Author Chris Carter discuses how Near Death Experience Science is misunderstood and misrepresented by mainstream science.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Chris Carter, author of, Science and the Near Death Experience. During the interview Carter explains how the acceptance of paradigm changing science like near death experience and telepathy wouldn’t change science as we know it, “…I do not agree with you that the acceptance-say of telepathy, or the acceptance of the near-death experience as a genuine separation of mind from body, I do not think that would challenge any aspect of science. I don’t think it would change the way that neuroscientists come in and do their jobs. I think that everything would be exactly the same. They’d continue looking for the same chemicals, the same neurotransmitters, the same areas of the brain that light up. They’d still be trying to work with split brain patients and patents who have damaged brains. I don’t think that anything would change. Except, yes, their conversations down at the pub on weekends would change. Absolutely. The philosophical conversations would change. But I really don’t think that it would impact anything in science simply because modern neuroscience is completely neutral as to whether the brain produces the mind or whether the brain acts as a receiver/transmitter for the mind.”
According to Chris Carter the real dividing point between mainstream science and the breakthroughs of near death experience science lie in conventional view that everything we experience can be reduced to just brain activity, “Materialists like to claim successes in modern science have been due to a Materialistic outlook. You’ve probably heard that before. But this is nonsense. The three men most responsible for the scientific revolution, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, were not Materialists. One of the reasons Galileo recanted his views is because he feared the Church would excommunicate him. Newton spent the last half of his life writing on theology. I mean, Materialism is an ancient philosophy that basically asserts that everything has a material cause. Therefore, the brain produces the mind. This dates back at least to Democritus in ancient Greece. It was thought to gain support from the physics of Isaac Newton, although Newton himself did not agree. Newton himself instead followed the Dualism of Renee Descartes. It was really the 18th century philosophers such as Diderot and Voltaire who spread the doctrines of Materialism and Mechanism. They did this in order to combat the religious fundamentalism and superstition, and the persecution that were common in their time.”
Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris.
Before we get to today’s interview with Chris Carter, I want to take a minute and tell you about something that happened to me this week. One of the benefits of doing Skeptiko and having it achieve the little bit of success that it has is that I now get books sent to me on a regular basis. Little surprises in the mail. A new book. A new movie to review.
Last week I received a request like that from a guy who had heard my interview with progressive Christian and self-proclaimed heretic, Spencer Burke. This guy had heard my interview with Spencer and he’d written a book on reimagining the Gospel in a new way, in a scientific way. He wanted to see if maybe we would do a Skeptiko show on it.
So the first thing I did was email him back and say, “Hey, have you listened to some of my other shows? You might not really like my take on the “Gospel narrative.” Well, this launched about a two day email exchange back and forth between this author and myself about essentially what boils down to the topic I want to talk about a little bit, and that’s Apologetics.
Now, before I started Skeptiko, I have to admit to you: I didn’t even know what Apologetics was, let alone did I know that you could get a master’s degree or even a Ph.D. in Christian Apologetics. But since then I’ve come to find out that Apologetics really doesn’t mean anything more than using good logic and reason to support your argument. While that certainly doesn’t sound revolutionary to those of us who love science and love scientific arguments, for Christians the idea that they can move away from faith and instead use logic, reason, science, to build a case for their belief is well, somewhat of a revolution.
There has been any number of very popular best-selling books built around these Christian Apologetics. In fact, if you go on YouTube as I have, you can hear some of these debates where these very convincing, well-spoken scholars and historians like William Lane Craig who is one of the guys who is a Christian Apologist who does this a lot. In the background here I’m playing a little bit of a clip from his debate with Bart Ehrman, who is a biblical scholar who has come to the conclusion that some of these claims in the Bible and the most important claims in the Bible don’t really hold up historically.
Now the reason I bring all this up is if you listen to these debates, they’re just fascinating. They have so many parallels to the kind of debates we’ve had here on Skeptiko. First, they really are debates. I mean, if you listen to William Lane Craig, he’s very convincing and he cites a ton of very solid-sounding historical facts that he can pile on for his side.
