Proving Heaven

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I have always included a section on the afterlife in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As bit of grim humor, I tell my students that this is one philosophical problem that has a definite answer—unfortunately getting that answer requires dying.

Not surprisingly, students often point to examples of experiences in which people are technically dead, but are restored to life. People who survive these encounters with death often speak of strange experiences that they sometimes take as evidence for the afterlife.

One of the best publicized examples of this is the case of Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon. After being put into a coma by bacterial meningitis, he had a death and revival experience which he has extensively publicized. He has also written up his experience as a book, the aptly named Proof of Heaven.

While Dr. Alexander’s case was given extensive media coverage because he is a Harvard neurosurgeon, his case is otherwise not significantly different from other such cases and can be assessed as they have been assessed. Naturally, it is worth noting that his medical training does give him credibility as an expert on neurosurgery. However, as an observer of the afterlife he would seem to be no more (or less) of an expert than anyone else. That is, his expertise in neurosurgery would not seem to apply to metaphysical experiences of the sort alleged to have occurred.

One stock criticism of the near-death experience is that a person who is revived is not properly dead. After all, they are revived shortly after death rather than resurrected or raised from the dead. As such, there is the rather legitimate question of whether or not they are even dead in a manner that would allow them to experience an afterlife, should it exist. They might just be “mostly dead” rather than “properly dead” and hence any experiences they have would not be experiences of the afterlife.

A second stock criticism is that the person who reports on near death experiences is not experiencing an afterlife, but is in a state of dreaming or hallucination that is mistaken for the afterlife on the basis that they were “mostly dead.” Critics routinely point to the similarities between near death experiences and drug experiences and the case of Dr. Alexander is no exception. It certainly makes sense that a dying brain would experience dream or drug like experiences that have no connection to the afterlife.

The cutting edge of these criticisms is to be found in Occam’s razor: the experiences can be explained adequately without postulating a metaphysical afterlife. As such, the explanation that the experiences are occurring within a dying (but still living) brain is the better explanation.

Aside from Dr. Alexander’s fame, there seems to be no real difference between his experiences and those reported by many other people before him.  Given that these cases do not provide proof of heaven, then neither does his case.

Naturally, I would like to believe in the sort of wonderful afterlife claimed by Dr. Alexander. However, wishful thinking is not proof.

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99 Comments.

  1. There are two reasons to believe in life after death: 1) the historical Jesus and 2) the large number of people who believe in life after death. Included in the second reason is a third reason: People who think believing in life after death is irrational are irrational about the meaning of life, ignorant of the proof of God’s existence, and unintelligent about the mind-body problem.

  2. You were a lot easier on the Doctor than sam Harris

  3. @ D Roemer

    More people do not accept Jesus than do, so if i follow your second “reason” I shouldn’t accept him either.

  4. I disapprove of religions that speculate on the afterlife or the supernatural in a specific way, especially negatively, and develop intricate tenets on the subject which must be believed. However, I happen to have witnessed personally a family member who fainted while seated, and was carried unconscious to a couch and revived about 10 minutes later: she was able to recount the whole episode which she claimed to have witnessed from the height just below the ceiling, that is, her body and (mind?) seem to have been separated. Everything she said was exactly how it happened. Now, she wasn’t dead but this surely says something about the mind and body relationship which is not popular these days. This relative isn’t religious, isn’t interested in ghosts or the supernatural and is basically the most down-to-earth person I have ever known. She has only mentioned this episode once and didn’t realize I had witnessed it. I have heard since of similar out-of-body cases in which claimed undergone experiences could be backed up by know facts – that is objects were seen that could not have been seen normally.

  5. @David Roemer – Jesus said precious little about life after death and I am more inclined to consider what he said concerning life of this Earth.

  6. “students often point to examples of experiences in which people are technically dead, but are restored to life.”

    No-one has returned from being ‘technically dead.’ Some people have been misdiagnosed as dead. Others have had their hearts stop for a while. Neither of these things counts as ‘death’, either legally or medically.

    The question of when a soul would (start to) evacuate the mortal body is interesting, for those who believe in such things, but it would seem odd to believe that it would leave when the heart temporarily stops beating.

  7. I often disagree with Mike on his posts, but here I don’t. One need not even believe in the afterlife as a direct consequence of belief in a God-image, as many Jews in Jesus’s day did not.

    Personally, I find belief in an afterlife to be generally used as a sort of bribe to be good which, if you need it, proves you’re not.

  8. Thoughts entered me directly. But it wasn’t thought like we experience on earth. It wasn’t vague, immaterial, or abstract. These thoughts were solid and immediate—hotter than fire and wetter than water—and as I received them I was able to instantly and effortlessly understand concepts that would have taken me years to fully grasp in my earthly life.

    To the conscious, that’s mania pure and simple.

  9. @Steve Lindsey
    Accepting Jesus means believing Jesus is alive in a new life with God and that if you follow Jesus the same good thing can happen to you. Buddhists and Hindues believe in Jesus because they believe in life after death.

    @doris wrench eisler
    The Pharisees and most Jewish people, including Jesus, believed in life after death.

  10. Talking Philosophy « New Evangelist, David Roemer - pingback on October 30, 2012 at 9:18 pm
  11. Lee,

    “Personally, I find belief in an afterlife to be generally used as a sort of bribe to be good which, if you need it, proves you’re not.”

    Well said.

    Colin,

    Where is the line drawn between a heart “temporarily” stopping and permanently stopping? How is that determined? I really don’t know and am wondering if you do.

    I would hard pressed to think that, if a “soul” were to leave the body, that it would follow our interpretation of temporary/permanent death. If it were to leave the body, I would be more inclined to think that it would leave the instant “temporary” death occurs.

    Assuming that this process would be like any other bodily process. i.e. automatic and without autonomy.

  12. @doris wrench eisler
    The first step to understanding prophetic and mystical religion is understanding the mind-body problem. There are four solutions and understanding all four requires intelligence. Deciding which solution is supported by the evidence requires being rational. These are the four solutions: 1) dualism, 2) materialism, 3) idealism, and 4) It is a mystery.

  13. David Roemer, I am always troubled by Philosophy’s tendency to organize what we “know” into labelled categories and mistake them for the possible. The mind-body problem may well have other solutions we are not yet aware of.

