This is a guest post by J. Steve Miller, author of Near Death Experiences as Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven. In this paper Steve provides a very helpful overview of the current state of NDE research and the need for further philosophical reflection on it. My thanks to Steve for his willingness to share his paper with us.
For more from J. Steve Miller you can visit his website: www.jstevemiller.com
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Synopsis: While bestselling personal accounts (e.g., Harvard Neurologist Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven) have popularized the near-death experience (NDE) , many seem unaware of the significant data accumulated during 35 years of investigation by medical doctors and academics. This intriguing field of study might benefit from evaluation through the lenses of various disciplines, particularly that of philosophers. First, this paper introduces NDE research, noting its current extent. Second, it sums up some of the current findings of special interest to philosophers. Third, it suggests several specific areas of research where philosophers are uniquely qualified to contribute. Finally, it recommends resources for further study.
Raymond Moody, who coined the term “near-death experiences” and introduced them to the world through his bestselling 1975 book, Life After Life, was himself introduced to NDEs while studying philosophy as an honor student at the University of Virginia. He was fascinated with Plato’s story of the soldier Er returning from the dead with a story to tell.1 Later, Moody heard a respected Psychiatrist on campus, Dr. George Ritchie, tell of a similar trip to the other side during his own clinical death.2 For all Moody knew, Er and Ritchie shared a rare experience — a fascinating anomaly in an otherwise naturalistic world.
Years later, teaching philosophy at East Carolina University, one of Moody’s students suggested that they should discuss more interesting topics, like his own near-death experience after a car wreck. Moody suddenly wondered if these experiences were actually common — kept secret by experiencers’ fears that people would deem them crazy. Moody began to record people’s accounts on audio and proceeded to study for his second doctorate, this time in Psychiatry.3
Conceived in a philosophy department, near-death studies transferred with Moody into the arena of medicine, where they would mature for the next 35 years. Perhaps the time has come for philosophers to take a second look.
While recent accounts4 of near-death experiences have provoked a media frenzy and much public discussion, many thinkers don’t realize that over the past few decades, over 55 researchers or teams have published over 65 studies of over 3500 NDEs. In fact, over 900 articles on NDEs were published in scholarly literature prior to 2005, gracing the pages of such respected journals as Psychiatry, The Lancet, Critical Care Quarterly, The Journal for Near-Death Studies, American Journal of Psychiatry, British Journal of Psychology, and Resuscitation and Neurology. NDEs have been studied both retrospectively and prospectively by medical professionals in hospital settings.5
The Present State of Research
Literature reviews find the present state of research yielding many findings of interest to philosophers. For example:
· NDEs aren’t rare. Studies found four percent of the populations of Germany and the USA reporting that they had experienced one.6 Thus, it’s quite easy to interview NDErs, even among the researchers’ trusted circles of relationships, and do fresh research.7
· NDErs tend to keep their experiences to themselves, fearing that people will think they’re crazy. Unless they plan to publish a book, there’s scant motivation to invent tall tales.8
· NDErs believe they’ve experienced a real place outside their earthly bodies. They swear it’s not a dream or hallucination. Many describe it as “realer than real.”9
· Longitudinal studies find NDErs changing their lives over time as a result of their experiences, consistent with their stated belief that “it was real.” Their stories remain consistent over time.10
· Research is often conducted by scientific professionals who were originally skeptical of any paranormal claims. It’s not dominated by people who previously promoted New Age teachings or by theistic enthusiasts looking for data to bolster their claims.11
· While each NDE is unique, many common elements distinguish them from the random nature of dreams and hallucinations. People report leaving their bodies, talking with deceased relatives, reviewing their lives, going through tunnels, meeting a being of light, having conversations about whether or not to return — all taking place in a world where space and time seem to vanish and both learning and communication are greatly enhanced. Since many studies, particularly earlier studies, found NDErs to be typically unaware of NDEs prior to their experience, these common elements could hardly be attributed to common expectations or wish fulfillment.12
· Heightened consciousness is reported at times when current medical knowledge suggests that consciousness and memories should be impossible, if not severely compromised.13
· Naturalistic hypotheses advanced so far fall short in their explanatory power. Many of them have been tested and found wanting.14 Claims to the contrary by sensationalized articles appear to ignore decades of research.15
· They are equal opportunity experiences, reported by atheists and theists, Christians and Hindus, people in the East and West. The content of the NDE doesn’t seem to be significantly influenced by the person’s state of mind, religious expectations concerning the afterlife, their awareness of being close to death, etc.16
· Many researchers and NDErs claim that the afterlife experience can be corroborated by the accuracy of their out-of-body observations of their surgeries, by meeting dead people on the other side that they were not aware had died, or by learning things that were later corroborated.17
· People born blind report seeing during their NDEs. People born deaf report hearing. This data doesn’t seem to fit well with a naturalistic paradigm.18
This article doesn’t attempt to argue from the NDE experience to the existence of an afterlife or God, but rather suggests where philosophers could add to the discussion. Domination by medical professionals may limit insights due to the limited scope of medical science.
