Naturalism and the Beauty of Near-Death Experiences Replies to Commentators

John Martin Fischer

 

[Truncated version of the published piece; please see its“References” section for full citations]

I am very grateful for the thoughtful engagement with my work by all of the commentators.  NDEs are complex and multi-faceted phenomena, not easily studied (in part because their phenomenology is inaccessible to third parties), and thus it is not surprising that there would be significant disagreements among those who think about them.  I have learned a lot from my commentators, and I strongly believe that we all benefit from open-minded consideration of alternative perspectives and views.  Also, we should not lose sight of important points of agreement: we all hold that NDEs are real in a very robust sense, that they are beautiful and meaningful events from which we can learn much about living and dying, and that they are powerfully transformative.

Reply to Janice Miner Holden
and Marjorie Woollacott

     Near-death experiences and supernaturalism

H&W reject materialism, and they also reject dualism, opting instead for ‘evolutionary pan­entheism’. On this view, ‘all phenomena arise from the single source of consciousness that has coalesced to varying degrees, with physical phenomena being among the denser coalescences’ (p. 195). I find this view somewhat puzzling. What is it to be a ‘single source of con­sciousness’? This is presumably not a causal source. Is the idea that there is a ‘stuff’ out there (how else to name it?) that coalesces into ‘clumps’ (my word), which are physical objects? Or are there con­sciousness particles that coalesce into clumps?

What causes these coalescences, and what explains the causal relationships between them? Are the coalescences like clouds in the sky? We understand the causal mechanisms by which clouds form from moisture in the atmosphere, but what is the analogous explana­tion of the putative metaphysical coaelscences from conscious or proto-conscious stuff? Where exactly (or even roughly) is this ‘single source of consciousness’ and how do we know anything about it — its properties and behaviour, and, in particular, its causal interactions with the world? How can non-physical stuff/particles ‘coalesce’ into physical clumps? Or is the stuff/particles at the basic level physical (which would not support H&W’s explicit rejection of materialism/ physicalism)?

H&W resist the analogy between NDEs and dreams, although I was explicit that I do not take them to be similar in every respect. In fact, my only point was that just as dreams apparently take place as the brain ramps us to wakeful consciousness, NDEs may be like that too. I will discuss important research that supports this view below.

H&W criticize my interpretation of some of the leading NDE theorists, when I contend that many (although not all) believe that our failed attempts at physical explanations of the phenomena should lead us away from physicalism, and, more generally, recognizably scientific explanations. H&W suggest that these theorists are rejecting a particular scientific paradigm, not science itself. It is worth carefully thinking about the difference between adopting a radically new para­digm in science and abandoning science, and I will return to this below.

They contend that there is considerable (and perhaps decisive) evidence that the rich phenomenology of NDEs occurs when the entire brain, and not just the DMN, is offline. Thus, physicalism must be false in the sense that the brain is not the seat of consciousness. They write:

Woollacott and Shumway-Cook (2020) have joined a host of other neurocientifically-informed scholars in examining the evidence that during NDEs the entire brain is offline — and finding the evidence very convincing [they here cite ‘Broome, 2002’]. (p. 199)

I respectfully disagree that there is strong evidence to support the notion that we have experiences when ‘the entire brain is offline’. (Of course, they must mean to be referring to the parts of the brain that could support consciousness, as the brain must be functioning at least so as to oversee its ‘housekeeping functions’, such as metabolism). A significant problem with the ‘no-brain-functioning-at-all’ hypothesis is that no one has ruled it out that the NDE experiences occur as the brain is ramping up to wakeful consciousness (as in dreams, mentioned above).

Note that, in the quotation presented just above, H&W cite ‘Broome, 2002’, which is a BBC motion picture and not a scholarly reference that would add support to their claims. (The motion picture might describe or depict such research, but then what is it? Wouldn’t we need to study the research itself?) Further, they invoke an analysis by ‘Woollacott and Shumway-Cook (2020)’. In order to provide strong support for their view, however, there would need to be a sub­stantial body of research conducted by independent scientists, subject to rigorous critical examination, and published in the top peer-reviewed scientific journals. This would be, after all, one of the most remarkable scientific discoveries in the history of mankind.