    One of these other possibilities is that an awareness/intelligence algorithm is at work in the universe and, like the functions of mathematics, can be simulated on mechanisms (like human brains and human cultures) operating within the universe. Our sense that we could recreate human intelligence on a machine (a la Turing Test) is an implicit acceptance of this notion.

    Does this idea inherently grant an individual an afterlife? Not inherently, but it might help us to understand the vague sense that we’re not the limit of intelligence.

  14. Commenting on Mike’s article (rather than the increasingly worrying blog .. more there later, no doubt). Yes, the question of death is one never properly tackled by those of the spooky dispositions. From the biomedical perspective these days, the notion of ‘death’ doesn’t mean much at all. We are used the to the (very important, very real) medico-legal-ethical issues around brain death, do-not-resuscitate status, levels of anaesthesia, locked-in syndrome, survivable premature birth etc. But death per se has lost all its historical anchors and certainties.

    Until less than a century ago, cessation of the heart beat and or breathing for more than a few seconds meant you were dead – or so very soon would be – that it made no functional difference. A few celebrated ‘lucky’ cases did ‘wake up’ later, as one would expect. And that happens even now. But today, a stationary heart is an everyday event, entirely routine in cardiac surgery. Historically, none of your ‘bits’ could survive after being removed from your body (either traumatically or surgically). Now we have frozen embryos, ‘immortal’ cell lines, tissue banks and more. Many of us are thereby quasi-immortal.

    So unless you and all your bits have been comprehensively pulped, cremated or long-buried, it’s futile to seek confirmation of death, never mind defining a moment when it happened. The religionists, as usual, haven’t brought their stone-age notions up to date. It is now quite clear that there is no ‘moment of death’, even during the quiet, natural, fading-away deathbed we might all hope for in serene old age. So the idea of a soul departing the body ‘at death’ – even to hover for a bit above the hospital bed ‘just in case’ the body decides to carry on – is without credibility. Dying is a process; death is but an arbitrary point along that path, then one when going into reverse is no longer possible. We have become used to moving that point ever later and medical science makes it increasingly possible to move it further still. I’m sorry to disappoint some, but prayer demonstrably isn’t doing the work there – it’s science.

    So the befuddled ‘recollections’ of somebody like Dr Alexander who revives after a near-death experience are as credible as those of anyone recovering from a bad drug trip, boozy night out or general anaesthesia. Introspection is not all its cracked up to be, especially in such circumstances. We know we are often confused and wrong, even when nominally conscious! I enjoy (some of) my dreams but I surely don’t ‘believe’ them.

  15. A more general and I suppose obvious objection to an experiential “proof” of heaven is that experiences per se can’t count as reliable evidence of what is experienced to be the case. Given the fallibility of human experience, its potential to misrepresent the world, you have to be able to point to some publicly observable evidence for the claim that heaven exists, something outside your experience that others can verify is real.

    I’ve suggested calling this the “public object” requirement for good epistemic practice. It doesn’t matter how many people report powerful, transforming experiences of seeing heaven, since they could all be mistaken, just as all those experiencing alien abduction could be mistaken, http://www.naturalism.org/projecting_god.htm#justify

  16. Lee Jaimison,
    Calling the human mind an algorithm sounds like materialism (solution # 3). If I am wrong, then there are 5 solutions. In my judgment, the solution with the most evidence is that the human mind is a mystery. This means that humans are embodied spirits. This means humans are finite beings and an infinite being exists. The infinite being has revealed to us that there is life after death.

  17. Tom,

    The issue with the “everyone is mistaken” idea is that it all to easily could be that you or I are the mistaken one. It may even be the more rational belief in some cases.

    Even if we are right and some very large group of people who had purported to believe or have seen some thing are mistaken, at some point it becomes less and less rational to think they are the mistaken ones. Even if it turns out we’re correct.

    Take, for instance, a massive hallucination that everyone in the city is experiencing but me for some reason. I may be right about what’s happening, but it would be irrational for me to think that in light of the fact that everyone else was experiencing something entirely different.

  18. David,

    “…the solution with the most evidence is that the human mind is a mystery. This means that humans are embodied spirits. This means humans are finite beings and an infinite being exists. The infinite being has revealed to us that there is life after death.”

    There is at least one other equally plausible alternative to each “conclusion” draw.

  19. David Roemer,

    I would separate materialism from algorithm on the basis that the object is what it is even if it is rendered inert and then brought back to function. If my car stops functioning and I replace the defective part it resumes its full operational condition. No outside observer would be likely to recognize the loss.

    On the other hand, if I’m foolish enough to be working on a book on my PC without backing it up and the power goes off, though I can find the program I was working with readily enough, the unique content is lost. What we know as death is, I think, more like that than like the substantive change in the material object.

    Clearly this is open to debate, but even if we believe in a separate “spirit” what we’re talking about is, like the collection of ones and zeroes making up a story on a computer, an organization of information.

  20. Of course, at this point any competent physicist would tell me that even the car is only a collection of information…

  21. Re David Roemer

    The fact that a large number people believed something does not make it true. A large number of people have believed that smoking was not harmful. A large number of people have believed that the Sun went around the Earth. A large number of people believed that the extermination of the Jewish race was necessary. The list could go on almost indefinitely if one likes to think long enough.
    You also say Jesus is alive in a new life with God. That being the case I want to know more. Had you said Jack is alive in a new life with John I would ask where exactly are they, what are they doing say on a daily basis. Are they happy together and so on? You see what I am getting at ? What is that new life how does it function on a daily basis, if there are days, wherever it is they reside? So being in a new life with God, what exactly does that entail?

  22. Hi Ben,

    ‘Where is the line drawn between a heart “temporarily” stopping and permanently stopping? How is that determined? I really don’t know and am wondering if you do.’

    In practice, that’s something that can often only be judged retrospectively. But our legal and medical concepts of death have little or nothing to do with the heart these days, and everything to do with the brain. Permanent cardiac failure is usually a pretty immediate precursor of brain death, but if circulation could be maintained artifically, it need not be.