Where Philosophers May Contribute
1. Clarify imprecise language.
Neurologist Kevin Nelson accuses cardiologist Pim van Lommel of claiming that NDEs occurred while his patients were dead. Dead people, argues Nelson, don’t come back to life. Brain death by its very definition means that the brain is deteriorating beyond recovery.19
Yet, in the passage Nelson quoted, van Lommel actually claimed that his NDE patients were “clinically dead,” which in standard dictionaries refers to cessation of heartbeat and blood flow, not irreversible, final death. Thus, Nelson would seem to have equivocated on the word “dead,” using it in two different ways and thus invalidating his argument. Philosophers would likely recognize how imprecise language often convolutes NDE discussions.
2. Recognize when researchers’ paradigms may skew their conclusions.
As atheist Susan Blackmore suggests, we’re evaluating two competing hypotheses to explain NDEs — the afterlife hypothesis and the naturalistic dying brain hypothesis.20 Since each of the competing hypotheses are attached to diametrically opposed worldviews, we must consider the power of the paradigm to impact research.
For example, Blackmore prefaces her book on NDEs with this remark on the prospect of an afterlife:
“Of course, this comforting thought conflicts with science. Science tells us that death is the end….”21
So much for objectively sifting evidence.
Kevin Nelson delays showing his naturalistic colors till his epilogue:
“Under the guise of science, researchers have claimed that near-death and out-of-body experiences ‘prove’ that mind exists separate from the physical brain. Such a claim is the most extraordinary in all of science, surpassing even the dramatic assertion that other intelligent life exists in the Milky Way, our galaxy.”22
Such grandiose statements seem to betray a strongly-held worldview that can bias the handling of the evidence. (Then again, perhaps my own biases are impairing my objectivity in evaluating these naturalists!)
Thus, when Nelson compares the characteristics of fainters with the characteristics of NDErs, he finds “no real difference between the two types of experience.”23 Oh really? None of the fainters in the quoted study reported such common NDE elements as a life review, meeting a being of light, talking with deceased relatives, an impression of “realer than real,” distortions in time and space, approaching a border, a decision to return, ineffability, resulting life changes, etc. And even the similarities, upon closer inspection, differed remarkably. Sixty percent of the fainters heard “audible noise or voices.” But these voices “never contained intelligible speech.” In stark contrast, NDErs report clear, effortless communication on the other side.
To the present author, overstating the evidence for naturalistic explanations and summarily dismissing evidence for the supernatural can indicate captivity to a paradigm.24 Philosophers of science in particular could likely detect when allegiance to a paradigm might be adversely impacting the gathering and evaluation of data.
3. Assess the impact on students.
Philosophers teaching apologetics consider not only the strength of an argument in itself, but its power to persuade. It’s one thing to sway a person who’s yet undecided on an issue, quite another to find a line of inquiry so powerful that it breaks people out of long-held, entrenched paradigms. Reports from their patients destroyed the comfortable paradigms of such researchers as respected cardiologists van Lommel, Sabom and Rawlings.25 It’s not just the NDErs who change; those who study NDEs change.
“A survey of those studying NDEs on the university level found the students reporting increased compassion, increased self-worth, a stronger conviction of life after death, a strengthened view of God, a stronger spiritual orientation, and a stronger conviction of the purposefulness of life.”26
Neal Grossman taught philosophy at the University of Chicago for over 40 years and for the last 15 years incorporated NDE research into every class he taught. He reflected:
“The overwhelmingly positive reactions of my students to these data removed any lingering doubts I may have had about teaching this material…. It is not merely that my students found this material intrinsically fascinating and philosophically relevant. More importantly, this material has the power to change lives, and to change them for the better. Students—or at least those who find their way into philosophy courses—are searching for something that gives meaning and purpose to their lives. Reading about the NDE in some detail gives students—and myself—a sense of meaning and purpose; it gives them a framework that greatly helps them with the conduct of their lives, giving their lives direction and meaning that they did not have before.”27
Does the typical presentation of the Ontological argument yield such impact? Could exposing students to NDE research help philosophy professors more successfully engage their students and reach their class objectives?