Michael N. Marsh, an Oxford professor knowledgeable about both the neuroscience and metaphysics, has argued very persuasively that there is no convincing evidence of experiences when the entire (relevant parts of the) brain is offline. Marsh’s work is referred to by Komrosky, and I will return to it (and additional research) below.

H&W have some pointed criticisms of my methodology, and insist that if I had conducted my research ‘directly with NDErs’, or attended more carefully to the witnesses of NDEs or to the physicians at their bedsides, I would have seen the inadequacy of a ‘materialist world­view’. They contend that all ‘neuroanatomically-savvy, direct wit­nesses have concluded that materialist/physicalist/monist interpreta­tions of NDEs… are not adequate and that a dualist or panentheist perspective… accounts for all known data’. They write, ‘For us, witnesses have greater evidential authority than do armchair theorists [such as JMF, presumably]’ (p. 204).

This lively and provocative part of their commentary raises various points. First allow me to point out that many naturalists (who don’t believe in an afterlife) have near-death experiences, and many of them do not change their views about an afterlife. Further, various serious and thoughtful scientists and philosophers have had them, and they have not changed their views about the nature of reality (and the afterlife). A particularly famous example is the well-known, and fascinating, NDE of the famous British philoso­pher, A.J. Ayer (Ayer, 1988; 1990). He was struck by the awe-inspiring beauty of the experience, but he didn’t give up his atheism, his belief that there is no afterlife, or his view that reality is physical. (I will return to Ayer’s experience below.) To state that ‘to a person’ knowledgeable and savvy direct witnesses (including NDErs them­selves) have rejected physicalism is surely to go beyond the evidence.

Methodology is important, and we cannot resolve all of the issues here. Comprehensively understanding NDEs is not simply a matter of familiarizing oneself with the reports (in detail), or even meeting with those who have had NDEs and listening carefully to their sincere and passionate reports. These are all parts of grasping the significance of NDEs, but only parts. It is also of crucial importance to interpret these data — to figure out their meanings. This is not simply a matter of amassing reports; in general, data in any field of study are not helpful simply qua data, but they have to be interpreted, put in context, and analysed carefully.

NDErs report experiences as of souls departing from bodies and taking journeys to some heavenly realm. People are sincere in these beliefs, and they are very important to them. Should we take the reports at face value? We should indeed take the vast majority of them as sincere, and I do. They are, however, so different in detail that it is hard to see how we could suppose that they are all true. Similarly, should we take at face value all the very sincere, passionate religious believers throughout the world, and accept that their beliefs are all true? They are so different in detail that it is hard to see how we could. Sincerity and passion can certainly be recognized, and perhaps can uniquely be recognized in their nuances by direct contact with the individuals in question, but these qualities do not guarantee truth.

There are many sincere and strong believers in faith-healing and, specifically, the proposition that they have been healed in miraculous ways not explicable (even in principle) scientifically. Here I am not referring to the placebo effect, which is an established phenomenon. One can collate reports of these beliefs, and one can even get a unique perspective on them — their distinctive ‘flavour’ — through direct interviews and contact. It is still extremely important to interpret these reports and beliefs, put them in context, and analyse them carefully. Critical analysis is crucial to getting at the truth.

H&W write:

These witnesses [of NDEs] have come to believe — or, as many experi­encers have said, ‘to know’ — that an afterlife exists. Again, from an empirical perspective, belief in an afterlife is supported not by results of research on NDEs alone but by a convergence of evidence from a variety of empirically established phenomena that, we believe, cannot be credibly dismissed… (p. 204)

I think (although I am not sure) that the additional ‘empirical’ evidence to which they are referring (although not explicitly) pertains to a range of paranormal phenomena, including putative communica­tion with the dead, alleged evidence of past lives, and so forth.

Respectfully, I do not believe that there is any ‘empirical’ evidence (including of putatively paranormal phenomena) of an afterlife. I don’t see how there could be. Death (as opposed to dying) is Hamlet’s ‘undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’. We simply do not have evidence, and we definitely cannot know, that there is an afterlife simply by having or witnessing an NDE. It is moreover somewhat unclear to me what it is to ‘witness’ an NDE. Is it to be in the hospital room when one is having an NDE? How does one know that the individual is having an NDE, and with certain specific contents? Do you ‘witness’ a dream by being at the bedside of some­one who is dreaming? Many people passionately believe they have been healed by a spiritual intervention, and many who have ‘witnessed’ faith-healing (at church services or other contexts) are convinced of the reality of this phenomenon. None of this necessarily makes the beliefs true.