The other way these debates remind me of the kinds of debates we’ve had on Skeptiko is that they’re never-ending. The debate I just played a clip from is about two hours long and it’s one of probably 20 or 30 such debates you can find on YouTube. It goes on and on and on. There doesn’t seem to be any resolution.
The reason I think it never has any resolution is because it’s Apologetics. The whole goal of Apologetics seems to be not to win a debate; not win the argument, but just to put up a good show. You see, in my mind if you listen to the debate between Bart Ehrman and William Lane Craig, Bart Ehrman mops the floor with him. If you can really be objective and stack up the facts point by point on who really has the strongest argument, there’s really no contest. But if you’re a committed Christian and you really want to believe the Gospel story exactly the way that it’s written, you’ll find plenty of solace in William Lane Craig’s arguments.
Boy, isn’t that exactly what we’ve encountered on Skeptiko? If you really listen to the arguments for near-death experience as they’ve been presented by some of our guests like Dr. Jeffrey Long or Dr. Pim Van Lommel or Dr. Bruce Grayson, and then you listen to the other side, Steve Novella, Susan Blackmore, G.M. Woerlee, well, it’s really a one-sided affair. All the good points go to the NDE researchers.
In fact, the skeptics rarely even mount much of a counter-argument. They just say, “Hey, there’s still reason to believe.” Go back and listen to the interview with Dr. Steven Novella. That’s essentially what he says right from the beginning. He says, “Hey, there isn’t reason to give up hope yet. We might still find a conventional medical explanation for this.” Well, that’s not a very strong argument. And it echoes back to the same arguments that William Lane Craig makes regarding Christian Apologetics. “Hey Christians, don’t give up. Here, there’s still reason to believe we might be right.” That, to me, seems like a strange way to look for the truth.
So back to the author who sent me the book. After three or four emails, I was able to convince him that maybe Skeptiko wasn’t the best forum for a book on Christian Apologetics.
No such problem with today’s guest, Chris Carter, who’s just authored a book on near-death experience and science that echoes some of the same sentiments that I’ve just presented here. Stay with me for my interview with Chris Carter.
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Chris Carter back to Skeptiko. Chris is the author of Parapsychology and the Skeptics, and his new book is titled, Science and the Near-Death Experience. Welcome back to Skeptiko, Chris.
Chris Carter: Thank you, my pleasure.
Alex Tsakiris: So, Chris, there are probably a lot of Skeptiko listeners who are familiar with your first book where you take a very critical view of the role skeptics play in parapsychology. Why don’t you start by telling us how that work led you to your most recent book on NDEs?
Chris Carter: Well, the first book-and the second actually-grew out of a lengthy debate that I had with a very stubborn and dogmatic skeptic. Frankly, I was shocked by his ignorance and by the crudity of his arguments. So I decided that a book was needed to examine the evidence for telepathy and other forms of extrasensory perception, and also for the idea that the mind can function independently of the brain. So essentially I wrote what I thought was going to be one huge book. I found that no publisher would publish it all in one book, so I broke it up into a trilogy of three.
Alex Tsakiris: You know NDEs are a topic we’ve covered a lot on Skeptiko, mainly because I think it cuts to the heart of this whole mind-equals-brain issue that you were just alluding to. And that is really how you start your book, isn’t it?
Chris Carter: That’s true.
Alex Tsakiris: Tell us a little bit about how you break that down. I think that as we move from parapsychology to near-death experience, we really have to confront head-on-it forces us to, near-death experience more than telepathy where you can say, “Oh, is there super-psi or something else going on that maybe is a function of the brain?” I think more than any of those, near-death experience really cuts to the core and says, “Hey, this challenges the idea that our mind is 100% a product of our here/now brain,” doesn’t it?
Chris Carter: I think it does. I think that the near-death experience provides evidence indicating the actual relationship between the mind and the brain. I think it indicates that the brain works as a two-way receiver/transmitter. Sometimes from body to mind as in sensory perception, and other times from mind to body as in willed action.
The rival hypothesis that the brain produces the mind has thus been proven false by the data. What many people do not realize is that there’s a lot of evidence to this effect, and this evidence is examined in detail in my new book, Science and the Near-Death Experience.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s take that one step further, though, because this is something we’ve started talking about here. That’s that the challenge that the near-death experience science presents for mainstream science/Atheistic/Materialistic mindset people is that this not only challenges this idea of mind-equals-brain, but it forces us to deal with some very touchy cultural religious issues concerning whether we have something like a soul and whether we go to heaven when we die.
