highly fallible and largely constructed memories, cognitive biases like suggestibility bias, and so on.
(2) There are conditions which would, if true, provide defeaters for the defeasible principle, and one may plausibly argue that these defeaters are present for NDE’s (see the argument presented in part one).
A materialist who affirms that there are decisive reasons in favor of materialism would likely use a sort of Moorean shift against NDE’s:
P1) If NDE’s are veridical, then the mind is immaterial.
P2) But the mind is material.
C1) Therefore, NDE’s are not veridical.
This is similar to the substance dualist response to neuroscientific findings about the extreme dependence of the mental on physical brain processes. The dualist argues roughly as follows:
P1) The explanation of a posteriori correlation between physical brain states and mental states with the most (a) simplicity and (b) explanatory power entails the falsity of substance dualism.
P2) But substance dualism is true.
C1) Therefore, the best explanation of a posteriori correlation is false.
Of course, we can debate whether materialism is the best explanation for the intimate mind-brain dependence. The point, however, is simply illustrative: just as substance dualists can justifiably reject the abductive argument for materialism from a posteriori mind-brain correlation, identity theorists/materialists seemingly can justifiably reject NDEs.
Keep in mind, though, that both of these arguments can be employed only by someone with independent justification for his or her belief in materialism or dualism, respectively.
I offer this simply as something to think about in relation to NDE’s and their evidential value.
Considerations against NDE’s
First, many reports of NDE’s are incompatible with one another. While there are often similarities between accounts, there are also often incompatibilities. Some experience profound bliss, others experience great fear; some only experience a light, others see family members; some experience elements of their religion that are incompatible with the elements of other religions contained in other NDE’s; and so on.
Imagine we get together lots of people in a room and have them describe what they see above a red X marked at the center of the floor. Some say a table, some say a dresser, some say a bed, some say a person, and so on. The incompatibility between reports inspires skepticism about the reports. One could argue that the same applies to NDE’s.
We can also express this worry in terms of Bayesian epistemology. In constructing Bayesian arguments, the “probability” of some evidence on a hypothesis is the rational degree of expectation of that evidence given the hypothesis. In essence, the question is: Does the hypothesis predict the data? Do we expect the data given the hypothesis? Or is the data surprising given the hypothesis?
It seems that the hypothesis that NDE’s are veridical predicts (i.e. gives us a relatively high rational degree of expectation in) uniformity. In other words, the hypothesis that NDE’s are veridical gives us a reason to predict uniform/similar/common experiences and reports. By contrast, the existence of non-uniform and even contradictory reports would be unexpected given the hypothesis of NDE veridicality. But under the assumption of NDE non-veridicality, non-uniform and even contradictory reports are precisely what we would expect. It follows (by Bayesian lights) that non-uniformity provides evidence for the hypothesis that NDE’s are not veridical and against the hypothesis that NDE’s are veridical.
The reason we would expect or predict uniformity under the hypothesis of NDE2 veridicality is as follows. If there is an afterlife, it would plausibly be the same afterlife that each individual experiences. It would seem arbitrary, inexplicable, and needlessly complex to suppose that there are copious amounts of (types of) afterlifes. The “location” of the afterlife is, it seems, universal to each person’s post-mortem experience. This is supported by, for example, Christian doctrines.
And there does seem to be non-uniformity. One study writes:
“Among 2060 CA events, 140 survivors completed stage 1 interviews, while 101 of 140 patients completed stage 2 interviews. 46% had memories with 7 major cognitive themes: fear; animals/plants; bright light; violence/persecution; deja-vu; family; recalling events post-CA and 9% had NDEs, while 2% described awareness with explicit recall of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ actual events related to their resuscitation.
CA survivors commonly experience a broad range of cognitive themes, with 2% exhibiting full awareness. This supports other recent studies that have indicated consciousness may be present despite clinically undetectable consciousness…” (NDE Study)
The “broad range” of experiences and cognitive themes in NDE’s, then, seems to be evidence against the veridicality of NDE’s.
Moreover, the hypothesis of the veridicality of NDE’s seems to have a number of explanatory inadequacies. For instance, why do NDE’s only occur in 9% of patients, especially given the assumption that we all have immaterial souls? Furthermore, this is yet another instance of non-uniformity. Under the veridical hypothesis, wouldn’t we predict uniformity in numbers of people with NDE’s? And if there is no such uniformity, it seems we need some principled, non-arbitrary explanation or account as to why so few of the patients experience NDE’s.
Nonetheless, there does seem to be some evidence that people’s lives are genuinely impacted after their NDE’s, which seems to provide at least some evidence in favor of their veridicality. After all, upon recognizing something is a dream or hallucination, we rarely feel impelled to change our lives. This suggests that NDE’s are relevantly dissimilar to dreams or hallucinations.
