Monday, 22 March 2021

Guardian Article on Near Death Experiences (NDE's)

I read the following Guardian article:

What do near-death experiences mean, and why do they fascinate us?

Of the afterlife, [Kevin] Nelson [a neurologist] told me: “This claim is the most extraordinary in science, and there is no ordinary, let alone extraordinary, scientific evidence to support it.” (He added: “These are matters of faith.”)

A few comments:

What constitutes an extraordinary claim? A claim is deemed to be extraordinary if it is not consonant with our background beliefs about the nature of the world.  Those background beliefs are the assumption that materialism is correct, more precisely that the discoveries of science exhausts reality.  However, if we assume materialism, then there cannot be an afterlife, at least not in the form of a soul dwelling in some afterlife realm.  That doesn't just make an afterlife extraordinary, it makes it impossible.

So, since a proponent of an afterlife would scarcely embrace modern materialism, Kevin Nelson is transparently begging the question.  He would need to justify that modern materialism is very likely to be correct.  But I have argued that modern materialism is simply not compatible with the existence of consciousness, and here we're simply talking about our everyday embodied consciousness.  See my: Why the existence of consciousness rules modern materialism out.  In short, it seems to me that this assertion that an afterlife is an "extraordinary claim" cannot be substantiated.

Also, Nelson appears to be construing "scientific evidence" in the sense that we cannot derive a continued consciousness after death from everything we know about the material world and its structure.  That's true, but it conveniently leaves out the fact that we cannot derive normal everyday embodied consciousness from the  material world and its structure either!  Consciousness needs to be causally efficacious before we have evidence of it, and the causal efficacy of consciousness is denied by most scholars (we're talking here about consciousness per se rather than its neural correlates). 

Again, this can be circumvented by saying consciousness is identical (not merely caused, elicited etc) to neural activity. So yes, we can then have embodied consciousness, but not any unembodied consciousness.  But that again is to transparently assume modern materialism (NB I am specifically talking about materialism here, not just any position that holds the brain produces consciousness).  

And what is meant by saying an afterlife is a "faith"? Why is the hypothesis that our consciousness continues after the death of our bodies labelled a faith, but not the extinction (annihilation) hypothesis? By labelling the survival hypothesis a "faith" he appears to be implying that the "no afterlife" thesis should be the default, more reasonable, one. But why is it? I deny that it is. See my Brains affecting Minds do not rule out an Afterlife.

The article also says:

Daniel Kondziella, a neurologist affiliated with the department of neurology at Copenhagen University Hospital, told me that if “people are able to describe and report their experiences, even many years later”, then surely “they have been processed by the brain and stored in its memory centres.”

To say that memories are stored appears to me to deny that memories are a property of a [non-material] self.  I discuss such a self here.   So arguments are required as to why my conception of the self is unsatisfactory.  Apart from that, it seems that Kondziella is also begging the question since if the brain stores memories, then surely the brain produces the rest of our consciousness?  Besides, which, it seems this whole notion that memories can be stored is fatally problematic as I explain here.  Memories just exist and the fact that brains can impede access to them has no more significance then the fact eyeglasses can impede vision if the lenses are cracked. 



  1. While it's hard to prove a negative, I would guess in the case of an afterlife - or disembodied consciousness in general - it ought to be possible in principle to find evidence in its favour. Disembodied consciousness implies access to knowledge we could not otherwise have. To my mind no such credible claims of ESP-like phenomena have ever been presented. This hardly means that strict materialism is correct (it very clearly isn't), but does make it less credible, in my opinion, to support a disembodied consciousness. Consciousness itself may be fairly said to be beyond the remit of science, but the knowledge it allows us to access and impart to others is very much directly testable. So the disembodied view needs to address why, after so much research, there are no unambiguous cases of ESP-like phenomena, no clear examples of mind-reading and the like.

    A hypothesis : ordinary consciousness is at the very least mediated and influenced by the brain and the senses even if it isn't created by material processes. Thus the nature of a detached consciousness and its perception of reality would conceivably be wholly different from the case of it being bound to a brain. But this argument needs to made very explicitly, since the popular view of a ghost is much more like some different version of ordinary physical matter, i.e. with eyes and other ghost senses that are basically the same as the normal ones.

  2. This idea was so interesting to me I decided to speculate a little... alternative perspectives most welcome :

  3. In some relation to this I was trolling around philosophy stack exchange website and found a reference to a book which apparently disproves unity of consciousness from his view and that is Oliver sacks "I mistook my wife for a hat" I suggest you find some time to review this book as if I am not mistaken doesn't disproving unity of consciousness also disprove idealism?


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