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Interview with Kevin Williams creator of one of the leading website portals on Near-Death Experience science.
Today we welcome Kevin Williams to Skeptiko. Kevin is the creator of www.near-death.com, the #1 website on near-death experiences, both in terms of visitor traffic and in terms of the comprehensive amount of information about near-death experiences, near-death research, and all topics related to this amazing phenomena. Kevin is also the author of Nothing Better Than Death: Insights from 62 Profound Near-Death Experiences.
Kevin, welcome to Skeptiko. Thanks so much for joining me.
Kevin Williams: Thank you, Alex. It’s my pleasure.
Alex Tsakiris: So as I just mentioned, near-death.com is amazingly comprehensive. It pops up on virtually hundreds if not thousands of different search terms. Even if they’re not familiar with the website, people have probably encountered it. Start us off from the beginning. Tell us how you started it, why you started it, and the driving force behind it.
Kevin Williams: First of all, I’m a big believer in synchronicity and it seems like most of my life I’ve had that. When I was a kid, my dad had a small CRT screen and for some reason I knew that I could build it so that people could ask questions to it and get answers back. I just had that in my mind for a long time. I don’t know why. Then when I went to college and got into computer science, I graduated just about the time when the Internet was taking off.
Before that time I read Raymond Moody’s book, Life After Life. That was the late ‘70s. Since then I couldn’t get enough books to read on the subject. It was kind of a synchronistic time that I just happened to learn how to build websites at a time when I was fully knowledgeable about near-death experiences and a time when I was able to build a website.
I started really early. Part of the reason why I get a lot of hits on different keywords is because I designed my website as a portal, which means that there are usually only two or three levels deep in my website. I built it that way specifically so that it would do that. It has the ability to access a lot of information right upfront and also it would be a lot easier to navigate.
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Alex Tsakiris: So you did not have a near-death experience prior to starting this, is that right?
Kevin Williams: Yes, that’s true. I’ve never had a near-death experience. But once you read enough of them you almost feel like this is information that you’ve known before. In fact, a lot of near-death experiencers, during their experience they’ll receive knowledge like that, forgotten knowledge. The more I read about it, the more I realized that this was true for me and that everybody has actually experienced death many times through reincarnation. So that was part of it right there.
Alex Tsakiris: So you’re open to the idea that there might be a form of knowledge that is hidden consciously but still spurred your interest, which is fantastic. I’m open to that, as well. But I do think it’s interesting and it’s been my approach on the Skeptiko show that you can really approach this topic from a purely intellectual, scientific standpoint and get to this same place, you know? To me it’s always baffling that more people don’t question on one side or the other this information.
As you point out, you read Raymond Moody’s book and it would seem that those kinds of earth-shattering claims would force more people to say, “Hey, I have to decide one way or another. I have to either investigate this and prove to myself that it’s totally a bunch of bunk or I have to roll up my sleeves and really dig in there and see that there is something more.” Are you surprised more people aren’t engaged in really finding out the truth and are willing to just take such high-level answers of it that it must all be fake or it must all be true?
Kevin Williams: You know, I haven’t really thought that much about it on that perception but I do agree that people who aren’t predisposed to that kind of information—for example, I became a Born-Again Christian in the late ‘70s, before I read Raymond Moody’s book. I was eager to learn about spirituality at the time I read Moody. I was especially interested in Bible prophecy. As I read more and more about near-death experiences, I discovered that it doesn’t jive with a lot of the stuff I had learned as a Fundamentalist. Disparity grew over the years, you might say.
It actually became part of this crisis that I had in ’89 when I was diagnosed bi-polar. It wasn’t like a leap of faith but I needed something to translate my Fundamentalism to a more universal position, which is the near-death phenomenon. So one thing that did help me a lot was that I started reading Edgar Cayce and he, of course, was the perfect bridge for me to understand how Christianity in its mystical form is equal and practically identical to what the near-death experiencers say.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk about that for a minute. First, I think it’s very brave of you to disclose that. Anyone who goes to near-death.com will find a very logical, thoughtful, rational explanation of near-death experience linked to many, many of the major figures, research, all laid out in a very logical format and pointing to a lot of research. Not a lot of the stuff that you’re talking about that a lot of people find controversial, so I just want folks to know that.
