Dr. Michael Shermer on Near-Death Experience Science |379|


Dr. Michael Shermer isn’t swayed by near death experience science, but has he read the literature?

photo by: Skeptiko

Today we welcome Dr. Michael Shermer back to Skeptiko. Dr. Shermer is a bestselling author and creator of Skeptic Magazine. His latest book on consciousness and the afterlife is, Heavens on Earth:

Alex Tsakiris: A couple of years ago I interviewed Jan Holden from the University of North Texas, who, along with Dr. Bruce Greyson from the University of Virginia, two of the most prominent names in near-death experience research, they compiled the book, “The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences,” mainly for people in the medical community, so that when they encounter someone who comes up out of a cardiac arrest and says, “Hey, I had this incredible experience,” they can be, at least, familiar with what they tell them.

At the time they published this book Michael, in 2009, they had over a hundred peer-reviewed papers they included in their book. By now, there’s over 200 peer-reviewed papers. I don’t see any of that in your book.

Michael Shermer: I think it’s important to make it… Well, look, I don’t have to cite everybody that’s ever written on the subject.

Alex Tsakiris: But you don’t cite any of them.

Michael Shermer: Yes, I do, oh yes, I do.

Alex Tsakiris: Pim van Lommel, Sam Parnia, who else?

Michael Shermer: Yeah, yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: You misrepresented both of them, but you at least cited them.

Michael Shermer: But anyway, let’s back up for a second and…

Alex Tsakiris: And I’d have to say, Eben Alexander, I want to talk about him, but technically he’s not a near-death experience researcher, he’s a Harvard neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience and wrote a book about it, right?

Michael Shermer: That’s right, but he knows a lot about it, he knows as much as you do, as much as I do, because he’s…

Alex Tsakiris: But he hasn’t published peer-reviewed papers on looking at the science.

Michael Shermer: A peer-reviewed paper thing, that’s a red herring. I’m not denying that people have real experiences. You’re treating this as if the experiences represent some other dimension, a heaven, a place to go, and that is not at all what these peer-reviewed papers indicate. All they say is that the people that have the experiences, have very real experiences, which I agree. The experiences these people have are very real.

The question is, is do they represent just neural activity or neural activity and something else, and I claim that none of the research I’ve read, none of the stories, none of the papers are evidence of an afterlife.

(continued below)


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skeptiko-Join-the-Discussion-3Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome science historian, bestselling author and one of the world’s best-known skeptics, Dr. Michael Shermer back to Skeptiko. He’s here to talk about his new book, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

Dr. Shermer, it’s always fun to talk to you, you are one of my favorite skeptic frenemies, and it’s good to have you back.

Dr. Michael Shermer: Well, I’m here in a hotel room, as you can see, in beautiful San Francisco. The lighting is really funky here. I should get a little… oh that’s better, a little warm glow on my face, how’s that? Yeah, that’s better.

Alex Tsakiris: You look great. I was just thinking before, as I was doing the introduction, I wonder if they’ll be another Michael Shermer? I mean, I think you captured a certain time and you found your own lane and you found a voice, I just wonder, things change, I wonder if that will ever come again?

Dr. Michael Shermer: Oh yeah, no, for sure. There’s lots of skeptics doing what I do. I never wanted to be called the personality for Skeptic Magazine and the Skeptic Society. When I’m done, moving onto the great iCloud above, where my connectome will live forever, when my physical body is done, the Skeptic Magazine will continue, the Skeptic Society will continue. There’s plenty of funding for continuing the organization. It’s not based on me at all, really. I’m currently the driving force.

Then, in terms of my books, I just try to write about what I’m interested in, that I think is relatively important, but there’s certainly nothing special about that.

There’s a lot of great science writers. I was just at a book event last night with Leonard Mlodinow, and he’s one of the great science writers. Steve Pinker is one of my good friends, as is Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins. You know, a lot of people are writing about science and reason and skepticism.

So, I think it’s a big movement now and in fact, my latest column that just came out in Scientific American, is on the rise of atheism, that there’s a lot more atheists than… not just the rise of the none’s, the people that tick the box for no religious affiliation, because those people may be going to be supporting Deepak Chopra or something, just the new-age movements or whatever, not necessarily become an atheist. But I think a lot of them now, with the rise of atheism, we are a powerful building block. So, I am just one voice among many, along with yourself.

Alex Tsakiris: No, no, I’m on the other side, but you’re a humble guy. I appreciate your humility, because I think you really have made more of an impact. But that’s great, and I’m so glad you’re here.

I talked with you a couple of years ago about your book, The Moral Arc, a book that I really liked, that we had a conversation on, but this time around, your latest book is, kind of, much closer to the Skeptiko swing zone.

Tell folks a little bit about what you set out to do with Heavens on Earth.

Michael Shermer: Well, part of it is an extension of my previous book, The Moral Arc. I talk about utopias for example, the attempts to create a heaven on earth and why that always fails, but of course, that’s not what most people believe. Most people believe that there’s some place to go after the death of the body, and brain, that the mind or soul, or some incorporeal ethereal essence that represents who we are, moves on to some other place.

