Interview with Dr. Robert Kuhn reveals why he’s reluctant to accept evidence for near-death experience (NDE) science.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Robert Kuhn, host of popular television show Closer to Truth. During the interview Kuhn discusses the evidence for survival of consciousness after death:
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk about survival of consciousness a little bit — life after death — and in particular near-death experience research. It’s a topic we’ve covered a lot on this show. If there’s consciousness with no brain, then the mind/body debate is really over. Why isn’t this an area you’ve dug into?
Dr. Robert Kuhn: That’s a legitimate question and obviously we’ve touched on it because we do deal with life after death in terms of the religious expressions of it. So that’s something I can focus on, because it’s not a question of physical fact as NDE would be, which I am very skeptical of.
Alex Tsakiris: Who would be someone you would point to as being an NDE skeptic?
Dr. Robert Kuhn: To me, the number of people would be legion. The burden of proof is on the other side.
Alex Tsakiris: The burden of proof of what? The NDE evidence is pretty clear. For example when they’ve studied this in the cardiac ward they know there’s no brain electrical activity and yet there’s this conscious NDE experience. I mean, that’s really the crux of the mind/body issue.
Dr. Robert Kuhn: I would find that not compelling at all if that’s the evidence.
Alex Tsakiris: What do you mean?
Dr. Robert Kuhn: I personally believe that there is more likely than not a need for something beyond the material world as we understand it today to explain consciousness and mind. I would not, though, use as evidence for that the existence of the NDE.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk about survival a little bit. Life after death. It’s a topic we’ve covered a lot on this show because the evidence for it really cuts to the core of this argument we’ve just been talking about. If there’s consciousness when there’s no brain, then it’s really debate over. And that, of course, brings…
Dr. Robert Kuhn: Well, I don’t necessarily agree with that but to be very rigorous in the analysis it does not follow that if there is more to consciousness than the brain, it does not follow that there has to be a guaranteed life after death. It can follow; it is not excluded, of course. It is a fact in that direction…
Alex Tsakiris: Let me be clear. What I was saying is that if there’s consciousness with no brain, then the mind/body debate is really over because you don’t have a body anymore and you do still have a mind. That debate is over. I agree with you; survival of a personal consciousness that exists, reincarnation and all the rest, is a whole other leap as you said that requires some gaps.
But I think the topic that we’ve dug into because it directly addresses these issues is the near-death experience. I was very interested to read a blog post of yours titled, “Is There Life After Death?” If I can, I want to read you a quote from that and chat about it a little bit. You say, “As for NDEs, I’ve never given the claims credence. They seem more like stress-induced brain physiology caused by lack of oxygen or other such chemical insults or trauma brought about by whatever has caused the near-death in the first place.”
Tell me about that because I’ve got to tell you, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s leading NDE researchers, physicians, researchers at leading universities, and boy, none of them are saying that. It seems to me like all the evidence points in the other direction. So tell me what you’re thinking there.
Dr. Robert Kuhn: Well, I don’t claim to be an expert. I’ve not done any personal research myself, but from what I’ve observed and from my knowledge of brain science in general, to me a great deal of the NDE data has similar kinds of characteristics but they all have their own cultural affectations. So it just seems to be dream-like activities that are affected by one’s personal state. And there are similarities. People talk about lights and all of that.
I can’t claim to be an expert; I just don’t find from what I’ve read to be terribly compelling that there’s something there that is provable. I would think that life after death and survival of consciousness is such an overwhelmingly powerful and fundamental aspect of reality that if it were true, we’d see much more obvious representations of it.
So the arguments I’m giving you are not knock-down arguments but they do inform my own thinking. I can see mechanisms of how NDE can occur without some fundamental reality and just on brain trauma affected by cultural aspects of the individual life. I can see why people like to see that.
Then on the other hand, if there were NDE and there were independent spirits that survive death and hover around or however you define that, I would think that the evidence of that, because it would be such a powerful part of how the universe is constructed, would be a lot more.
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t want to push this too far because you are admitting and being upfront about not having dug into it too far, but really all those topics that you’ve mentioned have been pretty thoroughly investigated. We’ve had many, many experts on the show.
Hypoxia, as you mentioned, the lack of oxygen has pretty thoroughly been addressed. The cultural data that has come in—and there’s been some good research on that—actually concludes the exact opposite of what you’re saying, that there’s really no way to explain the similarities of the experience across culture.
And the differences you see in terms of if you’re Christian you might see Jesus and if you’re Buddhist you might see Buddha, are really the kind of fine-tuning small points as the differences go. The overwhelming majority of the experience is similar across cultures. We can go on and on but…
Dr. Robert Kuhn: Well, human brains are similar. Everybody has hippocampuses and thalamuses and…
Alex Tsakiris: Right, but we wouldn’t expect to see the same narrative over and over again played in that way. Again, this isn’t my personal conclusion; it’s the conclusion of the folks who have done the research. Moreover, there just isn’t any research that really contradicts any of that. Certainly no clinical research.