But I want to switch into this other topic that you’re talking about because I think it’s fascinating. I think it’s very brave of you to talk about it. And I think there’s such an oppressive push for normalcy in so many of these discussions.
Kevin Williams: I don’t consider my bi-polar disorder a negative thing anymore because for one thing, a psychiatrist told me that the only difference between someone who is psychic and one who is psychotic is that the psychic can deal with the voices and the faces and hallucinations but the psychotic can’t. Partly because a lot of the experiences I had, and I still do have the bi-polar disorder, I’m able to have a lot of synchronicity in my life, a lot of after-death communications happen to me. Especially when my mother died in 2001 in a car accident.
What happened was after she passed away, almost immediately my whole family started receiving these synchronicities, almost like signs from Heaven that she was trying to communicate with us. Two days after my mom died, I had a dream that became lucid. All of a sudden I saw her sitting on a couch like in a waiting room, like a lot of people see in near-death experiences. I was immediately lucid and I told her how surprised I was that she was not dead and she mentioned that she hadn’t contacted my brother yet. The next day, I called my sister and she had had virtually the same dream and I had, lucid and everything.
Ever since that time, especially around the time we had the memorial for her and her funeral and her death anniversary, we would receive these synchronicities all the time. It was especially important to me because I knew what was going on and it’s such a subtle experience. If you’re not aware of what it is you might easily dismiss it as just nothing.
Alex Tsakiris: I just had an interview not too long ago with a guy named Steve Miller. He’s written a really nice introductory book to near-death experience. I was pushing him on the Christian angle and I was suggesting that near-death experience science and the experience itself contradicts Christian doctrine in some important ways?
We got to talking about that and he really pushed back and said, “Alex, what you don’t understand is that most people out there who hear about near-death experience don’t understand that there’s science behind it. They think it’s all anecdotal.” I had to take a step back because I think I was too immersed in the scientific aspects of that to realize that he’s right.
I think that’s what your website really addresses, doesn’t it? That there is science behind this. There are real researchers who don’t have an axe to grind who are just out there and have run across this amazing phenomena and say, “I want to get to the bottom of it.” That’s what I think you really try to bring to the forefront with near-death.com, that there’s a lot of science behind this phenomenon.
Kevin Williams: Originally my focus was to help Fundamentalist Christians ease over into the transition of the Universalism that the near-death experience has. My transition was somewhat difficult, like I said, because of the bi-polar disorder.
Alex Tsakiris: I’ve run across this with a number of people who have been on this show who don’t have bi-polar disorders or don’t have it in their families but still go through a major upset. On your website I like how you reference P. M. H. Atwater who’s probably one of the more open researchers in terms of dealing with this and saying that a lot of these people go through this near-death experience or spiritually transformative experience and it opens them up in a way that is extremely unsettling for their mental health. We can’t sweep that under the rug and say, “Oh, this is only for people with a certain biological predisposition that this is going to upset their lives.” It should upset your worldview and shattering it can be very dramatic.
Furthermore, I think we have to contrast that with the way a lot of Atheists and Skeptical people in our lives handle it. When we run into that we see the opposite of that. I have several friends who are just incredibly resistant to this information because I get the sense that they feel like they can’t deal with it on that level. They don’t want to deal with that kind of upset in their worldview. I think there are a lot of Christians who are coming at it from the exact same way. It’s like, don’t you dare threaten me. I’ve got everything working in a way that I can manage it. Don’t you dare tell me this stuff isn’t true.
Kevin Williams: And when you first encounter near-death phenomena and start reading, I think it is important that on the right hand you have some form of religious background or are open to an afterlife and deal with that. Then on the other hand you have science. Some scientists are just as dogmatic as Fundamentalist Christians. In that sense, the scientist in me has tried to appeal to them as well.
I do agree that people want to hold onto their beliefs, especially when it comes to death. In today’s society death is always the enemy. You’ve got to push it away. In the olden days, everybody knew what it was about. People died at home all the time. It’s an earth-shattering view.
