I have a limited interest in NDEs. I haven’t read everything of relevance on the subject. I’ll supply a bibliography of my sources at the end of this post. For the record, I think proponents of NDEs have the better of the argument. But that’s subject to various caveats.
Jason Engwer continues to research the issue, and his treatment will no doubt improve on mine when he’s done.
i) One preliminary issue is how to define NDEs, and distinguish NDEs from OBEs. NDE scholars often define NDEs so broadly as to cover non-life-threatening/ending NDEs. But if the subject of the NDE wasn’t clinically dead (or even dying), then the label is a misnomer.
ii) Are NDEs a subset of OBEs? If we define an NDE to include the “tunnel” experience, and/or coming “out” into the light, &c., then the imagery suggests an OBE: consciousness leaving the body and going somewhere else. Of course, how we should interpret the imagery is one of the questions at issue. For now I’m just dealing with the phenomenology of the NDE.
If, on the other hand, we define an OBE to include autoscopy, then many reported NDEs aren’t OBEs.
iii) This also raises the question of how many elements of the NDE narrative must be present for an experience to qualify as an NDE. There’s a tendency to begin with the complete NDE narrative as the standard paradigm, then classify a reported experience as an NDE if it reproduces some (but not all) features of the standard paradigm. But that raises the question of whether there’s a core NDE experience. For instance, is the OBE perception an essential or nonessential feature of NDEs?
At what point is our analysis driven by the classification scheme rather than the raw data?
iv) One semantic ambiguity is that traditional nomenclature is both spatial and temporal. We speak of heaven and hell, &c. Going to a ‘place,’ or a state that simulates a place. And those are spatial demarkers. Yet we also speak of the ‘afterlife,’ or ‘next world.’ Those are temporal demarkers.
But there’s a sense in which the “next world” is coeval with “this world.” It’s just that, as a rule, we don’t simultaneously experience both. Normally, we experience one after the other. Mortal experience followed by postmortem experience.
2. Documenting NDEs
Depending on how broadly or narrowly we define the phenomenon, NDEs are fairly recent phenomenon. They depend on two conditions:
i) Modern equipment to monitor vital signs and thereby indicate clinical death.
ii) Modern techniques to resuscitate clinically dead patients.
OBEs have been reported for centuries or millennia. But NDEs (narrowly defined) generally rely on modern medical technology.
iii) Conversely, standard literature on NDEs frequently refers to reported NDEs in ancient and medieval times. However, that raises at least two methodological issues:
a) The problem here is that if we’re going to distinguish veridical NDEs from inveridical NDEs, then we need to have fairly precise, testable criteria for death (which, however, also goes back to how we broadly or narrowly we define an NDE). The problem with premodern ‘NDEs’ is, in part, that the criteria for death are fuzzier.
Offhand, I also can’t think of what would count as resuscitation in premodern time. In principle, I suppose one could resuscitate a drowning victim without modern technology by administering CPR. However, I don’t know that how prevalent CPR was in premodern times.
I guess these premodern cases are classified as NDEs because they’re associated with the primitive phenomenology of death, and returning from the realm of the dead. But that might be equivocal, absent modern medical criteria.
Of course, even “clinical death” is not without some vagaries, but it still has more precise, testable criteria than “death” before the advent of modern technology to monitor vital signs.
Mind you, if we define “NDE” more broadly, to cover non-life-threatening/ending cases, then that’s less germane. But such a flexible definition so equivocal that I think it ceases to be a terribly meaningful category.
b) Another problem is the difference in reportage. In the case of an NDE that happens while the patient is hooked up to various monitoring devices, with various witnesses (nurses, doctors), you have lots of direct, firsthand evidence.
But when we talk about ancient or Medieval accounts of NDEs, are these accounts based on eyewitness testimony? Or is that a stereotyped literary genre, like the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Medieval hagiographa?
Take this historical monograph:
Carol Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times.
On the face of it, these appear to be highly stylized, schematized accounts to illustrate Medieval piety, by creating a stock narrative quest. The heroic monomyth, viz. death/rebirth, rites of passage.
3. Verifiable/unverifiable NDEs
Verifiable NDEs involve public, intersubjectival as well private perceptions. Verifiable/falsifiable perceptions such as blindsight, remote viewing, precognition, or encounters with decedents not known to be dead by the patient.
These are NDEs involving private, subjective perceptions that are not verifiable (or falsifiable) by corroborative evidence. Of course, this doesn’t mean they’re false. A private experience can be a veridical experience.
4. Firsthand/secondhand experience
Firsthand experience and secondhand experience don’t necessarily have the same evidentiary value. If I have a firsthand experience, I may be justified in believing my experience whereas a second party may not be justified in believing my experience, since he wasn’t privy to my experience.
At the same time, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Some firsthand experiences are veridical (e.g. qualia) while other firsthand experiences are inveridical (e.g. hallucinations).
On the other hand, a secondhand experience is sometimes more reliable than a firsthand experience. If I’m high on LSD, that’s a firsthand experience, but delusive. Conversely, we rely on testimonial evidence for most of what we believe.
5. Mundane/extramundane NDEs
Apropos (4), an NDE may involve verifiable perceptions, such as reported perceptions about the OR when the patient was anesthetized, clinically dead, &c., as well as unverifiable perceptions (e.g. speaking with God or “gods,” seeing heaven or hell).
As such, the same NDE may have both verifiable and unverifiable features. Assuming that some NDEs are verifiable, they may count as evidence for general propositions like substance dualism or postmortem survival.
On the other hand, they don’t necessarily count as evidence for specific features of postmortem survival. In principle, the extramundane perceptions of an NDE could be hallucinatory even though the mundane perceptions are veridical.
6. Intermediate/final state
In traditional Christian eschatology, there’s a distinction between the intermediate state and the final state. The intermediate state is a temporal discarnate state.
