Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Near-Death Experiences – Evidence for Survival?

I’ve commented rather extensively in earlier blogs and various publications over the past few years on empirical arguments for postmortem survival from the data of mediumship. A number of people have asked me about near-death experiences, which constitute another strand of alleged empirical evidence for life after death.  Although it receives extended treatment in my book in progress, I wanted to offer some brief comments here on near-death experiences, or more specifically on the formalities of the argument from near-death experiences to the conclusion that consciousness, our individual consciousness, survives the death of our body.

In the paradigmatic near-death experience (NDE), at least those adduced as evidence for life after death, a living person has an out-of-body experience, typically in the context of some medical crisis such as cardiac arrest. The person seems to view the world from a position outside his or her body, and he often has some “other worldly” experience of a tunnel and encountering a being of light. Encountering deceased friends and/or loved ones and having a life review are also common features of these experiences.

The more interesting cases are those in which subjects are able to provide accurate descriptions of events that took place while they were unconscious or events that were outside their sensory perceptual field during the incident, for they claim to have “seen” or “heard” what was happening, even though they apparently could not have acquired this information through any ordinary means.  The events might be conversations that took place in the operating room between the medical staff or between family members in the waiting room. Or they might report “seeing” some incident that took place nearby or “seeing” a certain object in a particular location, though they have no sensory access to the events or objects.

Are these kinds of experiences evidence for life after death?

I. NDEs as Weak Evidence for Life after Death

I’ve argued in several places that empirical arguments for survival, which include arguments for survival from NDEs, lack cogency. By this I don’t mean that the empirical facts are not evidence for life after death, only that they don’t provide very good evidence for this claim. More precisely stated, survivalists who claim that NDEs provide good evidence for survival have not adequately shown this to be the case. 

As I see it, there is no real debate about whether there is evidence for life after death. And this is true also for the data collected from NDEs.  The data are evidence for life after death, but in much the same way that the existence of blue objects is evidence for the existence of a god with a blue-object fetish who created the world. How so?  

On a widely held view of evidence discussed in confirmation theory, if a hypothesis H leads us to expect some datum, D, and D is borne out by experience, then D is evidence for H. Otherwise stated, D raises the probability of H in this situation. Most of the recent literature on survival of death from near-death experiences at best shows that the experiences of people who have had near-death experiences is what we would expect if consciousness survives death and retains many of its current properties.  In much the same way, the observation of blue objects is what we would expect if a god with a blue-object fetish created the world. If you don’t like this hypothesis, choose another, like a god who has a suffering, four-legged animal, or rock fetish.  If you don’t care for gods, how about a demon hypothesis:  my drawing an Ace of Spades from a deck of cards is evidence that there exists a very powerful demonic entity who intended me to pick that card as an omen of my quickly approaching demise.

II.  Stronger Evidential Claims

There being evidence for a hypothesis in the sense just outlined above is a weak kind of evidential support. It does not show that the hypothesis in question has a net plausibility that would suffice for its rational acceptance. In the case of the survival hypothesis, it’s the stronger claim that the majority of survivalists want to make on behalf of the alleged evidence for survival.  Indeed, some of them – Robert Almeder for example – want to claim, that the evidence for survival is so strong that it would be irrational to reject the hypothesis. (Almeder argues this specifically with reference to the data suggestive of reincarnation). I find these kinds of claims implausible and extravagant to say the least, and the arguments offered on their behalf are not very well thought out.  Indeed, in much of the literature, the argument for survival from NDEs is at best implicit, not carefully laid out, which of course allows a host of questionable assumptions to go wholly unnoticed.

If we return to the comparison between inferences to survival (from NDEs) and inferences to blue-color fetish makers of the world (from the existence of blue objects), an important shared feature of these two inferences is that they each involve a prediction about the way the world should look if the hypothesis is true, but – and this is the crucial part – the relevant prediction depends on an auxiliary hypothesis for which there is no independent evidence. The existence of demons does not lead us to expect the selection of any particular card in the deck, and the existence of a world maker or god does not by itself lead us to expect the existence of blue-colored objects in the world.  One must add something extra, fill out the basic hypothesis with additional hypotheses, in these cases hypotheses that attribute certain intentions to the entity whose existence the observational datum is supposed to confirm.

The survival of the self or our individual consciousness does not lead us to expect the data associated with NDEs. Survivalists must also assume that if consciousness should survive death, then it would have substantial continuity with our present consciousness, and that (at least some) survivors would retain their ante-mortem ability to acquire knowledge about the empirical world, but in the absence of their physical body. Without these minimal assumptions we would not expect even the most general features of NDEs. Similarly, blue-object fetish theologians must assume that the postulated Maker has intentions that are strongly continuous with the kinds of intentions that terrestrial makers have, for example, preferences for certain colors, shapes, etc.  But neither assumption can be independently tested.  We don’t know the relevant properties of consciousness if it should survive death anymore than we know the general or specific intentions of possible world-designers if they should exist.

And the matter is more dire for the survivalist, for there is virtually no limit to the kinds of auxiliary hypotheses one can think up such that (a) they are not independently testable and (b) when added to some non-survival hypothesis, they lead us to expect precisely the same kinds of observations as the survival hypothesis.  This is why survivalist criticisms of appeals to living-agent psychic functioning, like extra-sensory perception, carry little force. If the survivalist is free to postulate whatever auxiliary hypotheses are needed to bring observational data into the right fit with the survival hypothesis, those proposing “counter-explanations” are free to do precisely the same thing.  Consequently, it cannot plausibly be argued that the evidence clearly favors the survival hypothesis over non-survival counter-explanations.

Finally, there are many non-independently testable auxiliary hypotheses such that if we were to add them to the hypothesis that “individual consciousness survives death,” the expanded hypothesis would not lead us to expect any of the near-death experience data adduced in favor of survival. Maybe survivors will not be able to recognize deceased loved ones, communicate with them, have perceptual experiences of the empirical world, whether from above the hospital bed or anywhere else for that matter, or perhaps they would not retain knowledge of out-of-body experiences after being revived.

III.  The State of the Debate 

The moral of the story, which I think best captures the state of the empirical debate concerning survival, is as follows:

First, it’s pretty easy, all too easy, to generate non-survival hypotheses that lead us to expect the same data that the survival hypothesis leads us to expect.  So, if we can’t test the auxiliary hypotheses enlisted to derive the relevant predictions, we don’t know that the relevant observational evidence favors a particular survival hypothesis over any number of non-survival hypotheses.

Second, it’s pretty easy, all too easy, to generate survival hypotheses that don’t lead us to expect the relevant data borne out by experience.  So, if we have no way independently to test auxiliary hypotheses, we don’t know whether the relevant observational evidence confirms or disconfirms the idea that consciousness survives death.  Everything depends on what assumptions are made  in addition to the simple supposition that consciousness, even my individual consciousness, survives death.

The problem of auxiliary hypotheses remains the most formidable challenge to formulating an empirical argument for survival, that is, if survivalists wish to produce an argument that amounts to something more than presenting reasons for a conclusion that no one, survivalist or skeptic, is prepared to deny.

Michael Sudduth

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