The NDE delusion

Salon has had a redesign, which is fine; they seem to do this periodically just to confuse us. I’ll adjust to that, but what I don’t like is that the first thing I saw highlighted was an article so full of woo that for a moment I thought I’d stumbled onto the Huffington Post. We are now supposed to believe that science has explained near-death experiences (NDEs), and the answer is proof of life after death. It’s all nonsense; some editor somewhere needs to learn some critical thinking, because this article is filed under “neuroscience” when it ought to be in a category called “bullshit”.

The first clue that this is going to be bad is the author, Mario Beauregard. Beauregard was co-author with Denyse O’Leary of one of the worst, that is most incompetently written and idiotically conceived, books I’ve ever read, The Spiritual Brain. It’s not just that he thought it sensible to team up with a well-known intelligent design crank, but that the content is unreadable and the “science” is gobbledy-gook — Beauregard is a well-established kook, and here he is, writing for Salon.

NDEs are evidence of nothing but the creative power of the human mind. NDE proponents are constantly trotting out the same tired old anecdotes and the same tired old bogus misinterpretations, and this article is just more of the same. If you’ve ever looked into the NDE literature, you’ll know that two cases that are repeatedly brought up are the 20-30 year old stories of Pam and Maria’s Shoe; they have become something close to legend. These stories are poorly documented — “Maria”, for instance, can’t even be found in any hospital records, despite a story that details many medical details. Beauregard blithely recounts this anecdotal story as evidence that NDEs are real.

Maria was a migrant worker who had a severe heart attack while visiting friends in Seattle. She was rushed to Harborview Hospital and placed in the coronary care unit. A few days later, she had a cardiac arrest but was rapidly resuscitated. The following day, Clark visited her. Maria told Clark that during her cardiac arrest she was able to look down from the ceiling and watch the medical team at work on her body. At one point in this experience, said Maria, she found herself outside the hospital and spotted a tennis shoe on the ledge of the north side of the third floor of the building. She was able to provide several details regarding its appearance, including the observations that one of its laces was stuck underneath the heel and that the little toe area was worn. Maria wanted to know for sure whether she had “really” seen that shoe, and she begged Clark to try to locate it.

Quite skeptical, Clark went to the location described by Maria—and found the tennis shoe. From the window of her hospital room, the details that Maria had recounted could not be discerned. But upon retrieval of the shoe, Clark confirmed Maria’s observations. “The only way she could have had such a perspective,” said Clark, “was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe. I retrieved the shoe and brought it back to Maria; it was very concrete evidence for me.”

The case is touted as a clear example of veridical perception. “Veridical” is one of the favorite words of the NDE/OBE crowd; it simply means an observation that aligns with reality, so they’re always babbling about people wafting about in a ghostly disembodied state and seeing things that no earth-bound human could possibly have seen, which are later confirmed. Unfortunately, all we get are second- and third-hand accounts full of embellishments, and tall tales whose highlights are depressingly mundane, such as seeing a shoe on a ledge. It’s always trivia that gets reported. It seems that all dead people want to do is hover.

And, of course, Maria’s story has been totally demolished. The little details are all inflated; for instance the claim that details of a shoe on a ledge could not possibly be discerned has been tested on that hospital building, and it turns out that a shoe on the ledge actually is really easy to see and jumps out to the eye of people passing beneath.

So, a few well-worn exaggerations are all these guys have to go on. I don’t think Beauregard can claim science has had any “shocking results” when this is the best he’s got.

Furthermore, Beauregard, who is supposed to be a neuroscientist, says some awesomely stupid things.

This case is particularly impressive given that during cardiac arrest, the flow of blood to the brain is interrupted. When this happens, the brain’s electrical activity (as measured with EEG) disappears after 10 to 20 seconds. In this state, a patient is deeply comatose. Because the brain structures mediating higher mental functions are severely impaired, such patients are expected to have no clear and lucid mental experiences that will be remembered. Nonetheless, studies conducted in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and United States have revealed that approximately 15 percent of cardiac arrest survivors do report some recollection from the time when they were clinically dead. These studies indicate that consciousness, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings can be experienced during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity.

This is another common claim. The subject, they say, was flat-lined during the incident — the heart was still and there was no brain activity, and yet, they claim, the subject was experiencing detailed perceptual events during this period of material inactivity. What they gloss over is the simple fact that, while there was definitely a period when their brain was functionally inert, they are describing these events afterwards, in a period when their brain is fully active. Beauregard is making the ignorant mistake of assuming that our consciousness is a continuous stream of recorded mental activity, and that a remembered event must necessarily have actually occurred.

