Skepticism And NDEs

In my last blog entry, “Dualists Cling to Near Death” I approached the idea of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) as proof of dualistic hypothesis of mind rather skeptically. A claim such as “the brain is not adequate to completely produce mind” is currently beyond the scientific consensus and is therefore asserted without a solid foundation.

In doing so, I drew on the writings of Bryan Appleyard, where I levelled the accusation that he was a believer in dualism and the idea of conscious survival beyond death. Bryan wrote responded, and it is his response I will address now, in an effort to communicate my position as clearly as possible.

Bryan writes:

This is a bizarre account of my article. You do not seem to understand the difference between reporting a view and holding that view nor the obligation to give a balanced account of different opinions. You also don’t seem to be on top of the body-mind issue. Your scepticism is highly selective. Yours is the only wholly negative response to my article which is why I am commenting here.

Fair play Bryan. My entry was written on the fly and I probably burn’t the messenger in the process. The point I wanted to get across was more a criticism of the ideas of Mario Beauregard, and his unwavering committment to the idea that mainstream neuroscience has some materialist agenda. Bryan is a great writer and very funny. I encourage anyone reading this to visit his site –

I will address Bryan’s claim that “you do not seem to understand the difference between reporting a view and holding that view nor the obligation to give a balanced account of different opinions… Your scepticism is highly selective. This is a fair observation but the assumption here is that there are two or more sides to the issue and therefore both should be given a fair and even hearing. First of all, there is not two sides here in a scientific sense. The science unequivocally shows the mind can be currently explained in natural terms as the product of a biological brain. Too give equal weighting is to approach the issue with a bias… of giving speculation equal weighting as facts. Skepticism is by nature a selective process. True skepticism weighs up different opinions/positions and the evidence for/against them. The claims supported by evidence are granted more validity than those that aren’t. If claim/opinion is at odds with science then I’m not going to place it on an equal footing. I call this the “fair and balanced fallacy”.

In this way, dualism is comparable to creationism. The evolution versus creation/intelligent design conflict is an ideological conflict, not a scientific one. Science is absolutely settled in evolutionary biology – species evloved from simpler forms and natural selection is the main mechanism of this change. Sitting on the fence and saying creationsim deserves an equal platform to evolutionary biology would be as fallacious as giving dualism an equal footing in neuroscience. In giving the dualist/spiritual claims a balanced hearing, Bryan Appleyard makes all the noises of a believer, whether he is or not. There is no obligation to give claims an equal footing. Science is the courtroom where these claims are put under scrutiny fairly and objectively. Giving alternative claims an equal footing after the court case has established the facts is not being objective.

The similarities don’t end there. Creationists (dualists by nature) are now teaming up with dualist sympathisers such as neuroscientist Mario Beauregard. This is part of an organised attempt to “wedge” open science and academia to insert all kinds of untestable and implausible nonsense. It is no surprise that the next battleground between science and “intelligent design” is in the area of consciousness. This is a further attempt to plug an unknown (a gap) with a God explanation. This is, however an argument from ignorance. Despite this obvious logical flaw, creationists have forged on after losing the “gap” battle with the fossil record and the “irreducible compexity” argument.

Prominent UK scientist and author, Dr Susan Blackmore, made similar noises about giving weight to claims that go against science in this article, following a BBC documentary entitled The Day I Died. The documentary asserted that the brain has power to survive after death.

“It is dishonest to present a completely unworkable and mysterious theory as though it were real science, and to dress it up in the trappings of real science, as you did with Hameroff’s theory. It may be true that you “were very clear to point out that is not proven” but pointing out that it is not proven is not the same as pointing out that it (a) does not make sense (b) does not fit with lots of reliable evidence about the brain (c) is rejected utterly by most scientists and philosophers who know about it.”

Skeptics and science as a whole has been labelled as “materialist”. Scientists are said to cling to a “materialist paradigm” which they are somehow afraid of losing by admitting that “immaterial” causation is the answer to what science can’t currently explain. This is simply a semantic ploy, as I have noted earlier. Science is a naturalistic method. The abstract idea of “non-material” causation makes no sense given the universe we reside in. It is therefore outside the realm of science and what can be reliably known to human beings. The “materialist” charge is synonomous in many ways with “Darwinist” or “Evolutionist” which are used as dismissive terms that imply dogmatic belief in “Darwinism”. This is a total mischaracterisation of science – as if science and scientists have an agenda against certain beliefs. Science is completely a knowledge gathering field based on testing hypotheses. If learning more about the universe is a threat to people’s beliefs it is totally irrelevant to the scientific enterprise.

Finally, invoking quantum physics in an argument for paranormal phenomenon is very questionable indeed. Any study can only be one study and is by itself not confirmation of the existence of a new phenomenon, as a dualistic account would entail.


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