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Who's Afraid of Life After Death?

By Neal Grossman
: IONS Review

When researchers ask the question, "How can the near-death experience be explained?" they tend to make the usual assumption that an acceptable explanation will be in terms of concepts—biological, neurological, psychological—with which they are already familiar.

The near-death experience (NDE) would then be explained, for example, if it could be shown what brain state, which drugs, or what beliefs on the part of the experiencer correlate with the NDE. Those who have concluded that the NDE cannot be explained mean that it cannot be, or has not yet been, correlated with any physical or psychological condition of the experiencer.

I wish to suggest that this approach to explaining the NDE is fundamentally misguided. To my knowledge, no one who has had an NDE feels any need for an explanation in the reductionist sense that researchers are seeking.

For the experiencer, the NDE does not need to be explained because it is exactly what it purports to be, which is, at a minimum, the direct experience of consciousness—or minds, or selves, or personal identity—existing independently of the physical body. It is only with respect to our deeply entrenched materialist paradigm that the NDE needs to be explained, or more accurately, explained away.

In this article, I will take the position that materialism has been shown to be empirically false; and hence, what does need to be explained is the academic establishment's collective refusal to examine the evidence and to see it for what it is. The academic establishment is in the same position today as the bishop who refused to look through Galileo's telescope. Why is this the case?

The Evidence Against Materialism

Before addressing this question, I'd like to say something about the kind and strength of evidence that refutes materialism. Emily Williams Cook, Bruce Greyson, and Ian Stevenson (1998) describe "three features of NDEs—enhanced mentation, the experience of seeing the physical body from a different position in space, and paranormal perception—which we believe might provide convergent evidence supporting the survival hypothesis." They then go on to describe fourteen cases that satisfy these criteria.

From an epistemological perspective, the third criterion, paranormal perception, is the most important. The materialist can, in principle, give no account of how a person acquires veridical information about events remote from his or her body. Consider, for example, the kind of case where the NDEer accurately reports the conversation occurring in the waiting room while his or her body is unconscious in the operating room. There is no way for the relevant information, conveyed in sound waves or light waves, to travel from the waiting room, through corridors and up elevators, to reach the sense organs of the unconscious person. Yet the person wakes from the operation with the information. This kind of case—and there are lots of them—shows quite straightforwardly that there are nonphysical ways in which the mind can acquire information. Hence materialism is false.

Perhaps the "smoking gun" case is the one described by Michael Sabom in his book Light and Death. In this case, the patient had her NDE while her body temperature was lowered to 60 degrees, and all the blood was drained from her body. "Her electroencephalogram was silent, her brain-stem response was absent, and no blood flowed through her brain." A brain in this state cannot create any kind of experience. Yet the patient reported a profound NDE.

Those materialists who believe that consciousness is secreted by the brain, or that the brain is necessary for conscious experience to exist, cannot possibly explain, in their own terms, cases such as this. An impartial observer would have to conclude that not all experience is produced by the brain, and that therefore the falsity of materialism has been empirically demonstrated. Thus, what needs to be explained is the abysmal failure of the academic establishment to examine this evidence and to embrace the conclusion: Materialism is false, and consciousness can and does exist independently of the body.

Moreover, the evidence against materialism comes not only from the NDE, but from other areas of research as well. Both mediumship, which has been extensively investigated since the time of William James, and Stevenson-type cases of children who have verified true memories of past lives, offer an abundance of evidence against materialism. The best epistemological analysis of the evidence is given by Robert Almeder: After a lengthy and detailed discussion of past-life cases, he calls the researcher to task for concluding only that "it is rational to believe in reincarnation, given the evidence." The proper conclusion, according to Almeder, should be "it is irrational not to believe in reincarnation, given the evidence." I agree with Almeder.

Our collective irrationality with respect to the wealth of evidence against materialism manifests in two ways: (i) by ignoring the evidence, and (ii) by insisting on overly stringent standards of evidence, that, if adopted, would render any empirical science impossible.

