Consciousness (XIII) — The Epistemology of Death

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Part 1.

The first fact about the near death experience worth considering is that the very existence of the experience is already incredibly unlikely, on the assumption that the physical structure of the brain “is,” or “produces,” the subjective experiences of the mind—that is, in other words, the very existence of the near death experience provides evidence against the very assumption used to rule out the possibility that near death experiences could represent something “real.” Forget the fact that these are “near death” experiences—the most basic and fundamental reason to find the near death experience intriguing is quite simply that it should be surprising to the materialist that it happens at all. The sheer fact that experiences of this type are even capable of happening at the time at which they occur, period, itself provides reasonable probabilistic evidence against the hypothesis—which throughout this series I have adamantly contended is (1) a philosophical hypothesis to begin with, not a scientific one; (2) not clearly rendered more probably true by any particular scientific facts; and (3) opposed by entirely plausible, strong philosophical arguments standing against it; and yet strikingly lacking support, giving the fervency with which belief in it is so often held, by any particular strong philosophical arguments in its defense—that first–person subjective, qualitative experience is produced by the otherwise blind motion of inert physical structures (in a brain or otherwise).

People who undergo Near Death Experiences describe them as feeling “more real than real.” And experiments confirm that memories of Near Death Experiences are indeed more vivid than memories of truly experienced events, and that recall of them looks nothing like recall of imagined memories when compared to them in brain scans. Quite plainly, if subjective conscious experiences are without exception either the product of, or identical to physical brain activity, then we should expect the subjective intensity of experience to correlate directly with the objective intensity of brain activity. Yet, in the Near Death Experience, this is categorically the opposite of what we actually see. “Cooper and Ring noted that [in ordinary waking life] a hallucination is accompanied by heightened brain activity. But their studies produced data showing that NDEs happened more often when neurophysiological activity was reduced, not increased. Sabom also found that NDEs were more likely when the person was unconscious for longer than 30 minutes; Ring found that the closer people were to physical death, the more extensive the NDE.” [1]  And other research continues to confirm that NDEs tend to be deeper—even with more reports of “enhanced cognitive powers” (such as the “enhanced powers” of memory recall during the “life review”), no less—the closer the subject is to death.

As Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick write, “The occurrence of lucid, well–structured thought processes together with reasoning, attention and memory recall of specific events during cardiac arrest (NDE) raise a number of interesting and perplexing questions regarding how such experiences could arise. These experiences appear to be occurring at a time when cerebral function can be described at best as severely impaired, and at worst absent.” Bruce Greyson concurs: ”The paradoxical occurrence of heightened, lucid awareness and logical thought processes during a period of impaired cerebral perfusion raises particularly perplexing questions for our current understanding of consciousness and its relation to brain function. A clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.” That even the skeptics recognize that this is true is supported by the observation that one of the most common skeptical approaches is to argue that the near death experience actually doesn’t happen during clinical death, but is reconstructed at some other time (however implausible this suggestion may be—for reasons we will see, as well as one we already have: recall of memories of the near death experience look nothing like recall of imagined memories, and these memories consistently contain more details than memories of either real or imagined events).

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1.1

The usual skeptical approach to the near death experience is to outline physical factors that can produce experiences with vague similarities to certain aspects of the near death experience. The effects of a sufficient dose of DMT can be similar to the typical NDE, for example—so perhaps the brain releases DMT as it approaches death. Depriving the brain of oxygen can loosely replicate some features as well, as can electrical stimulation applied to the temporal lobe.

The problem however, is twofold: first, no particular one of these features comes anywhere close to being able to do more than capture vague resemblance to a small handful of the core characteristics of the near death experience; and second, near death experiences seem to be capable of happening in an extremely wide range of physical circumstances, so that any particular physical element which might be proposed to play a role in producing the experience therefore appears to necessarily be entirely lacking in some significant percentage of cases.

Most fundamentally, any attempt to explain the near death experience through physiological features will be undermined by the fact that NDEs can occur simply because death appears to be imminent, without the subject’s being physically near death at all—and when NDEs occur in these circumstances, they carry all the prototypical features of NDEs that occur when a subject is actually physically close to death. And yet, researcher P. M. H. Atwater, pediatrician Melvin Morse, ICU nurse Penny Sartori amongst many others have all documented the fact that NDEs happen in children under the age of five, and even in children as young as six months old—and in all cases, they carry all the same basic features as they do when they occur to adults. (For more on reports from children’s near death experiences, see: Bush, 1983; Gabbard & Twemlow, 1984; Herzog & Herrin, 1985; M. Morse, 1983, 1994; M. Morse, Conner, & Tyler, 1985; M. Morse et al., 1986; Serdahely, 1990).

Dr. Jeffrey Long says of his own studies on near death experiences in young children: “ … their average age was 3–1/2 years old. These are children so young that to them, death is an abstraction. They don’t understand it. They can’t conceptualize it. They’ve almost never heard about near–death experiences; have no preconceived notions about that. They certainly have far less cultural influence, both in terms of religion or anything else that could even potentially modify the near-death experience at that tender young age. And yet looking at these same 33 elements of near–death experience that I did in other parts of this study, I found absolutely no statistical difference in their percentage of occurrence in very young children as compared to older children and adults.” (On a related note, NDEs also occur to people who are struck by death—say, through sudden cardiac arrest, or being struck with a vehicle they hadn’t realized was approaching them—too quickly to have any concept of what is happening.) Facts like these would seem to render a physiological account a more plausible way of dismissively explaining the NDE than a psychological account. But yet, once again, any physiological feature which might bear some relation to the NDE will be missing from many accounts—and some accounts will lack all of them. (Similarly, while positive experiences might theoretically be explained by things like wish–fulfillment, there are both “hellish” experiences and people who simply experience the ordinary phenomenology of the near death experience as hellishly terrifying in its own right.)

Capacity to experience the NDE is not limited by personality type. In The Handbook of Near Death Experiences (2009), Bruce Greyson and Janice Holden conclude a survey of the evidence for personality–type factors in NDEs: ”[R]esearch has not yet revealed a [personality] characteristic that either guarantees or prohibits the occurrence, incidence, nature or after–effects of a near death experience.” People who have had NDEs do not differ from those who do not in terms of “‘sociodemographic variables, social support, quality of life, acceptance of their illness, [or] cognitive function (as assessed using a standard instrument, the Mini–Mental State Exam)….” And there is no correlation with prior religion or religiosity, even though “a significant correlation was found between the depth of the NDE and a subsequent increase both in the importance of religion and in religious activity.” Any psychological explanation of the NDE must face the fact that the core structure of the near death experiences is as consistent as it is despite its occurrence not being related in any way so far identified to the subject’s prior expectation.

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1.2

Blood and cerebral levels of oxygen and other gases like carbon dioxide play a major role in skeptical counter–explanations of the NDE. But reduction of oxygen levels to the brain produces confusion, and leads to impairment in memory formation (see also)—yet, as already mentioned, near death experiences are almost always experienced vividly and remembered with striking clarity. Dr. Sam Parnia notes that people whose oxygen levels fall “become agitated and acutely confused … [and] develop “clouding of consciousness” together with highly confused thought processes with little or no memory recall. … those who have NDEs have an excellent memory of the experience, which often stays with them for decades. … [they experience] the complete opposite of an acute confusional state.” Furthermore, “patients with low oxygen levels don’t report seeing a light, a tunnel, or any of the typical features of an NDE … this experience has never been reported by any other doctor or scientific study as a feature of a lack of oxygen.” Blood levels of both oxygen and carbon dioxide have been measured in NDE patients, and sometimes maintained by heart–lung machines—so we have good reason to believe NDEs have occurred in patients without abnormal levels. Although blood levels of carbon dioxide may not accurately reflect levels present in the brain, and so it is possible that this hasn’t ruled out a role for carbon dioxide; “raised carbon dioxide was an extremely common problem in clinical practice, [but] we hardly ever saw anyone have an NDE–type event. Also, there [have] been many studies … on the effects of increased carbon dioxide and these [have] not shown that it [leads] to NDE–like states.”