    ‘I would hard pressed to think that, if a “soul” were to leave the body, that it would follow our interpretation of temporary/permanent death. If it were to leave the body, I would be more inclined to think that it would leave the instant “temporary” death occurs. Assuming that this process would be like any other bodily process. i.e. automatic and without autonomy.’

    Maybe. As someone who regards the idea of a soul as too slippery to get a hold of, I can’t really imagine what rules would apply to it. But it strikes me as pretty odd that it would reside in the heart any more than in the pineal gland.

    Assuming that there aren’t a lot of heart attack survivors walking around without souls*, the heart-soul connection (wasn’t that a band?) also seems require some sort of mechanism which would communicate the the disembodied soul that the heart had been restrated, calling it back to the body. While not impossible, this does seem to add an extra layer of supernatural complexity to the process. If, otoh, the soul were somehow connected to the brain, then matters would be more straightforward, there being no such condition as temporary or reversible brain death.

    * of course, my actual assumption is that we’re all walking around without souls; what I’m really assuming here is that, if any of us have them, then that goes for heart attack survivors too.

  23. @ ColinCavaghan
    You shouldn’t put the word “soul” in quotation marks. It has a perfectly well-defined meaning. It is the metaphysical principle that makes humans equal to one another and members of the same class or category of beings. The body is the correlative principle that makes humans different from one another. Atheists think the soul is just an idea, but religious people think the soul is spiritual. The idea that the soul leaves the body when a person dies is nonsense.

  24. @DavidRoemer:

    Well, firstly, if you look closely, you’ll notice that I put soul in quotation marks only when I’m directly quoting Ben, who did so.

    Secondly, it clearly isn’t the case that everyone shares your idea of what a soul is, nor your conclusion that it does not leave the body when we die. Indeed, a quick glance at Wikipedia indicates the presence of a plurality of more or less well-defined meanings.

  25. What is it with Occam’s razor? What power does it have to decide questions not on the basis of any type of knowledge but on style?

    Anyone care to answer that question? I will, of course, be suspicious of any answer that is simple enough for me to understand, eh?

  26. Hey Colin,

    You’re right, it would seem arbitrary to link the soul with the Heart as opposed to the brain or the Pineal gland. That wasn’t so much my point as simply, if it were attached to us in some way, it would likely be attached in an automatic way. Such that, regardless of how “death” occurs, the “soul” would have no grasp on that, and would flee.

    That may eliminate the idea of soulless heart attack victims, but it may not.

    So you hit the point right on when you say that this all makes the process more complex and slippery than it needs to be. Why tack on some over complicated, intricate, convoluted process to something so simple as “death?”

    P.S. If that’s not a band already, it needs to be.

  27. David Roemer,

    Jesus could be regarded as a religious authority, but arguments from authority are notoriously weak. In regards to your second point (lots of people believe it), that is just the appeal to belief fallacy. Your third point calling critics ignorant is, at best, just an ad hominem.

  28. Steve Lindsey,

    Running makes me mellow. :)

  29. ColinGavaghan,

    Clarence Darrow makes an interesting point about the “problem” of revival: “But now we know that in many such cases, where the bodily structure is complete, the machine may be set to work by artificial respiration or electricity. Then it will run like any other human body through its allotted term of years. We also know that in many cases of drowning, or when some mishap virtually destroys life without hopelessly impairing the body, artificial means may set it in motion once more, so that it will complete its term of existence until the final catastrophe comes. Are we to believe that somewhere around the stillborn child and somewhere in the vicinity of the drowned man there hovers a detached soul waiting to be summoned back into the body by a pulmotor? This, too, must be left to the metaphysicians.”

  30. Lee Jamison,

    I agree. :)

    The afterlife is generally offered as a bribe-however, there are also actual reasons that can be given in support of its possibility. I don’t buy these arguments, but some are worth considering (Kant and Aquinas advance some worth looking at).

  31. David Roemer,

    The belief in life after death does not mean the same thing as belief in Jesus-they have rather different belief content.

  32. Ben Myers-Petro,

    Sorting out when the soul (if it exists) links up to the body and when it leaves are rather difficult matters, to say the least.

    In RPGs that have souls, the departure is set at death in the game system. For example, in D&D it was normally at -10 hit points. After that, a person cannot be revived-they must be raised from the dead or resurrected (that is, the soul must be recalled to a magically restored body). While this is a game, it does provide some sort of guide-if there is a soul, it departs when the body is well and properly dead. So, if someone can be revived, then they were not well and truly dead. Once the body is irreversibly dead, the soul goes (or perhaps the soul departing is what causes the death to be irreversible).

    Naturally, I am not claiming to believe or endorse any of this in the actual world.

    If there is no soul, the matter becomes rather easier-death is a matter of reaching a point at which the body cannot be restored by the available means. If the person is restored, then they were just almost (or mostly) dead, not actually dead.

  33. So much of the death issue revolves around a linguistic issue- the definition of the word “death”. We err when we pay too much attention to the idea that word and the irretrievability it implies are somehow the same.

    Let’s face it. You’re only truly dead when you clearly can’t report on your past experiences any more. If you CAN report on them there are memories, information impressed on the organic, living, material of a human brain, from which you construct the reports. If your brain was accepting memories it wasn’t dead. If it was dead you would have no memories.

  34. Mike,

    On the face of it,I like this view of death, but the issue I see from it is that it’s not a very sturdy definition. After all, we are able to revive people after much longer and with greater success today than we were a hundred years ago. Or before there was CPR and revival wasn’t even considered possible. Would that mean that a soul departed earlier then compared to now?

    Correct me if I leave an option out here, but it seems, then, that if we have souls that depart when we die, they either depart instantly upon anything that looks like “death,” or they depart when we are un-revivable. If it is the latter, then the soul has to have some function which is able to detect a bodies’ permanent death. Or some other complex system.

  35. @ MIke LaBossiere

    1) My understanding is that Hindus and Buddhists believe in a transcendent reality and that perfect fulfillment comes after we die when we become united with the transcendent reality. I don’t see any difference between this and the faith statement that our purpose in life is to serve God in this world inorder to be with him in the next.

    2) The proof that atheists are generally ignorant of the proof of God’s existence is to read Wikipedia’s and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s account of the cosmological argument. The authors of both articles don’t understand that God is an infinite being. The authors don’t know that an infinite being exists because finite beings need a cause.