So, I just decided to take a swing at looking at the scientific aspects of that. To what extent is that true? What is it that different religions claim?

So, right off the bat, for example, there’s a history to heaven, and this is not like the history of cosmology, where there’s a sense of a growing…

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but I think heaven really takes us in another direction, which is a direction that you’ve covered and covered well, in terms of religion, but I think it’s kind of a tricky word when you get into ‘heaven’.

What I really wanted to focus on, because like I say, this has been a topic of mine, an interest of mine, I’ve probably had a hundred interviews with some of the top consciousness researchers, names that you would recognize, near-death experience researchers.

Michael Shermer: Yeah, okay, alright. Yeah sure.

Alex Tsakiris: I guess where I thought we might start, because Heavens on Earth, one of the areas you get into is near-death experience, because I think when you look at science, and you look at what’s going on and what’s made an impact in the culture, certainly this idea of, “Okay, does this consciousness thing survive bodily death?” has been one place where we can put our attention and really answer that question, and I don’t know, we need to dig into that. I don’t know that you really did a very comprehensive job of looking at that research and that’s, I guess…

Michael Shermer: That’s the longest chapter in the book. I’ll tell you, I have written about that before, I know all about the topic and I didn’t want to ramble.

Alex Tsakiris: You know about the topic, you think you’re pretty well versed?

Michael Shermer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Totally, yeah. Reincarnation, anomalist experiences and so on. So, the idea is that most of us are dualistic by nature, so we have a feeling that there’s something floating around up there, that are thoughts, that are not just our brain and chemicals, and that essence, that sense we have, is what leads us to think that this floats off the brain and goes off into somewhere else. So, the near-death experience then is alleged to be an example or evidence of how this can happen.

But of course, we’d start right off by pointing out that the people are not actually dead, it’s near-death. It’s not near-death for a reason, they’re not dead. They’re near-dead and that’s very different. That is your consciousness is still going, at some level, even if you’re unconscious at the moment. There’s still some part of your brain operating that generates these experiences.

Alex Tsakiris: That would be a good topic to get into, and I want to go there, because I think that’s kind of misunderstood and misconstrued by a lot of people. We have a whole bunch of neuroscience that says these are the conditions under which a brain is able to function, in terms of memory, in terms of conscious experience. So, this idea of death versus near-death, we’ll get into that in a minute. Certainly, when someone is completely comatosed from every measure we have, we don’t believe there’s any conscious experience going on. So, I don’t know about that.

Michael Shermer: Like, Eben Alexander, he said…

Alex Tsakiris: Hold up on Eben, because I want to talk about him later, but the first thing I want to hit you with is just that, the first thing I did when I got the book, I went to the index and I said, “Okay, here are all of the near-death experience researchers I’ve talked to, are they in there?” No. Name after name after name, none of them are in there.

A couple of years ago I interviewed Jan Holden from the University of North Texas, who, along with Dr. Bruce Greyson from the University of Virginia, two of the most prominent names in near-death experience research, they compiled the book, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, mainly for people in the medical community, so that when they encounter someone who comes up out of a cardiac arrest and says, “Hey, I had this incredible experience,” they can be, at least, familiar with what they tell them.

At the time they published this book Michael, in 2009, they had over a hundred peer-reviewed papers that they included in their book. By now, there’s over 200 peer-reviewed papers. I don’t see any of that in your book.

Michael Shermer: I think it’s important to make it… Well, look, I don’t have to cite everybody that’s ever written on the subject.

Alex Tsakiris: But you don’t cite any of them.

Michael Shermer: Yes, I do, oh yes, I do.

Alex Tsakiris: Pim van Lommel, Sam Parnia, who else?

Michael Shermer: Yeah, yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: You misrepresented both of them, but you at least cited them.

Michael Shermer: But anyway, let’s back up for a second and…

Alex Tsakiris: And I’d have to say, Eben Alexander, I want to talk about him, but technically he’s not a near-death experience researcher, he’s a Harvard neurosurgeon that had a near-death experience and wrote a book about it, right?

Michael Shermer: That’s right, but he knows a lot about it, he knows as much as you do, as much as I do, because he’s…

Alex Tsakiris: But he hasn’t published peer-reviewed papers on looking at the science.

Michael Shermer: A peer-reviewed paper thing, that’s a red herring. I’m not denying that people have real experiences. You’re treating this as if the experiences represent some other dimension, a heaven, a place to go, and that is not at all what these peer-reviewed papers indicate. All they say is that the people that have the experiences, have very real experiences, which I agree. The experiences these people have are very real.

The question is, is do they represent just neural activity or neural activity and something else, and I claim that none of the research I’ve read, none of the stories, none of the papers are evidence of an afterlife.

Alex Tsakiris: You do claim that, and Michael, look, you’re a science guy, and you love science, you report on science and you do a good job and the other thing you do a good job on, and has been one of your strong points with Christian apologist, is you’ve called them on cherry picking, taking bible scripture and cherry picking out pieces that they want in order to make their point.

