Near Death Experiences – science or religion or…?

Schiavonetti_Soul_leaving_body_1808Just returned from the excellent Science and Religion Forum meeting at the University of Chester, where one of the speakers (with a background in medical research) described current thoughts on the enigmatic and poorly-understood phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDE), which might include sensations of utter peace and assurance, often combined with the visual perception of a bright light at the end of a tunnel. Some Near Death Experiences take on the specific form of Out of Body Experiences (OBE), where subjects might report the sensation of leaving their body and perceiving it and its surroundings from above. Much to my surprise, the speaker went on to describe his own NDE after a near-fatal accident, an experience so significant that it had been instrumental in his own calling to become a Christian, and later ordination. My surprise sprang from the fact that the speaker, despite his scientific credentials, was willing to attribute objective spiritual significance to his experience. I have never had such a Near Death Experience myself, but I am aware that they can be intensely powerful to the subject. I am also aware that they are poorly understood scientifically. Nevertheless, it’s widely accepted that there must be a scientific explanation which must lie in human psychology or physiology. Science can’t rule out that NDEs involve spiritual encounters or a glimpse of the afterlife, but it can offer explanations within the context of its own naturalistic framework, seeing them in terms of hallucinations when the body and brain are in the extreme state of near death.

In discussing this later, a vigorous argument ensued. It became clear that I was unusual in being the out-and-out sceptic, completely unwilling to attribute any external significance to Near Death Experiences. Some people were prepared to be open-minded, others to go so far as to believe that these experiences were genuine evidence of the human soul separating from the body and preparing to go into the afterlife. The idea of “impossible knowledge” is often raised in Out of Body Experiences, where the putative disembodied person notices a detail in the scene that they couldn’t possibly have known about otherwise. I remain sceptical, on several grounds.

First, it seems to me that attributing objective significance to such experiences is little to do with religion, but is uncomfortably close to admitting paranormal activity, and I often worry that the science-religion field gets enough bad press from its (usually militant atheist) critics as it is for taking what they might refer to as “fairy tales” or “superstition” seriously. I am content to take the line of conventional science in such matters. (This reminds me of some interesting asides in Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge where he complains of the fact that, despite strong evidence for Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP), science cannot accept it because its framework is inadequate). At the moment the scientific framework is firmly embedded in naturalism, and is simply unable to make sense of such claims that there is a spiritual reality or dimension outside of the natural world. And while science is able to find an explanation for Near Death Experiences in naturalistic terms, however sketchy that explanation might be, it is preferable in my opinion to stick with that explanation than to depart from it into the unknown. In this, I am a clear supporter of David Hume’s empiricism, who, writing of the related issue of miracles, declared that “the knavery and folly of men are such common phaenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.” I happen to believe that Hume was wrong about miracles, but right about the empirical framework in which we judge them. In other words, a Humean such as myself would rather believe someone to be mistaken to attribute external spiritual significance to their Near Death Experience than to discard my whole intellectual framework of naturalism. And I say this with the utmost respect for those who claim such experiences.

Second, and because I am a keen supporter of naturalism, I do not believe in a spiritual detachable soul. As a Christian with relatively traditional beliefs, I am happy to put my hope in God’s salvation of the natural world, with me in it; as the Nicene Creed puts it: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” It may sound inconsistent to voice such traditional religious beliefs alongside a Humean scepticism, but the Christian framework is fully consistent with the empirical naturalism of science: both affirm that we are material beings, embodied in a natural world. It is in such a world that we live, will die, and (I hope, going beyond current science) will live again.

So, I have given you my reasons. I’m aware that this is an intensely controversial subject. But it’s worth opening up the discussion more widely. After all, the science-religion field can little afford to be quiet on the matter.