Thursday, December 13, 2007

Near Death Experiences

I received an email asking about near-death experiences:
I read a lot of your website and I think you have made so many great points about the bible.

I too have been going through my own search for truth and appreciate your views on many of the subjects you have written.

One of the things that I find a little puzzling is your confidence in this life being all we have. Although most all of your points seem valid to me I wonder how much you are willing to investiage the Near Death Experience (NDE), or Out of Body Experience (OBE).

The NDE and OBE documented by some very respected Doctors of Medicine would seem to point to something beyond this life as we know it. I am aware of the scientific explanations of certain chemical reactions at time of death producing this phenomona but we simply do not have an explanation for certain individuals who have claimed to hover over their bodies or travel to other places at the time of their legal death (no brain activity or heart function) -- some can repeat conversations from medical staff after their legal death!

The last issue I still struggle with is matter -- the creation of it, or the origins of it -- did it always exist? Is that possible? Was there never a nothing -- is that possible? How could something come from nothing?

I am just talking off the top of my head at this point but would love to engage someone on these subjects. It seems to me that while you may be right on historical matters there are just some issues we cannot know at this point. It doesn't seem profitable to pull away from the notion of a Creator or an afterlife with what we feel so sure of.


Your concern is that near death experiences indicate that there is something beyond this life. You recognize that there are arguments that explain the subjective feelings of these experiences. When brains are deprived of oxygen, they can respond in confusing ways, which can be interpreted by the patient as a near-death experience. But what about the reports that some people have made observations of events that occurred while they were in this near-death state? Does this prove they were outside the body and making observations of the world?

Before we look at the reported evidence, lets think about the problems with such claims. How exactly is it that these people are able to hear voices? Their brain is practically shut down, and is not responding to sounds heard by the ears. So how are these sounds being heard? Is the soul able to detect sounds without the benefit of ears? If so, why do people have ears? Why doesn't the soul simply tune into these sounds all of the time? And why can't deaf people hear? If souls can hear without using their ears, one would think that deaf people could hear without using their ears. And if the soul is somehow hearing these things and remembering them, exactly how is the soul transferring those memories to the brain. For science demonstrates that our memories are stored in the brain. So how do souls transfer this knowledge? Does the soul somehow manipulate the molecules in the brain? Souls are supposedly immaterial, and are supposedly undetectable by physical means. If souls are able to rearrange molecules in the brain, why aren't we able to detect these souls working?

If we instead decide that the soul is actually using the patient's physical ears and auditory portions of his brain, where exactly is the miracle here? This would prove only that the patient may have drifted into states of consciousness or near-consciousness during the experience. That would do nothing to prove they were outside of their body.

The same problem occurs when we think about the other senses that the soul would be using in a near-death experience. Exactly how are these people seeing without eyes, or smelling without noses?

So there are many problems with believing that the soul of these people is observing while the brain is technically at or near death. Nevertheless, if it really happened, we would need to recognize it.

I don't find that the reports of physical observations during that experience are that impressive. Much that is reported represents basic knowledge of emergency room procedures. Also, the patients have had time to interact with doctors and nurses after the experience. Further, many of these patients are familiar with what others have reported when near death, and they know what they are expected to say. Could their minds simply be assimilating the knowledge of these various sources? In the fog that their brain experiences in the recovery process, could the brain piece this all together into a story? Many of these reports do not occur until weeks after the experience. It is well known that memories change with time, and tend to change in the direction that the person wants to be true. Could it be that these "memories" simply grew with time as the patient tried to make sense of it all?

It would be far more impressive if the patients could report things that they could not have known from any other source. For instance, some have put laptop computer screens in the room, with the screen facing toward the ceiling and away from the people in the room. If the patient's soul is indeed hovering over the room, then he should see the display on the laptop and tell us what was on that display. I understand that such studies have not yet produced interesting results.

Until I see impressive responses that could not possibly have come from other sources, and as long as the concept of a disembodied soul conflicts with so much known science, I will remain skeptical of the claims of out of body experiences.

For more information see Near-death experience.

"Just because the evidence no longer exists doesn't mean the events didn't happen"

I received an email from RS, agreeing that the things of faith cannot be proven, but suggesting that they just might be true anyway:
I've read your site to the point where I started to get a headache. You are one of those people who I find amazing. You have the ability to go deep on an issue and ask some really pertinent questions. I have seen others who have done the same on other topics; for example the Muslim woman with whom you briefly debated. She came across as so steeped in her worldview that she appeared blind to another way of looking at things. I've seen Atheists do the same. So what's my point? You may have come to erroneous conclusions based on your interpretation of the evidence that you found or failed to find. Or, maybe you're right. I agree with you that the Bible is an unreliable document generally. But, I suspect there are nuggets of truth, revelation, inspiration, and wisdom salted among the myths and legends. The problem is in sorting the wheat from the chaff, if you'll pardon my mixed metaphors. At one time I was tempted to conclude that Jesus didn't exist, or if he did he didn't resurrect from the dead based on the lack of empirical evidence. However, I've pulled back on that because I see that as a faulty conclusion. There wasn't enough evidence to convict OJ. But, that doesn't mean OJ didn't do it. Unfortunately not every scrap of everything written 2 thousand years ago is still around. So we are not in a position to examine and weigh every bit of evidence that could have been available. So, just because the evidence no longer exists doesn't mean the person or the events didn't happen.