More importantly, the authors of a review in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience write: “In a sudden severe acute brain damage event such as cardiac arrest, there is no time for an experience of tunnel vision from retinal dysfunction, given that the brain is notably much more sensitive to anoxia and ischemia than peripheral organs … Fainting due to arterial hypotension—a common event—does not seem to be associated with the tunnel visions described in NDEs. … NDEs are not reported by patients using opioids for severe pain, while their cerebral adverse effects display an entirely different phenomenology in comparison to NDEs (Mercadante et al., 2004; Vella-Brincat and Macleod, 2007). Morse also found that NDE occurrence in children is independent from drug administration, including opioids (Morse et al., 1986). … Evidence against simple mechanistic interpretations comes also from a well-known prospective study by van Lommel et al. (2001), which showed no influence of given medication even in patients who were in coma for weeks. Factors such as duration of cardiac arrest (the degree of anoxia), duration of unconsciousness, intubation, induced cardiac arrest, and the administered medication were found to be irrelevant in the occurrence of NDEs. Also, psychological factors did not affect the occurrence of the phenomenon: for instance, fear of death, prior knowledge of NDE, and religion were all found to be irrelevant.”

Quoting from page 376 of Irreducible Mind: “Experiences often differ sharply from the individual’s prior religious or personal beliefs and expectations about death (Abramovitch, 1988; Ring, 1984). People who had no prior knowledge about NDEs describe the same kinds of experiences and features as do people more familiar with the phenomenon (Greyson, 1991; Greyson & Stevenson, 1980; Ring, 1980; Sabom, 1982). … If NDEs are significantly shaped by cultural expectations, we might expect that experiences occurring after 1975, when Moody’s first book made NDEs such a well–known phenomenon, would conform more closely to Moody’s “model” than those that occurred before that date. This does not appear to be the case (Long & Long, 2003). Similarly, a study of 24 experiences in our collection that not only occurred but were reported before 1975 found no significant differences in the features reported, when compared to a matched sample of cases occurring after 1984, except that fewer “tunnel” experiences were reported in the pre–I975 group (Athappilly, Greyson, & Stevenson, 2006).”

However, despite the fact that fear of death and religion play no predictive role in whether or not someone will have an NDE, clear differences remain for years after the brush with death between those who have had them. Writing in the 2011 book Neuroscience, Consciousness, and SpiritualityPim Van Lommel says that: “ … the infrequently noted fear of death does not affect the occurrence of a NDE either, … whether or not patients had heard or read anything about NDE in the past made no difference … [And] any kind of religious belief, or indeed its absence in non–religious people or atheists, was irrelevant ….” Yet, “Among the 74 patients who consented to be interviewed after 2 years, 13 of the total of 34 factors listed in the questionnaire turned out to be significantly different for people with or without an NDE. The second interviews showed that in people with NDE fear of death in particular had significantly decreased while belief in an afterlife had significantly increased. … [And] after 8 years … clear differences remained between people with and without NDE, … In particular, they were [still] less afraid of death and had a stronger belief in an afterlife.”

Temporal lobe seizures have been proposed to play a role on the basis that temporal lobe epileptic episodes sometimes have some superficial similarities with the NDE, but once again—temporal lobe seizures are associated with dramatic memory loss. Automatisms don’t occur in association with near death experiences, either. As neuroscientist Mario Beauregard writes, “Review of the literature on epilepsy …indicates that the classical features of NDEs are not associated with epileptic seizures located in the temporal lobes … [and] the experiences reported by participants in Persinger’s [transcranial magnetic stimulation] studies bear little resemblance with the typical features of NDEs.” The authors of Irreducible Mind: Towards a Psychology for the 21st Century write (p.396): “[The] neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield … is widely reported as having produced … NDE–like phenomena in the course of stimulating various points in the exposed brains of awake epileptic patients being prepared for surgery. Only two out of his 1132 patients, however, reported anything that might be said to resemble an OBE: One patient said: ‘Oh God! I am leaving my body.’ Another patient said only: ‘I have a queer sensation as if I am not here… As though I were half here and half there.’ In later studies at the Montréal Neurological Institute…, only one of 29 patients with temporal lobe epilepsy reported “a ‘floating sensation’ which the patient likened at one time to the excitement felt when watching a football game and at another time to a startle” (Gloor et al., 1982, pages 131–132). Such experiences hardly qualify as phenomenologically equivalent to OBE.”

The authors of the earlier Frontiers review conclude: “Anesthesia can suppress consciousness by simply interrupting binding and integration between local brain areas without the need for suppressing EEG activity (Alkire and Miller, 2005; Alkire et al., 2008). This is the reason why, in clinical practice, general anesthesia can be associated with almost normal EEG with peak activity in the alpha band (Facco et al., 1992), while in deep, irreversible coma, consciousness can be lost even with a preserved alpha pattern activity (Facco, 1999; Kaplan et al., 1999). In short, loss of consciousness can occur with preserved EEG activity, while, in the case of a flat EEG, neither cortical activity nor binding can occur; furthermore, short latency somatosensory–evoked potentials, which explore the conduction through brain stem up to the sensory cortex and are more resistant to ischemia than EEG, have been reported to disappear during cardiac arrest (Yang et al., 1997). The whole of these data clearly disproves any speculation about residual undetected brain activity as a cause for some conscious experience during cardiac arrest.”

Bruce Greyson concurs:  “In our collection at the University of Virginia, 22% of our NDE cases occurred under anesthesia,  and they include the same features as other NDEs, … functional imaging studies that have looked at blood flow, glucose metabolism, or other indicators of cerebral activity under general anesthesia (Alkire, 1998; Alkire et al., 2000; Shulman et al., 2003; White & Alkire, 2003) … [confirm that] brain areas essential to the global workspace are consistently greatly reduced in activity individually and may be decoupled functionally, thereby providing considerable evidence against the possibility that the anesthetized brain could produce clear thinking, perception, or memory. …  [And] the situation is even more dramatic with regard to NDEs occurring during cardiac arrest … In cardiac arrest, even neuronal action–potentials, the ultimate physical basis for coordination of neural activity between widely separated brain regions, are rapidly abolished (Kelly et al., 2007). Moreover, cells in the hippocampus, the region thought to be essential for memory formation, are especially vulnerable to the effects of anoxia (Vriens et al., 1996). In short, it is not credible to suppose that NDEs occurring under conditions of general anesthesia, let alone cardiac arrest, can be accounted for in terms of some hypothetical residual capacity of the brain to process and store complex information under those conditions.”