NDE’s and other philosophical debates
One of the objections to the problem of divine hiddenness (or, alternatively, the problem of reasonable non-believers) is that, were God to make his existence sufficiently obvious to people, this would be freedom-compromising. In essence, the “hiddenness” of God is (partly or wholly) explained by the fact that, were God not to be hidden (i.e. were his existence sufficiently obvious), creatures would not be sufficiently free to reject his existence. Since freedom (especially freedom in relationships between persons) is such a great and valuable good, God would opt for hiddenness. God’s hiddenness also preserves freedom in moral choices. For instance, the following arguments are along these very lines:
“…suppose further that we could really reach as much certainty [of God] through this knowledge as we do in intuition. Then in this case all our morality would break down. In his every action, man would represent God to himself as a rewarder or avenger. This image would force itself involuntarily on his soul, and his hope for reward and fear of punishment would take the place of moral motives. Man would be virtuous out of sensuous impulses.” (Lectures on Philosophical Theology)
“Since history is man’s responsibility, one would … expect [God] … to hide, to be silent, while man is about his God-given task. Responsibility requires freedom, but God’s convincing presence would undermine the freedom of human decision. God hides in human responsibility and human freedom.” (Faith after the Holocaust)
“For if the moral environment contained… [overwhelming incentives for creatures to choose only good or only evil], the creature with the capacity to choose freely would be precluded from exercising that ability and thus blocked from engaging in the sort of soul-making that makes freedom (and the earthly life) valuable in the first place. The result of all this is that God must remain hidden to a certain extent to prevent precluding incentives from being introduced.” (“Deus Absconditus,” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays)
(As a related side note, one objection to the freedom-preserving defense of God’s hiddenness is that awareness of and obviousness of God did not coerce Satan, Adam, and Eve. After all, Adam and Eve even walked in the garden with God according to Genesis, while Satan was given the choice to act with God or rebel against him. God’s obviousness to these individuals (i.e. their awareness of him) did not compromise their freedom. And if that’s so, why would it compromise ours? This shall not be explored further here.)
How, though, do these considerations relate to NDE’s?
Suppose that some individuals are, in fact, afforded veridical near-death experiences involving an afterlife. This seems, however, quite a forceful instance of the sort of freedom-compromising situations that theists want to avoid. Surely an actual experience of being in an afterlife would be such as to compel (or at least significantly probabilify) belief in said afterlife. Surely this would make belief in the supernatural obvious in a way that defenders of divine hiddenness would find unpalatable. It seems, then, that there is a theistic objection to NDE’s:
P1) If an individual has a veridical NDE, then he or she is aware of the obviousness of God and/or the afterlife.
P2) If an individual is aware of the obviousness of God and/or the afterlife, then that individual’s freedom is compromised (per the defense of divine hiddenness).
C1) Therefore, if an individual has a veridical NDE, then that individual’s freedom is compromised.
Assume theism is true.
P3) If theism is true, then it is not the case that the individual’s freedom is compromised (since God would not compromise an individual’s freedom per the divine hiddenness defense).
C2) Therefore, it is not the case that the individual’s freedom is compromised.
C3) Therefore, the individual does not have a veridical NDE.
Per the above argument, there seems to be tension between the conjunction of theism and veridical NDE’s. Their joint truth seems to compromise freedom.
(1) This argument seems to rule out the possibility of miracles (i.e. it entails miracles are not possible), since miracles would also seem to compel belief in a similar way that NDE’s would. But this is not good news for the argument, since one may mount an argument from miracles in order to establish, via modus tollens, the unsoundness of the argument.
(2) This argument falsely assumes that NDE’s would, indeed, compromise freedom. If they did compromise freedom, then we would expect those who have NDE’s to almost automatically become staunch theists. But yet (to my knowledge), this is not observed. There still seems to be the possibility that a person freely rejects the truth of an afterlife despite their NDE.
Note, though, that the argument does not require that the person cannot freely reject the afterlife — it merely affirms that it makes it much harder for a person to disbelieve in it, thereby compromising freedom in way unpalatable to defenders of divine hiddenness.
Hume’s argument as applied to NDE’s
One of my friends suggested to me that we could apply Hume’s argument against miracles to NDE’s in order to conclude that veridical NDE’s are immensely improbable. I think applying Humean considerations to NDE’s certainly can be fruitful to explore their evidential value.
Hume’s argument was basically:
The proposition “the laws of nature were suspended/violated on occasion O” is vastly less probable than “on occasion O, the subject is mistaken in some way”. And if that’s the case, then, probably, on occasion O the subject is mistaken in some way. Therefore, probably, on occasion O the subject is mistaken in some way.
However, this argument seems only to apply to events occurring within the natural order. After all, the domain over which the laws of nature apply is only the natural order. So, if something is beyond or outside the natural order, then the Humean argument is categorically unable to provide evidence against the thing in question.
And that seems to be the case when discussing NDE’s. After all, the claim being evaluated is “NDE’s are veridical”. But the nature of NDE’s seems to be inherently non-natural, taking place in a disembodied realm or mode of existence, or some supernatural state of being (since they often have religious significance). And if that’s the case, then NDE’s fit the condition of being beyond the domain of the natural order, and thus the Humean argument seems categorically impotent here.
The final post in this series, part three, will be uploaded in due time. Be sure to stay tuned! Until then, have a lovely Christmas and happy holidays!
Questions? Ask away at NaturalisticallyInclined@gmail.com