Monday, February 20, 2012

Further Thoughts On The Moral Aspect Of Near-Death Experiences

I've written about the moral dimension of near-death experiences (NDEs) in the past. I recently received the following comments in an email:

I was just rereading a couple of your posts, especially one in which you mentioned inconsistent moral values in NDEs. The post isn't specific about what values they are. In the classical sense, people after an NDE say their values emphasize being loving, less materialistic, serving others, and obtaining knowledge. This pattern cuts across not only NDEs but shows up also in studies about recovery from cardiac arrest, life-threatening illness, traumatic injury, and major life shocks (bereavement, divorce, any personal cataclysm). What's your take on this?

Also, what moral values do you see reflected after distressing NDEs?

Here's my response:

Here are several points I'd make about the moral dimension of NDEs, and only some of these points are directly relevant to what you brought up:

- From what I know of the subject, it does seem that there are some widespread consistencies in the moral effect NDEs have on the experiencers. Your point about similar characteristics in people who have had other experiences (cardiac arrest, etc.) is significant. Though I consider NDEs paranormal, it wouldn't take something paranormal to produce the moral changes that result from NDEs, as far as I know.

- The moral changes produced by NDEs that can be classified as widespread are of a vague nature. It's not as though we're seeing all experiencers or the vast majority of them adopting a particular position on, say, capital punishment, abortion, or women's rights. If there were a widespread agreement that a being of light or some other relevant entity is communicating the same highly detailed moral message to every experiencer or the large majority of them, that would have more evidential significance. Instead, what we seem to be getting is a lot of vague notions of love, being less materialistic, etc. Surely there are some more specific details that can be identified in the moral message that people are associating with NDEs. I suspect all experiencers would agree that torturing children for enjoyment is something that should be avoided, for example. But they probably all or almost all agreed on such issues before their NDEs. Even if they didn't, it wouldn't take much to bring about such an agreement. The moral agreement that exists among these experiencers is highly vague.

- The moral changes you've referred to seem to be what we'd expect to follow from a wide diversity of interpretations of NDEs. It's not as though one interpretation is singled out as the one that's implicated by these moral changes. Whether you consider an NDE highly objective, highly subjective, Divine, or demonic, you'd expect that NDE to encourage people to be less materialistic and to be more concerned about obtaining knowledge, for example. I hold the view that NDEs are highly subjective, but that they're paranormal and offer minimal evidence for an afterlife and the nature of that afterlife. Other people view NDEs as highly objective, as if they tell us what to expect when we die with a high level of precision. Those are two significantly different views of NDEs. But both views would predict moral changes in the experiencers along the lines of less materialism and more concern for other people. Even somebody who views NDEs as hallucinations of some sort and not paranormal could argue that they encourage us to reevaluate our moral standards. Even a hallucination can remind us of, and cause us to think more deeply about, something more real that's ahead, or might be ahead, when we die. A wide diversity of views of NDEs could produce the moral changes in question.

- Something I wonder about, which I haven't yet studied to any significant extent, is how much the experiencers' moral changes go against their culture. For example, do we see many experiencers in Hindu or Islamic parts of the world adopting what those of us in a place like the United States would consider a more loving view of women? Or is the notion of love encouraged by NDEs so vague that it tends to remain within the parameters of a culture, without doing much to transform the culture?

- I know less about the moral changes that occur after negative NDEs than I know about the changes that occur after positive ones. I'd expect there to be some differences. I'd expect more urgency among experiencers of negative NDEs, more humility, more self-criticism, and more carefulness about what changes they should make in their lives, for example. I'd expect a mixture of helpful and harmful changes among experiencers of negative NDEs. They might become more self-critical in a generally healthy way, yet view themselves as more sinful than other people in a way that isn't healthy. As I said in one of my posts on negative NDEs, I think those epxeriences are roughly comparable to having a nightmare. They're more significant than a nightmare in some ways, such as in their vividness and rarity. But they don't necessarily imply that a person has gone to Hell or some equivalent or will go there in the future. A person could have a negative NDE, then die and go to Heaven the next day, even if no significant change occurred in his life between the two experiences. A person with a healthy relationship with God could have a negative NDE. However, I doubt that most experiencers hold that view of the experience when it occurs and in the immediate aftermath, so they tend to treat it as some sort of experience of Hell or a foretaste of it. It might be something like a foretaste of Hell in some cases. God might use a negative NDE to warn a person, for example. But I see no reason to think that negative NDEs as a whole should be viewed that way. I think most people who have a negative NDE would view the experience differently than I do, though, at least initially, so their moral changes would reflect that different view.

