Saturday, 20 April 2019

NDE’s, burden of proof, and Ockham’s razor

The other day I read the following Guardian article regarding peoples’ “spiritual experiences” near death.  I’m more interested though in the subsequent comments underneath the article.  A preponderance of the comments are dismissive with many of them claiming that those who are disposed to accept these experiences at face value -- that is those who regard these experiences as suggesting an encounter with an afterlife -- should bear the burden of proof.  Another common claim in the comments is that one should accept the simplest explanation, namely that it is the brain that is producing these experiences.

The Burden of Proof


The burden of proof is on those that are making a claim.  Immediately we encounter a problem here since although the author comes across as being sympathetic to the afterlife interpretation, he has not specifically claimed he accepts this interpretation.  Contrariwise, a preponderance of the commentators claim that the brain alone can explain these experiences.  So, it seems the skeptics ought to bear the burden of proof.

However, there is another strategy that skeptics tend to adopt, and that is to say the burden of proof rests upon those who are disposed to accept phenomena that contradict our scientific understanding of how the world works.  They further tend to say we know that science tells us that the brain produces consciousness justifying this knowledge claim by pointing out that the mind is profoundly affected and compromised by a dysfunctional brain e.g. as in dementia.  Hence, to suppose consciousness survives the permanent cessation of the functioning of the brain is an extraordinary claim, and those who make this claim bear the burden of proof.

In other words, those who are disposed to take these “spiritual experiences” at face value bear the burden of proof if, and only if, it is indeed the case that an afterlife contradicts what science has revealed about the world.  And what has science revealed about the world in this context?  According to skeptics it apparently has revealed that the brain produces consciousness!  But then to claim that those who are disposed to believe in an afterlife bear the burden of proof is to presuppose at the very outset that science has shown the brain produces consciousness.  It is therefore mere question begging.

But does science show, or at least strongly suggest, the brain produces consciousness?  I have written extensively about this in other blog posts, and the answer is emphatically no.  Indeed, on the contrary, not only has science not shown any such thing, it could not in principle do so.  See my Neither Modern Materialism nor Science as currently conceived can explain Consciousness.  Specifically, regarding a dysfunctional brain adversely affecting the mind read my Brains affecting Minds do not rule out an Afterlife.  So science doesn't say consciousness is a product of the brain, nor does it say it isn't.  Science, at least as currently conceived, can only be neutral on this issue.  It has nothing to say at all about how or why consciousness exists, least of all whether it can survive the deaths of our bodies.

Ockham’s Razor


So much for the burden of proof.  But in the comments there was also the claim that we ought to accept the simplest explanation.   This is to appeal to Ockham’s razor.  This can broadly be thought of as a rule of thumb that says that when you have two or more competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, in the absence of further evidence the simplest one is to be preferred.  Simpler in the sense it invokes the fewer number of assumptions than the competing theories. 

Now, the immediate problem here is that regardless of whether the brain produces consciousness or otherwise, we lack any theories either way.  Indeed, it is why we have had the mind-body problem for the past couple of thousand years.  But, the hypothesis that the brain produces consciousness has a special apparent problem in this regard since, as I explain in my Brains affecting Minds do not rule out an Afterlife, not only do we not currently have a mechanism whereby brain processes could produce conscious experiences, but there is no conceivable mechanism that could be revealed.  This is why many contemporary philosophers and scientists are reductive materialists since materialism circumvents this problem by identifying brain processes or their function with specific conscious experiences.  However, I have argued that reductive materialism is not tenable.  See my Why the existence of consciousness rules modern materialism out.

Of course we also lack a mechanism or scientific story of how a immaterial self or soul relates to the body, but unlike the brain producing consciousness thesis, this does not appear to be an intractable problem.  Even if it were, clearly the lack of explanations or theories for either possibility entails we can scarcely apply Ockham’s razor here.

If anything the onus should surely be on those who dispute that these experiences are indicative of an afterlife. After all, the most compelling argument for annihilation is that as we approach death our consciousness diminishes gradually until it reaches zero. But, for those who have NDE's, they often state they were more conscious than they have ever felt in their lives, and this at the threshold of death. Are we to imagine that at that moment their consciousness plunges to zero? This seems incongruous to me.  A similar point can be applied to terminal lucidity.  Such experiences have to be post-hoc rationalised away by the skeptic, often utilizing convoluted conventional explanations.  Then, of course, they have to face the apparent irreconcilable difficulty of explaining how the brain or the whole body could produce consciousness.



Whatever the specific issue that is being argued over I disapprove of either side declaring their position should be considered to be correct in the absence of their opponents proving their case.  One should not win by default. Moreover, often both sides will dispute who has the burden of proof, and who Ockham’s razor favours.  Since this is often not clear cut, and indeed, as I explain above, the appeal to such principles often presupposes one’s position, then the prospect of any fruitful exchange of views is a forlorn one.

My purpose in this post was not to argue that NDEs and deathbed visions are proof of an afterlife.  Although I do think that these phenomena strongly suggest an afterlife, there are problems with this evidence as I acknowledge in part 9 of my A Response to The Myth of an Afterlife. My task in this post was merely to dispute that those disposed to believe NDE’s suggest an afterlife bear the burden of proof, or that appealing to Ockham’s razor renders the afterlife hypothesis unlikely.  

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