The author of, Philosophy of Cognitive Science, discusses why NDE evidence doesn’t measure up.

fetzer-bookJoin Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with philosophy of science and human consciousness scholar, Dr. James Fetzer. During the interview Mr. Tsakiris and Dr. Fetzer discuss evidence for the survival of consciousness, and whether this evidence undermines our current model of mind=brain consciousness:

Alex Tsakiris: So let’s take a big step back and say that when someone has a flat EEG they are not supposed to have any conscious experience, let alone the kind of conscious experience near-death experiencers are reporting. What you say might be definitionally true and all that, but we just have to deal with the fact that people are having a conscious experience when they shouldn’t be having it. And that’s highly suggestive that consciousness doesn’t operate the way that we thought. It isn’t a product of the brain but is somehow separate from the brain and continues after the brain is severely compromised, if you want me to say it isn’t dead.

Dr. James Fetzer: Well, as soon as you begin talking about an ordinary concept of consciousness you have to acknowledge that consciousness involves responses to stimuli in the environment that we access through our different senses, taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. Therefore, if we’re going to talk seriously about a form of consciousness that persists after death, we’re going to have to account for how it’s possible to have sensory experiences for an entity that is no longer embodied. In other words, if you no longer have your senses, if you no longer have a capacity for taste, touch, sight, smell, or hearing, how can you possibly have any conscious experiences after you’re dead?

What we do know, Alex, is that when the brain is deprived of oxygen, the kinds of experiences that are typified by the reports of those who have these near-death experiences occur.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s absolutely not true, Jim. You just haven’t delved into the.

Dr. James Fetzer: Alex, that’s all just fine and dandy and I did not previously express any concerns about it. You have been pressing me on this point and I’m explaining to you that based on classic criteria from the philosophy of science, your proposition of the survival of consciousness after death is a paradigm case of an empirically untestable claim.

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Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris.

On this episode of Skeptiko we return to a topic that I’ve addressed many times before, and that is near-death experience science and how it squares with the mainstream science model of consciousness. That is, of course, that consciousness is solely and completely a product of the brain. Now I’ve wrestled this issue to the ground before, but it was really fun to dialogue with someone who I greatly respect and admire for his ability to courageously follow the data wherever it goes on a whole variety of topics that are certainly very, very controversial.

Here’s my interview with Dr. Jim Fetzer:

Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome back to Skeptiko Dr. James Fetzer, who is best known as one of the world’s leading authorities on the JFK assassination and the events of 9/11. But he’s also a scholar and author in the area of human consciousness. He’s written several books and many scholarly papers on the topic. So, Jim, thanks so much for joining me again today on Skeptiko.

Dr. James Fetzer: Oh, Alex, it’s a real pleasure. I like the way you operate at a very high level of professionalism and I think your site is beautifully managed.

Alex Tsakiris: Thanks a lot for saying that. It’s quite an honor coming from you. One of the reasons I’m so excited to have you back is that this is one of these shows that I really don’t know where it’s going to go. And that’s as exciting for me as hopefully it will turn out to be for our audience, too, as we see where this conversation goes. Let me bring folks up to date a little bit on what we’re doing here and then we can get started.

So you were nice enough to join me on Skeptiko a couple months back and we discussed your work with the JFK assassination and other controversial topics like the attacks of 9/11. We mainly focused on your research methods and how difficult it can be to make headway against entrenched, in your case politically driven, worldviews that you run against.

And I kept seeing the parallels between your work and the topics we’ve been covering here on Skeptiko, particularly this revolutionary idea that our consciousness is somehow separate from our brain and seems to survive our death. So when I ran across your work and I saw that you had also done all this work in consciousness-written these books and all these papers-I just thought it was a really neat opportunity to tie both ends together. When we did that first show we said, “Hey, let’s do another show on consciousness,” and here we are.

Dr. James Fetzer: I think it’s a great idea. I have worked on the evolutionary aspects of mentality and cognition in a book entitled The Evolution of Intelligence: Are Humans the Only Animals with Minds, where my answer is a resounding no. Actually, if you have a proper understanding of the nature of mentality, it turns out that mentality is ubiquitous in nature, where my book is particularly focused on the emergence of animal mind and from animal mind to primate mind, higher primate mind and then human mentality.

