Mudita Journal

Reflections on science, materialism, and near-death experiences

May 6, 2012 · Filed under: Current Events, Health, Intellectual

Curious to hear thoughts from others who walk the fine line between materialism and spirituality, I posted this article about near-death experiences to Mudita Forum. (I also included links to a critical response to that article and a subsequent reply from the author.)

Some forum members responded that it’s all rather anecdotal and unscientific, despite being researched by neuroscientists who appear committed to scientific investigation and the value of empirical studies.

Below is my reply.

As far as I can tell, consciousness exists only inside sufficiently evolved living organisms. So I view these kinds of NDE reports with a kind of default assumption that they’re not quite true-as-told. At least, I don’t yet understand how they could be true.

I do not dismiss them as unscientific. Yes they can’t be confirmed or disconfirmed with randomly assigned, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. Few things can be. But science existed long before clinical trials. It exists today despite evidence that some of the most highly-regarded clinical trials of recent decades were later repeated and found to yield different results.

Ultimately science is a way of coming to understand the world. At a fundamental level, it requires us to set aside assumptions. It is not synonymous with, or even compatible with, the assumption of materialism.

Materialism and science are often confused, since science has excelled at understanding material aspects of reality. But they are not the same. Science is a method for evaluating the truth of ideas about the natural world. Materialism is a position about what the natural world is. This is an important distinction.

One reason it’s so important is because we still don’t know what consciousness is. Scientists have begun to really understand the laws that govern matter. But they have barely even started to begin to understand the laws that govern consciousness.

And it gets worse. As John Searle points out, today we don’t know whether matter gives rise to consciousness, whether consciousness gives rise to matter, or whether some third phenomenon, completely unknown to us now, gives rise to each.

It’s a useful realization to really let sink in: We don’t know … the relationship … between consciousness … and the material world.

Given our ignorance on this subject, even among top scientists, it seems appropriate to leave our fellow humans a certain amount of wiggle room, rather than dismissing them as unscientific because their findings do not point toward the assumption of materialism.

What do you think? Are these studies worth taking seriously, or should they be dismissed? And why?

UPDATE – From later in the same conversation, in answer to a complaint that such unusual stories of near-death experiences were not published in peer-reviewed journals and more or less amount to rumors.

I would just point out that many of these cases have, in fact, been documented and published in peer reviewed journals. One large study, for example, was published in The Lancet, which Wikipedia describes as “a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal … one of the world’s best known, oldest, and most respected general medical journals.”

According to the summary, it was an 8-year prospective study of 344 consecutive cardiac patients. And you can read more about one of the most interesting cases from that study, in the first third of this article.

That’s just one example among many. We don’t have to look them up, we don’t have to read them, we don’t have to scrutinize them first hand. But they were published in real, respected, peer-reviewed journals. And … if we want … we can find them. So they’re well above the status of rumors.

That said, I’m not here to vouch for their credibility. I’m no expert on the topic, and I’m not even all that interested; I’m just looking from a distance. The credibility (or lack thereof) is there for any of us to investigate ourselves, or not, as we wish.

I’m just here to point out that we can get attached to our beliefs much more easily than we suspect, especially around things that stretch our comfort zone. And the whole spiritual/material distinction is a huge candidate for that. It’s so easy to get blind about our blinders, there.

YMMV. For me, I’m finding it meaningful to acknowledge the limits of my knowledge a bit more than I would have done in the past.

  • Shannon Chamberlain

    Probably the most convincing evidence for locating consciousness in the brain is that we know people’s personalities and perceptions change when they injure parts of their brains.

  • Shannon Chamberlain

    Probably the most convincing evidence for locating consciousness in the brain is that we know people’s personalities and perceptions change when they injure parts of their brains.