- The level of agreement on moral issues among experiencers of NDEs is sometimes exaggerated. In Chris Carter's Science And The Near-Death Experience (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2010), Neal Grossman writes in the foreword: "Every near-death experiencer is convinced that the purpose of life is to grow in our ability to give and receive love. And NDE researchers - as well as mediumship researchers - have themselves come to this same conclusion, but academic life is the opposite of loving." (xv) Carter gives a more qualified assessment later in the book: "If there is any consistent message that is brought back by those who have a classic NDE, it is this: after death there is more, and the purpose of life is to grow in love and knowledge." (123) Carter includes qualifiers like "if", "classic" NDEs rather than all of them, and "knowledge" added to love. Grossman's comment about "every near-death experiencer" is surely wrong, and I doubt that even Carter's more qualified assessment can be reliably attributed to even a majority of experiencers. How many of them even comment about the purpose of life in a context related to their NDE? Among those who do think they know the purpose of life based on their NDE, how many are just going by their own impressions, intuitions, etc. rather than any explicit message they were given in the NDE? Yes, there's some significance in vague impressions that people get from their NDEs, but we should distinguish between vague impressions and explicit messages. How many experiencers were given an explicit message in their NDE about a purpose to life like the ones Grossman and Carter describe? Probably a distinct minority.

- As far as NDEs differ in their religious implications (e.g., one promotes Christianity, while another promotes Hinduism), they differ in their moral implications as well. Religions often agree on moral issues, but they disagree as well. If somebody is going to say that it doesn't matter much whether an NDE is monotheistic or polytheistic, for example, is he also going to say that it doesn't matter much whether the NDE implies a higher or lower view of, say, women's rights or children's rights? That's one of the points I have in mind when I say that people who promote the religious plurality of NDEs should also consider their moral plurality. It's not as though theological issues, which many people don't consider to be of much importance, are all that's at stake in the diversity of NDEs. Morality is at stake as well.

- Is there a judgment (or life review or whatever else we would call it)? Different NDEs answer that question in different ways.

- If there's a judgment, what's the nature of it? Again, we get different answers from one NDE to another. A Christian NDE might have a judgment with different standards than we find in a Hindu NDE, which differs from an atheist's NDE. I've heard of NDEs that involved a judgment by a relatively high standard, which left the person judged with a deep sense of shame, regret, etc., even if the person judged apparently wasn't much different than the average person. But other NDEs I've heard of seem to involve a lower standard of judgment, so that the person judged only senses some sort of mild correction or no correction at all. As far as I know, there isn't any difference in the moral character of the people experiencing the NDEs that would explain these differences. Rather, it seems that the judgment standards are different. There's nothing even close to one standard that we're finding across all NDEs or even the large majority of them. For example, contrast the more negative NDEs (hellish ones and heavenly ones that involve a stricter judgment) to Eben Alexander's NDE. I think he's generally credible. I suspect he did have an NDE along the lines of what he describes. But some of the comments he's made about his NDE are highly problematic in this context we're discussing. In a recent interview, I heard him claim that he was told in his NDE that "there's nothing you can do wrong". I doubt that Alexander misspoke, because I heard him say the same thing in a second interview. If I'm remembering correctly, he's also made comments suggesting universalism, that everybody goes to Heaven. Even if he hasn't, I know that other experiencers of NDEs have. I'm willing to give Alexander, or the being who allegedly communicated with him during his NDE, the benefit of the doubt on the "there's nothing you can do wrong" comment. The comment seems to imply that no behavior is immoral, that nobody will be punished for doing wrong, etc. That's a message that people like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin would find encouraging. But I suspect that Alexander either didn't mean his comment to be taken that way or hasn't thought through the implications of it. Maybe he meant the "you" in "there's nothing you can do wrong" to refer to him in particular rather than all people, meaning that he'll always be in good standing with Heaven (or some other entity), whereas other people might not be. I don't know. But the general impression I come away with when I hear people like Alexander is that their NDE promotes a highly permissive view of morality.

- And I want to expand on a particular element of that. Think of the contrast between an NDE that promotes universalism and one that involves somebody going to Hell and thinking that Hell lasts forever. Some people who have negative NDEs come away with the impression that it would be eternal, if it hadn't been interrupted by a return to this life. That doesn't seem to be consistent with the universalistic NDEs. This difference among NDEs can be classified as a theological and philosophical disagreement among them, but it can also be classified as a moral disagreement. There are some moral dimensions to issues like universalism, the eternality of Hell, and what level of punishment is just.