That’s not how memories work. Our brains don’t tuck away a movie of our experiences somewhere in our temporal lobe; they store a few little details away, with a web of associations, and basically reconstruct the event when we try to recall it. This is why eyewitness testimony is unreliable — memory is dynamic and constantly being modified by later experience. When we lose conscious awareness and later recover it, the brain has absolutely no problem inventing a continuous narrative to fill in the blanks, and in fact, the way our minds work, we want that narrative. To consider that we didn’t exist for an interval of time is something we linear creatures tend to shy away from.

So when someone claims that a report of a recollection from a time when they were clinically dead is evidence of a mind functioning during that period when the brain was non-functional, you should know…they’re full of shit. It’s evidence of no such thing.

I also have to add that all of the accounts of NDEs and other such out-of-body experiences (OBEs) are peculiar in their attachment to ordinary patterns of perception. They claim to become a non-corporeal, immaterial, invisible entity that floats around, but somehow, they use the same mundane senses they do in the body. How do invisible eyes capture photons? How do immaterial minds detect physical vibrations in the air? Sensory transduction is a real problem for beings that lack hair cells and photoreceptors, I would think. It’s much more likely that they are using those fleshy sensory organs (or even more likely, the memory of using those organs), while experiencing an illusion of detachment from their body.

No reservations trouble Beauregard, though. He blindly charges on to claim revelation.

These findings strongly challenge the mainstream neuroscientific view that mind and consciousness result solely from brain activity. As we have seen, such a view fails to account for how NDErs can experience—while their hearts are stopped—vivid and complex thoughts and acquire veridical information about objects or events remote from their bodies.

NDE studies also suggest that after physical death, mind and consciousness may continue in a transcendent level of reality that normally is not accessible to our senses and awareness. Needless to say, this view is utterly incompatible with the belief of many materialists that the material world is the only reality.

As I’ve said, the recollection of vivid and complex thoughts while the heart is stopped is not only easily explained, it’s pretty much the default understanding by neuroscientists of how the brain works. The acquisition of veridical information would be more difficult to explain…if it had ever occurred. Trundling out the same hoary folk tales and anecdotes is not at all convincing that it has.

He is right that this idea of minds existing independently of brains is incompatible with materialist views. It’s also incompatible with the existing evidence, and he has presented no counter-evidence. His extremely badly argued article is yet another piece of evidence, though, that Beauregard is a crank.

P.S. It’s a shame that tripe got published in Salon, but don’t read the comments, or you’ll discover why it got published. There sure are a lot of mystically-inclined, quantum-woo-spouting diddledingles fulminating away in their readership.

Philosotroll covers a few other points.

Why I am an atheist – Loren Lemos

The answer to that is not particularly interesting: Gods are impossible by definition. Any being constrained by natural laws can’t rightly be called a god, and any being unconstrained by natural laws can’t exist. Q.E.D. However, I would like to share the story of how I became an atheist.

I was baptized as a Catholic before I was two weeks old. I was sprinkled with water blessed by an ordained priest and was anointed with oil on my forehead, thus giving me a shield against Satan’s evil. I grew up a very trusting and very shy little boy, entranced by the power and authority of the priests who spoke so definitively. God was all-powerful. When I became sick, I wondered what I had done to deserve influenza or an ear infection, and prayed my apologies every night as I fell asleep. I knew that piety and devotion were the way to be good, and I only wanted to be good.

When I was a little older, I heard a priest speaking his homily in my grandmother’s impressive church in Hacienda Heights. He said that we were all called to be saints, and this seemed conclusive and sensible. There was no reason to strive for anything less. God abhorred sin of all kinds, and He only ever gave us good things. To sin at all was an unwarranted failing, and He noted all of them in His perfection. To be Christian meant to be like Christ, and the Prince of Peace was a sinless human being.

You may here divine my coming troubles.

I began to leave all my allowance in the collection plate every Sunday, and I examined my conscience studiously. When I learned how to give a proper confession, I sought out priests to unburden my soul, and left every time with a light heart. But that light heart never lasted. I couldn’t seem to refrain from spite, from jealousy, and as I aged, especially from lust. I began to change, to see the world beyond my family, school, and church, and I was pained by what I saw. The world was full of greed, poverty, and hatred, and I myself couldn’t stop desiring the bodies of the women and girls I saw. That dream of piety began to fade with my awakening, and I became desperate to reclaim it. I prayed the Act of Contrition with all the focus I could summon, even as I witnessed the words “I will sin no more” become shamefully fake. I cashed all my birthday checks and bought cans of vegetables for an Easter food drive. I kept a Rosary in my pocket and prayed while riding to school and while waiting for friends. When I was sixteen, I cut down a fifty-pound cottonwood log and carried it across my shoulders while I performed the Stations of the Cross, a series of fifteen prayers commemorating Jesus’ march to Cavalry and His Resurrection, in an attempt to understand the Sacrifice which redeemed the world.

