Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Case For (and Against) Life After Death: Near Death Experiences

Do near-death experiences "provide strong support for life after death," as Dinesh D'Souza claims (64)?

That they do is the theme of "Heaven Is For Real" a new movie just released over the Easter season based upon a book of the same title by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent.  The book is a best-seller, and the movie is attracting a lot of attention, particularly from Christians and others who see it as confirmation for their belief in Heaven.  The movie is worth seeing even if you're a skeptic.  The little kid who plays Colton Burpo is amazing.

But why isn't this movie entitled "Heaven and Hell Are For Real"?  Why don't the people who have had near-death experiences report going to Hell?  Is the message here that Hell is not for real?

Todd Burpo is a minister at the Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska.  Some years ago, his 4-year-old son--Colton--underwent an emergency appendectomy in which he almost died.  Some months afterward, he casually reported that during the operation he had visited Heaven.  Over time, he gradually offered more details.  He sat in Jesus's lap.  Jesus wears a white robe.  Jesus has a multicolored horse.  Colton met John the Baptist and the Holy Spirit, and they are nice people.  There are lots of angels with wings.  All of the human beings there are young.  So that those who died in old age revert back to around age 30.

Pastor Burpo struggled over whether he should believe this.  But when Colton described meeting Pastor Burpo's grandfather, he was convinced.  His wife Sonja resisted, but even she was convinced when Colton reported seeing in Heaven the sister that had died in his mother's tummy, although Colton had never been told by his parents about this miscarriage.

Burpo's book was published over 7 years after Colton began telling his stories, and apparently it took many years for all the stories to come out.

Although it is not reported in the movie, the book relates that Colton saw the future battle of Armageddon in which Jesus and the good people will defeat Satan and the bad people in a bloody conflict.  Colton saw his father helping to kill the bad people with either a sword or a bow and arrow.

So does this prove life after death in Heaven, or was this a hallucination induced by medical trauma?

If Colton had heard nothing about his mother's miscarriage, but discovered his sister in Heaven, that would be impressive.  And yet, is it possible that he overheard his parents speaking about the miscarriage, or otherwise figured this out?  In the movie, we see that Sonja has kept some baby clothes that she bought before the miscarriage.  Is it possible that Colton understood that she was grieving for a lost child?  We are left wondering.

We also wonder about the coherence of Colton's story.  He reports that human beings in Heaven are all young adults, even those who died in old age.  But he also reports that the miscarried foetus of his sister now lives in Heaven as a young child, so she has grown up to the age of a young child, but apparently she will not grow older.

Can't we explain Colton's description of Heaven as the imaginative construction of a child's mind that has been shaped by growing up in a Christian household of a Methodist minister?  If he had been growing up as a Hindu child in India, wouldn't he have told a different story?

We also notice that Todd and Sonja had become so poor that they could not pay their debts.  And so we wonder whether the prospect of writing a best-selling book might have motivated them--even if subconsciously--to embellish the story to make it engaging for readers and thus profitable.

These are the kinds of questions that come up in considering such reports of near-death journeys to the afterlife.

Raymond Moody, a young medical student, coined the phrase "near-death experience" (NDE) in his book Life After Life, which was first published in 1975, and which has sold millions of copies around the world.  He told many stories of people who were resuscitated from death and then reported that they had left their bodies.  They flew upward to the ceilings of their hospital rooms and looked down at their own bodies being worked on by doctors and nurses.  These patients often described moving  through a dark tunnel towards a brilliant light, and then passing over a threshold into a transcendent realm of peace and bliss that seemed heavenly.  Many of them reported seeing God or Jesus or other divine and angelic figures.

Moody and others fascinated by this apparent evidence of a transcendent world of life after death founded the International Association for Near-Death Studies, which publishes a peer-reviewed journal for scientific research in this area--the Journal of Near-Death Studies.   One of the best surveys of this research is The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation, edited by Janice Miner Holden, Bruce Greyson, and Debbie James (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers, 2009).

Most of the researchers in this area are committed to showing that near-death experiences are evidence for a world beyond this world, for a transcendent life after death, and thus as confirming supernaturalism and refuting scientific materialism, because this shows that the mind or soul lives on after the death of the brain and the body.  Some of the researchers doubt this, however, because they see near-death experiences as hallucinations of the brain under life-threatening stress.  The arguments of these skeptics are well stated by Keith Augustine's "Hallucinatory Near-Death Experiences" (2008), which is available online.

If we're looking for empirical evidence that NDEs show human minds operating totally independently of the body, and thus that minds can survive the death of the body, then we have to be interested in what Janice Miner Holden (in "Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences," in The Handbook, 185-211) calls "apparently nonphysical veridical NDE perception (AVP)":  "In AVP, NDErs report veridical perception that, considering the positions and/or conditions of their physical bodies during the near-death episodes, apparently could not have been the result of normal sensory processes or logical inference--nor, therefore, brain mediation--either before, during, or after these episodes.  Thus, AVP suggests the ability of consciousness to function independent of the physical body" (186).