- NDEs don't just promote different views of morality in their judgment scenarios. They also promote different views of morality in other contexts. In Eben Alexander's case, his experience of being told "there's nothing you can do wrong" didn't occur during a time of judgment. Similarly, other NDEs have involved moral messages outside of their judgment scenes. Some NDEs have implications for when life begins, for example, thus making them relevant to moral issues like abortion. If a being you encounter in an NDE tells you that life begins at conception, that's one thing. If your NDE involves seeing souls enter a body several months into pregnancy, that's something else. I've come across NDEs that have characteristics like those that make them relevant to moral issues. And sometimes they contradict each other in that context.

- Then there's the issue of the differing character traits of the people involved in NDEs. Who has a positive NDE and who has a negative one? The experiences don't seem to line up with the moral character of the experiencers. Somebody who seems to be worse has a positive NDE, whereas somebody who seems to be a better person has a negative NDE.

- Though I think some of the moral changes that occur among experiencers of NDEs are for the better, there are some changes for the worse as well. I'm thinking especially of people who have had positive NDEs. I wouldn't characterize all of them this way, but some seem to view their relationship with organized religion as a sort of one-way street. A religion like Christianity should be sitting at the feet of those who have experienced NDEs, to learn from them. Christian doctrine needs to be corrected if it isn't in line with NDEs, even if it just isn't in line with that particular person's NDE. In reality, the evidence we have for Christianity is better than the evidence we have for an NDE-based view of the afterlife. It's Christianity, not the NDE, that's in the driver's seat. NDEs and their experiencers have a place at the table. They should be heard. Communication between Christianity and people who have had NDEs should be a two-way street. They should listen to each other. I do think Christians can learn some things from NDEs, and not just reinforcements of what they already believed. I might write a post on the subject someday. But the point I'm making here is that some people who have had a positive NDE seem to think too highly of themselves and their experience and its evidential significance. They seem to not know much about the evidence for Christianity. They don't seem to have much awareness of the need to reconcile their experience with a vast network of other evidential considerations. The NDE community seems to have done well so far in integrating NDEs with other fields. There's a lot of helpful consideration of how NDEs relate to healthcare, counseling, etc. But there are other areas where the process of integration hasn't gone so well. Organized religion, primarily Christianity, isn't respected as much as it ought to be within the NDE community. The work that's been done so far to relate NDEs to fields like religion and philosophy has been far from sufficient. A lot of experiencers of NDEs, particularly people who have had a positive NDE, think too highly of themselves and what they've experienced. The NDE community not only hasn't done enough to correct that tendency, but even encourages it at times. A lot of people are being coddled who should be corrected instead. I see a lot in NDE literature about respecting people, not questioning the experiences of people who have had NDEs, etc., and those themes are appropriate to some extent. But they can be taken too far, and they have been. They need to be accompanied by more of a willingness to correct the errors of those who have had NDEs, more encouragement for them to be humble about their experiences, and more effort to make people aware of the vast amount of evidence relevant to the afterlife and related issues that exists outside of NDEs. It's true that NDEs change people for the better in some ways, but not every change is for the better. Part of the problem here is that researchers aren't looking in all the right places when they evaluate the changes that occur in people who have had NDEs.


  1. Jason,
    Could you clarify what you mean when you say that NDE's are "highly subjective"? Are you referring to the content, the interpretation of NDE's or the general nature of them? The reason I ask is because it does seems that there are some core identifiable (i.e. objective) features of most NDE's as listed by Nancy Bush in the previous post you made.

  2. MSC,

    Here's a thread where I discuss the subject. The list by Nancy Evans Bush includes some examples of how NDEs differ from one another. The commonalities that some or all of them have don't cover much ground and leave a lot of space for differences. Themes like love and light are fairly vague and are common in human thought in many contexts outside of NDEs. There might be objective elements to these experiences that produce some of the commonalities, like light in NDEs or mist in shared death experiences. Perhaps the experiences occur, or sometimes occur, in realms that objectively have such features, but other details are filled in with some sort of combination between the experiencer's imagination and his interaction with the surrounding environment. As I've said before, NDEs might be something like dreaming while partly awake or having a distorted perception as you adapt to a new environment (like your eyes gradually adapt to darkness). If the soul is leaving the body prematurely or is still connected to the body in some sense, that may distort its functioning to some extent, such as by putting it in some sort of dream state. Whatever the specific explanation is, it has to address the combination of objective and subjective elements involved. Both have to be explained. I think NDEs are more subjective than most people believe, and I think their subjective nature is evidenced by the vagueness of the commonalities that are cited.

