Evidence Considered: Near-death Experiences

This is an excerpt from Evidence Considered: A Response to Evidence for God (available here). Evidence for God is a book edited by William Dembski and Michael Licona that presents fifty arguments for faith from the Bible, history, philosophy, and science. This chapter responds to an essay by Gary Habermas entitled: “Near-Death Experiences: Evidence for an Afterlife?” This is one of the arguments contained in the philosophy section. The endnotes have been removed.

Habermas discusses accounts of near-death experiences, stating that they have been reported throughout history. He mentions reports with “claims of floating above one’s dying body, traveling down a dark tunnel, encountering or even being welcomed by a loving being of light, perhaps meeting deceased loved ones, hearing beautiful sounds and seeing wonderful colors, and then afterward losing the fear of death.” He says that critics sometimes claim that “even similar sightings such as these may indicate nothing more than the presence of common brain chemistry among humans.”

However, Habermas continues, some near-death experience reports include verifiable data. “For example, in dozens of [near-death experience] accounts, the dying person claims that, precisely during their emergency, they actually observed events that were subsequently confirmed. These observations may have occurred in the emergency room when the individual was in no condition to be observing what was going on around them. Sometimes the data are reported from a distance away from the scene and actually may not have been observable from the individual’s location even if they had been healthy, with the normal use of their senses.”

He goes on to say that some of these reports occurred when the dying person had no heartbeat for an extended period and even no brain activity. Blind people have given accurate descriptions of their surroundings, without ever having seen anything before or since.

The example that he gives is one “well-documented case” of a little girl who nearly drowned and did not register a pulse for nineteen minutes. Here is the story as related and quoted by Habermas:

Her emergency room physician, pediatrician Melvin Morse, states that he “stood over Katie’s lifeless body in the intensive care unit.” An emergency CAT scan indicated that Katie had massive brain swelling, no gag reflex, and was “profoundly comatose.” Morse notes that, “When I first saw her, her pupils were fixed and dilated, meaning that irreversible brain damage had most likely occurred.” Her breathing was done by an artificial lung machine. She was given very little chance of surviving.

But then, just three days later, Katie unexpectedly made a full recovery. In fact, when she revived, she reproduced an amazing wealth of information regarding the emergency room, specific details of her resuscitation, along with physical descriptions of the two physicians who worked on her. All this occurred while she was completely comatose and most likely without any brain function whatsoever. As Morse recounts, “A child with Katie’s symptoms should have the absence of any brain function and therefore should comprehend nothing.”

It took her almost an hour to recall all the recent details. However, part of the story made no sense in usual medical terms. Katie related that during her comatose state, she was visited by an angel named Elizabeth, who allowed her to look in on her family at home. Katie correctly reported very specific details concerning what her siblings were doing, even identifying a popular rock song that her sister listened to, watched her father, and then observed as her mom cooked a meal that she correctly identified: roast chicken and rice. She described the clothing and positions of her family members. Later, she shocked her parents by telling them these details that had occurred only a few days before.

Habermas states that the naturalistic explanations such as oxygen deprivation cannot account for these kinds of detailed stories.

Habermas goes on to say that several descriptions in the Bible seem like near-death experiences. Luke 16:19–31 is the parable of Lazarus the beggar that “sounds somewhat similar to contemporary reports [of near-death experiences].” Acts 7:54–60 is the stoning of Stephen in which he says “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” And 2 Cor 12:1–10 describes Paul’s vision of being caught up to the third heaven. He admits that “tough questions” exist (a phrase he uses three times), and states that more research is needed, but that “these occurrences still argue for a supernatural reality beyond this present reality, thereby presenting serious challenges to naturalism. This may be the chief worldview contribution of [near-death experience] research.”

Response

Habermas is presenting us with a transcendental interpretation of a near-death experience, that is the view that consciousness can become separated from the brain under certain conditions and give us a glimpse into a different realm. This view is at odds with the dominant neuroscientific view, which says that consciousness is a brain function. The Wikipedia article on near-death experiences is very thorough and references a lot of other research. Much of the research referenced was written long before 2010 (when Evidence for God was published), which makes its absence from Habermas’s essay surprising. The full Melvin Morse story had not yet come to light by then, however, so we may excuse this part (which I will discuss shortly), though it does show the danger inherent in dealing with this kind of subject, where evidence is paramount because of the ramifications of the claims.

To begin with near-death experiences in general, Kenneth Ring wrote a book in which he classified them on a five-stage continuum as:

  1. feelings of peace and contentment;
  2. a sense of detachment from the body;
  3. entering a transitional world of darkness (rapid movements through tunnels: ‘the tunnel experience’);
  4. emerging into bright light; and
  5. ‘entering the light.’

