Essay on Near Death Experiences

In this essay I intend to argue that while Susan Blackmore (S.B.) does shed some light on the mind/body problem with her examination of “near death experiences” (NDE), she doesn’t conclusively solve the monist/dualist dilemma and, in fact, perhaps just complicates the argument by raising more questions.

For the purposes of this essay I will use the definition of NDEs, as given in our notes, as an experience people have while “they are technically dead for anything up to a couple of minutes.” Most often, people are classified as having been technically dead because they have died in an operating theatre with qualified medical staff around them, who can vouch for their state of having been dead. This, however, is not always foolproof, as a number of people have regained consciousness several hours or even days after having been pronounced dead by several doctors. Not all of these people have had NDE even though they have been technically dead. The problem seems to lie in how we define “life” and ”death”. How can we know when life ceases to exist in an organism, when we have trouble defining life itself? Physical processes continue in an organism many days after it is pronounced dead. In 1890 one concerned doctor, Dr. F. Gannal, even wrote a paper:” Mort Apparante et Mort Rйele” and listed 418 references to help determining the real death from the apparent death. Lyall Watson refers to a case of a United States soldier, who was severely injured in South Vietnam. Doctors attempted to resuscitate him but gave up after 45 minutes when both electrocardiograph and electroencephalograph said he was dead. Yet, he recovered 4 hours later in the mortuary. Although these cases are not common, they happen frequently enough to require “dead” people to be laid out in a morgue or some other place, for some time before burial or cremation. Just in case! So, did the US soldier have a NDE? Unfortunately, there is no reference to his experience of the event, but he does fit our definition of being technically dead. The reason I point out the problem that we have in defining life and death, is that this aspect is not covered by S.B. For me the question arises as to whether people who have a NDE were really dead or just misdiagnosed. If it is a case of us needing to refine our diagnostic skills in relation to death, then we may have a scenario of no one actually having returned from the dead but rather people having had a specific out-of-the-body experience (OBE) in a barely functioning body. If this is the case, then we can argue about whether the mind can leave the body and experience the real world without using the physical body. However, there cannot be a persuasive argument about whether the mind can exist entirely independent from the body if no one has been really dead and experienced a total separation of the mind-body connection.

S.B. looks at the mind-body problem by examining the arguments which have been put forward for the belief that the mind is a separate entity, independent of the body, which continues its existence after death. S.B. calls this “The Afterlife Hypothesis”(AH). In contrast to this, there is the belief system that the mind is intrinsically a part of our physical bodies and when the body dies, so does the mind. S.B. calls the arguments put forward to support this belief “The Dying Brain Hypothesis”(DBH). Both hypotheses take their basis in the NDE and base their arguments on the descriptions of the experiences people have had during NDEs.

The two hypotheses are supported by several arguments, which S.B. explores and compares. Both the AH and the DBH have “The Consistency Argument” which, for the AH basically states that, throughout time and throughout the whole world, the reports of NDE are so similar that they have to be what they appear to be, namely the soul’s (mind’s) journey to the afterlife. In contrast to this, the DBH claims that NDEs are so similar because our brains are the same, and so the effect of oxygen starvation and malfunction will be experienced the same for everyone who has this type of “near death”.

The next argument put forward by the AH is the “Reality Argument” which states that the NDE is more real than everyday reality and, therefore, it must be real. S.B counters this with the argument that all notions of reality are mental constructs or, as she puts it in her article “Meme, myself, I”, a meme, which is a system of thoughts. Her idea is that all thoughts or systems of thoughts are equally unreal and that all systems of thought are just a result of physical processes within the brain. In her book Dying to Live, she does go into more detail on how this feeling of “super reality” can be stimulated in certain areas of the brain and she maintains that there is some evidence that there is some kind of spasm in that area of the brain in people who have had NDEs. This area also gives a strong feeling of spirituality and her argument is that one can, in essence, “kill God” by deactivating that area of the brain.
A further argument for the AH is that the paranormal, of which NDEs are a big part, can’t be explained by science so science should just stick to what it does and not try to interfere in things which essentially can’t be measured scientifically. S.B. counters this argument, although not in words, by looking at NDEs in a rational and logical way and seeking scientific and logical answers for the experiences people have. This she achieves very well, particularly in the last argument for the AH, which centres on the transformative effect of the NDE. The AH maintains that only a taste of the afterlife could cause the radial transformation in attitude people undergo as a result of a NDE, so this proves that it is real. S.B. is not terribly impressed with this argument and counters by citing a number of cases where people have had immense attitude transformation, simply by having had a brush with death either him/herself or a close friend or relative. In one case, she cites a woman, whose attitude to life transformed greatly because of her husband’s brush with death due to a heart condition. Her husband did not have a NDE and the most dangerous thing that happened to the woman herself was that she had to drink hospital coffee. Yet, both she and her husband underwent massive changes in their attitudes to life.

