Death398x239 Illustration by Thomas James

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

If consciousness is just the workings of neurons and synapses, how do we explain the phenomenon of near-death experience? By some accounts, about 3% of the U.S. population has had one: an out-of-body experience often characterized by remarkable visions and feelings of peace and joy, all while the physical body is close to death. To skeptics, there are more plausible, natural explanations, like oxygen deprivation. Is the prospect of an existence after death “real” and provable by science, or a construct of wishful thinking about our own mortality?

  • Alexander90px


    Dr. Eben Alexander

    Neurosurgeon & Author, Proof of Heaven

  • Moody90px


    Dr. Raymond Moody

    Psychologist, Medical Doctor & Author, Life After Life

  • Carroll90px


    Sean Carroll

    Physicist & Writer

  • Novella90px


    Dr. Steven Novella

    Academic Neurologist, Yale School of Medicine

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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For The Motion

Dr. Eben Alexander

Neurosurgeon & Author, Proof of Heaven

Eben Alexander, M.D., is a renowned academic neurosurgeon. A transcendental near-death experience (NDE) during a week-long coma from an inexplicable brain infection completely changed his understanding of how the brain worked. He has spent the years since his NDE reconciling his rich spiritual experience with contemporary physics and cosmology. His book about the experience, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012), has spent more than a year atop the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list and is contracted for publication in over forty countries. Alexander has taught at Harvard Medical School, and has authored or co-authored over 150 chapters and papers in peer-reviewed academic journals. A pioneering scientist and thought leader in consciousness studies, he has been a guest on Dr. Oz, Oprah, and many other national and international media programs.

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For The Motion

Dr. Raymond Moody

Psychologist, Medical Doctor & Author, Life After Life

Raymond A. Moody, Jr., M.D., PH.D., is a psychologist and medical doctor. He is the best-selling and award-winning author of twelve books, including Life After Life (1975) in which he coined the term “near-death experience” (NDE), as well as numerous articles in academic and professional literature. His research into the phenomenon of NDE had its start in the 1960s, and the New York Times has since hailed him as "the father of the near-death experience." In the three decades since receiving his M.D., a PH.D. in philosophy, and a Ph.D. in psychology, he has lectured for audiences all over the world and has appeared on hundreds of television and radio programs. In addition, he trains hospice workers, clergy, psychologists, nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals on matters of grief recovery and dying.

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Against The Motion

Sean Carroll

Physicist & Writer

Sean Carroll is a physicist and author. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1993, and is now on the faculty at the California Institute of Technology. His research focuses on fundamental physics and cosmology, especially issues of dark matter, dark energy, and the origin of the universe. Carroll is the author of The Particle at the End of the Universe (2012), From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time (2010), and Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity (2003). He has written for Scientific American, New Scientist, and The Wall Street Journal. He frequently consults for film and television, and has been featured on television shows such as The Colbert Report, PBS's Nova, and Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman.

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Against The Motion

Dr. Steven Novella

Academic Neurologist, Yale School of Medicine

Steven Novella, M.D., is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the founder and current executive editor of Science-Based Medicine, as well as the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society. Novella is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, the philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society.

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    • Comment Link Ivan Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:42 posted by Ivan

      A vital answer to every person should be: Are you a Christian?

    • Comment Link BarbaraB Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:41 posted by BarbaraB

      I am an NDEr and returned from my cardiac arrest in 1987, to tell the neurosurgeon, orthopedic surgeon, and medical staff in the room EXACTLY and ACCURATELY what they'd said and done while I was flatlining, including witnessing and describing the precordial thump procedure that restarted my heart. I was not under anesthesia, I was having a Myelogram and the xray tech mistakenly tipped the xray table in the wrong direction, causing the iodine dye to flood my brain, rather than to successfully travel down my spinal cord so that xrays could detect any spinal cord damage, prior to a laminectomy/diskectomy surgery that was scheduled for the next morning. You can read about my experience on the NDE Research Foundation website (Google "Barbara B NDE 3389"). I was actually dead for a number of minutes, so my experience could more accurately be called a Death Experience.

      During my NDE, I was located above my body, on the ceiling, and I immediately felt the presence of a spiritual being next to me. I felt very connected to this being, as though they'd been with me throughout this life, and also beyond it, and I strongly felt the being had the ability to allow me to return to my life. I call this being God, for I lack any other adequate term. I conveyed to the being that I wished to return, as I had an infant daughter and young son, but also felt strongly, in those moments on the ceiling, that I had not completed my "life purpose". I watched, from above, as the orthopedic surgeon struck my chest with his fist (precordial thump), and immediately found myself back in my body, extremely happy to have been allowed to return to my life!
      My consciousness was constant, from my body, to the ceiling, and back to my body again. I shocked the entire resuscitation team by immediately, and completely accurately, recounting everything that I had just watched happen to my body from my "on the ceiling" vantage point.

      There absolutely is a continuation of consciousness beyond the point of death. Death is not final!

    • Comment Link Martha Wharton Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:39 posted by Martha Wharton

      My brain was fried with bruising throughout most and bleeding in the corpus callosum.However, my mind was completely in tact. I KNEW I was what I was unable to do. Anyone with severe TBI will tell you that, when they are finally able. My brain wasnt able to form words, sentences correctly but my mind could think them, my soul remembered things my brain did not. Accessing the soul is what allowed the brain to heal so quickly. Physical recovery took much longer.

