Dr. John Fischer thinks philosophy is the key to debunking near death experience science.
photo by: Skeptiko
Alex Tsakiris: [00:00:06] Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science and spirituality with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. I’m your host Alex Tsakiris and during the many years I’ve done this show I’ve never had someone ask to come on and straighten me out about something I got wrong on a previous interview with them, or in this case with their co-author, but that’s exactly what we’re going to do today.
Dr. John Martin Fischer, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California Riverside, which is right up the road from me, is here to talk about a couple of books that he’s written, one that we featured in a previous episode of Skeptiko, Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, and another one which is more recent, Death, Immortality and Meaning in Life.
John, welcome to Skeptiko, thanks so much for joining me.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:01:03] Thank you Alex, I appreciate the invitation. And let me just clarify that one reason I wanted to come on the show was that when you had tried to reach me before, I was actually ill and away from my office for some months and that’s why I did not get your messages. But it was entirely my fault and it seemed very rude, I’m sure, but I apologize and I’m happy to have the opportunity now.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:01:35] Well, I’m more than happy to give you that opportunity. And yeah, I did reach out to you initially, but I thought one way we could bring people up to speed is I did have a very good interview I thought, with your co-author, someone who was a research fellow working underneath you and Dr. Ben Mitchell-Yellin, and I thought one way to kind of Kick this thing off is to play a clip from that previous interview that we did. I’ll go ahead and play that clip for the audience right now.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:02:10] Okay.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:02:12] I mean, there isn’t a single credible near-death experience researcher, I can think of, that’s come to the conclusion that you do.
Well on what basis do you go against all of this published data by all of the top near-death experience researchers that suggest otherwise?
Ben Mitchell-Yellin: [00:02:28] Well, I mean that the first thing to say is you say, look, nobody else has come to the same conclusion as you and I guess the first thing I would want to say is that was the main reason we wanted to write the book.
It depends on what kind of research you’re talking about. We did not go out and gather the data, instead we looked at the arguments that people, other people have made on the basis of the data.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:02:54] And this one I do have to say Ben, did kind of tick me off. You said that we should be skeptical of those who ask us to dip into our wallet regarding NDE accounts among the blind.
Ben Mitchell Yellin: [00:03:06] Oh wait, I think actually there’s a little confusion because that would sound quite offensive if we had said that.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:03:15] I can pull it up, I’ll pull it up right now, if you think it’s different. This is chapter six, right from the beginning of chapter six, Near-Death Experiences in the Blind.
“There are various reasons to be skeptical of what other people tell us, especially if what they’re telling us sounds far-fetched. We might doubt their motives. Are they telling us the truth or bilking us?”
Alex Tsakiris: [00:03:40] I guess we can we can start there. I have to say, when I play that clip, it’s actually more generous to you guys, even than I would be if I was doing it again. But tell us why you felt like you needed to come back on and kind of set the record straight.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:04:02] Okay. Well first, again, I appreciate that opportunity. There were a couple things that I picked up from that quotation or that little excerpt. One was the point that all of the other near-death researchers, perhaps serious academic researchers, have not come to the same conclusion that we did, you were wondering why. And secondly, the introduction to the chapter in which we were talking about, Near-Death Experiences in the Blind.
First of all, as you know, when we’re doing thoughtful analysis and reflection, we don’t just count of the number of people who are on one side or another. You can find a lot of people on every side of any interesting controversial issue.
Secondly, there are quite a number of researchers, serious academic researchers, some of which we supported in the immortality project, who take a different perspective, not necessarily a supernaturalist.
So for instance one of our researchers whom we supported was Sam Parnia, whom you mentioned, and I’m a very good friend of Sam’s, we’re in constant correspondence and contact, I respect his work very much. We also supported Shahar Arzi in Israel, who does not take a supernaturalist approach, but he’s a very thoughtful scientist.
We also supported Mel Slater and his wife, Maria Sanchez-Vives, who are part of an ongoing research project in Spain, using immersive virtual reality. They’ve done some interesting simulations of near-death experiences using immersive virtual reality and they’ve studied it.
None of those, as far as I know, has come to a supernatural conclusion. There’s, of course, the work of Oliver Sacks, there’s a work of Kevin Nelson, an MD and a neuroscientist at the University of Kentucky, who offers interesting physical explanations, in terms of the brain.
