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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Near Death Experiences–Why The Church Doesn’t Like Them

Quite surprisingly the respected University of Virginia School of Medicine has a Division of Perceptual Studies which looks into Near Death Experiences (NDE). Surprisingly because NDEs have always been regarded with skepticism by the medical and scientific communities – not exactly hokum, but experiences that are more an explainable function of brain function than anything mystical. ‘Near death’, say skeptics, is not death.  The brain does not shut off like a light switch, and consciousness ends gradually and progressively. All kinds of explainable neurological things can happen while the computer is shutting down.

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          Ian Stevenson, Founder of the Division of Perceptual Studies

The experiences witnessed by those who claim NDE can easily be explained by a form of conscious perceptual experience.  How and why these experiences occur can only be answered once science finally understands consciousness.  Firing synapses in a rich chemical bath supported by a complex physical architecture is only mechanistic.  It explains how the brain functions, but not how it generates the sophisticated consciousness that defines human thought.

The online journal The Skeptic has done meta-analysis, compiling a variety of cross-cultural studies:

Skeptics, on the other hand, believe that NDEs can be explained by neurochemistry and are the result of brain states that occur due to a dying, demented, extremely stressed, or drugged brain. For example, neural noise and retino-cortical mapping explain the common experience of passage down a tunnel from darkness into a bright light. According to Susan Blackmore, vision researcher Dr. Tomasz S. Troscianko of the University of Bristol speculated:

If you started with very little neural noise and it gradually increased, the effect would be of a light at the center getting larger and larger and hence closer and closer....the tunnel would appear to move as the noise levels increased and the central light got larger and larger....If the whole cortex became so noisy that all the cells were firing fast, the whole area would appear light.

Blackmore attributes the feelings of extreme peacefulness of the NDE to the release of endorphins in response to the extreme stress of the situation. The buzzing or ringing sound is attributed to cerebral anoxia and consequent effects upon the connections between brain cells.

Dr. Karl Jansen has reproduced NDEs with ketamine, a short-acting hallucinogenic, dissociative anesthetic.

The anesthesia is the result of the patient being so 'dissociated' and 'removed from their body' that it is possible to carry out surgical procedures. This is wholly different from the 'unconsciousness' produced by conventional anesthetics, although ketamine is also an excellent analgesic (pain killer) by a different route (i.e. not due to dissociation).

Eben Alexander tells a different story.  A practicing neurosurgeon, Alexander contracted meningitis and fell into a protracted coma.  His disease was so serious, that few thought he would live.   Life he did, however, and went on to become a successful author and inspirational speaker about his NDE.

Leslie Kaufman in the New York Times (11.25.12) reviewing his latest book writes:

During the week [of his coma], as life slipped away, he now says, he was living intensely in his mind. He was reborn into a primitive mucky Jell-o-like substance and then guided by “a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes” on the wings of a butterfly to an “immense void” that is both “pitch black” and “brimming with light” coming from an “orb” that interprets for an all-loving God.

Alexander claims that his cerebral cortex – the part of the brain responsible for cognitive thought – had shut down, and that his visions could not have been anything but spiritually inspired.  He was so moved and altered by his experience that he decided to evangelize and created the Eternea Foundation to serve as the locus for outreach.

Alexander is not the first to record an NDE: 

The oldest surviving explicit report of a NDE in Western literature comes from the famed Greek philosopher, Plato, who describes an event in his tenth book of his legendary book entitled Republic. Plato discusses the story of Er, a soldier who awoke on his funeral pyre and described his journey into the afterlife. But this story is not just a random anecdote for Plato. He integrated at least three elements of the NDE into his philosophy: the departure of the soul from the cave of shadows to see the light of truth, the flight of the soul to a vision of pure celestial being and its subsequent recollection of the vision of light, which is the very purpose of philosophy. (Kevin Williams, www.near-death.com)

The cognate French term expérience de mort imminente (experience of imminent death) was proposed by the French psychologist and epistemologist Victor Egger as a result of discussions in the 1890s among philosophers and psychologists concerning climbers' stories of the panoramic life review during falls (Wikipedia). Interest in the phenomenon was desultory in the early 20th century until Raymond Moody wrote extensively on the phenomenon in 1975.