Finally, Van Lommel (in Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Spirituality): “Through many studies with induced cardiac arrest in both human and animal models cerebral function has been shown to be severely compromised during cardiac arrest, with complete cessation of cerebral blood flow (Gopalan et al. 1999), causing sudden loss of consciousness and of all body reflexes, but also with the abolition of brain–stem activity with the loss of the gag reflex and of the corneal reflex, and fixed and dilated pupils are clinical findings in those patients. And also the function of the respiratory centre, located close to the brainstem, fails, resulting in apnoea (no breathing). The electrical activity in the cerebral cortex (but also in the deeper structures of the brain in animal studies) has been shown to be absent after 10–20 s (a flat-line EEG) (De Vries et al. 1998; Clute and Levy 1990; Losasso et al. 1992; Parnia and Fenwick 2002). … Moreover, although measurable EEG–activity in the brain can be recorded during deep sleep (no–REM phase) or during general anesthesia, no consciousness is experienced because there is no integration of information and no communication between the different neural networks (Massimini et al. 2005; Alkire and Miller 2005; Alkire et al. 2008). So even in circumstances where brain activity can be measured sometimes no consciousness is experienced. A functioning system for communication between neural networks with integration of information is essential for experiencing consciousness, and this does not occur during deep sleep or general anesthesia, let alone during cardiac arrest.

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1.3

A 2013 study on death from cardiac arrest in rats was supposed to be interpreted by some skeptics as casting doubt on this when it found that EEG measurements recorded gamma waves (the highest possible frequency) in the brains of rats dying of induced cardiac arrest. This was particularly compelling because, since the late 80’s, it has been proposed that the synchronized firing of neurons in the gamma range could be responsible for how subjective experience becomes “bound”—that is, how experience unifies multiple modes of sensory input in one unitary stream of experience, despite the fact that these processes are spread out in the brain without ever meeting together at any central point that might theoretically represent ‘the place’ in the brain from which we ‘see’ all of these inputs ‘together’. However, more recent studies confirm that gamma waves are not, in fact, direct correlates of conscious perception—“most [previous] studies manipulated conscious perception by altering the amount of sensory evidence, [so] it is possible that they reflect prerequisites or consequences of consciousness rather than the actual [neural correlate of it]. Here we directly address this issue … [and results contradict] the proposal that local gamma band responses in the higher–order visual cortex reflect conscious perception.” Other research shows that gamma waves measured by EEG can represent nothing more than “miniature saccades [eye motions] instead of cognitive or neuronal processes.” (A further review of that data can be found here).

Sam Parnia notes that “After blood flow to the brain is stopped, there is an influx of calcium inside brain cells that eventually leads to cell damage and death … That would lead to measurable electroencephalography (EEG) activity, which could be what is being measured.” Other previous research already existed to confirm his suspicion, noting that EEG waves after decapitation, for example, can be “caused by membrane potential oscillations that occur after the cessation of activity of the sodium–potassium pumps has lead to an excess of extracellular potassium. … this sudden depolarization leads to a wave in the EEG.” Another review explains: “The term spreading depolarization describes a wave in the gray matter of the central nervous system characterized by swelling of neurons, distortion of dendritic spines, a large change of the slow electrical potential and silencing of brain electrical activity (spreading depression) … Spreading depolarization is induced experimentally by various noxious conditions including chemicals such as potassium….” And the rats were, in fact, killed by an “intracardiac injection of potassium chloride.” Converging lines of evidence suggest that it is entirely probable that no subjective experiences were associated with these EEG waves at all; and in any case, gamma waves have never been measured in any human subjects (much less who weren’t injected with potassium chloride) in relation to any near death experience. This was yet another case of unfounded media hype, where anything that even remotely seems to support the reductionist case gets easy publicity (to be fair, poorly reasoned points that can be sensationalized tend to get easy publicity in general—but only in the case of claims interpreted as supporting reductionism do so many otherwise intelligent people get so easily suckered in).

As neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick and his wife Elizabeth write in a book reviewing more than 300 near death experiences, “While you may be able to find [skeptical explanations] for bits of the Near-Death Experience, I can’t find any explanation which covers the whole thing. You have to account for it as a package and skeptics … simply don’t do that. … They vastly underestimate the extent to which Near–Death Experiences are not just a set of random things happening, but a highly organized and detailed affair.” In short, for every single proposal for any particular physiological basis for the near death experience remains it extremely speculative to suppose that it actually does play any definite role. Substantial problems and difficulties face each individual suggestion; the skeptic skirts this  by supposing we can simply combine any number of such factors ad lib to arrive at the NDE’s phenomenology. Of course, the skeptic can always say that there is no special burden to provide a specific justified explanation of the NDE, that any number of variables in any combination could conceivably be triggering the NDE in different circumstances, and that an explanation of this sort should stand as the epistemic default unless it can be categorically disproven by the realist. The playing field, on this approach, isn’t equal (and it renders skeptical counter–hypothesis unfalsifiable for the foreseeable future): the fact that we can’t positively rule out x is supposed to make it unreasonable to believe y; but if we can’t positively rule out y, this isn’t supposed to make it unreasonable to believe x. But why should this be the case?

This could only be asserted because of an assumption that presuming subjective conscious experience to be nothing more than the epiphenomenal byproduct of physical brain activity is an epistemic default due to “parsimony” in the first place—yet it is just exactly this position which I have argued is not just epistemically unjustified given that nobody has a damned clue how blind physical processes could possibly “produce” subjective first–person experience (and such mechanisms, whatever they are, may hardly be “parsimonious”); it is falsified by the fact that it would entail that we could neither think nor talk about consciousness–per–se (and despite first appearances, panpsychism doesn’t solve the problem, either). Thus, my interest is not in the question of whether a “realist” interpretation of the NDE can be definitely demonstrated to be undoubtably true on purely neutral philosophical grounds. 

No skeptical counter–hypothesis can be definitively demonstrated to be anywhere near undoubtably true, either; and the skeptic hardly proceeds from purely neutral philosophical grounds. Indeed, that he does not do so is probably the single most important point to take away from all this: skeptical hypotheses towards the NDE are not believed because of how compelling the independent evidence is in their favor; these hypotheses are believed because of the insistence, born of an a priori conviction in the truth of materialism, that some explanation of the sort simply must be true because materialism in general is. And yet, if anything could possibly count as evidence against materialism, it would be evidence like this—which is dismissed by the materialist because it isn’t compatible with materialism.

My own interest is in what one can reasonably believe. And having argued in detail that one can more than reasonably believe that consciousness is not reducible in principle to physical mechanism (but is, instead, a “bedrock” phenomena in the world all in its own right), my conclusion extends to entail that one can reasonably believe that the near death experience could very well be just what it appears to be: an experience of the separation of consciousness from the body and brain. To the extent that there is simply no compelling justification (beyond prejudice) for confidence in the philosophical idea that qualitative, subjective experience is wholly and completely reducible to physical mechanism in the first place, there is no compelling justification (beyond prejudice) for confidence that any particular reductionist explanation of the near death experience is especially likely to be true. Any insistence otherwise plainly rests not on the independent plausibility of these reductionist explanations, but instead in the a priori conviction borne solely from philosophical prejudice that some reductionist explanation must be true—with this a priori conviction in place, the fact that it is conceivable that the patient near death has some residual brain activity we can’t currently measure, or that it can’t be definitively refuted that some complex combination of factors, none of which independently come anywhere near explaining the whole experience, and each of which seem entirely lacking in at least some large number of cases, could combine in any number of ways (and no matter how combined still produce the archetypical NDE) is—for the skeptic—enough. But for those of us who reject the claim that there is sufficient justification for such confidence in this a priori conviction in the first place, it isn’t.

