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Walking Through Death's Door

The Great Afterlife Debate

Earlier this month Intelligence2 hosted a debate on the question of the afterlife, with ground-breaking near-death experience author Dr. Raymond Moody and neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander arguing for the statement “Death is not Final”, while countering that claim were physicist Sean Carroll and neurologist Dr. Steven Novella. With the event being a sell-out, Intelligence2 graciously streamed the debate via video to the internet, and have since shared the recorded version on YouTube (see embedded video below).

I mentioned my concern over the choice of panelist arguing ‘for’ the proposition before the debate, and that concern was largely borne out. In my opinion, they failed badly and the negative side were worthy winners of the debate. Moody and Alexander seemed unbelievably badly prepared, given how obvious the arguments of the negative side were going to be. Neither seemed ready for the critiques, which certainly have vulnerabilities of their own which the positives could have responded with (see my examination after the video below). Both Moody and Alexander also seemed to be pre-occupied by their own personal interaction with the topic, and as such rather than surveying the whole landscape of the afterlife debate to bolster their case, they stayed within their own very narrow boundaries. Eben Alexander led off almost completely with his own, subjective (and not totally NDE-like) experience, which was no doubt profound for him, but is not a story which should win any logic-based debate. Raymond Moody – who is certainly owed a huge debt by us all for his contribution to the field with his seminal NDE book Life After Life – indulged in his predilection for deep philosophical musings, which may be fun over a casual drink, but in an hour-long public debate is an action doomed to fail. Moody got so lost in his musings in fact, that at one point he said point-blank “I believe parapsychology is a pseudoscience”, and later was invited by the negative side to join their panel because he seemed to be arguing on behalf of their side!

You can watch the entire debate for yourself here:

I said before the debate that I would have preferred to see someone with the credentials of Dr. Bruce Greyson arguing for the positive, as he has a deep knowledge of these topics, understanding both the evidence for and the critiques against, and is a fairly unflappable character. Since the debate, I’ve thought of other possible candidates who would also have done a good job: Michael Prescott, Chris Carter, Janice Miner-Holden, Michael Grosso, Julie Beischel, Sam Parnia and Steve Volk. (Some of my Twitter followers suggested to me that I should have been on the panel (based on my examination of the evidence in my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife), but I am a poor speaker, and may have been a bit too ambivalent about certain aspects of afterlife evidence to be a powerful speaker for the positive side.)

Nevertheless, here’s how I think Moody and Alexander should have conducted the debate:

The ‘for’ side needed to concentrate on the weight of anomalistic evidence in support of the statement. There is no killer (pun not intended) case to win the day – sorry Eben – but there is a preponderance of very curious cases which would have fascinated and likely swayed what was a very sympathetic audience. Alexander should have started the debate by giving a broad overview of all this evidence: firstly by introducing NDEs, then pointing out the multiple cases of veridical NDEs (where the person having the NDE reports back information that they should not have had access to, such as details about the operating theatre), then pointing out Peak in Darien cases (where the NDEr sees someone in the ‘afterlife realm’ who was thought to be alive, but was subsequently verified to have died shortly before that time). Rinse and repeat with end-of-life experiences reported by those on their death-bed shortly before they passed. Follow up on the end-of-life experiences of the dying with reports of strange phenomena at the death-bed witnessed by healthy individuals caring for the dying. Move on to mediumship, and the long history of research into that area – start with the conclusions of many distinguished scientists with the Society for Psychical Research that mediums did have access to those ‘beyond’, and move through to more recent research such as that conducted by Julie Beischel and Emily Kelly. In other words, come out swinging! The negative side were sure to counter those topics, but the skeptical arguments are fairly stock standard and predictable, and thus could have been answered in more detail in the following segments.

And truly, there was no surprise in the negative arguments. Carroll, the physicist, argued that these experiences are outside of physical laws. Novella, the neuroscientist, argued that we have a complete description of the mind as arising from the physical brain. The counter-argument to Carroll’s ‘physical laws’ critique is quite simple: it needed to be pointed out that his claim is largely tautological: “we know these physical laws, thus our reality is defined, thus we know what the physical laws of reality are”. A fun and accessible thought experiment based on the ‘simulation argument‘ might have been a nice exercise to win the audience here. For example, get them to consider a person totally immersed in the world of id Software’s first-person shooter Quake: within that game, the physics are slightly different to the physics of ‘our realitiy’ – you can swerve around corners as you jump, you can fire a rocket at your feet to jump higher, there is such thing as teleportation of the body, and so on. Only once that person ‘unplugs’ do they find a world where those things are inconceivable. (And to push the gaming analogy even further, in the game Counterstrike: Source, when you die you have an out-of-body experience, able to fly around and watch what people are doing, far from your dead ‘body’, just as is reported in veridical near-death experiences.) So why should the existence of another reality – the afterlife one – either enclosing this one, or sitting beside it, require adherence to the physical laws of our living reality?

Additionally, on a separate tack, it might be worth mentioning that other respected scientists – such as Professor Henry Stapp and Stuart Hameroff – have actually argued that the physical laws of this world do not preclude the existence of consciousness surviving our bodily death (see this TDG story for example).