One of my earliest encounters with this kind of academic irrationality occurred more than twenty years ago. I was devouring everything on the near-death experience I could get my hands on, and eager to share what I was discovering with colleagues. It was unbelievable to me how dismissive they were of the evidence. "Drug-induced hallucinations," "last gasp of a dying brain," and "people see what they want to see" were some of the more commonly used phrases. One conversation in particular caused me to see more clearly the fundamental irrationality of academics with respect to evidence against materialism. I asked, "What about people who accurately report the details of their operation?"

"Oh," came the reply, "they probably just subconsciously heard the conversation in the operating room, and their brain subconsciously transposed the audio information into a visual format."

"Well," I responded, "what about cases where people report veridical perception of events remote from their body?"

"Oh, that's just a coincidence or a lucky guess."

Exasperated, I asked, "What will it take, short of having a near-death experience yourself, to convince you that it's real?"

Very nonchalantly, without batting an eye, the response was "Even if I were to have a near-death experience myself, I would conclude that I was hallucinating, rather than believe that my mind can exist independently of my brain." He went on to add that dualism (the philosophical thesis that asserts mind and matter are independent substances, neither of which can be reduced to the other) is a false theory, and that there cannot be evidence for something that's false.

This was a momentous experience for me, because here was an educated, intelligent man telling me that he will not give up materialism, no matter what. Even the evidence of his own experience would not cause him to give up materialism. I realized two things in that moment. First, this experience cured me of any impulse to argue these things with recalcitrant colleagues; it is pointless to argue with someone who tells me that his mind is already made up, and nothing I can say will change it. Second, this experience taught me that it is important to distinguish between (a) materialism as an empirical hypothesis about the nature of the world, which is amenable to evidence one way or the other (this is the hallmark of a scientific hypothesis—that evidence is relevant for its truth or falsity) and (b) materialism as an ideology, or paradigm, about how things "must" be, which is impervious to evidence (this is the hallmark of an unscientific hypothesis—that evidence is not relevant for its truth).

Materialism As Dogma

My colleague believed in materialism not as a scientific hypothesis that, qua scientific hypothesis, might be false, but rather as dogma and ideology that "must" be true, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. For him, materialism is the fundamental paradigm in terms of which everything else is explained, but which is not itself open to doubt.

I shall coin the term "fundamaterialist" to refer to those who believe that materialism is a necessary truth, not amenable to empirical evidence. I call it fundamaterialism to make explicit comparison with fundamentalism in religion. Fundamentalism connotes an attitude of certainty towards one's core belief. Just as the fundamentalist Christian is absolutely certain that the world was created in the manner described by The Bible (fossil evidence notwithstanding), so also the fundamaterialist is absolutely certain that there exists nothing that is not made up of matter or physical energy (NDE and other evidence notwithstanding). In fact, and this is the crucial point, their respective beliefs have nothing to do with evidence. As my fundamaterialist colleague put it, "There can't be evidence for something that's false."

With respect to (a), materialism held as an empirical hypothesis about the world, the evidence against it is overwhelming. With respect to (b), materialism held as an ideology, evidence against it is logically impossible. A complicating factor is that the fundamaterialist typically holds the metabelief that his belief in materialism is not ideological, but empirical. That is, he misclassifies himself under (a), while his behavior clearly falls under (b). The debunker and skeptic believe they are being "scientific" in ignoring and rejecting the evidence against materialism. But when asked what kind of evidence it would take to convince them that materialism is empirically false, they are, like my colleague, usually at a loss for what to say.

If they're not familiar with the data, they'll come up with a criterion of evidence that in fact has already been met. When it is pointed out that there exist many well-documented cases that satisfy the proposed criterion, they will simply make the criterion more stringent, and at some point they cross the line between the reasonable demand for scientific evidence and the unreasonable (and unscientific) demand for logical proof.

