Near Death Experiences

We've all heard stories of people who have died and have been resuscitated, and afterwards have told of what they experienced while they were dead. These experiences often include things like travelling through a tunnel towards a pure white light, seeing deceased loved ones, and going to heaven. These experiences are often called near-death experiences, or NDEs.

Skeptics dismiss such stories as the effect of oxygen deprivation on the brain or some such thing. While some NDEs will admit of such an explanation, there persist in the literature some NDEs which defy natural explanation. As I mentioned in my post on the Unexplained, NDEs were one of the factors that led former outspoken atheist Patrick Glynn to abandon his atheism and believe in the existence of God and of the afterlife.

In The Spiritual Brain, Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary shed some more light on this topic. They describe documented cases where people who were clinically dead said afterwards that they had an out-of-body experience (typical of many NDEs) in which they were able to accurately describe details of things that were happening to them while they were clinically dead. Detailed studies have shown that NDEs are more common than you might think. One study by Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel found that of 344 patients, all of whom were clinically dead, 18 percent afterwards reported having some sort of NDE, and 7 percent reported some sort of very deep experience.

But can an NDE transform a skeptic? Perhaps not. Philosophical atheist A.J. Ayer had an NDE, one which was somewhat negative (some cases of NDEs are negative rather than positive experiences for the person involved). When he died for good the following year he was still apparently an atheist. He did, however, exhibit some changes in his life after his NDE, another common effect of NDEs. Such changes often include greater compassion towards others and becoming a nicer person.

One philosopher, Neal Grossman, was arguing with a committed naturalist about NDEs. Beauregard and O’Leary record the exchange thusly:

Exasperated, I asked, “What will it take, short of having a near-death experience yourself, to convince you that it’s real?”

Very nonchalantly, without batting an eye, the response was: “Even if I were to have a near-death experience myself, I would conclude that I was hallucinating, rather than believe that my mind can exist independently of my brain.

Essentially, for the committed naturalist there is no amount of evidence, not even their own experience, that would persuade them to give up their belief in naturalism. In this sense naturalism is perhaps not that unlike a very fundamentalist religion.

2 comments:

John said...

I wonder about NDE's when a Christian tells me that he saw Jesus at the end of the tunnel. A friend of mine - a Hindu related how he had an NDE and of course who should he see, other than Krishna? He did indeed see Krishna in all his resplendent glory. After listening to him I would be hard put to use the NDE as a proof for Christianity - and I notice you are not doing so here. In your research have you come across similar experiences with Hindu's, Muslims, Jewish and other faiths - I am sure there must be many such accounts about.

John Fraser said...

Hi John,

"After listening to him I would be hard put to use the NDE as a proof for Christianity - and I notice you are not doing so here."

You noticed that I'm not using NDEs as proof for Christianity? That's correct, I'm not - I'm using it as evidence for the afterlife and the falsity of materialism.

"In your research have you come across similar experiences with Hindu's, Muslims, Jewish and other faiths - I am sure there must be many such accounts about."

There are some such accounts - although there are also accounts of people encountering Jesus even though they belonged to other faiths. It's an interesting theological question - it's possible of course that people interpret their brief experiences of the afterlife in terms of their own cultural and religious framework just like they would if they were to, say, travel to a foreign country that they knew nothing about. The response might then be that the same could be true for Christians, and that would be fair. I would then say that the evidence that Christianity is true and not those others faiths is the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus - evidence which is notably lacking for other religious leaders. In that case, I would argue that it is those of other faiths and not Christians who are misinterpreting their experiences. But to really treat this topic would require quite a bit more detailed work.