Philosophers Examine Near-death Experiences

Researchers with The Immortality Project publish book that offers naturalistic explanation of NDEs

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“Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife,” by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Near-death experiences have been reported throughout human history, around the world and across cultures. The transformative impact of these experiences on individuals who report them – diminished fear of death, greater spirituality, more compassion – is well-documented.

What these experiences mean remains the subject of debate, however. Do near-death experiences (NDEs) provide a glimpse of an afterlife? Are these life-altering events proof of a higher power? Do they show that consciousness is separate from our brains and bodies? Can NDEs be understood in terms of science without denigrating deeply held religious beliefs about the existence of an afterlife?

Drawing from research supported by The Immortality Project at the University of California, Riverside and their own investigation, philosophers John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin examine the phenomenon of near-death experiences in “Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife,” published this month by Oxford University Press.

“Near-death experiences offer a glimpse, not only into the nature of death, but also into the meaning of life,” the philosophers write. “… This book is about how we should go about comprehending near-death experiences. They speak to something dear to us – the nature and significance of life and death – and yet we have a hard time figuring out why exactly people have them and what precisely they mean.”

NDEs are very real in that many people have them, explained Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at UC Riverside and principal investigator on The Immortality Project. The three-year research project was established in 2012 with grants totaling $5.1 million from the John Templeton Foundation. Thirty-four teams of researchers from universities around the world explored a diverse set of topics in the sciences, theology and philosophy related to immortality – including near-death experiences.

John Martin Fischer

John Martin Fischer

Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin – the postdoctoral fellow on The Immortality Project and now an assistant professor of philosophy at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas – said they take seriously accounts of near-death experiences, which have been reported for millennia.

They review well-known reports of NDEs – including popular accounts by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander (author of “Proof of Heaven”) and Colton Burpo, whose memories of an NDE at age 3 were recounted in the 2014 film “Heaven is for Real” – as well as scientific research on NDEs and the brain to offer a naturalistic explanation of these experiences.

The philosophers note that proponents of a supernaturalist explanation of the phenomenon contend that the mind is not just the brain, that we can have conscious experiences, even after our brains have stopped functioning. Supporters of the supernaturalist view also contend that our minds give us access to a nonphysical or heavenly domain, and that the best way to explain the transformative power of these experiences is direct contact with a benevolent higher power.

Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin disagree.  They argue, for example, that “there is room to doubt that the subjects of near-death experiences really had these experiences at the time it seemed to them that they had them. … It is possible, and seems quite likely, that we will come to find out that our current methods for measuring brain activity are shallow, capturing only activity above a certain threshold. This raises the possibility that we may come to find out that our current methods are unable to capture all brain activity, or even all brain activity relevant to conscious experience. We may come to find out that some of those patients whom we thought had lost all brain function in fact had brains functioning at a level undetectable by our current methods.”

Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin

Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin

Physical explanations of NDEs are not only significantly more likely to be true than supernatural explanations, but that they are also capable of being deeply attractive and inspiring, Mitchell-Yellin says.

“No part of our view in any way denigrates religious belief or a belief in the afterlife,” the philosophers conclude. “We fully recognize and respect religious beliefs, and we are deeply cognizant of the hope that religion, and the doctrine of the afterlife, in particular, offers to many. … Our aim has been to call into question a particular route to religious beliefs and beliefs about the afterlife, namely, one that appears to NDErs as evidence for, or even proof of, the reality of the afterlife. … (O)ur view is compatible with fully embracing the hope that religion can offer in the face of death. We are convinced that what people really want is genuine hope – hope based in true explanations, not wishful thinking.”

Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin will discuss their book at Barnes and Noble in Santa Monica (1201 3rd St.) on Saturday, Aug. 6, at 7 p.m., and at Cellar Door Books in Riverside (5225 Canyon Crest Drive #30A), on Sunday, Aug. 7, at 3 p.m.

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