Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dead certain?

Here's an astonshing bit of major discovery, and one might say of assertion of certainty:  Investigators have found that 'near death' experiences are 'all in the mind.'   The evidence shows, the investigators say, that normal brain activities--essentially, the imagination--can construct imagery that people who recover from what they sometimes claim are near-death states report that they have seen.

The investigators seem very sure of themselves, but how can they be?  One can do all the brain testing one wants, but that simply cannot answer the question.

The real question is whether there even is a question here.  The evidence for claims of life after death has always been largely imaginary.  From claims that a Pope performed miracles, to sacred images performing miracles, to claims of answered prayers, there really is no serious evidence--from a scientific point of view.  From that viewpoint, such claims are beliefs rather than evidence.

One can put it another way: science is about things that are part of the material world as we know it.  Evolution may have taken place in the past, where we can't observe it directly, but we do have wholly consistent material evidence supporting ideas about the past and with predictive power about what we will find in future evidence in terms of general pattern and so on.  We can't see molecules in the usual sense, but instrumentation allows us to study them.  Though our usual instrumentation cannot detect it directly, even dark matter can be studied indirectly, through normal materially-derived means.  That is what 'counts' for science.

We can't see souls, angels, or God's will.  In a sense, if we could they would not be souls or God, as defined in the western conception of a world of eternal immaterial spirits.  The afterlife is basically by definition beyond the reach (or purview?) of science.  But if claims were true that the spiritual universe affects our real one, they necessarily involve material intermediary.  A miraculous event has to occur in our physical world.  So, obviously, near-death visions have to occur in the brain, and could in principle be studied in terms of brain activity observed when the subject reports talking with Jesus.  From a scientific point of view, one is likely to deny the literal truth of such reports, but observing brain activity is in now way whatever relevant to that truth.  It is compatible with the brain, somehow that we don't understand, having the ability to receive and respond to 'signals' of some sort from the immaterial world.  It's just that we have no evidence to support such a speculation that bears scientific scrutiny.

Scientists may be--indeed may be overwhelmingly likely to be--totally right to think that such reports are due to internally structured imagination rather than externally or immaterially caused.  But to claim that they know this from material evidence is a presumptive claim because the kind of evidence cited is simply irrelevant to the inference being drawn.


James Goetz said...

I have some conjecture about this. First, the report is no new conclusion that the human brain has mechanisms capable of delusions and hallucinations that mimic a death experience. The best science can do is verify with electroencephalography if somebody had no brainwaves during a specific event. And this of course depends on a patient being hooked to respective machinery during the respective event. Beyond that, it would be up to historical methodology to determine if the patient had genuine memories during their event of no brainwaves. And historical and philosophical conjecture could say that genuine memories during brain death would be a near death experience (NDE). This is a historical question that needs to be fully informed by science, but conclusions will ultimately be historical and philosophical.

I heard of a systematic experiment where patients where medically cooled until their brainwaves stopped and then medically revived. This resulted in no memories during the events with no brainwaves. Some say that this experiment is scientific proof that there are no genuine NDE, but it merely proved that the respective methodology could not simulate a NDE. And of course ethics limits science from systematically simulating human death.

Ken Weiss said...

I'd go farther,and we tried to in the post. It's irrelevant to the question of the 'genuineness' of NDEs. If one assumed that there were something of some sort out there---some spiritual realm, true postmortal existence of awareness, and so on, there is no reason not to expect that one in some sort of contact with that entity would have to experience it without brain activity. The brain would just be the mediator of the experience in a human body.

So the report of such experience during brain activity doesn't deal with its 'reality'. How would one do that? I think there is no as-yet known way, so that one can believer or not believe the reports as being literal.

If they can be shown somehow or some day to be fabricated out of the person's real-life experiences, rather than out of some a priori reality, then one could at least argue that they are simply imagination.

Of course, if there were some brain-inactive later reporting, that would raise the kinds of questions you refer to, I think.

James Goetz said...

There are many medically documented cases of people recovering after temporary brain inactivity. And there are numerous cases of people recovering from documented temporary brain inactivity who report memories of events for example in the hospital or of meeting a divine being, but the historical question involves determining if these memories actually developed during brain inactivity or shortly before/after brain inactivity. In the case of positivists, they are positive (dead certain) that the events occurred shortly before/after brain inactivity.