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 Zam Kam Wednesday, 28 May 2014 14:11 posted by Zam Kam

      Bob Funkhouser's posting on Carl Sagan's quote shows the kind of impasse we are in when it comes to this type of debates: evidence is useless when confronted with irrational beliefs. Case in point: Carl Sagan clearly stated he does NOT believe the claim about past memories in children is valid, but Mr. Funkhouser's reading of Sagan's words is actually the opposite: he thinks Carl Sagan is saying there's "compelling" evidence for that claim. And then he goes on to question Dr. Novella's comprehension abilities. Oh well....

    • Comment Link Leo Tuesday, 27 May 2014 20:24 posted by Leo

      It does not follow logically to conclude that there must be life after death simply because we do not understand the mechanisms of the mind. Dr. Alexander's anecdotes are unverifiable and worthless with regard to this discussion, he could just as easily claim he were abducted by aliens and we'd have just as much evidence to judge such claims as we do for his claim of experiencing life after death.

      Why should we believe Dr. Alexander's claim? There is absolutely no way to ever prove such a claim wrong because his only evidence is a personal experience that cannot be replicated, explained or verified. Even Dr. Alexander himself admits he cannot explain the experience using the tools of modern investigation, yet he can somehow assure us that this experience means life exists after death instead of, say, the result of a phenomenon produced by a yet undetected or misunderstood quality of the brain. The scientists in opposition may not be able to explain consciousness, but at least they're working within a framework that allows for axioms to be proven true or false based on what we can consistently demonstrate to others.

      Further, it's a considerable leap to make claims about a reality we cannot detect with physical senses or tools, but it's simply intellectually egregious to suggest that this other realm of existence naturally fits into the mold of the traditional Christian afterlife. (e.g. heaven and hell).

      I expected a higher standard of scrutiny from the IQ2 forum, but I'm glad that the discussion was at least civil.

    • Comment Link Psych Survivor Monday, 26 May 2014 22:02 posted by Psych Survivor

      The position defend by Sean Carroll and Steven Novella, namely that the mind is the same as the brain and vice-versa, is so absurd that those who are interested in a skeptic rebuttal to that proposition just need to watch Robert Burton's Google Talk ""A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind" . What I mean by "skeptic" I mean that Richard Burton is a self declared skeptic and atheist. He is also a neurologist with a distinguished career.

      Put in another way, in science, computer science in particular, the distinction between hardware (the brain) and software (the mind) is perfectly understood. No knowledgeable person accepts the argument that destroying a computer running software destroys the actual software that computer runs.

      When you use a computer, you don't see the source code of the software it runs. It is perfectly possible to see the effect of that computer running software in the actions of trillions of transistors switching at gigantic speeds. It is equally possible to alter the behavior of a computer through basic hardware interventions (such as adding or limiting the computer's memory) or more sophisticated ones like shutting down specific chips that manage say sound or graphics.

      This is not to say that at this point science has proved the existence of the soul, although I do believe that there is a soul and that there is life after death, what science has done though, through computers, is to disprove the notion that the experiments mentioned by those two constitute evidence that what the brain does, commands, etc (ie the mind) is the same thing as the brain itself.

    • Comment Link Luo Ge Saturday, 24 May 2014 10:55 posted by Luo Ge

      Contrary to the strongly worded assertion made by the "against" side, neuroscience is far from proving that the brain is the source of the conscious mind. It has proved only that the conscious mind is mediated through the brain. It has not found any trace of an actual source. Tinkering with the brain certainly affects the mind, as demonstrated in the words and behaviour of the person. In the same way, tinkering with a TV set affects its performance, as demonstrated in sound and images that the set will produce. But I do not think any neuroscientist would claim that to be proof that the TV set is the source of the programme. If somebody spends their life, as many a neuroscientist does, studying only the function of the brain, then it will be easy for him to conclude, without real justification, that the brain is the only thing involved in producing consciousness.