So that’s the theme which is developed in that most recent work. I would love to get feedback from any of your listeners who want to pursue these issues. I would love to hear from them about it.

Alex Tsakiris: I read the article that you sent me on consciousness and evolution and I also did pick up the second book there that you mentioned. I found it all very fascinating and I thought you had some really fresh perspectives on it that seem just perfectly logical and made a lot of sense, and yet it’s surprising to find that they aren’t as widely held-or that there are still a lot of people thrashing around when I thought your approach in terms of the evolution of consciousness was really straightforward and made a lot of sense.

Dr. James Fetzer: What you mentioned, Alex, about paradigms, I’m afraid the prevailing paradigm in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science is still a computational or computer paradigm where the assumption is made that the mind is a kind of computer and that the relationship of mind to body is the same as that of software to hardware.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, let me jump in here and break this off because this first interview that I had with Jim was interesting and we talked about the evolution of consciousness and some of his books and some of his ideas, but what I really wanted to get to was this idea of whether or not near-death experience science undermines this model of consciousness.

Now you’ve heard me bring this up many, many, many times before with guests of different stripes-Atheists and conservative Christians and all different people. No one really seems able to hone in on it and directly address the issue. That is, deal with the data, explain the data, and explain how it fits into the model.

So I tried this with Jim. It didn’t work. We went for a long time and it didn’t work, so I said, “Okay, Jim, I’m going to send you a bunch of articles.” I sent him links to all this NDE science. Didn’t hear a lot. Talked to him again on the phone. He hadn’t really reviewed it. Sent it to him a third time, and then finally I got him back on the phone and we had this following interview, which I want to offer to you.

In some ways it’s a rehash of so many interviews I already had on Skeptiko about near-death experience, but in a way visiting the topic with someone who has a different kind of background that Jim does, who is very open to alternative ideas and rather shocking conclusions that one can draw by really looking at the evidence. It’s a different person espousing the same, I have to say, worn-out ideas about explaining away near-death experience science.

Here’s my follow-up interview with Dr. James Fetzer:

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, Jim, let’s jump right back into this because I really, really appreciate that we’ve been able to have this on-going dialogue about this topic and that you’ve followed up and done some additional research.

There isn’t a better person that I would like to connect with and dialogue on this. Even though we seem to be coming at this from two different angles, hey, it’s an overused word but I celebrate that because I respect you so much as an intellectual and as a thinker, and as someone who’s really willing to go wherever the data takes you. That’s just the kind of person I want to have this discussion with.

I’m going to hammer you here, but tell me what you’re thinking about this near-death experience science because it looks to me like it directly stands in the way or has the potential to overturn a lot of the ideas that you had and that traditional mainstream science has had about the nature of consciousness. So what do you think?

Dr. James Fetzer: The problem is that we don’t have any opportunity to determine whether or not consciousness survives after death.

Alex Tsakiris: Explain that a little bit, Jim, because we went over that in the email.

Dr. James Fetzer: I think it can be explained in part relative to the concept of death because I draw quite a distinction between a near-death experience and death. Death is an irrevocable state. You cannot be dead and then come back.

Alex Tsakiris: Again, Jim, I’ve got to jump in a couple of times because I’ve wrestled these issues to the ground with some of the best and brightest. Let’s say you have a cardiac arrest. Well, when you have a cardiac arrest you are clinically dead. That’s all there is to it.

So when people want to throw around, “Was it really dead? Was it near-death,” as far as medical science is concerned, when you have a cardiac arrest, you are dead. Meaning that if we don’t do something to reverse your circumstance, you will be dead. And we also know that within 10 to 15 seconds from that you’re going to have a flat EEG, which means that in every way that we can measure, you have no conscious experience.

So now we get back to this science and we say, “Here are these people that have this situation and have this medical condition and they are reporting verifiable data from this experience.” So I just keep coming back to that and I’m going to keep throwing it up because that’s the big thing.

Dr. James Fetzer: Listen, Alex, what we’re talking about is the difference between a definition of death as an irrevocable state and criteria of death where evidential indicators that lead us to make judgments about whether or not a person is or is not dead. A state of death is an ontological state; it’s a state of being of a thing that was living that is no longer living. The criteria we’re talking about are epistemic; they have to do with the evidence we have or the evidential indicators as to whether or not a person is or is not in an ontological state.