Doesn’t it really force us to get there? I don’t think we can really separate out the near-death experience science from some of the implications that it at least hints towards. Whether you accept them or not, I think it brings those onto the table. What do you think?
Chris Carter: I think it does. I don’t think that scientific debate, especially about issues such as the near-death experience occur in a cultural or social vacuum. I think we have to remember that there is a historical conflict in the West between science and religion. It’s something that is peculiar to Western societies. So discussions about issues such as phenomena such as telepathy and the near-death experience really rubs a lot of people the wrong way, to put it mildly.
Essentially, in my first book, this debate is not primarily about evidence. Most of the so-called deniers simply ignore the evidence. When they can’t ignore it, they try to dismiss it. When they can’t dismiss it, they try to suppress it.
And I documented several instances of that in my first book. In 1987, for example, the National Research Council, they were a branch of the American Association of the Advancement of Science. They evaluated the U.S. Army’s research into evaluating human performance. The Army at that time was interested in different ways of improving the performance of soldiers in the field–things like transcendental meditation, learning while asleep, and extrasensory perception.
At any rate, they really did a complete hatchet job. The NRC hired several skeptics, including James Alcock and Ray Weymann to basically trash the Army’s studies. In 2006, Peter Atkins, the chemist, he criticized the British Association for the Advancement of Science for simply allowing biologist Rupert Sheldrake to present a paper. In other words, he attempted to suppress a working scientist from presenting his paper at a conference with other scientists.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. So why do we expect anything different or what is different about near-death experience science?
Chris Carter: Research into the near-death experience is being conducted around the world. Mostly not by parapsychologists but actually by cardiologists-people who are on the front line between life and death every day. People who are literally bringing back people from the brink of death.
And many of these cardiologists have, in the course of their careers, been told stories by resuscitated patients in which the patients will say, “Well, you know while you were working on me, I felt myself leave my body. I felt no more pain. Not only that, but I could see. You were working on me and there were two nurses there and somebody came in wearing a blue dress and you were doing this and that.” And these cardiologists have been absolutely astonished. So some of them over the years have started to collect these stories, write books, and actually are conducting large studies.
Alex Tsakiris: What would make it different in a medical community or in a medical research setting as opposed to what parapsychologists have been trying to do over the years?
Chris Carter: I’m not really sure. Perhaps give it some more legitimacy. Parapsychologists are not conducting front line research into near-death experiences because most of them are not cardiologists.
Alex Tsakiris: I didn’t mean relative to near-death experiences. What I was trying to draw out there was that I think that the medical community-and I think we’re getting to this-doctors are a different breed of scientist. As you said, they’re on the front line, but they’re tasked with a different job. Their job is to keep these people alive or to explain to them why they didn’t stay alive. And I think it just sharpens the focus in a forced to way that maybe the parapsychologists aren’t do.
Chris Carter: I would argue something a little bit different. I would argue that the cardiologists are, above all, pragmatic and empirical. I mean, they’re just data. If they find something that works and keeps people alive they don’t particularly care at that moment how it’s working. They just want to use it. They’ll worry about the how later, just as long as it works.
Also, these people are right there being told stories by people they’ve resuscitated perhaps hours or days before. Sometimes these stories are amazing, amazing in the detail that corroborated by these stories these people tell when they say they were, for all obvious purposes, clinically dead. Yet they somehow say that they were above their bodies and could clearly see what was going on.
Now, I don’t care who you are-if you’re the sort of person who has to save lives on a daily basis and is open to whatever works, and then you get told these amazing stories right to your face, not just once but over and over again, if you’re an intelligent person-which almost all of them are-you’re going to wake up and take notice.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, it’s interesting. We just had Pim Van Lommel on the show just a couple of weeks ago and that was almost verbatim his experience-that it was the nature and the amount of stories that he got and that they were so sincere. They were so heartfelt on the part of his patients that it really made him stand up and take notice.