I’ve got to say, I think that’s what you’ve done here with the near-death experience research and I give you just one example.

So, you’re a medical historian, you’re not a medical doctor, right? You don’t claim to be a medical doctor.

Michael Shermer: I’m not a medical historian, I’m just an historian of science. Give me your best example what you think represents, not neural activity that produces a powerful experience. People can get that from ayahuasca, from ecstasy, from deep meditation and so on, we know this. You can get it from brain stimulation, you can get it from oxygen deprivation. I mean, you seem to think it’s something beyond that.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, here’s what I would focus on, is on the research, on the science. I don’t think peer-review is a red herring per se. I think, when you look, it’s the best means we have right now in science, for policing science, finding out if people are doing good work.

Michael Shermer: What papers are you talking about.

Alex Tsakiris: I’ll get to that, okay? So, I’d say, you’re not a doctor. So, when we get into medical fields, I like to look at doctors. I like the near-death experience research from a guy named Jeff Long. Radiation oncologist, right? So, this is a guy who works with death and dying patients all the time. He also happens to be a near-death experience researcher. He compiled the largest database of near-death experiences, analyzed it scientifically with a scientific survey, and here’s what he says, I’ll pull that up for you right now.

Alex Tsakiris: So, I guess the question is, for the average person, who’s trying to sort through this idea of near-death experience science research, how do they sort through it, how do they know what research really holds up out there?

Dr. Jeffrey Long: The key thing is to know a few of the consistently seen elements of near-death experience that are the strongest evidence for their reality. For example, when you’re under general anesthesia, it should be impossible to have a lucidic organized remembrance at that time. In fact, under anesthesia, you’re typically so far under, with general anesthesia they often have to breathe for you. I mean you’re literally, brain shut down to the level of the brain stem and at that point in time some people have a cardiac arrest, their hearts stop, and of course, that’s very well documented. They monitor people very carefully that are having general anesthesia.

So, I have dozens and dozens of near-death experiences that occurred under general anesthesia and at this time, it should be, if you will, doubly impossible to have a conscious remembrance, and yet they do have near-death experiences at this time, and they’re typical near-death experiences. They have the same elements and appear to have them in the same orders as near-death experiences occurring under all other circumstances. In fact, a critical survey question I asked was what their level of consciousness and alertness during the experience was.

Well, even under general anesthetics, under those powerful chemicals to produce sedation, if they had a near-death experience under general anesthesia, their level of consciousness and alertness was identical to near-death experiences occurring under all other circumstances.

There’s absolutely no way the skeptics can explain that away, it’s impossible.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, we have a skeptic here. Explain it away.

Michael Shermer: Well, he’s wrong. Not every single one, 100%…

Alex Tsakiris: He’s wrong? Let’s make sure we understand. He is a medical doctor. He is a full-time radiation oncologist. He works with people who are under anesthesia every day, but he’s wrong? Tell me how your expertise would lead you to believe that he’s wrong about his medical understanding of the state of consciousness.

Michael Shermer: There is a phenomenon of a small percentage of the population, when under general anesthesia, they become aware of what’s going on.

Alex Tsakiris: It’s well-known. I’ve interviewed an anesthesiologist, more than one on this show.

Michael Shermer: Well there you go, that’s it.

Alex Tsakiris: That does not explain it. It’s a well-known phenomenon that they work around.

Michael Shermer: Alex, you seem to be missing my point. It isn’t denying that people have powerful neural experiences under different conditions, oxygen deprivation, sleep deprivation, they have these floating out of body experiences. In James Winnery’s research with the pilots that accelerated and centrifuges, part of the temporal lobe during these epileptic…

Alex Tsakiris: Great, you’re really making my points here, so go ahead.

Michael Shermer: But you can replicate all of the experiences that people report in NDEs through drugs, through conditions, through neural stimulation.

Alex Tsakiris: Not true, but you’re still making…

Michael Shermer: All of them show that 100% of the experiences they have are neural related, they’re related to the brain.

Now, maybe you want to argue that, at some point, the consciousness lifts off the neurons and floats out into space. Is that what you’re arguing?

Alex Tsakiris: I’m arguing that, I’m just going to repeat to you what Dr. Long told us.

Michael Shermer: Don’t repeat to me what Dr. Long says. Tell me what you think. Do you think that the connectome or your memories or your thoughts float off of the brain, that they’re no longer connected to the neural tissue and goes somewhere else, is that what you think?

Alex Tsakiris: I’m happy to answer that and you can grill me with all the questions, but I did want to return to one thing, because I think…

Michael Shermer: Come on, Alex, we’re having a conversation. Tell me what you think happens? Let me close the window here, we’re getting the…

Alex Tsakiris: That’s a great San Francisco sound, we’ve got to have that in there though.

Michael Shermer: Alright, so what do you think, what do you think happens?

Alex Tsakiris: Again, you talked about a red herring, I think that’s a red herring, because again, you’re a science guy, you know why, so we can falsify paradigms, we can falsify theories, without substituting another theory.

