This piece was originally published on Alternet.
“But when people are near death, they have out- of- body experiences. Some of them, anyway. Doesn’t this prove that there’s an immaterial soul, separate from the body, that leaves the body and survives when we die?”
As I’ve written before: Most arguments for spiritual belief that I encounter are so bad, they don’t even count as arguments. But some believers in religion or spirituality do try to make real arguments for their beliefs, and try to defend them with evidence and logic. This evidence and logic are never very good… but they are sincere attempts to engage with reality instead of ignoring it. So I want to do these argumemts the honor of taking them seriously… and pointing out how they’re completely mistaken.
Today, I’m taking on, not an argument for God, but for some sort of soul, separate from the brain and the body, that sparks consciousness, animates life, and survives death. More specifically, I’m taking on the argument that near- death experiences are evidence of this immortal soul.
Here’s the argument being made. Sometimes, when people are near death, they have weird experiences: experiences that seem like their consciousness is leaving their body. These experiences are rare — even those who believe in the soul acknowledge that NDE’s only happen to a small proportion of people near death — but they happen. And there are some reports that people having these experiences see things they couldn’t have known were there. These experiences can only be explained — so the argument goes — by a soul, separate from the brain, that departs from the brain when it’s near death, and returns to it when death is staved off.
That’s the argument.
So here’s the problem.
There are essentially two ways to explain it. Either it’s a physical, biological product of the brain — or it has a component other than brain function: a soul that is separate from the brain, and that survives when the brain dies.
And there are two sets of evidence supporting these two explanations.
The evidence supporting the “biological product of the brain” explanation comes from rigorously- gathered, carefully- tested, thoroughly cross-checked, double-blinded, placebo- controlled, replicated, peer-reviewed research. An enormous mountain of research. A mountain of research that is growing more mountainous every day.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Read any current book on neurology or neuropsychology… or at least, any current book on neurology or neuropsychology that isn’t written by a woo believer with an axe to grind who’s cherry-picking the data. Read Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandran, Steven Pinker. We are getting closer to understanding consciousness every day. The sciences of neurology and neuropsychology are, it is true, very much in their infancy… but they are advancing by astonishing leaps and bounds, even as we speak. And what they are finding, consistently, thoroughly, across the board, is that, whatever consciousness is, it is intimately and inextricably linked to the brain. Changes in the brain result in changes in consciousness — changes sometimes so drastic that they render a person’s personality entirely unrecognizable. Changes in consciousness can be seen, using magnetic resonance imagery, as changes in the brain. This is the increasingly clear conclusion of the science: consciousness is a product of the brain. Period.
And this evidence has been gathered, and continues to be gathered, using the gold standard of evidence, methods specifically designed to filter out biases and known cognitive errors as much as is humanly possible: rigorously- gathered, carefully- tested, thoroughly cross-checked, double-blinded, placebo- controlled, replicated, peer-reviewed research.
Now. Compare, please, to the evidence supporting the “independent soul” explanation of consciousness.
Including near-death experiences, and the supposedly inexplicable things that happen to some people during them.
The evidence supporting the “independent soul” explanation is flimsy at best. It is unsubstantiated. It comes largely from personal anecdotes. It is internally inconsistent. It is shot through with discrepancies. It is loaded with biases and cognitive errors — especially confirmation bias, the tendency to exaggerate evidence that confirms what we already believe, and to ignore evidence that contradicts it. It has methodological errors that a sixth-grade science project winner could spot in ten seconds.
And that includes the evidence of near-death experiences.
There is not a single account of an immaterial soul leaving the body in a near-death experience that meets the gold standard of scientific evidence. Not even close. Supposedly accurate perceptions of things they couldn’t have seen by people near death? Bogus. Supposedly accurate predictions of things they couldn’t have known by people near death? Bogus. The “shoe on the window ledge that the dying person supposedly couldn’t possibly have known about?” Bogus. The supposed eerie similarity of near-death experiences? Bogus. (The similarities that these experiences do have are entirely consistent with them all being created by human brains… and the differences between them are not only vast, but exactly what you would expect if these experiences were generated by people’s brains, based on their own beliefs about death. Christians near death see Jesus, Hindus near death see Hindu gods, etc.)
