Monday, July 22, 2019

NDEs: The Basis For A "Reasoned Perspective" For An Afterlife? Hardly!

Artist's depiction of what a dying patient might see in an NDE: a white light bidding him to enter its domain.

In the most recent Mensa Bulletin  (July, p. 31),  Ralph Frasca argues  ('Why There Is An Afterlife - A Reasoned Perspective') that  the NDE (near death experience):

"Offers the best evidence of the afterlife, and the literature detailing these experiences is growing."

Maybe, but does a compilation of purely anecdotal events really constitute high QA evidence for an afterlife?   Consider first that the preponderance of  NDE studies have been retrospective meaning researchers sought subjects to be interviewed. This means subjects who were self-selecting, hence not representative, such as the "dozens" who were chronicled in a University of Virginia study noted by Frasca. Who:

"Came back with previously unknown knowledge of deceased relatives or friends or even sightings of dead people not yet known to have died."

To which Mr. Frasca adds:

"Many people with NDEs report seeing or hearing things they could not have known after they were declared dead."

He then cites the case of a woman (girlfreind of his) who "flatlined" on the operating table but was able to quote back to her surgeon the exact words he said and described "the actions he took after declaring her dead - all from her vantage point hovering hear the ceiling of the operating room."

Such veridical  (not illusory) experiences do indeed hold the key to perhaps getting at the actual underlying phenomenon .  This is especially by attending to the aspect of the "out of body experience" (OBE) which is deemed the only NDE stage involving the physical domain.  Hence it is within the context of reported and analyzed OBEs that there is the greatest chance to convince skeptics the NDEs are genuine, and not a result of oxygen deprivation or some unknown brain event. Hence, if you can prove an NDE subject saw or heard things that neuroscience insists they can’t, one would have, at the very least, evidence that our understanding of the brain is even more incomplete than we thought.

But has Frasca or any of his reported studies done that? Hardly.  All he does is simply repeat what x, y or z account or subject reported - but there are no controls on any of the events.  Take a case outside of Frasca's reporting, that of Pam Reynolds.  A singer-songwriter, Reynolds at age 35 (in 1991)  underwent surgery to remove a huge aneurysm at the base of her brain.  Her surgeon opted for the radical move of “hypothermic cardiac arrest”—chilling her body to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, stopping her heart, and draining the blood from her head. The cooling would prevent her cells from dying while deprived of oxygen. When the doctors restarted her heart and warmed her body back up, she would, in effect, be rebooted.

But none of Reynolds’s reported veridical perceptions (similar to those of Frasca's gf)  happened while her EEG recorded a flat line. They all took place before or after, when she was under anesthetic but very much alive.   Here, one must consider “anesthesia awareness”- which  is generally estimated to affect roughly one in 1,000 patients.   It follows that the reported sights of surgeons - as if seen from above, subject hovering - could be engendered by such awareness with perhaps an added hallucinatory component.  After all, a mix of drugs is administered for most anesthesia, including fentanyl.

Interestingly, in 2011, a year after Reynolds died (of heart failure), The Journal of Near-Death Studies devoted an entire issue to her case, in which a skeptic and two believers argued over such minutiae as the duration of the noise played by the speakers in her ears, the way bone conducts sound, and esoteric theories of how exactly a nonphysical mind might be able to perceive physical stimuli.

The conclusion? The Journal's editor (  Janice Miner Holden) wrote:

Cases like Reynolds’s “provide imperfect data that probably can never result in definitive evidence.”

The exact same thing can be written about the few veridical cases Mr. Frasca trots out in his Mensa Bulletin article.  As for the other alleged NDEs, including one account by a Kansas priest (Stephen Schier) of a "judgment experience" in which he "recalled Jesus sentencing him to Hell"- one can only conclude a hallucinatory event likely arising from part of Schier's brain being damaged and the dopamine reward system being adversely effected.   (Frasca reported that the priest was "involved in a head-on collision with a truck")   Such a situation could conceivably engender  spurious visions featuring an ersatz hell fantasy in which a subject could be involved.  Even to the point of being "condemned" or 'judged" when it is really the disconnected dopamine reward system doing so..

All this leads us to arrive at two general conclusions regarding the non-veridical NDEs:

1) These NDEs are not actual death experiences, and 

2) the manifestations that emerge can be explained by brain stressors and release of chemicals (e.g. dopamine, opioids etc.) that actually trigger hallucinations. 

The white light commonly reported, or even demons (in some cases), for example,  are likely just brain-triggered hallucinations and nothing else. In any case, it's the claimants' job to prove otherwise, not skeptics' job to prove they aren't! 

