Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Investigating Near-Death Experiences

Interesting article on the latest attempt to figure out scientifically exactly what's going in the brain while people are having near-death experiences.
“I see no reason why a priest should tell us about death when we have all this technology available,” says Dr West Dr Parnia. “Death is a biological process and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t study it through medicine.”

Getting a scientific handle on this phenomenon is fiendishly difficult. Dead people don’t report back, and it is very hard to assess the status of survivor accounts — are they merely hallucinations occurring before the crisis or just after? Perhaps they are no more than the brain’s way of soothing your path to extinction.

Perhaps. Or "visions" are reconstructed from a barrage of random firings of an oxygen-starved brain into a semblance of a narrative.

The Skeptic's Dictionary and Secular Web have some useful notes on the variety of NDEs (suffice it to say that the typical white-light, life review, seeing dead people stories don't appear to be the norm)

It definitely seems like there is a cultural expectancy factor - there are famous stories of people seeing bright lights, so people tend to see bright lights. Christians see Jesus, Hindus see the Hindu god of death, etc. It's like UFO reports - the flying saucer-type was first popularized in 1947 and was the common reported shape until more recent times, and as the flying saucer craze has declined in popularity, other depictions (black triangles, cylinders, etc) have become more common.

And, as in all things, it is the human mind that is at the heart of the matter. If we can float out of our bodies, then the mind is separable from, and, perhaps not dependent on, the brain.

Well, we do know that our brains are adapt at filling in the blanks (think blind spots) and tricking us into thinking we can see things that we can't actually see.

Twelve years after Tom Wolfe famously announced in Forbes magazine that, as a result of developments in neuroscience, “Your soul just died,” it may be time to say: “No, it didn’t.”

Yeah, let me know when there's conclusive evidence for that.

But is such a thing as a separable mind poss-ible or even conceivable? The answer is yes. In explaining why, it will be necessary to plunge into philosophy and quantum mechanics.

And why does "possible" have a dash through it?
Dualism is the default human conviction, embraced by religions, philosophies and, in fact, by everybody in their lives — if we didn’t embrace some degree of it, we’d be constantly worried about crashing our cars into other people’s thoughts.
We’re all imprisoned in the chains of cause and effect that started with the big bang.
Materialism means fatalism, apparently. I don't buy it.

Just because things have material causes does not mean that we're stuck on some pre-ordinaned timeline - people can take different actions and a different timeline can be traversed. And in some cases, even if human actions do not change, one event could easily occur instead of another (a lightning bolt could strike one tree instead of another). Granted, those sorts of small-scale changes are unlikely to have large-scale results (a butterfly in Hawaii isn't going to stop hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico), but it's something at least.
He is a distinguished physicist at the University of California at Berkeley. He is convinced that quantum mechanics applies to large as well as small things.
Okay, I'm not a scientist, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't happen. On a macro scale (i.e. our everyday world), stuff is pretty well explained by your normal, garden-variety physics. Quantum Mechanics doesn't enter into it.
The world as a whole is just as weird as the inner workings of the atom. The truth of the world and ourselves is that the whole thing is a chaotic swirl of energy and particles. But we don’t see it, because we make our own reality, our own truth, by only asking certain questions. The brick is a product of our mind; to all-seeing, non-human eyes, it is just a swirl of almost nothing.
New Age drivel. Where are the news editors when you need them?

Reporter: "I'm getting some quotes from a scientist, do you mind if I just spout deep-sounding New-Agey nonsense as if it were science between his quotes?"

Editor: "Sure, that sounds like quality journalism to me."
This idea would, if widely accepted, end the reign of scientific materialism, replacing it with a new dualism. It would mean the universe is not a “causally closed” system, locked down since the big bang, as mainstream science has always insisted it is, but open to freedom of choice by the autonomous, floating, matter-altering mind. We would have regained our souls.
*groans again*
Second, you’d have to accept that a lot of the things that now seem like products of charlatans and grifters — telepathy, spiritualism, even psychokinesis — will suddenly seem much more credible. Thirdly, you need not anticipate instant oblivion on death but a series of very weird and very illuminating experiences.
Let me know how that turns out.
But a bucket of iced water is necessary at this point. Few scientists think any of this is going to happen.
Finally, some much-needed skepticism. And yes, I rather doubt there's a lot of scientific backing for telepathy, psychokinesis, or an afterlife. It would have been nice if you stated that before making it sound like science was just inches away from proving it.
NDEs have fired the imaginations of the religious. But they also fire the imaginations of the investigators. Everybody with an interest in this area has been inspired by a personal experience of a confrontation with death and by the startling vividness and transformative powers of the NDE. Whatever it is, it means something.
Indeed they have fired people's imaginations, perhaps in the literal sense. At any rate, I'm confident that it will be figured out eventually, and I rather doubt it'll be the evidence for the truth of religion that the religious expect it to be, especially sense they claim different and often contradictory things.
Hard materialism is just one more philosophical position, and the authentic sceptical reaction is not a derisive snort but a humble acceptance that there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in any of our philosophies.
Jeez, talk about derisive. What's up with the blatantly evil connotation of materialism anyway? It's like these people first learned about materialism while Night on Bald Mountain played in the background.

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