These claims — and the claims that these experiences could not possibly be explained by anything other than a supernatural soul — are anecdotal at best. Second- and third- hand hearsay. Gossip, essentially. And like most gossip, it leaves out the parts of the story that are less juicy, less consistent with what we already think about the world or what we want to think about it… and exaggerates the parts of the story that tell us what we already believe or want to believe. Believers in the soul love to tell the bogus story about the shoe on the window ledge. They’re less likely to tell the stories about the people near death who saw things that weren’t there, or who made predictions that didn’t happen, or who saw people alongside them in their supposed out- of- body experience who weren’t actually near death themselves.
And every time a claim about a soul leaving the body when near death has been tested, using good, rigorous methods, it’s utterly fallen apart. Every single rigorously-done study examining claims about near death experiences has completely failed to show any perceptions or predictions that couldn’t have been entirely natural. Again. And again. And again, and again, and again. And again. And… oh, you get the idea.
And I have yet to see a good explanation for a believer in near-death experiences of why they don’t happen to everyone: why they only happen to a small percentage of people who are near death. Are they saying that only about 10% of people have souls? Really? Is that an argument you want to make?
What’s more, believers in the immortal soul, and in near-death experiences as evidence of this soul, consistently fall back on bad arguments and poor logic to defend it. “You can’t prove with 100% certainty that it isn’t true; therefore, it could hypothetically be true; therefore, it’s reasonable to think it’s true.” “Neither side can prove their case with absolute certainty; therefore, both sides are equally likely; therefore, it’s reasonable for me to believe whatever I want to.” “Science has been wrong before; therefore, it could be wrong this time; therefore, I don’t have to provide any good evidence for why it’s wrong this time.” “Scientists are human, subject to as much human bias as anyone else; therefore, I don’t have to show exactly how their bias is affecting their conclusions in order to reject them.” “Lots of smart people believe it; even some scientists believe it; therefore, it’s reasonable to think it’s true.”
It seems clear that, for most believers in an immortal soul, this belief is unfalsifiable. It shouldn’t be; in theory, this is an evidence-based conclusion that should be open to changing upon seeing better evidence. But in practice, it clearly is. In practice, for most believers, there is no possible evidence that could convince them that they’re wrong. They will reject the best available evidence, and clutch at the worst, since the latter confirms their belief and the former contradicts it. (Which is understandable — death sucks, and we’d all like to live forever and see our dead loved ones again — but it doesn’t make their arguments very convincing.)
Now, many believers in the soul will argue that yes, they are biased in favor of their belief — but so are the scientists who’ve concluded that consciousness is a physical process and the soul doesn’t exist. But this makes no sense whatsoever. Scientists are human, too: they don’t want to die, and they’d be just as happy as anyone to learn that they were going to live forever. In fact, for centuries, most scientists did believe in the soul, and much early science was dedicated to proving the soul’s existence and exploring its nature. It took decades upon decades of fruitless research in this field before scientists finally gave it up as a bad job. The conclusion that the soul does not exist was not about proving a pre-existing agenda: quite the opposite. It was about the evidence leading inexorably to a conclusion that was both surprising and upsetting. What’s more, if any scientist today could conclusively prove the existence of the soul, they’d instantly become the most famous and respected scientist in the history of the world. What possible motivation could they have for being biased against the soul hypothesis?
This is patently not true for the claim about the immortal soul, and the claim that near-death experiences are good evidence for it. This claim is not only unsupported by any solid evidence, and flatly contradicted by plenty of solid evidence. It is also, very clearly, based on the most wishful of all wishful thinking — the deep, intense, completely understandable desire to not die.
Given that all this is true.
Given that the evidence supporting the “biological process of the brain” explanation is rigorously gathered, carefully tested, thoroughly cross-checked, internally consistent, consistent with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, able to produce mind-bogglingly accurate predictions, not slanted towards wishful thinking, and is expanding our understanding of the mind every day.
Given that the evidence supporting the “immortal soul separate from the brain” explanation is flimsy, anecdotal, internally inconsistent, blasted into non-existence upon careful examination, totally at odds with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, and strongly biased towards what people most desperately want to believe.
Which of these explanations of consciousness seems more likely?
And which explanation of near-death experiences seems more likely?