So, here are a lot of people who don’t agree…
Alex Tsakiris: [00:06:23] But there really aren’t John, when you break down even your list there. You can start with Nelson, we’ve covered his research extensively on this show, because dr. Jeffrey Long, who we’re going to talk about in a minute, actually gave his data to Nelson to do the work, and Jeffrey Long kind of does a complete breakdown of how REM intrusion, which is Nelson’s conclusion, is completely kind of ridiculous.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:06:51] Well, let me just…
Alex Tsakiris: [00:06:52] Hold on. Sam Parnia, who you mentioned, comes to a conclusion, and like you say, the supernatural kind of explanation, which we can get into a minute. I don’t know that these people are saying supernatural, what I hear them saying is that by our normal understanding of neurology, the current neurological model, consciousness seems to be surviving death in a way that we don’t understand, and they say that repeatedly.
And as far as people stacking up on different sides of the debate, that’s not what’s going on here. What’s going on here are researchers, who are open-mindedly analyzing, trying to understand, doing research into a phenomenon, and then coming to a conclusion at the end that is supported by their data.
So this isn’t a, you know, republican-democrat, pro-against, it’s just researchers doing the research and all of the researchers come to one conclusion, and then you write a book that suggests that’s…
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:07:53] That’s not true at all. Susan Blackmore did not come to that conclusion, Kevin Nelson doesn’t come to that conclusion. What you said was Jeffrey Long has analyzed Kevin Nelson and allegedly refuted him. That’s not to say that Kevin Nelson came to a supernatural conclusion.
Secondly, how many researchers? It’s interesting. It’s a very small number of scientists who do study NDEs, and that’s partly because until recently it’s been totally dismissed by the scientific community. Part of my work, as you know, is to try and say, people who have reported NDEs are serious, honest, sincere people by and large, not everyone. We know the stories of Alex Malarkey and other, but almost all of them are serious, sincere people. I believe them and we need to study them and study them carefully. So I believe more study should be done, but as it is now you can pretty much count the serious academic studies on one or two hands.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:09:02] It’s simply not true. I mean, I had on Janice Holden who along with Bruce Greyson published the…
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:09:10] Right, The Handbook. Now, let me…
Alex Tsakiris: [00:09:12] The Handbook, which references 200 and a growing number of peer-reviewed near-death experience research papers. And one of the things I thought we would do today is kind of talk about this research, because your book is incredibly research light. It doesn’t reference the research. And even today, when you talk about Oliver Sacks, he never did any research in a near-death experience.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:09:33] He discusses, in his book, Hallucinations, he discusses…
Alex Tsakiris: [00:09:36] He discusses, he never did any research.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:09:38] What do you mean? I don’t know. So, in other words, I couldn’t do research on slavery in the US unless I talked to slaves, is that it? I can’t do any research on any phenomena in history unless I’ve actually talked to them? I have, of course, talked to people who have had near-death experiences and I’ve read that thousands, as you know, they’re a dime a dozen, there are thousands online that you can read and they’ve all gone to heaven and talked to Jesus and they’ve come back.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:10:10] No, they haven’t all gone to heaven and talked to Jesus.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:10:12] Or they’ve ridden on butterfly wings or they’ve, blah, blah, blah, fill in the blank. I’ve read hundreds, probably thousands of those reports.
Now, again, I don’t think we want to go into a counting match. I will say that Janice Holden, who’s the editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies, sponsored by IANDS, with whom you’re very familiar, the International Association of Near-Death Studies. I also consider her a friend, we’ve corresponding regularly, and she was kind enough and gracious enough to do a book symposium on our book. And Ben wrote a reply essay and she was very professional. She’s indicated informally that she plans to do something on my new book as well.
Also, the reason I first got interested in near-death experiences was I was on a panel with Bruce Greyson, a panel in which we discussed ongoing research on immortality with the Templeton Foundation. On the basis of that panel discussion I’ve kept in touch with Bruce. I respect his work greatly.