Of course, much of this discussion of underlying neurophysiological correlates of the near death experience rather misses the point—for even interpreting them so that these would be evidence against the reality of the experience itself merely presupposes the philosophical position in which subjective experience is solely ‘produced by’ the physical activity of the brain. What precisely do we think we’re disproving if we identify the causes of onset of a near death experience? It simply wouldn’t follow from the fact that the trigger of the event is physical that the entire experience is purely physical, any more than it follows from the fact that the trigger of a note sounding out of a piano is the motion of a hand against a key that the entire experience of sound is composed of nothing but hands and keys. A balloon is a separate ‘thing’ from the string tying it to the ground, but the balloon still can’t float away unless the string which holds it is cut—and it doesn’t follow from this that the event of a balloon floating into the air is just nothing other than an event produced by strings whenever, in general, they are cut. Nor would correlations between how high in the air the balloon has risen and how far towards the ground the string has fallen in the milliseconds proceeding the cut prove that the state of the former was a direct function of the latter—even though such correlations will always be found.

Supposing the near death experience did involve perception of something real as a result of consciousness dissociating from the body, surely the mind–body connection is such that it is in response to actual death that consciousness dissociates from the dying brain—and surely there should be some combination of physical events which can be identified as the most proximate correlates of “death.” Hence, in order to sufficiently “debunk” the reality of the near death experience, the skeptic cannot just identify what physiological event corresponds with “death”, the point at which the experience occurs. Not even this goal has actually been empirically met—yet even if it ever should be, more would still be needed to establish that this was in fact anything more than the identification of the trigger which causes consciousness to separate from the brain and undergo the near death experience. Any confident dismissal of the reality of the near death experience based on less than this is, once again, simply unjustified philosophical prejudice—unless and until some compelling general proof of materialism as a whole is put forward.

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1.4

I’ve argued already that the very existence of a near death experience is surprising on the assumption that subjective conscious experience is either identical to, or a secondary, epiphenomenal byproduct “produced” by, the objectively measurable physical activity of the brain—but the nature of the experience itself is remarkable, too. Consider the effects of psychoactive drugs, delirium, and other “hallucinatory”–type states: the subjective effects of psychedelic drugs like DMT, and Ketamine vary tremendously between experiences. Some DMT or Ketamine experiences can resemble the near death experience in certain features, but there is remarkably little consistency between any two or three experiences with one of these drugs. DMT users encounter everything from “self–transforming machine elves” to “ a multi–eyed, multi–serpent” to “an alien wasp” to “dolls in 1890s outfits, life–sized … women  in corsets … red circles painted on their cheeks …  big breasts and big butts and teeny skinny waists …all whirling around me on tiptoes. The men had top hats, riding on two–seater bicycles.” On Ketamine, John Lilly encountered “[the aliens] who manage Earth Coincidence Control, your local branch of Cosmic Coincidence Control.” Others watch “every other entity within this realm begin to connect to one another, to become one…” or see “one face … that seemed very large and its features were constantly distorting themselves … [it] screamed, at such a volume that is not possible for any earthly speaker….”

There are a handful of variations across cultures in how the details of various stages of the near death experience are ‘filled in’: in the West, NDErs are usually “sent back” while being told that they must return to life to finish carrying out their ‘purpose,’ whereas a number of Indian accounts apparently involve the subject being told there was a bureaucratic mistake and that they aren’t the person whose death was expected. But this is as dramatic as the variations between various near death experiences get—and other than that, the core features are remarkably consistent across different times and places (and even here, they still fit the form of the subject being “sent back” within the vision prior to the experience of actually returning to their bodies). Why, if nothing produces the NDE besides a coincidence of converging chemicals, do they not become as varied as experiences with drugs like DMT or Ketamine? Why does no one ever find themselves at a circus watching dancing marionettes, talking to “multi–eyed serpents” or “alien wasps” or “self–transforming machine elves,” or getting screamed at by enormous distorting faces? This comparison is hardly irrelevant given that Ketamine (or a hypothetical Ketamine–like endogenous substance as yet identified) and DMT (which is in fact produced in some amounts endogenously within the brain) have both been proposed seriously by skeptics to play a direct role in producing near death experiences.

In light of facts like these, the striking similarities between near death experiences deserve explanation just as much as any dissimilarities do. Dr. Jeffrey Long notes that “The percentage of time that people encounter deceased relatives is extremely high. It was actually 96% in the NDERF study … [and] that’s actually corroborated by another major scholarly study … The important thing is that any other experience of altered consciousness that we experience on earth, dreams, hallucinations, drug experiences, you name it; all of these other types of experiences of altered consciousness, … You’re going to remember the banker that you did business with that day or your family member you said hi to as you were walking into the house. This is what’s in the forefront of consciousness.” It is intriguing, in this vein, to note that the “dreamlets” produced in fighter pilots during periods of unconsciousness induced by loss of cerebral oxygen through rapid acceleration in a centrifuge studied in 1997 by Dr. James Whinnery “frequently included living people, but never deceased people….” Would so few people rendered unconscious by rapid acceleration ever believe in the heat of the confusion that they had died? Would the same “expectations” proposed to explain the near death experience (despite the fact that fear of death, religion, and degree of religiosity have been found to have no predictive power over who will have an NDE) not show up here? (For that matter, it is striking that even amongst the incredibly intense variety of experiences reported by users of DMT, I have never heard a single one which actually ever paralleled the stages of the “real” near death experience directly. For all the interaction with ‘alien intelligences,’ for one thing, I’ve not once heard a single report of anyone apparently encountering a deceased relative.)

Once again, there is a compelling convergence of evidence: “[P]eople close to death are more likely to perceive deceased persons than do healthy people, who, when they have waking hallucinations, are more likely to perceive living persons (Osis & Haraldsson, 1977/1997). NDErs whose medical records show that they really were close to death also were more likely to perceive deceased persons than experiencers who were ill but not close to death, even though many of the latter thought they were dying (E. W. Kelly, 2001). … in one–third of the cases the deceased person was either someone with whom the experiencer had a distant or even poor relationship or someone whom the experiencer had never met, such as a relative who died long before the experiencer’s birth (E. W. Kelly, 2001).”

If the near death experience simply results from the lucky, surprising convergence of simultaneous chemical coincidences, then correlations like these—and the consistency of the form of the experience in general—is an absolutely astounding, unbelievable coincidence. Not only are we expected to believe that the experiencing subject enters a state of profoundly heightened awareness precisely when his brain activity becomes the most suppressed, and that the consistency of the form of the near death experience is always produced by this complex cocktail of factors despite the fact that it can occur in the apparent total absence of any of them and still retain the essence of exactly the same form, with no one ever reporting the disorganized or chaotic imagery of meeting DMT “machine elves” or the President of the United States or giant, distorted screaming faces or an environment like Blade Runner or the alien managers of “Earth Coincidence Control” or the planet Gallifrey after some particular factor changes, but correlations between the depth of the near death experience—even down to details such as how likely deceased persons were “encountered”—and the actual proximity to death exist by sheer coincidence. At some point, it just isn’t clear anymore whether the reductionist explanation really would even be more “parsimonious” supposing we could somehow start out with perfectly neutral philosophical presuppositions. The skeptic is left in the position of having to defend an increasingly wide range of utterly ad hoc theoretical factors which are supposed to mix and match ad lib to produce the experience and yet, no matter how they vary or even lack some of these factors entirely, still produce almost exactly the same core experience every time (at least so long as drugs are not involved). This is quite simply a tremendous far cry from anyone actually having anything like a justified reductionist account of the NDE.

