01/03/2007 10:40 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Shermer-Chopra Afterlife Debate

Is There Life After Death?
Michael Shermer vs. Deepak Chopra

The following is a double post. First, Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine and Scientific American reviews Deepak Chopra's 2006 book "Life After Death: The Burden of Proof." Second is Deepak's rebuttal.

For those who would like to read the debate in its entirety, please use the links below:

Hope Springs Eternal:
Science, the Afterlife, and the Meaning of Life

By Michael Shermer

I once saw a bumper sticker that read: Militant Agnostic: I Don't Know and You Don't Either. This is my position on the afterlife. If we knew for certain that there is an afterlife, we would not fear death as we do, we would not mourn quite so agonizingly the death of loved ones, and there would be no need to engage in debates on the subject.
In Deepak Chopra's 2006 book, Life After Death: Burden of Proof, he presents six lines of evidence that convince him that the soul is real and eternal: 1. Near-Death Experiences. 2. ESP. 3. Quantum Consciousness. 4. Talking to the Dead. 5. Prayer and Healing Studies. 6. Information Fields and the Universal Life Force. For Deepak, the universe is one giant conscious information field of timeless energy of which all of us are a part. Life is simply a temporary incarnation of this eternal field of consciousness. Let's review these one by one.

Near Death Experiences.
Five centuries ago demons haunted our world, with incubi and succubi tormenting their victims as they lay asleep in their beds. Two centuries ago spirits haunted our world, with ghosts and ghouls harassing their sufferers all hours of the night. Last century aliens haunted our world, with grays and greens abducting captives out of their beds and whisking them away for probing and prodding. Today people are experiencing near-death and out-of-body experiences, floating above their bodies, out of their bedrooms, and even off the planet into space.
What is going on here? Are these elusive creatures and mysterious phenomena in our world or in our minds? New evidence indicates that they are, in fact, a product of the brain. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger, in his laboratory at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada, for example, can induce all of these experiences in subjects by subjecting their temporal lobes to patterns of magnetic fields. I tried it and had a mild out-of-body experience.
Similarly, the September 19, 2002 issue of Nature, reported that the Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke and his colleagues discovered that they could bring about out-of-body experiences (OBEs) through electrical stimulation of the right angular gyrus in the temporal lobe of a 43-year old woman suffering from severe epileptic seizures. In initial mild stimulations she reported 'sinking into the bed'or 'falling from a height.' More intense stimulation led her to "see myself lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk." Another stimulation induced "an instantaneous feeling of 'lightness' and 'floating' about two meters above the bed, close to the ceiling."
In a related study reported in the 2001 book Why God Won't Go Away, researchers Andrew Newberg and Eugene D. Aquili found that when Buddhist monks meditate and Franciscan nuns pray their brain scans indicate strikingly low activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, a region of the brain the authors have dubbed the Orientation Association Area (OAA), whose job it is to orient the body in physical space (people with damage to this area have a difficult time negotiating their way around a house). When the OAA is booted up and running smoothly there is a sharp distinction between self and non-self. When OAA is in sleep mode ,as in deep meditation and prayer, that division breaks down, leading to a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy, between feeling in body and out of body. Perhaps this is what happens to monks who experience a sense of oneness with the universe, or with nuns who feel the presence of God, or with alien abductees floating out of their beds up to the mother ship.
Sometimes trauma can trigger such experiences. The December 2001 issue of Lancet published a Dutch study in which of 344 cardiac patients resuscitated from clinical death, 12 percent reported near-death experiences (NDEs), where they floated above their bodies and saw a light at the end of a tunnel. Some even described speaking to dead relatives.
These studies show that mind and spirit are not separate from brain and body, and that all experience is mediated by the brain. Since our normal experience is of stimuli coming into the brain from the outside, when a part of the brain abnormally generates these illusions, another part of the brain interprets them as external events. Hence, the abnormal is thought to be the paranormal. In reality, it is just brain chemistry.