So I don’t just dismiss these people, I know them, they refer to a lot of stuff. Even if there were 200 papers on near-death experiences, I would say that’s a tiny, that’s a grain of sand at the beautiful beach there at Del Mar where you live, compared to the number of scientific studies we’d expect on any serious phenomenon.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:11:52] Yeah, okay. Let me play a couple of clips to kind of…
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:11:58] I’m sorry to interrupt, but you played something about our discussion of the blind. We introduced that chapter simply by saying, “We have to be skeptical about what people say.” You’re a skeptic and that’s important.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:12:13] I’m not a skeptic.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:12:14] Well, you are a skeptic about science.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:12:19] Well, let me play this clip.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:12:20] And your book is… but if I may say…
Alex Tsakiris: [00:12:21] We’ll talk extensively about the blind, trust me.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:12:25] Okay, go ahead.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:12:27] So Dr. Long, let me probe a little bit further about the types of near-death experience research that’s out there, because over the years I’ve interviewed a lot of near-death experience researchers. For example, just the other day I interviewed this guy, a nice enough guy, the University of California, he’s doing his postdoctoral fellowship, he’s part of a team, they receive $4 million, the Templeton Foundation to study near-death experiences.
So I speak to him about his research. It turns out he didn’t really do any original research. He didn’t go into a hospital, into a cardiac arrest ward and talk to patients there. He didn’t, as you did, develop a 150 medical survey and give it to hundreds of near-death experience researchers. Yet he published his results. We talked about his book. He concluded that near-death experiences aren’t real, in the way that we’re talking about, they don’t suggest that consciousness seems to survive bodily death.
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. Jeff Long: [00:13:45] 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 lucid organized remembrance of 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 heart stops, 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 order as near-death experiences occurring under all other circumstances. And 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. That in and of itself is some of the strongest single line of evidence that near-death experiences have to be independent of brain functioning. There’s simply no way you can be under general anesthesia and have a highly lucid organized experience like that, and especially one that’s consistently seen throughout near-death experience research.
So that’s probably the strongest line of evidence we have, that the physical brain, as we know it, simply cannot produce the near-death experience.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:15:42] Okay, there is a radiation oncologist, full-time medical doctor, talking about medicine. I mean, what’s the response?
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:15:50] The response is that we don’t know exactly when the near-death experience, the phenomenology or the experiential content occurs. Two problems. One, I think I probably emphasized less. Our mechanisms for detecting brain activity are still fairly crude, they’re not very sophisticated. Neuroscience is in its infancy, or maybe it’s toddler stage, but we don’t really have the tools to be sure when the brain function is suitable and when it’s not.
More importantly, consider a dream. People report dreams with content that spans a long period of time, but when did they actually have the brain activity that underwrites the dream? Typically when they’re ramping up, when the brain is ramping up after being asleep. After being not wakefully conscious, the brain ramps up and the individual wakes up and we can do the studies that show that the brain activity is plausibly underwriting the dream in the last 20 seconds before the individual wakes up.
But let me just say this. I respect Dr. Long. As you know, my book with Ben, and I’ve done the two books, but my book with Ben Mitchell-Yellin, very carefully and thoroughly analyzes the book that Jeffrey Long wrote, Evidence of the Afterlife. So if people are interested in a careful reflective analysis of Dr. Long’s results, that’s a good place to look. He is an oncologist, but he’s not an ontologist. He is not a philosopher, and these are not purely medical questions. These are questions about what we can infer from medical questions, what do they mean. And as such, a doctor, although, as you know, most doctors think of themselves as gods, a doctor is not the best person to consult about the philosophical meaning of what the patients say.
So that’s the bit, the bottom line is, Dr. Long, and no one knows exactly when the individual was having this experience. It might seem like it was over a long period of time.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:18:13] John, I went over this with Ben. I sent you that, I said, please go back and listen to the interview with Ben, because you guys just aren’t up to speed on the research. I’ll play another clip. Here’s the best research that directly addresses that. This is from chapter 3 of your book, When Exactly Do Near-Death Experiences Take Place. Here’s Dr. Penny Sartori, I had her on the show, important research, I’ll play of the clip for it.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:18:38] In my view it’s not important research.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:18:40] You know, there are so many ways to break down this topic of near-death experience, and as we were just talking about in this book that you’ve written, it’s very inspirational and that’s terrific. I mean, there’s a lot to be inspired about and there are a lot of culture change that needs to go around this. But the scientific angle, and that’s what I always thought was terrific about this research is, as you know, there’s been this ongoing debate. “Well, it’s not scientific, they’re just these anecdotal accounts, and besides you could never study this scientifically.” And I always like to point people to your research and I say, “No, here’s really a wonderfully simple experiment that was done, that one, both adds incredible scientific evidence suggesting the reality of near-death experiences, but also shows us a path how you can apply science to this.”