They are fallible. They are fallible. That is what is crucial here. There’s nothing about the evidential indicators for being in a state of death that guarantees that a person has to be in a state of death just because those evidential indicators indicate as much. Now it’s a very high probability that when those evidential indicators, those epistemic indicators signify death that a person is dead but it isn’t infallible. In the kinds of cases you’re talking about, it seems to me to be ones where their fallibility is on display.

Alex Tsakiris: Wait a minute. Let me jump in here because again, I’ve just heard this line of reasoning again and I’ve just got to push it. If you step back it really doesn’t hold up, especially in the context of what we’re talking about, which is consciousness as it’s normally understood, as it’s normally explained, as your textbook and many fine articles describe it.

So on this point I’ve interviewed a guy who’s one of the leading experts on EEGs. That’s his thing. He doesn’t even care about near-death experience. And what he told me-and it’s common sense, really because we wouldn’t use EEGs if they didn’t work-but the medical knowledge we have is that when you have a flat EEG you don’t have a conscious experience. And that is confirmed in all of the animal studies that have been done and numerous human studies that have been done.

So let’s take a big step back and say that when someone has a flat EEG they are not supposed to have any conscious experience, let alone the kind of conscious experience near-death experiencers are reporting. What you say might be definitionally true and all that, but we just have to deal with the fact that people are having a conscious experience when they shouldn’t be having it.

And that’s highly suggestive that consciousness doesn’t operate the way that we thought. It isn’t a product of the brain but is somehow separate from the brain and continues after the brain is severely compromised, if you want me to say it isn’t dead.

Dr. James Fetzer: Well, as soon as you begin talking about an ordinary concept of consciousness you have to acknowledge that consciousness involves responses to stimuli in the environment that we access through our different senses, taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing.

Therefore, if we’re going to talk seriously about a form of consciousness that persists after death, we’re going to have to account for how it’s possible to have sensory experiences for an entity that is no longer embodied. In other words, if you no longer have your senses, if you no longer have a capacity for taste, touch, sight, smell, or hearing, how can you possibly have any conscious experiences after you’re dead?

Alex Tsakiris: We don’t have to explain that any more than we have to explain how they brought down the 9/11 towers or how the overall conspiracy ran. It really is analogous, and that’s what drew me to your work initially. What we have to do is be as clear as we can about the data, about the anomalous data. And we don’t have to fully explain what it means or how consciousness works in order to say the existing model that we have clearly doesn’t work.

Dr. James Fetzer: What we do know, Alex, is that when the brain is deprived of oxygen, the kinds of experiences that are typified by the reports of those who have these near-death experiences occur.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s absolutely not true, Jim. You just haven’t delved into the data as much because what the data really suggests in near-death experience, and I’ll just give you one little snippet that kind of gives you an idea, but Dr. Jeffrey Long, a medical doctor, radiation oncologist, very, very capable of reading medical records says 76% of the 2,000 near-death experience cases he reported, 76% now, reported a conscious experience greater than their normal consciousness. This is completely inconsistent with hypoxia, with the brain…

Dr. James Fetzer: What does that even mean, Alex? Greater than. How do you measure equal to, greater than, less than? What is the scale for comparison?

Alex Tsakiris: Again, Jim, this is the kind of survey work that’s the bedrock of medicine. So we go out and we ask people. We could ask you, you know? When you were at the rally today, were you more excited than you normally are? About the same? Or less? Now that’s a subjective or relative thing but if we asked 1,000 people that, we’d have data.

This is the kind of data that we rely on every time and we can certainly see in a medical situation where I could ask someone who’s been through a procedure, an operation or a near-death experience, whether their consciousness during that time seemed to be enhanced beyond what it normally is. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Dr. James Fetzer: I certainly don’t see anything wrong with saying that persons who actually are not dead have experiences that they come back and report that have a certain degree of intensity to them. That doesn’t bother me at all. What I’m saying is, as a philosopher of science if you want to maintain consciousness after death, then I’d say what we probably have is we have no way of determining whether or not it’s true. There are no evidential indicators of whether or not some consciousness is surviving after death.