Philosophy & Afterlife

We might think that, of all the disciplines, philosophy ought to be most interested in, and would meticulously study, all the research on the NDE. After all, isn't philosophy supposed to be concerned with questions of ultimate meaning, of the purpose of life, of the relation between mind and body, of God? NDE research has data that are directly relevant to all of these questions. So how is it possible that philosophy has collectively managed to ignore and even ridicule this research? To those outside academic philosophy, it may come as a surprise to learn that the great majority of academic philosophers are atheists and materialists. While they incorrectly use science to support their materialism, they systematically ignore the findings of science that refute their materialism.

And, more surprisingly, even those philosophers who are not materialists (and their number, I think, is growing) refuse to look at the data. One would think that Cartesian dualists or Platonists would eagerly devour the wealth of data that strongly support their point of view that mind transcends the physical world, but that is not the case.

I would like to share a personal experience that highlights some of the attitudes involved. In the late 1970s, when the early research on the NDE was just being published, I was involved in team-teaching a course with one of the campus chaplains. Excitedly, I shared what I was learning about the NDE, thinking he would welcome empirical data that, at the very least, constituted strong prima facie evidence for much of what he believed in—soul, afterlife, ultimate responsibility for one's actions, a higher power, etc. To my astonishment, he was just as dismissive of the evidence as was my fundamaterialist colleague. When I questioned him about why he was so resistant to the data, he said, in effect, that his belief in God, afterlife, etc. is based on faith, and if these things were decidable empirically, there would be no room left for faith, which for him was the foundation of his religious convictions.

I knew then that the NDE is between a rock and a hard place, because it is not taken seriously by the two disciplines that should be the most interested in it—philosophy and theology. Once theology and religion open the door to empirical evidence, then the possibility arises that the evidence may contradict some aspects of what was believed solely on the basis of faith. Indeed, this has already happened.

The evidence from the NDE, for example, suggests that God is not vengeful, does not judge us or condemn us, and is not angry at us for our "sins"; there is judgment, to be sure, but the reports appear to be in agreement that all judgment comes from within the individual, not from the Being of Light. It seems, in fact, that all God is capable of giving us is unconditional love. But the concept of an all-loving, nonjudgmental God contradicts and undermines the teachings of many religions, and thus it is no wonder that religious fundamentalists are uncomfortable with the near-death experience.

Strange Bedfellows

One conclusion I have come to over the years is that both the atheist and the believer, from the fundamaterialist to the fundamentalist, share something in common. In fact, from an epistemological perspective, what they have in common is much more significant than what they disagree about. What they agree about is this: Beliefs pertaining to the possible existence of a transcendent reality—God, soul, afterlife, etc.—are based on faith, not fact. If this is true, then there can be no factual evidence that pertains to such beliefs.

This metabelief—that beliefs about a transcendent reality cannot be empirically based—is so deeply entrenched in our culture that it has the status of a taboo. The taboo is very democratic in that it allows everyone to believe whatever he or she wants to believe about such matters. This allows the fundamaterialist to feel comfortable in her conviction that reason is on her side, that there is no afterlife, and that those who believe otherwise have fallen prey to the forces of irrationality and wishful thinking. But it also allows the fundamentalist to feel comfortable in his conviction that he has God on his side, and that those who believe otherwise have fallen prey to the forces of Satan and evil.

Thus, although the fundamentalist and the fundamaterialist are on opposite extremes of the spectrum of possible attitudes towards an afterlife, the extreme positions they hold unite them as "strange bedfellows" in their battles against the possibility that there are matters of fact about the afterlife that empirical research might discover. The very suggestion that empirical research might be relevant to beliefs pertaining to a transcendent reality—that such beliefs are subject to empirical constraint—runs strongly against this taboo, and is thus very threatening to most elements of our culture.