Can you just go over in broad strokes the study that you did about people’s recollection of their resuscitation and how the control group was set up and how that was basically done?
Dr. Penny Sartori: [00:19:53] Okay, so what I did was, over the period of five years, I interviewed, for the first year, I interviewed every single patient who survived the admission to the intensive care unit. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss any patients, and what I found at the end of the first year was that I was actually spending longer in the hospital than I was at home. So I couldn’t sustain that for the following four years.
So what I did then is I narrowed down the group I was interviewing, so I only approached patients who had undergone cardiac arrest and survived. And although the sample was a little smaller than the first year, what I found was that out of 39 patients who’d been successfully resuscitated, 7 of them recalled a near-death experience. That’s nearly 18% of patients who survived cardiac arrest had this kind of experience.
What I also did is I documented their blood results at the time, I looked at the drugs that were given and I also interviewed the staff members who were looking after the patients. So if the patients reported the out-of-body component, I would then try and verify what it was they described and I verified that with the nurses and the doctors who were looking after them.
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-body component and I asked them if they could describe what they thought we had done to them.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:21:38] And they were like, “What do you mean, I was dead, I don’t remember anything,” right?
Dr. Penny Sartori: [00:21:42] Exactly, that 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. And then a few of them did make a guess and it was based on TV hospital dramas that they’d been watching.
What I found was that there were areas of misconceptions in what they thought we 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 that we’d put the paddles onto their body was completely erroneous, it was wrong, it was incorrect.
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: [00:22:48] So John, to me this is near-death experience research. What Dr. Long is doing is near-death experience research. You mentioned the timing thing, doesn’t this address the timing thing with real research, someone in a hospital, someone working with people who have had a near-death experience?
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:23:03] Well Alex first, I apologize, but I really couldn’t understand what she was saying, in terms of the quality of the audio. Can you just, in a couple sentences, summarize what she was saying?
Good, thank you for the summary. I admire Dr. Sartori, Penny Sartori. I’ve read her recent book. One thing I want to commend about her is she points out that one of the important features of near-death experiences is that they show something important about end-of-life care, about a more humane way of treating people at the end of life. Her own, perhaps basis on which she makes that argument might be a little different from mine, but I do find it a very insightful point, a point that I myself want to develop further. I know she’s very sincere. I don’t know that it’s a double-blind project that was overseen by anyone else. I know that she has very strong antecedent views about these matters and I think confirmation bias plays an important role when you have antecedent views.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:24:14] Well, you would have to establish that. One, how can you not even know of this research?
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:24:21] I know of this research, I’ve studied this.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:24:26] Did it have oversight or did it not have oversight?
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:24:28] No, not that I’ve seen. And let me say this, it would be impossible, of course, to have read every study that’s referred to, as you said, there are a lot of things out there on the internet and popular books. I’ve read quite a number of books.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:24:47] I believe her research did have oversight by Dr. Peter Fenwick, who was a colleague of hers, and as you know, Dr. Sam Parnia was also a colleague of hers.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:24:57] No, Dr. Parnia has an ongoing study called Aware, of which I’m sure you are aware, and we supported it, the Immortality Project, gave him $250,000. He’s a good friend. As of now, in my view, and I think it would share this, he does not have a single case where someone saw one of the monitors that he places in hospital rooms and identified the number. And he has pointed out that he had to make his study very, very carefully double-blinded because when he was first doing the study in Southampton, the nurses actually prompted the patients, terror management and confirmation biases, so powerful, that the nurses wanted the patients to tell Dr. Parnia the right answers.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:25:49] John, you’re just kind of speculating now.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:25:52] I’m not.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:25:53] If you take the conclusions of Dr…
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:25:54] I’m not speculating.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:25:56] Hold on, I’ve had him on the show. So I’m glad you’ve talked to him, I’ve talked to him too. I’ve had him on the show multiple times and the first time he was kind of very much in this in between zone of whether or not he thought that data was suggestive of consciousness surviving death.