That’s why I’ve always believed that you don’t have to have a near-death experience to feel the benefits. Ken Ring writes extensively about this, how people are transformed from this. But you do have to approach it with an open mind and too many people on the far right, Fundamentalists and far-right scientists, are not open-minded. You have to approach it with an open mind; otherwise people just turn off right away.
My goal, in essence, is to try to help people in that transition.
Alex Tsakiris: I want to transition back and talk about your transition from being a Fundamentalist Christian to being this universal love kind of guy. I know that sounds very New Agey but I think it’s another important point that I want to talk about here. It’s something that, in this effort to legitimize (whatever that means) near-death experience science, is so often glossed over. That is that the overwhelming aspect of the phenomena that comes through once you accept that there is some reality to this near-death experience, the #1 aspect of the phenomenon for people is love. Unimaginable, all-encompassing love.
So tell us about the transition that you went through. You do it in a very logical fashion. Again, folks, this is not the main focus of the near-death.com website or of Kevin’s book that we’re going to talk about in a minute, but it’s one thing that I found very interesting. That’s your deconstruction of Christianity as it’s commonly understood and practiced and how you resolved that with what we understand from the near-death experience phenomena.
Kevin Williams: I have a real compassion for Fundamentalists. Like I said, I was one once. I know them.
Alex Tsakiris: What is the problem, if you will, with near-death experience for the Fundamentalist Christian? Where’s the rub in that?
Kevin Williams: The rub namely is them having a strong belief in the Devil. A lot of Christians are reluctant to embrace any kind of spirituality having to do with spirits and stuff even though the Bible is filled with dream phenomenon and spirits and prophesies.
Alex Tsakiris: On your website you do go through this deconstruction of Christianity in great detail. You pull in a lot of good information that people will find very compelling and a reason to follow-up on. You come to the conclusion on the website that Christianity as taught by Jesus resembles Tibetan Buddhism more than it does Fundamentalist Christianity. Kevin, I’ve got to wonder. You say you feel a compassion and a great heart for Fundamentalist Christians. I can’t imagine a lot of Fundamentalist Christians are receiving that very well.
Kevin Williams: Yeah, I agree with that. The main points that I like to have Christians understand is that if they do look into the early history of Christianity and especially the relatively recent discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic Gospels discovered in Egypt not long after that, that there are a lot of things that were cut out of the Bible for different reasons. They didn’t like pre-existence or reincarnation and that stuff. I try to appeal a little bit to the historical aspect of Christianity and that modern Christianity is certainly what it started out to be.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but the problem gets even worse than that for early Christianity because as you mention on your website—and we won’t get into that whole Paul versus James, Jesus’ brother—anyone who’s serious about this needs to go there and analyze that. I think the big takeaway for me, and I appreciate that you’re trying to spoon-feed this into a Christian sensibility, but it really throws open the whole idea of scripture. The whole idea of the historical accuracy of Christianity.
And I think it leaves us grasping for creating our own truth, our own wisdom, and in that sense I think it brings us back to okay, what can I understand about what is happening to people right now in these near-death experiences? Or in these other spiritually transformative experiences? Isn’t there a problem in trying to completely reconcile this stuff? I don’t think once we deconstruct it we can really put it back in a way that makes sense and say, “Oh gee, if we just go back to the original scripture then everything’s okay.”
Well, no, everything isn’t okay. There is still a lot of myth-making going on there. There are still a lot of strange connections to Buddhism, to ancient Egyptian traditions, Cretan traditions. It’s not a clean-cut to try and say, “Oh, if we just go back to the Gnostics then everything’s okay.” That’s why I try to handle this for the Christian—it’s to help them understand. There are so many different brands of Christianity just like it was in Jesus’ day or after him.
Alex Tsakiris: And some of those sects we can’t even really call Christians. They were people with various belief systems. I agree; that’s the starting point for anyone who’s a Christian is to go back and look and understand that there were a lot of different teachings going on. Even when you take Paul and he’s writing these letters; these aren’t Christian groups or enclaves he’s writing letters to. They’re groups that have already formed around some other beliefs and were just trying to incorporate in this latest round of teachings. So the whole thing gets really messy.
