Near-Death Experiences: The Stories They Tell

Lecture by philosophy professor shines a light on love and hope despite the mystery of death

Philosophy professor discusses near-death experiences.

Distinguished philosophy professor John Fischer leads a discussion on near-death experiences and the stories they tell. Carrie Rosema

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — John Fischer, distinguished philosophy professor at the University of California, Riverside, led a discussion on near-death experiences and the stories they tell at UCR’s Alumni and Visitors Center on April 16.

Fischer, who joined the UCR faculty in 1988, is widely regarded as a leading philosopher in the world on free will, moral responsibility, metaphysics of life and death, and the philosophy of religion. His work considers both religious and scientific contexts.

Before a crowd of about 100, Fischer said near-death experiences, or NDEs, are metaphorical narratives that capture the idea of traveling to a place of uncertainty.

“NDEs are a range of impressions during a special state of consciousness, including an outer body experience, pleasant feelings, a dark tunnel traveling through a light, a life review, seeing deceased relatives or a conscious return to the body,” Fischer said. “We’re reminded of the love and sacrifices of our parents, on a voyage from the family to the wider world. While we experience transitions throughout life, going from home to college and from school to the workforce, for example, the most challenging is the voyage from life to death and beyond.”

Fischer said NDEs tell the story of the human journey. He said storytelling helps people better understand the world, our lives, and deaths. Narratives place events in emotionally recognizable patterns; the tension of drama, the pain of tragedy, comic release.  While explanations help us to wrap our minds around concepts, Fischer said stories help us to wrap our hearts around them.

Fischer directs The Immortality Project, a collection of philosophical, scientific, and theological developments that advance the belief and understanding of immortality and how this is relevant to the way we live in the present. In 2012, the John Templeton Foundation awarded Fischer a $5 million grant to study immortality, the largest grant ever awarded a UCR humanities professor. His approach to responsibility is widely cited by leading scholars of criminal law and has shaped how psychiatrists understand mental illness.

“From a naturalistic view, NDEs tell a story of love and hope even if we do not know where we are going,” Fischer said. “Stories tell us we’re not going alone. When interpreted in a naturalistic way, NDEs tell stories of love in the face of death. These stories resonate with us, comfort us, and transform us.”

Fischer has authored and co-authored seven books and more than 150 essays. His most recent, “Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife” (2016, Oxford University Press), was co-authored by Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, postdoctoral researcher on The Immortality Project.

Watch a complete recording of the lecture here.

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