Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris and atheist blogger Greta Christina square-off for a debate on near Death Experience (NDE) science.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview discussing the existence of the soul and the science of Near Death Experience. During the interview Tsakiris points out the lack of research among NDE skeptics, “And really, if we’re going to play the kind of credential game, you really wouldn’t want to stack Dr. Bruce Greyson, Dr. Jeff Long, Dr. Pim Van Lommel, one of the most highly regarded cardiologists in the world who’s been studying near-death experience for 30 years-you wouldn’t want to stack them against Keith Augustine, who really doesn’t have any kind of medical credentials. So I’m talking to you about published research in these cases.”
Ms. Christina responds, “There is what seems to me to be extremely shaky research and there’s no consensus about it in any sense-in fact, the overwhelming consensus among neurologists is that no, these people are, I’m not going to say crackpots, that’s too strong a word. But these people are mistaken. They’re being led down the garden path by their wishful thinking. And again, when you look at the history of thousands and thousands and thousands of years of human knowledge, where supernatural explanations consistently get replaced with natural ones and it’s ultimately when the research has been really done and it’s been really examined, it’s never been the case that it’s happened the other way around.”
Near the end of the debate, Ms. Christina sums up her argument “…even if I conceded everything that you’ve said in this whole conversation, all that it proves is that consciousness is weird and that we don’t understand it. That’s all that it proves. It doesn’t prove anything about there being an immaterial soul that animates consciousness. It doesn’t prove anything about immaterial soul surviving death.”
Tsakiris responds, “I don’t mind hearing your opinion, but you’ve got to back it up. You’re saying that every time somebody gives you research you go and look at it and it’s debunked. Well, tell me. Tell me what’s been debunked. You haven’t cited any real NDE research. You cited Keith Augustine and then you want to say Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptical Magazine?”
Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris.
For a while on this show I’ve maintained that there really isn’t a good, solid, scientific argument against near-death experience science. If you’ve followed this show and you’ve listened to the guests that we’ve had on, people like Dr. Jeffrey Long, Dr. Pim Van Lommel, Dr. Peter Fenwick, Dr. Bruce Greyson (who we haven’t actually interviewed but who has contributed by email), if you stack them up against the skeptics we’ve talked to, Dr. G. M. Woerlee, Dr. Kevin Nelson, Dr. Susan Blackmore, Dr. Steven Novella, or even Dr. Sam Parnia (who’s kind of in the middle of this issue but we really have to put on the side of the skeptic) if you stack up the two arguments there’s really no comparison.
The skeptical arguments against near-death experience science really amount to nothing more than Apologetics. Folks are starting with an end conclusion that this is the way it has to be and then working backwards to try and fit the data and winding up in a position that just says, “Don’t give up hope. We can still hold out that someday we’ll be proven true.”
This is most evident by the fact that there just isn’t any NDE research that these skeptics can point to to support their position. There isn’t any. The little bit that’s out there, for example, Kevin Nelson from the University of Kentucky. We had him on the show and I think Dr. Jeffrey Long just pretty well tore apart his ideas about this being some kind of sleep state that we’re talking about.
The same goes for Dr. Gerry Woerlee and Dr. Steven Novella, neither of whom really published any NDE research. They just pointed to others and kind of compiled it and said, “It’s there, it’s there, it’s there.” But when you really dig into the research that they’re pointing to, as we have done in this show, it isn’t there. In fact, if you’ll remember when Steven Novella was on the show, the couple of bits of research that he pointed to really gave support to the other side of the claim. That is that these NDEs are medically inexplicable.
So what we have here is a lot of Apologetics, a lot of cognitive dissidence where “Hey, I don’t really want to change my belief so I’ll come up with anything that lets me hold onto my position.” But then again, that’s just my opinion. It’s not like the debate is over. There are plenty of people out there who still hold onto the skeptical position I’m talking about.
And that’s what today’s show is about. So joining me for this debate is blogger, Greta Christina, whose recent article, “Near Death Experiences are a Terrible Argument for the Soul,” directly addresses so many of the points that we want to talk about. I have to say, I think Greta does a great job of representing the skeptical/Atheist position on near-death experience, especially since as she admits, she’s not a researcher.
Greta Christina: “I’m not a neurologist. I’m not a neuropsychologist. I’m not any kind of medical researcher or scientist or anything like that. Essentially what I am is a smart lay person who has studied this a lot.”