Since then, maybe you know, he has come out and his conclusion is that based on all of the research that he’s done, he is of the opinion that his research is highly suggestive that consciousness survives death. So don’t spin Parnia as saying something different.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:26:27] I’m just reporting that he does not have a single case…
Alex Tsakiris: [00:26:30] Those are very detailed methodological issues regarding…
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:26:33] Point out to me, where can I look at one single example where Sam, whom I respect is a great scientist, has found someone who cannot see a computer monitor in their room and they are unconscious and they identify the number that’s randomly put? Tell me where I can find it?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:26:53] If you think he’s such a great researcher and you respect him, then why don’t you respect his conclusion of a multi-year study, in which he concludes what I just said? So the methodological issues, in terms of seeing a particular thing, placed in a particular area when someone’s outside of their body, has all sorts of details to it that we’ve explored on the show, but it’s not up to you to decide that that is the sole criteria. Again, that researcher’s conclusion is based on all of his research, because he does research similar to what Dr. Sartori is doing, in terms of asking people to recount their experience.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:27:32] Yes, it’s very important.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:27:33] And his conclusion, at the end of the day is that.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:27:35] Well, he is a thoughtful scientist. But as you know, you emphasizing your work that science doesn’t even address the most important things in life. As a matter of fact, you have a book that’s called, Science Is Wrong About Everything, or something like that.
I think the point is that scientists and doctors only go so far. All human beings have the right to analyze and reflect on those studies that they do and on their conclusions.
Now if Sam, whom I respect, says some of his data suggests or even strongly suggests that consciousness survives failure to function of the brain, the death of the brain, I respect that. What he’s saying is that’s the suggesting. There’s no proof there. So we can agree to disagree. I disagree that the data strongly suggests that.
Let me say, one of the people that Sam and various of the other supernaturalists invoke, apparently wanting the authority of a contemporary philosopher of mind is David Chalmers. David Chalmers is invoked by Pim van Lommel and a whole host of others, and yet David Chalmers does not believe that consciousness survives death. He’s a duelist, but not a substance duelist, he’s a property dualist. He does not believe that consciousness survives death.
So there are a lot of philosophical conclusions that are made by MDs, and those philosophical conclusions, people can reasonably disagree with.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:29:23] I don’t think so, but hey, that’s why we have this show.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:29:28] You don’t think that we can disagree with scientists’ conclusions about metaphysical matters? I thought you thought that science doesn’t even deal with the most important questions and that they’re wrong about everything, just about?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:29:43] Yeah, we can get into that, but I don’t need to talk about my own book. I will just mention…
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:29:48] Well, you’re making claims about my research.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:29:50] Okay. I’m happy to talk about it, I just didn’t want to waste our time.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:29:55] So you think we should agree with every…? I mean the scientists disagree, obviously, so we can’t agree.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:30:01] The premise of Why Science Is Wrong About Almost Everything, and it does get to the heart of the problem I have with your work, is that if science doesn’t understand conscious, if science can’t get consciousness right, then science can’t get anything right, because we will always come back to the, how many angels fit on the head of a pin?
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:30:22] If you have cancer, who are you going to turn to?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:30:25] Well, you can’t jump around…
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:30:26] No wait. Doesn’t science have something to say about illness and how to treat it, and isn’t that the best bet?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:30:33] I think that we’re mixing the philosophical and the…
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:30:38] If someone in your family had a serious disease, would you go to a faith healer, or someone who will read your palm? I thought you said science gets everything wrong, if they can’t get consciousness right. Who would you go to…?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:30:55] I think I said almost, but I think we’re getting off track. That’s the title of the book, Why Science Is Wrong About Almost Everything, so you can snigger, but that’s what it said.
Back to Jeff Long. See I you can turn up the volume so you can hear this one, because it directly addresses your research.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:31:12] Okay, and I’m going to push that a little bit further because here’s where I was trying to lead you really, because this has come up over and over again with me Jeff, I’m not making this up. You know it because you see it out there. I mean, here’s a book with all these academic credentials, and you dig into it and they never spoke with someone who actually had a near-death experience. I’ve had this happen over and over again. I can think of three or four in the last year, I interviewed them, and I just want to scream and go, “How is this near-death experience research? There are no people who had a near-death experience.”
