NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES PROVIDE AMBIGUOUS EVIDENCE FOR LIFE AFTER DEATH

The followers of many religions believe in some form of life after death and as we might expect there have been many attempts to ascertain whether or not there is any form of objective evidence to back up these beliefs. There is of course the obvious problem that different religions are not agreed on the form of this life after death. The biggest proportion of believers in the some sort of afterlife are loosely described as theistic (ie believing in a God), and would for example include many of the followers of Christianity and Islam, yet belief in a God neither requires a belief in the afterlife as was the case for the Sadducees nor does non belief in a God prevent a belief in life after death, with a number of the pagan faiths believing the soul continues to exist. Buddhists too believe in reincarnation with no associated belief in a God.

The beliefs are hardly free from those with vested interests. For example it is said by some historians that when many centuries ago the Aryan tribes invaded India they established the caste system, with themselves in the top caste and explained to the heathen who required subjugation, that they too could work their way up to this top caste – in the next life, if instead of rebelling against their conquerors they accepted their lot and made the best of it. Conformity to the will of those in authority in many Churches has been a requirement of entry to a satisfying afterlife for many centuries and which has occasionally reached absurd extremes. The selling of indulgences to get to heaven was widespread by the time of the reformation and it is claimed by some that this continues today in symbolic form with tithing and obedience to the form of ritualised liturgy such as acts of penance in the Catholic confession.

Some believe in a form of judgement with a simplified heaven or hell whereas others have very complex faith statements about the hereafter. While the assertions made are often agreed by thousands or even millions of faith adherents cf the statements made by Muslims about what will happen in paradise based on their acceptance of the obedience to the Q’ran, or the alternatives put forward by various sects of fundamentalist Christians, or for that matter the main Christian denominations like the Roman Catholics or high church believers from the Church of England. The Jehovah’s witnesses, taking quotations from the book of Revelation as their guide, believe that there is a tiered heaven with 144,000 of the most faithful at the highest level above the heavenly host of next most faithful. Some other religions believe that there is a long wait in a place of limbo and for some, heaven awaits some version of the final rapture. Many Hindus see it as a process of continual reincarnation with the good coming back in continued higher life forms and castes and the bad reincarnated further down the hierarchy.

When we add belief in ghosts, belief in a promised land, or the complex variety of beliefs associated with the various religions each claiming to teach how the afterlife is accessed, it becomes clear that unless the presumed form of life after death is actually dependent on the spiritual experiences of the groups we are born into or encounter during life these varying interpretations are unlikely to be simultaneously true. Indeed since beliefs in the afterlife are so idiosyncratic and their descriptions so easily accessed in the electronic age it is curious that there is little interest from main line religions in establishing which versions have more plausibility.

When we remember that in a modern age the followers of most mainstream religions include amongst their followers highly educated scientists and those versed in sociology, parapsychology and medicine. Why then is it that more interest is not shown in establishing how far a specific faith in the afterlife squares with what we know from various studies from the objective sciences?

The most direct set of experiences which seem to point to the possibility of some form life beyond death comes from the now well documented instances of near death experiences whereby a relatively large percentage of people who have apparently died in that their vital signs are no longer detectable, are either brought back to life by medical intervention or spontaneously recover without intervention. In both sets of instances there are some relatively common experiences reported. I have read some of the more significant major reviews as placing the percentage between 11% and 23% of those resuscitated in hospital operation reporting near death experiences. In these instances many patients report a sensation of leaving their body, with a surprising large number reporting hovering above the body, observing the medical attempts at revival.

Another relatively common reporting is of entering a tunnel of light – sometimes to be greeted on the other side by dead relatives or holy figures like Jesus. Many report that they find this experience comfortable and easy to the point where they felt they objected to being brought back to life, and again it is not uncommon for the patient to subsequently report that the experience has radically changed their attitude to life and death.