Karl Jansen published a paper in 1996 which concluded that “ketamine administered by intravenous injection, in appropriate dosage, is capable of reproducing all of the features of the [near-death experience] which have been commonly described in the most cited works in this field.” He says that “[a]s might be predicted in a mental state with a neurobiological origin, mundane accounts with less symbolic meaning also occur, e.g. children who may ‘see’ their schoolfellows rather than God and angels.” He states that “Ketamine is a short-acting, hallucinogenic, ‘dissociative’ anesthetic. The anesthesia is the result of the patient being so ‘dissociated’ and ‘removed from their body’ that it is possible to carry out surgical procedures. This is wholly different from the ‘unconsciousness’ produced by conventional anesthetics … anesthetists prevent patients from having NDE’s (‘emergence phenomena’) by the co-administration of sedatives which produce ‘true’ unconsciousness rather than dissociation.”

He also describes that this is not a coincidence, as the biochemical effects of ketamine are somewhat similar to the effect of cell death from lack of oxygen, a lack of blood, and from epileptic fits, and not at all like the effects of psychedelic drugs.

This would appear at a glance to wrap up the vast majority of the cases. But a challenge remains, in the form of cases where the person close to death has obtained some special knowledge, such as the story quoted above. In general, an attitude of skepticism will serve well, not accepting such claims until provided with extraordinary evidence. The case Habermas chooses to present is certainly not that. At first glance, it may seem impressive, as we have a doctor attesting to aspects of this story. It turns out that Morse is the only one attesting to these stories, and that he is a doctor with a particular interest in near-death experiences, who has written many books on the subject. Immediately, his interest in it should pique our suspicion that we need more evidence than Morse alone. Even in this story as given, it is unclear how Morse verified the various facts. But anyone can imagine how two stories could seem to correlate to an interested party.

“She said you had chicken. Did you have chicken?”

“Yes, that sounds right. Which night did you mean? It was a few days ago now, but I think so.”

“Wow, so she saw you eating chicken!”

The point is that how you collect the evidence is important. The story of Melvin Morse gets more interesting. In 2014 he was convicted of waterboarding his wife’s eleven-year-old daughter and sentenced to three years in prison. This would appear to be turning an interest into an obsession. However, the issue is the lack of evidence. Morse presents himself as a doctor and therefore a reliable witness, but his character would seem to be in question, and his evidence collection leaves a lot to be desired. A comment on this: people bandy about stories like this, and one might be tempted to see the sheer number of them as evidence. But when given a single example to chase down, it tends to evaporate into nothing. This parallels my experience of trying to pin down evidence for faith in general.

We could stop here, as Habermas has presented no compelling evidence of a supernatural reality. But I would like to continue a little further — the truth is not so fragile that it does not bear closer examination.

In 2001, a project known as the AWARE study (AWAreness during REsuscitation) was begun, coordinated by Sam Parnia from Southampton University. This involved placing figures on suspended boards facing the ceiling in resuscitation units at many different hospitals. The boards are not visible from the floor. Parnia wrote, “anybody who claimed to have left their body and be near the ceiling during resuscitation attempts would be expected to identify those targets.” So far, no-one has seen the boards. A second, larger trial is underway with results due on May 31, 2017. If someone did “see” the image, I would be more inclined to look for playful interns or reflective surfaces, but I do not think a healthy skepticism should prevent us searching. This research is on-going, but so far there have not been any results that would require a separation of mind and brain.

Lastly, let us look at the theology of this, in which there are indeed some “tough questions.” Habermas adduces three Bible verses. Luke 16:19–31 which is a parable, and includes the idea of Hades as a place of torment. I think most modern Christians are dialing back on this idea of hell, a place of such obvious injustice that it throws the whole system into disrepute. But to stay focused, this is just a parable, and cannot be counted as a near-death experience. Acts 7:54–60 relates the stoning of Stephen. However, Stephen says that he sees heaven open before they rush him outside and stone him. There is no indication that he was not the picture of good health at the time he claimed to have a vision so this too cannot be a near-death experience. Finally, 2 Corinthians 12:1–10 is Paul’s vision of the third heaven. We know that Paul was prone to visions, and it is at best speculation that this was a near-death experience: he does not even mention an illness or injury. So these are all rather weak. Even Answers in Genesis (hardly a skeptical source) has an article dismissing visits to heaven on theological grounds: “Far too much of the present interest in heaven, angels, and the afterlife stems from carnal curiosity. It is not a trend biblical Christians should encourage or celebrate.”

On the other hand, these experiences happen to people regardless of religion so even if it did reveal some realm beyond the natural (which it does not so far) it would not provide any evidence for god, gods, or any specific religion.

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