So I appreciate Greta joining me for this debate. I particularly appreciate that Greta didn’t resort to some of the usual things of just either denying the data or offering some unbelievable explanation of why blind people should regain sight during near-death experiences. She doesn’t do any of that. She pretty much sticks to-well, wait. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get into my debate with Greta Christina around the question of whether or not NDE science proves the existence of the soul.
Here’s how we tackled it. I broke the debate down into six questions. Now in this episode I’m going to go over each of the six questions we talked about. You’re going to hear some of my points; you’re going to hear some of Greta’s points. You’re going to hear some of the other research that I reference during the show.
Now what I really hope is that this debate and this show is really the first part of an on-going process that we can have-I can have with you, those folks who have connected to this show and that we can have an on-going discussion about these six points and we can really hash them out. You can bring any new information that I might have missed or that Greta might have missed. We can really turn this into an organic, on-going debate.
At least that’s my hope at this point but I guess we’ll see how that goes. To get there, we have to start. So let’s go to the first question:
1) Does survival of consciousness mean the same thing as existence of the soul?
Alex Tsakiris: Well, this is really kind of a definitional point here. Greta and I agreed that at least for the sake of this discussion, we’re really talking about the same thing.
Greta Christina: Of course, one of the issues that I have with a lot of religious and spiritual beliefs and experiences is that these terms aren’t defined very well. They’re not defined very clearly. I think if you ask a hundred different people what you mean by the soul, you’re probably going to get a hundred different answers. But for the moment I will definitely say that essentially what most people mean is that some sort of consciousness or identity is preserved after the physical body dies.
2) What is consciousness?
Alex Tsakiris: Now of course, that’s a huge, huge question but what we really tried to do is hone in on the fact that consciousness is not well understood by science at this point. While we know that there’s a strong link between the mind and the brain, there also seems to be some anomalous data that suggests that maybe the link isn’t the way that we think. Maybe the brain is more of a transceiver for this thing called consciousness. So we wound up more-or-less agreeing that there’s a gap in our scientific understanding about consciousness.
Greta Christina: Here’s what I would say to that-it’s certainly the case that the scientists studying consciousness are very much in their infancy. The science of neurology, the science of neuropsychology, we’re beginning to get a grasp of consciousness, but it’s just in the very beginning. We’re just building the foundation of really understanding what consciousness is.
You know, I obviously agree with you that we do know that there is a very intimate connection between the physical brain and consciousness. You make changes to the brain, consciousness changes. We can see that using functional magnetic resonance imagery. You can see it the other way, too. If you ask people to think about certain things you can see those changes happening in the brain. So changes in the brain effect changes in consciousness. Changes in consciousness make changes in the brain. We know that. There’s not any doubt about that.
So the question is, is there anything else going on in addition to that? Are there any other processes or any other metaphysical, supernatural, spiritual, whatever you want to call it-soul–we talked about that’s affecting the process in addition to that?
Alex Tsakiris: Now question #3 in this debate about NDE science is proof of the existence of a soul. The question I asked was:
3) Is NDE science a good way of looking at the hard problem of consciousness? The hard problem being is the mind separate from the brain?
And this turned out to be a little bit more controversial than I thought. To me, it’s pretty obvious that if we’re studying this mind/brain duality thing and is the mind separate from the brain, that we could look at a number of different things. We could look at telepathy; we could look at precognition; we could look at global consciousness, all topics which we’ve covered extensively on this show. We could also look at psychic medium communication, death bed communication, again topics we’ve talked about.
But to me, near-death experience science has some unique benefits. In particular, the fact that it’s medical science brings it down to a level that we can understand and really wrap our arms around. And the fact that it deals with death, that is the end of consciousness, allows us some real key insights into some fundamental questions about consciousness. But Greta’s take was slightly different.
Greta Christina: If what you’re asking is are near-death experiences an interesting and fruitful area to look at when you’re talking about these questions, sure. I wouldn’t disagree with that. I think there are a lot of other very fruitful areas.
Alex Tsakiris: I just focus on the fact that it’s about dying and it’s about death and soul. So you prove telepathy, you can come up with some different explanations that there’s some kind of physiological or biological link to that versus death, we’re really entering a different domain. But we’d rather…
Greta Christina: Actually, you know what? That’s something I do want to respond to because I think it’s absolutely not a small point. I think it’s still one of the cruxes of the points I want to make, which is that near-death experiences are not death.
