Sunday, April 22, 2012

Near-death experiences and rationalism

Could there possibly be life after the death? A good materialist might feel obliged to say no, since we know so clearly that those who have died are no longer in this world. In fact, materialists might say no with such emphasis that to write a blog post considering another answer is a rash act. Still, that absolute no may be too quick, even for someone without religious faith, since we also know pretty clearly that we don't understand huge aspects of the material world (e.g., dark matter, making up most of the universe, etc., etc.), and so it's not really possible to prove that physical laws mean for sure that life after death cannot exist.

But for anyone who would like to believe that life continues after death, but not to do so just as a leap of faith, it would be nice to have some positive evidence. For some time there's been some, in the form of "near-death experiences." There seems to be no doubt that people do have these experiences, and they have a notably heavenly flavor (e.g., being welcomed to the light) -- but perhaps these are just the illusory experiences of brains running out of oxygen.

Or, on the other hand, perhaps not. In a long article posted yesterday in, a research psychologist named Mario Beauregard says not. (Near Death, explained: New science is shedding light on what really happens during out-of-body experiences -- with shocking results, Apr. 21, 2012) Here's one of the points Beauregard makes:
One of the best known of these corroborated veridical NDE [near-death experience] perceptions—perceptions that can be proven to coincide with reality—is the experience of a woman named Maria, whose case was first documented by her critical care social worker, Kimberly Clark.
Maria was a migrant worker who had a severe heart attack while visiting friends in Seattle. She was rushed to Harborview Hospital and placed in the coronary care unit. A few days later, she had a cardiac arrest but was rapidly resuscitated. The following day, Clark visited her. Maria told Clark that during her cardiac arrest she was able to look down from the ceiling and watch the medical team at work on her body. At one point in this experience, said Maria, she found herself outside the hospital and spotted a tennis shoe on the ledge of the north side of the third floor of the building. She was able to provide several details regarding its appearance, including the observations that one of its laces was stuck underneath the heel and that the little toe area was worn. Maria wanted to know for sure whether she had “really” seen that shoe, and she begged Clark to try to locate it.
Quite skeptical, Clark went to the location described by Maria—and found the tennis shoe. From the window of her hospital room, the details that Maria had recounted could not be discerned. But upon retrieval of the shoe, Clark confirmed Maria’s observations. “The only way she could have had such a perspective,” said Clark, “was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe. I retrieved the shoe and brought it back to Maria; it was very concrete evidence for me.”
Of course it is possible to be skeptical about this story. The version posted in Salon, and quoted here, is obviously incomplete -- we don't know when it was supposed to have happened, when it was reported, or much at all about the people involved. And we do know that lots of things that lots of people have reported have turned out to be not only false but absurd.

But this is an interesting story. If we merely assume that the participants were not lying, we at once face evidence that is much more difficult to dismiss than the coming-to-the-light category of reports. "Coming to the light" fits smoothly into religious imagery that is powerful in our culture, and so may be discounted as the product of brain distress channelled into familiar cultural channels. But the details of the appearance of a sneaker on a building ledge?

If the participants weren't lying, and if there wasn't some overlooked source for the cardiac patient's knowledge of this shoe, then it does seem that she saw something that she could not have seen with her eyes. That in turn opens up the possibility of existence outside our physical bodies, and the next step -- not the same step, but clearly a related one -- would be the possibility of existence after our physical bodies are gone.

Vast numbers of people believe in life after death -- offhand, I'd guess most people now alive hold this belief. But it is not easy to square this belief with rationalism, and the great appeal of rationalism is that it helps us not to believe in the various false claims that have so often plagued humanity and led to so much suffering. And yet, perhaps, it is important not to make rationalism too much an article of faith itself, and to consider with an open mind the possibility that, to paraphrase Hamlet, there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in this philosophy.

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