From a personal view I must confess that while I have encountered some impressive descriptions of personal experiences of this phenomenon from people I respect, including that of the Rev Dr Jim Stuart, one of the most respected senior Church leaders and theologians in the New Zealand Methodist Church, there are some observations that raise the question of natural physiological phenomena triggering the experienced sensations. For example the hovering above the operation looking down has been extensively tested for the last twenty years by various research groups placing worded signs and cards with distinctive patterns like a star, a square or a triangle in a place that could only be seen by someone in a hovering position in the operating theatre. To my knowledge there is not yet any agreed objective evidence that such signs and symbols have been seen and accurately reported. What has been measured is that the only factor that seems to correlate with the out of body experience is that in those patients there is a measurable increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood. The tunnel of light phenomenon already has a clear physiological explanation in that measurements of the electrical activity of the brain of a dying patient’s show the shutdown of the visual cortex from the outside to the inside which would produce such a tunnel effect. For those interested in learning more perhaps I might suggest starting with the work of Susan Blackmore who spent 25 years working extensively with such studies before concluding physiology rather than religious encounter was behind the phenomenon of the near death experience.

This in no way should be taken as establishing that there is no such thing as life after death, but it does suggest that thus far, the near death experience is still a long way from being the persuasive test that life does continue in some form. What do others think?

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7 Responses to NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES PROVIDE AMBIGUOUS EVIDENCE FOR LIFE AFTER DEATH

  1. Mike Tymn says:

    Bill,

    When I filled up my gas tank today, my eyes registered the amount of the purchase — somewhere between $35 and $40 as it is almost always is, but if you had asked me two minutes later for the exact amount of the purchase I would not have been able to tell you. I had no reason to commit it to memory. Along the same line, I visited a friend in the hospital yesterday. Another friend was visiting him at the time and my sick friend introduced him to me. However, as so often happens when I meet someone, I failed to record his name in my memory bank and realized several minutes into the conversation that I didn’t know his name.

    I suspect it may be the same thing with these test letters and numbers being posted in surgery rooms. The individual may see it, but he or she doesn’t realize the test aspect of it and therefore doesn’t “record” it. There is so much more than a few numbers or letter to take in.

    I do think it is inaccurate to say that these tests have been conducted “extensively” in the past. As I recall, some doctor tried it in a single hospital some years ago without success, but it wasn’t until very recently that Dr. Sam Parnia decided to conduct a more extensive test. It hasn’t been in operation very long. I doubt that it will yield positive results and therefore it will just give the pseudoskeptics something else to use in their attempts to debunk the phenomenon.

    You didn’t mention the meeting of relatives, the life review, the changed behavior, etc. What about the woman who, while in the hospital, traveled out of body to her home some miles away and saw her son eating pizza with his girlfriend? How does one explain something like that? Of course, that is only one example of a veridical NDE.

    The tunnel of light is not a “clear” physiological explanation, as you state, as there is no evidence as to what the “light” a dying person really sees unless he lived to tell about it. How do we know it is the same kind of light for those who didn’t live to tell about it? That is nothing more than a pseudoskeptical argument.

    Rather than Blackmore, I suggest Dr. Pim Van Lommel’s recent book, “Consciousness Beyond Death.”

    • peddiebill says:

      Thanks for that Mike. It is good to get thoughtful responses. I suspect we are reading different literature when you suggest there is probably only one significant experiment to see what is observed by a person with an out of body experience. For example Susan Blackmore has been summarising such results for years. The reason why I think it is fair to expect that by now someone would have observed one of the test images accurately by now is because they now have so many cases to go by. Can I suggest you start with something basic like Wikipedia and follow through the links which will eventually get you through to the proper refereed literature. I take the point about it being difficult to ascertain that the light experienced by a person who actually dies is beyond an experiment, but I would have thought that with a near death experience you can interview the patient after the event and relate what they say to what the machines show is happening in different areas of the brain. this is not to say you are likely to be wrong – or for that matter that the faith statements about what happens after death are wrong. My main difficulty with many of the faith statements is that they seem to be assertions based on opinion and it is hard to see that they have ever been tested. However let me stress that I appreciate your arguments and think they are worth following through. perhaps I should start with the book you recommend.

  2. Mike Tymn says:

    Bill,

    Thanks for your comments. I have followed the NDE material pretty closely over the years, and while there may well have been more than one surgery room test case, I am reasonably certain that that there have not been more than a few. I would certainly not begin with Wikipedia as a reference as it is clear that they are very reductionistic in their philosophy and for the most part out to discredit true paranomal phenomena.

    I would also take issue with you relative to the NDE being the “best” evidence of survival. The best evidence comes from years of psychical research with mediums.
    I realize that you are a Methodist and that orthodox religions tend to accept the prohibitions against mediumship as set forth in Deuteronomy and Ecclesiastes literally. However, those prohibitions are in direct conflict with John, where we are told to “test the spirits whether they are of God” and Paul, who said that we should “discern” the messages. How can we test and discern if we don’t listen to them in the first place or if they “know nothing” as Deuteronomy suggests?