And I think that’s one of the points that a lot of people who advocate that near-death experiences are evidence of a soul are missing. That there is a significant difference between being near death. That doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s true about death. Near death is another state of still being alive. It’s a state of altered consciousness.
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t think that you would really get agreement from most people who are medical experts and studying death or near-death. I recently interviewed Dr. Sam Parnia, who is a physician in the UK who’s doing probably the largest study of near-death experience, but his real expertise is in working with patients who are near death, regardless of whether they experience a NDE or not. He’s really somewhat of a skeptic as we explored on this show.
But he’s just a hard-nosed doctor who works every day in the ICU unit and what he is particularly keen on defining and helping people understand , he says, “If you have a cardiac arrest, you are dead as far as we medically define it. If you have cardiac arrest, you are dead. Now as to whether or not we can resuscitate you, whether or not we can bring you back to life, that’s another question.”
But it’s pretty clear from what we know medically, when you heart stops within 10 to 15 seconds your brain shuts down. There is no electrical activity. And within a couple of minutes, your brain starts to decay and the process becomes irreversible. So I’m not sure that I would really agree with you that there’s this issue in terms of near death. Certainly there is if we look at someone who’s drowning, where the death process can drag out for a long period of time. But if we focus on certain medical conditions, particularly cardiac arrest, you’re dead.
Greta Christina: See, I don’t agree with that at all. In fact, my wife is a nurse practitioner; a lot of people I know are medical people, and a lot of the research that I’ve read about is from medical people. I don’t think there’s any such agreement that that’s what death means, I mean cardiac arrest. For one thing, if we’re talking about consciousness, I don’t think we think that consciousness is in the heart. The heart is a muscle that pumps blood.
Alex Tsakiris: Certainly. I wasn’t suggesting that when you heart stops you die. What I was saying is that when your heart stops we know medically, physiologically, that within a very short period of time, 10 to 15, maybe 20 seconds at the tops, your brain stops.
Greta Christina: I wish we would stop talking about the cardiac arrest because I’m not sure why that’s relevant. Why don’t we talk about the EEG? Why don’t we just talk about flat-lining?
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. Just to clarify, part of the reason I was talking about the cardiac arrest is because the best research that’s been done in near-death experience, but certainly not the only research, has been done in cardiac wards. They saw the same problem. They saw, “Hey, we have these near-death experience accounts and some are coming from people who jumped off a building and have a near-death experience; others are from people who drowning; others are people who have frozen to death.
So these are all very medically different processes in terms of how they’re dying and shutting down versus if we confine our discussion to cardiac arrest patients. There we have a much clearer understanding of what’s happening inside the brain, even if they’re not hooked up to an EEG. So we’re in agreement that if you have a flat EEG then you shouldn’t have a conscious experience.
Greta Christina: It certainly seems likely. Again, I’m not a doctor; I’m not a medical researcher; I’m not a neurologist. But that certainly seems likely.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so we wrestled that one to the ground. NDE science is a good way of studying consciousness.
4) Is there really a NDE phenomenon?
It turned out to be less controversial.
Let me then jump back to a point that I wanted to make and again, you’ve said this much in your posts so I don’t think we have any disagreement but let’s nail it down. That’s that these near-death experiences, they are happening. We have them in all the medical journals, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, every medical journal you can think of has published. So we know these things are happening and we have considerable…
Greta Christina: I want to make sure we’re talking about the same thing. When you say “these things,” what exact experiences, because a lot of times I’ve found that when people talk about near-death experiences we’re not always talking about the same thing.
So I want you to define your terms. What exactly are-basically are you saying that sometimes when people are near death they have these altered states of consciousness? They feel like they’re doing down a tunnel or towards a bright light. They feel like they have this experience of seeing people they know. They have experiences of seeing religious figures like Jesus or Buddha or the Hindu Gods or whatever, depending on what their religious beliefs are. Is that what we’re talking about?
Alex Tsakiris: Yes. As a matter of fact, there’s a scale that’s been developed by one of the leading researchers named Bruce Greyson from the University of Virginia and that’s commonly used in these research studies. It’s called the Greyson Scale. It’s seven questions that they ask and many of them are the ones that you just asked. “Did you have consciousness during this time when you were near death? Did you experience other relatives? Did you have any of these other experiences?” Depending on how they answer that we can rate how deep, if you will, their near-death experience was. So yeah, it sounds like we’re talking about the same body of research.
