Friday, April 27, 2012

Near-death experiences, revisited

I'm afraid I was too easily impressed by Mario Beauregard's account of an odd, and seemingly compelling, story of an out-of-body experience of seeing a shoe on an inaccessible hospital ledge. PZ Myers, a biologist, has now responded to Beauregard's post, calling it "yet another piece of evidence ... that Beauregard is a crank." (PZ Myers, Near-death, distorted: Taking aim at a recent Salon story about the science of out-of-body experiences,, Apr. 26, 2012. I haven't linked to the Salon posting because it seems to be broken now (April 27), but the original piece is available, under the title The NDE [Near-Death Experience] Illusion, at Myers' blog, Pharyngula.)

Myers is pretty convincing in arguing that Beauregard has assumed without proof that people's recollections of perceptions during periods when their brains were completely out of action really are recollections -- rather than after-the-fact mental constructs of the sort we create all the time and call "recollections." That wouldn't account for the shoe case I was impressed by, but Myers finds that unpersuasive as well. In fact, he writes, this story "has been totally demolished," and he links to a critique of it at a blog called "The Secular Web: a drop of reason in a pool of confusion."

I think the problems with this story, as delineated at The Secular Web, really are too big to get around -- assuming, of course, that the evidence in the debunking account is accurate. The social worker who reported it did not actually do so (at least in public) till seven years later. The patient who supposedly had the experience can't be found and may now be dead.

But the debunkers seem to accept that the original report of the story was honest, albeit "subconsciously embellished." Their main point is that the patient could have learned of the shoe's existence from conversations she overheard during her 3 days in the hospital before the heart attack that precipitated her out-of-body experience. That seems to be right. But it is not exactly "demolition"; there is, after all, no proof at all that she did hear about the shoe this way.

The debunkers' theory requires that the hypothetical conversation that the patient overheard include not only the existence of the shoe but also details about its appearance. To be sure, the debunkers imply (reasonably) that those details might have been later embellishments. If they weren't, they might indeed have been discernible and so perhaps spoken of -- but one might wonder how detailed this imagined conversation would have been likely to be.

The problems with this story are big enough that I can’t think of it as reliable. But has it been demolished? Only in the sense that it’s clear that it’s not clearly true. But it’s not been proven that it’s false. The reason that Myers sees it as having been demolished, it seems to me, is that he starts from the premise that all human perception is based on the physical brain and body, and therefore regards any assertion to the contrary as unlikely to be correct. That’s a reasonable approach. The problem is that if you start from the opposite premise, that the human mind or soul has an existence beyond the confines of the material body, then you might say that reports of out-of-body experiences are evidence to support your premise unless they’re proven to be false. Again, the shoe story hasn’t been proven to be false; it’s been proven not to be provably true, which isn’t the same thing.

Which premise should one start from? The trouble with asking that question is that the whole point of looking at the stories of out-of-body experiences is to try to figure out what the right premise is. You can’t pick the premise definitively until you’ve done the testing, and as of now, at least in this instance, it seems to me that the testing can’t produce a definitive result until you’ve picked a premise. And that means we are, in truth, in doubt.

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