Forget about the “you can’t disprove it with 100% certainty” fallacy. We’re not talking about 100% certainty. We don’t apply the “100% certainty” test to anything else in our lives, so let’s not apply it here. Which explanation is more plausible? Which has more credibility? If we were talking about any other question — if we were talking about global climate change, or evolution, or whether the earth orbits the sun — which set of evidence would you give greater weight to?
Yes, weird things sometimes happen to some people’s minds when they’re near death. Weird things often happen to people’s minds during altered states of consciousness. Exhaustion, stress, distraction, trance-like repetition, optical illusion, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload… any of these physical changes to the brain, and more, can create vivid “perceptions” that are entirely disconnected from reality. It’s been extensively demonstrated. And being near death is an altered state of consciousness, a physical change to the brain. (What’s more, as my wife Ingrid keeps pointing out: Near death experiences are not death. What happens to consciousness when the brain is briefly deprived of oxygen tells us nothing about what happens to consciousness when the brain is decayed in the grave into dust and nothingness.)
So which explanation of this weirdness is more plausible? The physical one — the one that says, “Yeah, the brain does weird things sometimes when deprived of oxygen or otherwise altered, and these experiences are completely consistent with what we know about the brain”? The one that’s backed up by a mountain of rigorous, replicated research?
Or the supernatural one — the one that’s backed up by anecdotes, cognitive biases, bad logic, and wishful thinking?
Look. I don’t want to die, either. Just about nobody wants to die. That includes scientists, and it includes researchers into neurology and neuropsychology and consciousness. When I was letting go of my spiritual beliefs, this was by far the hardest part: letting go of my belief that my soul was immortal, and accepting that death is permanent. It’s true that, when I think about it carefully, it’s impossible for me to imagine an eternal afterlife that wouldn’t be intolerable… but that doesn’t change my intense emotional attachment to life, and to the people I love. We evolved from millions of generations of ancestors who really, really wanted to survive: it makes sense that we would fear death, and want to stay alive. We evolved from thousands of generations of ancestors in social species; it makes sense that we would love other people and grieve for them when they die. And it makes sense that we’d want to believe that death isn’t final.
But if we care whether the things we believe are true, we can’t just believe that we’ll live forever, simply because we want to.
Reality wins. Reality is more important than anything we could make up about it. (And it’s a whole lot more interesting.) If we want to be intimately connected with the universe, we need to accept what the universe is telling us, through evidence, is true about itself. We need to not treat the world we make up in our heads as more important than the world outside our heads. If we want to be intimately connected with the universe, we need to accept the reality about it.
Even when that reality contradicts our most cherished beliefs.
Even when that reality is frightening, or painful, or sad.
And that includes the reality of death.
If we find the idea of death upsetting, we need to not cover our eyes and ears in the face of death, and pretend that it isn’t real. We need, instead, to find and create secular philosophies of death that provide comfort and meaning. We need to find value in the transient as much as in the permanent. We need to see change and loss and death as inherent and necessary to life, without which the things we value in life would not be possible. We need to see death as providing inspiration and motivation to experience life as fully as we can, and to get things done while we still have time. We need to view death as a natural process, something that connects us with the great chain of cause and effect in the universe. We need to take comfort in the idea that, even though we will die and our death will be forever, the memories people have of us will live on, and the world will be different because we were here. We need to take comfort in making this life as meaningful and valuable as we possibly can: for ourselves, and for everyone else around us. We need to recognize how astronomically lucky we were to have been born into this life at all, and not see it as a tragedy because that life won’t last forever.
When we let go of religious or spiritual beliefs, it can be painful to accept the reality and permanence of death. But we can take comfort in the knowledge that, whatever secular philosophies of death we have, they aren’t based on sloppy evidence and wishful thinking and an intense effort to avoid cognitive dissonance. We can take comfort in the knowledge that our philosophies of death are built on a solid foundation of good evidence, reason, plausibility, and the acceptance of reality.
And that’s more comforting than any spiritual belief I’ve ever held.
Also in this series:
Why “Everything Has a Cause” is a Terrible Argument for God
Why “Life Has To Have Been Designed” Is a Terrible Argument for God’s Existence
Why “The Universe Is Perfectly Fine-Tuned For Life” Is a Terrible Argument for God
Why “I Feel It In My Heart” Is a Terrible Argument for God