The Purpose of Life

Research on the NDE has yielded the following unambiguous conclusion: NDEers confirm basic values common to most of the world's religions. The purpose of life, NDEers agree, is knowledge and love. Studies on the transformative effect of the NDE show that the cultural values of wealth, status, material possessions and so on become much less important, and the perennial religious values of love, caring for others, and acquiring knowledge about the divine ascend to greater importance. That is, the studies show that NDEers not only verbally profess the values of love and knowledge, but they tend to operate in accordance with these values, if not entirely, then at least more so than before their NDE.

As long as religious values are presented as merely religious values, then it is easy for popular culture to ignore them or give them minimal lip service on Sunday mornings. But if these same religious values are presented as empirically verified scientific facts, then everything changes. If the belief in an afterlife were to be accepted not on the basis of faith or on the basis of speculative theology, but as a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis, then this could not be ignored by our culture. In fact, it would mean the end of our culture in its present form.

Consider the following scenario: Further research on the NDE confirms in great detail what has already been established; many more cases of confirmed veridical perceptions while "out of body" are collected and documented; advancing medical technology makes possible many more "smoking gun" cases of the type discussed above; longitudinal studies on NDEers confirm the already observed behavioral changes aligned with their newly acquired (or recently reinforced) spiritual values; and so forth. The studies are replicated in different cultures with the same results. Eventually, the weight of evidence begins to set in, and scientists are ready to announce to the world, if not as fact, then at least as highly confirmed scientific hypotheses:

(1) There is an afterlife.

(2) Our real identity is not our body, but our mind or consciousness.

(3) Although the details of the afterlife are not known, we are reasonably certain that everyone will experience a life review in which the individual experiences not only every event and every emotion of his or her life, but also the effects his or her behavior, positive or negative, have had on others. The usual defense mechanisms by which we hide from ourselves our sometimes cruel and less-than-compassionate behavior towards others seem not to operate during the life review.

(4) The purpose of life is love and knowledge—to learn as much as possible about both this world and the transcendent world, and to grow in our ability to feel kindness and compassion towards all beings.

(5) A consequence of (3) is that it appears to be a great disadvantage to oneself to harm another person, either physically or psychologically, since whatever pain one inflicts on another is experienced as one's own in the life review.

This scenario is by no means far-fetched. I believe there is already sufficient evidence to present the above propositions as "probable" or "more likely than not" based on the evidence. Further studies will only increase the probability.

When this happens, the fallout will be revolutionary. When these findings are announced by science, it will become impossible for our culture to do business as usual, either economically, or politically, or academically. It would be interesting to speculate what an economy that tries to align itself with the above five empirical hypotheses might look like, but that is a project well beyond the scope of this article. The findings of NDE researchers would mark the beginning of the end of a culture whose driving forces have been greed and ambition, and which measures success in terms of material possessions, wealth, reputation, social status, etc. The present culture, therefore, has an enormous vested interest in undermining NDE research, which it does by ignoring, debunking, and otherwise marginalizing the research.

I'll close with a little story. C. D. Broad, a famous British philosopher who wrote in the mid-twentieth century, served as president of the British Society for Psychical Research. He was the last philosopher with an international reputation who believed there was something to it. Toward the end of his life, he was asked how he would feel if he found himself still present after his body had died. He replied that he would feel more disappointed than surprised. Not surprised, because his investigations led him to conclude that an afterlife was more likely than not. But why disappointed? His reply was disarmingly honest.

He said, in effect, that he had had a good life: that he was comfortable materially, and that he enjoyed admiration and respect from students and colleagues. There is no guarantee that his status, reputation, and comfort would carry over intact into the afterlife. The rules by which success is measured in the afterlife might be quite different from the rules according to which success is measured in this life. And indeed, NDE research suggests that C. D. Broad's fears were well-founded, that "success" by afterlife standards is measured, not in terms of publications, grants, or reputation, but rather by acts of kindness and compassion toward others.

Neal Grossman has a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from Indiana University, and is an associate professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His special interests are Spinoza, mysticism, and the epistemology of parapsychological research.

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