Sean Carroll also brought with him some neat debate tricks, such as when he asked a ghost to lift his glass of water to prove the afterlife. It was good for entertaining the audience – which is half of the challenge in winning a debate – but it really had no basis in logic and Alexander or Moody could have ‘exposed’ the ruse as a cheap trick for their own benefit. And Carroll’s statement that “physicists used to think consciousness was involved in quantum physics, we’ve moved on now though” (paraphrasing) was his own personal viewpoint (which it must be said, however, is assuredly an expert one). There is no doubt that there are many very capable physicists who do not share that view, such as the afore-mentioned Henry Stapp, Sir Roger Penrose, and the authors of the book Quantum Enigma, Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, who have said that the link between consciousness and the quantum is physics’ “skeleton in the closet”. Pointing this out would have weakened Carroll’s reputation with the audience considerably (“he’s not telling us facts, he’s just giving his opinion).

Steven Novella’s gambit was also a predictable one, given his background in neuroscience, and his high ranking in skeptical circles: “we know the mind is a creation of the brain, because when the brain is damaged, mind is damaged”. The obvious response to him here would have been to point out the error in his assumption: that correlation equals causation. In a transmission theory of consciousness, in which the brain acts as ‘receiver’ of consciousness from elsewhere, any damage to the ‘receiver’ (the physical brain) is obviously going to affect the ‘transmission’ (mind). The oft-used analogy is a television set – if you throw a brick into the TV, it’s going to cause problems in seeing the picture in some way, but that doesn’t mean the channel you were watching is contained with the TV. Another more up-to-date analogy might be the Mars Curiosity rover: smash the ‘control centre’ of the rover and it will ‘die’, a lonely inert piece of metal on the lifeless surface of the Red Planet. But the intelligence that was directing Curiosity (the driver of the rover) remains fully conscious and alive on the ‘Earth plane’ which is its origin, just unable to control its body anymore.

Novella did make a good point in asking if near-death experiences were truly happening during the ‘death state’ of resuscitation, or whether they might have actually been occurring during the short intervals of consciousness on either side (e.g. upon regaining heart function). The response here should have been along the lines of what Dr. Bruce Greyson told me (mentioned in the chapter on NDEs). Acknowledge that it’s a good question, and requires further research, but that the accounts of veridical near-death experiencers appear to offer us with ‘time anchors’ which show us that these experiences happened during the ‘death state’. It would have been good to give an example here, so that the audience could grasp the point, such as the veridical NDE of a patient recounted by pioneering surgeon Dr. Lloyd Rudy. Rudy and his assistant had done bypass surgery on the patient, but had been unable to get them back off the bypass machine, eventually being forced to give up. The anaesthesiologist left the room to get something to eat, and Dr. Rudy and his assistant removed their surgical gowns and began debriefing while others cleaned up the OR. Then, after showing a little bit of intermittent electrical activity, the patients heart began beating again on its own, and Rudy and his team leapt into action to stabilise the patient. Here’s what happened afterwards, from Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife):

A few days later, Rudy was talking to the patient about the operation, asking him if he had felt or experienced anything during this strange situation. The patient told Rudy about having seen a bright light at the end of a tunnel – standard fare for an NDE – but it was what he related about the Earthly realm that “astounded” the experienced surgeon: “He described that operating room [and] floating around and saying ‘I saw you and the [other doctor] standing in the doorway with your arms folded talking…I didn’t know where the anaesthesiologist was but he came running back in. And I saw all of these post-it notes, sitting on this TV screen’.” This particular aspect was the most intriguing to Rudy – during a surgery, if he received any phone calls he would get the nurse to answer and then write down the name and number on a post-it note, and stick it to the monitor so that he could call them back once the operation was finished. Dr. Rudy laughs at this point and exclaims animatedly: “HE DESCRIBED THAT!! I mean there’s no way he could have described that before the operation because I didn’t have any calls…he described the scene, things that there is no way he knew”. With a flabbergasted look on his face, Rudy clarifies: “I mean he didn’t wake up in the operating room and see all this – he was out, and was out for a day or two while we recovered him in the Intensive Care Unit”.

Cases such as this could have been used to call out Steven Novella’s statement that “there are “no cases with evidence of when NDE happened””, and doing so would have been a useful tool in throwing doubt over everything else the negative side – who held the advantage of coming across as serious, knowledgable scientists – were saying. Similarly, discussing the correlation equals causation error, and explanation of how transmission theory shows it to not necessarily true, offered a fine way of rebutting Novella’s statement that the available evidence about the relationship between brain and mind “can only lead to one conclusion”. Some really fine opportunities were not taken advantage of here by the positive side, who as I said seemed to be woefully prepared for their opponents’ strategies. The negative side certainly overstated their case in many places, but the audience largely didn’t know any better and it was up to the affirmative team to seize on those mis-statements and educate the audience, and in doing so win their trust – but they failed in that respect.

