Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Contra Michael Shermer on Near Death Experiences

Ever since Raymond Moody’s book Life After Life, published in 1975, the subject of Near Death Experiences (henceforth NDEs) has been at the forefront of speculations regarding the nature of consciousness and the afterlife; in fact, before these experiences became widely publicized, all we could do, at the moment, was speculate. However, the nature of NDEs has brought new information and research to shed light on the aforementioned topics. While those who consider themselves mind-body dualists have zealously encouraged such information, those who consider themselves part of the skeptic community have been, well, skeptical.

One such well-known skeptic is none other than atheist Michael Shermer. Shermer believes that NDEs are nothing more than tricks of our brain, and that all aspects will eventually be absorbed into a materialistic worldview. Yet, before we examine Shermer’s supposed refutations regarding the validity of NDEs, we need to examine exactly what characterizes an NDE.

According to professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences Bruce Greyson, “Near-Death Experiences are profound psychological events with transcendental and mystical elements, typically occurring to individuals close to death or in situations of intense physical or emotional danger.”  While the events experienced during an NDE vary, there are aspects that are common to many of them (the following list was formulated with assistance from Moody’s Life After Life):

1)      The ineffability of the experience

2)      A feeling of peace and quiet; pain is gone

3)      The awareness of being dead

4)      An out-of-body experience

5)      A tunnel experience

6)      The perception of an unearthly environment

7)      Meeting and communicating with deceased relatives

8)      Seeing a bright light or a being of light

9)      Experiencing unconditional acceptance and love

10)  A panoramic life review

11)  A life preview

12)  The perception of a border that cannot be crossed

13)  The conscious return to the body

There are other aspects reported during NDE’s, but the above are the most commonly reported. Now, it stands to reason that anyone who claims that such NDEs can be accounted for in naturalistic terms must be able to account, even in principle, for all of the above characterizations of NDEs.

Let us now see how Shermer attempts to evaluate these characteristics—all of Shermer’s contentions will be taken from his book The Believing Brain, of which he devotes a total of 13 pages to NDEs. Shermer begins by attempting to account for 1), 2), 5), and 8) by analyzing the findings of studies undertaken to fight g-force induced loss of consciousness in pilots:

[T]he majority of pilots experienced[…] brief episodes of tunnel vision, sometimes with a bright light at the end of the tunnel, as well as a sense of floating, sometimes paralysis, and often euphoria and a feeling of peace and serenity when they came back to consciousness.

 In order to explain the advent of the feeling of peace and serenity, Shermer claims (quoting a medical doctor and neuroscientist) that these “are likely to have been produced by the increased release of various neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine.”

Shermer then brings forth scientific studies performed by Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke, who was able to produce quite lucidly seeming out-of-body experiences—perhaps a potential explanation of 4). The patients of the studies claimed to be able to see themselves lying in bed as they floated towards the ceiling.

Moreover, Shermer looks to discoveries by neuroscientists whereby damage to the posterior superior parietal lobe--what is called the orientation association area (OAA)--can cause people to experience feelings of spiritual transcendence. The reason for this is that the OAA is responsible for orienting the body in physical space. Therefore, damage to the OAA makes it difficult for individuals to differentiate between themselves and something separate to them. Moreover, it leads to a “blurring between reality and fantasy, between feeling in body and out of body” Shermer claims.

Shermer’s last line of argumentation is to take a look at hallucinogenic drugs. Shermer lists a number of said drugs (e.g., MDA and DMT) and claims that they can produce effects such as the sense of floating and flying, out-of-body experiences, and the bringing back of long forgotten memories—perhaps accounting for 10).

Shermer has, no doubt, kept up with the scientific literature. He seems to have provided quite plausible explanations for many aspects of NDEs; and while many of these explanations only explain aspects of NDEs one at a time, it is not far-fetched to say that whatever is going on neurologically, these aspects could all be accounted for by one neurological process. Yet, this might only be the case if science could explain all aspects of NDEs, albeit even piecemeal. However, I maintain that Shermer’s findings have not done this—for at best Shermer has only accounted for half of the aspects listed above--and that Shermer has side-stepped the most cogent and compelling arguments in favor of the validity of NDEs. It is to these arguments, along with some qualms regarding Shermer’s contentions, that we now turn.