I do have to say at the same time, he provides a pretty realistic picture of cardiologists on the whole in terms of being really a mixed bag. A lot of cardiologists are just not willing to make that leap, even though they have the same experiences from their patients.
I don’t know if you’ve read his book, but he has an amazing story in there of being at a NDE conference and half-way through this cardiologist stands up and goes, “You know, I’ve listened to enough of this. This is a bunch of baloney. I’ve been a cardiologist for 25 years. I’ve never had a patient tell me this.” And somebody stands up behind him and says, “Excuse me. I’m one of your patients. I’ve had a near-death experience and your attitude is just the reason why I would never share it with someone like you.” So I think there’s also that doctor/patient phenomenon that goes on that is interplaying here as well.
Chris Carter: Yeah. You said earlier that the near-death experience poses a threat to mainstream science. I really don’t see it that way at all. In fact, if you do surveys of scientists, the vast majority of them are remarkably open to the existence of human abilities such as telepathy.
A large number are open to the possibility that the near-death experience really is a genuine separation of mind from body-that the mind can continue to function even after the brain stops functioning. So, you know, I think that cardiologists and physicists and neuroscientists, like everybody else, they really are a mixed bag of different opinions.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, I’m not sure I quite agree with you on that last point. And I think it’s kind of an interesting cultural point that maybe we can dip into for a minute.
I think when we undersell the significance of the near-death experience phenomena and the findings in terms of it overturning fundamentally and impacting–again fundamentally– just about every area of science we can imagine, I think if we undersell that too much by saying, “Oh, it’s clearly no big deal here.”
I think that causes more confusion and really becomes part of the problem in this debate. Doesn’t NDE science really turn everything on its head? I can’t think of an area of science that it wouldn’t significantly impact to say that consciousness is not only separate from our here/now brain, but somehow in some way we don’t understand, it survives our bodily death. To me that seems pretty earth-shattering.
Chris Carter: I agree with you in that it’s earth-shattering and may have earth-shattering results for society, but I do not agree with you that the acceptance-say of telepathy, or the acceptance of the near-death experience as a genuine separation of mind from body, I do not think that would challenge any aspect of science. I don’t think it would change the way that neuroscientists come in and do their jobs.
I think that everything would be exactly the same. They’d continue looking for the same chemicals, the same neurotransmitters, the same areas of the brain that light up. They’d still be trying to work with split brain patients and patents who have damaged brains. I don’t think that anything would change.
Except, yes, their conversations down at the pub on weekends would change. Absolutely. The philosophical conversations would change. But I really don’t think that it would impact anything in science simply because modern neuroscience is completely neutral as to whether the brain produces the mind or whether the brain acts as a receiver/transmitter for the mind.
Alex Tsakiris: I just can’t quite get there because to me it’s almost like having a microscope or not having a microscope. Or having an MRI or and FMRI device or not having it.
If we have this whole other area that is completely unexplored, which is your consciousness as it exists on some other plane, in some other dimension, and that that’s somehow interacting with you on this what appears to be a very fundamental level-and we didn’t know about it and now we accept it. I think if you’re a neurologist you have to go back and look through every study you’ve ever done, every building block of assumption you’ve ever made, and re-examine it in the light of this new finding that this consciousness seems to emerge from some other dimension.
Let me give you a final thought on that and then we’ll move on, because I really want to talk about skepticism and near-death experience because I think that’s really right up your alley.
Chris Carter: Okay. I’d just like to say something briefly about that, because what you’re talking about is the relationship between Materialism and science. You know, Materialists sometimes like to claim successes in modern science have been due to a Materialistic outlook. You’ve probably heard that before. But this is nonsense.
The three men most responsible for the scientific revolution, Galileo, Keppler, and Newton, were not Materialists. One of the reasons Galileo recanted his views is because he feared the Church would excommunicate him. Newton spent the last half of his life writing on theology. I mean, Materialism is an ancient philosophy that basically asserts that everything has a material cause. Therefore, the brain produces the mind.
This dates back at least to Democratists in ancient Greece. It was thought to gain support from the physics of Isaac Newton, although Newton himself did not agree. Newton himself instead followed the Dualism of Renee Descartes. It was really the 18th century philosophes such as Diderot and Voltaire who spread the doctrines of Materialism and Mechanism. They did this in order to combat the religious fundenaticism and superstition and persecution that were common in their time.