Admitting the possibility that the NDE could be just what it appears to those who experience it to be—that consciousness simply can have experiences while separate from the brain—is not less “parsimonious” than any possible materialist explanation of the experience, even if we were approaching the question from theoretically neutral grounds. “Parsimony” is a relevant consideration against admitting the existence of something ‘new’ when all else is equal; but the more mechanisms one has to add and the more ad lib combinations of them one has to defend in order to avoid admitting that that something ‘new’ is just what it appears to be, the less “equal” things actually are and the less force considerations of “parsimony” have. All else equal, admitting the existence of a new species is not “parsimonious.” Indeed, when the platypus was first discovered, early investigators believed it was a hoax: “It was plausible, [Dr. George] Shaw thought, that some punk had collected the bill of a duck and an otter or mole’s body, then shipped it off from Australia as a joke.” But the more ad hoc hypotheses these investigators had to add to the ‘hoax’ hypothesis to avoid the conclusion that the platypus was nothing other than just precisely what it seemed to be, the less plausible—and “parsimonious”—the ‘hoax’ hypothesis became. To be clear, I don’t claim that the near death experience is exactly like this; but I do claim that it is somewhere much closer to this than it is to, say, the claim that there are “fairies at the bottom of my garden” which have never been observed.

I am reminded of David Chalmers’ statement about interpreting quantum physics: “[P]hilosophers reject interactionism on largely physical grounds (it is incompatible with physical theory), while physicists reject an interactionist interpretation of quantum mechanics on largely philosophical grounds (it is dualistic).” Likewise here: Skeptics reject realist interpretations of the near death experience—a “scientifically” observed event—simply because it is dualistic; and yet they reject dualism because it is “unscientific.” Yet, it is apparent that “science” in this sentence does not mean “direct scientific observation,” but rather—and much differently—“how we prefer to interpret our scientific observations.” But exactly what are these preferences supposed to be justified by?

When circularity runs this deep, it is clear that something other than the points of the circle are doing all the work of actually holding the circle up. I recall, once again, John Searle’s admission (which I quoted here): “Acceptance of the current [physicalist] views [in philosophy of mind] is motivated not so much by an independent conviction of their truth as by a terror of what are apparently the only alternatives. That is, the choice we are tacitly presented with is between a “scientific” approach, as represented by one or another of the current versions of “materialism,” and an “unscientific” approach, as represented by Cartesianism or some other traditional religious conception of the mind.”

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ ______

Part 2.

Suppose I know that my niece is in the hospital with a non–life–threatening condition, but I know that she is tied up with tubes that prevent her from leaving the hospital bed. My niece, Jane, has lots of friends; and I am aware as part of my background knowledge of my relationship with her that I don’t know who all of her friends are. Now, suppose that she gives me some piece of information about the hospital that she couldn’t have gotten herself, given that she has been strapped in place without moving: say, that there is a shoe sitting on a ledge outside the window on a different floor of the hospital. And suppose Jane tells me that she found this out because one of her friends, Joy, came by and told her about it.

No one has a direct record of Joy entering the hospital—but she might have simply made her way in without signing her name. I don’t know who Joy is, so I can’t independently verify (as yet) that she was in fact at the hospital that day—but I already realize I simply don’t know who all of Jane’s friends are in the first place, so I clearly can’t use this as grounds for ruling out her existence. Aren’t I justified in believing her? Unless (and until) I can independently prove the truth of some alternative means by which Jane actually came by this information, I think it is obvious that the answer is a clear “yes; of course.” Any ordinary individual would come to accept that a friend named Joy must have stopped by the hospital without any hesitation.

Suppose that rather than it being I who visited Jane, it was my brother Joe who visited her in the hospital and then relayed this story to me second–hand. Even then, don’t I still have adequate reason to accept on the basis of this information itself that Jane must have a friend named Joy, and that Joy must have come by the hospital and mentioned this random detail to my niece, whether I can independently verify these claims or not—unless I can independently refute them, or I find overwhelmingly good reason to conclude that my brother positively must be lying? Once again, I think it is obvious that the answer is a clear “yes; of course.” Most people would consider it flagrantly absurd if I were to insist that everyone involved must absolutely and positively disprove even the bare possibility that a worker at the hospital, or one of Jane’s friends whose names I already know, could even conceivably have relayed this information to Jane instead before I would simply accept that there must be a friend named Joy I haven’t met yet. Such strict standards would lead me to deny the existence of friends Jane actually does in fact have, and the occurrence of events which actually did in fact take place, on a regular basis.

The key factors in my evaluation of the truth of what I am told in this story all clearly relate to my background knowledge about the factors involved in the situation. Relevant background knowledge here includes my belief that Jane likely has a number of friends I don’t know about, my belief that Jane and Joe are generally honest people who have no reason to lie to me, and the belief that it is possible sometimes for people to visit a hospital without necessarily leaving an official record of their visit. Or that people sometimes go by nicknames that are not related to their legal names (so that “Joy’s” visit might have in fact been recorded, but under a different name—perhaps her real name is “Matilda,” and she goes by something different quite simply because she hates the name).

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

2.1

But now, suppose that rather than telling me that a friend named Joy came by the hospital and told her about the shoe sitting on a ledge on a different floor of the hospital, Jane tells me that she went out–of–body during a near–death experience during her operation in which she spotted the location of the shoe (or suppose that Joe relays to me second–hand that Jane made this claim). As before, I can neither positively prove nor positively refute the claim that this actually occurred. How, then, should I evaluate the likelihood that this is true, and what (if anything) makes this situation different from the one before?

Many investigators would hold this claim to a tremendously higher standard than they would hold against the claim that someone named Joy had visited and relayed this information to Jane—they would say that if it’s even conceivable that Jane could have obtained this information some other way (or that Joe might be lying to me), I shouldn’t even consider believing it for a second, and I would be absolutely foolish to do so. What (if anything) justifies that being the case here if it is not the case when Jane tells me that it was Joy (who I have likewise never seen for myself) who told her about the shoe?

This isn’t a statement that the skeptics themselves will protest: skeptics quite simply do not put this possibility on equal grounds with the alternatives. When skeptics address near–death experiences, they generally don’t accept a need to prove that some particular alternative explanation is true—they only see the need to show that an explanation of some other kind is conceivable; whereas the proponent of the NDE explanation is expected to definitely prove that the NDE explanation is the only possible explanation for what took place. If this is justified, it can only be justified because relevant background considerations justify it. And what are these background considerations?

Once again, the background consideration here is the philosophical conviction that the blind motion of the physical processes of the brain produces subjective conscious experiences merely as a secondary, epiphenomenal byproduct. I have given my reasons for considering this conviction not only misguided but preposterous repeatedly. And yet, the only justification ever actually given in attempted support for it is the fact that, at least in ordinary circumstances, there are correlations between the objective, quantifiable state of the physical brain and the subjective, qualitative state of the conscious subject’s experience—and these are exactly the correlations which, we have seen, appear to fall apart in the case of the near death experience.