     Reply to Robert G. Mays and Suzanne B. Mays

      The mind entity hypothesis

The metaphysics (and accompanying putative explanation of NDEs) offered by M&M can be crystallized as follows:

…The mind or ‘essence’ of a person is an objective, autonomous entity, a non-material ‘field of consciousness’, that interacts energetically with the brain’s neural electrical activity to mediate all cognitive faculties. (‘Non-material’ here means not consisting of material particles or atoms, and a ‘field’ in this sense is a region of space that has specific properties.) [Note here that ‘non-material’ is defined in terms of ‘material’, which in turn is never defined by M&M. We thus do not seem to have a helpful definition of either concept.]

The mind entity is the seat of consciousness of the person, the subject in which phenomenal experience occurs. All cognitive faculties — per­ception, thinking, feelings, volition, memory, and self-awareness — reside in the non-material mind, not in the brain. In ordinary in-body consciousness, neural electrical interaction between the brain and the mind is required for phenomenal experience and consciousness. The mind ordinarily is completely dependent on the brain’s neural activity for consciousness. However, in an NDE, a person’s mind entity can separate from and operate independent of the brain and body. (M&M, p. 226)

M&M go on to posit a specific way in which the immaterial ‘mind entity’ interacts with the brain in order to produce consciousness. They write, ‘We propose that the mind interfaces with neocortical apical dendrites — including in cortical sulci — in two ways’ (ibid., p. 231). They specify this putative ‘interface’ in more detail, and its effects on the brain. This is reminiscent of Descartes’ famous con­tention in the seventeenth century that the mind interacts with the body specifically in the pineal gland. M&M give more neurological details, and they present the view in scientific terminology, but this doesn’t in my opinion make their interactionist thesis any more accessible to empirical study than that of Descartes.

     Evidence

What kind of empirical evidence do we have of the nature and behaviour of the ‘mind entity’, which, as far as I can tell, is relevantly similar to the soul (without specifically religious features)? How do M&M know exactly where and how the causal interactions take place? Let’s say there is certain activity in a particular area of the brain (as posited by M&M). How do we know that this is caused by (or involves in some way) an episodic coextensive occupation of the brain by a non-material entity? Isn’t it a simpler, better explanation to suppose that the brain does not need the intervention of an empirically unverifiable entity/soul in order to produce consciousness? Isn’t it — to use that term — ad hoc to posit that, in ordinary human contexts, consciousness is generated by the brain working together with the mind entity, but in NDEs these two come apart and the brain drops out? In doing science, and metaphysics, we are aiming for the best explana­tion. Other things equal, and as emphasized by M&M them­selves, we want a simple, non-ad hoc explanation, not involving empirically undedectable entities episodically intervening in our physical world. M&M write:

The mind entity theory holds that a non-material mind is an extended three-dimensional object in physical space-time which can merge coextensively and pair with a specific physical brain and body. The mind and brain are located in intimate spatial relation to one another and exert direct causal interaction with each other. (M&M, p. 232)

This does not add clarity. If the entity in question is a three-dimensional object in physical space-time that can interact with objects in space-time, why can’t it be empirically detected? It is puzzling that it supposedly ‘merges coextensively’ with a human brain and body. M&M hold that this mind entity is non-material but exists in physical space-time; given the widely-accepted causal closure of the physical, the mind entity must be physical. One wonders then what the definition of ‘material’ is, which (as noted above) they do not offer. What is it to be physical but not material? Obviously, one cannot helpfully offer that this is to be physical but not made of material stuff. Here ‘material’ seems to be functioning as a metaphor for ‘solid’, but, as such, it needs to be explicated. As I wondered above, doesn’t it seem ad hoc, or at least mysterious, how the envisaged mind entity can stand alone in NDEs (and perhaps other paranormal experiences?), but not in ‘ordinary’ conscious experiences? What triggers this episodic and selective com­bination of mind entity and brain? To explain it differently, in my opinion one of the questionable aspects of M&M’s position is why the brain is necessary at all if the mind entity can create experience in isolation during NDEs — i.e. why does the mind entity require the brain at all if the mind entity can still experience percepts and qualia during NDEs without the input of the brain? What does the brain ‘bring to the table’ in normal waking consciousness that isn’t accessi­ble during NDEs?