For the past century ESP research has suffered from two fatal flaws: replicable data and a viable theory. There are not many significant findings of ESP under controlled conditions, but when there are other scientists always fail to replicate them. In science, if we cannot replicate a finding, skepticism is the appropriate response. A still deeper reason that scientists are skeptical of ESP is that there is no explanatory theory for how it works. Until ESP proponents can explain how thoughts generated by neurons in the sender's brain can pass through the skull and into the brain of the receiver, skepticism is the appropriate response.

Quantum Consciousness.
Deepak Chopra and others will counter that there is, in fact, a perfectly cogent theory of ESP, and that is quantum consciousness, which was recently featured in the wildly popular and improbably-named film, What the #@*! Do We Know?! University of Oregon quantum physicist Amit Goswami, for example, says: "The material world around us is nothing but possible movements of consciousness. I am choosing moment by moment my experience. Heisenberg said atoms are not things, only tendencies." Okay, Amit, I challenge you to leap out of a 20-story building and consciously choose the experience of passing safely through the ground's tendencies.
According to the physicist Roger Penrose and physician Stuart Hameroff, inside our neurons are tiny hollow microtubules that act like structural scaffolding. The conjecture is that something inside the microtubules may initiate a wave function collapse that leads to the quantum coherence of atoms, causing neurotransmitters to be released into the synapses between neurons and thus triggering them to fire in a uniform pattern, thereby creating thought and consciousness. Since a wave function collapse can only come about when an atom is "observed"(i.e., affected in any way by something else), neuroscientist Sir John Eccles, another proponent of the idea, even suggests that "mind" may be the observer in a recursive loop from atoms to molecules to neurons to thought to consciousness to mind to atoms.
In reality, the gap between sub-atomic quantum effects and large-scale macro systems is too large to bridge. In his book The Unconscious Quantum, the University of Colorado particle physicist Victor Stenger demonstrates that for a system to be described quantum mechanically the system's typical mass m, speed v, and distance d must be on the order of Planck's constant h. "If mvd is much greater than h, then the system probably can be treated classically." Stenger computes that the mass of neural transmitter molecules, and their speed across the distance of the synapse, are about three orders of magnitude too large for quantum effects to be influential. There is no micro-macro connection.
Subatomic particles may be altered when they are observed, but the moon is there even if no one looks at it.

Talking to the Dead.
Deepak recounts his experience of participating in a university study of three psychics who claimed that they could communicate with those who had already "passed over" to the other side. Even though none of the psychics were told that Deepak was present, two of them identified him by name, two of them told him that he wanted to contact his recently deceased father, and one knew his childhood nickname in Hindi. He declared it a genuine experience, even while admitting that he had his doubts, especially since "My father knew things I knew, but nothing more."
That is more skepticism than most people muster, especially in emotion-laden readings that promise people a connection to a lost loved one. How do psychics appear to talk to the dead? In short, it's a trick called Cold Reading, where you literally read someone 'cold,' knowing nothing about them. You ask lots of questions and make numerous statements and see what sticks. Most statements are wrong, but you only need a few hits to convince people. In an expose I did on psychic medium John Edward for WABC New York, for example, we counted about one statement per second in the opening minute, as he riffled through names, dates, colors, diseases, conditions, situations, relatives, keepsakes, and the like. His hit rate was below 10 percent, but those handful of hits were all his subjects needed to feel that they had made contact with a loved one.
I played a psychic for a day for a television special and found it remarkably easy to convince my subjects that I was really talking to the dead. Of course, anyone can talk to the dead. The hard part is getting the dead to talk back. Psychic mediums use trickery to give the illusion that the dead are communicating with us.