I think trying to come to conclusions about God and the world in general from a strictly logical, intellectual approach is inadequate. I'm not sure all of what's available to know or experience can be determined that way. I've tried your approach and found it unsatisfying. I think its foolish to dismiss what those claiming to have spiritual insight and wisdom have to offer. Perhaps God is the very energy inside every cell in your body. Just because you don't understand how God relates to the universe doesn't mean God doesn't relate to the universe. And you may be approaching the arrogance so often seen in Christians, Muslims, and Atheists who seem to think they have it all figured out.

An old friend of mine said, "Opinions are like a**-holes: we've all got one." It seems to work for me as long as I keep perspective and realize that our conclusions are just opinions. I don't think any of us have any idea of what's really going on in this universe we occupy.

Having said that I appreciate your web site. People need to be challenged and disturbed a little. One of the most toxic combinations is ignorance and arrogance. There's too much of that in this world, especially the world of religion. You've done a lot to chip some of that away.



I'm glad you found my site to be challenging.

You are right that we do not have every bit of evidence from ancient times, and we cannot say with absolute certainty what happened. That is understood by all historians. We have only bits of writing and other artifacts to go by. Could the writer of those texts have been mistaken, or lying, or simply writing fiction? We don't know with absolute certainty. But there are methods of historical investigation that let us know with a high degree of certainty, even if we don't know with absolute certainty. Basically we look for agreement of different texts from independent sources. If the writers of several independent nations all record the same event, then we think it probably happened. But nobody knows for sure.

When dealing with the gospel accounts, we run into the problem that the stories are not verified outside a small group of people, who may well have been intending the accounts to be interpreted as fiction. Now if these events had actually happened; if many people had risen from the dead and walked around Jerusalem as Matthew records; if many had been healed of diseases; if thousands of Christians were proclaiming that a man was recently resurrected from the dead; and if a star had indeed let wise men to a particular spot, we would expect many historians to record that such events happened. For there were other historians who wrote in these times, and they seem to be unaware that the gospel story happened.

Now of course I cannot say with absolute certainly that these events did not happen, and I think I make that clear at my site. If I said anything that hints that I know these things with absolute certainty, then please show me what I wrote that hints at that. For I never intended to imply that I know these things with absolute certainty.

Do you use the same argument for other claims of ancient history? Do you believe that Asclepius was capable of doing many miracles? Do you believe that there was a statue of an athlete at Olympia with healing power? Will you go to that statue the next time you are sick? (See Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire) If you instead dismiss those claims of other religions, what makes your religion different? Why should one doubt the claims of many of the supposed healers of ancient Rome, except for one?

You say, I "may be approaching the arrogance so often seen in Christians, Muslims, and Atheists who seem to think they have it all figured out." On what do you base your accusation? If I have said anything that approaches arrogance, than please tell me exactly which words I have said that you think approach arrogance. My words have been on public record here on the Internet for years. If you think some of those words approach arrogance, please let me know which words you object to.

You say that there are nuggets of truth in the Bible, and we need to sort that out from the chaff. Yes, I agree. I know of nobody who claims that every sentence in the Bible is false. All admit that there is some truth there, as there is in almost any book.

You say, "I think trying to come to conclusions about God and the world in general from a strictly logical, intellectual approach is inadequate." But what is your alternate? You don't offer a method of finding out about God and the world, but you suggest that we can get this insight by listening to certain people. You write, "it's foolish to dismiss what those claiming to have spiritual insight and wisdom have to offer." Well, I agree with listening to what they have to say. But if they claim to have knowledge of God, how do they know they are right? Is there any reason to believe them? And what am I to do with the thousands of claims of insight? Surely you must know that there are many religions, cults, denominations, and sects. Surely you must know that these people have radically different views of God. Can all of them be right? No? Well, if some are wrong, how do you pick out the views that are right? Unless you can suggest a method of doing that, one is left with a system based on luck, in which one simply chooses to believe somebodies claims, and hopes he was lucky enough to pick the right guru.

You say, "Just because you don't understand how God relates to the universe doesn't mean God doesn't relate to the universe." Yes, of course, that is true. The fact that I do not understand something does not mean that it doesn't happen. I thought I made that clear at my site

You say, "I don't think any of us have any idea of what's really going on in this universe we occupy." I find that to be a rather strange claim. Surely you must realize that scientists know a great deal about the universe. Yes, we may not know things with absolute certainty, but we do have a good idea of how things work. So how can you suggest we have no idea what is going on?

So let me reiterate that I don't know the answers to religion with absolute certainty. I do, however, think that I have studied the issues sufficiently to reach strong but tentative conclusions for myself. I invite you to read my writings, for they might be helpful, but you are all welcome to decide for yourselves what is right on these issues.