  1. Reply to Joseph Komrosky

    The more objective side of evidence for NDEs with OBEs

Professor Komrosky’s (K’s) main critical point is that I fail to attend to important data: cases of purported or apparently non-physical veridical perceptions (AVPs). He points out, as I do, that there are basically two kinds of NDEs, as regards their epistemic status. Some are such that the reported contents cannot be independently fact-checked and verified, whereas others’ contents can (at least in principle) be so verified. K worries that I give too much critical attention to the first kind, and I under-value the latter.

The key question, as I pointed out above in my reply to H&W, is not whether the contents of these (second kind of) experiences are independently confirmed as veridical (accurate or true). Rather, it is whether their apparently non-physical epistemic status is actually non-physical. We can miss this point because of the potentially mis­leading acronym, ‘AVP’. It can seem to stand for ‘apparently veridical perception’. In this case all that would be necessary would be to verify the truth of the contents. I suppose it was easier to employ ‘AVP’ than ‘ANPVP’, but the latter is more accurate: apparently non-physical veridical perception. In this case what needs to be verified is not just the contents, but their non-physical acquisition. Although people can certainly verify the contents of experiences whose contents are ‘objective’, they cannot so easily, if at all, verify that the ‘new information’ was acquired non-physically. How would this be achieved?

Invocation of reports of AVPs takes place in what I would call an ‘epistemological black hole’. That is, there is just no way in practice to evaluate their epistemic status. Some of the NDErs in question have died, and others are now suffering from dementia or other mental impairments. Others are in remote areas or simply do not wish to be interviewed. The most important obstacle, however, is that it would be extremely difficult (and arguably impossible) to represent and corroborate the exact circumstances of the NDE, its causes and surroundings, the past experiences of the NDEr, and so forth. One would always suspect that some relevant factor is left out.

In a noteworthy part of his contribution, K writes, ‘There are hundreds more cases of possible evidence of the veridicality of NDEs with OBEs to consider’. (Here he is really not thinking of veridicality, but non-physical presentation of the contents of the experiences.) For this point he cites Michael Marsh (2018), and he goes on to quote Marsh: ‘I have surveyed around 700–800 reports extracted from the basic canonical literature of five authors…’ (K, p. 216). K asks, ‘Why doesn’t Fischer do the same instead of offering analysis of only a few cases?’ (ibid.). He goes on to suggest that I have unfairly selected only part of the data.

Why don’t I ‘do the same’? After the Immortality Project Grant (5.1 million dollars, of which about a million went to supporting NDE researchers, including some invoked favourably by my commenta­tors), was publicly announced, I began receiving what would eventually become a torrent of email messages (and some letters) relating NDEs (at least 700–800, and probably more). I read each and every one (although in some cases quickly). I began by responding to each, sometimes offering my own thoughts, gratitude for their reaching out to me, and empathy, but it soon became apparent that I could not continue responding to each NDEr. In any case, I personally read these reports, as well as many others, as related in books, and I have even studied internet videos (the reader will know that they are not scarce!). I feel that the vast majority of these reports are sincere, and I have thought carefully about them.

My views were and are indeed informed by serious reflection on all of these data (in light of theoretical considerations as well). Of course, it would be impossible to meet personally with so many people, and I seriously doubt that any NDE researcher has personally interviewed the majority of NDErs about whom they write. Presumably they have personally interviewed some, and read the reports of the rest. They often put together databases of NDE reports, but they cannot meet with many, if not most, of the authors. Marsh writes that he has surveyed the reports, not that he has met with the authors of those reports.