One of the most commonly cited cases of AVP is the story of a NDEr named Maria, which is related this way by D'Souza:
"Another remarkable case involved a Seattle woman who reported a near death experience following a heart attack.  She told social worker Kimberly Clark that she had separated from her body and not only risen to the ceiling but floated outside the hospital altogether.  Clark did not believe her, but a small detail the woman mentioned caught her attention.  The woman said that she had been distracted by the presence of a shoe on the third floor ledge at the north end of the emergency room building.  it was a tennis shoe with a worn patch and a lace stuck under the heel.  The woman asked Clark to go find the shoe.  Clark found this ridiculous because she knew that the woman had been brought into the emergency room at night, when she could not possibly see what was outside the building, let alone on a third-floor ledge.  Somewhat reluctantly, Clark agreed to check, and it was only after trying several different rooms, looking out several windows, and finally climbing out onto the ledge that she was able to find and retrieve the shoe" (63-64).

Many of the leading NDE researchers have relied on this case as demonstrative evidence for how a mind can float separated from a body.  For example, Kenneth Ring and Madelaine Lawrence have said: "Assuming the authenticity of the account, which we have no reason to doubt, the facts of the case seem incontestable.  Maria's inexplicable detection of the inexplicable shoe is a strange and strangely beguiling sighting of the sort that has the power to arrest the skeptic's argument in mid-sentence, if only by virtue of its indisputable improbability" ("Further Evidence for Veridical Perception During Near-Death Experiences," Journal of Near-Death Studies, 11 [Summer 1993]: 223).

But then, in 1996, Hayden Ebbern, Sean Mulligan, and Barry Beyerstein reported that Clark's story of Maria was inaccurate.  Their article ("Maria's Near-Death Experience: Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop," The Skeptical Inquirer,  20 [July/August 1996]: 27-33) is available online.

Maria's NDE occurred in 1977 at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center.  It was reported by Clark in 1984.  In 1994, Ebbern and Mulligan visited the hospital to survey the site and interview Clark.  They discovered that Marie had disappeared.  To test the story of the shoe, they placed a running shoe at the place indicated by Clark.  When they went outside the hospital, they could easily see the shoe.  They also discovered that the shoe was easily seen from inside the room of the hospital.  Since the shoe was easily visible both outside and inside the hospital, Maria could have seen the shoe, or she could have overheard people talking about this strange shoe on the ledge.  Clearly, Clark had embellished the story to make it look like an astonishing confirmation of AVP.

When D'Souza tells the story of Maria, he's completely silent about this debunking of Clark's report.  If you look at the video of D'Souza's debate with Dan Barker, you'll see that Barker points this out, and D'Souza has nothing to say in response.

We might wonder whether researchers have found better evidence for AVP that stands up to scrutiny.  In her survey of the research on AVP, Holden indicates that the most conclusive proof for AVP could come from field studies in hospitals, where researchers could plant visual targets in hospital rooms so that no one could see what's on the target unless they were floating around the ceiling.  So if an NDEr could report seeing what's on the target, that would show that a disembodied soul can see without any activity of the brain to support vision. 

Holden reports that there have been only five studies that satisfy the difficult conditions for such research.  "The bottom line of findings from these five studies," she concludes, "is quite disappointing: No researcher has succeeded in capturing even one case of AVP" (209).

She quotes a remark from Kenneth Ring about how discouraging this is:
"There is so much anecdotal evidence that suggests [experiencers] can, at least sometime, perceive veridcally during their NDEs . . . but isn't it true that in all this time, there hasn't been a single case of a veridical perception reported by an NDEr under controlled conditions?  I mean, thirty years later, it's still a null class (as far as I know).  Yes, excuses, excuses--I know.  But, really, wouldn't you have suspected more than a few such cases at least by now?" (210)

D'Sousa is silent about this failure of the most committed researchers to find demonstrative evidence that near-death experiences show how human minds can perceive reality accurately without any support from the body or the brain.


DL Beard said...

A nice objectively written article. Some have tried to dismiss them as some sort of brain hallucination, and yet the experiences do not seem to indicate the same guidelines for hallucinations.

One of the things that has always puzzled me about NDEs is the clear fact that many of these experiences happen at a time when medicine (science) tells us the brain is unable to have a dream state much less have an ability to be cognizant of their physical surroundings. Some cases have been reported where the patient is able to recall information from the operating room where their eyes were taped shut for the surgery and clickers put in their ears as part of the procedure (brain surgery typically), and when the EEG was registering flat.

Also interesting that not everyone has an NDE upon resuscitation, and that there seems to be no correlation between religious beliefs and whether one has an NDE.

Anonymous said...

I agree with DL. How can an impaired brain have hyper-real experiences. I've found two good sources of info. the Skeptiko podcast and 35 Near-Death Experiences on kindle. It includes the Burpo story and some other kids as well.

DNW said...

" ... why isn't this movie entitled "Heaven and Hell Are For Real"? Why don't the people who have had near-death experiences report going to Hell? Is the message here that Hell is not for real?"


You ask two questions in the above quote, only the second of which I will address, and, in a somewhat broader context. [While bracketing any issue of the reality of either the report or supposed experience]

But a pretty well known example comes from the "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" by Bede, circa 732 AD; and concerns the reported experience of a Northumbrian (same as Bede) family man by the name of Dryhthelm, about 40 years before. It's found in Book V Chapter 12, along with two somewhat similar stories of visions of hell just before death.

" I began to think that this perhaps might be hell, of whose intolerable flames I had often heard talk. My guide, who went before me, answered to my thought, saying, 'Do not believe so, for this is not the hell you imagine.'..."