  36. Lee,

    Death seems to intuitively involve something that is final, barring some sort of rather unusual (supernatural or super scientific) intervention. But you are right that much of it is a matter of definition and that definition might be unfairly loaded.

    It is worth considering that the dead might be able to report on past experiences. While I am rather skeptical of seances and the existence of ghosts, a ghost that retains its identity would be able to (in theory) report its memories of the past. If memories are defined as being physically based in the human brain (perhaps a form of identity theory) then there could, of course, be no ghosts.

    Also, a person could be unable to report memories without being dead (they could be in a coma or suffer from memory loss-like Memento only far more so).

  37. Ben Myers-Petro,

    Good point-it would be odd if the soul got tech updates telling it how long to hang out (Tweets to the soul or Sweets, perhaps). I like the idea that the soul departs when the body is completely dead. Now, if we assume soul-body interaction, then the soul detecting final death is no more odd than its other mysterious mind-body interactions. :)

  38. David Roemer,

    1) Your view seems to be that any belief in a transcendent reality, etc. is equivalent to faith in God. Now, if we just take “faith in God” to mean that, then this would be true-but just by definition. It would be like claiming that anyone who believed in people would also believe in ghosts by defining a belief in people as also including a belief in ghosts. There is some medieval appeal in taking all beliefs in transcendent reality to point to the same thing (as Plato was taken to be a Christian before Christ). However, there do seem to be rather important differences in the beliefs of a Buddhist and that of a Baptist.

    2) First, pointing to two examples you take as evidence hardly proves that all atheists are ignorant (hasty generalization). Second, you seem to be confusing the meaning of “ignorance.” Many atheists are familiar with various proofs of God’s existence and hence are not ignorant of them. What you seem to be claiming is that they reject the conclusion-but rejecting and being ignorant are different.

  39. Mike,
    This is what you find at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmological_argument
    “A version of the cosmological argument could be stated as follows:
    1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
    2. A causal loop cannot exist.
    3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
    4. Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.”

    This does not correctly state the cosmological argument. The cosmological argument does not say a “First Cause” exists. It says an infinite being exists. The author of this entry, and all the people who read it and don’t correct Wiki, don’t know the cosmological argument. At http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/, there is no mention of an infinite being.

  40. David,

    No version of The Cosmological Argument that I have heard has suggested that an “Infinite Being” was the conclusion. Many people take this argument and suggest that such a being (god) is the first cause, but not the other way around.

    Regardless, you’ll notice that the first two words of your quoted section relieve it from such critique as yours: “A version.” It is a version of the argument. Meaning, it may be slightly different than the one your are familiar with.

    As for the Stanford link, the second to last sentence in the first paragraph discusses “necessary beings” which, by definition, are infinite beings. If a something exists necessarily, then it is in it’s nature to exist and cannot do otherwise. i.e. it exists infinitely.

  41. David Roemer,

    I’m trying to sort out what you are trying to prove. Is it the general claim that atheists are ignorant or the specific claim that the entries at Wikipedia and Stanford are in error?

    Also, as Ben Myers-Petro points out, the standard cosmological arguments aim at establishing a first cause rather than specifically trying to prove the existence of an infinite being.

    It is, of course, fair to criticize arguments-but you need to give a good reason why the arguments should be regarded as being in error because they do not match what you think they should be.

  42. The “First Cause” argument is in Aquinas’s “five ways.” All it proves is that something has always existed in time. Aquinas does a better job when he isn’t trying to prove God exists. This was shown by Etienne Gilson. According to Gilson and Aquinas, God is an infinite being. An infinite being exists because finite beings need a cause.

    The atheists Martin Heidegger did his metaphysical work before Gilson. This means you can read his books and not learn the correct concept of God.

    A necessary being is not an infinite being by definition. A finite being needs a cause because it can’t limit itself. A necessary being is infinite by logical deduction.

  43. I’m personally not an atheist, however antagonistic I may seem to be toward arguments about souls. I just don’t like supporting outdated concepts with bad arguments.

    If there are souls they must be able to function very much like life forms. They must store information and they must be able, even after their residence in a body has expired, to process information and store the results of such processing. There are consequences to these functions, particularly when these entities are proposed to be interacting with a universe that conserves things like mass and energy.

    Whatever else one says about the transcendent intelligence of the universe it is not capricious. That alone renders most of what people say about souls into vacant blubbering.

  44. David,

    Finite beings needing a cause does not entail that an infinite being is that cause. That is not sound reasoning. There are alternatives, that is.

    That is why the cosmological argument is not a direct argument for an infinite/necessary being.

  45. Here’s a scenario to consider, it may even be one that allows us to set up tests to support/falsify…

    1) We are in a Computer Simulation – what we take to be reality is an experience of our embedded consciousness as an agent within this “matrix”. What we take as “reality” is an actuality an “iron prison/cave”.

    2) On death our consciousness either expires or escalates to the level above. That level may be reality or another level of simulation – greater in detail than this one, i.e., physical death maybe an ascent out of the “iron prison/cave” of this reality.

    3) What decides if your consciousness expires or escalates may be related to issues like “faith” and/or “acts”. Live a life tuned to the purpose of existence set by the Architect and you prove worthy of moving on.

    OK … sounds like some SciFi you may have watched/read (13th Floor, Matrix, The Allegory of the Cave, etc.), maybe some Religious notions also But…

    With regards to 1 there are good arguments now analytically and empirically that it may be the case. Not so trivial to dismiss.

    See…
    Analytical support: http://www.simulation-argument.com/
    Empirical support: http://www.technologyreview.com/view/429561/the-measurement-that-would-reveal-the-universe-as-a-computer-simulation/

    And for 2. Well some NDE anecdotes might correlate to that. What would be interesting to test NDE’s for is access to information that could not be reasonable obtained in a comatose state. Some say this evidence is in. Maybe more research needed, perhaps some lab based tests (setup a near death experience under controlled lab conditions and see if info is accessed that is not physically available in the “here and now”.)

    As for 3. Well if lab tests are possible maybe this hypothesis can be tested as well.