Now onto the last two questions that really get to the heart of the debate about NDE science.
5) Is the near-death experience phenomena medically inexplicable?
Greta Christina: Actually, I don’t agree with that at all. All the research that I’ve shown shows that it’s an unusual experience but again, it’s really just an altered state of consciousness. It’s not medically inexplicable. That’s the first point I want to make. First of all, I don’t think it’s medically inexplicable.
Part of the problem with the study of NDEs is that memory is strange and people will say, “Oh, yes, I had this memory of the experience at this particular time,” and they’ll say that it was at the time that they were flat-lining but they don’t really know that. They were flat-lined. And so the whole question of trying to determine if somebody was conscious at the moment that they were flat-lined, I don’t know of any research that shows that. I don’t know how you would even touch that because…
Alex Tsakiris: Hold on. Let me stop you there, Greta, because we can really hone in on some of the points and maybe this will work or maybe it won’t, but what you just said is “How would you even test for that?” was your second point.
Your first point was you’re not sure that there’s any studies out there that do. Let’s start with the second way of how you would test for that. One, the anecdotal evidence which has generated further research, not anecdotal but prospective research, was that people can recall things during a time when we can assume that their EEG was flat.
Greta Christina: And that’s what I don’t agree with you about. People seem to recall…
Alex Tsakiris: Let me finish.
Greta Christina: Okay, I’m sorry. It’s that people seem to recall things.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m going to get to that. I’m going to get to exactly your point of “seem to recall.”
Greta Christina: Okay. Okay, go ahead.
Alex Tsakiris: So just to recap, I was going to say that’s why we do this cardiac arrest thing is because if they have a cardiac arrest we can assume that their EEG is flat, even if they’re not hooked up to an EEG monitor. If after 30 seconds after cardiac arrest we can assume their EEG is flat.
So here’s how they do that. Here’s the best research and it’s been done several different times but the person that we had on this show was Dr. Penny Sartori, who’s also associated with the AWARE Project. What she did was go and interview patients who had recovered from a cardiac arrest. She had two groups; one group who said they had a near-death experience and another group who said they didn’t have a near-death experience.
So I went on to explain Dr. Sartori’s research but really, she does a much better job of it than I do so let me drop in the clip from Episode 90 of Skeptiko where she talks about the conclusions of her research.
Dr. Penny Sartori: “What I did was with people who had a near-death experience and an out-of-body experience, what they recalled was really quite accurate and I decided then to ask the control group of people who’d actually had a cardiac arrest but had no recollection of anything at all, I asked them if they would re-enact their resuscitation. So now they’re telling me what they thought we had done to resuscitate them. What I found is that many of the patients couldn’t even guess as to what we’d done. They had no idea at all. And then some of them did make guesses but these were based on TV hospital dramas that they’d seen. I found that what they reported was widely inaccurate.”
Greta Christina: Well, I have a couple of responses to that. First of all, even if that’s the case, and I would need to look at this research; I would need to see whether it’s been corroborated; I would need to see whether it’s been replicated. I would need to see the peer review about it. That’s going to take a lot longer than I can do just in a couple of minutes on the Internet.
But the second thing I would say is again, even if that’s the case, I don’t think that that’s necessarily suggestive of an immaterial soul. All that suggests to me is that some people, when they’re near death, are able to perceive-their consciousness is still capable of perceiving things. In fact, the research that I’ve seen is that many, many, many near-death experiences are wildly inaccurate; that people do say that they “perceive” things that aren’t really there.
Alex Tsakiris: I want to try and cover the three points that I heard you raise. The first is that you said even if Penny Sartori’s research and Bruce Greyson’s research is accurate-and I hope you will follow up on that because it is peer-reviewed and it’s by very well-qualified folks. But even if it is true, it doesn’t mean much because maybe their brain just works differently.
What I’d bring that back to is the point that we were really on, which is that NDEs are medically inexplicable. What I’d say is that if, as you say, their brain is working differently or they’re consciousness is working differently, it is very vastly different from anything we currently understand in our medical knowledge.
When you are experiencing cardiac arrest, for one or two minutes like these folks have, your EEG is flat. As we just said, if your EEG is flat, you’re not supposed to be having any conscious experience. So if they’re having some conscious experience in their brain, which is kind of your model, then that is medically inexplicable.
Greta Christina: Okay. For the moment let’s concede that point. I don’t actually concede that point at all. I don’t concede that it’s medically inexplicable. I’ve seen a lot of research showing lots of good explanations for why NDEs happen. This whole thing about “Oh, they’re perceiving things more accurately than other people,” the research that I’ve seen, and I’ve got it on my computer now if you want me to cite it.
Alex Tsakiris: I’d be fine with pausing for however long you need. You know, most of the people that you cited in your blog, both on the skeptical side–G. M. Woerlee, Susan Blackmore, who you didn’t cite but she’s the most prominently cited skeptic, Sam Parnia, who I consider a skeptic even though some people don’t-I’ve interviewed all those folks just to say that I think I’m pretty familiar with their research. I haven’t seen anything along the lines of what you’re saying that these people are widely inaccurate in their recollections.
As a matter of fact, I think the research-and again, I’d go to Dr. Jeffrey Long, who has published a book, Evidence of the Afterlife, and he’s a medical doctor and a former editor of The Journal of Near-Death Studies, which is a very fine peer-reviewed journal that publishes all sorts of research on this. But anyway, he’s very qualified. His research shows exactly the opposite. Bruce Greyson’s research shows exactly the opposite. I’m not aware of any research that contradicts that.
Greta Christina: Do you want me to give you the URL? I can give you the URL if you want. The easiest way to do it, and this is also to anyone who is listening to this, is if you go to my blog which is just called Greta Christina’s Blog and if you go to the piece called “Why Near-Death Experiences are a Terrible Argument for the Soul.”
Alex Tsakiris: I went to some of those links. I went to the first one. It’s an article by Keith Augustine, a well-known skeptic of near-death experience. But I’ve got to jump in. This is not research, if you will. This is-talk about anecdotal cases-he’s found one or two instances of discrepancies in accounts and he references Peter Fenwick, who is a very qualified researcher. I wouldn’t dispute that there are discrepancies in some people’s accounts.
If we want to go on anecdotal evidence and one person says that she went out the window and another person says here’s the discrepancy; or another person says here are the dentures as G. M. Woerlee does and then there’s a discrepancy and guy comes back and says, “No, there really was the dentures in the box.” All those are interesting but they fall into this category of anecdotal evidence that we’re trying to get out of.
The best research that’s been done of large groups of these people and large groups of these cases and analyzing them, like I think Jeff Long has some of the best research, really contradicts these one-off anecdotal cases. I don’t think you can really cite Keith Augustine’s work even though he’s a good writer and a good reporter. He’s not really doing research, per se. He’s just trying to find instances of these disagreements.
Greta Christina: But that is research. If you’re looking at instances-again, I feel like we’re getting a little sidetracked. I want to address this point because there’s a really important point that I want to make when I finish here. But I’ll go ahead and address this point.
If somebody is citing research saying, “Look, near-death experiences are really accurate. It’s like people are seeing things they couldn’t possibly have seen,” and somebody else says, “Well, actually when you look at a lot of these cases, a lot of the things that they’re supposedly perceiving weren’t really that accurate. And when you look at them more carefully, either they weren’t really that accurate or they could have been perceived by natural means.”
Alex Tsakiris: But see, that’s the problem. When you say, “a lot of times,” you have to back that up with statistics. The most recent research on that that I can cite for you is published by Bruce Greyson in his recent book, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation. It is authored by Bruce Greyson along with Jan Holden from the University of North Texas. By the way, here’s a recent interview clip from Bruce Greyson where he talks about Jan Holden’s research:
Bruce Greyson: “Jan Holden, at the University of North Texas, actually looked at 100 different published reports of these out-of-body perceptions and she found that about 86% of these had been corroborated by somebody else. There was a third person who also said, “Yes, these perceptions were accurate.” In 92% of these cases, they were entirely accurate. In only 1% were they inaccurate.”
Alex Tsakiris: So that’s from an excellent interview that Bruce Greyson gave to Dean Radin. I’ll provide a link to that in the show notes. But here was Greta’s response:
Greta Christina: I’m highly skeptical of that. I’m really sorry but it’s just-that just-and the problem is-and I will admit it’s a problem on both sides. When you have people that are trying to grind an axe, you have people who are there-and Bruce Greyson, I think he wants to believe.
And if we have people who want to believe, their research isn’t necessarily going to be that great. Their methodology isn’t going to be good; they’re not going to be rigorous; they’re not going to be doing placebo controls; they’re not going to be doing-it’s basically one set of studies of 100 people done by somebody who really, really, really wants to prove their point.
I need to see that replicated. I need to see that peer-reviewed. I need to see it studied by a lot of other people who aren’t trying to grind an axe.
Alex Tsakiris: His name is Bruce Greyson. He’s, I think, the Neuropsychology Department at University of Virginia. He’s not a guy with an axe to grind. He’s somebody who’s been studying this for 30 years. But there’s plenty of research that corroborates what he’s saying.
And really, if we’re going to play the kind of credential game, you really wouldn’t want to stack Bruce Greyson, Jeff Long, Dr. Pim Van Lommel, one of the most highly regarded cardiologists in the world who’s been studying near-death experience for 30 years-you wouldn’t want to stack them against Keith Augustine, who really doesn’t have any kind of medical credentials. So I’m talking to you about published research in both cases. Peer-reviewed public research…
Greta Christina: Right. And here’s my problem. My problem is that if your argument is there are some-basically you seem to be making to some extent-you know, we’re actually getting sidetracked here. There’s a really important point that I want to make and we keep getting sidetracked from it.
That’s this: let’s for the moment concede your point. I’m not conceding it but for the sake of argument, let’s concede your point. For the sake of argument, let’s say near-death experiences are medically inexplicable. I don’t think that’s true but for the sake of argument, let’s concede that point. The fact that something is currently inexplicable doesn’t mean that your explanation for it is right.
So this is, I think, a really important point that I think a lot of people-basically a lot of believers in all kinds of religious or spiritual or supernatural experiences say, “Science can’t explain X, therefore it must be God; it must be the soul; it must be this immaterial world.” And that is a terrible argument. And this is a point that I make a lot in my blog. I make it a lot in my writing.
When you look at the history of the world, you look at human history, for thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years the history of human knowledge has been that supernatural explanations or phenomenon have consistently been replaced by natural ones. Every time we’ve thought that the reason for some phenomenon,–the reason for thunder, the reason why people get sick, the reason why people have mental illness, the reason why children look like their parents, etc.–all of these phenomena that we used to think were supernatural, when we investigated it more carefully we said, “Oh. This is actually physical cause and effect.”
That’s happened for thousands upon thousands upon thousands of times. The number of times that it’s happened the other way where we thought that a phenomenon was physical and then really when we looked at it carefully, the consensus among careful researchers was that, “Yeah, this really is supernatural. It’s like we thought that this was physical cause and effect but we’ve looked at it and it’s really not.” That has never once happened.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me respond because in the framework of this discussion, I don’t want to respond to all of that because I think that’s where we get sidetracked.
I agree with the main point that you’re making and that’s that medically inexplicable, a gap there doesn’t mean that any one particular group has license to shove into that gap whatever their belief is. So we’re in agreement on that.
Now, as far as parsing out the long scale of history and whether there’s ever any evidence for people changing or moving towards the supernatural explanation, I’m going to say that’s really not relevant to the small confines of this discussion we’re having because what we intentionally did at the beginning was say, “We’re just going to look at near-death experience science.”
And I want to do that because otherwise we could go in and talk about a lot of other fields and we could have a knock-down-drag-out, good discussion like we’re having here about each one of those. So I’d agree with your first point. Then I’m going to blow past a lot of the other points you made…
Greta Christina: I don’t think it’s a trivial point. I don’t think it’s off-topic. I think it’s very much relevant. This question of the looking at the history of supernatural explanations for phenomenon versus natural ones, I think that is a huge point and I think it’s a point that a lot of believers in the supernatural brush over.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m fine with that. If you look at my podcasts, I’ve covered a lot of those. You want to talk about the precognition research of Dean Radin? You want to talk about Rupert Sheldrake and his morphic resonance? All these are supernatural. Telepathy or remote viewing. I’ve covered those topics but each one would be worthy of a discussion like this.
So I can’t endorse what you said that the long history of science shows nothing that’s ever been turned over and shows-I don’t know. I just don’t think we can really go there in this discussion. We have to confine ourselves to the near-death experience data and the research that we have because that’s what we agreed at the beginning.
That’s what we’re looking at. We have to build bottom up from this research. You have a certain threshold in your mind in terms of what would convince you. I have a certain threshold in my mind in terms of what would convince me. And that’s fine. We can’t resolve that in an hour-long discussion here, but what we can do is try the best we can to look at the evidence that we have. I think we’ve kind of made some progress.