So, this is part of the answer to K’s question (and the concerns of various of the commentators) — I have done it. The answer is also, in part, that it has been done by Marsh himself, a very distinguished and highly qualified professor at the University of Oxford. Although in a footnote K admits that Marsh ‘might’ be considered an ally of mine, he leaves out relevant aspects of Marsh’s research, and specifically Marsh’s analysis of precisely those reports to which K adverts. In the article cited by K in which Marsh analyses those 700–800 case reports in light of his considerable knowledge of neurophysiology, Marsh writes:

My overriding conclusion is that they [NDEs] are brain-generated phenomena generated during the period when subjects are regaining full conscious-awareness. Hence these are analogues with hypnogogic dream-awakening. [This point corroborates the ‘ramping up’ point I made in my reply to H&W.] That is, NDE/OBEs are decidedly this-worldly events and have nothing to do with supposed journeys to spiritualized or nonphysical realms, nor amalgamations with so-called Cosmic Consciousness. (Marsh, 2018, p. 248)

Marsh adds:

…it seems more probable that NDE/OBE phenomenology neither offers any unique or newer insights into substance dualism, nor provides any compelling indication that these events are occasions when either mind, soul, or raw consciousness are capable of extra-corporeal existence in some ill-defined otherworld. (ibid., p. 263)

It is fair to ask why K omitted reference to the conclusions reached by Marsh in his analysis of the 700–800 case reports (only writing that Marsh ‘might’ be an ally of mine). K invokes Marsh as an exemplar of intellectual conscientiousness in this regard. Marsh has indeed written various articles and books that carefully examine both the NDE reports and the neuroscience, on the basis of which he concludes, ‘My contention is that a brain-based origin is, indeed, capable of offering a fair-minded account of the [NDE] reports’ (Marsh, 2010, p. xvii).

A.J. Ayer, the renowned twentieth-century British philosopher, to whose NDE I alluded above, wrote (in a follow-up to his original report of the experience; Ayer, 1988):

I said in my article that the most probable explanation of my experi­ences was that my brain had not ceased to function during the four minutes of my heart arrest… I thought it so obvious that the persistence of my brain was the most probable explanation that I did not bother to stress it. I stress it now. No other hypothesis comes anywhere near to superseding it. (Ayer, 1990)

More recently, in the 175th anniversary issue of Scientific American (June 2020), in an article entitled ‘What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about the Brain’, Christof Koch (Chief Scientist at the Mindscope Programme at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and member of the advisory board of Scientific American), writes:

That assumption [that the brain is the location of consciousness] has served science… extremely well over the past few centuries. Unless there is extraordinary, compelling objective evidence to the contrary, I see no reason to abandon this assumption.

…Like a town that loses power one neighborhood at a time, local regions of the brain go offline [in an NDE]… The mind, whose sub­strate is whichever neurons remain capable of generating neural activity, does what it always does: it tells a story shaped by the person’s experience, memory, and cultural expectations. When the entire brain has shut down because of complete power loss, the mind is extinguished, along with consciousness. (Accessed 29 August 2020)

The scientific evidence seems clear. It shows, to a very high degree of probability, that NDEs do not take place when the brain is entirely off­line. It is scientifically overwhelmingly plausible, given the evidence we have, that they take place when the brain is ramping up to wakeful consciousness, just as in dreams. Further, there is simply no empirical evidence of an afterlife, no matter how comforting that might be. We can believe in an afterlife on faith, but not science.

      Reply to Natasha Tassell-Matamua
and Nicole Lindsay

I agree with Tassell-Matamua and Lindsay (T-M&L) that a compre­hensive, fair, and accurate analysis of NDEs must be multidisciplinary and multifaceted, and should not just focus on popularized presenta­tions or those of just one culture. Their work is admirable and illuminating, and helps us all to broaden our analytic horizons.

I have been clear that I am not a scientist, and that my perspective is merely one — a philosophically-informed viewpoint. Just as a com­prehensive analysis requires considerable data collection, it also needs to be analytically coherent and reasonable. I have never been so presumptuous as to suppose that I am doing anything more than adding a philosophical voice to the chorus (or, sometimes, cacophony!).

T-M&L take issue with a few of what they take to be my central views, and they are certainly correct that I often put the points in unqualified ways. They call into question my contention that most NDE analysts, even those in academia, are supernaturalists. They wonder why I write that many of them reject or ‘turn their backs on’ science. These are fair points, given the way I have expressed the underlying ideas, but I do not think anything really important hangs on them when taken precisely as I have phrased them (for simplicity’s sake). The formulations can be adjusted modestly to accommodate the criticisms and still make my points.