    I’d say why don’t we look into this further. If it proves true some folks are really going to be pissed off. It would be like that joke of the Astronomer Robert Jastrow…

    “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

  46. @LaBossiere: Well I’ve thought about your reply. I agree: Nothing could be simpler, and at first I thought I understood. But this morning when I went to use your reply to hack and slash an argument, I could not find it in my mind. Like Zeno’s ‘So small as to be no size’, it must be ‘So simple as to be a nothing’.

    Am I getting it? Or have I lost it?

  47. Boreas,

    Perhaps it is so small as to have no size. :)

  48. Doesn’t the claim to have had no measured activity in the neocortex and to have experienced these things make this story a bit different from most NDEs? Also, doesn’t this case, despite all the “heaven” talk, seem to have more to do with mind/body dualism than any “afterlife”?

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/10/07/proof-of-heaven-a-doctor-s-experience-with-the-afterlife.html

  49. Ben Meyers-Petro,
    That is correct. A finite being can cause another finite being. But, if all beings are finite, all beings need a cause. This makes the universe unintelligible. Hence, at least one infinite being is needed to cause all of the finite beings.

  50. Mike LaBossiere,

    But not so small that no one could not be tripped up by it.

  51. @Derek:

    “Doesn’t the claim to have had no measured activity in the neocortex and to have experienced these things make this story a bit different from most NDEs?”

    I’m not always Sam Harris’s greatest fan (to put it mildly), but he does a nice job of
    exposing the pseudo-scientific elements of Alexander’s claims. (I see Steve Lindsay pointed that out earlier.) In particular, Alexander’s references to his cortex being “completely shut down” and “totally offline” are pretty weakly substantiated, given the remarkable nature of his claim, and he offers no real reason to reject the alternative explanation that what he experienced was a form of retrospective confabulation.

  52. “It certainly makes sense that a dying brain would experience dream or drug like experiences that have no connection to the afterlife.” Why? I do not see a connection between a dying brain, and having dreams or taking drugs. For that matter, I do not see a connection between taking drugs and having dreams. Please explain why you are certain about this.

    How qualified are we to distinguish life from death? Perhaps in the future, we will have the technology to reconstruct a person from a single cell, long believed to be dead – maybe that is all that will be required to “bring someone back”. The language is interesting, isn’t it? We have this idea that people “go” somewhere when they die.

  53. ” I tell my students that this is one philosophical problem that has a definite answer—unfortunately getting that answer requires dying.”

    While this may be tongue-in-cheek, it is stupid and fallacious and you are misleading your students if you don’t point that out to them. If the most likely answer is correct, there is no way to know it.

  54. “It certainly makes sense that a dying brain would experience dream or drug like experiences that have no connection to the afterlife.”

    This too is stupid. There is no intrinsic reason to expect a dying brain to have such experiences. Rather than the “sense” that incompetent philosophers use, we have science … people experience these things because of oxygen deprivation and its neurophysiological consequences.

  55. “There are two reasons to believe in life after death: 1) the historical Jesus and 2) the large number of people who believe in life after death.”

    a) There were actually several historical Jesuses but none of them survived death. b) Fallacy ad populum. Like all religious people, you are grossly irrational but project it onto others.

  56. ” Now, she wasn’t dead but this surely says something about the mind and body relationship which is not popular these days.”

    It only speaks of your gullibility and lack of understanding of physical law.

  57. “I have heard since of similar out-of-body cases in which claimed undergone experiences could be backed up by know facts – that is objects were seen that could not have been seen normally.”

    I’ver heard a lot of things, but I’m not so intellectually dishonest that I believe them just because they support my preconceptions. Have you also heard that every one of these cases has been debunked?

  58. “What is it with Occam’s razor? What power does it have to decide questions not on the basis of any type of knowledge but on style? ”

    Basically, Ockham’s Razor says that “Yes, all the evidence and logical inference leads to your conclusion, but it could have been space kittens with super powers” is the essence of stupidity.

    Properly formulated, Ockham’s Razor is a theorem in information theory: the more complex an explanation, the more ways in which it can be wrong. Note that this is complexity in an information-theoretic sense; some people think that “God did it” is simple, but that’s stupid/grossly wrong, since “God” is undefined/open-ended and thus unboundedly complex.

  59. maybe that is all that will be required to “bring someone back”. The language is interesting, isn’t it? We have this idea that people “go” somewhere when they die.

    We do, but that’s a stupid take in this case. Smash a statue to smithereens and it’s “gone” but that doesn’t imply that it went somewhere. Recreate it and you’ve brought it back … into existence.

  60. “The cutting edge of these criticisms is to be found in Occam’s razor: the experiences can be explained adequately without postulating a metaphysical afterlife. As such, the explanation that the experiences are occurring within a dying (but still living) brain is the better explanation.”

    Keep in mind Occam’s Razor is a precept of logic, not a law. We can find counter examples where nature has picked a more complex solution over a simpler one. Complexity is not false and simplicity true as a rule. If it was then nature would be teleological (choosing simplicity over complexity when all things are otherwise equal). If you take it as a natural law you are proposing something about the nature of nature, i.e., it is metaphysics.

    Likewise an empirical materialist position is in fact one metaphysical alternative over others – it says something about the nature of nature than can not be proved naturally. Furthermore, in part, it assumes axiomatically Occam’s razor (via an embedded reductionist position). Thus you’d expect it satisfies that precept better than others.

    So saying by Occam’s Razor that NDE’s (and an Afterlife) is not a “best”, is rather a pre-loaded answer.

    If you use alternative precepts of logic, other than Occam’s razor, you’ll get other “best” views. E.g., Use the Quantum/Mathematical Physicists P A M Dirac’s notion that a Beautiful Theory is better than an Ugly Theory. You might explore other precepts.

    Maybe we should give equal time to those precepts and not fixate on one currently in fashion?

  61. With regards to 1 there are good arguments now analytically and empirically that it may be the case. Not so trivial to dismiss.

    Where do people get the idiotic idea that things for which there is no evidence or other reason to believe are hard to dismiss, just because they haven’t been disproven?

    More generally, it’s amusing how many people think they are doing “philosophy” when they’re merely being ignorant and generally mentally inept. There really are smart people out there who do philosophy, people like Tom Clark .. but most are posers and imbeciles.

