Near-Death Experiences: The Last Word
Eben Alexander III, 2015
The phenomenological properties and transformative power of NDEs are totally different, and, in many ways, the opposite of dream content.
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Toward a More Comprehensive Scientific Paradigm
“I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition. . . . we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.”
— Sir John C. Eccles, PhD (1903 – 1997), neurophysiologist, Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology, 1963
Any evaluation of reports of near-death experiences must involve a mindset that is suitable to the task. These experiences challenge our understanding about the fundamental nature of consciousness, indeed of all of existence, at the most basic of levels, and if the mindset is too limited, we compromise our ability to approach the grander truth underlying our observations and attempts to understand them. The more broadly we can open our minds to the possibilities, the more readily we will come to a deeper understanding.
Kevin Nelson, MD’s article in Missouri Medicine’s series on near-death experiences (NDEs) demonstrates the hazards of approaching near-death experiences with too limited a view of the possible explanations (Editor’s note: Neuroscience Perspectives on Near-Death Experiences, 2015; 112(2:92-98) The danger lies in missing the forest for the trees, for being too myopic in scope and thus falling woefully short of the mark. This is an inherent problem when one is shackled, as is Dr. Nelson, within the narrow confines of the physicalist world view (i.e. that the physical world is all that exists; that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the workings of the physical constituents of the brain following natural laws). By accepting the unproven assumption that the physical brain creates consciousness, his approach is doomed from the start. The brain is clearly related to consciousness — the fallacy is in believing the brain creates consciousness out of purely physical matter.
Entitled “Neuroscience Perspectives on Near-Death Experiences,” Dr. Nelson’s paper demonstrates many of the difficulties inherent in the scientific investigation of something as profoundly complex as near-death experiences when one’s starting (physicalist) assumptions are false. The fog of confusion overwhelms his efforts to make sense of such deep experiences limited entirely to the confines of the physical brain, from a purely physicalist point of view.
In the teaser for his article, Dr. Nelson purports to “explore near-death experiences through the lens of science and discovers that near-death fits within the conventional neuroscience as securely as the Germ Theory of Disease and Evolution stand in other branches of science.”
This teaser, and his ensuing article, address NDEs through a most distorted lens, indeed. First and foremost, Dr. Nelson seems to believe that conventional neuroscience has a firm enough understanding of the mechanism of consciousness to weigh in on all of the facets of near-death experiences. In fact, the “neuroscience of consciousness” is an oxymoron — no such entity exists. No neuroscientist on earth, nor philosopher of mind, can offer even a few sentences in an effort to describe in broad strokes the mechanism by which the human brain might create consciousness — not even vague hand-waving. No one has a clue, and yet the mantra of conventional physicalist proponents like Nelson is that the brain creates consciousness, said with the conviction that it is such a well-established fact as to be beyond the necessity for any evidence.
Part of the unfathomable enigma of the relationship between brain and mind is reflected in what is known in scientific and philosophical circles as the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” (HPC), and many believe it is the most profound enigma in all of human thought. The HPC was defined by David Chalmers PhD as the challenge to physicalism in explaining “qualia,” or the phenomenological aspects of human perceptions, and their integration into consciousness as a whole.1 From a scientific perspective, it is challenging to even entertain possible questions that might lead towards experiments to better elucidate the mechanism of consciousness. The problem becomes less “hard” when one abandons the simplistic falsehoods of physicalism (i.e. that the brain creates consciousness). I believe that addressing the issue of consciousness more fully, as we do in this kind of discussion about near-death experiences, will lead us into fruitful territory in our understanding of the nature of reality and of humanity’s place in it.
The conventional neuroscientific assertion that the brain creates the “illusion” of consciousness through the physical action of the subatomic particles, atoms, molecules and cells of the brain, so fundamental to Dr. Nelson’s point of view, is, as the Australian neurophysiologist and Nobel Laureate Sir John C. Eccles (quoted at beginning of article) famously said, “a superstition.” Dr. Nelson and other physicalists are incapable of meeting the empirical challenges posed by the empirical data from NDEs, out-of body experiences (OBEs) and all manner of related mystical experiences. They neglect or deliberately ignore these “inconvenient” empirical facts, or attempt to explain away the basic rudiments through simplistic elementary explanations that cannot even begin to elucidate the rich landscape of the actual experiences.
As astrophysicist Paul Willard Merrill, PhD, wrote in his book on long-period variable stars, when faced with facts that contradict one’s expectations, “if discordant values be omitted the others agree very well.”2 This humorous observation of science gone awry applies well to the approach of members of the conventional scientific community (like Nelson) who dismiss and deny any data from NDEs that do not fit rigidly into the conventional brain-creates-consciousness (physicalist) model.
A common error in this standard physicalist reasoning results from observing that some aspect x of NDEs (or OBEs) has some similarities to neurological condition y; therefore, explaining y explains those aspects x of NDEs, OBEs or other mystical experiences. This kind of oversimplification is guaranteed to lead to gross misinterpretation of the experiences.