Dr. Jeffrey Long: [00:31:49] That is an amazingly good point. It is astounding to me too that we have people that publish, write books, right scholarly papers about near-death experience that have literally never talked to someone who had a near-death experience. That is some of the most bizarre research I can possibly imagine. It makes no sense to me and I’m sure everybody that sees this video is going to think, “Gosh. How is that even possible? How can somebody claim that they’re doing near-death experience research and never ever even talked to someone who had a near-death experience?” Well, the answer is, you can’t. If you’re going to investigate near-death experiences, you have to talk to the near-death experiencers, and you have to understand what happened during the near-death experience.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:32:32] Okay, I did hear that, thank you. I better turn my volume down though now because you’ll come in very loudly. I respect Dr. Long. As I mentioned, much of the book that Ben and I wrote looks carefully at the logic behind his conclusions. Like I say, these are not medical matters purely, these are about the metaphysical conclusions that you reach. And what we argued respectfully was that his logic is bad and I would absolutely love to come on this program or any other program and have a friendly, a serious discussion with Dr. Long. If you could facilitate a debate, that would be great, or in any context I would like to discuss.
But the point is, he’s coming to philosophical conclusions, and he is not, as an oncologist, uniquely suited to do that.
Secondly, now, I would not know how to treat someone with prostate cancer, I assume he does, and I respect him. But when he comes to philosophical conclusions, he doesn’t have any special authority. All of us as human beings can think and can use logic and should use critical thinking and logic.
Secondly, one thing that I have always done and Ben has always done, and I thought Ben did a very good job in his interview with you, we respect these reports. Unlike some people, we argue they really are being honest and these events really occurred. They experienced that. The only question is what their meaning is. So we stipulate, all of these reports, I mean, what would we learn if we…? I mean, if I did a thousand interviews with people, I’m stipulating, I’m saying everything they say is true. They had these experiences. It seemed as though they were riding on the wing of a butterfly. It seemed as though they talked to Jesus. Colton Burpo thought that he sat at the table with Jesus and so forth, stipulate all that’s true.
Now, what are the philosophical conclusions that you’re going to draw? That’s a different point. As you know Alex, you could talk to thousands of people who’ve gone to faith healers and they’re absolutely, they are sure that the faith healer cured them. They’re sure of it.
Let me also just reiterate a point. I suppose you don’t think you could study slavery or its impact on people without actually talking to a slave or you can’t talk about the economy of China without going and talking to Chinese people? You can study phenomena and study them very carefully and then pinpoint the issues that are important to you without going out in the field and doing field research.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:35:44] But John, this is what you and Ben, it’s kind of a silly discussion at some point. We’re just kind of rehashing the same thing over and over again. You go back to Dr. Long’s first comment that I played and I think people will get this, so I don’t want to just kind of beat a dead horse. He says, when you’re under general anesthesia, you don’t have a conscious experience as we understand it. That’s the whole point.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:36:08] But there’s no evidence that anyone does. As they’re coming out of general anesthesia, just like you wake up after a dream, you wake up as your brain is ramping up. There’s no evidence that they had the experience… People seem to be healed by faith healers.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:36:32] Well again, you are non-responsive to the research.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:36:33] I’m not non-responsive.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:36:36] You’re non-responsive to the research, because this is what Dr. Long says. Dr. Long’s research suggests…
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:36:40] Okay, here’s my response. Dr. Long hears people say, “I had this experience while I was under general anesthesia.” Now, my point is, you can have a million people say that, just like you could have a million people tell you that they were healed by a faith healer or that the cancer went away because they looked at crystals…
Alex Tsakiris: [00:37:07] That’s why I played the Penny Sartori clip and I show you there someone who specifically…
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:37:11] How many people do you want who will tell you that…
Alex Tsakiris: [00:37:14] …went out and tried to address the timing issue. Jeff Long addresses the timing issue.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:37:20] They all say the same thing.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:37:20] Then you respond to Penny Sartori’s research, then you started saying, “Does she have a bias? Is she somehow not being supervised?” Even though it’s peer reviewed research. It’s just sloppy on your point. This isn’t a philosophical question. There are philosophical questions related to it, but these are medical researchers who are really looking at the data.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:37:45] No, Penny comes to the conclusion that consciousness is not in the brain, it’s out there. It’s somehow out there and our brain somehow receives it. And
It’s out there. It’s somehow out there and our brain somehow receives it. And Pim van Lommel, of course, holds the same view and he highly touts Miss Sartori’s book.