Kevin Williams: The problem for the hardened Fundamentalist is believing anything is true outside of the Bible. What I hope to say is that there’s a grain of truth in all religions. That grain of truth is about love. It’s universal. It’s really what Jesus taught, was love. He was constantly in conflict with the religious people there. I try to let Christians know how wrong it is to have such fixed beliefs. Even fixed beliefs in near-death experiences.
It would be easy to have a fixed belief and say, “Well, the near-death experiences show that reincarnation is true.” Well, even though that’s my belief I can’t really say that. It would be a religion if I said that, although the evidence points that way. I think it’s important to keep an open mind to everything—the possibility that what you have may be true but it may only be partially true. There’s a bigger picture involved. I suspect that’s the case with near-death phenomena, that there is a bigger picture and that near-death experiencers have a very difficult time quantifying themselves. How do you put into words this ineffable experience?
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk about your book, Nothing Better Than Death: Insights From 62 Profound Near-Death Experiences. I found the book very interesting. There are some great near-death experience cases that I think will suck anyone into this topic. They’re just profound and like so many of these stories, they have this human aspect to them that you can’t escape from without being deeply moved by them.
But your book also has a great section on questions and answers where you take your experience in running this website, www.near-death.com, and pull out some of the most frequent questions that people ask and then you answer those. Tell us a little bit about this book and what you sought to do with it.
Kevin Williams: The first half was mostly presenting the near-death experience. I do have a large section at the end reconciling the near-death experience with Christianity and vice-versa. I do try to present the information that you can’t limit God to a book or to an experience like the near-death experience. While I was in the middle of writing that book my mom died. It was kind of ironic because the title of my book was Nothing Better Than Death. It threw me off a little bit. Yeah, I know there’s nothing better than death but not for the people who hang around and deal with it. So that was another experience for me.
In fact, I’m in the middle of writing my next book, which should have been the first title. It should have been “Nothing Better Than Love.”
Alex Tsakiris: I think we all have to come at it the way that we come at it. I don’t know why you had these experiences or why you were thrown another curve just as you’re writing this book but hey, that’s your story. What I want to do is to appeal to folks who want to get to the bottom of things in a logical, systematic fashion. You do have to reject some things in order to let some other things in, so sometimes it’s an uncomfortable process. Let’s be okay with the uncomfortableness of challenging those beliefs, whether they are on the side of religious people or Atheists and scientific-minded people. Don’t we have to crack some eggs to make the omelet?
Kevin Williams: And my message to Atheists is that it doesn’t matter what you believe. Religion and stuff doesn’t matter on the other side. It’s deeds not creeds, which is what I hear a lot. Our life here is important. We’re here to do a job. We’re all on a mission from God, as the Fundies would say. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Atheist or a religious person. You’re accepted on the other side whoever you are.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m with you for the most part. The overall message, who can argue with that? But the deeds versus creeds thing, sometimes I think we want to downplay the relationship between the two. I’ll tell you, for me personally, I have always approached things from a big picture standpoint. I need to understand the creeds before I can really embrace the deeds, if you will, so becoming more accepting of the hard evidence that I am not a biological robot, that there is a reality to the spirituality that I sometimes get little glimpses of and that I see in other people helps me get to the deeds part.
Otherwise, I can look at it very rationally and say, “Hey, I don’t need that deed,” or “I like the stuff that I’m getting. It’s okay for me to have more stuff.” I can even draw a line and say, “As long as I’m not too bad then it’s okay, isn’t it?” There are a lot of people like me who approach it from you know what? I want to know the creed. I want to know the scientific truth as close as I can get to it. That, in turn, informs my deeds.
Kevin Williams: That’s why I view my uncle, who is an Atheist, worshipping “God” in his own way through his love of science and his love of physics and radiology—he’s a radiologist. And evolution. His passion is for nature and science and physics. I think that approach is very spiritual.