Some critics of NDEs are doctrinaire physicalists. Because they regard physicalism as a given, they automatically reinterpret NDEs in naturalistic or materialistic terms. They assume that there must be an alternative explanation.
8. Older/newer cases
There’s a tradeoff between older and new cases. As time goes by we have ever more case-studies of NDEs. And these often benefit from a controlled setting (e.g. the OR, ICU).
On the other hand, as the phenomenon has become so well-known, there’s the danger of the copycat syndrome.
9. Altered states of consciousness
NDEs are a subset of altered states of consciousness. Some altered states of consciousness can be artificially induced. As such, some critics of NDEs regard them as reducible to purely neurological phenomena.
However, that’s a false inference.
i) For one thing, when I dream, I’m in an altered state of consciousness. Sometimes I dream about imaginary people and places. But sometimes I dream about real people and places.
ii) Some thinkers, like Aldous Huxley (e.g. The Doors of Perception) regard sensory perception as a damper that filters out certain dimensions of objective reality which altered states of consciousness can access by suppressing the interference of the sensory processing system. We can debate the pros and cons of that theory. But my immediate point is that we can’t say, without further ado, that altered states of consciousness are hallucinatory. That’s a metaphysical prejudgment.
iii) Also, from what I’ve read, one can’t reproduce the whole NDE experience from cortical stimulation.
10. Sola Scriptura
Roman Catholic polemics often caricatures sola Scriptura as that view that Protestants only believe what they can attest in Scripture. Unfortunately, some jejune, reactionary Protestants play into that stereotype. There is, however, nothing inherently wrong with allowing extrabiblical information to inform some of our beliefs. Indeed, that’s unavoidable.
Other writers, like Michael Sabom, are more balanced. However, that’s not all of a piece. Sabom is an expert witness on NDEs. I value him for his medical analysis. But Sabom is not a Bible scholar. I don’t look to him for exegesis.
11. Survival or super-psi?
Are NDEs evidence for postmortem survival, or can they be explained in terms of super-psi?
i) One issue is whether we should insist on a uniform explanation for all NDEs.
ii) Another issue is whether an irreligious bias is driving the desire for alternative explanations (e.g. super-psi). If an NDE researcher is an atheist, then he doesn’t believe it’s possible to encounter God, angels, demons, &c., on the “other side.”
iii) Conversely, we should resist the facile temptation to default to religious interpretations unless that happens to be the best interpretation of the evidence.
i) One issue is whether the content of NDEs is transcultural while the interpretation of NDEs is culturebound. If a Hindu patient says he saw Shiva, is the identify of the figure given in the experience itself, or does the Hindu identify the figure as Shiva based on his socially conditioned expectations?
ii) Apropos (i), assuming that some NDEs are genuine, the subject finds himself in a transitional state. He might well find that confusing until he becomes acclimated to his strange new surroundings.
Many critics or even sympathetic writers regard NDEs as culturally conditioned to some degree. Christian patients have Christian NDEs, while Hindu patients have Hindu NDEs. That sort of thing.
This does, indeed, raises some issues regarding the relation between appearance and reality. However, to say NDEs are culturebound to some degree doesn’t explain the variation.
i) One possible explanation is that NDEs, or at least extramundane NDEs, are hallucinatory. On that view, they are culturally diverse because they are mental projections of the patient, who “sees” what he expects to see, given his social conditioning.
ii) However, that doesn’t explain verifiable NDEs.
iii) Also, there are certain transcultural features of NDEs. So we shouldn’t overemphasize the culturebound aspects of NDEs while we underemphasize their cross-cultural prevalence. Both the culturebound and cross-cultural aspects of NDEs must be accounted for.
iv) NDEs can also be countercultural. Take the celebrated case of A. J. Ayer’s NDE.
v) For all we know, the intermediate state is, in some measure, adapted to the cultural expectations of the decedent (or near decedent). Is there a presumption that God yanks people from the time and place with which they’re familiar, and transplants them to a totally alien environment? That would be quite disorienting, to say the least.
Apropos (13), some ecumenists appeal to NDEs to justify religious pluralism. But that’s quite problematic:
i) If NDEs access reality, then they must map onto a common reality. Reality can’t contradict itself. At best, you can have contradictory perceptions (misperceptions) or contradictory interpretations (misinterpretations) of reality. If a Christian patient sees Jesus, while a Hindu patient sees Nataraja or Ganesha, those can’t both be veridical perceptions. So that generates a tension internal to pluralism.
ii) Some NDEs are hellish. And hellish NDEs might well be underreported.
iii) Some Christians think 2 Cor 12:1-4 precludes veridical NDEs. However:
a) Both the diction and syntax are ambiguous. Consult the commentaries by Paul Barnett and M. J. Harris for details.
b) Whatever Paul may have in mind, Scripture contains numerous descriptions of heavenly scenes or heavenly beings. So there’s nothing fundamentally ineffable or impermissible about describing heaven or its occupants.
iv) In 2 Thes 2:9-11, Paul enunciates a type of punishment in which the nature of the punishment mirrors the nature of the sin. Because idolaters love falsehood and hate truth, God punishes them by confirming their delusion. That would be one way of explaining heretical or pluralistic NDEs.
Bartholomew, D. Uncertain Belief, 138-47.
Braude, S. Immortal Remains, chap. 8.
Habermas, G. & J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death (2nd ed.), chaps 7-9.
Nunn, C. Review of Out of Body and Near-Death Experiences:
Sabom, M. Light & Death.
Twelftree, G. Life After Death, 24-27.
I’d like to thank James Anderson, Alex Dalton, Jason Engwer, Gary Habermas, Paul Manata, and Michael Sudduth for their comments on a preliminary draft.