  62. >Keep in mind Occam’s Razor is a precept of logic, not a law. We can find counter examples where nature has picked a more complex solution over a simpler one.

    OR has nothing to do with the complexity of solutions, but of explanations. It directs us to pick the simplest explanation that accounts for all of the evidence. If nature is more complex then our explanation, then eventually we will find evidence of that … evidence that doesn’t fit our explanation … and we will modify our explanation, making it more complex, to fit the evidence … or perhaps folding cases together to get simpler but richer explanation. This changing of our explanations to fit evidence as it arrives is called … science. Woefully many “philosophers” have virtually no clue about that enterprise.

  63. If you use alternative precepts of logic, other than Occam’s razor, you’ll get other “best” views. E.g., Use the Quantum/Mathematical Physicists P A M Dirac’s notion that a Beautiful Theory is better than an Ugly Theory. You might explore other precepts.

    That is chock full of stupid, especially your repeated misuse of the word “precept”.

  64. Finite beings needing a cause

    You wouldn’t know from the discussion here that there’s been any advance of the notion of causation since Aristotle.

  65. The cosmological argument does not say a “First Cause” exists. It says an infinite being exists.

    All the worse for (your notion of) the cosmological argument, because the “first cause” version is valid (but not sound) whereas your “infinite being” version is not valid (and isn’t even coherent — but then that goes for most of your drivel).

    Oh dear, now I’m responding to an utter imbecile. Time for me to stop … but it has been a bit of fun.

  66. Yes Marcel, it is time for you to stop, because this sort of thing – “that is chock full of stupid” & “Oh dear, now I’m responding to an utter imbecile” – is absolutely not permitted on this blog.

    If you want to continue to participate here, you won’t do it again.

  67. Re Marcel Kincaid
    “Oh dear, now I’m responding to an utter imbecile. Time for me to stop … but it has been a bit of fun.”
    I think most people’s idea of fun does not amount to disrespectful hostile abuse.

  68. Marcel Kincaid, Over a modestly long life I have come to appreciate Socrates more and more. Chiefly this is because he could be gentle with a world full of people who, like himself, really knew nothing.

    You could take some lessons from the life of that good man.

  69. Thanks Don and Jeremy,

    I would like to politely point out to Mr Kincaid the following for his charitable consideration…

    1/ “Where do people get the idiotic idea that things for which there is no evidence or other reason to believe are hard to dismiss, just because they haven’t been disproven?”

    You might reflect on the two links I provide to a Cambridge Philosophy Professor and an Article from MIT that provide analytial and empirical support for the veracity of the Simulation Argument. This represents evidence does it not?

    Perhaps Mr Kincaid did not get to those references, having decided it was wrong before reading it.

    2/ “OR has nothing to do with the complexity of solutions, but of explanations. It directs us to pick the simplest explanation that accounts for all of the evidence. If nature is more complex then our explanation, then eventually we will find evidence of that … evidence that doesn’t fit our explanation … and we will modify our explanation, making it more complex, to fit the evidence.”

    Actually when ones talk about “Nature’s solutions”, we are talking about Man’s explanations. OR does not direct us, since it is not a Law of Logic as say Modus Ponens is in propositional logic. It is technically a precept, a popular one, but not am absolute one unless it is for you a metaphysical axiom of a worldview such as material empiricism. If you say (as you have) that if something doesn’t fit now, but you expect it will later, then you take it on faith, not evidence.

    3/ To say a precept may exist in the context of alternative precepts is “chock full of stupid”, is not an argument. It is just silly and irrational abuse.

    You may disagree with Dirac when he said…

    “I think that there is a moral to this story, namely that it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations that to have them fit experiment. If Schrödinger had been more confident of his work, he could have published it some months earlier, and he could have published a more accurate equation. It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress. If there is not complete agreement between the results of one’s work and experiment, one should not allow oneself to be too discouraged, because the discrepancy may well be due to minor features that are not properly taken into account and that will get cleared up with further development of the theory.” ~
    Scientific American, May 1963.

    But I say he may have a point. And his being a Nobel prize winner I’ll consider it and not dismiss it out of hand. If simplicity can be an attribute of nature, why not beauty? Perhaps we have evolved to see beauty in truth – it is a rational aesthetic proposition, it would have evolutionary benefits. Surely it can be thus discussed without the pejorative insults?

    4/ To say (when talking about NDE) “have you also heard that every one of these cases has been debunked?” Is simply not true. There are non-spiritual explanations that may or may not be true – we should not imply that spiritual explanations are proven to be false or debunked. That is just plain wrong.

    Overall I find these errors and misrepresentations more disappointing than the emotional and uncharitable use of words. They’re responses not worthy of this forum.

  70. Since part of this discussion has dealt with the enterprise of Philosophy itself perhaps it would be well to redirect the focus of the discussion of what we can know to HOW we can know. What we can deduce from the run of the conversation to this point is that anecdotal witnesses to the afterlife can’t really prove from their individual experience of “dying” that an afterlife exists. This is partly because there are too many reasonable alternative explanations for the experiences they report.

    An example of what I mean is that, because a brain processes and stores information by the sequestration, transmission, and uptake of several chemicals and transmits that information across distances by a cascade of potassium ions across a pre-potentiated cellular membrane any number of mechanisms can begin to happen when the usually stable environment of the brain is suddenly altered.

    I have a personal experience of this not related to a near-death experience. While playing in a football game I received a strong blow to the head resulting in a concussion. My memory of the experience is to have been enveloped in a bright light that then evolved into a cave-like environment with brightly colored, bejeweled-seeming walls spiraling around me while intense music, sounding like it was playing on a calliope, reverberated everywhere. I emerged from the ‘cave’ as though climbing toward the light (a process that seemed distinctly UPward) into a scene of all my friends looming over me.

    This experience has many elements in common with near-death experiences I have read, as well as biblical imagery from St. Paul, Ezekiel, and Revelations. Does that experience mean I went to Hell and re-emerged? (Believe me, if the music I must hear constantly in the afterlife is played on a calliope I will not think I’m in heaven…) It seems unlikely.

