Red dogwood with splash of colour
(Photo: Scott Murray)

Hard Going and Simply Rational continue their dialogue. They discuss the relevance of so-called near death experiences (NDEs) to the question of the nature of consciousness. Hard Going represents a Christian point of view while Simply Rational represents a humanist, and sometimes sceptical, interpretation.

A prima facie case for oblivion
HG: Well, SR, we’ve been discussing all sorts of questions over the last few weeks. I’ve been trying to persuade you that there is more to life than the materialist, reductionist hypothesis. Obviously, I’ve failed, for you still believe that consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon of the brain and that when we die there is complete oblivion. Or have I picked you up wrong?
SR: No, you haven’t picked me up wrong. I have always thought there’s a prima facie case for oblivion. It’s just common sense. There are so many indications that consciousness is closely connected to the brain. When the brain ceases to exist, consciousness also ceases. Surely that is obvious, even to a …
HG: … even to a dunderhead.
SR: It’s you that said it (laughing).
HG: I know, but you were thinking it.
SR: But it’s just common sense.

But … not everything is as it seems
HG: Well, maybe. But think … you who are the thinker! …. a lot of things are apparently true until you start investigating and then, lo and behold, they turn out completely differently. My goodness, the history of science is replete with examples … the discovery of new facts often overturns the settled beliefs of ages …
SR: Such as?
HG: Well, just to name the most obvious ones: we know now that the earth goes round the sun, not the other way about; Newton’s settled theory of gravity is overturned by Einstein; the notion of what an atom is has been revised over and over again.
SR: Well, that seems to confirm what I was saying, that as science progresses it shows us that everything can be explained in naturalistic terms and that consciousness too will one day be explained by neuroscience …
HG: That is a dangerous assumption!
SR: An assumption, perhaps, but why on earth ‘dangerous’?
Empty poppy head
(Photo: Scott Murray)

The evidence of the senses
HG: As we saw, and I think you agreed, that what was once apparently true has had to be revised due to the discovery of further facts. What I am claiming is that certain facts are pointing to your naturalistic theory being wrong. Contrary to superficial appearances, your consciousness will carry on in some form after death.
SR: O come on! If my assumption is dangerous, what is yours? Yours, I’m afraid, is a groundless assertion with no facts to back it up, only what, I suppose, you would call revelation or authority. Well, sorry, but the only revelation I believe is the evidence of my senses.
HG: As you know, I do believe in revelation and the authority of the Bible. But for the moment I’m ignoring these, or, at least, I’m not appealing to them. All I’m appealing to are the grounds you appeal to yourself, namely, the evidence of your senses or, if not your senses personally, the senses of numerous reliable witnesses.
SR: I’m not sure what you’re driving at …

NDEs – real or hallucinations
HG: I’m referring to the range of phenomena known as near death experiences (NDEs). It’s not as if these are something religious people have dreamed up to prove the existence of the soul. No, not at all, these are research scientists, and doctors often working in teams in hospital cardiac departments. One of the best known cardiac surgeons who has studied NDEs in patients is the Dutch surgeon Pim van Lommel, but there are many others. Lommel published the results of his findings in the Lancet.
SR: I’ve heard of NDEs. But that’s no proof of the existence of the soul. Could they not be merely the final hallucinations of the dying brain? By definition you cannot have experiences of life if you’re dead.
Common characteristics of NDEs
HG: Well, that’s the strange thing, while heart signals are flat-lined and the brain is supposed to be dead, patients report out of body experiences (OBEs). Some patients report seeing their body from above and seeing the medical staff working on their body and even hearing what doctors are saying. But that’s not all. There are certain things which are experienced which are common characteristics, regardless of culture, for example, the movement through darkness towards an indescribable light, meeting and conversing with people who are often relatives and having a life review where a person has a panoramic view of their life from birth to death and particularly the effect of their life on others. From a naturalistic perspective, how do you explain all that, especially the clear vision they have when they’re supposed to be dead?
SR: I have no idea, but I’m sure as science and our knowledge of the brain progresses we will discover the reasons for these hallucinations. Apparently, people get these out of body experiences not just when they’re dying but also at other times, times of stress or meditation or whatever. What do think these experiences mean, assuming they’re genuine?

Bright red leaf caught in frosty sunshine .. (1)
(Photo: Scott Murray)

A spiritual dimension
HG: Personally, I think they’re another nail in the coffin of naturalism. They point to a spiritual dimension. Rather than thinking of the brain as the creator of consciousness, I think of it as a receiver of consciousness and what we do with this consciousness in this life is somehow carried forward into a non-physical consciousness after death. Two things strike me about these OBEs which feature in the literature. First, sometimes a cord is mentioned which connects the consciousness to the body. If this cord is severed, there is no going back into the body. This reminds me of Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 ‘Remember him – before the silver cord is severed … and the spirit returns to God who gave it.’ Second, there is often a reference to the ‘life review.’ This reminds me of Hebrews 9: 27 which has ‘Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment …’

No naturalistic explanation
SR: It’s an interesting thought for you, I suppose, that science could prove the existence of the soul. But it’s a long way from doing that I think. Probably, people who have these experiences are people who want to believe anyway. And, as I said, these people aren’t a hundred per cent dead. If they were they wouldn’t have these experiences.
HG: No-one is claiming they’re completely dead. Nevertheless, there are no naturalistic explanations for what happens to them, especially, doctors being able to confirm that what patients report is true when the they are supposed to be brain dead. And it’s not people who want to believe in an afterlife to whom this happens. It happens to atheists. Take the case of the American Howard Storm, a Professor of Art and a hard-headed atheist. His NDE was so real for him that afterwards he became a minister of religion.