  3. Jason wrote:

    But some of the comments he's made about his NDE are highly problematic in this context we're discussing. In a recent interview, I heard him claim that he was told in his NDE that "there's nothing you can do wrong"

    Alex: If Jason's referring to the "I Survived: Beyond and Back" episode, Eben said "it was made clear to me that I could do no wrong." This may just be a figure of speech Eben is employing here to convey that Eben felt extremely loved by this being - its a very common figure of speech from his generation. This may not be Eben literally saying "I was told there is no sin." Something you might look into.

  4. I emailed him. We'll see if Eben literally thinks he can do no wrong. If he does, and beings in the NDE are really communicating this, perhaps we really do need to consider more seriously the possibility that Satan is the angel of light on the other end of that tunnel. It would be a great lie, crafted by the greatest liar of all time, to actually twist the concept of love itself - make love, something that all human beings recognize as ultimate in some sense - appear to be other than it is. From the number of NDEs I've read, I'd say a more inclusive notion of love than we're familiar with in the Bible emerges.

  5. Alex Dalton,

    As I said in my initial post, I'm willing to give Alexander the benefit of the doubt regarding his comment that we're discussing. Maybe he meant what you've suggested. If so, I think he didn't communicate it well. And I would still stand by what I said about my general impression of his NDE.

    Here's a portion of one of the interviews I was referring to, where Alexander makes the comment in question:

    "She [a being in Alexander's NDE] never said a word to me and she was looking at me and her thoughts would just come into my awareness. Her thoughts were things like, 'You are loved. You are cherished forever. There’s nothing you can do wrong. You have nothing to worry about. You will be taken care of.' It was so soothing and so beautiful, and of course as I said, my language wasn’t really working then. So those particular words were words I had to put on it when I came back out. But a lot of this flowed perfectly when I came back out." (source)

    In the other interview I heard, which you can listen to here, he refers to the "unconditional" love of a divine presence. In both interviews, he refers to "becoming" the multiverse. In the first interview referenced above, he comments:

    "In fact, the whole higher-dimensional multiverse was that this incredibly complex corrugated ball and all these lessons coming into me about it. Part of the lessons involved becoming all of what I was being shown. It was indescribable."

    A lot of what he says is unclear. But my impression is that his NDE is of a much more permissive nature than others. He sometimes refers to notions like "there's nothing you can do wrong", "unconditional" love, and being one with everything else or at least other humans and many other entities that make up the alleged multiverse. His web site refers to "humanity's brilliant future". He makes a lot of comments suggesting that he has all people in mind. Some of his comments come across to me as suggesting some form of universalism.

    You write:

    "We'll see if Eben literally thinks he can do no wrong. If he does, and beings in the NDE are really communicating this, perhaps we really do need to consider more seriously the possibility that Satan is the angel of light on the other end of that tunnel. It would be a great lie, crafted by the greatest liar of all time, to actually twist the concept of love itself - make love, something that all human beings recognize as ultimate in some sense - appear to be other than it is."

    I see no reason to think his NDE was demonic. It could be misleading without having come from a demon.

    I also see no reason to think there's one being of light behind all NDEs or even all NDEs that involve a being of light.

  6. Jason: I see no reason to think his NDE was demonic. It could be misleading without having come from a demon.

    Alex: I guess if the messages being conveyed by the being(s) in NDEs are tending towards universalism, and we believe universalism is a severe distortion of the matter of salvation, I'm inclined to think that there's something demonic going on. I suppose it could be consistent misinterpretation of the messages being conveyed.

    Jason: I also see no reason to think there's one being of light behind all NDEs or even all NDEs that involve a being of light.

    Alex: I don't really think that either, and didn't intend that literally ("Satan is "*the* angel of light"). I guess lately I've just been thinking about how great of a deceiver Satan actually is. I think I myself have felt a pull towards universalism, in just reading many NDE accounts (that's not to say they all support that).

  7. From Eben's (sloppily) written testimony:

    "There were very obvious little specs, impurities throughout the multiverse and even when I could peer down towards earth I could see there were specs of impurity in the purity. I was told that was evil and that evil was critical for what our soles have to do and their ascendants in the outer realm."

    So at least we know the beings did not deny the existence of evil.