But I was still a sinner.

I believed absolutely, but I knew that I would never be able to joyfully proclaim that I was following the true Will of God. I could be forgiven, but I could never master my sinfulness. I would always choose to stain the perfection of God’s Kingdom. There was only one conclusion: there was something wrong with me. I was too weak to follow or too stupid to understand and I was always too undisciplined. I begged for wisdom, strength, and courage every night. I confessed my shame to middle-aged priests at my high school, stumbling over the words “sexual sins” every single time. Masturbation was never followed by a simple contented sigh, but by anger and humiliation. At certain times afterward I was so furious and ashamed I took all the strength I had and cracked myself in the jaw with a closed fist, desperate for a bolt of pain sharp enough to sever my need for sexual release. I literally tried to beat myself into compliance with the dogma of Holy Mother Church.

It never worked.

Around this time, my appetite for books led me to the Kurt Vonnegut works in my high school library. In the middle of that despicable Catholic institution, a few cheap paperbacks were my first step on the way out. In one of his major novels, he described a tenet of morality: do what is good because it is good, not because you desire reward or fear punishment. There was something attractive about that sentiment. I came to understand that
it was self-contained. This was a method of being good which did not rely on a complicated world of obscurely interdependent prophesies and fulfillments. I liked it.

As I contemplated this idea, my Catholic faith continued to wear me down. The golden land of my youth had become a twisted carnival of guilt. Every week, I sat before a man who continually bled to death in an unappreciated attempt to save people who hated Him. I hated Him, and He died because of me. I could do nothing in His churches but apologize. His hands began to look like pointing fingers. I was looking for a way out and this was my weakness trying to please Him. I was miserable. I don’t know when, but some day I said “I refuse to be ashamed”.

This repeated in my head, almost unbidden. “I refuse to be ashamed.” I was tired. I was exhausted. I had tried with all the strength I had for my entire life and I never won. How do you have a relationship with a Savior who is perfect? You can do nothing for Him but fail to meet the goals He sets. I was tired of missing a bar which He in His fucking perfect Arrogance had set too God-damned high. I went to Mass less and less. One day, I never went back. I don’t even remember the last time.

I still had a confused ball of spiritual beliefs inside me. I believed in love, in the unity of people, in a God who could be found through the discipline of any and all religions. I divested myself of the shameful parts of my Catholicism, but still sought God. As I worked through this, a dear friend of mine who had been raised in Protestant churches explained to me that she no longer believed in any god. I respected her viewpoint but couldn’t abandon the idea of a being who was central to all of existence. Then one day she emailed me a copy of The God Delusion and insisted that I read it. I was bored at work, so I did. Then I read it a second time. Later that week, I told her these words: “There’s probably no god”. She was right.

There is still so much anger inside me. I hurt, and wept, and injured myself while I was a child. I contorted myself into an alien shape to please a master who never existed, because I believed. Do you
understand? I believed what they told me. That was all I ever did. I tried so hard to be the person they wanted me to be and never blamed anyone else for my own shameful failing. I only blamed myself.

The Church taught me to hate myself.

I have no professional training in this area, but I believe there
are strong commonalities with the experiences of people who were abused emotionally as children. I cling to the rational arguments of Dawkins and Sagan and P.Z. himself like life preservers when I feel overwhelmed. I worry if I am obsessing over my church experiences too much. Sometimes I think it was all my fault for taking the church teachings too seriously; if I had only lightened the fuck up maybe I wouldn’t have been such a little bitch for so long. I still can’t talk about my worst experiences without crying, and I bring them up way too often when I’m drunk. I worry that my friends would feel contempt for me if they knew how I can’t seem to heal.

When I hear people say religion does no harm, I want to punch them in the fucking mouth.

Loren Lemos
United States

Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!

After attending the Global Atheist Convention, John Wilkins vaguely disagrees with me on community building. I say vaguely because he doesn’t really disagree with the goal, but because he thinks I’m missing something essential in defining community.

