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.
Some epistemological considerations
A question that seems integral to this analysis is as follows: what are the conditions that rationally warrant belief in the deliverances of our epistemic/cognitive faculties? In other words, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a justified belief that one’s cognitive apparatuses are functioning properly and reliably? How do we know when, say, a perceptual experience is veridical or reliable?
A number of conditions can be adduced. First, in order for us to be justified in trusting the deliverances of any given faculty, it seems that we must be reasonably confident that there are no “defeaters” for the reliability of the faculty in question. There are two types of defeaters: undercutting and rebutting.
An undercutting defeater for the reliability of a faculty is something which, if true, would undercut or undermine the reliability (i.e. truth-tracking quality) of the faculty or a manifestation of that faculty. It essentially removes the justification we have for trusting in the faculty. In colloquial terms, it pulls the rug of justification out from under us. Once we have an undercutting defeater for a faculty, we have either a reduced/minimized justification for trusting in its deliverances, or are left wholly without justification for trusting in its reliability.
A second type of defeater is a rebutting defeater. A rebutting defeater for the reliability of a faculty is something which, if true, would positively establish that a faculty (or manifestation of a faculty) is not reliable (i.e. not truth-tracking). It essentially refutes or rebuts the claim that “this faculty (or, alternatively, this manifestation of a faculty) is reliable”. In other words, it shows that the faculty is unreliable. It does not merely remove our justification for thinking a given faculty is reliable, as in the case of an undercutting defeater; it positively reveals that the faculty in question is unreliable.
So, in asking whether any epistemic/cognitive faculty or any deliverance of a cognitive faculty is reliable, we must take into consideration the relevant defeaters that would, if true, undermine or rebut the reliability of the faculty in question. It seems to me that, in order to have justified belief in the deliverance(s) of a faculty, we must be reasonably confident that no undercutting or rebutting defeaters are present which would significantly reduce or eliminate its reliability.
A few technical distinctions
(1) A technical distinction can be made here between a faculty and any particular token deliverance of that faculty. We may have a generally reliable faculty F, for instance, but that does not necessarily translate into the automatic reliability of any specific token deliverance of F.
(2) A further, related technical distinction to be made is the difference between a faculty defeater and a token-deliverance defeater. A faculty defeater is something (some proposition, fact, or state of affairs) that, if true, would apply to the cognitive faculty qua faculty. In other words, this defeater would undermine or rebut the reliability of the entire faculty in question, applying to all of its deliverances. For instance, if moral nihilism were true, then that would seem to be a faculty defeater for our faculty known as our “moral sense” — that whereby we “sense” the rightness or wrongness (or goodness/badness) of an action or state of affairs. This is because such a defeater would apply to the faculty as a whole and not just some particular instance of the faculty’s operation.
On the other hand, a token-deliverance defeater is something that, if true, would undermine or rebut the reliability of a specific, particular, token instance of a faculty’s manifestation. For instance, the bursting of a major blood vessel in a person’s occipital lobe on August 1st (which, say, caused hallucinations, blurriness, and so on) would be a defeater for that person’s visual experiences on that day rather than casting doubt on the reliability of that person’s visual experience faculty as a whole.
(3) A final technical distinction is between a faculty’s metaphysical reliability and its epistemic reliability. A faculty’s metaphysical reliability refers to its objective, real-word, ontological status as generally aimed towards truth (truth-tracking) or not. This is subtly but importantly different from epistemic reliability. A faculty is epistemically reliable when we have good rational justification for believing its deliverances. A faculty is epistemically unreliable when we either lack reasons to believe/trust in its deliverances, or we have positive reasons to disbelieve its deliverances.
Epistemic reliability is really a function of our justified acceptances and knowledge, whereas metaphysical reliability is independent of our justified acceptances and refers instead to the actual, ontological status of our faculties. At least in principle, then, it seems that some faculty may be (say) epistemically unreliable yet metaphysically reliable. For instance, we may actually have reasons to think the faculty in question is unreliable or have no reasons to believe in its reliability, but unbeknownst to us the faculty is, in objective reality, directed towards truth. This distinction is important in our discussion of NDE’s because, as will be discussed below, we might conclude that the deliverances responsible for such experiences are epistemically unreliable even though they could (in principle) be metaphysically reliable.
So, we must keep in mind the primary consideration in the discussion above: in order to have justified belief in the deliverance(s) of a faculty, we must be reasonably confident that no undercutting or rebutting defeaters are present which would significantly reduce or eliminate its reliability.
We are now in a position to assess, at least in one respect, the evidential value of NDE’s. The question now becomes: can we be reasonably confident that no undercutting or rebutting defeaters are present in NDE’s which significantly reduce or eliminate their reliability? If not, then it seems their evidential value is significantly limited. In other words, if we lack such reasonable confidence, then NDE’s provide little evidence for the mind’s immateriality and/or the existence (and/or possibility) of an afterlife.
Consider, further, that if we could establish either epistemic or metaphysical unreliability, that would seem to suffice to entail the absence of such reasonable confidence. If we can establish that there is some objective state of affairs which renders such experiences unreliable, then ipso facto they provide little evidential value. This is the question of metaphysical reliability. On the other hand, if we can establish that we have no reason to believe their reliability or have positive reason(s) to disbelieve their reliability, then again we would find that they provide little evidential value. This is the question of epistemic reliability.
So, can we be reasonably confident that no undercutting or rebutting defeaters are present in NDE’s which significantly reduce or eliminate their reliability?
