Near Death Experiences (NDEs) are not reliable evidence of anything other than psychological phenomena that happens when the body is in a state near death. This hasn’t stopped people who are desparately seeking confirmatory evidence for the afterlife, dualism and religious claims, to cling to the idea that NDEs can somehow “disprove skeptics” and validate their own claims. The word skeptic is often derided and when it comes to NDEs this is no different. Skeptics, adhering to sound scientific practice and correct logic, do not have the luxury to make claims without good reason to do so. Given the nebulous nature of NDEs it takes a very large and fallacious logical leap to use them as evidence for paranormal phenomena. So skeptics justifiably remain unconvinced that the NDEs are somehow the continuation of the self beyond the physical function of the brain. The burden of proof from the claimants has not satisfactorily been met.
This does not mean NDEs should not be reseached but it is critical that any studies should be scientifically tight. That is – well controlled, peer reviewed and conclusions drawn within the constraints of logic. A lot of studies fail in one or all three of the above conditions, primarily because they are conducted to validate claims of dualism and by extension, the paranormal.
A recent piece in the Sunday Star Times by Bryan Appleyard highlighted one of the largest studies that will be performed on NDEs. The study, By Sam Parnia, will involve about 1500 cardiac arrest participants from 25 hospitals in the UK and US. The basic methodolgy of the study is to see whether the NDE stories of Out of Body Experiences (OBEs) are actually out of the body, or more plausibly, are these experiences simply animations of the mind.
Dualists – those who think the mind is somehow separate from the biological brain, are excited about the prospects of positive results from this study. This is in part because they claim that someone who is unconscious shouldn’t have such an active mind. Therefore, they reason, NDEs are evidence of the continuation of the self beyond death. There is no evidence for such a claim, and it represents someone looking for confirmation of a prior belief rather than representative of reality. The notion that the brain is somehow at flatline and therefore “dead” is also false. Neuroscientist Dr Steven Novella explains:
It has not been established that the brain is not sufficiently active to generate experiences. In all cases people survived the experience (by definition) to report what they remember. That means the brain did not go entirely without oxygen for very long or otherwise it would have been catastrophically damaged. During cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) the cardiac output is about 20-25% normal – enough to delay damage to tissues. So the brain is getting some oxygen. Not enough to be conscious, but enough to have some function – perhaps generate a dream-like hallucination or out-of-body experience.
The entire NDE phenomenon rests on memory and therefore anecdotal evidence – which is subject to all kinds of errors. Many of the stories of those who have NDEs aren’t coherent and it is impossible to determine whether the stories represent an experience while unconscious or are concocted from recollections beforehand. No compelling stories exist of an experience that could be used as evidence for the mind separating from the physical brain.
Still, Dr Parnia and colleagues have come up with a way to test it. Signs will be placed on the tops of shelves in emergency departments and patients will be asked after an NDE to determine whether they did actually leave their body and look down on the room. It has the hallmarks of a study doomed to fail. But it is worth a go, even if its plausibility is really damaged by a burgeoning neuroscience literature that confirms all the predictions that the mind is merely an animation of the biological brain.
Appleyard then invokes quantum physics to rescue his ailing argument that materialism is inadequate as an explanation. This is a favoured tactic of many a paranormal claimant and is a huge red flag for pseudoscience as Dr Gordon McCabe describes in this blog post. Here is his a sample of his analysis:
Appleyard even claims that “quantum non-locality could mean the mind is capable of being non-local to the brain, of floating to the ceiling of the room.” Quantum non-locality pertains to non-local interactions between particles separated over large distances, and entails no such possibility of separating the mind from the brain.
It seems Appleyard is a believer in the claims of dualists, as seen in another of his stories. He wrote a book review on The Spiritual Brain by dubious neuroscientist Mario Beauregard. He starts with the line “Neuroscience is a warzone”. It is important to point out that it is only a warzone in the same sense as creationism (which has the link of attempting to destroy “materialism”). That warzone is outside the realm of science – in the public sphere – not in science itself. The attacks on neuroscience are not within neuroscience in the real battlefield of peer review.
Appleyard then discusses two central claims in the review, as stated by Beuregard:
But the materialists have two problems. Their certainty of victory is, for the moment, a leap of faith. There is no clear scientific consensus on how the brain produces the higher functions we call being human. And, second, the great mystery, the ultimate hard question, remains: How does matter produce mind, how can it?
The first claim is bogus. It is a gap argument along the lines of “well, science can’t explain X therefore the current conclusion from science is false”. It is not a faith position to say the brain is material and the mind is dependent on this brain functioning. If the brain dies, then the mind dies with it. The current conclusions in science represent the predictions that flow from tested hypotheses. The claims in science is confined to the evidence. All the predictions stemming from the material brain hypothesis that have been tested confirm this hypothesis. The fact science can’t supply all the answers yet is not a reason to go out and invent theories of brain and mind that have not been proven and then accusing skeptics and scientists of being close-minded for not believing them. That is the faith position. Show us what you’ve got, really, if there is good reason to believe, beyond faith, that the material brain is insufficient to create mind then let us know. As yet the evidence has not surfaced.
How does matter produce mind? This seems to be the central problem by which Beuregard is puzzled and therefore uses as a springboard to suggest materialism is insufficient to explain the existence of mind. But this is simply an appeal to personal incredulity. Beauregard apparently stops the inquiry there and then disappears down the rabbit hole of dualism.
Warzone aside, the whole framing of “materialism” is mostly a semantic ploy. Science is a naturalistic outlook – observing that causation is a fundamental of the natural universe. Furthermore, claims to the supernatural lay outside of what can be tested – and therefore outside of what we can be certain of. Science is a methodological way of testing and accumulating knowledge is indifferent to whether something is material or immaterial. While science as a field is indifferent to results, individual scientists are human and likely be biased in some way. This is why some scientists will always be outsiders – they refuse to accept their conclusions are without foundation. Study replication and peer review tends to weed out scientists who are certain they are right when the studies show otherwise.
Unfortunately the whole dualistic argument is rife with inconsistencies – further reinforced by trying to argue quantum mechanics somehow supports it. It does nothing of the sort, but that doesn’t stop the scientifically illiterate from using it to explain why their brand of woo woo is not just an elaborate fantasy. It doesn’t take a brain scientist to uncover such trickery.