In “Sprites and near death experiences” I argued that current study of NDEs is in the early stages of first-person reports analogous to the study of “sprites” (a rare meteorological phenomenon) which was initiated forty years ago with a growing collection of first-person reports.
Mike D replied:
I thought Sam Harris did a bang up job discussing the major problems with NDEs from the perspective of neuroscience:
First, Harris doesn’t represent “neuroscience”. He represents the perspective of a person who argues vigorously in the public square for a particular understanding of the universe (one consistent with his outspoken commitment to atheism). It is that perspective, not “neuroscience”, that Harris represents. And it is from that perspective that Harris interacts with the findings of neuroscience and other sciences.
This is a very important point because it is so very common for folks to equate “science” with their particular philosophical precommitments. But this is about the most unscientific thing one can do, for it prejudices scientific enquiry from the outset.
Before we take a brief look at Harris’ article, let’s put this in perspective by flipping around the context. As I noted, Harris is an outspoken defender of an atheistic worldview in the public square. Now imagine if a Christian theist responded to dozens of peer-reviewed research journal articles and scientific studies which seemed to support some atheistic friendly claim by linking to a short blog post from J.P. Moreland along with the comment:
I thought J.P. Moreland did a bang up job discussing the major problems with ___ from the perspective of neuroscience:
So-called skeptical free thinkers would fall over themselves howling at the appeal to a single blog post by a Christian in response to this comprehensive body of literature. And yet, this is precisely how Mike D is responding in the present case.
Now let’s turn to Harris’ article. I’ve included several quotes from the article for critical interaction:
“Unfortunately, these experiences vary across cultures, and no single feature is common to them all. One would think that if a nonphysical domain were truly being explored, some universal characteristics would stand out. Hindus and Christians would not substantially disagree—and one certainly wouldn’t expect the after-death state of South Indians to diverge from that of North Indians, as has been reported?”
So let’s see, the objection here is that NDEs can be dismissed because they lack common features. This claim shows that Harris hasn’t really looked at the literature because in fact worldwide NDEs do manifest common features.
This is also very poor reasoning. Let’s say that 20% of NDEs have common features. That could provide evidence that 80% are unreliable. Or it could provide evidence that, for various reasons, there is a distribution range of experience for those undergoing the phenomenon. Moreover, surely Harris is aware that different interpretive frameworks can result in different experiences and memories arising from very similar phenomena.
“It should also trouble NDE enthusiasts that only 10-20 percent of people who approach clinical death recall having any experience at all.”
Why should this trouble an NDE researcher? Talk about looking at the glass as half empty!
(Note, by the way, that Harris carefully chooses the word “enthusiast” to paint those who are sympathetic with NDEs as somehow overly emotional, not rationally motivated. This is a good example of the subtle use of language to marginalize a particular point of view.)
“the deepest problem with drawing sweeping conclusions from the NDE is that those who have had one and subsequently talked about it did not actually die.”
Um, yes. That’s why they’re called near death. Most important are the cases which provide veridical evidence of temporary disembodiment. And whether one was “near death” or not, that evidence must be dealt with. But note that this comment serves as a great tool to dismiss any NDE claim in principle because anybody who lives to tell an experience “didn’t actually die”. This is a shameless attempt to dismiss evidence by redrawing the boundaries of what constitutes evidence.
“Certain subjects even say that they have learned facts while traveling beyond their bodies that would otherwise have been impossible to know—for instance, a secret told by a dead relative, the truth of which was later confirmed. Of course, reports of this kind seem especially vulnerable to self-deception, if not conscious fraud.”
Note that Harris doesn’t make this claim on a case by case basis. Rather, in typical Humean fashion he casts a pall over all testimonial reports as likely attributable to “self-deception” or “conscious fraud”. This is particularly shameful in his ham-fisted characterization of the Pamela Reynolds case:
“The case also wasn’t published until several years after it occurred, and its author, Dr. Michael Sabom, is a born-again Christian who had been working for decades to substantiate the otherworldly significance of the NDE. The possibility that experimenter bias, witness tampering, and false memories intruded into this best-of-all-recorded cases is excruciatingly obvious.”
Of course it doesn’t matter when the case was officially “published”. What matters is the intimate proximity between the events and Reynold’s reporting of those events, along with their careful documentation.
Next, note that Harris dismisses Sabom as a researcher because he is “a born-again Christian”, thereby suggesting that we can dismiss all Sabom’s research cases as explicable in terms of one or more of the following: “experimenter bias, witness tampering, and false memories”. Never mind that Harris is the closest thing to a born-again atheist that you’re likely to find, a vigorous apologist who writes books and blogs and undertakes public debates defending his atheism. Never mind that this is a shameless ad hominem attack on Sabom. Apparently all that is excused because “Christian bad, atheist good”.
From there Harris writes:
“Even if true, such phenomena might suggest only that the human mind possesses powers of extrasensory perception (e.g. clairvoyance or telepathy).”
Yeah, sure, at the very least it would provide evidence for such powers. But why can’t Harris concede that it also provides evidence consistent with a substance dualist anthropology? Clearly the answer is: because he is determined to interpret any and all data in accord with his worldview commitments. This isn’t open-minded free thinking; it’s yet more lockstep reactionary ideology.