Let us begin with Shemer’s claims that the feelings of peace and bliss can be accounted for by neurotransmitters such as endorphins. While this might seem prima facie plausible, it turns out to be misleading. Cardiologist Pim Van Lommel explains:

Endorphins can indeed get rid of pain and cause a sense of peace and well-being. However, the effects of endorphins usually last several hours whereas the absence of pain and the sense of peace during an NDE vanish immediately after regaining consciousness.

So while Shermer’s explanation seems to be plausible, it has a very difficult time explaining why all the individuals who experience NDEs often retain none of those experiences (e.g. peace and bliss) after they have “been brought back to their body”, so to speak.

Let us now look at aspects of NDEs that Shermer ignored, and which provide the most compelling case for the validity of NDEs. I see no better place to begin than with, probably one of the most famous NDEs, the case of Pamela Reynolds. Reynolds was diagnosed with an aneurysm and underwent brain surgery in 1991. During the operation her body temperature was lowered to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and all the blood was drained from her head. The electrical activity of her brain was under full observation during the whole surgery, and there was no activity whatsoever. Cardiologist Michael Sabom explained that Reynold’s “brain was found dead by all three clinical tests.” Reynolds also had “clicking devices” put in her ears to help monitor the brain, and therefore could not hear even if she was, per impossible, conscious.

Now, during the operation Reynolds experienced an NDE, which began with an out-of-body perception. During the latter experience she witnessed the surgeons working on her and, subsequently, witnessed a drill that she described looked like an electric toothbrush , that was used to during the operation. Then Reynolds witnessed the surgeons discussing a problem regarding the size of her arteries, followed by the surgeons moving toward the lower half of her body to work. All of these experiences Reynolds witnessed were confirmed by her neurosurgeon, as well as a confirmation that it was simply impossible for Reynolds to have been able to see or hear anything she described during her surgery. Her neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Spetzler explains:

I don’t have an explanation for it. I don’t know how it’s possible for it to happen, considering the physiological state she was in.

These types of veridical experiences regarding NDEs are very common. In Pim Van Lommel’s book ConsciousnessBeyond Life--which was largely based on his own comprehension eight year study of Dutch NDEs whereby he investigated 344 patients, with controls, who had undergone cardiac arrest resuscitation--he describes case after case of individuals who had NDEs whereby they explained events during their cardiac arrest that were later verified. Moreover, in the book The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, it was found that out of 93 reports of potentially verifiable out-of-body experiences, “92 percent were completely accurate, 6 percent contained some error, and only one was completely erroneous.”

Notice that the above hypotheses of Shermer fail to account for such facts. He claims to account for the experience of out-of-body perceptions, yet these hypotheses cannot explain how an extremely high percent of these experiences are veridical and have been verified by doctors and nurses et al. But NDEs have even more cogent evidence to put forth, namely, that of individuals meeting relatives that they had no idea were deceased, or had never met before.

Here are two accounts of individuals that had NDEs which were recorded as part of Lommel’s comprehensive study:

During my NDE following a cardiac arrest, I saw both my dead grandmother and a man who looked at me lovingly but whom I didn’t know. Over ten years later my mother confided on her death-bed that I’d been born from an extramarital affair; my biological father was a Jewish man who’d been deported and killed in World War II. My mother showed me a photograph. The unfamiliar man I’d seen more than ten years earlier during my NDE turned out to be my biological father.

At the age of sixteen I had a serious motorcycle accident. I was in a coma for nearly three weeks. During that coma I had an extremely powerful experience…and then I came to a kind of iron fence. Behind it stood Mr. Van der G., the father of my parents’ best friend. He told me I couldn’t go any further. I had to go back because my time hadn’t come yet…When I told my parents after waking up, they said to me that Mr. Van der G. had died and been buried during my coma. I couldn’t have known that he was dead.