Alex Tsakiris: I can’t quite agree because I’ve seen this so often with these scientists. If they have a fundamentally flawed aspect to their theory, like consciousness which is one that we always bump into, then I’m not all that interested in what else they have to say even if they’ve discovered some truth about some particle or some sub-atomic reaction or stuff like that. I think it’s very possible that people can be incredibly well-educated on a narrow subject and be rather oblivious to these larger truths and realities that they don’t even explore. As far as science being a high priest, in what religion? It’s not a religion that I want to be a part of.
Kevin Williams: I believe what Edgar Cayce once theorized and that is that religion and science, metaphysics and philosophy, are approaching a point of merger and we’re getting closer and closer to that point of merger where science does become mystical. I see that in quantum physics.
Alex Tsakiris: I understand where you’re coming from on that. I just think there also has to be a little bit of skepticism associated with that. When I hear about this paradigm change—I’ve had some guests who talked about the great Spiritualist movement in the early 1900s. Everything was poised and ready for a paradigm shift. That paradigm shift didn’t happen. As a matter of fact, it reversed and has been for the last 100 years.
I think it’s a real mistake to underestimate the appeal of the materialist, reductionist philosophy and to underestimate how much it permeates our culture, our lives, in every way. Just because a few people have written bestselling books and made it onto the Oprah circuit, if you will, that doesn’t mean that there’s going to be an end to the war machine or the depleted uranium that we’re going to shoot over in Syria or any of the rest of this stuff.
The only thing I can conclude is that it’s about personal transformation. It’s about embracing that and in the process of embracing that then trying to come into contact with other people and creating that community. But beyond that I’m very leery of drawing any conclusions about our current situation and how that might look in some larger timescale of history. History hasn’t been very kind to this kind of paradigm shift, at least the history that we know of.
Kevin Williams: I have to hand it to you that you deal with a lot of skeptics who are materialists and you fully understand them far more than I do. I do know that they’re very reluctant to hear anything that smacks of religion. Right now we see both sides, religion and hardcore scientists, materialists, kicking and screaming but this point of merger is happening right now, especially in quantum physics. There’s a mystical aspect to it that can’t really be denied.
The materialists and the religionists are kicking and screaming but I see a day where there will be no more faith involved because the new knowledge will come in that is inescapable. The religious person will have to abandon whatever erroneous faith they have, their dogma, and the same with the scientists.
Alex Tsakiris: You could be right. I always think of Dean Radin, who I interviewed a long time ago on this show. He said something that was very prophetic and I know is going to be true. I’m paraphrasing here but he said, “You know all those people talking about paradigm shift? What happens is there’s the shift and then everyone goes, ‘Oh yeah. That’s what I’ve been talking about all along.’”
So there isn’t this big dramatic thing. Scientists will find cover in saying a bunch of different things like, “Oh yeah, we knew that. We accepted that.”
Kevin Williams: You might even go further and say, “Well, with this new paradigm shift, everybody will be right.” The scientist materialist will say, “Yeah, the near-death experience, there’s nothing paranormal about it because we know now that consciousness survives death.”
Alex Tsakiris: Right, right. We redefine consciousness in some way.
Kevin Williams: Yeah. That’s the key, really, when it comes down to it; quantifying what consciousness is. I think if we can establish that consciousness does survive bodily death—and we’re getting close to that, I think, on both sides—whoever has any dogma.
Alex Tsakiris: In that regard I agree with you. I’ve always been very negative about the paradigm shift thing for all the reasons that I just said, but I think you’re right. I get the sense that the mounting data from near-death experience science and the way that that data synchs with findings in other areas is going to make it harder and harder for the consciousness folks to find cover in the reductionist, biological robot mean.
I see that already in my conversations with some of the leading consciousness researchers. They know the old thing doesn’t fit; they don’t know what the new ground is. They’re trying to find this emergent property of consciousness thing which is really just a steppingstone that fails miserably if you really think it through. I think they’re going to have to find a new ground and the only ground to be is this idea that consciousness in some way we don’t completely understand does survive bodily death. I agree with you; that’s a whole new ballgame.
Kevin Williams: That’s going to be a big step. I hope it would happen soon. I hope the results from the AWARE study and the Immortality Project—then again, we have this new study about rats having this explosion of energy in their brains. Materialists say, “Ha! That’s a near-death experience and it’s just a brain thing.”