Let me draw the parallel with the concept of a soul. I mean, it’s a common religious dogma, an article of faith, because it’s empirically untestable that individuals acquire a soul by some theories of conception by other theories later in the course of development of the zygote embryo fetus. But the point is that at death the soul may survive the body.

Well, how can we tell if the soul does survive the body? The fact of the matter is we have no possible way to determine whether or not a soul survives the body or even whether a soul exists or whether we might each of us be inhabited by 100 souls. Maybe we have a soul for humor, a soul for depression, blah, blah, blah. You know, it’s a metaphysical notion  in the sense that it’s empirically untestable.

The point I’m making, Alex, is that your concept of consciousness as you want to deploy it works right up to the point of actual death because the claim you’re making is that because of the experiences that occur before a person actually is dead should provide justification for their enduring after a person is dead. That’s where I see the problem for the point of empirical testability.

Alex Tsakiris: It’s not the point that I’m making; it’s not the point that’s made in the 25 years of research that I reference to…

Dr. James Fetzer: The point I’m making, Alex, is that this is a classic philosophical…

Alex Tsakiris: It’s irrelevant to the data, Jim, because the last time we had this discussion I brought this research up to you of Dr. Penny Sartori, which is just an example of how we can probe this area. I really am resistant to this idea of “Oh, you know, this can’t be approached and we’ll never know.”

So what Dr. Sartori did is she interviewed people who’d had a near-death experience and asked them to recount the resuscitation experience, right? So they’re being resuscitated. We know they’re-I’m not going to say dead because I don’t want you to jump on me-but their brain is severely compromised in a way that they should not be experiencing anything.

She asked them to report their conscious experience and she compared that group to a control group, people in the cardiac ward who had also had a cardiac arrest and had not reported a near-death experience. Those folks who did were significantly statistically– published in a peer-reviewed article in a peer-reviewed paper, much more accurate in their reporting of their resuscitation process. So this is a very concrete way and there are other ways of testing whether these folks, during a period when they’re not supposed to have a conscious experience, are having it.

Dr. James Fetzer: Alex, that’s all just fine and dandy and I did not previously express any concerns about it. You have been pressing me on this point and I’m explaining to you that based on classic criteria from the philosophy of science, your proposition of the survival of consciousness after death is a paradigm case of an empirically untestable claim.

And I don’t care how much data you claim to have from persons who are, in fact, not dead because they’ve been resuscitated. That doesn’t give any data whatsoever about persons who actually are dead, who were not resuscitated as to whether or not they have any consciousness that endures thereafter. That is the issue.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, Jim, I’m going to come back to this same point because I think you’re really holding onto a very, very narrow ledge. I mean, take death out of it for a second. And we’re going to take death out of it.

Dr. James Fetzer: But that’s your claim! Your claim is that consciousness persists after death. And near-death is not death.

Alex Tsakiris: Again, the reason that I go there is to just use the kind of common language that we all do. If we have to get real specific then I’ll phrase it the way that I just did, Jim. It still is a major, major obstacle to your model of consciousness, and that’s that people who have had a cardiac arrest and are being resuscitated, we have no way of explaining why they would have any conscious experience.

So we can take death out of it, survival of death out of it. There’s no way they should be having a conscious experience. There’s no way we can explain their out-of-body experience. There’s no way we can explain them observing their body from above without eyes. There’s no way we can explain them hearing without ears. And yet, that is the data that we have. I don’t know how you overcome that.

Dr. James Fetzer: Well, there’s a distinction between what we know and can explain today and what we may know and be able to explain tomorrow. The fact that you have this unusual phenomenon, I mean, I’m not denying it at all, but those unusual phenomenon not denying at all that you have all this data.

What I’m asking is whether all this data you have about near-death experiences provides the premises that enable you to make a justifiable, logical inference from the existence of the premises, the data about near-death experiences, to the conclusion about the continuation of consciousness after death. I do not see any warrant for making that conclusion based upon those premises. I don’t see it.

Alex Tsakiris: Again, I don’t have to go there; I just have to go-and this is a rehash here-but I just have to go and say the current model that you’re putting forth with consciousness is completely undermined by the data that I have without going and saying that consciousness continues after death or reincarnation or any other things. I just say you have to take the data that you seem to be-I don’t know if you’re accepting it or not-but you have to take that data and now you have to work it back into your model and you have to tell me how your model is still sustainable. It’s not.