    How might we gain more reliable data about a possible afterlife? It would almost certainly have to come from a staple of the scientific method- repeatable experiments with controls. Anecdotes are not devoid of information. They just don’t truly increase our knowledge.

    If souls exist and human beings actually can sense them in the world of our experience they must store information and affect matter as we know it. It is not impossible to devise ways to really “know” something about that.

  71. Proving Heaven | Talking Philosophy | Neuro Physiology Blog - pingback on November 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm
  72. Boreas,

    True-they say that even an elephant might trip over an ant. Not really-but it would look good in a fortune cookie. :)

  73. Dave,

    Take a look at http://curiosity.discovery.com/question/near-death-experience-hallucination

    Looking at the physiology, oxygen deprivation can lead to hallucinations and NDEs can certainly lead to oxygen deprivation.

    While I do not have much in the way of drug experiences to recount, here is how drugs cause hallucinations.

    In some cases, death is not clear. However, there are some paradigm cases in which a person is rather clearly dead. Such as being decomposed down to the bone, burned to ash and so on. If someone comes back from that and reports conscious experiences post death, then that would be reasonable evidence of an afterlife.

  74. Marcel,

    The language (that we say people go somewhere) is interesting. It might be in error, but it should not just be dismissed as being stupid. Now, it can be argued that people (like smashed statues) do not go anywhere. However, people differ from statues in important ways-perhaps ways that would allow survival after bodily death.

  75. Marcel,

    In reply to my “It certainly makes sense that a dying brain would experience dream or drug like experiences that have no connection to the afterlife.”

    You say

    This too is stupid. There is no intrinsic reason to expect a dying brain to have such experiences. Rather than the “sense” that incompetent philosophers use, we have science … people experience these things because of oxygen deprivation and its neurophysiological consequences.

    Oddly, you say essentially the same thing I do: that the dying brain is experiencing not an afterlife but purely neurological processes.

    I’m often curious about why people are needlessly hostile and abusive, especially in the context of discussions in academic subjects. Would you care to say a bit about your motivations and the value you see in such language and hostility?

  76. Marcel,

    I said:

    ” I tell my students that this is one philosophical problem that has a definite answer—unfortunately getting that answer requires dying.”

    And you replied:

    “While this may be tongue-in-cheek, it is stupid and fallacious and you are misleading your students if you don’t point that out to them. If the most likely answer is correct, there is no way to know it.”

    First, it is intended to be a joke. But, as people tell me, I should not quit my day job and take up the comic life.

    Second, it does not seem to commit a fallacy. If it does, could you specify the fallacy and show how it is being committed? I collect fallacies and examples of them, so I’m always happy to get more.

    Third, if we take this as a serious claim, then there is the possibility of an answer. True, if death is the cessation of a person, they would have no awareness of the answer to the problem. But making the “punchline” that complicated would make it less funny.

    Again, I’m interested in the value you see in being hostile and derisive. I’ve written about blog etiquette before, so the subject interests me.

  77. Didn’t John Hicks (?) make that point via his notion of “eschatological verification” – religious claims are verifiable if true, but not falsifiable if false…?

  78. Let Marcel be. He scores some very good points. We forget that irony and sarcasm were stock-in-trade for Socrates. Which reminds me: some silly twit here said “Socrates …could be gentle with a world full of people who, like himself, really knew nothing.” How true. For that very reason his fellow citizens would have treated him like an Olympic victor and given him and his descendants free lunch forever except he wouldn’t hear of it.

  79. Jeremy,

    Good point. It would be rather hard (if not impossible) to falsify the claim that there is an afterlife. But proving it is easy enough-die and continue to be (in the right way, of course).

  80. Boreas,

    As in sports, good points can be scored while still being a good sport. That said, irony and sarcasm are fine if used well.I certainly appreciate a nice bit or irony or clever sarcasm. However, simply calling people twits or imbeciles is neither irony nor sarcasm.

    They did, of course, kill Socrates. However, this does not detract from the fact that he (if the dialogues are accurate) was generally civil in his interactions with others. It is apparently not in our power to avoid death. But we can easily avoid being rude.

  81. Admitting that what we know of Socrates is almost all by the reporting of a single man let us note the supreme irony of his life was that by being ever civil and, as far as was in his power, ever truthful he was able to bring down the murderous wrath of the city upon himself as a corrupter of youth.

    He said some number of things bearing on this discussion, but this one seems appropriate to the particular circumstance-
    “To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”

  82. @ Boreas.

    We can all (or should be able to) handle a bit of irony and direct speech. But as has been said, we can have a better dialog without, particularly it when it goes to far, and/or is not justified.

    My issue with Mr Kincaid remarks is more to the point that he misrepresents/misunderstand/misreads the things he out-poured his criticism so intolerantly with such apparent hatred – this irrationality is what is disturbing for me.

    I have just been watching a BBC TV program that discussed the word “Bigot” …

    “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group with hatred and intolerance.”

    I dare say Mr Kincaid qualifies.

  83. (please excuse typos)

  84. Is he some sort of intellectual Troll? His last words were he had fun here, which seems a typical response.I do not recollect his posting on any other subject here. :roll:

  85. @LaBossiere & Jamison: Socrates was not an English country gentleman. You know the expression ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’, of course. Well the irony is that gifts have nothing to do it.

    In his ‘Last Days’ (a defined term), Socrates was mad as Hades and most disagreeable. The problem here is that these days the schools don’t know how to teach the dialogues. The proper lessons start from the premise that Plato is an expert on Greek poetry and drama, and knows how to use dramatic irony and sarcasm to belittle and shame.

    Socrates and Plato were also huge believers in Greek religion (in case those here have not noticed the eschatology in the Gorgias, Phaedo and Republic). Which brings me back on point. Plato would use Hades as a mechanism for social control and production of a better (and perhaps a more civil) citizen.

    Whose opinion do I want to go with? A great philosopher’s or… Well I’ll just leave that point alone. It’s Sunday and I try to be a little bit extra nice on Sunday.

  86. Plato’s recollections of the religion of Socrates seem to show a man deeply questioning the assumptions of his fellows. Remember that the second charge against his life was blasphemy.