There is a correlation between the event of flipping a light switch and the event of a light bulb turning off and on—but it simply doesn’t follow that the existence of the light bulb—or the existence of light itself—is a product of (much less identical to) the motion of light switches. If we shatter a glass prism, the visible light spectrum will disappear; but it doesn’t follow that the structure of the prism is identical to the visible light spectrum—nor even that the prism “produces” it: the prism simply allows what is already present within the white light which enters it to become visible.  Pressing the keys on an organ will occasion our hearing sounds, but the air which is actually responsible for these sounds is neither identical to the activity of nor strictly produced by the keys—the keys work by releasing air which is already present inside of the air–chamber. The argument established across thousands of words throughout this series has been that the idea that consciousness and the brain are identical is plainly false without either an radical eliminativist redefinition of consciousness (false for one set of reasons) or a radical panpsychist redefinition of matter (false for another set of reasons); and the idea that consciousness is produced by the brain would have to entail epiphenomenalism (false yet again for its own set of reasons). I can only insist to readers unconvinced that the issues can’t reasonably be summarized, and it would take careful consideration of the points discussed across this series to understand why I think this is unavoidably and absolutely true: not only are there plenty of viable alternatives which account for the interrelationship between physical states of the brain and subjective states of consciousness every bit as effectively as the  “identity” or “productive” theories, the “identity” and “productive” theories are in my view absolutely definitively not in fact even potentially viable accounts of that relationship at all.

In a lecture presented to Harvard University in 1898 (which I previously excerpted from here), William James said: “Suppose … that the whole universe of material things-—the furniture of earth and choir of heaven—should turn out to be a mere surface–veil of phenomena, hiding and keeping back the world of genuine realities. … Suppose … that the dome, opaque enough at all times to the full super–solar blaze, could at certain times places grow less so, and let certain beams pierce through into this sublunary world. …Only at particular times and places would it seem that, as a matter of fact, the veil of nature can grow thin and rupturable enough for such effects to occur. But in those places gleams, however finite and unsatisfying, of the absolute life of the universe, are from time to time vouchsafed. … Admit now that our brains are such thin and half–transparent places in the veil. What will happen? Why, as the white radiance comes through the dome, with all sorts of staining and distortion imprinted on it by the glass, or as the air now comes through my glottis determined and limited in its force and quality of its vibrations by the peculiarities of those vocal chords which form its gate of egress and shape it into my personal voice, even so the genuine matter of reality, the life of souls as it is in its fullness, will break through our several brains into this world in all sorts of restricted forms, and with all the imperfections and queernesses that characterize our finite individualities here below.

According to the state in which the brain finds itself, the barrier of its obstructiveness may also be supposed to rise or fall. It sinks so low, when the brain is in full activity, that a comparative flood of spiritual energy pours over. At other times, only such occasional waves of thought as heavy sleep permits get by. And when finally a brain stops acting altogether, or decays, that special stream of consciousness which it subverted will vanish entirely from this natural world. But the sphere of being that supplied the consciousness would still be intact; and in that more real world with which, even whilst here, it was continuous, the consciousness might, in ways unknown to us, continue still. You see that, on all these suppositions, our soul’s life, as we here know it, would none the less in literal strictness be the function of the brain. The brain would be the independent variable, the mind would vary dependently on it. But such dependence on the brain for this natural life would in no wise make life behind the veil impossible.”

One way or another, the experiences had by those who approach death are perfectly compatible with James’ picture.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

2.2

One of the most intriguing elements of the near death experience are the many directly corroborated reports that, in fact, events like the one previously discussed actually do, in fact, happen. The story just told is one directly confirmed in a book published in 1995 by a first–hand witness: the social worker Kimberly Clark, who—initially skeptical—decided to look for that shoe, so as to placate the patient, only to be surprised to find a blue shoe in exactly the condition which “Maria” had claimed it was in. (Her report of the event can be read here: according to her direct testimony, the shoe was not visible from the ground, and there was no way “Maria”—“literally plugged into the wall,” she writes—could have moved. And it seems horribly cynical to resort to arguing that Maria must have seen the shoe on the ride in, and saved the observation for exploitation later). Later, Kimberly Clark became a co–founder of the Seattle division of the International Association for Near Death Studies (IANDS).

While it was true in the past that few cases of this kind were particularly well–corroborated, today there are multiple cases where first–hand witnesses have recorded their observations of such instances of “veridical perception” in print, describing the transformation of their skepticism and surprise into conviction; enough that were this an ordinary event, we would have more than accepted its reality. The only reason for skepticism remaining is an a priori designation of the probability of such an event being possible as incredibly low on the basis of nothing other than the philosophical assumption that conscious experience can be only the epiphenomenal byproduct of physical brain activity and nothing more. In another case of cardiac arrest discussed by Pim van Lommel (here), a subject was discovered lying in a meadow for at least a full half an hour prior to his arrival at the emergency room, in a state of coma and cyanosis. Yet, a CCU nurse reported that, days later, he was able to provide accurate descriptions of many of the specific, unexpected circumstances of his transfer to the hospital.

As van Lommel presents his report: “During night shift an ambulance brings in a 44–year old cyanotic, comatose man into the coronary care unit. He was found in coma about 30 minutes before in a meadow. When we go to intubate the patient, he turns out to have dentures in his mouth. I remove these upper dentures and put them onto the ‘crash cart.’ After about an hour and a half the patient has sufficient heart rhythm and blood pressure, but he is still ventilated and intubated, and he is still comatose. He is transferred to the intensive care unit to continue the necessary artificial respiration. Only after more than a week do I meet again with the patient, who is by now back on the cardiac ward. The moment he sees me he says: ‘O, that nurse knows where my dentures are.’ I am very, very surprised. Then the patient elucidates: ‘You were there when I was brought into hospital and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that cart, it had all these bottles on it and there was this sliding drawer underneath, and there you put my teeth.’ I was especially amazed because I remembered this happening while the man was in deep coma and in the process of CPR. It appeared that the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with the CPR. He was also able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated as well as the appearance of those present like myself.” (You can read the full interview here, and see a response to a skeptic’s criticisms here).

In yet another case reported in a video interview with cardiac surgeon Dr. Lloyd Rudy, a patient once again reported accurate and unusual details of events occurring prior to and during resuscitation efforts: ““it was close to 20, 25 minutes that this man recorded no heartbeat, no blood pressure, and the echo showing no movement of the heart—just sitting. And all of a sudden we looked up, and this surgical assistant had just finished closing him, and we saw some electrical activity. Pretty soon, the electrical activity turned into a heartbeat. Very slow, 30 or 40 a minute … he recovered. And for the next ten days, two weeks, all of us went in and were talking to him about what he experienced, if anything. And he talked about the bright light … but the thing that astounded me was that he described that operating room, floating around, and saying ‘I saw you, and [the other dotor] in the doorway with your arms folded, talking; I didn’t know where the anesthesiologist was, but he came running back in; and I saw all of these post–its sitting on this TV screen’—and what these were, any call I got, the nurse would write down who called and the phone number, … and the next post–it would stick to that post–it … he described that. There’s no way he could have described that before the operation—because we didn’t have any calls.”

In addition to direct studies of recall of NDE memories, cases like these all go a long way to discredit the skeptical counterclaim that near death experiences don’t really happen during periods of clinical death, but are only reconstructed afterwards. Ring & Lawrence (1993) record three other cases of “veridical perception” which were corroborated by first–hand witnesses. Bruce Greyson investigated yet another case where a patient described one of the surgeons “flapping his arms as if trying to fly.” As he summarizes: “Both the surgeon and the cardiologist in this case confirmed that … to keep his hands from touching any surface between the time he “scrubs in” and the time he actually begins the surgery, he has developed the habit of holding his hands against his chest and pointing with his elbows to give instructions to other persons in the operating room. The cardiologist confirmed that Mr. Sullivan had described this unusual behavior to him shortly after regaining consciousness following the surgery.” [3]

One of the only attempts to study these reports directly was a study performed by Michael Sabom in 1982. Initially a skeptic inspired to investigate by Raymond Moody’s 1975 Life After Life, Sabom took 32 patients who reported out–of–body perceptions during near death experiences, and compared them to a control group of 25 patients who had had one or more episode of cardiac arrest without a near death experience. He asked the NDE group to describe their out–of–body perceptions, and compared these accounts to the control group’s attempts to describe their resuscitations. If the NDE group were no more accurate in their descriptions than the control group, this would lend plausibility to the idea that these accounts could possibly have been reconstructions produced after the fact, rather than truly veridical perceptions at the time supposed.