Dr. James Fetzer: What is my model, Alex?

Alex Tsakiris: Your model is that consciousness is a product of the brain. Your model is what you said before, and you said it as a statement of fact. I think it’s challenged by the data and that’s that you said certainly consciousness is a product of our five senses, right? And that our five senses are…

Dr. James Fetzer: I said on the ordinary notion of consciousness obviously consciousness involves interpreting the data provided by stimuli. And the fact is on my model, and it’s my model which is why I can talk about it so definitively, consciousness involves having the ability to use signs and not to be inhibited by the exercise of that ability where signs or anything that stands for anything else in some respect or other.

Alex Tsakiris: So again, fit it into your model. People are outside of their body; they’re observing from above their body the resuscitation process. So just take that data, if you would. Tell me how it fits in your model of consciousness.

Dr. James Fetzer: There’s a lot of data that’s rather nebulous. I mean, you’re having these sorts of experiences and they don’t seem to fit any familiar experience. They’re obviously unfamiliar experiences.

The problem we have with unfamiliar experiences is typically we don’t have concepts by means of which to subsume the experiences we’re having  to make them intelligible to us.  Like if I see something that’s round and orange and got a wrinkly skin you can infer that this is an orange because it satisfies those criteria. Now maybe if you try to cut it open and you find out it’s made of ceramic or something like that, you’re going to discover something that looked like an orange but was made of ceramics.

Now we’re talking about these experiences and the out-of-body experience  and all of that. Those are obviously very common experiences. They could be induced by many different states. I mean, individuals who get drunk, intoxicated, LSD, whatnot, have all kinds of weird experiences that are not therefore inexplicable…

Alex Tsakiris: Jim, these people have a flat EEG. We have no medical explanation for how you could have this kind of experience while you have a flat EEG. We have no way of explaining how you could see without your eyes. We have no explanation for how you could hear without your ears or how you could travel to other locations.

Dr. James Fetzer: We have memories. You have the memories that you’re drawing upon, memories of seeing things. You’re seeing things you’ve seen before or…

Alex Tsakiris: Now hold on. Because this is something you said in your email. Let’s be crystal clear. You are now moving into the category of illusion. And you’re saying that these people are not observing what they think they’re observing. And you can make that claim and we can wrestle that to the ground but that is not going to hold up versus the data.

Again, I’ll go back to just one study and there are many of them, but I’ll go back to the Sartori study. She sought to sort through:  Are these experiences illusionary? Is the data that they’re bringing back accurate? And she found that it was. So if you’re going to postulate…

Dr. James Fetzer: Well, well, what does that mean? What does that mean, is the data they’re bringing back accurate? What does that mean?

Alex Tsakiris: It’s that they were more accurate in-they were stunningly accurate in reporting the resuscitation process and people who had not reported an out-of-body experience were not.

Dr. James Fetzer: That suggests that there’s something different or more uh, maybe higher intelligence? Maybe greater perceptivity. Maybe greater sensitivity. That suggests there’s something about the class of cases in which these near-death experiences occur and the class of cases in which they don’t, which would be very, very suggestive of lines or avenues of investigation.

Alex Tsakiris: Jim, they have a flat EEG! They have a flat EEG during this process!

Dr. James Fetzer: Yeah but I’ve already explained that. That doesn’t mean they’re dead.

Alex Tsakiris: So as you know, if you’ve heard my two interviews with Dr. Jim Fetzer, I have enormous respect for him both as an intellectual and as a scholar and as a courageous free-thinker who’s willing to follow the data where very, very few people are willing to go.

But then, as this interview suggests, we might have found some of the limits to where he can really go in terms of following the data. At least that’s my take on it. I guess if this interview offers anything new on this subject, it’s that when you have a lot invested in a belief system, it’s really, really hard to let go.

Of course, I want to thank very much Dr. Jim Fetzer for joining me today on Skeptiko.

If you’d like more information about this show or any of our previous shows, please visit the Skeptiko website. It’s at skeptiko.com. You’ll find links to our previous shows, an email/Facebook link to me, and a link to our forum where you can discuss this show. Hopefully, we can get Jim in the forum to give his follow-on thoughts on this topic.

That’s going to do it for today. Thanks so much for joining me. Bye for now.

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