Prayer and Healing Studies.
In April, 2006, The American Heart Journal published the most comprehensive study ever conducted on the effects of intercessory prayer on the health and recovery of patients. Directed by Harvard University Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson, a long-time proponent of the salubrious effects of prayer, the findings were eagerly awaited by members of both communities. There were a total of 1,802 patients from six U.S. hospitals that were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: 604 received intercessory prayer and were told that they may or may not receive prayer; 597 did not receive intercessory prayer and were also told that they may or may not receive prayer; and 601 received intercessory prayer and were told they would receive prayer. Prayers began the night before the surgery and continued daily for two weeks after. The prayers were allowed to pray in the manner of their choice, but they were instructed to ask "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications."
The results were unequivocal: there were no statistically significant differences between any of the groups. Prayer did not work. Case closed.

Information Fields and the Universal Life Force.
Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to do a newspaper crossword puzzle later in the day? Me neither. But according to Rupert Sheldrake it is because the collective wisdom of the morning successes resonates throughout the cultural morphic field. In Sheldrake's theory of 'morphic resonance,' similar forms (morphs, or fields of informationreverberate and exchange information within a universal life force. Morphic resonance, says Sheldrake, is the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species, and explains phantom limbs, homing pigeons, how dogs know when their owners are coming home, and such psychic phenomena as how people know when someone is staring at them. Thousands of trials conducted by anyone who downloaded the experimental protocol from Sheldrake's Web page have given positive, repeatable, and highly significant results, implying that there is indeed a widespread sensitivity to being stared at from behind."
Let's examine this claim more closely. First, science is not normally conducted by strangers who happen upon a Web page protocol, so we have no way of knowing if these amateurs controlled for intervening variables and experimenter biases. Second, psychologists dismiss anecdotal accounts of this sense to a reverse self-fulfilling effect: a person suspects being stared at and turns to check; such head movement catches the eyes of would-be starers, who then turn to look at the staree, who thereby confirms the feeling of being stared at. Third, there is an experimenter bias problem. Institute of Noetic Sciences' researcher Marilyn Schlitz (a believer in ESP) collaborated with University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman (a skeptic of ESP) in replicating Sheldrake's research, and discovered that when they did the staring Schlitz found statistically significant results, whereas Wiseman found chance results.
Sheldrake responds that skeptics dampen the morphic field's subtle power, whereas believers enhance it. Maybe, but as it is said, the invisible and the nonexistent look the same.

So where does this leave us? I am, by temperament, a sanguine person, so I really hate to douse the flame of that doubtful future date with the cold water of skepticism in this present state. But I care what is actually true even more than what I hope is true, and these are the facts as I understand them to be. Shall we then abandon all hope of a paradisiacal state? No. Paradise is here. It is now. It is within us and without us. It is in our thoughts and in our actions. It is in our lives and in our loves. It is in our families and in our friends. It is in our communities and in our world. It is in the courage of our convictions and in the character of our souls.
Hope springs eternal, even if life is not.

Below is my immediate response to Michael Shermer's review of my book, Life After Death: The Burden of Proof.

Taking the Afterlife Seriously
By Deepak Chopra

"The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the power of all true science."
-Albert Einstein