So, I’m not sure how consciousness works, what I think the evidence strongly points to, is that our current model of consciousness being 100% tied to neural activity doesn’t fit, and that’s where I’d return you to Dr. Long’s statement, because I think there’s some subtle points in there, that folks who are hell bent on dismissing near-death experience data miss.

Do you remember the point where he says that not only are these people having this experience under general anesthesia, but they’re experience is consistent with other people that are having it under different medical situations?

Michael Shermer: The brains are structured in the same way and with the same neural chemistry.

Alex Tsakiris: But Michael, let me just finish my point, because you’re really not, I guess you’re just not quite correct there, because what we know from neuroscience, neuroscience tells us, it’s the basics, is that different medical conditions, different physiological conditions, create different situations in the brain, like you mentioned.

Michael Shermer: They also produce similar experience and not all…

Alex Tsakiris: Yes, but they shouldn’t be producing…

Michael Shermer: Here’s an important point. The people that describe heaven, they’re different heavens. If they were actually going to a real place, the place should look the same, but it doesn’t, it varies considerably. So, how do you explain that Mr. non-skeptic.

Alex Tsakiris: You know what? I cannot, you got me.

Michael Shermer: If heaven was an actual place, it should look the same. Why doesn’t it look the same?

Alex Tsakiris: You’ve got me on that. I cannot explain that.

Michael Shermer: Furthermore, they don’t see the same people. Christians see Jesus but others that are not Christians, they don’t see Jesus.

Alex Tsakiris: You got me on that too. That’s a question I don’t have an answer for.

Michael Shermer: Okay, so one answer is that…

Alex Tsakiris: I want to get another researcher to the table, because in your book, one of the points you make is…

Michael Shermer: Okay, the transformative power of near-death experiences. I’m not denying that they’re transformative.

Alex Tsakiris: But that’s not what our clip says. What our clip speaks to specifically, this is right out of your book, which, you make the point that, people, when they’re resuscitated, they claim to have seen things that they shouldn’t be able to see. Well, they’ve seen it on TV, they make it up.

Here’s a researcher who asked that question.

Penny Sartori: With the control group I had then patients who’d been successfully resuscitated, but they didn’t have a near-death experience and they didn’t have the out of boy component and I asked them if they could describe what they thought that we had done to them.

Alex Tsakiris: And they were like, “What do you mean? I was dead. I don’t remember anything, right?

Penny Sartori: Exactly, that’s right, and they were saying, “Why are you asking me this. I have no idea what you did to me at all.” The majority of them couldn’t even guess. They couldn’t make a guess as to what we’d done.

A few of them then, did make a guess and it was based on TV hospital dramas that they’d been watching and what I found was that there were errors and misconceptions in what they thought they had done to them. Some of them thought that they had been DC shocked with the paddles, and they hadn’t. Those people had just had the resuscitation, the CPR and drugs administered, such as adrenaline or noradrenaline and then some of them made educated guesses, but the place where they thought we’d put the paddles onto their body was completely erroneous, it was wrong, it was incorrect.

Alex Tsakiris: Data, data, data. This is great stuff.

Penny Sartori: It just goes to show that the people who did report the near-death experience described their experience with accuracy, whereas the control group weren’t accurate and most of them couldn’t even hazard a guess.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so first of all, full disclosure, you didn’t know about that research?

Michael Shermer: I know about similar research to this, but what are the objective criteria by which they decide whether a narrative account is a hit or a miss of what they did? How many details have to get correct for you to say, “Yes, that’s accurate for what we were doing to you,” “No, you must have gotten that from a TV drama, because that’s not what we did to you”?

Alex Tsakiris: This is basic Scientifics.

Michael Shermer: No, no, in science you have to operationally…

Alex Tsakiris: I’m glad you’re back to science. She wrote and published a peer-reviewed paper.

Michael Shermer: What was the criteria for deciding if the narrative was a hit or a miss?

Alex Tsakiris: Well, the narrative was the survey that they did, which was a professional scientific survey, right? Do you understand…? I don’t want to sound condescending, of course you understand, that medical surveys are really the backbone of science. So, if someone takes a medication, we go in and we ask them, “How did you feel? It’s supposed to help you with pain, is your pain reduced? What is this sensation?” So, people with calling experiences and calling things, are a part of it.

Michael Shermer: They’re feeling as if the person is floating up at the ceiling and looking down at the operating table or whatever, and then their getting details beyond what somebody would have… beyond their imagination, okay. You surely know about the experiment, where this has already been done, where they set up platforms, up by the ceiling, with photographs facing up, so that if somebody does this in an ER and looks…

Alex Tsakiris: Right, you’re referring to Dr. Sam Parnia, who is a colleague.

Michael Shermer: And they’ve never had any hits, okay? Why not?

Alex Tsakiris: But again, you’re misrepresenting that research.

Michael Shermer: The more you hone down and fine tune the objectives, the effect disappears.

Alex Tsakiris: The exact opposite is true.

Michael Shermer: It’s just like with ESP, as Sue Blackmore always pointed out, also with NDEs, the tighter you make the controls, the weaker the effect gets.