    • Comment Link Aragis Gregory Friday, 23 May 2014 22:12 posted by Aragis Gregory

      This was a very interesting discussion of a very important question. As of today, there is no scientific proof to settle this question one way or another. That doesn't mean that such proof is impossible. Our technology has reached the level that may make such experiment possible right now. However, that would require commitment of significant resources. The main reason it has not been done so far is that there is no organization with sufficient funding to accomplish it. This experiment is not something an enthusiast can do in his/her garage.

    • Comment Link Bill Bright Thursday, 22 May 2014 20:48 posted by Bill Bright

      This shouldn't even be a question in this day and age. It's time for humans to grow up and accept a non-magical universe.

    • Comment Link Bob Funkhouser Thursday, 22 May 2014 11:13 posted by Bob Funkhouser

      Regarding a previous commenter's statement, "As for Eben Alexander, he was stunningly disingenuous when it came to the Carl Sagan quote..."

      Actually, Alexander's claim, though an exaggeration, is closer to Sagan's words that Novella's flat-out dismissal of them.

      Here's the relevant extract from The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan, page 302:

      "At the time of this writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generation in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images "projected" at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation. I pick these claims not because I think they're like to be valid (I don't), but as examples of contentions that might be true. The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong."


      Now Alexander's statement "Carl Sagan admitted that past life memories in children, the evidence for that is overwhelming" is clearly an exaggeration. If he had said "compelling" instead of "overwhelming", it would be closer to the real quote.

      But Novella is also disingenuous, and imo dishonest, when he replies "I've read that book a hundred times. Carl Sagan did not believe in past lives. He did not believe in anything paranormal or supernatural. That is just not true."

      Novella has read that book ONE HUNDRED times? Really? Okay, let's assume he has read it 100 times. Then I would question his comprehension abilities and/or his intellectual honesty since he flatly rejects the assertion that Sagan mentioned past life memories in children in a credible context. And Sagan did frame it as "deserving serious study."


    • Comment Link Zam Kam Thursday, 22 May 2014 10:08 posted by Zam Kam

      Eben Alexander's claim about Carl Sagan admitting "overwhelming" evidence for past life memories in children was stated completely out of context and, when you read what Carl Sagan actually wrote, is downright FALSE. Here's the entire, unedited paragraph from Carl Sagan's book:

      "At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion,deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images `projected' at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation. I pick these claims not because I think they're likely to be valid (I don't), but as examples of contentions that might be true. The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong."

      As you can see, Carl Sagan clearly stated he did NOT believe those claims were valid, so Dr. Alexander use of Sagan's writing to support his theories is very dishonest.

    • Comment Link Joao Lourenco Monday, 19 May 2014 16:58 posted by Joao Lourenco

      The skeptics' views were based on theories, not facts.
      Alexander and Moody were sharing cases that happened and verified through documentation by medical records, etc.

    • Comment Link Russell Ricks Sunday, 18 May 2014 19:38 posted by Russell Ricks

      I am on the side of Alexander and Moody...why? For one thing, I myself have experienced something very similar to an NDE. There is new research coined by author Sarah Hinze known as Pre Birth Experience or PBE, where our consciousness, our soul or spirit existed before we were born into our present mortal physical world. I myself had such an experience when I was eight years old. I am now almost 56. The conscious memory, the expressions of indescribable joy, the experience of higher felt consciousness and super-enhanced brain capacity beyond my eight year old cognitive physical capacity, is still quite vivid after all these years and is clear evidence to me personally that I had a remarkable similar phenomenon such as an NDE. The other side claimed that a table is made up of particles of atoms, yet they admitted they don't completely fully understand what the atom physical makeup is beyond protons / neutrons (how is it that these finer substances exist? An atom is finer than the physical object it creates. Protons and neutrons are finer materials beyond the atom. Science has now began to discover that the physical world is made up of "light" particles. It is my opinion that LIGHT and Consciousness or in other words, the SPIRIT are one and the same. Albert Einstein gave us the theory of relativity, which is based on the speed of light. In our physical world we comprehend time. In our state, we understand a beginning and an end to all things, yet when it comes to infinity or eternal principles, this is beyond our physical experience. Einstein basically stated that if we could travel the speed of light, we would never die. TIME WOULD STAND STILL. We would essentially be immortal. I believe immortal beings appear to have a body of substance like a physical human form, yet they are made up of a FINER material or MATTER, just like an atom is made of matter, yet the proton and neutron composite of an atom is of a finer material substance than the atom itself. I am LDS (The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints), also known as Mormons. We believe our souls (or spirit matter or consciousness) existed before we were born. We believe this finer material which creates the consciousness of our Physical bodies are literal spirit children of God. Since my PBE, I certainly am convinced such is the case. Here is an interesting scripture as revealed by God to a great early spiritual of our faith...Doctrine and Covenants 84: 44-47