I really have only one more point that I want to get to because the last point we’re at, at least on my list, was NDEs are medically inexplicable. You did some good what-if scenarios in trying to play that out in terms of what it might be and we talked about some research there that we could follow up on.
But my last point is this, and this is probably the largest point of disagreement that we’ll have. My position would be that based on everything we’ve talked about, the best evidence from NDE science suggests that somehow, in some way we don’t totally understand, our consciousness survives death. So it takes this idea that they’re medically inexplicable which we didn’t totally agree on but we kind of came close to. And then I’d take it one step further and say if we really look at that evidence honestly and fairly, it suggests that consciousness does survive death.
Greta Christina: And I don’t see that at all. Again, we’ve started talking about how exactly we’re defining death and at what point is someone really dead versus just very close to death, but again, when you talk about somebody who is really, really close to death, who even-you know, their brain has flat-lined and they’re not conscious anymore and then their brain starts working again and they become conscious.
That’s something that’s really, really different from somebody who dies and then they’re dead. They’re put in the ground and there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that those people-that consciousness in any way survives that. Again, that’s one of the main points that I want to make about near-death experiences is that they don’t really-you know, we went over this before. They don’t really tell us that much about death. They tell us about near-death.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so here we are. We’ve arrived at the last, final question.
6) Does near-death experience science suggest that consciousness survives death and therefore the existence of a soul?
If you’re waiting for a real fight, you got it here. Here’s where it starts. And I guess the fight really started with Greta’s last point because to me, if you’re going to get through all this data and you’re going to arrive to the point of saying, “Okay, I maybe have to give in a little bit that consciousness seems to survive death for at least an hour when it shouldn’t.”
But then you want to hold onto that and say, “But you still haven’t proven anything because it’s only an hour.” Well, that to me really gets back to this thing of Apologetics. It’s just trying to work backwards from your cherished belief and try and find some scientific-sounding explanation for it. It just really doesn’t add up for me. And I expressed that to Greta, that I thought it was just Apologetics. Here was her response:
Greta Christina: My problem is that when I’ve gotten into these debates with people-I’ve gotten into a lot of them before-there’s always been things like I’d say, “Well, you look at this piece of research that supposedly supports that near-death experiences support the idea of an immaterial soul. And then that one gets exploded and they say, “Oh, but you didn’t look at this other one.” And then I say, “Well, actually…” and then I’d go look it up and I’d spend a few minutes…
Alex Tsakiris: But you haven’t shown me one single piece.
Greta Christina: Can I please just finish? My problem is that you say you’ve got this-like I can cite you The Skeptical Inquirer; I can cite you Skeptics Magazine. There are all kinds of huge amounts of research that have been done on this…
Alex Tsakiris: Those aren’t peer-reviewed journals.
Greta Christina: But my point is this: is that every single time somebody has said, “Oh, but you need to go look at this,” I’d go look it up and I’d see actually it’s been debunked or the methodology isn’t really that good or the sampling size was really small or-my point is this-my point is that there are these moving goalposts.
Every single time somebody has said, “Oh, but you need to go look at this other piece of evidence,” and I look at that and it’s not very good, they say, “Oh, but you need to look at this other one.” I’d look at that and it’s not very good. Over and over and over again. Every single time I’ve seen research that supposedly supports this claim that consciousness is animated by the soul and that near-death experience supports that…
Alex Tsakiris: You didn’t cite one piece of real near-death experience research in your blog posts. I’ll take that back. The one piece of real near-death experience research you cited was the study done by the Slovenian doctors that suggested that elevated CO2 levels might be correlated with near-death experience.
Well, I had on Dr. Steven Novella, who’s a neurologist at Yale, and we hashed out and talked about that study. But what you’ll find is that study is not at all good evidence for what you’re suggesting. These people with elevated CO2 levels really weren’t elevated. Scuba divers have higher levels of elevated CO2 levels. But even Dr. Novella, we agreed at the end that this research tells us nothing as to whether or not anything about these NDE phenomena…
Greta Christina: I’m…
Alex Tsakiris: So hold on. My point is, what you said is fine, but Greta, you’ve got to back it up. You’re saying that every time somebody gives you research you go and look at it and it’s debunked. Well, tell me. Tell me what’s been debunked. You haven’t cited any real NDE research. You cited Keith Augustine and then you want to say Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptical Magazine? Those aren’t peer-reviewed journals.