Alex Tsakiris: I don’t think that’s true at all and as a matter of fact, that’s kind of my main point that I’m coming at you with is, I just don’t think you’ve fairly looked at the near-death experience research, like you just referenced Dr. Sam Parnia, he’s been on the show multiple times. Dr. Penny Sartori, been on the show multiple times. Skeptics of near-death experience science, interviewed many of them.

Sam Parnia and Dr. Penny Sartori, along with Dr. Peter Fenwick, are a group that has researched together, they started out in the UK, all this different stuff. Dr. Sam Parnia is one of the leading experts in the world on resuscitation.

So, again, these are medical experts, their conclusions matter. They matter more than someone just casually looking at it. Sam Parnia’s conclusion is exactly consistent with Dr. Penny Sartori, Dr. Peter Fenwick, Dr. Jeff Long. Every near-death experience researcher has come to the same conclusion. The data suggests that consciousness survives death.

Michael Shermer: No one’s ever reported seeing one of the photographs accurately, never, not one. So, what are you talking about?

Alex Tsakiris: We can talk about the conclusions that the guy has from his research, and you have to be careful with this because, as we talked about before and we can talk about again, you can’t misrepresent someone’s position. You can pick apart their research and say why you think it’s wrong, but you can’t say they’re saying one thing, when they’re saying another. I can’t take your book and say, “Oh…”

Michael Shermer: I don’t know what you’re talking about, give me an example.

Alex Tsakiris: I shall give you an example. Okay, do you remember this one, right?

Michael Shermer: Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: So, Dr. Pim van Lommel writes this paper, Michael Shermer, Scientific American, says, “Hey, this thing strikes a blow against…”

Michael Shermer: Yeah, in my opinion.

Alex Tsakiris: No.

Michael Shermer: Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: You can’t do this. When you write a science paper, I’m sorry, you didn’t write a science paper.

Michael Shermer: I didn’t force him into saying that he thinks that it supports the modest position of only brain and no mind, I didn’t say that, I say that’s my opinion.

Alex Tsakiris: No, what you said is right up on the screen. You said that this study delivers a blow to the idea that mind and brain could be separate.

Michael Shermer: That’s my opinion. I read the study, I said it delivers a blow, yeah. That’s right.

Alex Tsakiris: That would be like me saying, “Your book, Heavens on Earth, delivers a blow against the neurological model that consciousness is tied…”

Michael Shermer: That’s fine, you can say that. That’s your opinion.

Alex Tsakiris: No. I could do that. I could do that, but I would be misrepresenting your position. I wouldn’t be fair to my audience, if I told my audience, “Hey, Michael Shermer thinks that’s not the case, but I think that’s the case,” that’s one thing, but to say that his book, without putting it into context, delivers a blow, and the evidence of this is clear. I mean, you have Dr. Pim van Lommel coming at you saying, “Hey, this is completely wrong. My research argues exactly the opposite,” but I don’t want to…

Michael Shermer: He may argue for that, but I think his research points in the opposite direction. It does not point to consciousness beyond life. It points to powerful neurological experiences that people misrepresent as floating off into the ether somewhere.

So, let’s get at that. Tell me what you think and your opinions, since you’ve studied this extensively. When the person is up by the ceiling, looking down, what is the medium or platform that holds the thoughts and memories and how do you see something without a visual apparatus, without a brain? How does an ethereal spirit see anything?

Alex Tsakiris: Again, and I repeat myself, but I really feel strongly about this, is that I don’t think we have to falsify the existing model of mind equals brain and we should never look beyond that, is a huge step and to take that step allows us to then begin to answer those questions. I don’t think we have to have those questions answered, in order to say, “This is what the data is telling us. This is what the scientists are telling us.”

Michael Shermer: Alex, that’s not what we’re talking about. It’s clear from this conversation and the books and papers you’re showing me, that you and these other researchers definitely think this is evidence of the continuation of consciousness, alright? So, curious minds want to know how does consciousness continue without a brain?

Alex Tsakiris: But again, that’s the question. That’s the question we need a man on the moon effort to answer, but the one point that you make…

Michael Shermer: No one knows, okay, right, that’s right. No one knows. It’s a mystery.

Alex Tsakiris: But one thing that isn’t a mystery that I think we can’t misrepresent… Oh go ahead, I’m sorry.

Michael Shermer: It neurological activity or it’s neurological activity and something else, okay? So, I compiled a lot of evidence, and not just with the NDEs. In my chapter with Deepak Chopra, he thinks consciousness continues beyond death, not because it floats off the brain and is hovering somewhere else, but because consciousness is, well I’ll use his words, “The ontological primitive, it is the ground of all being.” You can’t get underneath consciousness, you can’t drill into the atom down to [strings or quartz 00:27:49] and find consciousness, in a sort of panpsychism way, it’s everywhere.

So, when your conscious mind lifts off the brain, it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s just still part of consciousness that’s pervasive throughout the universe.

So, it’s the same question with Deepak, that I say to him, what’s more likely, that the research we have on neurology that points to the mind equals the brain and nothing more, or the mind equals the brain and something more? In my opinion, the evidence points to just brain. In his opinion, there’s enough to go in the other direction.

