Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Evidence Of The Afterlife: The Science Of Near-Death Experiences

I finally obtained a copy of Jeffrey Long’s “Evidence Of The Afterlife,” published in 2010, which makes an excellent adjunct to his NDERF website, with its compendium of over 4000 first-person NDE accounts. A noted critic of the “supernatural” interpretation of the near-death experience wrote a short negative review of the book, which (for better or worse) I have kept in mind as I survey Dr. Long’s case reviews. Dr. Long’s book recites the major features of the NDEs as submitted by his website visitors (as of 2010), along with some basic statistical analysis. Dr. Long probably offends some materialists by concluding that the NDE accounts suggest evidence of God, “heaven,” and an afterlife, which is okay. The evidence seems to point in that direction. But I can entertain the counter-argument that it proves nothing of the sort. Obviously, we cannot “prove” the supernatural aspect of the NDE without crossing the “barrier” and doubling back to Earth to give an account thereof (which, I believe, is done in ADCs, or after-death communications, but that is a something that I think others are more qualified to argue).

Mostly I’ve read “Evidence Of The Afterlife” for the stories. The 4000+ NDE accounts on the NDERF site stand on their own—and I am currently in the process of reading every single one—but it’s interesting to me to read the ones that Dr. Long believes are most evidential. I am certainly open to skeptical arguments against the supernatural interpretation of the NDE, but only if they highlight some flaw in the methodology for collecting the information, or demonstrate a clear medical, material cause for the experience. I have been persuaded by such skeptical arguments in other paranormal areas, specifically, “alien abductions.” Several researchers have offered compelling criticisms of these cases, which I blogged about a while back. Other paranormal beliefs may be successfully refuted by highlighting questions about the proponents’ credentials, credibility, or veracity, or highlighting perceptive anomalies, among other possibilities.

While it is easy to attack the methodology or credibility of a researcher or two, it is difficult to argue against the experiences of over 4000 individuals who have been near death and have returned to write about it. When assaulted by an overwhelming number of detailed, sincere, and similar accounts, told by experiencers from different cultures, at different ages and backgrounds, the simplest response is to accept their accounts at face value. They are describing apparently real events that require no further explanation or interpretation. They are what they are, and, just as importantly, what they seem to be. The database is available to believer and skeptic alike, to sort, analyze, interpret. But the experiences deserve to stand on their own. If Dr. Long has a flaw, it might be his apparent enthusiasm for the supernatural or divine interpretation of the experiences. Skeptics will interpret this as a serious bias that contaminates his data. They have a point—if it can be demonstrated that Dr. Long is selecting only those NDE accounts that conform to a bias, while not publishing those that don’t. He might be possibly doing this. But I’m inclined to doubt it. It would not only be unethical, but time-consuming.

(On a side note: I’ve been listening to some old Art Bell shows from the ‘90s and 00s, and today I re-heard his 2002 interview with Pam Reynolds. For me, this is the classic NDE account told by probably the most credible experiencer. Coincidentally, the primary critic of the Pam Reynolds account, most cited by skeptics, is the same critic above who gave a negative review of Dr. Long’s book.)

Postscript to my side note: In her 2002 interview, Pam Reynolds mentioned that she planned to write a book on her experience. The book was never published, which is unfortunate. The most complete account of her NDE was reportedly written by Michael Sabom, but I’ve resisted buying “Light And Death” because it does seem to have a religious bias. It’s possible that this bias has skewed interpretation of Reynolds’ account and led to the skeptical outpouring. However, Reynolds avoids any overt religious sentiment in her account. She mentions “God” only once and avoids labeling her experience as a “miracle” (although the chain of coincidences that leads to her treatment is noteworthy).

1 comment:

  1. Interesting piece. I've been interested in and researching NDEs myself lately and coming up with similar questions. It's difficult to separate what might actually be happening from the cultural and religious context in which these experiences are reported. In fact, I'd go so far as to say this is impossible since what we have are not the actual experiences themselves but accounts of the experiences, and these accounts are always being given by real human beings who have come through the experience giving them a full emotional significance.

    A speculation of mine which so far as I know hasn't been made elsewhere is that NDEs are ultimately rooted in a temporal short-circuit. If we set aside linear time locally, then we might suppose that a given body which will be successfully resuscitated or restored to life in the near future might retroactively allow consciousness to survive while the body is evidently dead in the present. In analogy to some of what we hear taking in place in quantum phenomena, if in the near future - which in some sense already exists - the body is going to be alive (again), then there might be a free-floating consciousness that is rooted not in the dead body in the present, but rather in the shortly to be alive again body of the near future. The (future) fact that the body will be alive is what permits the consciousness to exist and function in the present.

    In a trivial sense, this has to be true: if the body is destined to die - die completely - then we'd never hear about the NDE because the person would never come back to tell of it. But in the scenario I've described, the survival of consciousness is not down to a permanent, independent nature of consciousness, but to the more modest fact of a body grounding it, organizing it albeit one in the (near) future. To my mind, this more limited claim for the survival of consciousness may be closer to the perceived facts, because in all the paranormal phenomena we hear about, it does not appear that fully-fledged consciousnesses are floating around all around us with their complete personalities in the way that NDE out-of-body consciousnesses seem to with their personalities intact. Of course, not all NDEs involve out-of-body experiences with people floating above the operating table. But the sheer variety of NDEs ought to suggest that it may too much to suppose consciousness 'survives' in the way we might hope. Rather, it is prone to wide transformations and alterations depending on the circumstances, and in the case of final death, maybe dissipation.