    Otherwise, Boreas, absolutely! How much more bitterly can a man express his opposition to society’s judgement than to accept their sentence of death when his escape has been engineered at every hand!

  87. @ColinGavaghan thanks for the reference to the Harris piece. I was wondering why LaBossiere didn’t mention that aspect of Alexander’s claim in his original piece.

    I think that Harris needs to calm down and realize that Newsweek is trying (and usually failing) to sell magazines. Alexander’s article is not nearly as definitive about proving anything as the editors there make it sound. Much the same thing is done every time Harris has a new book to sell. Most of all though he ignores the most interesting issue raised by Alexander and it’s not the supposed “evidence”. It’s the subjective quality and intensity of his experience. Rather than treat Alexander’s story as an argument it should be treated as data.

    On another topic entirely, Ockham’s razor is about the number of assumptions that an explanation rests on. If the “afterlife” is what is to be “proved” then it cannot be one of the unnecessary assumptions or premises shaved off by Ockham’s razor.

  88. Derek Michaud,

    It is, I think, fair to use Occam’s razor in regards to the afterlife. But perhaps it would be better to just present the argument as an inference to the best explanation. In any case, the methodology (regardless of the name) seems reasonable.

    The gist is that because the NDEs can be explained by what we know about the dying brain and without the afterlife, the best explanation is that the NDEs are essentially hallucinations and not experiences of heaven.

    To use an analogy, the fact that the sounds on my roof can be explained by the presence of squirrels rather than sky demons or vampires would point towards the best explanation being squirrels rather than the supernatural alternatives.

  89. Mike LaBossiere,
    Methinks you beg the question by assuming that the brain is the thing that dies. The brain, if I may say so, is but a blob of meat (edible apparently) that supports something we know not what. Let’s suppose that the soul is the life-force supported directly by the brain and indirectly by the rest of the body. And let’s use the metaphor that the soul is like the electricity in the electrical wiring of a house.

    What are the separate and distinct physical properties of the electricity in the wires of the house? How much does the household electrical system weigh (a) when electricity runs through it or (b) after the main switch is throw to ‘Off’? Immeasurable, I think. But I don’t know if that’s a failure to have precise measurement instruments or because energy does not have weight.

    Having said all that, you may well have the best scientific answer for a question that science is presently ill-equipped to answer. What would make science better equipped?

  90. Boreas,

    Why is it that you think he is begging the question? You don’t really address that.

    It’s not so much Science’s ill-equippedness, rather it is simply beyond Science’s grasp at the moment. Science is a slow moving system. It’s doesn’t mean it can’t ever answer these questions though.

  91. Boreas,
    You presume a thing that is false. “Energy” does, in fact, have an equivalency with mass. Physicists have been able to “weigh” the difference in mass of a moving object and the same object standing still, thereby measuring the mass equivalency of the kinetic energy of the object. Naturally, this mass is miniscule.

    But the analogy you make is flawed in a second way, as well. If one turns a radio off it is no longer being a conduit of the programming it was able to access when it was on, but the mass/energy system of which it is a part has really not been changed. The same would be true of my computer if the power went off and I lost my e-book. All the electrons that were there before remain. What is altered is the ORDER the electrons occupied in the previously energized system.

    If a question is being begged, then, it would seem to be about order itself and the measurable differences between order and chaos.

  92. Boreas,

    Could you spell out how I am begging the question?

    I do not seem to be assuming that the brain is what dies in order to prove that the brain is what dies.

    But, your comment did remind me that I have been sloppy. I must add that I should have distinguished between the death of the body and the death of the person. Or, perhaps a better way to put it would be the departure of the person (perhaps departing to nothingness).

    Even if a strict materialism is correct, there would still be a distinction. After all, the body could live on while the person ceases to be. To use an example from horror, the head of a body could be removed and destroyed, while the remainder could be kept alive by replacing the key parts of the original brain with machinery/electronics. It seems reasonable to regard a headless body as no longer being a person, but it would still be alive. If there is a soul, would the soul remain trapped in the headless body until it died or would it depart with the destruction of the head?

    What if the body were gradually “trimmed” down, bit by bit? At what point would the soul depart, if it had not done so already? Or, laying aside the soul, at what point would death occur? Would it be the destruction of the last cell?

  93. Mike, Your last point is well taken in light of the process of watching my mother’s slow decline due to Alzheimer’s. I’m not as arid about the soul as my comments may make me seem, but it is clear that the aetherial “stuff” of my mother is not all there.

  94. Lee,

    Seeing a loved one “fading” like that is a hell of a thing. It certainly takes the abstract disputations about personhood and identity right down to earth in a very meaningful and painful way.

    My family has a consistent history of people dying before the person starts to “fade”-I am hoping that will hold true for me. I am not afraid of death (having faced it a few times I can say that with certainty) but I do fear the decay of my self. I would, like most people, like to believe I am an immortal and undecaying soul-that when my body fails, my true self will go on and be as complete as it was at the height of its powers in life (or more so).

    But, belief does not make it so-hence I am an advocate of research into alzheimer’s and other such conditions.

    I am sorry about what you have to face and wish the best to you and yours.

  95. What is interesting about Alzheimer’s research is hints of a tantalizing hope that once a solution to the plaques (and whatever causes them) that so damage people’s brains can be found it may be possible to recover lost memories.

    This lies near the foundation of my constant references to “information” and to “order”. If what makes us who we are is a kind of ordering of information or of brain matter that STORES information, and that information is not really destroyed in Alzheimer’s but is, instead, only made inaccessible there is some sense in which the “soul” remains. It just can’t be expressed.

  96. Lee Jamison,
    By the Dog! Does the INS know that you’ve got undocumented ancients staying with you? I’m not surprised that Zeno is, because he moves around lot. But Anaxagoras too! He’s at risk. The INS will deport him to Persia.

    After you get them to a safe-house, ask them ‘Can bad science make for good philosophy?’ Mike LaBossiere might want to join the conversation.

  97. I’m trying to decipher that comment, Boreas. I think I’ll have to consult with the Oracle…

  98. That damned oracle! A bunch of Greek mumbling and then some obscure talk about people who loudly cover things with a great show of the tools of clarity…

    Do you know how hard it is to catch a live chicken in a college town?

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