So, part of the problem you and I, and everybody else has, is we don’t have a cogent theory of consciousness. We don’t know how brains produce what we’re doing right now, that is experiencing life. So, without that theory of consciousness, we’re not going to have a cogent theory of altered states of consciousness.

So, we have a collection of accounts and experiments of unusual things that happen, not just NDEs. There’s many, many more unusual. I have a whole chapter on anomalist psychological experiences that people have, including my own and I’ve written about the sense of presence that people have, alpine climbers and solo sailors and solo flyers and so on, where they sense a presence in the room. Very powerful.

Okay, there’s whole books on anomalist psychological experiences like the Stanley Krippner studies. I know about this research. The question is, what does it represent? Well, we don’t know for sure, because we don’t understand consciousness yet.    

So, all we can do at this point is say, “Well, in my opinion, the lines of evidence all point to no brain, no mind, but there’s enough anomalist weird things, and we don’t have a good theory of consciousness that…” whilst you and others say, “No, I think I’m going to say it can go this other way and that consciousness survives death.” Okay, maybe, I don’t…

Alex Tsakiris: On that last part, I don’t know that that’s really the direction where things are going. The last time we talked to you a couple of years ago, one of the guys you brought up on your team was Dr. Christof Koch, right? A guy I’ve spoken to, interviewed on this show. Hey man, he’s moved over. He switched gears, right?

Michael Shermer: Sort of moved over.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, sort of moved over. The position has shifted. These guys are no longer holding to the mind equals brain thing.

Another clip I was going to play for you, but I’ve played enough clips, you were very nice to do it.

Michael Shermer: Even Deepak says you need a brain.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, hold on. I could play for you the clip of Sam Harris and David Chalmers. So, Sam Harris, I don’t think much of Sam Harris, but he’s a name everybody knows. David Chalmers, one of the leading researchers in consciousness for a number of years, and they’re there talking, and they say, “Dan Dennett, consciousness is an illusion. You don’t really think he believes that, do you? I mean, we’re not still stuck there, right?”

So, this idea that you’re putting forward, this kind of militant, materialism, mind equals brain, we’ve moved past that. All the leading players have moved past that Michael.

Michael Shermer: No, they haven’t. No, no.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, Christof Koch has moved past it. David Chalmers has moved past it. Sam Harris has moved past it. Who are you going to point to?

Michael Shermer: I know Sam quite well, he hasn’t moved past anything, what are you talking about?

Alex Tsakiris: He’s not a strict materialist. He’s not a strict mind equals brain guy, no. He’s totally in the panpsychism, spirituality, something other than strict mind equals brain materialism.

Michael Shermer: We did a public event together in Austin that he’s going to post in a week or two that you can listen to, where we talk about…

Alex Tsakiris: Ask him, bring him on, I’ll have both of you guys on at the same time and I’ll invite the people to talk to you.

Michael Shermer: Anyway, obviously we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this point and it’s not going to be resolved today. It’s a hard problem and that’s why Chalmers calls it The Hard Problem.

I’m not sure, I talked to Peter about this, who’s a good friend, and Steve thinks it may not be a solvable problem, because we’re phrasing it the wrong way, we’re asking science to do something it can’t do, in terms of, first of all, what do you even mean by consciousness?

Now, what Sam means, I think, and most people would agree, is what it’s like to be something, like what it’s like to be a bat or what it’s like to be a dolphin. Now, on stage, we kind of disagreed on the next point, which is, in my opinion, to find out what it’s like to be a dolphin, say I strapped on flippers and I put on some sonar equipment and I reprogramed my brain to process sonar instead of visual, or whatever human apparatus, and I just kept morphine [unclear 00:32:44], I hold my breath for ten minutes and so on and so on. At some point, I would just be a dolphin and I wouldn’t even know that I was a human asking what it’s like to be a dolphin.

Now, Sam disagrees with that, so I’m not sure actually what that means in terms of your panpsychism, I don’t think it means that, but what it’s like to be something, to get at that, you have to kind of be that. You know, what it’s like to be a glass of water. Deepak, panpsychism, the glass of water is conscious, just very simple consciousness and what it’s like to be a dog, I kind of envision what it’s like to be a dog, but it’s hard to do because I’m so trapped in my own human brain.

Alex Tsakiris: You know, we’ve focused a lot on this extended consciousness and consciousness thing. What are some of the other key findings or points that you were trying to get across in the book, Heavens on Earth? We did focus on a small part of it, what else do people need to know? Even at the very beginning, I kind of pulled you off this thing of the history of heaven, which I think is an interesting point.

Michael Shermer: Well, from the very beginning, we can’t even imagine what it’s like to be dead, because to imagine something you have to be alive and conscious. So, it’s like, imagine being under general anesthesia, you can’t imagine it, because to imagine something, you have to be awake, unless you have this condition where you wake up under anesthesia and you’re aware, but you can’t move and it’s terrifying and all that, but I’m not talking about that. All it is, is boom, boom, lights out and then you wake up and you have no sense of how much time has gone and so on. We don’t have the words to describe it, darkness, nothing, emptiness. So, to ask somebody, “Where do you go after death?” The same place you were before you were born, you just don’t exist. Well, I can’t conceive of what that would be like. It’s literally inconceivable.  