Alexander is a particularly credible source for the transcendent experience of near-death because he has been an academic neurosurgeon for the last 25 years, including 15 years at the Brigham & Women's Hospital, the Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. Yet, say his critics, even someone with his credentials is not immune to wishful thinking.

Not surprisingly Alexander’s books have rekindled an interest in NDE because of the author - a smart, well-educated, mature and responsible scientist and Harvard professor. It is no exaggeration to say that everyone wants to know what happens after death.  Are we simply extinguished (Tolstoy thought it particularly ironic that man was created with intelligence, wit, insight, compassion, and creativity and after a few short decades is consigned to an eternity of nothingness in the cold, hard ground)?  Does a paradise of vestal virgins, clear brooks, melons, and soft breezes await us? A hell of eternal torment? Do we never die but are endlessly reincarnated until we finally achieve enlightenment and join the One?

Immortality has always been a big business.  As Ivan says in The Brothers Karamazov, the world would fall apart without a belief in immortality, especially a conditional one (“He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake”).  Christ, as the Grand Inquisitor avers, has sold humanity a bill of goods. Follow Me, and the rewards of an eternal celestial paradise will be yours.  The Church was founded on this presumption and went on, Ivan argues, to manipulate, exploit, and betray the ‘faithful’. The Catholic Church today has a vested interest in perpetuating the promise of a conditional heaven and the treat of an eternal hell. It should be happy to learn of Eben Alexander’s experiences as proof of an afterlife.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Researchers at the University of Virginia and elsewhere who have collected thousands of oral histories of NDEs have found that saints and sinners alike have the same beatific, glorious, and heavenly experience.  No matter how murderously you have led your life, you are still entitled to eternal bliss.

This is precisely what the College of Cardinals does not want to hear, for it pulls the moral rug right out from under them.  The Church has spent over 2000 years claiming that moral rectitude matters, the good are rewarded, and the bad punished.  This near-death equality is as threatening to the Church as anything in its long and storied history.

Atheists of course are displeased by the apparent credibility of Alexander and his eloquent portrayal of God; and they are upset that scientists are increasingly committing themselves to the cockamamie idea of NDE. The University of Virginia’s Medical School should lose its accreditation for sponsoring and supporting such balderdash.  If Alexander is right, their burgeoning movement will be blunted if not neutered.  Never have atheists been so respected.  Increasing numbers of nonbelievers are recorded by the US Census.  There are atheist conventions attended by thousands.  Atheist Clubs are more popular than Key Clubs on university campuses.  Skeptics – like the comedian Bill Maher – are no longer to hesitant to call out religion for the charade it is, and to expose Bible-thumping preachers for the charlatans they are. 

If there is even a teeny-weeny bit of credible information on the possibility of an afterlife, both Catholics and Atheists go to the barricades. Any afterlife which is not theirs (heaven or extinction) is apostasy and heresy.

One has to admire Christopher Hitchens, a life-long atheist who had no deathbed conversion whatsoever, and died without a prayer.  Most of the rest of us have to wonder.

Alexander himself has said that the certainty of an afterlife will not only take away the fear of death, but the fear of life.  In other words, why worry about cancer, or a heart attack when you know absolutely that you are going to a better place. 

This idea, however, is what makes such certainty very dangerous indeed.  If there is an afterlife, and if everyone regardless of race, creed, or moral history gets in, then even more horrible atrocities will be committed while we are alive than ever before.  More rapes, murders, wars, and disembowelments.

So ethicists and moral philosophers have joined the ranks of the Church and atheists in their calumnious attacks on Alexander and his NDE colleagues. Even a scintilla of belief that Alexander’s vision might be true is enough to upset the applecart.  Better shut him up quick.

So, the evidence of an afterlife is still inconclusive and will be until the moment of our demise; but we will not be able to publish it. As the old Irish saying goes, “And may you be in heaven. half an hour before the devil knows you're dead”.

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