So I really don’t think that there’s anything in modern science, or even for that matter in classical science, which would be strongly contradicted by these results.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about skepticism. This skeptical mindset that really goes beyond the skeptical community, but we always wind up focusing on the skeptical community because to their credit, they’re the ones who are brave enough to stick their chin out there and say, “Come on, this is the way that it is.” Now we’ve talked to quite a few of those folks on this show and have tried to create this dialogue and find out what they’re really saying.
We’ve talked to anesthesiologist G.M Woerlee; we’ve talked to University of Kentucky Professor Kevin Nelson, who has an alternative theory on what causes near-death experience. We’ve talked to Yale neurologist Steve Novella.
And the story’s always the same-that “Hey, there’s a conventional explanation for all this, guys, just hang in there a little bit. We’re figuring out that this is all explainable with conventional medicine.” What do you think about this skeptical response to this point to near-death experience science?
Chris Carter: Well, in my second book, Science and the Near-Death Experience, I’ve got several chapters devoted to these attempts to explain away the near-death experience within a Materialistic framework. In a nutshell, I’m not the slightest bit impressed at all. The more I read about it the less impressed I become.
Essentially, this debate is not about evidence. The debunkers and the deniers are defending an outmoded world view in which psychic phenomena and the separation of mind from body are simply not allowed to exist. It’s essential to realize that most of these deniers and these phony skeptics are militant Atheists and secular Humanists. For various reasons these people have an ideological agenda, which is anti-religious.
One of the pillars of their opposition to religion and superstition is the doctrine of Materialism. That is, the doctrine that all events have a physical cause and that the brain therefore produces the [mind]. If they conceded the existence of psychic ability such as telepathy, if they conceded the existence of the near-death experience as a genuine separation of mind from body, then Materialism, this pillar of their opposition to religion, would crumble. This explains their dogmatic denial of all the evidence that proves Materialism false.
Alex Tsakiris: Hey, I’m with you. I’m with you on a lot of that stuff. But I think there’s a real danger in painting these folks with such a broad brush. For example, we had Dr. Sam Parnia on the show and it was a very interesting interview. Of course, Dr. Parnia is head of the AWARE Project investigating near-death experiences in hospital settings when people are being resuscitated after cardiac arrest.
He has all the right people, right? He has Dr. Peter Fenwick, who’s very pro-NDE. He has Dr. Bruce Grayson from the University of Virginia, very pro-NDE, as part of his collaborative group. In our interview he’s very much at least presenting a picture that he’s open to a non-Materialist explanation, this dualistic mind/brain thing. So I don’t think we can paint these things with such a broad brush.
My problem is that I worry that some of the folks like in particular, Dr. Sam Parnia, who present this idea that there needs to be some genuine investigation here, are really coming at it from a purely skeptical perspective and in particular, are designing experiments that may result in being nothing more than debunking exercises that are designed to fail and designed to prop up this idea that there is a conventional explanation for near-death experience and it’s just around the corner.
Chris Carter: Yeah, I don’t understand the take on Sam Parnia as you do.
Alex Tsakiris: Did you hear on the interview when he said, “I suspect they’re an illusion-a trick of the mind?”
Chris Carter: Yeah, but didn’t he right after that qualify his words?
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t know how you qualify saying “I’ve done this research for 10 years. I’ve compiled 500 cases and it may be, and I suspect it is, an illusion-a trick of the mind.” I don’t know how you qualify that and do the fancy footwork that he does and back off of that statement. The reason I had him on the show was to confront him with that exact quote and give him the chance to back off of it. He didn’t. So I don’t know. What do you read into that that I don’t?
Chris Carter: Well, there was a lot more to the interview than just that. I can’t remember exactly everything he said, but I remember he went on in saying, “What we’ve got to do is look at the data. It’s an empirical question. Perhaps near-death experiences are real in the sense that there is a genuine separation and perhaps there’s an illusion.” That’s what he was saying. The way I saw it he was covering his bases; he was trying to present himself as objective as possible.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. But he’s designed a study that doesn’t fulfill the promise of this openness that he’s looking for. I mean, he’s designed a study where near-death experience patients are asked to see an object on the ceiling when all the prior research, even in his preliminary studies on this, has produced zero results. Never has anyone seen these objects, yet he’s rolled out this study and really trumpeted it as the definitive answer one way or another as to whether near-death experiences are genuine.
