Saturday, October 27, 2012

NDE's and Atheism

Recently, neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander wrote an article in Newsweek about a coma he had in 2008 in which while he was in the coma he had a near-death experience (article can be found here).  In it he vividly described all sorts of about how his conscience was alive while his brain lay dormant.  From this Dr. Alexander makes an argument for the veracity of heaven and Christianity.  He said before this happened he was merely Christian by name only, but not anymore.  He has proof for heaven’s existence.  If NDE’s are real, this posses grave threat to atheism.[1]  An atheist believes all there is matter.  There is no mind distinct from the body.  So NDE’s cannot be real and atheism be true.  So because of Alexander’s article, many atheists have blogged and written about how Alexander is wrong and his experience does not prove anything.  However these atheist arguments all fall short of truth and logic.
Dr. Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris both quickly wrote articles in response to Alexander.  Coyne’s argument against Alexander is as followed, “Give that man a Templeton Prize! My explanation: Alexander had a long dream, one conditioned by his religious upbringing (he describes himself “as a faithful Christian”).  Isn’t that more parsimonious?”[2]  This is the extent of his argument.  He simply writes it off.  This is what all atheists have to do.  They cannot take the account as true.  If they did, it would fly in the face of their world view.  Sam Harris intellectually engages in the argument in a better way.  Not believing Alexander’s brain ever shut off, he writes that

This poetic interpretation of his experience is not supported by evidence of any kind… Coma does not equate to “inactivation of the cerebral cortex” or “higher-order brain functions totally offline” or “neurons of [my] cortex stunned into complete inactivity”. These describe brain death, a one hundred percent lethal condition. There are many excellent scholarly articles that discuss the definitions of coma.[3]

So Harris argues Alexander never lost conscience.  Since this arguments goes way out of my field of expertise I will not comment on it except to say Alexander is a brain surgeon so his knowledge of brain conscientiousness cannot be overlooked.  But what I do want to comment on is Harris’ end argument.  He believes Alexander’s brain had a surge of DMT release thus causing him to go into an ecstatic state.  This, This, Harris writes “is pure speculation, of course, but it is a far more credible hypothesis than that his cortex “shut down,” freeing his soul to travel to another dimension.”  Harris believes his argument is correct not bases on science but because it makes his worldview correct.  He already comes at this from a preconceived worldview.  He is not open to seeing if Alexander’s experience is true.  He is merely showing how is presuppositions are true. Alex Lickerman makes the best argument when he uses scientific experiments to disprove NDE’s (information on this scientific research can be found here).  He writes

Neurologists have since recognized that the temporoparietal region of the brain is responsible for maintaining our body schema representation.  When external current is applied to this region, it ceases to function normally and our body schema “floats.”  Further evidence that this phenomenon is an illusion comes from experiments in which people who’ve had out-of-body experiences when transitioning from sleep to wakefulness were unable to identify objects placed in the room after they’d fallen asleep, strongly suggesting the picture they viewed of themselves sleeping in their beds was reconstructed from memory.[4]

This however, ignores the veracity for the NDE’s which can be proven.  Michael Egnor writes,

Indeed, about 20 percent of NDE's are corroborated, which means that there are independent ways of checking about the veracity of the experience. The patients knew of things that they could not have known except by extraordinary perception -- such as describing details of surgery that they watched while their heart was stopped, etc. Additionally, many NDE's have a vividness and a sense of intense reality that one does not generally encounter in dreams or hallucinations.[5]

                  The problem with NDE’s for atheists is that it destroys their worldview.  If NDE’s are true, everything is not made of matter; there are incorporeal substances in existence.  That is, our mind or conscience can live on when our bodies cease to live.  Atheists have a problem with this because that means there is more than just molecules going off in our brain.  We have a mind which is not physical matter.  However atheists cannot allow for more than just matter.  They believe everything is matter.  Because NDE’s dismissal of materialistic thought would destroy the atheist’s worldview, they need to defeat NDE’s veracity.  They do not come to the discussion of NDE’s with an open mind.  They come needing to destroy it.  And in the process ignore the truth.  NDE’s are another proof that the material world is not all that is.

[1] Atheism and materialism are used synonymously in this blog post.
[2] Jerry Coyne, “OMG: Newsweek touts the Afterlife as Real,”
[3] Mark Cohan, quoted in “This must be heaven,”
[4] Alex Lickerman, “The Neurology Of Near-Death Experiences,”
[5] Michael Egnor, “Near-Death Experiences: Putting a Darwinist's Evidentiary Standards to the Test,”

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