What is needed then by those who argue for a "reasoned perspective" on the afterlife theme, especially involving NDEs, is not more cockeyed nonsense like Schier's  "judgement" report, but rather more veridical data. (Say from operating EEGs in hospitals confirming flatlining, and synchronous with patients' NDEs.)  One of the more promising to date might be the Aware studyled by Sam Parnia of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.  

The results of the Aware study immediately highlighted the key problem with veridical NDE research: it’s extremely difficult to get enough coherent data. Over four years and involving 15 sites, the study recorded a total of 2,060 cardiac arrests. Of those patients, 330 survived, 140 of whom were judged well enough to be interviewed and agreed to participate. Of those 140, 101 made it past a screening interview; the others were unable to continue, “predominantly due to fatigue.” Of those 101, nine remembered experiences that qualified as an NDE on the Greyson scale, and two remembered an out-of-body experience. Of those two, one became too ill to interview further. That left just one subject who could recount what he’d seen in detail.

An intriguing finding that people like Frasca seldom mention is from a 2013 study at the University of Michigan. It  took anesthetized rats and stopped their hearts. Within 30 seconds, the rats’ EEG brain signals flatlined—but first they spiked, with an intensity that suggested that different parts of the brain were communicating with one another even more actively than when the rats were awake.  Could this be the basis for NDEs in humans?  It might well be, so we have an internal neurodynamic that elaborates the visions, "communications" such as so ,many NDE subjects report.

In the end, NDE believers like Frasca and others may have to concur eventually with Dr. Kevin Nelson, i.e. in his book, "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience":

"Returning from death is not something that people do. When a person drowns in ice water, the brain cells shut down and stop functioning, but they don't die. But when a person's heart stops, their brain cells burst after about five minutes. When the cells burst, they're dead and don't come back. If the cells are frozen instead, they don't burst, and when they warm up, they start functioning again."

More to the point:

"You don't need to know how the brain is working in order to dismiss God, and knowing how the brain works doesn't prove or disprove a God. These are separate questions."

 In like manner, one can argue that when Frasca writes:
"Disbelief in an afterlife and of necessity disbelief in the supreme being that created it ultimately leads atheists down a nihilistic path. At its terminus is the inescapable conclusion there is no purpose or design in the universe."

We behold an unjustified generalization and  non sequitur  extrapolation, i.e. outside the bounds of his "reasoned" presentation and NDE data articulations.  Hence,  the  skeptic or avowed atheist is entitled to reply "So what?" and "these opinions do nothing to prove your 'reasoned' case for an afterlife."
 For example, it is fully conceivable a putative afterlife (say based on de Broglie waves) could be totally independent of any "supreme being".  As atheist  philosopher Sir A.J. Ayer wrote (London Sunday Telegraph, Aug. 28, 1988) in his own account  ('What I Saw When I Was Dead') of an NDE he experienced:

"A prevalent fallacy is the assumption that a proof of an after-life would also be a proof of the existence of a deity. This is far from being the case. If, as I hold, there is no good reason to believe that a god either created or presides over this world, there is equally no good reason to believe that a god created or presides over the next world, on the unlikely supposition that such a thing exists."

As for "design" and purpose, we now are aware from modern science that the first is an archaic carryover from erroneous assumptions of causality and “order” generated almost exclusively by an ignorance of modern physics.  (I.e. a universe with 93% dark energy- dark matter cannot exhibit design.)

The second ("purpose")  is a human fabrication that is neither essential or immanent in nature. It is something we impose from without. If the cosmos can “bootstrap” itself into existence via quantum fluctuation, and acquire “order” (even in highly limited domains) via the implicit laws of statistical and thermal-quantum physics – then it has no need of a “creator” (or “designer”) and no purpose other than to exist. No extraneous being is necessary to ensure its continued stability or existence.  Nor is this "nihilistic" but rather accepting current scientific facts, models. 

Thus do humans, as generic offshoots of the cosmos, have any purpose other than to be. If they seek an additional purpose, they must craft and forge it subjectively of their own accord – rather than looking for it from on high.  Perhaps the best reason for the abolition of  externally imposed purpose for humans was given by author Marilyn French[1]:

It is a loss of dignity to define humanity as a race defined to please a higher Being, rather than as a race whose only end is to please itself. The ‘gift’ of purpose to the human race is thus very expensive: one can fulfill one’s God-given purpose only by sacrificing felicity while one is alive.”

See also:

A. J. Ayer Р'What I Saw When I Was Dead' РPeter Sjöstedt-H

[1] French, Marilyn: 1985, Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals, Abacus Books, London, p. 254.: 

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