4. Evaluate the type and quality of evidence being offered.
One medical researcher suggested that if NDE researchers wanted to be taken seriously, they should incorporate double-blind studies, like serious medical researchers. Yet, double-blind studies aren’t appropriate for testing all truth claims, such as the Big Bang. Even in the field of medicine, who’s ever done a double blind study to determine if open heart surgery is more effective than alternate therapies? What heart patient would possibly volunteer to have her chest cut open, not knowing if she would be in the group that actually had the bypass?
While doctors fancy themselves as being strictly scientific, they actually use many methods to gather data, including patient interviews, to determine a medicine’s effects. After surveying 1,000 patients to determine the efficacy of pain medicines, they don’t dismiss the evidence as “merely anecdotal.” Thus researchers need to do a better job clarifying the type evidence they are employing, perhaps evaluating personal testimony with methods used in our courts of law for distinguishing hearsay or anecdotes from solid testimonial evidence.28 Although Moody often deprecated the NDE evidence as mere anecdotes, this seemed to be more due to fancying himself as the ever questioning Socrates rather than objectively taking stock of the present state of the evidence.29
5. Does NDE evidence for the existence of God rely upon the classic “god of the gaps” fallacy?
Typically, philosophical umpires throw a “god of the gaps” flag when someone makes an unwarranted argument from ignorance, leaping from a scientifically baffling effect to a supernatural cause. But in the case of NDEs, the issue isn’t so much trying to determine the cause of the phenomenon. Both survivalists and naturalists look for naturalistic causes that might trigger the event, whether they consider anoxia, hypoxia or dopamine. But in the case of NDEs, discovering a naturalistic trigger wouldn’t necessarily explain the event.
Imagine we determine that when the heart stops beating and the brain is deprived of oxygen for precisely 15 seconds, every patient experiences an NDE. This discovery of an NDE trigger might say nothing about whether the trip to the other side was real or imaginary. Perhaps anoxia would be merely a natural trigger (as clinical death might be a more general natural trigger) that sends people to the other side.
Since sane NDErs claim to have experienced very real trips to the other side, the afterlife hypothesis can’t be dismissed as a random, unwarranted suggestion from overenthusiastic theists. If no overwhelming scientific evidence exists to rule out heaven and God, then shouldn’t the afterlife hypothesis be examined as one possible explanation for a phenomenon that typically includes both an afterlife and a personal being of light as primary elements of the experience? Any hypothesis must account for unusual data, if sufficiently confirmed, such as people born blind and having no visual memories reporting seeing, people born deaf reporting hearing, and many reporting veridical perception while their eyes are shut and their brains appear to be incapable of consciousness. This seems very different from a god of the gaps scenario.
6. Since some suggest that extraordinary claims should demand extraordinary evidence, could we ever have strong enough evidence to determine that it’s truly a supernatural event?
Ah, back to the classic arguments concerning the possibility of miracles and the difficulties inherent in proving an event to be miraculous. Yes, these come to bear in unraveling NDEs. And here again, we need the help of philosophers. Here are some preliminary observations.
If an NDE is deemed a miracle, it seems to differ in significant ways from classic miracles, perhaps sidestepping some of the attacks by David Hume and his followers. (I’m not suggesting that Hume’s arguments, when applied to classic miracles, are insurmountable. Many capable thinkers have challenged Hume on this issue, from Hume’s own day to the present.)30
Imagine that we transport Mr. Hume to today’s Netherlands. The stress of the journey provokes a heart attack, accompanied by an NDE. Upon recovering consciousness in the hospital, he reflects upon the NDE experience. Hume notes that it was certainly an empirical event — just as real, perhaps more real, than his earthly observations of leaves and animals. While clinically dead he heard sounds, observed beautiful landscapes, communicated with intelligent beings. Thus the experience wouldn’t seem to violate his famous empirical litmus test for truth:
“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”31
Hume talks through his experience with his cardiologist, Dr. Pim van Lommel.
Hume: “On the one hand, I know I was on the other side. While medical records report that my brain should have been incapable of consciousness or laying down memories, while my body lay flat on the bed with its eyes closed, I had the most vivid experience viewing my resuscitation procedure from above. I saw you working on me and heard your conversation with your assistants, the content of which I later confirmed with your assistants.”
“Thus I find myself in a quandary. For this experience seems to violate natural law, which is proven by the firm and unalterable experience of millions of people every day. As an empiricist, I should believe the firm and unalterable experience of the millions instead of my own experience. Yet I know that this event happened.”
van Lommel: “But you assume that you’re the only one to report such an experience. Actually, studies find four percent of Americans and Germans claiming to have had such an experience. Up to 20% of cardiac arrest patience report NDEs. This is a matter of medical record, a part of the ‘firm and unalterable experience’ of which you speak. NDEs have been studied prospectively in hospital settings by me, Dr. Penny Sartori, Dr. Michael Sabom, and others. They can’t be blithely dismissed like a random report of seeing the virgin Mary in a cloud. It’s an established part of humanity’s empirical experience.”