The results? Whereas 20 out of 23 who attempted the task in the control group made at least one major error, no members of the NDE group did—and furthermore, 6 members of the NDE group accurately recorded specific unusual details, some of which were peculiar to that patient’s own personal case. For example, one man who developed ventricular fibrillation described how a nurse picked up “them shocker things” and “touched them together,” before “everybody moved back away from it.” As Sabom explains (p.98), rubbing the paddles together to lubricate them and then standing back to avoid being shocked is a common procedure. Others talked about which family members were or weren’t in the waiting room, or the type of gurney that was used to wheel them in to the hospital. A nurse, Penny Sartori, whose experiences over 17 years working in intensive care units inspired her to turn to research on the near death experience (for which she was awarded a Ph.D), replicated his findings and recorded the results in her 2008 monograph, The Near–Death Experiences of Hospitalised Intensive Care Patients: A Five Year Clinical Study.

In a 2009 study also recorded in The Handbook of Near Death Experiences published with Bruce Greyson, Janice Miller Holden finds that of 93 cases of “veridical perception” reported in the literature on near death experiences, 40 were able to be verified as corroborated by an independent witness; 40 were reported by the experiencer to have been corroborated by an independent witness who was no longer available; and only 13 relied solely on the experiencer’s report. Furthermore, of all of these cases, 86 were found to be completely accurate, 6 were only partially corroborated or had some errors; and only the one remaining case was completely inaccurate.

There may not be the type of evidence here that counts as “proof” of the kind required to completely convince a skeptic who wants to know that absolutely no other conceivable explanation is even hypothetically possible before accepting that the realist interpretation of the near death experience could be a reasonable conclusion (nothing could actually meet this burden to begin with—as a last resort, a skeptic who is determined enough can simply dismiss the validity of every report, or every witness’ credibility or memory), but there is as much evidence as we could possibly expect to have given the extent to which the phenomena has actually been capable of being studied at all—and it is certainly enough to shift things even farther in the direction of putting the skeptic in a “platypus is a hoax”–type position, as we continue to add more and more evidence to the picture which the skeptic must find some way to explain away despite the fact that the realist interpretation obviously unifies, in a single explanation, all of it.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

2.3

Individuals who are blind from birth apparently do not have visual dreams. A 1999 review of 372 dreams in 15 individuals at the University of Hartford confirmed this, while finding that those who go blind before the age of 5 are mostly indistinguishable from the blind from birth, whereas those who lose their sight around the age of 7 or later “continue to experience at least some visual imagery, although its frequency and clarity often fade with time” (those who lose their sight between the ages of 5 and 7 can go either way).

Yet, in the book Mindsight, researchers Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper document their studies on experiences in the blind—who report near–death experiences exactly like those reported by the sighted, apparently with the same visual content. The authors quote from a recorded interview between one of their subjects—Vicki Umipeg—and another researcher, Greg Wilson: (GW: “Could you see anything?”) Vicki: “Nothing, never. No light, no shadows, no nothing, ever.” (GW: “So the optic nerve was destroyed to both eyes.”) Vicki: “Yes, and so I’ve never been able to understand even the concept of light.” As she described her experience: “I was pretty thin then. I was quite tall and thin at that point. And I recognized at first that it was a body, but I didn’t even know that it was mine initially. Then I perceived that I was up on the ceiling, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of weird. What am I doing up here?’ I thought, ‘Well, this must be me. Am I dead?’ I just briefly saw this body, and … I knew that it was mine because I wasn’t in mine.”

She continued: “I think I was wearing the plain gold band on my right ring finger and my father’s wedding ring next to it. But my wedding ring I definitely saw … That was the one I noticed the most because it’s most unusual. It has orange blossoms on the corners of it. This was the only time I could ever relate to seeing and to what light was, because I experienced it.

It seems strange to suppose that reductions in the intensity of brain activity might be accompanied at some times by a reduction in the intensity of subjective experience, and at other times by an increase; or that some damage to the eyes might damage or obliterate the subjective experience of sight, whereas death should restore it—but a dualistic interpretation of the mind–body relationship can accommodate correlations in both of these directions, whereas a physicalist interpretation requires that they be in only one direction at all times. Suppose I am sitting inside of a theater, with a screen interpreting visual data from outside the building I am in, the speakers interpreting auditory data from outside, and so on: some subtle damage to the machinery of the theater’s visual processing system might destroy my ability to “see what is outside” completely—and yet, bashing down one of the walls would, nonetheless, influence my capacity to “see what is outside” in the opposite direction.

In a 1997 publication in the Journal of Near Death Studies, Cooper and Ring provide a more succinct presentation of their research: “Of our 21 NDErs, 15 claimed to have had some kind of sight, three were not sure whether they saw or not, and the remaining three did not appear to see at all. All but one of those who either denied or were unsure about being able to see came from those who were blind from birth, which means that only half of the NDErs in that category stated unequivocally that they had distinct visual impressions during their experience. Nevertheless,it is not clear by any means whether those respondents blind from birth who claimed not to have seen were in fact unable to, or simply failed to recognize what seeing was. For instance, one man whom we classified as a nonvisualizer told us that he could not explain how he had the perceptions he did because “I don’t know what you mean by ‘seeing.’”

As would be expected if these subjects were actually experiencing sight for the first time, even those who readily classified what they experienced as “sight” expressed bafflement—or even fear. Vicki Umipeg stated to interviewers: “I had a real difficult time relating to [sight] because I’ve never experienced it. And it was something very foreign to me. … Let’s see, how can I put it into words? It was like hearing words and not being able to understand them, but knowing that they were words. And before you’d never heard anything. But it was something new, something you”d not been able to previously attach any meaning to.” Ring notes that she later used the word “frightening” to describe the adjustment, and records that she described her ability to distinguish between “different shades of brightness,” and could only wonder if this was what sighted people mean by “color.”

Not only does the perceptual experience of sight occur during near death experiences in the blind; so, too, do cases of apparently veridical perception. They write: “[I]n at least some instances, we are able to offer some evidence, and in one case some very strong evidence, that these claims are in fact rooted in a direct and accurate, if baffling, perception of the situation.” After discussing another fascinating case that turned out to lack perfect verification (but which I think one could still reasonably believe—the witness who was recovered just couldn’t recall from memory the pattern on a piece of clothing identified by the patient to confirm their report), they move on to the case of “Nancy,” (see p.22).

Nancy “underwent a biopsy in 1991 in connection with a possible cancerous chest tumor. During the procedure, the surgeon inadvertently cut her superior vena cava, then compounded his error by sewing it closed, causing a variety of medical catastrophes including blindness, a condition that was discovered only shortly after surgery when Nancy was examined in the recovery room. She remembers waking up at that time and screaming, “I’m blind, I’m blind!” Shortly afterward, she was rushed on a gurney down the corridor in order to have an angiogram. However, the attendants, in their haste, slammed her gurney into a closed elevator door, at which point the woman had an out–of–body experience. Nancy told us she floated above the gurney and could see her body below. However, she also said she could see down the hall where two men, the father of her son and her current lover, were both standing, looking shocked. She remembers being puzzled by the fact that they simply stood there agape and made no movement to approach her. Her memory of the scene stopped at that point.”