These types of examples abound. A man from Holland, Evert Tabeek, had an NDE during cardiac arrest. During this NDE Tabeek had a panoramic life review and came across a woman and a boy, neither of which he recognized. Tabeek claims that they told him that he had abandoned them. When he was released from the hospital, Tabeek thought about the encounter constantly and tried to dig deep into his memory. Finally he recognized the woman he had seen; it was a woman he had had a relationship with long ago. He tracked down the woman and found her grave. Yet, he also found out something shocking: he had a son with this woman and didn’t even know it. Subsequently he found out that the son had been dead for thirty years. It was this woman and his son, whom he had never met nor even knew existed, that he claims he saw during his NDE.

Notice once more that Shermer’s hypotheses have no explanatory power regarding instances such as these. His hypotheses might be able to explain the “illusion” of meeting relatives and experiencing panoramic life reviews, yet such speculations say absolutely nothing regarding individuals who learn things during these NDEs that they could not possibly have known. However, we’re not done with Shermer yet, for there are still NDEs that are even more compelling than anything we’ve seen so far. Let us now turn to one of these.

Vicki Noratuk was born blind due an extremely high level of oxygen concentration in her incubator. This high concentration of oxygen caused Vicki to suffer atrophy of the eyeball and optic nerve. As a result, her visual cortex did not develop and, therefore, Vicki cannot see and cannot imagine, dream, nor hallucinate things visually. Vicki states, “I’ve never seen anything, no light, no shadows, no nothing…I don’t see anything at all. And in my dreams I don’t see any visual impressions.”  In 1973 Vicki was in a car accident and suffered a skull fracture which rendered her comatose. During this period she experienced a NDE.

The next thing I recall I was in Harborview Medical Center and looking down at everything that was happening. And it was frightening because I’m not accustomed to seeing things visually, because I never had before. And initially it was pretty scary! And then I finally recognized my wedding ring and my hair…As I approaching this area, there were trees and there were birds and quite a few people, but they were all, like, made out of light, and I could see them, and it was incredible, really beautiful, and I was overwhelmed by that experience because I couldn’t really imagine what light was light.

Vicki’s case does not stand alone. There have been numerous individuals that have had the same experience as Vicki. While cases such as this provide one with a sense of awe, they also put to bed hypotheses like Shermer’s above.

While Shermer has cited many scientific investigations demonstrating that people can experience different aspects of NDEs, his hypotheses lose all plausibility in the face of the above accounts. He tried to account for the vision of the tunnel. Yet, the tunnel vision is usually the first aspect experienced in his example of pilots going through g-force training, whereas the experience of going through a tunnel usually comes after the out-of-body experience in NDEs. Furthermore, while Shermer has given explanations regarding how out-of –body perceptions can be produced through scientific experiments and hallucinogenic drugs, his hypotheses cannot, even in principle, account for NDEs where people have veridical experiences, meet deceased relatives they didn’t even know existed, and where people without the cognitive faculties for visual stimuli nevertheless experience visual perceptions. So, while it might have seemed initially plausible that science might shed some light on NDEs, it seems, rather, that science is in the dark here.

So, while Shermer’s argumentation initially accounted for half of the above aspects of NDEs, we now see that Shermer has nothing to salvage any longer. His hypotheses are weak, and he simply ignores the most cogent lines of evidence regarding the nature of NDEs. Thus, we are free to conclude that we have warrant to dismiss Shermer’s contentions as untenable and illogical.

So, where does the skeptic go from here? Well, there are usually two options that will be favored by them: 1) dismiss the above evidence in favor of NDEs as pure anecdote, or 2) insist that science will one day be able to explain NDEs—this is Shermer’s last refuge: “just because we do not have a 100 percent completely natural explanation for all of the experiences that people have near death does not mean that we will never understand death, or that there is some other mysterious force at work. It certainly does not mean there is life after death.” Yet, both of these options rest on pure dogmatic naturalistic assumptions.

For there is a third option: admit the cogency of NDEs and adjust your worldview accordingly. However, this is the last thing the skeptic would ever consider. The skeptic, who prides himself as a catalyst of reason, is no more than an individual with a naturalistic presupposition, who will do anything to salvage said presupposition. When the evidence is overwhelming the naturalist does not change his point of view, but, rather, simply clings to his beloved science and hopes that all will be well in the end (and only the religious engage in wishful thinking?). Naturalists are stuck with a box that all their beliefs must fit in; yet, when beliefs don’t fit, they simply claim that such beliefs are illusory or, rather, that one day they will indeed fit in the box.

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