Hume: “That may justify my believing in my own experience. But others won’t believe my claim, for in their minds it would be highly more likely that I’m lying or deceived than for such an outlandish thing to have happened. They should dismiss the greater miracle — that I’ve experienced the other side, and believe the lesser miracle — that four percent of the population may be lying or deceived.”
van Lommel: “But which is truly the greater miracle? You have no strong evidence that such an afterlife doesn’t exist. Yet you have much strong evidence that brains shouldn’t function at this level during clinical death. We also have strong evidence that, with only the workings of their physical brains, people shouldn’t be able to observe their surgeries during clinical death while their eyes are closed, and that those born blind shouldn’t report seeing. If there’s no good reason for them to be lying, and they in fact have strong motives to not even report such experiences, the greater miracle, it would seem to me, is that they’re all involved in some grand conspiracy.”
This brief narrative doesn’t pretend to answer all the issues it brings up. It’s merely suggestive of the input philosophers could have comparing Hume’s “Of Miracles” with the data of near-death experience studies. It certainly impacts Hume’s claim that such unnatural events are reported almost exclusively among primitive people in unlearned cultures. NDEs are often experienced by respected scientists, studied in the context of modern, respected hospitals.
7. Does the common NDE report that it was “realer than real” have evidential value beyond the experiencer?
If I can be reasonably certain that if I were to have such an experience, I’d believe in the afterlife,32 why should I wait for my own personal NDE to believe? Considering all the background data we have on NDEs, would it not be prudent to believe in the afterlife, pending such an experience, much like we trust the experience of astronauts without having to visit the moon ourselves? After all, we have first-hand reports from experts on the brain, both psychiatrists and neurologists, who claim to have visited the other side in their NDEs.33
8. The NDE experience might reinforce other arguments.
If we decide that extant evidence supports NDErs’ minds indeed working independently of their brains, this reinforces other arguments for an independent mind, which should be of much interest to philosophers who study mind/brain issues. Since NDErs report living, active beings in a spiritual world on the other side, beings who respond to and interact with our present world, then it becomes quite possible, even likely, that we should see occasional miracles on our side, or that the being of light might have involved himself in the precise settings of the universe. This would seem to help shift the stringent burden of proof claimed by atheists, who argue for the assumption of atheism.
NDEs provide much data of interest to philosophers. This relatively new field has amassed a body of data that begs for evaluation by those whose training qualifies them to add to these discussions. I believe this field is ripe for philosophical input and encourage philosophers to help us explore this fascinating field.
An NDE Primer
Life After Life, Dr. Raymond Moody, 1975 – The seminal study that started it all.
Recollections of Death, Dr. Michael Sabom, 1982 – Emory University professor of cardiology heard of Moody’s work and didn’t believe its claims. His prospective study of his patients changed his mind.
Consciousness Beyond Life, Dr. Pim van Lommel, 2010 – A Dutch cardiologist found his materialist, reductionist scientism challenged as his patients reported hyper-consciousness outside their bodies while their brains should have been incapable of consciousness. His prospective and longitudinal study was reported in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet.
The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation, Ed. by Holden, Greyson, and James, 2009. Good summary of the academic research on NDEs up until about 2005. Extensive documentation directs readers to the most important research.
Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven, J. Steve Miller, 2012. A recent evaluation of the data in plain language, concentrating on the evidential value of the experience.
Journal of Near-Death Studies (formerly Anabiosis), peer-reviewed scholarly journal, currently in 30 volumes.
Near-Death Experiences: Index to the Periodical Literature, 1877 through 2005 – A searchable database of nearly 900 articles on NDEs published in English. http://iands.org/research/
1. Raymond Moody, Paranormal (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), pp. 47-50.
2. Ibid., 54ff. Dr. Ritchie published his experience in Return from Tomorrow (Waco, TX: Chosen Books, 1978).
3. Paranormal, opt. cit., 68ff.
4. Note particularly Heaven Is for Real and Proof of Heaven, both of which have dominated the NYT Bestsellers list.
5. J.M. Holden, B. Greyson, D. James, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2009), p. 7.
6. Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), p. 9. An Australian telephone survey of 673 people found nine percent claiming to have NDEs. M. Perera, et al., Prevalence of Near-Death Experiences in Australia, Journal of Near-Death Studies, 24 (2) (2005), 109-115.