And the stuff that gets thrown up there, I mean, you look at Sue Blackmore who published something 20 years ago. We had her on the show. She admits, “I’m not current on the research. I’m not an expert to speak on it.” And yet people keep drudging up her stuff. Thoroughly, thoroughly addressed.
I guess the only question I can ask since you’re not familiar with the research is, why isn’t this an area you’ve dug into more? And what would make it not something that you would really be that interested in pursuing from a Closer to Truth kind of angle?
Dr. Robert Kuhn: That’s a legitimate question and obviously we’ve touched on it because we do deal with life after death in terms of the religious expressions of it. I do like exploring from religious traditions that believe in life after death what that would mean. So that’s something I can focus on, for example, because it’s not a question of physical fact as NDE would be, which I am very skeptical of, but people’s opinion if there is life after death.
So we give them that; we assume there’s life after death because then we don’t have to deal with the argumentation of whether there is. I assume there is to explore what that would mean. And that to me is very interesting. It deals with a lot of philosophical theology, the different religions, and how they see life after death, the implications of that. To me, that’s fascinating; to me, that’s much more interesting than a trying to prove it.
All I can say is that if the evidence were as obvious as you say it is, then the overwhelming number of people in the world would believe it, in terms of people who study things. And it’s quite the opposite, certainly for science as you mentioned one psychiatrist. There are many who don’t.
Alex Tsakiris: Again, we could dig into it and I’m happy to explore it. I tell you, I have talked to a lot of the leading people in that area. I don’t know–who would be someone you would point to as being an NDE skeptic?
Dr. Robert Kuhn: To me, the number of people would be legion. The burden of proof is on the other side. To say why…
Alex Tsakiris: The burden of proof of what? I mean, I think you’re jumping into the survival/life after death thing and I’m just saying what the medical researchers are doing and it’s established now. You won’t even hear anyone argue the phenomena. NDEs happen…
Dr. Robert Kuhn: Oh, if you want to say that there are those experiences, sure. Sure, people have…
Alex Tsakiris: During a time. But the important thing is during a time when…
Dr. Robert Kuhn: If you’re saying that NDEs, that there are people who go through trauma that they almost have died and didn’t and then came back to life or didn’t come back to life, came back to consciousness and had some feelings of different lights, that’s for sure true. I mean, no doubt about that.
Alex Tsakiris: But let me be clear. With the research, the evidence suggests pretty clearly in cardiac wards, Dr. Pim Van Lommel, in the Netherlands who’s the leading cardiologist over there, studied it for 25 years, published in The Lancet. I mean, this is not small potato stuff.
Dr. Robert Kuhn: Well, what are you saying? I’m still not sure.
Alex Tsakiris: In the cardiac ward, they know there’s no brain electrical activity and yet there’s a conscious experience. I mean, that’s really the fulcrum point where this swings. We can deal with life after death later. But we really have to deal with the fact that there’s…
Dr. Robert Kuhn: What you’re saying is the brain is dead but there is consciousness at the same time. You’re not saying there’s life after death. Is that your claim?
Alex Tsakiris: I’m saying that’s really the crux of the mind/body issue. If we do have this conscious experience…
Dr. Robert Kuhn: You’re saying that—I would find that not compelling at all if that’s the evidence. I think the question which is a very strong one, and I may think your conclusion may be right, but I would not cite your evidence as reason for it.
Alex Tsakiris: Unravel that for me. What do you mean?
Dr. Robert Kuhn: Well, I mean I personally believe that there is more likely than not a need for something beyond the material world as we understand it today to explain consciousness and mind. So in that sense, I likely agree with your conclusion.
I would not, though, use as evidence for that the existence of the NDE experience where some cardiologists don’t record brain activity at contemporaneously with an experience of a phenomenal experience that the person later reports. I think the physiology of that, even if they don’t detect brain waves, is that the brain wasn’t dead.
How can you say it was dead? People have been underwater for 20 minutes or things that don’t seem rational or who knows what? There may have very well been activity. If the person has unrecordable brain activity it doesn’t mean–if they came back to life I assume that the brain wasn’t dead.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, but again, I don’t know how far we can really push this. We’ve interviewed one of the leading EEG experts, and the guy’s a skeptic. The EEG is really a pretty good indicator of what we’ve correlated with conscious activity so we can’t really appeal to that argument… that maybe there’s something going on deep inside the brain. That’s an argument that skeptics have brought up that really doesn’t hold water. From everything we know about the brain…
Dr. Robert Kuhn: So what are you saying? The brain was dead and then it came back to life?
Alex Tsakiris: The brain was dead at the same time the person was experiencing a vivid, hyper-conscious experience.
Dr. Robert Kuhn: So then how did the brain if it was dead get back to life?
Alex Tsakiris: That’s the question, isn’t it? I mean, that’s really the jumping off point for a whole bunch of questions that we might ask.
Dr. Robert Kuhn: Look, I understand the view; it’s just not something that I personally would put a lot of stock in, in terms of I don’t base my belief or hope that there is something beyond the material brain. I don’t base it on NDE. I mean, that’s just full-stop. Could I be wrong? Sure. But I don’t think so.