First of all if you want to build a community you have to have a set of shared values, rituals and practices. These are, if you like, the nature of the community. Since atheism is defined in various ways, that is difficult, and PZ tried to define the atheist community in terms of truth, autonomy and community. The problem is, these are values also held by many other communities, and they are not the very same communities. I know many liberal religious folk who also value science, truth and personal autonomy, and many atheists who do not.

I disagree here in two ways: First, sharing values with other communities is not a problem. John and I would both agree that there are good values in Christian and Islamic and whatever communities — if we go around saying atheists can’t do that because Lutherans do it, too, we’ll end up refusing to urinate in private and adopting the habit of kicking small children. We should borrow the best from other communities (which does not include building extravagantly silly cathedrals.)

Secondly, I’d disagree that everything I listed is shared, and I specifically include truth. I also know many religious people who say they value truth…and who then insist that triune gods who manifest themselves as ritual sacrifices in the body of a man are also true. It is also the case that religions by their nature lack the tools for evaluating truth by an external measure outside their practices and holy books, which is why they are led into such silly beliefs…false ideas that Wilkins then goes on to acknowledge are valuable because of their falsity.

So while I applaud his picking these values, he hasn’t quite picked out the identifier and community builders of an atheist community.

What does achieve this? Well, we can look to other successful community building traditions. One of the most obvious is, of course, religion. What is it that makes religion so socially persistent and able to withstand thousands of years of change? My answer, the one I gave to PZ, was the Costly Signalling hypothesis: what makes a religion stable and causes social cohesion is not the ideas they share, but the absurd and contingent flags they carry. The reason why, for example, a Baptist can go anywhere in the world and find a community among any ethnicity, language, or class, is that what unites Baptists everywhere are a set of practices and beliefs so silly that one can only share them with other Baptists. That is, by the way, why creationism is so socially adaptive: the only folk you can share it with in practice are those who are in your community. Everybody else just laughs at you (yes, Xenu. I’m looking at you).

The costly signalling hypothesis is an interesting one and I wouldn’t reject it out of hand. But implementing it is a different matter, and I think atheists already do. I also think it has some problems.

What is the cost creationists pay for their beliefs? There isn’t really any. They aren’t discriminated against, they don’t get beat up by roving gangs of militant atheists, historically and currently they are in the majority. Their beliefs don’t have consequences on their work (as long as they aren’t trying to be biologists) or their family life; they don’t have to make any personal sacrifices to revel in their ignorance. It is a cheap signal. It’s also an easily hidden signal — I couldn’t walk out onto the street and point to any of the creationists walking by unless I knew them personally.

Now there definitely are costly religious signals. I think the first tribe that decided to mark themselves off by chopping off their foreskins was most decidedly doing something radical, and really was making it expensive to join their group. Of course, now it’s all over the place and in some cultures is done so casually that it marks nothing at all (see also the point above about values not having to be unique). I think also cheap signals can be made costly by the environment — the trivial differences between Catholic and Protestant rituals could cost you your life in Ireland, once upon a time, for instance. But you could say the same thing about atheism: professing disbelief could, once upon a time, get you a toasty spot tied to a stake, as could not being aware of the theological significance of Jesus’ human or divine nature. Costliness is contingent.

Sure, we could declare that all True Atheists™ would wear a purple hat with antlers. It would be impractical, ugly, and obvious, and it would represent a truly costly badge that no one else would don, but it would also lack any organic connection to our beliefs or community. Also, the idea of wearing an absurd flag of our identity is a violation of fundamental rational values and shouldn’t be promoted. I do not think any such unnatural proposition would ever fly in this community.

On the other hand, there are rational beliefs that have just as much of a social cost as the creationists absurdities. They mark us just as thoroughly as a belief in the trinity.

We reject the notion of an afterlife. Dead is dead. No consolation in a happy hunting ground after the misery of cancer ripping your body apart, or a heart attack flooring you in an abrupt flash of pain. Many people outside our group find that shocking to the point they deny that we could possibly believe it.

We consider humans to be inconsequential and accidental on a cosmic scale. The universe does not love us or care about us, we aren’t special, we do not have an all-important destiny. That chills others, too.

We deny the existence of an objective morality. Morality is emergent and contingent; it’s the product of interactions between humans, it can change, and it really does have to be worked out mutually and iteratively, without binding arbitration from a superpowerful authority. This difference is a huge source of othering by Christians and Muslims — it’s the number one accusation I see levied by those tribes against our tribe. How can you deny that it is a costly signal while suggesting that believing in a 6000 year old earth is?