  8. Jason - if you ever have time to blog on it, I'd be interested to hear what you think about Hasker's summary of the evidence for NDE's, in his section 4. of his SEP article on the Afterlife:

  9. Alex Dalton wrote:

    "I suppose it could be consistent misinterpretation of the messages being conveyed....I think I myself have felt a pull towards universalism, in just reading many NDE accounts (that's not to say they all support that)."

    The messages associated with NDEs could come from a large variety of sources. In one case, a being in an NDE explicitly says something. In another case, the experiencer has a sense during the NDE that a particular message is being conveyed, though not explicitly. On another occasion, there's no perceived message during the NDE, explicit or otherwise, but a message comes to be associated with the NDE later. That later message might come from the experiencer, as he gives more thought to what happened. Or it might come from other people who are analyzing what's been reported. There are a lot of ways for a message to come to be associated with an NDE. I'm just giving a few examples.

    I doubt that a majority of NDEs involve an explicit message of universalism. I don't think there would be a majority even if we combined the first two categories I've mentioned above. Any majority supporting universalism probably would depend on including cases from other categories.

    For example, the God of an NDE seems too loving to permit an eternal hell, so we conclude that universalism is implied by that NDE. But the perception of how loving that God is could be questioned, and we could question the alleged implications of that love. What about a hell that includes lesser degrees of punishment than people often associate with the concept of hell? What about annihilationism? Or limbo? What if the large majority go to heaven, but some don't? Universalism may not be the only option that's consistent with the NDE in question. But if somebody, whether the experiencer of the NDE or somebody else, isn't familiar with the other options or hasn't given them much thought, he may assume that universalism is the only option. That's one of the reasons why I've said that it's important to integrate NDEs with fields like philosophy and religion. And it's important to inform experiencers of the significance of such fields and the interpretive options available for their NDEs. I suspect that much of what people commonly perceive about NDEs comes from faulty assumptions made by the experiencers and other people who are analyzing what the experiencers have reported. We should learn from experiencers, but we should also teach and correct them where appropriate. It's a two-way street.

    (continued below)

  10. (continued from above)

    I think an association between NDEs and universalism often comes from a perception that such a large number and variety of people have positive NDEs. Doesn't that number and variety of people suggest universalism?

    No, there is no such logical implication. The concept that a large majority go to heaven seems to be implied by most positive NDEs when taken collectively, but that concept falls short of universalism.

    And there are negative NDEs as well. We can't just look at positive ones and reach our conclusions based on that incomplete analysis.

    Even when an NDE isn't negative, it doesn't necessarily imply that a person is going to what we'd commonly call heaven. An NDE involving an experience on earth outside your body, but without any visit to a heavenly realm, can't be equated to one involving a visit to heaven. Or what about, say, an NDE in which a person is told that he must return to this life, since his life on earth isn't complete yet? Some NDEs along those lines involve the implication that the person will go to heaven after this life, but not all of them do.

    I think most NDEs are heavenly, but a large minority aren't. How would universalism follow from that? I don't think it would. Even a heavenly NDE could contradict universalism. I wouldn't assume that all heavenly NDEs are consistent with the notion. And if the NDEs that are inconsistent with universalism are going to be dismissed as highly subjective or unreliable in some other way, why should we think the NDEs consistent with universalism aren't the same?

    A lot of people believe in universalism or that the large majority of individuals go to heaven. One or more of the NDEs that reflect such a view could be demonic, but they could also come from the human imagination.

    I think Evangelicals often overlook or underestimate some problems with a demonic view of NDEs. I may start a thread on that subject someday.

  11. Alex Dalton wrote:

    "Jason - if you ever have time to blog on it, I'd be interested to hear what you think about Hasker's summary of the evidence for NDE's, in his section 4. of his SEP article on the Afterlife"

    I agree with him that NDEs are sometimes inconsistent and unrealistic. He's right about the possible truth of some theories proposed by skeptics of the veridicality of NDEs. But the issue is what's probable, not what's possible, and Hasker is correct in noting that we need to look at the details of the cases in question. Unfortunately, he doesn't get into the details much himself, so he leaves the issue less settled than I'd prefer.

    In some cases, like Pam Reynolds', skeptics have to simultaneously appeal to multiple unlikely scenarios (failed anesthesia, malfunctioning medical equipment, etc.). Even in cases where they only appeal to one unlikely scenario, we'd still have to ask why that unlikely scenario is supposed to be preferable to the alternatives. If skeptics are going to begin with the concept that there's an extraordinarily large prior improbability that evidence for NDEs must overcome, then they need to justify that concept. I see no way for them to do it. We aren't beginning with any such notion, and the skeptical position is devastated by the evidence if we don't begin where they want us to.