By Neal Grossman, Ph.D.
When researchers ask the question, “How can the near-death experience be explained?” they tend to make the usual assumption that an acceptable explanation will be in terms of concepts—biological, neurological, psychological—with which they are already familiar. The near-death experience (NDE) would then be explained, for example, if it could be shown what brain state, which drugs, or what beliefs on the part of the experiencer correlate with the NDE.
Those who have concluded that the NDE cannot be explained mean that it cannot be, or has not yet been, correlated with any physical or psychological condition of the experiencer.
I wish to suggest that this approach to explaining the NDE is fundamentally misguided. To my knowledge, no one who has had an NDE feels any need for an explanation in the reductionist sense that researchers are seeking. For the experiencer, the NDE does not need to be explained because it is exactly what it purports to be, which is, at a minimum, the direct experience of consciousness—or minds, or selves, or personal identity—existing independently of the physical body. It is only with respect to our deeply entrenched materialist paradigm that the NDE needs to be explained, or more accurately, explained away.
In this article, I will take the position that materialism has been shown to be empirically false; and hence, what does need to be explained is the academic establishment’s collective refusal to examine the evidence and to see it for what it is. The academic establishment is in the same position today as the bishop who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. Why is this the case?
Before addressing this question, I’d like to say something about the kind and strength of evidence that refutes materialism. Emily Williams Cook, Bruce Greyson, and Ian Stevenson described in their paper published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1998 “three features of NDEs—enhanced mentation, the experience of seeing the physical body from a different position in space, and paranormal perception.” They then described 14 cases that satisfy these criteria.
From an epistemological perspective, the third criterion, paranormal perception, is the most important. The materialist can, in principle, give no account of how a person acquires veridical information about events remote from his or her body.
Consider, for example, the kind of case where the NDEer accurately reports the conversation occurring in the waiting room while his or her body is unconscious in the operating room. There is no way for the relevant information, conveyed in sound waves or light waves, to travel from the waiting room, through corridors and up elevators, to reach the sense organs of the unconscious person. Yet the person wakes from the operation with the information.
This kind of case—and there are lots of them—shows quite straightforwardly that there are nonphysical ways in which the mind can acquire information. Hence materialism is false.
Perhaps the “smoking gun” case is the one described by Michael Sabom in his book Light and Death. In this case, the patient had her NDE while her body temperature was lowered to 60 degrees, and all the blood was drained from her body. “Her electroencephalogram was silent, her brain-stem response was absent, and no blood flowed through her brain.” A brain in this state cannot create any kind of experience. Yet the patient reported a profound NDE.
Those materialists who believe that consciousness is secreted by the brain, or that the brain is necessary for conscious experience to exist, cannot possibly explain, in their own terms, cases such as this one. An impartial observer would have to conclude that not all experience is produced by the brain, and that therefore the falsity of materialism has been empirically demonstrated. Thus, what needs to be explained is the abysmal failure of the academic establishment to examine this evidence and to embrace the conclusion: Materialism is false, and consciousness can and does exist independently of the body.
Moreover, the evidence against materialism comes not only from the NDE, but from other areas of research as well. Both mediumship, which has been extensively investigated since the time of William James, and Stevenson-type cases of children who have verified true memories of past lives, offer an abundance of evidence against materialism.
The best epistemological analysis of the evidence is given by Robert Almeder: After a lengthy and detailed discussion of past-life cases, he calls the researcher to task for concluding only that “it is rational to believe in reincarnation, given the evidence.” The proper conclusion, according to Almeder, should be “it is irrational not to believe in reincarnation, given the evidence.” I agree with Almeder.
Our collective irrationality with respect to the wealth of evidence against materialism manifests in two ways: (1) by ignoring the evidence, and (2) by insisting on overly stringent standards of evidence, that, if adopted, would render any empirical science impossible.
Dogma and Ideology
One of my earliest encounters with this kind of academic irrationality occurred more than 20 years ago. I was devouring everything on the near-death experience I could get my hands on, and eager to share what I was discovering with colleagues. It was unbelievable to me how dismissive they were of the evidence.
“Drug-induced hallucinations,” “last gasp of a dying brain,” and “people see what they want to see” were some of the more commonly used phrases. One conversation in particular caused me to see more clearly the fundamental irrationality of academics with respect to evidence against materialism. I asked, “What about people who accurately report the details of their operation?”
“Oh,” came the reply, “they probably just subconsciously heard the conversation in the operating room, and their brain subconsciously transposed the audio information into a visual format.”
“Well,” I responded, “what about cases where people report veridical perception of events remote from their body?”
“Oh, that’s just a coincidence or a lucky guess.”
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, my colleague responded, “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.” He went on to add that dualism (the philosophical thesis that asserts mind and matter are independent substances, neither of which can be reduced to the other) is a false theory, and that there cannot be evidence for something that’s false.
This was a momentous experience for me, because here was an educated, intelligent man telling me that he will not give up materialism, no matter what. Even the evidence of his own experience would not cause him to give up materialism. I realized two things in that moment. First, this experience cured me of any impulse to argue these things with recalcitrant colleagues; it is pointless to argue with someone who tells me that his mind is already made up, and nothing I can say will change it.
Second, this experience taught me that it is important to distinguish between (a) materialism as an empirical hypothesis about the nature of the world, which is amenable to evidence one way or the other (this is the hallmark of a scientific hypothesis—that evidence is relevant for its truth or falsity) and (b) materialism as an ideology, or paradigm, about how things “must” be, which is impervious to evidence (this is the hallmark of an unscientific hypothesis—that evidence is not relevant for its truth).
My colleague believed in materialism not as a scientific hypothesis that, qua scientific hypothesis, might be false, but rather as dogma and ideology that “must” be true, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. For him, materialism is the fundamental paradigm in terms of which everything else is explained, but which is not itself open to doubt.
I shall coin the term “fundamaterialist” to refer to those who believe that materialism is a necessary truth, not amenable to empirical evidence. I call it fundamaterialism to make explicit comparison with fundamentalism in religion. Fundamentalism connotes an attitude of certainty toward one’s core belief.
Just as the fundamentalist Christian is absolutely certain that the world was created in the manner described by The Bible (fossil evidence notwithstanding), so also the fundamaterialist is absolutely certain that there exists nothing that is not made up of matter or physical energy (NDE and other evidence notwithstanding). In fact, and this is the crucial point, their respective beliefs have nothing to do with evidence. As my fundamaterialist colleague put it, “There can’t be evidence for something that’s false.”
With respect to (a), materialism held as an empirical hypothesis about the world, the evidence against it is overwhelming. With respect to (b), materialism held as an ideology, evidence against it is logically impossible. A complicating factor is that the fundamaterialist typically holds the metabelief that his belief in materialism is not ideological, but empirical. That is, he misclassifies himself under (a), while his behavior clearly falls under (b).
The debunker and skeptic believe they are being “scientific” in ignoring and rejecting the evidence against materialism. But when asked what kind of evidence it would take to convince them that materialism is empirically false, they are, like my colleague, usually at a loss for what to say.
If they are not familiar with the data, they will come up with a criterion of evidence that in fact has already been met. When it is pointed out that there exist many well-documented cases that satisfy the proposed criterion, they will simply make the criterion more stringent, and at some point they cross the line between the reasonable demand for scientific evidence and the unreasonable (and unscientific) demand for logical proof.
With permission from the Journal of Near-Death Studies.
Dr. Neal Grossman has a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from Indiana University, and is an associate professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His special interests are Spinoza, mysticism, and the epistemology of parapsychological research.
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*Republished with permission from The Epoch Times
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