So, this sets up something of a paradox. I cannot conceive of not being alive and yet I see death all around and the one hundred billion that lived and died before us are gone and they’ve never come back, short of the handful of near-death experience type things or the claims of the resurrection of Jesus and things like that. Or, in the case of Hinduism, reincarnation, okay?

So, you’re focused on NDEs, but there’s lots of other versions of this that have nothing to do with that and that people believe as strongly as you do, that something continues after consciousness.

In my book I conclude that no one knows, including me. I don’t know that there’s no afterlife. I don’t know that when I close my eyes for the final time, I won’t wake up in some place and there’s my friends, Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens and Stephen J Gould and my parents and people that I have known and loved that are gone, maybe they’re going to be somewhere and I’m going to be there with them. I’m good with that, I think.

I find I’m quoting Christopher Hitchens description of the Christian heaven as celestial North Korea, where you have this dictator that knows all your thoughts and controls everything and you’re there to worship it, the dear leader. That doesn’t sound very heavenly to me, but his point is that, what are we talking about when we’re talking about the continuation off into some place else?

So, this is not a light problem. With Christian Roots for example, I said, “When I die and I’m reborn, I’m a Christian, so I’m in heaven with Jesus. What’s up there, is it this physical body?” and some of them go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Like, Jesus was physically resurrected, the empty tomb, the tomb is empty, so his body, it’s not just like with your examples of NDE, consciousness lifts off the brain and floats off somewhere. No, for Christians, Jesus left the tomb, the empty tomb, so the physical resurrection of the whole body and brain is what goes to heaven for some sets.

Now, to that I say, “Well, how old am I then?” “Well you’re 30, because that’s the age Jesus was when he was crucified, he was 30.” It’s like, “Well, I’m 63 now. So, what happened to the 33 years, doesn’t that go with it, all the memories and the stars and whatever else has happened to me?” And they say, “No, you’ll be made whole again. The blind shall see, the deaf shall hear and the handicapped or whatever will be made whole again.”

So, here I quote my friend Julia Sweeney, that Saturday Night Live comedienne, her monologue, Letting Go of God, where the Mormon boys come to her house in Hollywood and knock on the door and they’re pitching the Mormon religion, everybody gets a planet, and so on, and the blind shall see and the deaf shall hear and so on. So, “I had uterus cancer, so I don’t have my uterus anymore, do I get my uterus back when I go to heaven?” And you can imagine these 18-year-old boys in their starched white shirts going, “Uterus? I don’t know. Yeah, you get your uterus back,” she goes, “I don’t want it back.” She goes, “What if you had a nose job and you liked it?”

So, there’s all kinds of logistical issues here of what are we talking about when you’re up there. Okay, maybe it’s not the physical body, it’s just your memories. Okay, but which memories? Because there’s no such thing as a fixed you. Your memories change throughout your life, they’re like a Wiki, they’re edited constantly, and they’re upgraded and changed depending on new circumstances. We know that we’re bias, and we back engineer into our memories, the consequences of what we did, and so we justify and rewrite our memories to justify our actions, and so on.

So, all of this happens in the course of a lifetime. There’s no, like if we took a snapshot of your connectome, as it’s called, the analog to your genome and copied and put it in the cloud, the scientific version of what we’re talking about here that I wrote about, I call it The Afterlife for Atheists, because this is what a lot of people are trying to do. Copy the connectome, which presumably would be all of your memories and float it off, store it in a computer, put it in the cloud or something and turn it on.

So, first of all, which memories? Because that’s just a snapshot of me at that particular moment and then if it continues, those memories are going to keep changing, but worse is the point of view self. The point of you and me looking out through the world and experiencing life now, with a continuation from day to day, interrupted by sleep and anesthesia or whatever, but there’s a continuation. To turn it off, copy it and turn off, kill me, and then put the copy into the cloud, I don’t think my point of view self would go with it anymore than if we say, copied you, Alex, right now, with the sophisticated FMRI brain scanner, copied your connectome and uploaded the digital file of all of your memories into the cloud, while you’re still alive and you’re still sitting there in your podcast room there, alive and awake and fine, and we turn the copy on, up in the cloud, your point of view self wouldn’t suddenly leap there, you’d be still sitting there going, “No, no, no, this is me, Alex, that is the copy.” The copy is not you, it’s just a copy.

Now, the copy may think it’s you and he’s running a podcast from somewhere else, but it’s not you.

So, all of this is sort of a deeper philosophical problem, a problem of identity, who are you? We know for example that our bodies are recycled every seven to ten years. You’re not the same man you were a decade ago, as I’m sure your friends tell you.

Okay, come on, that’s funny!