John also mentions his recent knee injury that has laid him up, and that there is no congregation of like-minded agnostics who gathered together to send him flowers, send a baffled and muddled agnostic chaplain to visit, or organize a circle of dinner deliveries. He’s reliant on a couple of personal friends. But, I would add, he also benefits from a secular state that provides an essential minimal level of support. Why should that be dismissed as an aspect of community? It’s a bit impersonal, admittedly, but it’s there. I think it’s also much more reliable than depending on a loose association of fellow believers — I notice that the Baptists aren’t lining up to help Wilkins out now, despite his past association, probably because his ideas led him to depart from their herd. Do we want the kind of community that demands conformity in order to get the essentials of life?

But otherwise, yes, it would be good to have the kind of godless community that fosters friends and fellowship, so when your gimpy knee turns you into a crippled wreck they occasionally stop by with a life-sustaining bottle of beer or hour of conversation or movie for the evening. We don’t have that yet. We need the numbers to have an adequate density of non-believers, and some regular cause to focus community and make us aware of and care for each other. I would agree with that.

But an arbitrary costly signal won’t do that at all. What we need are more positive reasons to routinely associate. How about suggestions for that? Purple hats with antlers are not the answer.

Why I am an atheist – Anonymous

I discovered I was an atheist when I was 18 years old, but it would probably be more accurate to say that’s when I discovered other people weren’t atheists.

I grew up in the midwestern USA in the 80’s. Nobody in my family ever mentioned anything about religion when I was a child. It’s not that anyone was against it, they just didn’t bring it up. I was generally aware that many of my friends and acquaintances went to church on a fairly regular basis, but they never mentioned anything about any god in my presence and I assumed that it was just a cultural habit they inherited from their parents, and if their parents didn’t attend they wouldn’t either.

Then, one year, I got invited to Christmas Mass with a good friend. My family always had a Christmas tree and exchanged gifts, but it was a completely secular affair. I’d never actually been in a church as anything other than a tourist looking at architecture, and I thought it would be interesting to see what happens in practice. The fact it was a Catholic service made it ever more interesting.

It was pleasant enough, and at times you could even call it uplifting. Even when I was there, however, I didn’t get the feeling anyone actually believed anything they were singing about, and even the priest seemed more of a philosopher than a theist. It was all exactly the sort of “be nice to each other” messages that I’d expected, and I didn’t hear much of anything that required any particular religious sentiment. There was obviously some readings from a bible that mentioned god and angels, but I took that more like a reading of poetry that was the cultural basis of all the “be nice to each other” songs and speeches. In other words, I managed to get through an entire Christmas Mass as an atheist without feeling out-of-place.

It wasn’t until after services that I started talking to my friend and found she genuinely believed in some kind of supernatural entity. By coincidence, quite a few other friends also started becoming more engaged with religion over the following year, and I discovered they all seemed to have a nonspecific belief that something supernatural is afoot. They were so vague on the details that I wasn’t entirely sure what it was they believed. They clearly had a firm belief in somebody named Jesus and that it was vitally important to believe he existed, but that was about the end of it. It seemed to be mostly that they enjoyed the sense of community they felt when they said and did the proper things, plus it was a security blanket to make them less afraid of death and the randomness of the world.

To this day, I’m still baffled how so many people claim to be Christian but seem to have no understanding of the basis of the religion they profess to embrace. I honestly think that the ranks of atheists are far larger than the statistics suggest. How can someone be religious when they have no understanding of their religious they profess to follow? Many people identify themselves as Jewish and openly treat it as a cultural/ethnic quality that no longer has any religious significance. For many people there’s no conflict in being a Jewish atheist because Jewishness has become a matter of heritage. Many Christians are the same, but they’re afraid to actual use the word “atheist”. With all due respect to folks like PZ and Dawkins, I also think that the increase in open atheism in recent years isn’t because people are actually changing their views, it’s because they’re realizing they never believed in their religion in the first place.


And the word “interfaith” is nowhere in sight…

This is how it is done. The Todd Stiefel Foundation is rallying freethinkers to help raise money for cancer research, sponsoring the Light The Night Walk through the Foundation Beyond Belief, to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. They are doing this as a secular organization, for a secular cause, and they are making an effort to clearly define this as a freethinker-led initiative…although, of course, religious people will be warmly welcomed as friends and colleagues if they wish to join in.

I’ll be promoting this more in the near future and will be deciding whether to support a team or create one of our own (there is none near Morris, Minnesota), but I’ve got to hold off a bit — we’re in the last two weeks of the semester and grading and other work is consuming everything right now — but I wanted to let everyone know now. Don’t wait for me, get out there and see if there is a team near you that you can join.

The goal is to raise a million dollars for cancer research. I know we can do it.