Thanks for Coming--Or Did You Even Show Up?
I have put Michael Shermer at a disadvantage by writing a book that bases the afterlife on the survival of consciousness. He has little interest in consciousness compared to his interest in laboratory-induced hallucinations and altered states. It's a shame that he doesn't grasp that the afterlife is about nothing but consciousness. (I don't offhand know anyone who took their bodies with them.) Shermer's focus on God is irrelevant to the argument. I give seven versions of life after death in my book, collected from every religious and philosophical tradition. He fails to address them or to realize that certain traditions (Platonism, Buddhism , Taoism, Vedanta) do not posit a personal God.
Shermer's retelling of the flaws in prayer studies is germane to my argument but only to a small degree-it by no means forms a sixth of my book, more like three pages. I must point out, however, that the 2006 Benson-Harvard refutation of prayer is far from being authoritative. Critics have found methodological flaws in it, and there are 19 other studies in the field that arrive at differing results, 11 of them showing that "prayer works."
Now to the holes in Shermer's own approach. It may be curious that stimulating some area of the brain can induce out-of-body experiences or the feeling of sinking into a bed, or that Buddhist monks have low activity in their
Orientation Association Area (OAA), as cited by Shermer. Unfortunately, these experiments have little bearing on the afterlife. Induced states are quite feeble as science. I can put a tourniquet on a person's arm, depriving the nerves of blood flow, and thereby eliminate the sensation of touch. This doesn't prove that quadriplegics with paralyzed limbs aren't having a real experience. I can induce happiness by giving someone a glass of wine and having a pretty girl flirt with him. That doesn't prove that happiness without alcohol isn't real. The point is that a simulation isn't the real thing or a credible stand-in for it.
Shermer doesn't adhere to the scientific impartiality he so vocally espouses. Loading the dice turns out to be fairly standard for him. For example, he cites the December 2001 issue of Lancet that published a Dutch study in which, out of 344 cardiac patients resuscitated from clinical death, 12 percent reported near-death experiences . (The actual figure was 18%, by the way..) Immediately he skips on to say that near-death experiences can be induced in the laboratory. Hold on a minute. Did Shemer miss the point entirely? The patients in the Dutch study, who suffered massive heart attacks in the hospital, had their near-death experiences when there was no measurable activity in the brain, when they were in fact brain dead. Did he quote the astonishment of Dr. Pin van Lommel, the Dutch cardiologist who observed this effect? No. Did he go into the baffling issue of why the vast majority of resuscitated patients (over 80%) don't report near-death experiences? That's pretty important if you are claiming that all this near-death hokum can be induced in the lab with a few electrodes.
Leaving out the heart of the matter, as Shermer does, smacks of unfairness, for I rely on this same Dutch study and give all the particulars. Skepticism is only credible when it's not being devious. But Shermer often deliberately misses the point. I cite a University of Virginia study that to date has found over 2,000 children who vividly remember their past lives. In many cases they can name places and dates. The facts they relate have been verified in many cases. Even more astonishing, over 200 of these children exhibit birthmarks that resemble the way they remember dying in their most recent lifetime. (One boy, for example, recalled being killed with a shotgun, and his chest exhibited a scatter-shot of red birthmarks). Unable to refute this phenomenon or imagine a counter-study, Shermer fails to mention it. He snipes at the easy targets to bolster his blanket skepticism. I wish Shermer realized that true skepticism suspends both belief and disbelief. Being a debunker of curiosity is something science doesn't need.
This points to a broader problem with his arguments: the problem of dueling results. Let's say a skeptic offers in evidence a study that asks five children to describe a previous incarnation, and let's say that only those who are coached, either by parents or researchers, come up with such stories. Has skepticism refuted the original research? Of course it hasn't. The first study stands on its own, by sheer force of numbers, demanding explanation. But by Shermer's logic if some children don't remember a past lifetime, those who do must be categorically dismissed. By analogy, if I study twenty mothers who smile when shown their baby's picture, anyone can find twenty others (suffering from post-partum depression, for example) who don't. But that doesn't prove that mothers don't love their babies. The second experiment is an anomaly.
No doubt Shermer will want to lecture me on the need for replication in science. Yet this is the very thing he conveniently ignores. Studies on near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, memories of past lifetimes, remote viewing, and so forth--all crucial to the reality of life after death--have been well replicated. Shermer finds one study that induces similar states ("similar" being a very tricky word here) and he walks away satisfied. He already knows a priori that "paranormal" findings must be false, so why bother to engage them seriously? Extending our understanding of normal doesn't interest him.
