During my recent appearance on “Unbelievable” with Justin Brierley, the topic of NDEs (near death experiences) and OBEs (out of body experiences) became a significant point of discussion. Hemant Mehta expressed his incredulity to the NDE literature, even though he had clearly never examined it including, as I noted, several dozen major studies and hundreds of peer-reviewed academic papers.
The core of NDE research at this point is found in first person reports, many of which provide veridical evidence for temporary disembodiment and most of which conform to a set of core characteristics (helpfully outlined in Jeffrey Long’s book Evidence of the Afterlife). In that respect, I think it would be helpful for us to put the current state of the field in context. And I propose to do so by drawing an analogy with sprites.
Sprites? Yes, sprites.
(But don’t get too excited. I don’t mean fairy sprites.)
If we go back to the early 1970s several reports began to emerge from pilots, largely airline pilots with a few military pilots as well, who reported seeing what appeared to be lightning flashes appearing above thunderstorms and flashing more than 100 km up into the earth’s mesosphere. Scientists were duly skeptical because there was previously no known evidence of such a bizarre and extraordinary phenomenon. Some dismissed the reports outright. Others kept an open mind.
And over the years the testimonial reports began to accrue. Finally, in the last decade definitive evidence of this curious and rare phenomenon, which has since been dubbed a “sprite”, has emerged. Now sprites have been photographed, their structure is being studied, and we are slowly beginning to understand this extraordinary phenomenon of lightning that flashes up … way up.
I would propose that when it comes to studying and understanding NDEs and OBEs, we remain in the early 1970s. Of course, there are disanalogies. In one respect we are better off for the testimonial evidence we currently have for NDEs is vastly greater than the testimonial evidence for sprites in the early seventies. On the other hand, we are also worse off in the sense that the mind/brain problem, which one presumes is closely related to the study of these phenomena, is perhaps the most difficult and intractable problem known to science. Consequently, we can expect that progress here will be significantly slower.
All this would suggest that at the very least, we need to approach the testimonial evidence with an open and critical mind, not the dogmatic lack of imagination that so often stifles science with a prejudgment about how the world could possibly be. After all, can you imagine the incredulity of British naturalists when news started filtering back from Australia that an egg laying, duck billed mammal had been discovered?
And since I am always willing to end with an over-used quotation:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.