Sunday, January 15, 2017

Ayer's red light

I already posted a link to this article, but I'd like comment on Douthat's statement:

But the implausibility of hard materialism doesn’t mean the cosmos obviously confirms a Judeo-Christian paradigm. And the supernatural experiences of the irreligious — cosmic beatitude, ghostly enigmas, unclassifiable encounters and straight-up demons — don’t point toward any single theology or world-picture. 
I can make the Friedkin and Verhoeven experiences fit with Christian doctrine; Ehrenreich’s aren’t perhaps as distant as she imagines. But Ayer’s weird red light and the ghost of Peter Kaplan? If I were coming to these kind of stories with no preconceptions, I might reach for polytheism or pantheism to explain the variety and diversity of what reaches through the veil.

1. Although necromancy is a forbidden activity, the possibility of contacting the dead is consistent with the Christian worldview. The soul survives death. Contacting the dead is dangerous, and therefore forbidden, but that doesn't make it impossible. Indeed, the possibility is what makes it dangerous.

2. As for Ayer's NDE, the pluralism of some NDEs is a familiar issue. There are different ways we might interpret that phenomenon:

i) If there was no evidence for veridical NDEs, we could explain the pluralism by saying NDEs are imaginary. But given credible cases of veridical NDEs, that's not a good explanation.

ii) A pluralist might say this is evidence for universalism or religious pluralism. But there are problems with that explanation:

a) Religious pluralism is incoherent. All these contradictory positions can't be true. Hence, that can't be the ultimate explanation. 

b) A pluralist might counter by saying the Divine wears many masks. But even if we grant, for argument's sake, that all roads leads to the same destination, isn't postmortem experience where we encounter the face behind the mask? If that's just another disguise, then there is no destination. Many roads continuing into the afterlife, with no convergence in sight. In that event, why think there is a face behind the mask? 

iii) By way of orthodox interpretations, perhaps some NDEs are like allegorical dreams. A symbolic analogy of the afterlife. 

iv) Or perhaps some NDEs are analogous to a psychedelic experience. Someone who's high may hallucinate, yet his perception of reality isn't merely a figment of his imagination. His sense organs are still receiving input from the outside world. An objective, external stimulus forms the basis of his perception. But his perception of reality is distorted because his brain misinterprets the sense data.

It may be that some NDEs are disorienting in that respect. It represents an unsettled state, where the soul has one foot in this life and one foot in the afterlife. Perception of reality is clouded by that transitional condition. It hasn't had time to make the adjustment. 

And, of course, NDEs are, by definition, temporary. At best, the afford a glimpse of the afterlife. But is that a representative sample? 


  1. Advocates of an NDE-based view of the afterlife and other forms of religious pluralism tend to overestimate the similarities among NDEs while underestimating the differences. There are a lot of explicit and implicit contradictions among NDEs, not only on religious issues, but also on other matters, like morality. NDEs often differ from the experiencer's expectations, so they can't all be explained as God's accommodating what the experiencer expects to happen. And the diversity of NDEs includes many (a double-digit percentage) hellish ones. Some NDEs are explicitly or implicitly religiously exclusivistic. There's no easy way to reconcile NDEs as a whole with the sort of highly permissive, religiously pluralistic God advocated by many proponents of an NDE-based view of the afterlife. And since it's often suggested that the alleged simplicity of NDEs makes them superior to the more traditional religious views of the afterlife, it's significant that NDEs fail to offer the sort of simple alternative that's often suggested.

    Furthermore, since NDEs aren't the only line of evidence we have for the existence and nature of the afterlife, the other evidence has to be taken into account as well. That includes, for example, evidence from séances (which, like NDEs, are highly inconsistent) and the evidence for the Bible and, therefore, its claims about the afterlife. You have to explain the totality of the evidence, not just NDEs.

    There's no need to offer one explanation for all NDEs. There could be, and probably are, different explanations for different cases. Still, it's useful to see if we have any explanation that seems to cover a large percentage of the phenomena. The best explanation I'm aware of for NDEs, and I think it adequately explains the large majority of them, is that they're something like a supernatural dream or supernatural virtual reality. They give you some objective information about the afterlife (e.g., what it's like to be outside your body, the plausibility of a life review that's instantaneous), but they're largely subjective. I suspect that when the soul leaves the body under particular circumstances (still unknown to us), it goes into a supernatural state somewhat like what we experience when we dream while sleeping.

    The nature of the evidence we have for Christianity is such that nothing in any one NDE or group of NDEs (or other group of non-Christian paranormal phenomena) is comparable or superior. The entity behind the Bible claims the highest authority and supports that claim with unparalleled knowledge of the future and other evidence, which gives Christianity an unrivaled network of confirmatory miracles.

    I have a collection of links to our posts addressing NDEs and other paranormal phenomena. And there's a lot more material like that in our archives.

  2. Is Ayer's experience at odds with Christian doctrine, though? Maybe people's expectations are coloured a bit too much by cartoon images of goat-headed satyrs wielding pitchforks. The idea that hell could be such an eerie place is intriguing, at least.

    1. If memory serves, he saw a red light he interpreted as not happy with him. I'm not sure how that would be at odds with Christian doctrine either.