    You might find my blog at http://whitecrowbooks.com/michaeltymn/ of interest. Also, I would recommend reading some of the interviews at http://www.aspsi.org/
    under the “Features” section.

    • peddiebill says:

      Hi Mike – fair enough that you dont want to follow through on the links I suggest. I guess that means that you wont see the evidence I refer to either but you have stated your reasons. There is a huge study going on at the moment involving something like a thousand hospitals looking at near death experiences, but I guess you know about that. As far as I know the results are still not in.As to the use of mediums. It is purely on my experience that I dont hold much faith in mediums. For example when you dont respond to their probing and simply let them talk I have noticed their cold reading goes steadily off track. I remember talking with a senior detective who told me that for the mediums who had rung in to help the New Zealand police looking for bodies not a single one was able to give concrete in formation that turned out to be helpful He did however say that in most cases they would say that the body would be found near trees or water which pretty well covers everywhere in New Zealand!

  3. Mike Tymn says:

    Bill,

    I also want to suggest that you read my paper at http://www.aeces.info/Legacy-Section/legacy_home.shtml (Survival Research: Like Shoveling Sand against the Tide)

  4. Mike Tymn says:

    Bill,

    Yes, I am aware of the study initiated by Dr. Sam Parnia, but, as I indicated above, I am not optimistic that it will yield results. We are attempting to measure celestial matters with terrestrial gauges. I suspect that these hospital tests will fail in much the same way that the password tests have failed with mediums. Several researchers have left key words behind which they had hoped to communicate through mediums as evidence of their existence, but there has been nothing conclusive so far. Sir Oliver Lodge, the esteemed British physicist, was one of those who left some passwords behind. However, he did communicate that it was a mistake because they don’t remember words after they transition; they remember ideas. They also communicate ideas, not words. That is why it often appears that clairvoyants are “fishing” for information. They are actually attempting to interpret the pictures they are seeing as given to them in symbols by the communicating spirit. It is also why they rarely get names, i.e., because there are not many names that have symbols representing them.

    I don’t know whether the people you mentioned were “psychics” or “mediums.” They are not necessarilty the same, although there is often an overlap. Take a look at the detailed research carried out with mediums by Sir Oliver Lodge, Dr. Richard Hodgson, Dr. James Hyslop, and others, if you want to sink your teeth into something. They were not the same kind of mediums we usually see today. They were trance mediums and direct-voice mediums. We don’t see much of them today because that type of ability takes time to develop and people today don’t have the quiet time they had 100 or more years ago. There are too many distractions. People would rather watch TV than spend time in candlelight meditating and attempting to develop.

    However, as far as evidence helping a detective, take a look at “A Whisper from an Angel,” by Christine Holohan. The appendix offers statements by the investigating British detectives were led to the killer by the murdered victim communicating through the medium. Of course, the skeptics will always have a theory to advance in opposition to such stories, but it is really the cumulative evidence that one has to consider. There are volumes of material.

    If you ever get down (or up?) to Christchurch, see if you can visit with the Rev. Michael Cocks, a retired Anglican priest, and listen to some of his stories. Actually, I mentioned one of them at my blog. See http://whitecrowbooks.com/michaeltymn/month/2010/08/

    • peddiebill says:

      Actually by coincidence I published Michael Cocks’ book (as Kelso Press) so I am familiar with it but I am afraid I was not entirely convinced. He claimed in the book to have met someone who channeled St Stephen. First whether it was Stephen or not Stephen – Stephen didnt have anything of any significance to say which leaves us with the puzzle of why he needed to speak from the grave, and second there appeared to my untutored eye to be a weakness in Stephen’s understanding of his previous life and times. The critical speech he made could easily have been picked up from details and Greek gleaned from a quick visit to the university library. However if that is what you believe to be convincing – so be it. I too have read people who claim to have written up mediums’ incredible guidance to police. The trouble is that it is the mediums who provide the information to the writers and in the cases I followed up, when I check with the police they claim it wasnt like that at all. I particularly suspect the mediums I see in action on TV because having dabbled in stage magic I can see how they operate. I guess with different backgrounds we cant quite agree, but whatever the truth actually is does not depend on my opinion – or even possible yours. Regards Bill

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