They continue: “In trying to corroborate her claims, we interviewed the two men. The father of her son could not recall the precise details of that particular incident, though his general account corroborated Nancy’s, but her lover, Leon, did recall it and independently confirmed all the essential facts of this event. …  It should be noted that this witness has been separated from our participant for several years and they had not even communicated for at least a year before we interviewed him. Furthermore, even if Nancy had not been totally blind at the time, the respirator on her face during this accident would have partially occluded her visual field and certainly would have prevented the kind of lateral vision necessary for her to view these men down the hall. But the fact is, according to indications in her medical records and other evidence we have garnered, she appeared already to have been completely blind when this event occurred. …”

And then, quoting from Leon’s account: “I was in the hallway by the surgery and she was coming out and I could tell it was her. They were kind of rushing her out. … I saw people wheeling a gurney. I saw about four or five people with her, and I looked and I said, ‘God, it looks like Nancy,’ but her face and her upper torso were really swollen about twice the size it should have been. I was still in a state of shock. I mean, it had been a long day for me. You’re expecting an hour procedure and here it is, approximately 10 hours later and you don’t have very many answers. … When I first saw her she was probably, maybe about 100 feet and then she went right by us. … somebody was, like, trying to get into the elevator at the same time and there was some sort of a ‘Oh, I can’t get in, let’s move this over a little bit,’ kind of adjusting before they could get her into the elevator. But it was very swift … She was just really swollen. She was totally unrecognizable. I mean, I knew it was her but—you know, I was a medic in Vietnam and it was just like seeing a body after a day after they get bloated. It was the same kind of look.”

They conclude the paper from pp.24–46 with a discussion of implications, asking whether apparent sight during NDEs in the blind could be accounted for by some other means, such as blindsight: “First of all, patients manifesting [blindsight] typically cannot verbally describe the object they are alleged to see, unlike our respondents who, as we have noted, were usually certain about what they saw and could describe it often without hesitation. In fact, a cortically blind patient, even when his or her object identification exceeds chance levels, believes that it is largely the result of pure guesswork. Such uncertainties were not characteristic of our respondents. … perhaps most crucially of all, blindsight patients, unlike our respondents, do not claim that they can ‘see’ in any sense. As Humphrey wrote: ‘Certainly the patient says he does not have visual sensation. …Rather he says, ‘I don’t know anything at all—but if you tell me I’m getting it right I have to take your word for it’’ (1993, p. 90). This kind of statement is simply not found in the testimony of our respondents who, on the contrary, are often convinced that they have somehow seen what they report. Thus, the blindsight phenomenon, however fascinating it may be in its own right, cannot explain our findings.”

In any case, whatever alternative mechanism one might possibly propose for these examples, all participants describe the experience as being radically unlike anything else they have ever experienced. Vicki, for example, explicitly says that there is “No similarity, no similarity at all” between the sight she experienced during her near death experience and her dreams (which she describes as containing no visual imagery). Whatever these mechanisms might be, why should they become active only when the blind patient is approaching death and their brain is in the most disrupted, disorganized state it can be besides actual, irreversible death? Once again, the skeptic can insist on finding loopholes—no matter what premise an individual wants to hold to, if he intends to hold to it against all odds, then in many cases no argument in principle will be capable of convincing him—he can simply modus tollens the premises of any argument meant to defeat that premise. Regardless of whether what we have in these cases is “proof” in the requisite sense, I think it is clear that we have still yet more evidence that renders belief in the reality of these experiences still yet more reasonable—for, once again, the skeptic must produce still yet more ad hoc hypotheses to explain away the platypus, whereas the conclusion that these experiences are simply what they appear to be can easily account for all of it at once. And on both that basis as well as on the basis of overwhelming philosophical problems facing any attempt—which so far has, by even the admission of materialists themselves [2] come nowhere near to completion in the first place—to reduce consciousness to mechanism in principleI can only conclude that belief in the reality of the near death experience is entirely justifiable and reasonable, whether every imaginable alternative explanations can be definitively proved categorically inconceivable or not—as this is simply an illegitimate standard to impose on the question of whether or not a conclusion can be considered justifiable and reasonable.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

2.4

One final supplementary point: suppose the near death experience occurs precisely when it appears to. We have good reason to believe that it does in the existence of cases of veridical perception referenced above—and these would count as compelling evidence that the experience occurs at precisely the time it appears to even if the experience were to turn out to be a pure hallucination of some sort after all; for at the very least, the hallucination would be occurring, and somehow incorporating these perceptual details, at the time of clinical death and not after. Consider the way near death experiencers so widely report being deliberately “sent back” by the figures they encounter in the experience before it’s over. If the near death experience is simply the ‘hallucinatory phantasmagoria’ of a dying brain, how does it know to build this into the narrative of the vision from a state of severely impaired near–unconsciousness in advance of the actual resuscitation? Every single person reading this knows that even our dreams don’t typically end through any sequenced narrative marking our transitioning into wakefulness—they usually just end. At most, we might be familiar with falling asleep in a vehicle and watching our dream incorporate something like a face–first trip on a branch in the woods as we snap awake in response to riding over a particularly jarring bump. But few people ever have an experience of anything like the characters in their dream explaining to them in an elaborate narrative how it’s approaching time to wake up. And this, despite the fact that (1) our brains are not severely physiologically impaired during dreaming, and (2) the process of waking is usually more or less led and managed by the same brain conducting the dream—so it should be far more capable here than in the case of resuscitation from death of coordinating the contents of the dream with reality in advance. How, then, should the brain suddenly acquire the ability to synchronize its hallucinations with reality so far in advance—with no one reporting that they came to consciousness out of a near death experience before the figure could actually finish sending them back into their bodies, mid–sentence?

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

[1] Best Evidence: 2nd Edition by Michael Schmicker, which cites John C. Gibbs,
Moody’s Versus Siegel’s interpretation of the near-death experience: An evaluation based on recent research.

[2] Paul Churchland: “Consciousness is almost certainly a property of the physical brain. The major mystery, however, is how neurons achieve effects such as being aware of a toothache or the smell of cinnamon. Neuroscience has not reached the stage where we can satisfactorily answer these questions.” 

Francis Crick: “What remains is the sobering realization that our subjective world of qualia—what distinguishes us from zombies and fills our life with color, music, smells and other vivid sensations—is possibly caused by the activity of a small fraction of all of the neurons in the brain, located strategically between the inner and outer worlds. [But] how these act to produce the subjective world that is so dear to us is still a complete mystery.”

Even though these authors profess confidence (and quite definitely resounding confidence elsewhere in other writings) that consciousness is “produced” by the processes of blind physical mechanism in the brain, they confess—in more honest moments—that they have no idea “how” this could be the case. Leaving aside the arguments I’ve stood by throughout this series that this very concept is simply confused in principle, how does someone justify claiming that they know an empirical claim is true without having any idea “how?”  Making analogy with the dualist’s claim that interaction takes place is unfounded for reasons I explain.

[3] I need donations of my own here just to try to survive—but if you’re interested in finding out more about these cases, consider supporting the effort to translate Titus Rivas (et al.)’s work compiling more than 80 new verified cases of corroborated perception into English from Dutch at the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS).

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