First, nothing significant to me depends on whether ‘most’ or just ‘many’ academic researchers take a non-physical approach to this subject matter. Certainly most popular analyses take this tack, and some non-negligible number of academic approaches incline strongly towards the non-physical model. I do not wish to, nor need I, get into a debate about ‘numbers’ here. It suffices for my purposes to note that almost all popular, and various visible academic and medically-informed, strategies accept dualism of some sort and contact with, or a path to, another and non-physical realm. My project is to address these views, whether they be in the majority or substantial minority.

T-M&L offer a long list of citations to neurophysiological investiga­tions of these phenomena in support of their scepticism about my contention that supernaturalism (of the sort described above) is the majority view among academic researchers. I am willing to grant T-M&L’s interpretation of this literature, for the sake of our discussion. What would this show? It shows that many scientists who study NDEs do not reject the reigning physicalist paradigm of science, with its presupposition that the brain is the ‘seat of’ or ‘location of’ conscious­ness. As Koch wrote in the quotation from Scientific American above, ‘The assumption [that the brain is the location of consciousness] has served science… extremely well over the past few centuries’. The very literature T-M&L invoke, together with the careful and compre­hensive data analysis by Marsh, goes a long way towards calling into question the claims of the supernaturalists (or, to use different terminology, ‘afterlife interpretation proponents’).

Do many of the NDE researchers and authors abandon or walk away from science, as I have claimed? It doesn’t really matter (for my purposes) whether or not this is the case; it suffices that many NDE researchers and authors urge us to abandon the current paradigm in science — physicalism and a distinctive empirical methodology. This is in itself a big and risky dive into uncharted intellectual waters.

Science insists on empirical tests for hypotheses (the ‘hypothetico-deductive’ model). We could opt for a different ‘paradigm’, but how exactly is this to be distinguished from simply giving up on science? How is it reassuring — or legitimizing — at all? This is not too com­forting: ‘They are not abandoning science, just the central methodol­ogical assumptions of our particular centuries-old paradigm!’

T-M&L contend that I have failed to fulfil the duty of impartiality in research. I find this puzzling. No one comes to these — or any — contentious disputes without any presuppositions or antecedent inclinations. I am no different from anyone else, including H&W, M&M, K, and T-M&L in this respect. It is of course incumbent on all of us to seek, to the best of our abilities, to prevent these predilections from impairing or unduly influencing our analysis. I have been honest about my starting presumptions, and I have sought to evaluate the evidence from a wide range of sources in a fair way, giving due weight to the many factors that bear on these complex experiences, including the sincere reports of NDErs and the academic analyses of these phenomena. Perhaps T-M&L disagree with (some of) my con­clusions, but of course this would not in itself imply a lack of impartiality. Note also that any fair application of the notion of impartiality would raise questions about the invocation of research materials published by IANDS, and especially reference centrally or almost exclusively to these materials, wouldn’t it?

I think that T-M&L were really worried about comprehensiveness, rather than impartiality (just as M&M were really concerned with comprehensiveness, not incoherence). I agree that a full discussion and defence of my suggestions would require attention to counter­vailing considerations (a point raised by other commentators as well). Considerable work has been done along these lines in my previous publications (including those with my co-author). One can only do so much in a journal article with a strict word limit!

[In this truncated version of the reply piece, I have only presented–in shortened form—some of my responses to the specific points made by my thoughtful commentators.  In both my original paper and replies, both published in this journal, I also offer an original interpretation of NDEs, according to which their awe-inspiring beauty, and transformational power, are compatible with a (non-reductive) naturalism.]

 

Stay Informed, Stay Inspired

Discover the frontier of academic insights with our newsletter. Imprint Academic brings a world of scholarly discourse right to your inbox. Stay updated on the latest publications, special offers, and the vibrant conversations shaping today’s academic landscape. Your quest for knowledge deserves a companion as dedicated as our newsletter. Sign up now and become a part of a community driven by curiosity and intellectual exploration.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.