Why near-death experiences cannot in any sense be considered evidence of an afterlife

It is my experience that there are a huge number of theists who would indeed consider so-called 'near-death experiences' (NDEs) as evidence – if not proof – of a soul and/or an afterlife. The truth is they are not and cannot in any valid and sound sense be considered evidence of an afterlife; they simply can't, it is a complete non sequitur. To substantiate this claim, I'll explain what WOULD be necessary in order to count as empirical evidence for an afterlife, and why such a thing is impossible to attain.

In a naturalistic worldview, our consciousness is a product of our brain; it is an emergent phenomenon of the network of neurons and the electrochemical interactions between those neurons that exists within our brain, and as far as science has been able to tell, this is indeed the case. So then, with that in mind, what would it take to demonstrate that it is possible for our consciousness to survive our death? Anyone with any sense, whether they are a theist or an atheist, should be able to see where I am going with this. In order for us to have valid evidence of an afterlife, it would have to be demonstrated that it is possible for us to remain aware and conscious after the complete and total death and destruction of our brain and the cessation of 100% of neural activity; in other words, complete and total brain death. We would have to completely rule out any possibility that our brain retained any activity whatsoever that could have resulted in these hallucinations.

Now, anyone who knows anything about neuroscience will know that this is completely impossible to test by definition, as such a thing would necessarily be fatal to the person it happens to. Total brain death is irreversible, there is no coming back from it; it is literally the death and necrosis of your brain tissue, specifically your cerebral neurons. And medical death does NOT equal brain death. Anyone who was supposedly brain dead and was subsequently revived (i.e. long-term coma victims, etc.) was clearly NOT actually brain dead, otherwise they wouldn't have been able to come back so we could ask them if they experienced an afterlife. Case in point, they are called NEAR-death experiences for a reason, namely that the person (and by extension their brain) is not actually dead while they experience them. Therefore, we cannot say that they are not simply the product of our brains, because there is zero evidence of any kind that consciousness is able to survive the destruction of the brain that science says produces it, and there is plenty of evidence that NDEs are just that: the result of brains that are under tremendous stress.

Now if anyone could think of some way that it WOULD be possible to test this, I would be very interested in hearing it, because as far as I can tell such a thing is completely - almost tautologically - impossible to test, as it would necessarily be fatal to the person. And there is my rebuttal to near-death experiences being valid evidence for an afterlife or a soul: they simply are not.

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Comment by Luara on June 16, 2013 at 9:37am

What is a non-scientific test to investigate what you presented? Or am I misunderstanding what you wrote here? Do you mean:

'Investigate for yourself. Don't leave your trust entirely in other people.'

I mean people don't have to rely only on science for these things. 

For example it would be very easy for someone who believes in homeopathy to do double-blind tests on themselves.  Since the homeopathic remedy is indistinguishable from water except for packaging.  Just put homeopathic remedy and water into identical containers labeled on the bottom, randomize somehow (turntable, microwave ...), take one, guess which you've taken, look at the underside of the container.  If you can't discriminate better than chance between the homeopathic remedy and water, it's unlikely to be having anything more than a placebo effect. 

People rely a lot on external authorities - someone else saying that homeopathy did wonders for them, or scientific research, depending on their ideology.  But people can take an analytic attitude towards their own experience.  I've had to be empirical about my own health, I know it's very important to be a good observer. 

I also take issue with trusting your senses in compromised states.

I don't claim that people can trust their senses when their brains are traumatized.  Only that hypothesizing the existence of an afterlife, carries with it the possibility that there might be aspects of ones awareness that connect with something outside the physical world. 

One might as well argue using the whole afterlife concept, i.e. say that people are unlikely to have experiences when they are dead because their brains aren't working.  This applies even better after their brains have rotted away or been vaporized, than when their brains are dying in an NDE.  It's the same basic argument. 

Comment by Easton Le on June 16, 2013 at 3:30am

Laura, I'm confused when you say...

'People need more of this investigative attitude in their own lives - don't leave it to science.'

What is a non-scientific test to investigate what you presented? Or am I misunderstanding what you wrote here? Do you mean:

'Investigate for yourself. Don't leave your trust entirely in other people.'

I also take issue with trusting your senses in compromised states. To gild the lily: a person should also be critical of the information they received from their senses in healthy states.

Comment by Luara on June 15, 2013 at 12:12pm

And having had an experience of suffering similar to the victim's, can create empathy. 

Sometimes religion can create empathy in people, by encouraging that part of themselves. 

Sometimes if a victim responds to suffering by trying to separate themselves on it, they can become crueler to another victim because of that. 

No absolute rules about how people respond, but empathy is something that can be developed by circumstances or destroyed by them.

Another example of new abilities from misfortune, are handicapped people who develop some other ability strongly, like blind people who develop their hearing a great deal. 

Anyway, with the original question - no, it doesn't follow that NDE's must be false just because people's brains are in a state of trauma. 

Comment by Fanghur1123 on June 15, 2013 at 12:06pm

No, because their religion indoctrinated them into sincerely believing that they were evil and were deserving of it. Religion destroys and overrides our empathy.

Comment by Luara on June 15, 2013 at 11:47am

Empathy is part of being human, Luara, with rare exceptions.

If ONLY this were true ....

Many people, maybe most are lacking in empathy, and horrible things result from that.

You think the people who were watching that witch-burning, had empathy for the victim?

Comment by Fanghur1123 on June 15, 2013 at 11:44am

Empathy is part of being human, Luara, with rare exceptions. It is a product of our brains and our mirror neurons.

Comment by Luara on June 15, 2013 at 11:40am

Do they really, Luara?  Can you name so much as one useful one?

Sure.  When people suffer they often become able to empathize with others' suffering - and empathy seems to be very lacking in our world.  It's not a trivial gift. 

People in prisons find they can concentrate more than they had before.  Many novels have been written in prisons ...

Illness was regarded by the Victorians as a time when people could introspect, see the forest rather than the trees, and sometimes it does work that way. 

One might hope if there was an afterlife that people who were dying could perceive it as they stop attending to the outside world.

I'm not saying this seems to be true :)  Like I said if dying people could be interpreters for dead people, as signers are for the deaf, and come back with real info on where their bodies were buried by their murderer etc., this would be evidence for an afterlife.  But I haven't heard any such impressive accounts. 

Comment by Fanghur1123 on June 15, 2013 at 11:32am

Yes, do tell?

Comment by Loren Miller on June 15, 2013 at 11:30am

Do they really, Luara?  Can you name so much as one useful one?

Comment by Luara on June 15, 2013 at 9:51am

why the hell should I trust them when they are in such a compromised condition???

If your senses in that state gave you true information that you couldn't have obtained in another way.  

Illnesses and afflictions do give people abilities and experiences they wouldn't otherwise have.

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