Alex Tsakiris: No, no, you’re funny. One of the things when I talk to people about Michael Sherman, I talk to people who are, kind of, on the other side of the camp, the frenemy kind of camp, everybody likes you. You’re just a good guy, you’re a good guy to talk to.

The other thing is, you’re a very open guy, not a lot of people do these interviews, you probably forgot what this show’s about, which is okay too. But you are an open guy, you are a guy who’s willing to get on stage with Deepak Chopra or whoever it is and hash these ideas out, and I think that’s why, what I was eluding to at the beginning is that, I haven’t seen anyone else do it quite like Shermer does it and you think there’s going to be other people that are going to step in there and do it, but I don’t see them on the horizon, so I think it’s pretty cool.

I’m not in agreement with Heavens on Earth, but I’m sure glad that you’re out there, doing what you do. You’re in San Francisco, you’re going full speed ahead, trying to communicate these ideas, you’re on stage talking about it. What are you doing for this book and then what are you doing…?

Michael Shermer: I have a few book events, but actually I’m on stage with Deepak on Tuesday in New York City for the Intelligence Squared Debate. I don’t know when you’re going to air this but it’s Tuesday March 27th and it’s live stream, people who watch it, the resolution is, the more we evolve, the less we need God.

Okay, so he’s going to argue… I’m not sure what he’s going to argue but I think…

Alex Tsakiris: Nobody’s going to argue. For a long time I’ve listened to you, and I thought you had a great point, but it was kind of a weary point, about when you were doing the evolution thing with Discovery Institute. You kind of said, after a while, “I’m going to go out there and I’m going to wheel out my stuff and they’re going to go out there and they’re going to wheel out their stuff,” but you said it in a way that is like, almost like a theatre actor, a stage actor, who has to do it, still. I mean, that person came to see Michael Shermer, to see that debate, to see that played out, and that’s important too. So, it doesn’t demean the fact that people might have heard both sides of this argument before, right?

Michael Shermer: And again, we have to have some epistemic humility. We don’t even know what we don’t know and there’s a lot we don’t know, that we don’t even know we don’t know, about things like consciousness. So, it’s entirely possible that someone like Deepak or yourself or whoever or Christians, talking about the afterlife or Jews or Muslims. There’s lots and lots of different versions of this afterlife that they write about.

I guess, one of the appealing things about cryonics would be that you come back in a thousand years to see what people think then about consciousness, black holes or whatever. The science moves on and we’re like fish in the water, who don’t even know that the water is there. I don’t know. That’s why I like Steve Pinker’s point about this question of consciousness, the hard problem of consciousness, it may be that it’s being phrased in a way that we’ll never be able to answer it the way we’re thinking about it and that we need to think about it in some completely different way, and that may be the case.

There’s a group of people called The Mysterians, Martin Gardner was one of these, that there’s certain mysteries, it’s not just that we haven’t solved them yet, we just have to improve our technologies of experiments or whatever, except they’re insolvable.

It’s like Sam Harris and I disagree on free will. He’s a strict determinist, I’m a compatibilist. I agree, we live in a determined universe, but that we’re part of the causal net, that we can tweak it and change it evolutionally, but at some point, we just run into a brick wall of words. What do you mean by determine? What do you mean by free will or evolutional or compatibilist or whatever?

Like for example, I said to Sam, so we have an [unclear 00:44:33] addiction crisis in the country now. It appears that there’s some people that really cannot control themselves, they just go down a path and they can’t stop, and they overdose.

Now, I don’t have this problem, I know people that are alcoholics, my father was an alcoholic, I can have a couple of drinks and stop, he couldn’t. I know people that cannot stop.

Now, if we all live in a determined universe and we’re all determined, what’s the difference between that guy who can’t stop, and me who can stop? That he’s more determined and I’m less determined? This is why Dan Dennett calls this, degrees of freedom. There’s certain amounts of things you can control or can’t control depending on a lot of different facts, but at some point, and I told this to Sam and Sam says, “No, no, no. You’re still determined, you’re just determined in a different way.” Okay, maybe.

So, what do we mean by that word, ‘determined’? It’s like the point Wittgenstein made, that we’re restricted by the words we use, because we have concepts, and the only way for me and you to share our concepts is to talk and use words and the words have certain meanings, and maybe you mean something slightly different than what I mean. So, we have to operationally define the words we’re using, so when we measure it, I look at it and you point at it and we’re talking about the same thing. That’s not always easy to do in science and I think consciousness is an especially difficult problem.

Anyway, that’s my piece there.

Alex Tsakiris: Good, it’s a good piece.

So, again folks, the name of the book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia. Our guest has been the one and only Dr. Michael Shermer.

Thank you so much for joining me, I really do appreciate it.

Michael Shermer: Keep up the good work. You’re the skeptic’s skeptic.

Alex Tsakiris: Somebody’s got to do it.

Michael Shermer: Hey, it’s like the fact check, somebody’s got to fact check the fact checkers.

Alex Tsakiris: Or the Dr. Seuss who’s watching the watchers, right?

Michael Shermer: That’s right. Absolutely.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay buddy, thank you again. Take care.

Michael Shermer: Yeah, be good.


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