Greta Christina: But they’re doing the research. Again, we’re running low on time. I need to wind up here. My point is this: and again, we’re running into this problem and I stated at the beginning I’m not a neurologist; I’m not a neuropsychologist. I’m not an expert in this field. I’m a lay person who has done a certain amount of reading. I may not have read the particular things that you’ve read. I’ve read other things. If you want to send me some links and we can have another conversation about this in another couple of months.
I really am sincere when I say, “Show me the evidence and I will change my mind if it’s really good evidence.” But again, there is a huge body of research showing the intense link between the physical brain and consciousness.
There is what seems to me to be extremely shaky research and there’s no consensus about it in any sense-in fact, the overwhelming consensus among neurologists is that no, these people are, I’m not going to say crackpots, that’s too strong a word. But these people are mistaken. They’re being led down the garden path by their wishful thinking.
And again, when you look at the history of thousands and thousands and thousands of years of human knowledge, where supernatural explanations consistently get replaced with natural ones and it’s ultimately when the research has been really done and it’s been really examined, it’s never been the case that it’s happened the other way around.
I have to just assume that probably-and again, I’ll say probably-it’s possible that I can be mistaken, but probably consciousness is physical. And again, the thing I have to keep coming back to is even if-and again, even if I concede virtually every point you’ve made; even if I concede that wow, there’s all this research into near-death experiences and it shows really weird stuff happens and it shows that stuff happens that we really can’t explain, again I don’t concede that point.
But even if I were to concede that point; if I were to say, “Wow, there is all this research and it’s really carefully done, it doesn’t prove anything. All it proves-all it proves-oh, anything, even if I conceded everything that you’ve said in this whole conversation, all that it proves is that consciousness is weird and that we don’t understand it, which is a point that I acknowledged at the very beginning of this conversation. That’s all that it proves. It doesn’t prove anything about there being an immaterial soul that animates consciousness. It doesn’t prove anything about immaterial soul surviving death.
Alex Tsakiris: Now that’s Apologetics. When articles in The Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic Magazine trump original peer-reviewed research, that’s Apologetics. When you say this can’t be true because nothing in history, thousands and thousands and thousands of years, has ever happened like this, that’s Apologetics. I mean, it wouldn’t be if it was true, but there’s really no way to back up something like that. And finally, when you disparage well-qualified researchers who’ve run the gauntlet of publishing and standing up and facing criticism of their work, when you disparage their work and you haven’t even read it, well, that’s Apologetics.
Now, in fairness to Greta, I have to say she does just about as good a job as anyone we’ve had on this show. It’s just that, well, she’s got a hard position to take. I certainly wouldn’t want to take the other side of this argument. There’s no way to defend these points. There’s no way to look at the data and come to the conclusion that near-death experiences can be explained by our current medical understanding of the brain and consciousness. You can’t.
People who experience near-death have a severely compromised brain. They shouldn’t be having a conscious experience. That’s medically inexplicable. And given that this conscious experience happens during a time when we’d expect them to have no consciousness, then we have to logically conclude that consciousness, in some way we don’t understand, extends beyond our bodily death.
Again, I don’t know how you can argue the other side of that without resorting to the same kind of Apologetics that Greta does. Actually, Greta and I left things on very good terms. I’m very happy that she came on. I thought she did a great job and a fair job of presenting her side. She said she’d be willing to come back on once she’s sorted through some of the links that I’m sending her. And I certainly want to offer her that opportunity.
I also want to extend that opportunity out to all Skeptiko listeners and readers. If you think we’ve missed something, if this conversation needs to be expanded in another direction that I haven’t covered, contact me. Send me an email. Better yet, join the forum and post a link there. If you really have something to say, we’ll find a way to get it into one of our shows.
So that’s going to do it for this episode of Skeptiko. If you’d like more information about this show, including several of the links we talked about, certainly a link to Greta’s article and a link to that interview with Bruce Greyson, please visit the Skeptiko website. It’s at skeptiko.com. Just think of “skeptic” but change the “c” to a “ko” and you’ll get there.
Once you’re there you’ll find a link to all of our previous shows, an email and Facebook link to me, and a link to our forum and show comments where you can get involved and engage with other Skeptiko listeners.
I have a couple of good shows coming up. Stay with me for that. And until next time, bye for now.