Near death experiences as purported evidence of a soul

August 8, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More

At AlterNet, Greta Christina has written an article titled, “Why Near-Death Experiences Are a Flimsy Justification for the Idea That We Have Immortal Souls.” She argues that the evidence supporting the independent soul is “unfalsifiable.”

[It] is flimsy at best. It is unsubstantiated. It comes largely from personal anecdotes. It is internally inconsistent. . . . The evidence supporting the “independent soul” explanation is flimsy at best. It is unsubstantiated. It comes largely from personal anecdotes. It is internally inconsistent. It is shot through with discrepancies. It is loaded with biases and cognitive errors — especially confirmation bias, the tendency to exaggerate evidence that confirms what we already believe, and to ignore evidence that contradicts it. It has methodological errors that a sixth-grade science project winner could spot in 10 seconds.

And that includes the evidence of near-death experiences. There is not a single account of an immaterial soul leaving the body in a near-death experience that meets the gold standard of scientific evidence. Not even close.

Christina bristles at the believer argument that scientists are “biased.” Yes, they are, but not in the way that many believers argue:

Scientists are human, too: they don’t want to die, and they’d be just as happy as anyone to learn that they were going to live forever.

Christina also points out that the trauma of near death is an altered brain state that can account for any altered perception:

Weird things often happen to people’s minds during altered states of consciousness. Exhaustion, stress, distraction, trance-like repetition, optical illusion, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload… any of these physical changes to the brain, and more, can create vivid “perceptions” that are entirely disconnected from reality. It’s been extensively demonstrated. And being near death is an altered state of consciousness, a physical change to the brain.

Image by Corrium (at Dreamstime.com, with permission)

I agree with Christina’s arguments. I would extend them to those who suggest that they can give accurate accounts of what it is like to have a stroke, relying solely on introspection.

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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Hm…. I'm not that impressed. In the life-after-death discussions I hear many people argue "Brain did it". How exactly Brain did it is rarely explained, but that somehow seems not to be very important, because the whole notion of life after death is just silly so Brain simply had to be the cause. And since we know this to be true, we're not too much in a hurry to figure out exactly how Brain did it. Makes me think of the creationists who argue "Magic Man done it".

    I like Dawkins' stance in this discussion. He stated that if life after death would ever be proven, it would have to come from physics. And we all know what he thinks will be the outcome here ;-).

  2. Tige Gibson says:

    If they believed in a soul, they would not fear the burning of the body.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    "Brain did it" is not as mindless as "God did it" because we have known for centuries that all perceptions and memories reside in the brain. And in the last few decades, with ever more precision, we know what each part of the brain does, and how each part responds to stimuli. Stimuli such as stress, fear, heat, oxygen deprivation, hormone saturation, endocrine bursts, sensory input, abnormal chemistry, and so on.

    We also have ever-refined our understanding of how these stresses that affect the brain are created in near-death situations.

    Brain surgeons and neuropharmacologists can stimulate the brain to get pretty much any response with ever improving accuracy. Any competent therapist can plant false memories that the patient/convert/victim will know are absolutely true. They will even defend these memories against those who have solid evidence that the events involved could not have occurred.

    Thus "Brain did it" is not a cop out. It is merely an acceptance that all evidence points to every observation of the apparently supernatural residing purely within the brain of the observer.

    But we cannot prove that a meddling, invisible and undetectable kibitzer isn't pushing the molecules and waveforms around that cause these observations. Just that this intangible force behaves in a manner indistinguishable from that defined by deterministic theory.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I remember, as an 8 year-old, being electrocuted by a short-circuit in a water pump as I started to fill a bucket of water from the spigot at the wellhouse. I remember the pain caused by the jolt of AC voltage as it passed through me, I remember landing on my back several feet from the wellhouse. I remember fading back to awareness. I remember how every joint and muscle in my body ached for days after.

    I don't recall anything about a white light a tunnel or any of that. Maybe I just wasn't near enough to dying.

    I remember a few days before my 18th birthday, being violently ill for 3 days, then waking up in a hospital bed. I remember being told that I nearly died from severe dehydration, a complication of gastroenteritis. But no tunnel, no white light.

    I remember in my late 30's being wheeled toward to emergency room. I remember the anesthesiologist telling me to count. I remember waking briefly as the ICU nurse slipped some socks on me after the emergency surgery to remove the gangrenous tissue. I remember the doctor telling me how I almost died. Again, no tunnel, no white light.

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