So I don’t know. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Sam Parnia on this show, but it kind of surprises me that you’ve fallen for that a little bit. I just don’t see it. Not with the study that he’s designed. It’s just not a fair study. It’s not a fair way to really test the question.
Chris Carter: You mentioned that previous studies along the same line have failed?
Alex Tsakiris: No one has ever seen these objects, these pictures, placed above their hospital beds. At least none of those have been reported in the literature. And as a matter of fact, the only literature that they have where they’ve done this, Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick and Penny Sartori, no one has ever seen it.
Chris Carter: Well, I guess my next question would be how many times has it been tried?
Alex Tsakiris: I guess we could ask that question, but we could also ask the question of why are we going down this route when we have all this other research done in the same controlled way in a cardiac ward with patients. We have all this information that we can verify about their accounts and that seems to be substantiated over and over again. It seems to be a natural consequence of the near-death experience.
Why are we creating this artificial hurdle that folks are supposed to jump over when if we just look at the near-death experience accounts no one is reporting seeing random objects on a regular basis. Or reporting seeing the colors of pictures on the wall.
I mean, it sounds more and more to me like a debunking exercise. And he says that. He says a lot of things that sound like a debunker. He says things like, “Well, if they really are out of their body, then they should be able to see this object.” Well, that’s an assumption that I’m not willing to make. How can we make such an assumption when we don’t even understand the nature of this out-of-body experience? And the nature of consciousness in this other state?
I think there are a lot of red flags for me in the whole thing.
Chris Carter: Okay. You’re entitled to that opinion. It may be the case that when human beings are out of their body they’ve got better things to focus on than some picture that’s hanging from the ceiling. Perhaps they’re focusing on their own body and what’s being done to it. But I don’t really see the AWARE Project as some sort of attempt to debunking of the whole thing. I saw it as a pilot project which hoped to get some interesting results. In other words, positive results, which could then be used to fund a much larger scale study.
Alex Tsakiris: I think that’s how other people think of it as well, so I may be in the minority opinion. Actually, I’m going back on what I said when I talked to Dr. Jeffrey Long and he was supportive of Dr. Parnia and I said I’d lay off of him. But you got me riled up here, Chris, so I broke away from that promise and had to get a couple of shots in there. So I’ll leave it alone.
Let’s talk about Susan Blackmore because I think her research is often cited by skeptics. Even I was surprised when I talked to Dr. Steven Novella. He cited Susan Blackmore. The reason I’m surprised is because when we had Dr. Blackmore on the show, she really did almost a complete mea culpa and said, “I’m really not up to date on the research. I haven’t looked at this research in 15 years.” She basically said, “I’m not qualified to comment on what’s going on.”
But then I have to add, at the same time I found out that a month later she appeared at a skeptical conference and basically repeated all the things that she said in the past, all the misinformation. Or really outdated information she has on near-death experience.
Tell us a little bit about what you think about and how you treat Dr. Susan Blackmore in the book.
Chris Carter: In my first book I had a section on Susan Blackmore and it basically showed that her claims-she went around for years claiming that she failed to find any psychic abilities in her experiments. So one of my friends, Rick Berger, went back and re-examined her experiments and found that they were also sloppily conducted. Nothing-no conclusions could be drawn from them. If anything, her experiments showed the existence of telepathy.
He printed this up in a scientific journal and Blackmore was asked to respond. What she said was, “Hey, I agree. No conclusions can be drawn from the Blackmore experiments.” In other words, she was saying that her work was an absolute failure and for the past 20-30 years, however long her career had been on at the time, she had accomplished absolutely nothing. It was based upon absolutely nothing.
But then I examined her writings in a scientific journal before the Berger article and her confession, and then I examined her writings in the popular press right after. And I saw absolutely no change at all, both before and after. She was still saying, “Hey, I did years of careful research and I found nothing.” Even though she had admitted just a few years previously in a scientific journal, that her experiments on psychic abilities were absolutely useless. They were just too sloppy, too small, too poorly conducted to draw any conclusions.