Alex Tsakiris: We covered that a little bit on this show and when that broke, that latest “science news” story, to me it’s just a repeated pattern of some little insignificant news being splattered all over the science media as some attempt to counterbalance the trend towards near-death experience science.
What I wrote and shared with people was the interview that I did a while back with Dr. Lakshmi Challa from George Washington University who found and proposed the same thing, that there’s this burst of electrical activity in the brain just before it completely shuts down. I went to one of the near-death experience researchers, one of the leading folks—I won’t mention the name. He said, “That’s perhaps the dumbest explanation for near-death experience yet.”
I’d say the same holds true for this rat study because obviously what it completely misses the boat on is that we already know that these near-death experiences happen at times other than this peak period that they’ve studied in the rats. More importantly, we also know that these near-death experiences happen in brains that are not at all under trauma or stress. They happen to people when they’re landing a plane and they think the plane might crash and they can have it.
So it really doesn’t correlate very well with the experience. To me, the real story is how can we yet again take a non-story, take science that doesn’t really fit, and crank it out and prop it up to look like it really provides some kind of legitimacy to this counterbalancing mountain of evidence for near-death experience science?
Kevin Williams: I agree. It’s a matter of perspective, too. The materialists see the rat study and they say, “Ha!”
Alex Tsakiris: They say, “Reason for hope.” They say the same thing that the Christians do when a Christian near-death experience Apologist comes along and says, “Wait a minute. This near-death experience stuff doesn’t mean that we have to abandon Christianity.” To a certain extent I take issue with holding folks by the hand there.
It just doesn’t seem sincere in the same way I don’t think the Christian Apologists are being sincere when they look at near-death experience science and they don’t own up and say, “Wait a minute. This directly contradicts in some fundamental ways Christian doctrine.” And in the same way I don’t think it’s legitimate for the Atheists and scientists to do the same thing.
Kevin Williams: They’re not looking through Galileo’s telescope yet. They refuse to. It really is, on both sides, a matter of ignorance.
Alex Tsakiris: Kevin, it’s amazing work that you’ve done. Can you tell us what might be coming up for folks at www.near-death.com? I know you work on the website a lot and are always updating it with new information. You also mentioned this new book that you have coming out. When might we see that?
Kevin Williams: Well, it’s going to be slow in coming because I’m actually involved in a lot more webmaster stuff than I am writing new articles. But as I am updating my website I’m updating a lot of my main articles that are more popular, I guess you might say.
Of course, right now the deal is doctors who have NDEs, like Dr. Eben Alexander. When we get a number of neuroscientists having these experiences and acknowledging them, and there are a number of them that I want to present, then that’s what I’m interested in.
Also the near-death experiences of Presidents. Ronald Reagan had a near-death experience and Lincoln supposedly had one and it changed his life. These special categories of people having near-death experiences fascinate me a lot.
Alex Tsakiris: Kevin, your website is really extremely important to this field. I hope that people who haven’t been there for a while will revisit www.near-death.com and reacquaint themselves with the information. I’m glad to hear that you’re constantly updating it. I think that’s vital.
It’s been great having you on. Thanks so much for joining me.
Kevin Williams: It’s my pleasure, Alex. I appreciate it.
Today we welcome esteemed Berkeley philosophy professor, Dr. John Searle to Skeptiko. Dr. Searle has a worldwide reputation for his acclaimed work on the philosophy of mind and language. He’s the author of over a dozen books and hundreds of articles and papers exploring issues of consciousness and mind/body mysteries.
Dr. Searle, welcome to Skeptiko. Thanks so much for joining me.
Dr. John Searle: Thanks for having me.
Alex Tsakiris: First off, Dr. Searle, do you still teach “Philosophy 132, Philosophy of Mind” at Berkeley?
Dr. John Searle: Absolutely. In fact, I’m just starting a new semester. I teach fulltime and after I get through talking with you I’m going to meet my teaching graduate student teaching assistants/instructors. I’ve got a big class so I’m going to have at least 150 people in the class.