Overall, I feel that S.B. has made a valuable contribution to the argument between the AH and DBH. She has managed to sift through a very ethereal argument and come up with quite plausible explanations by using science and logic. The only reasoning of hers that I have some difficulty with is her “fact” that all notions of reality are mental constructs and one is no more (or less) real than another is. This ties in with her demolition of the self, where she claims that the system of thoughts we call “self” is just a mental construct and, therefore, not real. For this , she draws on the Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, who conducted an experiment where volunteers (hooked up with electrodes) were asked to flex their wrist and note the times they made the decision to do this. Apparently, the brain’s ‘readiness potential’ was activated before subjects made a decision, so it was inferred that the brain made the decision rather than the “I”. My own question with this research would be “What activated the readiness potential?” S.B. has based much of her theory around this material and her ideas about ‘reality’ and ‘self’ is strongly influenced by the idea that the genes and memes are the co-evolutionairies in the human body and that the self does not exist. If that is her view, then, of course there will be nothing to survive the death of the body because there was nothing to start with.

Through her work, S.B. has done much to narrow down the feasible theories regarding the Mind-Body Problem. The theories range from, at one end, the extreme monists, who believe everything is purely physical (Ontological Materialism (OM)) or mental (Idealism (Id)) to the other end, the extreme Dualists who believe the mental and physical to exist independent of each other but somehow syncronized (Parallelism (P)).

Diagram 1 sets out the various theories as a spectrum and how they relate to one another in reference to how the mind and the body function together.

S.B. has narrowed the spectrum down to the two most likely theories, namely Epistemological Materialism (EM) and Interactionism (I). EM states that although non-physical things do exist, they are caused by and dependent upon physical processes. EM also recognizes that there is a two-way connection between the mind and the body, that is that the mind can affect the body and vice versa. It is also stated in I that there is a two-way connection between the mind and the body, so on the surface the two theories look the same. It is only when the question of “what happens after the death of the body?” is raised, that the differences become apparent. In EM, the belief is that once the body (and brain) dies, the mind ceases to exist. In I, it is believed that the mind exists as a separate entity from the body and continues to exist after the death of the body.

S.B’s examination of NDEs certainly seems to suggest that EM is the most plausible theory. She has managed to eliminate the more emotionally based arguments in the AH, such as The reality Argument and The Transformation Argument, by using both science and logic. The Consistency Argument has also been dealt with scientifically. The proponents of the AH also use science to negate that argument by claiming that lack of oxygen in the brain leads to confused and muddled thinking, whereas people who have had a NDE report clarity of thinking. Similarly, they refute the suggestions of hallucinations, whether drug induced or not, based on the difference in symptomatology of a person with a NDE and a drugged or malfunctioning brain. Thus, the argument has become more scientific because some of these facts can be objectively verified.

In this essay, I have looked at the two arguments put forward by S.B. and how they fit in the monist/dualist debate. I feel that her examination of the theories has furthered the debate by using science and logic to eliminate the more insubstantial arguments and she has brought the focus of the argument to an area which can be examined, such as the function of the brain and the various chemical processes within our body. She has also used logic to deal with the more ambiguous arguments that cannot be measured scientifically. This, for me, has shed more light on the subject and allowed more and better questions to be asked. I consider her arguments to be persuasive and logical, if not conclusive. Were it not for her treatment of “reality”, the lack of proper definition of life and death as well as the many other paranormal events that seem to indicate that something like a spirit or mind does exist independently of the body, I would be convinced of her conclusion. That is not to say that it all cannot or will not be explained scientifically in the future, but for me, S.B., although convincing in many ways, still leave room for doubt.

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