So I don’t have a lot of respect for Susan Blackmore. I think she’s a shameless self-promoter.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I don’t know about that second part. That seems to take a leap into an area that I can’t really comment on, but what do you think about her work in near-death experience science? Because it’s cited quite a bit by skeptics.
Chris Carter: Yeah. Of course it would be, wouldn’t it? I’ve got a whole chapter on Susan Blackmore called, “A Dying Brain Theory of Susan Blackmore.” There’s almost nothing new that she says. She basically strings together a bunch of prior explanations, psychological and physiological, in an attempt to account for various aspects for near-death experience.
What does she do? She says she thinks that the feelings of peace and bliss can be caused by endorphins. The tunnel and light caused by oxygen starvation. The life review caused by temporal lobe seizures. The experience out of the body being due to a breakdown of body image. Accurate perceptions of the immediate environment during near-death experience due to “prior knowledge, fantasy, and lucky guess.” So there’s little that’s new there.
In previous chapters I show that endorphins cannot cause the peace and bliss. Oxygen deprivation cannot be responsible for the tunnel and light. Temporal lobe seizures absolutely fail as an explanation of any aspect of near-death experience. And the rest of it just falls apart.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s put it in a little bit of perspective, too, because maybe when she first published some of this work 15 years ago, going on 20 years ago, those might have been legitimate research topics to explore. My real problem with Dr. Blackmore is that as the science has advanced, as the data and the evidence have mounted, and they do not favor any of her conclusions like you just said, her position hasn’t changed.
So in some ways, although I’m not as familiar with the case you mentioned of her parapsychology work, but it seems to mirror that in that just not keeping up to date on where the science is really going and not changing her opinion or her position accordingly.
Chris Carter: As I mentioned in my first book a few years ago, Blackmore threw in the towel. She simply gave up and said, “I’m not having anything more to do with parapsychology.”
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but as you pointed out and as I just mentioned, that doesn’t stop her from continuing to offer her opinion on these topics. I don’t really understand that contradiction. It seems pretty obvious in my view.
So, Chris, tell us what else you think your new book, Science and the Near-Death Experience. What else does it bring for us that we may not find in other books on this topic?
Chris Carter: I’ve tried to explain that there’s no good reason, either from philosophy, from science, from common sense, to think that the brain produces the mind. I spend my first section dealing with that.
The second section I deal with evidence from the near-death experience. First of all I talk about it. I discuss the near-death experience across cultures. And then one-by-one, I go after all of the proposed psychological and physiological alternative explanations for the near-death experience. I show in detail how none of them hold up.
Then I take on Susan Blackmore. Finally, I talk about the scientific challenge to Materialism and I discuss the near-death experience as possible evidence for survival of conscious mind past the point of biological death.
Alex Tsakiris: The final question I have for you, Chris. I’ve had a number of folks ask about your first book, Parapsychology and the Skeptics, and where they can get their hands on it. Is there a second printing coming out?
Chris Carter: What happened was my first publisher ran into some financial difficulties and stopped publishing my book. The rights reverted back to me and my agent and myself are now currently looking for another publisher. We hope to find one soon.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so what’s coming up for you in the near future?
Chris Carter: I’ll be working on a documentary and perhaps a television show. I’m not sure in what capacity I’ll be working on these shows. Possibly as a writer, at least as a participant, a speaker. We’ll see how that goes. And then my third book should be out perhaps in a year, maybe two.
Alex Tsakiris: What’s the topic? Or do you have a title yet for that third book?
Chris Carter: We haven’t got a definite title. We might call it, Death and Beyond. It will be an examination of other forms of evidence for survival.
Alex Tsakiris: So what, deathbed visions?
Chris Carter: No, more along the lines of children who remember previous lives, apparitions, and communication through mediums.
Alex Tsakiris: We’ll certainly look forward to that. Chris, thanks so much for joining us today.
Chris Carter: No problem. Thank you.
Alex Tsakiris: Thanks again to Chris for joining me today on Skeptiko.
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