08/07/2014 12:31 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2014

Why the Soul Is Tiptoeing Back Into the Conversation

Mind-body dualism, or the belief, roughly speaking, that we are a combination of body and soul, is not exactly coming back into respectability in leading philosophical circles, but it does show signs of tiptoeing back into the conversation. What's causing this is no new metaphysical breakthrough, but a steady stream of books that can't be forever ignored. From Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven (an unfortunate title) to Pim van Lommel's Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience to Chris Carter's Science and the Afterlife Experience to Jim Tucker's Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives, challenges to the reigning physicalism of academic philosophy are mounting.

Carter, an Oxford-educated philosopher and psychical researcher, thinks the facts support the soul theory. In his book on the afterlife and two previous ones, he restricts himself to five different types of "fact:" the near-death experience, deathbed visions, apparitions (or ghosts), mediumistic communications, and the reincarnation memories of little children.

In example after example he shows that they are "part of our world," however overlooked and inconvenient they may be, and that they can't all be explained away as hallucination or fraud. Then he proceeds to argue that they can be made sense of only if we posit a dualist metaphysics. That is his methodology.

He adds that much of the dislike of dualism and preference for physicalism by philosophers and scientists is not at bottom based on sound philosophizing, but on contempt for religion, even a fear that it will eventually "usher in a return to an age of religious persecution and irrationality." He argues that dualism, however, is not a religious doctrine but a philosophical stance built around argument and evidence. It owes nothing to religion. In fact many religious people view with suspicion any argument based on contemporary consciousness research.

Another frequently cited reason for the disdain for dualism is its failure to face up to the obvious fact that our mental life is dependent on our brain, not on a "soul," and that when the brain dies, then obviously we do too. But these maverick researchers see it differently. Van Lommel, a cardiologist by training and the world's premier researcher on the near-death experience (NDE), has concluded that the brain is not the creator of consciousness but an organ or instrument used by the conscious self -- he doesn't use the word soul -- to allow it to navigate in a physical environment.

How does he arrive at this? Most NDE patients in a hospital setting are clinically dead while they are having their experience, he says. They have no vital signs; in particular their heart isn't pumping blood to the brain. After 15 seconds of such inactivity the electroencephalograph (EEG) shows a straight flat line; the cerebral cortex is inactive. But it's precisely during this shut-down of the brain that the NDE occurs.

The richest NDEs include the perception of events that are easily verifiable but unexplainable in the normal way. For example, a patient will be able to describe accurately and in detail the resuscitation procedure used on her body and, more interestingly, specific details like where the nurse put her purse or what the doctors said, even what was going on down the hall at the nursing station or what her brother was doing in his home a thousand miles away which she somehow managed to briefly visit -- all while lying comatose on the operating table. Moreover, in these instances the patient claims, not that she saw distant events as if they were remote from her, but that she was actually present at the place visited -- visited not in flesh but in a kind of body hard to describe.

In addition, researchers working with blind NDE experiencers have discovered that they see for the first time in their lives -- see things that normally sighted individuals confirm as real and actually happening -- while out of their bodies and free from the bondage of their blind eyes. I acknowledge that these findings are hard to believe, but they are cited by the most respected university researchers in the field.

The NDE is only one of seven fields of anomalous consciousness research being carried out today in various parts of the world. What does it all add up to that would interest a philosopher?

On the surface it looks as if the brain is not the creator, but the receiver and transmitter of consciousness. Van Lommel puts it this way: "You could compare the brain to a television set that tunes into specific electromagnetic waves and converts then into image and sound." So when the brain gets sick, as in Alzheimer's, or is injured, there is no reason to assume that the self (or soul) is impaired. Rather, it simply can't express itself in the usual way. And when the brain stops working altogether, the self doesn't die with it; it just migrates elsewhere. And that migration and continuance makes possible all the variety of extraordinary conscious experiences that researchers are bringing to light.

Will a leading philosopher or scientist, faced with the growing challenge of contemporary consciousness research, risk his or her reputation by bringing the soul back into the conversation? Will the likes of a Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, or Daniel Dennett deign to take a serious look? The University of Colorado philosopher Robert Pasnau, writing recently in The New York Times, bemoaned the low estimate that most people have of philosophy. I'm not surprised.

Philosophy's current commitment to physicalism, with its promise of extinction at death and a life without any meaning other than what we invent, is not to most people's liking. If leading philosophers and scientists continue to ignore, even ridicule, the findings of psychical research, they will distance themselves even more from the concerns of ordinary people and further discredit legitimate science (Big Bang, an ancient universe, evolution) in their eyes.