Not so much on the knowledge side of things, but the other area where the positive side could have been better was in the personal stakes. The negative side were a great combination of humour, confidence, and scientific information (although I think Carroll’s confidence veered into almost being academically snobbish, which could have been played on strategically by Moody and Alexander). The affirmative side, on the other hand seemed (at least to me) rather self-interested, overly serious and too philosophical (especially in Moody’s case). They may have even lost the argument simply on these grounds, as the crowd really seemed to want a reason, any reason, to vote for the positive, if they could just give it to them (witness the ovation Alexander got simply for mentioning the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness).

On the flip side, Carroll and Novella may well have had ‘more gears’, but their opposition was so poor that they didn’t have to get out of first gear. Which is more the shame, because this could have been a cracking debate, both entertaining and educational. For me it was frustrating to watch the positive side fail to mention so much positive evidence, and fail to predict and counter the negatives’ rather obvious strategies. But at least there was a public debate on this topic, which I would love to see more of. It’s one of the biggest questions of our existence, and there is fascinating evidence supporting it as well as powerful critiques against. It deserves to be discussed properly.

To learn more about these fascinating topics, grab a copy of my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife as either a Kindle ebook or in paperback format.

Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife

  1. Interesting point
    The fact they went so unprepared says something of the conviction with which they believe what they believe; at it’s immutable veracity. That’s interesting in and of itself.

  2. Set up job
    Like all of the Intelligence Squared “debates” I’ve heard on the radio, this was a set-up job. Two practiced ideological campaigners against two mild-mannered Southern gentlemen. I’ve heard Carroll debate people who were practiced and he just barely held his own. Novella is a CSICOP ideological warrior. Both of them rely on cheap tricks and derision. It also doesn’t surprise me that the kind of crowd that lineup would get out would attract their side. Look at how every blog comment thread that impinges on topics of interest to atheists turns into a hate talk session by them.

    Hate sells, conceit sells, fundamentalism sells. Those are problems for people who don’t peddle those to the hate market. That the atheist hate cult hasn’t done better in the general public is remarkable in itself.

  3. “Parapsychology is a pseudo-science”
    I heard Moody mention that argument on his latest appearance in Alex’s Skeptiko podcast, and it was very difficult to follow his logic for stating that —and that when he was been interviewed by a sympathetic host!— but if that’s his way of thinking, then there was no way in Hell —or Heaven— in which he would have mentioned mediumship to defend his position.

    You bring up an interesting point, Greg, which is so rarely mentioned by us when we discuss this topic: By default the ‘pro’ side already had the public’s sympathy, considering how from an emotional viewpoint everybody would like to have confirmation that Death is not the end of existence; so if you already have such a huge advantage, and you end up losing to the ‘con’ side, that speaks volumes about the poor performance of the ‘pro’ team :-/

    1. Does everybody want an afterlife?
      Hi RPJ!

      I just wanted to comment on one thing you said.

      I do not think that “everybody” would like to have confirmation that Death is not the end. I have come across a lot of people that seem to take comfort more in the idea of oblivion than an afterlife of some sort. Of course, it is anecdotal, but the “knowledge” that you don’t have to keep on going forever may be more appeasing than the idea that you can never stop existing. Plus, people enjoy their worldview of certainty that they know what happens when you die. It may also be an ego thing, that you are somehow braver because you can face the world how it is.

      All in all, I just wanted to point out that the idea that “everyone” wants there to be something after death, may not be necessarily true.

      1. What is actually doing the
        What is actually doing the “debating” now is the overwhelming number of detailed reports from real people with real experiences. That rapidly expanding body of knowledge trumps everything else. I think this tidal wave infuriates the professional skeptics and causes them to lose face hence the circus.

      2. The howling fantods
        From an ideological perspective there would be comfort for quite a few people in the idea of annihilation. If one is living a life at the pain and expense of others then the belief you didn’t have to endure recourse, or even the burden of you own behaviors, would indeed be comforting.

        To play advocate for a spiritual belief system for a moment: when you extrapolate further on this concept it does seem that life is almost tailor-made for testing the character of a person. Our lack of certainty leaves us alone with our own agendas.

        One can live with not existing. Easily. One can live, albeit a little less easily, with the knowledge that if there is nothing – no great plan – then all our art, all our achievements, all our dreams, are entirely made moot; the insane hopes of a consciousness that was not meant to be. But, the idea of the good – the gentle people who did not impose their wants by force on others – not existing somewhere still is a much harder thing to live with. The idea that victims were born just to be such is a horrible pain to think of. And the notion that the evil of humanity goes unpunished is what truly eats at the soul. Boo!

        In the least if there is no heaven I hope there is a hell. That those people whose pain, or lusts, or inflated sense of self-entitlement, gives them the sense of moral authority to inflict harm on others for their amusements; that there is a place where they must face their own actions if only briefly before stepping into eternity. That would be nice to believe because there’s no justice here on Earth.

      3. Fair enough 🙂
        You raise a good point, Red-walker. The problem of dabbling in generalizations 😉

        Although I suppose the ‘comfort in oblivion’ would be more prevalent in industrialized nations, and among folks of a more ‘left-brained’ disposition.

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