Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Dembski on NDEs

Hi Jeremy,
Thanks for alerting me to this article in your email to me (and others). I enjoyed reading it. That said, I’m not sympathetic to your approach or conclusions.
It seems that you are putting forward a false dichotomy: brain activity vs. objective experience of heaven. As a nonmaterialist, I don’t see consciousness as ultimately reducible to brain activity (I think you give neuroscience way too much credit). Thus it seems that people, especially in circumstances of extremity such as near death, could have access to a nonmaterial realm that at the same time provides them information they might not have accessed through some material chain of causation. (I address this general point at length in my forthcoming book BEING AS COMMUNION: http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781472437853 ; I also address NDEs directly there.)
For you, a boy seeing his deceased sister who was lost through a miscarriage is him subconsciously piecing together items of information that he received from his parents and other sources through normal chains of material causation. But what if such information never got to him? It’s speculation on your part that the information had to get to him through “normal channels.”
The NDEs that have persuaded me most are those where patients access information about their setting (usually a hospital) to which they would have had no direct access. Now one can always argue that these are not controlled experiments, and so there might have been some access after all. This is how James Randi and other skeptics deal with all psi phenomena. And I see you taking the same tack. The type of skepticism that you seem to be buying into is dealt with, in my view, effectively in Dean Radin’s THE CONSCIOUS UNIVERSE. The take-away lesson for NDEs for me is that people do have access to sources of information that are not reducible to purely material explanations (and thus at odds with a materialist neuroscience).
As for the insights people with NDEs have about heaven, one can hold them up to theological yardsticks and find them wanting. But I’m not sure that invalidates them. I’ll grant you that none of these experiences that I’ve seen recorded or written about have provided information that would unequivocally implicate the supreme being of the universe (as a mathematician, for instance, I would like very much for an NDE to provide a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis or the Goldbach Conjecture).
But let’s not forget that the Bible itself doesn’t provide such slamdunk information of an afterlife. Jesus had more than an NDE — he actually was dead and came back. When he came back from the dead, why was he unrecognizable? As people saw him after his resurrection, did he always look the same? Did his apparent age stay fixed? The Bible doesn’t say. But it does seem to indicate that every time people saw him, they had to do more than a double-take to make sure it was him — they actually had to interact with him.
So, if people have NDEs and claim to glimpse heaven, I’m not ready to dismiss it because the visions don’t match up with some objective scene, as we might require of people if we were to ask them to describe Central Park in New York. I personally don’t have a problem with subjective features conditioning our view of heaven. It may even be that we can consciously shift or simultaneously experience aspects of heaven in multiple ways. Granted, this is pure speculation. But such considerations lead me to be more open to these experiences of the afterlife than you are.

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