7. When I began researching this topic, I let some relatives and friends know, who began to tell me about their NDEs or those within their circles of trust. Personally interviewing NDEers is quite a remarkable, impacting experience. I write a bit about this in Appendix 3 of my book Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven (Acworth, GA: Wisdom Creek Press, 2012), pp. 109ff.
8. Raymond Moody, Life After Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), pp. 85,89.
9. Ibid., pp. 65, 84. An NDEr told me, “It was real – as real as me sitting across from you and talking to you now. Nothing could ever convince me otherwise.”
10. Consciousness Beyond Life, opt. cit., p. 152. See also Michael Sabom, Light& Death (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), pp. 95-97.
11. Dr. Bruce Greyson, professor of Psychiatry & Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia, stated that “Most near-death researchers did not go into their investigations with a belief in mind-body separation, but came to that hypothesis based on what their research found.” Dr. Bruce Greyson, “Commentary on ‘Psycholophysical and Cultural Correlates Undermining a Survivalist Interpretation of Near-Death Experiences,'” p. 140, cited in Chris Carter, Science and the Near-Death Experience (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2010), p. 200.
12. “Experiences often run sharply counter to the individual’s specific religious or personal beliefs and expectations about death.” Greyson, Kelly and Kelly, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2009), p. 321.
13. In their literature review of explanatory models of NDEs, Greyson, Kelly and Kelly state, “The real challenge of explanatory models of NDEs lies in examining how complex consciousness, including thinking, sensory perception, and memory, can occur under conditions in which current physiological models of mind deem it impossible.” (The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, opt. cit., p. 234.) Pim van Lommel devotes two chapter to this issue in Consciousness Beyond Life, opt. cit. 14. Chris Carter devotes his entire book to evaluating the current state of research on naturalistic hypotheses. See Science and the Near-Death Experience (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2010). See also, for an excellent review of the literature on naturalistic explanations, Penny Sartori, The Near-Death Experiences of Hospitalized Intensive Care Patients (Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008, pp. 59-120) and The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, opt. cit., pp. 213-234.
15. For example, a Scientific American dramatically announced “Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations” (Sept. 12, 2001, p. 127). For a critique of this article, see J. Steve Miller, Near-Death Experiences As Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven (Acworth, GA: Wisdom Creek Press, 2012), pp. 105-108.
16.”For now, the best answer to the question, ‘Who has NDEs, how often, what kind, and with what aftereffects?’ is probably that NDEs appear, for the most part, to be equal opportunity transpersonal experiences.” “…research has not yet revealed a characteristic that either guarantees or prohibits the occurrence, incidence, nature, or aftereffects of an NDE. Perhaps the conclusion of research so far – that everyone is a potential NDEr – is the most mysterious, provocative, and important message for readers to take away.” (The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, opt. cit., p. 133.)
17. Janice Miner Holden documents over 100 cases of nonphysical veridical perception in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, opt. cit., p. 194, reprinted in Near-Death Experiences As Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven, opt. cit., p. 153.
18. See especially K. Ring and S. Cooper, Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind (Palo Alto, CA: Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, 2008).
19. Kevin Nelson, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain (New York: Dutton, 2011), p. 124.
20. Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live (New York: Prometheus Books, 1993), p. 3.
21. Ibid., p. xi.
22. The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain, opt. cit., p. 260.
24. For more on the power of paradigms, see the classic philosophy of science text, Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
25. Near-Death Experiences As Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven, opt. cit., p. 38.
26. Ibid., p. 151, sourcing The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, opt. cit., pp. 319,320.
27. Science and the Near-Death Experience, opt. cit., from the Foreword by Neal Grossman, p. xii.
28. Although many in medicine consider their practices based solely on scientific evidence, they can (and should) incorporate other forms of evidence, including legal evidence. See Donald W. Miller, Jr., Clifford G. Miller, On Evidence, Medical and Legal, Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Volume 10, Number 3, Fall (2005).
29. Paranormal, opt. cit., 243,244.
30. See, for example, John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument against Miracles (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
31. David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), section 12, part 3.
32. Five independent studies found belief in life after death increasing dramatically among NDErs. Consciousness Beyond Life, opt. cit., pp. 55,152. Sutherland found only 38 percent of his subjects believing in life after death before their experiences, increasing to 100% after their experiences. C. Sutherland, Transformed by the Light: Life after Near-Death Experiences (Sydney, Australia: Bantam Books, 1992).
33. For a respected University of Virginia psychiatrist reporting his NDE, see George C. Ritchie, Return from Tomorrow (Waco, TX: Chosen Books, 1978). For a respected Harvard neurologist reporting his NDE, see Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012).