Here are some things to keep in mind when attempting to answer this question. I do not claim to know the following things with certainty. Nevertheless, they seem to be quite plausible suppositions:
- At times of death, it seems likely that people are generally under profound amounts of duress, fear, and anxiety. Further, under such profound duress, we have less reason to trust the deliverances of our cognitive faculties. It is known that extreme stress and anxiety have effects on perception, thinking processes, memory, and more.
- At times of death, there is a significant concoction of brain chemicals surging all throughout the brain. These are abnormal conditions that very likely impinge upon our cognitive faculties. From my limited research, the brain steps into a sort of “emergency mode,” and copious amounts of chemicals are released. Brain activity significantly increases. According to Science Alert, in 2013, researchers at the University of Michigan found that after clinical death occurred in rats, their brain activity actually flared, indicating electrical signatures of consciousness that exceeded levels found in the animals’ waking state. The same is observed in humans, from my limited research. The surge in brain activity at least gives us some reason to think that the cognitive faculties of people at or near their deaths are abnormal, and thus we at least seem to have some reason to be cautious when considering the deliverances of said abnormally functioning faculties.
- Often when people are at or near death, the cause of their death induces a great deal of pain. This is often accompanied by panicking and worrying over the uncertainty of survival and the uncertainty of what may or may not happen if the person were to die. The significant amount of pain, panic, and uncertainty could provide further reasons to lessen our trust in the deliverances of people’s faculties at or near their deaths.
Overall, from the above considerations, one could mount a decently plausible argument that there exist conditions which serve as defeaters for the reliability of the deliverances of the faculties responsible for NDE’s. Under such profound
(a) duress, pain, anxiety, stress, worry, uncertainty
(b) the nervous system’s surge of electrochemical activity, the neurophysiological processes on “emergency mode,” hypoxia (absence of oxygen), and the influx of copious amounts of chemicals like adrenaline,
the skeptic of the reliability of NDE’s seems to have clear reasons to think the deliverances of the cognitive faculties responsible for NDE’s have defeaters. We know that many of these conditions compromise the truth-directedness of our perceptual experiences, for example. They also alter our memory, our reason, and our emotions. Just as hallucinations resulting from abnormal conditions in the occipital lobe provide defeaters for believing in the token deliverances of the faculty of visual experience, so too would all of these conditions (so the argument goes) provide defeaters for believing in the deliverances of the faculty or faculties responsible for NDE’s (perhaps sense perception, emotion, and memory).
The argument, then, would be:
P1) During NDE’s, there exist conditions of extreme duress, pain, anxiety, and abnormal neurophysiological functioning.
P2) Conditions of extreme duress, pain, anxiety, and abnormal neurophysiological functioning provide good reasons to believe that the deliverances of cognitive faculties are not properly directed toward the truth (i.e. they are unreliable).
C1) Therefore, during NDE’s, there are good reasons to believe that the deliverances of cognitive faculties are not properly directed toward the truth (i.e. they are unreliable).
P3) If there are good reasons to believe that the deliverances of cognitive faculties F are unreliable, then F’s deliverances have little evidential value.
C2) Therefore, the deliverances in NDE’s have little evidential value.
Consideration of Objections
I shall number the objections, and each objection will contain brief discussion/commentary.
(1) It seems implausible that every person having a NDE also experiences such extreme duress, anxiety, and other conditions mentioned. Thus, the criticism that such conditions provide defeaters for NDE’s is itself limited in scope and doesn’t apply to all NDE’s.
I have not researched in depth the percentage of people who experience the conditions expressed in the argument. It does seem, however, that there are conditions which are common to all (namely, the surge of brain activity and abnormal physiological conditions in the nervous system and elsewhere).
(2) The presence of such conditions do not necessarily mean unreliable deliverances of the patient’s cognitive faculties. I have, for instance, unfortunately been affected in my life by anxiety issues. There have been times when I have experienced profound anxiety, panicking, etc. Moreover, during these times, there was likely a flurry of chemicals surging in my brain. Yet, this doesn’t mean that the deliverances of all my faculties at these times were unreliable. If I saw a green apple on the table while I was panicking, although my thoughts about it may be muddy it seems quite clear that I would still be wholly justified in believing that a green apple is on the table. The mere presence of conditions which may compromise reliability does not in and of itself compromise reliability. It only does so when the presence of such conditions actually provide a defeater for the deliverances of the faculty, which is a further question that needs to be answered (which is separate from the mere presence of conditions that could compromise reliability).
Nonetheless, the mere presence of defeaters, while not conclusively establishing unreliability, does seem to lower our confidence at least to a certain extent in the reliability of NDE’s.
Perhaps the skeptic could argue:
P1) We do not know whether or not the conditions of NDE’s provide defeaters for the reliability of NDE’s.
P2) If we do not know whether or not there are defeaters for a given deliverance of a faculty, then we do not know whether or not that deliverance is reliable.
C1) Therefore, we do not know whether NDE’s are reliable.
P3) If we do not know whether NDE’s are reliable, then they have little evidential value.
C2) Therefore, NDE’s have little evidential value.
This argument makes weaker (i.e. less amenable to criticism) claims than the first argument, and it also reaches a similar conclusion. In this respect, this argument has an advantage over the former. I shall finish this discussion here, however, and leave further investigation into this argument for a future time.
In the next post, I will examine considerations that the proponent of NDE veridicality/reliability may cite in favor of their position. Stay tuned!