Tuesday, March 6, 2007

What Would be Evidence for Life After Death?

If possible, the doubter needs to be prepared to outline what sort of evidence would convince them, at least hypothetically. If no possible set of events or body of evidence would change their mind, then they are being dogmatic and irrational.

There is no plausible or convincing evidence, as far as I can see, that a person's mind or consciousness or spirit or soul can exist unless their brain and nervous are in minimal working order. And all the indicators suggest that when the brain goes, so does the soul.

But what sort of evidence could support the claim that a person's soul or mind exists without their body? Do near death experiences count? When someone has a very close, scary brush with death and has an overwhelming, life changing experience as a result, could that show that we exist beyond this material plane? If someone is unconscious on the operating table and has a powerful, vivid experience of floating up a lighted tunnel towards long lost loved ones or to Jesus or whatever, could that show that the mind doesn't need the brain to exist?

I think the answer to these two questions, as posed, is no and no. The human brain is capable of remarkable things. We have accumulated examples of brain disorders, drug trips, altered states and a host of other cases where a functioning but disrupted brain produces incredible visions, hallucinations, experiences, and feelings. And we have accumulated lots and lots of examples where even though someone feels like they are floating, or sees a tunnel (you can get this sensation just by standing up too fast) or has some other delusion and they are clearly, and demonstrably wrong. When you stand up too fast and your field of vision shrinks to a tunnel, clearly there is no tunnel and you are not floating up it. So we have lots and lots of examples of altered brain states that produce experiences that are mistaken. Therefore, it is just not enough for someone to report having had an extraordinary, unusual, or even life changing altered state of consciousness. Those happen all the time to just about everybody, and they aren't real.

The brainless mind defender needs to show more. Here's one example of the sort of evidence that would help make the case. Many people have claimed to have had life-after-death experiences, or out-of-body experiences. The problem is that brains are clearly capable of producing these experiences and they aren't real. But if we could establish that someone had their experience, saw the lights and the tunnel, floated up to meet Jesus, or otherwise had their profound encounter with God during the same time that we had every reason to think that their brain was not functioning well enough to possibly produce those experiences, then we'd have some important, significant evidence. If someone's heart or breathing stops on the operating table I don't think that is enough. Your consciousness is only indirectly dependent upon the functioning of your heart. I watched a magician on tv the other night hold his breath for over 7 minutes underwater. And he was clearly conscious, thinking, and having experiences. The oxygenated blood in a person's system is enough to sustain brain activity for quite a while.

Let's suppose that Smith's heart and breathing stop while he's on the operating table. Furthermore, suppose Smith is resuscitated later and he tells an elaborate life after death, or out of body story.

We would need to establish a couple of things. First, we would need to establish, and this would take a lot of sophisticated and sensitive medical monitoring, that say from 10:05 until 10:23, that Smith's brain had either ceased functioning altogether, or enough of its functions had ceased to prevent hallucinations, dreams, visions, and conscious feelings. Second, we would need to have some plausible indicators that the experiences that Smith had subjectively occurred sometime during that 18 minutes when his brain was out of commission. How would we show that? This is a hard one. If Smith was conscious and lucid and didn't appear to be having any hallucinations until 10:05, and then he wakes up at 10:23 and immediately reports having his out of body experience, that would be suggestive. If Smith was unconscious but had a relatively high functioning brain from 9:30 until 10:04, we can't just take Smith's word for it that the experience he had occurred between 10:05 and 10:23. How would he know? Did he have a vision of an accurate clock too? Would it help if he insisted that his experience went on for days and days? No, because subjective time just doesn't match up with objective time.
In fact, I think it is exceedingly rare that anyone who is suffering this kind of trauma will have an on/off episode where they go from being fully conscious and having a functioning brain to being unconscious and having a completely shut down brain. The other problem is that if so much of the brain has shut down so completely that it rules out the possibility of hallucinations and visions, I suspect that the damage is irreversible. Hearts and lungs shut down briefly and people can be revived. But brain's can't just be shut off and started back up. If there is enough damage to the brain that the oxygenated blood that is in the system can't keep it going, or the rest of the systems cannot support the brain's functions, then I think that brain will never come back to normal function. Smith won't be telling any stories.

But maybe it could happen with the right kinds of circumstances, or with advances in medical technology. But the challenge for the "souls can exist without the brain" thesis is to find a real case where we can say that some experiences were occurring and they couldn't have been the faulty product of an altered or damaged brain.

3 comments:

Josh C said...

"Interesting take on 'life after death.'

I find it funny that philosophy tends to presuppose the existence of the soul, even though there is no evidence for or against it. It seems like the soul has sneaked itself into the 'existence' category, while god can't catch a break. The soul can hardly be instantiated; at least god has the scriptures, which has to count for something. Life after death seems to hinge on the soul or spirit leaving the body and taking form in another life form in another world. But first we must find out if the soul actually exists, and if it does, it must then survive the death of the body it inhabited to move on. A lot of criteria to be met.

I personally believe in life after death. Life isn't all that we see and hear and sense in general. We can't see Ultra Violet or Infrared, nor can we hear certain pitches of noise that animals can hear. So what makes us think we can sense god or even our own soul (basic argument for god)? What makes us think that because we can comprehend math, language and time-space, we can comprehend everything, including ethereal, divine beings? You almost have to accept the theory that the external, physical world is the only reality that can exist, if you deny god, that is. You're saying that the only stuff that exists as reality is the stuff that is able to be sensed by human beings, and god doesn't fulfill this able-to-be-sensed requirement. Maybe that's strong, but it just popped into my head.

Anyway, your blog makes for good morning reading while eating a bowl of cereal. Keep it up!"

jhcadji said...

One more thing on 'life after death'-

Is the statement, 'life after death', a logical contradiction?

You cannot exist and not exist at the same time, nor can you be a married bachelor, since being a bachelor implies that you are not married. So then does 'death' entail the end of 'life' for good, meaning that it's logically impossible for one to live after death? Or does death just mean the end of one's life, Being (A), on Earth (not the universe), such that Being (A) can never exist on Earth as the same life form because it has already died? (Is this a question of whether or not 'life after death' is possible on Earth, or are we talking about in the universe, or both?) Or can Being (A) exist as a different life form on Earth? Of course, then, it would no longer be Being (A), and in this case, if it can exist as a different form, we're presupposing 'life after death' anyway, so that point is moot.

If death means the end of life, which I take it to mean, then having life once again makes 'death' not ACTUALLY death, since death, here, doesn't entail the impossibility of further life. So perhaps the semantics of the statement is what's problematic. Of course, in a general, holistic interpretation of the phrase, life goes on after death; if I die, human kind remains, so there IS life after death in that sense. That was never the issue, though.

So the real question with the phrase 'life after death', and what we need to establish first before asking if the phrase 'life after death' is logically impossible, is this: does the word 'death' imply that there can never be life again after this particular life (Boy B dies and Boy B can never live again as Boy B)? Or does 'death' simply mean the end of one life (Boy B's on Earth) but doesn't entail that there can't ever be new life after it (Boy B as another life form in another world)?

Or does living (in some way or another) after death have nothing to do with being logically impossible, and rather, it's more of a question of simply what we mean by 'life', 'after', and 'death'? I'm thinking it's the latter.

Now it's a linguistic issue.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post!
I really dislike Raymond Moody's book "Life after Life" and this has helped me understand the problems with his arguments.