Saturday, February 02, 2013

NDEs and the argument from religious experience

I’m going to discuss some objections to NDEs (and OBEs). 

I. Theological objections
i) One objection is that it’s illegitimate to use extrabiblical information to make a case for postmortem survival.

In response, I’d say that depends.

a) It would be improper to cultivate NDE or OBE type experiences as a way of discovering the reality of an afterlife. That’s like dabbling in the occult.

On the other hand, if an unsolicited experience simply happens to you, there’s nothing wrong with assessing the evidential value, if any, or logical implications, if any, of your experience. Same thing with evaluating the reported experience of others.

b) We rely on extrabiblical information for many things we believe in. We also use extrabiblical information to help interpret the Bible or to defend the Bible. Although justified belief in Scripture is not dependent on corroborative evidence, God made the world as well as the Word. Providence is a divine source of information. The world is a divinely created object of knowledge. History is a divinely guided object of knowledge.

It would be wrong to test biblical claims by other sources of information, but we can supplement our knowledge from other sources, as long as Scripture remains the standard.

ii) Another objection is that the content of reported NDEs (and OBEs) is sometimes unorthodox. I’ll have more to say about that momentarily, but for now I’d like to draw a quick distinction:

a) If the Bible teaches dualism, if the Bible teaches the survival of consciousness (i.e. the intermediate state), then we’d expect “decedents” to have a postmortem experience. When they “die,” it doesn’t go black. When they “die,” their mind (soul, consciousness) is detached from the body. Their experience is no longer filtered through their body.

Seems to me that Christian anthropology predicts for something like NDEs or OBEs when the conditions are right. When patients talk about “popping out” of their bodies, isn’t that consistent with traditional Christian anthropology? Indeed, isn’t that implicit in traditional Christian anthropology?

b) That’s distinct from what specifically they saw or heard, thought they saw or heard, or say they saw or heard.

c) I’ve put some terms in scare quotes, for we’re dealing with borderline conditions. Technical, medical definitions of “death.”

There’s nothing in Christian anthropology that precludes resuscitation.  Christian anthropology doesn’t say you can’t temporarily “die,” and be resuscitated a few minutes later. There may well be a transitional stage between expiration and the afterlife, before the vital organs become too damaged, where it’s possible to go either way. Before death becomes irreversible. And in that state, it may be possible to perceive both worlds. I don’t see that Scripture rules that out.

In fact, Scripture itself records some miraculous resuscitations (e.g. 1 Kgs 17:17-21; 2 Kgs 4:18-35; Mt 9:18-25; Acts 20:9-10). This suggests that, to some degree, life and death lie along a continuum. Depending on how long they were dead and the degree of necrosis, miraculous resuscitation would involve healing the body as well as reuniting body and soul.

By the same token, it may be that up to a certain point, medical science can revive people who, in the past, could only be resuscitated by a miracle. Of course, someone like Lazarus would fall beyond the threshold of medical resuscitation.

Likewise, visionary revelation is sometimes depicted in OBE terms. That sensation may be phenomenological, or it may be metaphysical. We can’t rule out the latter.

II. Philosophical objections

Philosophical objections to NDEs and OBEs parallel philosophical objections to the argument from religious experience. These are summarized by Kai-Man Kwan. Cf. “The argument from religious experience,” The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, W. L. Craig & J. P. Moreland, eds. (Wiley-Blackwell 2012), 503-07. I’m going to adapt those objections to NDEs and OBEs, then respond:

i) There’s a logical gap between an objective experience and the subjective conviction that produces. Take a hallucination. So we need independent corroboration to prove that our psychological experience (e.g. NDE or OBE) corresponds to an extramental reality. Put another way, we need that external check to establish the veridicality of the NDE or OBE.

But that argument either proves too much or too little. For that parallels sensory perception. There’s a logical gap between what we perceive, and what there is. Take a hallucination.

ii) There’s the theory-ladenness objection. How subjects interpret their NDEs or OBEs is, to some extent, culturally conditioned by their varied religious background, or lack thereof. So the experience lacks objective content.

But that argument either proves too much or too little. Once again, sensory perception is also theory-laden. To take some examples:

a) If I see the back of somebody’s head, I infer that that’s a human being. I assume the person has a face. A front, as well as a back, although I can only see them from behind. Of course, it could be a cardboard cutout.

b) I’ve read that when “primitive” jungle tribes are shown photographs for the first time, they can’t recognize what those 2D images stand for. When we look at photographs, we perceive more than we see. We perceive 3D objects. We subconsciously grasp the representational character of the images. 

c) Suppose I hear four successive tones. I look around for the source of the tones. I see a clock tower. I conclude that it’s four o’clock.

I didn’t see the tones emitted from the clock tower. The tones are invisible. I didn’t even hear the tones coming directly from the clock tower. It’s not like there’s a series of dots leading straight from the clock tower to my ear. My hearing is more diffuse.

Rather, I associate the tones with the clock tower. I know from experience that it’s the only object in the vicinity which could produce that sound.

Likewise, I didn’t actually hear the clock strike four o’clock. All I really heard was one tone after another. Four tones in a row.

But I’ve conditioned to interpret that as code language for the time of day. If you didn’t belong to a culture with grandfather clocks, and other suchlike, you wouldn’t perceive the same auditory event.

Although NDEs and OBEs are theory-laden, so is ordinary sensory perception. We’re so used to unconsciously interpreting sensory input that we’re generally unaware of how much our conceptual framework is constructing what we perceive.

d) By analogy, NDEs and OBEs could be objective events, even though the experience is in some measure observer-relative. The perception could be unorthodox even though the core experience is orthodox. A misimpression.

iii) There’s the privacy objection. Like dreams and hallucinations, NDEs and OBEs reflect privileged access. An outside observer isn’t privy to your reported experience.

But this argument either proves too much or too little. To paraphrase Kwan:

In what sense is a sensory experience public? My experience of a chair occurs essentially in my mind–it is every bit as private as other experiences in this aspect. I cannot directly experience how you experience the chair and vice versa. What makes a sensory experience public is that verbal reports of different persons can be compared. However, reported NDEs and OBEs can also be compared.


  1. While I think intentionally experimenting in Astral Projection or Remote Viewing is dabbling in the occult, I'd be interested in knowing if there are documented cases of proven astral projection or remote viewing where people have been able to gain information that could only be explained by non-natural means.

    One can't predict or set up a NDE, but people have been intentionally participating in astral projection and remote viewing for decades. I'm just ignorant of whether there is credible literature on the phenomena.

  2. Mario Beauregard, in Brain Wars, presents documentation for remote viewing.

    1. Thanks Steve. Just checked, and there's a copy in my local library. There's also some interviews on YouTube like THIS ONE.