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Not Dead Experiences (NDEs)

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Newsweek magazine can always be counted on to give us the latest scientific evidence for God. The cover of its October 7, 2012 issue proclaims, "Heaven is Real." Inside is the story of Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon and son of a neurosurgeon who writes:

"I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death. ... Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief. I didn't begrudge those who wanted to believe that Jesus was more than simply a good man who had suffered at the hands of the world. I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself."

But then in the fall of 2008, Dr. Alexander spent seven days in a coma and "experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death." He had what is commonly called a near-death experience (NDE) in which an unconscious person whose brain is minimally functioning catches glimpses of what they are convinced is a world beyond -- heaven. Usually they see a tunnel with light at the other end, and often meet Jesus (if they are Christians) or Buddha (if they are Buddhists), and loved ones, dead or alive.

Dr. Alexander claims from his knowledge of the brain that his own glimpses of heaven occurred while his cortex was not just malfunctioning but totally shut down. He does not explain how he knows that his experience occurred during that time and not the period just after losing consciousness, or the period just before regaining consciousness, when his brain was almost if not fully functional. Furthermore, current brain monitoring technology does not preclude some undetected brain activity.

He writes, "According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent."

This is nothing more than the classic argument from ignorance, which forms the basis of almost all ostensibly scientific arguments for the existence of the supernatural. The argument from ignorance is a less polite but more descriptive name for the God-of-the-gaps argument. This argument often appears in dialogues on the existence of God or anything supernatural. Basically, it says: "I can't see how this [observed phenomenon] can be explained naturally; therefore it must be supernatural."

The flaw in the argument should be obvious. Just because someone--or even all of science--currently cannot provide a natural explanation for something, it does not follow that a natural explanation does not exist or will never be found. Indeed, the history of science is nothing more than the story of humanity filling in the gaps in its knowledge about the world of our senses. In the case of NDEs, plausible natural explanations do exist (Augustine, 2011).

Despite its worthlessness, the argument from ignorance continues to be the mainstay of religious apologetics. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the argument from design, which goes back to Plato. Commonly one hears today, "I can't see how the eye could have evolved naturally; therefore it must have been designed by God."

Most recently, the argument from design has appeared in the form of the argument from fine-tuning: If the values of the parameters of physics were slightly different, life would not have been possible; thus they must have been fine-tuned by God to make life, and in particular, human life, possible.

According to our best scientific knowledge, the parameters of physics and cosmology are not so constrained that some form of life could not have formed over a wide range of parameters (Stenger 2011a). But even if this were not the case, no one has proven that a natural explanation for the constants of physics is forever beyond our reach.

Near-death experiences have been studied for over thirty years. Almost every year or two a book appears claiming incontrovertible proof of the afterlife based on NDEs. They are usually instant bestsellers. But they never convince anyone except those who want to be convinced because none present anything more than personal anecdotes such as those provided by Dr. Alexander. And, "anecdote" is not another name for "data."

In my own writing on the subject (Stenger 2011b, 2012), I have pointed out that the supernatural interpretation of near-death experiences, if true, can easily be verified scientifically. To provide a specific example, place a target such as a card with some random numbers on it on a high shelf facing the ceiling of the operating room so that it is unreadable not only to the patient on the table but to the hospital staff in the room. Then if a patient has an NDE that involves the commonly reported sensation of moving outside her body and floating above the operating table, she should be able to read that number.

This experiment has been tried several times without success. So have other attempts to provide verifiable evidence -- what researchers in the field call "veridical perception" (Holden 2009, p. 209). The principle is simple and can be applied to anyone who claims to have communicated with another world beyond matter. All that has to happen is a subject claiming such a communication return with some important piece of knowledge she could not have possibly known previously, such as the exact date and epicenter location of the future earthquake that will destroy Los Angeles.

Researchers in the field of near-death studies have honestly admitted that the evidence is still not there. The well-respected NDE researcher Kenneth Ring has written:

"There is so much anecdotal evidence that suggests [experiencers] can, at least sometime, perceive veridically during NDEs ... but isn't it true that in all this time there hasn't been a single case of a veridical perception reported by an NDEr under controlled conditions? I mean, thirty years later, it's still a null class (as far as we know). Yes, excuses, excuses--I know. But, really, wouldn't you have suspected more than a few such cases at least by now? (Holden 2009, p. 210)."

The way to defeat ignorance is with evidence. After thousands of reported religious experiences of various kinds, including near-death-experiences, no one has ever provided a single item of verified new knowledge.

I will be very surprised if Dr. Alexander gets his observations published in a reputable medical journal. No doubt his book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, will do well.

Augustine, Keith 2011, "Halluncinatory Near-Death Experiences," Secular Web.

Holden, Janice Minor et al., eds., 2009, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation, Praeger Publishers: Santa Barbara, CA; Denver, CO; Oxford England.

Stenger, Victor J. 2011a, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Us, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY.

Stenger, Victor J. 2011b, "Life After Death: Examining the Evidence" In The End of Christianity, edited by John W. Loftus, Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY, pp. 305-32.

Stenger, Victor J. 2012, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY.

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