    • Comment Link sonia Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:38 posted by sonia

      I am trying to believe in life after death as I lost members of my family including my beautiful son I would like to think we will be together again We can debate all we like but at the end of the day we are mere mortals and will not know for sure until we depart fom this world

    • Comment Link Hayward Withers Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:36 posted by Hayward Withers

      If the mind is created by the brain - when the brain is not functioning the mind also is "turned off" - but the flip side of that is the mind can be lost (dead) but this mind "comes back" if the brain starts functioning again. I.e. if we could repair a dead man's brain his mind would also be re-created.

      So is it possible for a young new brain to develop, by chance, into a replica of some previously dead man's brain - then doesn't that person then become the mind of the man who previously died?

    • Comment Link Torre Mastroianni Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:31 posted by Torre Mastroianni

      Case of woman's being brain dead and having a life after death experience.

    • Comment Link Steve Fleming Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:27 posted by Steve Fleming

      Apparitions seen by bystanders are probably made up by the mind/brain at a HIGHLY charged moment when we are highly emotional as a loved one is dying. We want to hold on to them at all costs.

    • Comment Link Ben Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:23 posted by Ben

      Useful articles - K. Ring and S. Cooper, "Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind: A Study of Apparent Eyeless Vision," Journal of Near-Death Studies 16 (1998): 101-47:

      The Ketamine false analogy for NDEs has been covered in van Lommel (2006):

      see also, fro refutation of objections, a 2013 Journal of Consciousness Studies article (van Lommel, P. (2013). Non-local consciousness: A concept based on scientific research on near-death experiences during cardiac arrest. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20, 7-48.) - search "hallucination" in it for some important revelations:

      Michael shermer famously misrepresented van Lommel:

      For some rebuttal to Augustine, see:
      See also, "Do Prevailing Societal Models Influence Reports of Near-Death Experiences? A Comparison of Accounts Reported Before and After 1975":

    • Comment Link Dixie Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:20 posted by Dixie

      I had a NDE which included vision of what later happened to me 4 years after it. If you had a NDE, you would know it's real

    • Comment Link MalWil Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:18 posted by MalWil

      Dr. Ray Moody!

      Is not science standardized reasoning?


    • Comment Link Skeptic Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:06 posted by Skeptic

      Well now he's just proving our current model is wrong, but saying nothing of the afterlife.

    • Comment Link Jason Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:04 posted by Jason

      so the guy got brain damage now he's religious

    • Comment Link Drom Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:02 posted by Drom

      And on it goes... man's never ending hope to beat death, and live happily ever after in CandyLand to assuage his innate horror of the finality of death.

      The status of life after death is exactly the same as the life you had before birth... which is to say "not".

      It's the 21st century, people. You, Fluffy, Rover, and every living specimen of flora and fauna will experience the cessation of life and the return to "star stuff" from whence we all came. Time to grow up.

    • Comment Link Dan Wednesday, 07 May 2014 18:53 posted by Dan

      Human beings imagine an afterlife for one reason: because they can. Imagination is a wonderful thing, but it doesn't equal truth.

    • Comment Link R bijker Wednesday, 07 May 2014 18:43 posted by R bijker

      I believe that ''death'' is a universal law in nature, it does not only affect biolocial things, but its also a cosmic thing, namely the death of a star.

      Both deaths are corelated, as both give back.
      When a star dies, it releases its composition materials, to allow new stars, perhaps, the composition of other stars ensured life on earth.

      Biological death also gives back.
      As nature dines on us, and ensures new life.

      death is simply an universal law in nature, no matter how you look at it, everything has its beginning, but everything also has its end.

    • Comment Link Ovid Wednesday, 07 May 2014 18:03 posted by Ovid

      When we will stop asking this stupid questions and get on with the things that really matter?

    • Comment Link deKay Wednesday, 07 May 2014 17:52 posted by deKay

      The title of the debate should start with the word "is" and end with a question mark.

    • Comment Link Jack Wednesday, 07 May 2014 17:39 posted by Jack

      I noted two things in the "Against the motion" part. One says "There is no empirical evidence for life after death." The other says "In addition to being highly unlikely, there is no evidence that NDEs occurred while the subjects’ brains were inactive." What is particular interesting to me is that I was an agnostic until I began to seriously investigate this and discovered that both of those statements are simply not correct.

    • Comment Link LouRich Wednesday, 07 May 2014 17:20 posted by LouRich

      Interesting argument from those who say that until scientists prove it, it's not a fact. Hmmm, scientists are usually wrong until they are right, first of all, and secondly, I thought it was the nature of science to be constantly on the lookout. When is science ever settled?
      In any case, the argument that our brains filter and/or interpret an external consciousness makes as much sense as saying we create our own consciousness. BTW, scientist don't actually know how our brains create consciousness, so how can any scientist argue that he or she knows for sure that that is what we do?

    • Comment Link Jay Tyson Wednesday, 07 May 2014 17:18 posted by Jay Tyson

      For those whose religion is materialism, my apologies if the suggestion of an afterlife feels like an attack on your religion.

      If you are dedicated to science, rather than materialism (they aren't the same thing) you need to do a careful study of the experiences that have been reported. There are too many to be dismissed as "anecdotal". They aren't identical, but neither are the experiences of all of the babies born into this world identical.

      Also, they are not identical with what the religions have predicted, although they may be similar in some regards. That fact alone should give the true scientist reason to suspect that this is not just coming from peoples imagination.

      And if you prefer to stay a little closer to "real life" experiences, you should study the "veridical" experiences i.e. the things that people who are temporarily dead have been able to see in this world, often at a remote location, while their brains were non-functional.

      A good starting point is "The Handbook of Near Death Experiences--30 Years of Investigation".

      You can choose to ignore all of the evidence if you wish. But if you do so, please don't call yourself "scientific". True scientists don't take a position of willfully hiding from portions of the evidence. You are, in this case, simply a believer in the religion of materialism.

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