The focus of science should be on the survival of consciousness after death, not on the side show of fraud, pseudo-science, religious dogma, and the other straw men Shermer knocks down. For example, I rely a great deal on the possibility that mind extends outside the body. This is obviously crucial, since with the death of the brain, our minds can only survive if they don't depend on the brain.
There are astonishing results in this area. One of the most famous, performed at the engineering department at Princeton and validated many times over, asked ordinary people to sit in the room with a random number generator. As the machine printed out a random series of 0s and 1s, the subjects were instructed to try to make it produce more zeroes. They didn't touch the machine but only willed it to deviate from randomness. Did they succeed? Absolutely. Did other identical or similar experiments succeed? Over and over. Does Shermer even touch on this matter, so crucial to my argument? No.
He displays an amazing ability to avoid the important stuff. He writes, for example, "The ultimate fallacy of all such prayer and healing research is theological: If God is omniscient and omnipotent, He should not need to be reminded or inveigled that someone needs healing." This is simplistic theology at best Second-guessing an omniscient and omnipresent God is a tautology by definition, since such a God, being everywhere and performing all acts, makes no choices at all. Such a consciousness encompasses good and bad, disease and health, equally. (As much as possible I avoid using a personal pronoun for God, but it's awkward since "It" doesn't work in English. I am referring to a God that is closer to a universal field than anything else we can imagine.) Does an omnipotent God even need a creation to begin with? The question is logically unanswerable. Fortunately, Shermer's Sunday School God, a patriarch with a white beard sitting above the clouds, plays no role in my argument--or in the traditions of Buddhism, Vedanta, etc. mentioned at the outset. Did my book defend the Judeo-Christian God? Did it argue for a physical place called heaven (or hell)? Did I praise the joys of the hereafter in order to denigrate life here on earth? Not for a moment. I specifically rooted the afterlife in ordinary states of consciousness that no one doubts, such as dream, imagination, projection, myth, metaphor, meditation, and other aspects of awareness that give us clues about the workings of the mind overall.. Shermer doesn't engage those connections, either.
Since he often lumps me in with other authors whom he disdains and treats cavalierly, I can only assume that he uses the same slipshod reasoning on them, too. I certainly know for a fact that Shermer misrepresents and distorts the groundbreaking work of Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist who graduated with first-class honors from Cambridge and whose curriculum vitae (not to mention acumen, curiosity, and intelligence) a gaggle of skeptics can only envy.
But let's concede that Shermer knows he's preaching to the choir and can afford all this rhetorical by-your-leave. His review hasn't actually offered anything beyond a self-indulgent expansion on his first sentence, borrowed from a bumper sticker: I DON'T KNOW AND YOU DON'T EITHER. He takes this to be humorous; in fact it is distressingly dogmatic. Is he so proud of his skepticism that literally he can tell what someone else doesn't know? Without dragging him into philosophical deep waters, I must point out that dismissing opposing views even before they are stated seems like fairly spooky solipsism..
In the end, debating tactics offer entertainment value but are a dubious way to get at truth. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that the true test of any scientific or philosophical system is how much it can explain. I believe that Shermer sincerely agrees with this, despite his often unfair tactics and his condescension to spirituality in general. The old-fashioned materialism that underlies his opinions stands in stark contrast to quantum physics, which long ago opened up an unseen world where linear cause-and-effect no longer operates, where intuition has made more breakthroughs than logic. Virtual reality, populated with virtual photons and subatomic interactions that operate beyond the speed of light--a realm where events are instantaneously coordinated across billions of light years--is the foundation of our physical world. Pace Shermer, the possibility of intelligence and consciousness in the universe is completely viable; we must arrive at new theories to account for life after death (among many other mysteries) by opening ourselves to the origins of our own consciousness. It's all very well to watch various parts of the brain light up on an MRI, but to claim that this is true knowledge of the mind is like putting a stethoscope to the roof of the Astrodome and claiming that you understand the rules of football.
If Shermer wants to have a serious debate about the persistence of consciousness after physical death, I eagerly invite it. But I must in all candor ask him to look at consciousness first. He hasn't made the slightest effort so far, and yet that was the entire subject of my book.