Scoffing at those who believe in near death experiences

When I saw the title of this article that said Reasons not to scoff at ghosts, visions and near-death experiences, I assumed that it was going to make the case for the plausibility of things that I definitely scoff at. But what the author is arguing is that such beliefs can be therapeutic for some people and thus of some value and we should not too quickly move to disabuse people of those beliefs.

This brings us back to James, whose arguments in The Varieties of Religious Experience for the pragmatic clinical and social value of such transformative episodes have been mostly ignored by the scientific and medical mainstream. If there really are concrete benefits of personality changes following ‘mystical’ experiences, this might justify a question that’s not usually raised: could it be harmful to follow blindly the standard narrative of Western modernity, according to which ‘materialism’ is not only the default metaphysics of science, but an obligatory philosophy of life demanded by centuries of supposedly linear progress based on allegedly impartial research?

Sure, the dangers of gullibility are evident enough in the tragedies caused by religious fanatics, medical quacks and ruthless politicians. And, granted, spiritual worldviews are not good for everybody. Faith in the ultimate benevolence of the cosmos will strike many as hopelessly irrational. Yet, a century on from James’s pragmatic philosophy and psychology of transformative experiences, it might be time to restore a balanced perspective, to acknowledge the damage that has been caused by stigma, misdiagnoses and mis- or overmedication of individuals reporting ‘weird’ experiences. One can be personally skeptical of the ultimate validity of mystical beliefs and leave properly theological questions strictly aside, yet still investigate the salutary and prophylactic potential of these phenomena.

This is a tricky issue. If someone draws comfort from a false belief, and the belief does not cause any harm to themselves or to anyone else, why try to disabuse them of it? But that conditional clause is what causes problems because as the author says, the prevalence of such beliefs leads many people to think that there must be some truth to them and thus leaves them wide open to either take some harmful action or to be being influenced by unscrupulous people who seek to exploit them in some way.

I think the best way is to argue against such false beliefs in public discourse but not on an individual level, unless it is a fairly academic discussion in which the other person is not deeply emotionally invested. In other words, it is fine to write articles and books and give talks that are critical of such phenomena, that they are merely the product of the brain under certain conditions. But if someone you know tells you that they had a near-death experience that made them less fearful of death and made them decide to devote their lives to helping others, what is to be gained by debunking their experience?


  1. Dago Red says

    More or less, I think the recommendations here have been the attitude of the vast majority of people throughout modern times because the vast majority of people, even under the delusion of screwy beliefs, have for the most part been harmless. The tolerance has perhaps changed recently, with society becoming less tolerant of irrationality, for something that I believe to be a very good reason and perhaps worth considering when advocating continuing tolerance of irrational beliefs.

    The concern, of course, is not with the vast majority of irrational thinkers, but with the few extremists that inevitably arise from the fertile breeding ground created by said tolerance. The question is how do we curtail the rare but extreme cases that resort to extreme violence that inevitably arise when we continue to allow for this tolerance of irrational thought? Moreover, the danger is ever greater as the future unfolds due to the continual advancement of technology in our foreseeable future. Technology is what gives a small faction, or even an individual, the ability to wield ever more destructive power (i.e. as evident by the relatively recent events like the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster). I think this combination of technology and tolerances creates a need to balance a society’s desire to provide as much mental comforts for its inhabitants as possible, while still being hyper-aware of the real destructive capability that arises in the few outliers this kind of tolerance inevitably breeds in society. In the 18th century, perhaps the worst you had was a person who killed a few people in the night and terrorized a city, but now the entire city, rather than being merely terrorized, is also at risk of being destroyed by a relatively tiny group of fanatics (or perhaps even one) — and I only see this trend worsening with time. I don’t know if we’re at the point now where my concern needs to be prioritized over the one your raise here, but I find our willingness to continue to tolerate weird irrational thinking for the sake of the comfort of a few will eventually — and surreptitiously — place our greater society at extreme risk of damage by the few extreme cases that our tolerance of irrationality inevitably allows to breed in society. I don’t have a solution here (and perhaps some may find my view paranoid), but thought it worth raising this issue since it was not yet part of the discussion.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    What Red said. Find another cure for what ails the people for whom religion is a crutch.

  3. file thirteen says

    It’s difficult not to object when someone espouses nonsense. I had a relation-in-law visit with type 1 diabetes and I was both sympathetic and curious as to how it had affected her (I have given up trying to use elverson spivak) life, and I asked some questions.

    Unfortunately after a very interesting discussion of how she self-diagnosed it (she actually was in a biochemistry lecture where the lecturer listed the symptoms) and the trials she had to go through (handed a needle by a hard-nosed nurse and told to inject herself -- she freaked out and was told “if you don’t you’ll die”, but then the nurse left and a more sympathetic one came and taught her how to inject into a lemon; there’s much more but way off-topic), she switched the conversation to how her mother had been visiting a clairvoyant at the time who had predicted it.

    Now I’m a person whose emotions are written all over their face. I sat stony-faced in discomfort as she told me all about this clairvoyant and how amazing they were and how they communicated with people beyond the grave and how she hadn’t believed before either and on and on and on. The words tumbled out faster and faster, and I absolutely couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Eventually the conversation changed subject and I was able to excuse myself.

    It takes a skill that I don’t have to interrupt someone in full flow and say they’re talking rubbish, in a polite way. In a large group of people, I might have stood up, said “what an utter load of crap” and walked out. Obviously it would have been the height of rudeness to do that here and it’s a good thing I didn’t, but not having had the skills to politely speak up for reason did cause me to grind my teeth in frustration in the subsequent hours.

    But it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it, and if I couldn’t say it nicely then perhaps saying nothing was the best I could do.

  4. John Morales says

    But if someone you know tells you that they had a near-death experience that made them less fearful of death and made them decide to devote their lives to helping others, what is to be gained by debunking their experience?

    Subjectivity vs. objectivity.

    An experience itself cannot be debunked — its putative cause might be, but not the experience itself. So, to answer the rhetorical question, there is no gain to attempting the futile task of “debunking” someone’s experience.

    But what the author is arguing is that such beliefs can be therapeutic for some people and thus of some value and we should not too quickly move to disabuse people of those beliefs.

    FWIW, that’s exactly the same way I feel about people imagining they look more “beautiful” or feel more “confident” by virtue of putting muck on their face (aka “makeup”) or ink under their skin (“tattoos”), for example.

  5. John Morales says


    Same old, same old.

    Was browsing, saw this:
    The existential lure of astrology.

    The argument is the same: if it makes you feel good (“self-actualization”), it’s fine.

    (Thing is, if you can believe in an impossible thing, you can believe lots of impossible things)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *