Why Near-Death Experiences Are a Flimsy Justification for the Idea That We Have Immortal Souls
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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 arguments 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's this phenomenon -- consciousness.
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 10 seconds.