I would say this. She deserves serious attention. Her insights about the relationship between NDEs and end-of-life, those are important, and I can’t just dismiss it out of hand. I don’t have enough information to actually assess it.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:38:22] It sounds like you did though. I mean it sounds like you’re throwing a lot of dirt.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:38:27] No, I’m not the one who starts by saying that we are wrangling money from the Templeton Foundation and our nerdy little book doesn’t engage with the science. You’re the one who starts by accusing me of not responding to the research. I have responded to the research.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:38:46] No, you haven’t, that’s the point.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:38:47] Two points. One, our devices are not, now, capable of saying whether the brain is actually functioning in the right way. But more importantly, if someone wakes up from a dream and said, “I dreamt that I was home with my father and mother when I was young and they abused me,” or whatever, or, “We had this wonderful trip to Disneyland,” it does not follow that they were actually conscious back then or having conscious experiences of that time. Their brain was ramping up as they were getting ready to wake up. So the brain was functioning when they have these experiences. It seemed as though the experiences were of a long time ago, but they were actually underwritten by brain activity and the same thing may well be true of near-death experiences and nothing that Dr. Long or Dr. Sartori or Dr. van Lommel or any of them say goes to that issue. I am respondent.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:39:53] That’s exactly what Dr. Sartori’s research goes to, is that issue. Is that if people have recollections that are verifiable of the resuscitation, that addresses the timing issue in a way that hasn’t been done before. And I would mention…
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:40:13] I would have to look. Let me say this…
Alex Tsakiris: [00:40:14] …that research has been replicated by Sam Parnia and Janice Holden. I don’t know if you just don’t understand this or if you’re just kind of in denial, but the reason they did that research was specifically to address this kind of goofy ramp up kind of thing or these other things that people throw at it, just because they don’t want to accept the conclusions that these researchers are coming to.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:40:37] I respect those people and I will, at some point, I’m sure I’ll look more carefully at what you’re saying. I would say that I have, just as you are skeptical of science and of the conclusions that scientists sometimes come to, and just like you point out that the most important things about meaning and metaphysics and religion and ethics are not decided by science. I would want to look very carefully at their empirical results and look at what their conclusions are. And I don’t claim to have the answers, I have never been and I never claim to have the answers. I just think that what one wants to do is be very, very careful about one’s logic.
Let me reiterate. If you could facilitate a discussion between me and Dr. Long or Dr. Sartori, I would welcome it and I’m sure I would benefit and learn from it. I would like to participate, just as I have discussed these issues with Dr. Parnia and other researchers in Europe and in Israel, I would love to learn from them.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:41:56] Well, you know, if you want to do that, I mean, I guess I could maybe help facilitate that. But as I played in that clip, I don’t think anyone takes this philosophical research approach that you’ve taken. It just it just doesn’t wash. So maybe these guys would talk to you, maybe they won’t, but they’re out doing real research in the field, collecting data that is kind of meaningful from a neuroscience standpoint. I don’t think anyone sees this as a philosophy first question. There’s a philosophy second question about meaning and some of this other stuff, but in terms of sorting through the medical data, I don’t understand why you think philosophy will help us understand.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:42:42] What you said is these people are out doing serious work, but Dr. Long had the time to talk to you multiple times, Dr. Parnia had the time to talk to you, so maybe they would have the open-mindedness and willingness to have a friendly conversation with me.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:42:56] Reach out to them John. If they want to do it, I’m happy to facilitate it. I guess the wrap-up question would be, and you’ve spent an hour with me. Hey, you know what? This is kind of what the show is all about, in terms of people willing to engage in discussion and we don’t have to agree on everything. We need to respect the fact that you’re willing to come on and defend your ideas and defend your book and defend your research.
I guess the wrap-up question, you know what, forget about the wrap-up question, because I’ve kind of hammered enough of that. Won’t you tell folks a little bit more about… because we didn’t really talk about the broader work that you do at UC Riverside, all of the things that you’re interested in? Because it’s not just near-death experience, it’s a lot of questions surrounding death, immortality and the philosophy of death. So tell people a little bit more about the other work that you’ve done.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:43:53] Okay, and I also want to thank you for having me on, I really appreciate it and disagreement, as a philosopher that’s our lifeblood, we’re used to it, we’re used to not being able to resolve questions. So, I really, really appreciate it and I believe in being strong in my views.
Let me say that as we approach any interesting existential topic, we’re going to want different inputs, not just philosophy. We’re going to want medicine, we’re going to want to read, and if possible, engage in as many interviews as we can. But I don’t think we just want philosophy and I don’t think we just want interviews by MDs. We want the total picture and we want a package that make sense.
And all I have pointed out is doctors, they think they know a lot of stuff and they think they’re authorities on just about everything. But even in medicine, you have to ask the tough questions of the doctors, often they don’t know the right answers. But when they are venturing into questions about meaning and metaphysics and the mind, they are not uniquely suited to make the analysis, we have to add in philosophy.
But I really want to thank you again. I respect the fact that you’re willing to consider different perspectives, and I have an invitation to discuss these matters with anyone.
But let me say, I’m interested in life and death. I’m interested in what happens after we die. I’m interested in whether we could be immortal or whether we would want to be immortal, either in an afterlife or a secular kind of living forever. I’m interested in what near-death experiences can teach us about the meaning of life and about end-of-life care. And if you read my new book, Death, Immortality and Meaning in Life, I emphasize the beauty and the awe-inspiring nature of near-death experiences and how they point us to the importance of guidance in the last part of our journey, at least our living journey, guidance by loved, trusted mentors from the known to the unknown, and how important loving companionship is. I think that this is the lesson of near-death experiences.
So, maybe what I could also say as my main area of research throughout my career has been on free will and moral responsibility and ethics. So I’m interested in a whole package of views. And when I got the grant from the Templeton Foundation, and by the way, I didn’t wrangle it from them, they reached out to me, and I believe you’ll find that they’re very, very happy with the results.
And we have a legacy page which your listeners and viewers might be interested in, they could just Google “Immortality Project Legacy Page,” or, “SPT,” that stands for science philosophy and theology. Sptimmortalityproject.org, you’ll see there are over a hundred books and articles that came out of it. Scientists, philosophers, theologians, religious believers, atheists.
What I wanted to say is, I never even knew about near-death experiences until I got the grant, that was 7 years ago. I want to emphasize, I have not spent my life on this. One of the big emphases of the Templeton Foundation is humility, intellectual humility. I openly admit I am not a world-class expert on these. I’m a human being. I’m trained as a philosopher and I bring my perspective to what I hope will be a holistic investigation of these matters.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:48:03] Okay, well great John. And again, we can be the mutual admiration society, in terms of engaging in these discussions, these conversations. So thanks again, and I will bounce the idea off of Jeff Long. I’ve done so many of these interviews on near-death experience, but hey, it’s awesome for you to want to reach out in that way.
So thanks again so much and take care.
Dr. John M. Fischer: [00:48:33] Thank you. Thank you very much.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:48:36] Thanks again to Dr. John Fischer for joining me today on Skeptiko. But one question I’d have to tee up from this interview, we try and spit this out. Our NDEs, a philosophy first question, when we really boil it down, that seems to be the main thrust of John’s argument. And if you go back and listen to the interview that I did with Ben, his co-author, which I have to say, I went and re-listened to it and it’s a really good episode, if I must say so myself. So I’ll have a link to it and I hope you go back and listen to it. There’s a lot of great old episodes back in the vault there.
But, in that pervious interview, Ben expounds on this theory of how philosophy can really explain near-death experience and uses an analogy of a fire. He says, you know, if you have a fire in your house and somebody looks at just one cause of the fire, then they’re maybe missing the interrelationship between multiple causes.
Now, this seems to me like an incredibly, incredibly naive view of what near-death experience researchers do on a day-to-day basis. I think doctors are always looking at multiple causes and how all variables need to be controlled. But maybe I’m missing something, maybe there’s some deep, deep philosophy there that I didn’t understand.
So, let me know your thoughts on this question. As always, the best place to reach me and to talk to other people who are really into this show is through the Skeptiko Forum, which you can find from the website or you can find just by going to Skeptiko-forum.com. And be sure to check out the Skeptiko website, where you’ll find this show and many, many other previous shows, all available for free download, MP3. Take them and go, do what you will. And while you’re there you can check out other things. You can subscribe to the newsletter, which is really just kind of a reminder that a new show is up and you can also find contact information, other stuff like that, if you need it.
Well, that’s going to do it for today’s show. Sometimes people get frustrated that I keep hammering on skeptics, but I feel like I’ve laid down the gauntlet which anytime, anywhere debates. So when people raise their arm and say, “Hey, I want a debate,” 90% of the time I’m up for it and I was up for it with John, and he’s a brave man for coming on and defending his book.
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