      44 For you shall live by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God.

      45 For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

      46 And the Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit.

      47 And every one that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit cometh unto God, even the Father.

      We may not fully comprehend this debates question until after we part from this life into the spiritual realm. Here is another set of scripture found in our Doctrine and Covenants... D&C 93:28-30

      28 He that keepeth his commandments receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things.

      29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.

      30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.

    • Comment Link Toroid Sunday, 18 May 2014 15:30 posted by Toroid

      Death is probably final. The 'experience' of death is probably identical to the state of being that conscious entities 'experience' before birth.

      Some computerl 'experts' contest the proposition that life is a prerequisite to consciousness. Without concrete evidence to the contrary they're probably wrong.

      'Probably' covers a lot of territory. Without concrete evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation of life and consciousness is by far the most probable.

      Since answers to questions about life and death can't be known with absolute certainty and fear and personal ego are major factors influencing people many people believe different concepts regarding death than the one that's most probable.

    • Comment Link Alex Friday, 16 May 2014 18:07 posted by Alex

      It was nice to see Dr.Eben Alexander in this debate, as I have much respect for him and his blessed experience. There was a point in the debate that caught my attention though and I wanted to comment on my experiences with this, it might shed some light into the topic. I experienced first hand the reality of ghosts.. Since this seems to be a puzzling thing for those that hold an exclusively materialistic worldview to explain away, especially when the witnesses are healthy normal unsuspecting people I thought it would be helpful if I chipped in my two scents. Im not a scientist, but I do believe that what I am about to write merits an explanation...

      ( I apologize for my long reply! )

      For about more than a year I worked as a custodian during the night 9-12:00 a.m. at a beauty academy to earn some extra cash. During my time there, I could see the sudden tension in people as their closing hour came up. It came to my attention that a few decades before this building was used as a beauty academy it was an old theater, one that was closed down after an awful murder had taken place in the womens bathroom. Apparently a child had died there and a woman as well. It was all over the news back then.

      You can imagine the chill running down spines as the kids attended their classes! Oh the stories were plentiful. The faculty had seen a woman in white clothing walking through the narrow half lit isles that led to lonely classrooms. Lights turning on and off suddenly, during classroom hours. Trashcan lids literally levitating during class meetings.. hearing a childs laughter in an empty academy as the faculty were getting ready to leave.

      Find it shocking or not, but sometimes those brave souls worked longer shifts that went into the night. Sometimes they would be there before the custodial staff would arrive, and they would hear a child bouncing a ball in the downstairs lobby. They would peek closer and see the dark shadow embodiment of a childs figure. People reported seeing a child running up and down the stairs, playing games and well being a kid. During Halloween, the supervisor said that as she was upstairs filing some papers, getting things ready, a doll that hung by the wall beside her started shivering and violently thrusting, the hairs of the doll began to move in an electrified fashion. She told us she soon bolted out of there as soon as she could. The supervisor has been reluctant to stay after hours.

      My boss would often times be left alone in the largest classroom in the academy, (it was one that was used for instructing and cutting clients hair) and as he cleaned the lockers in that room, now keep in mind there was an estimated hundred or so, they begin to pound loudly and aggressively in the corners of the room... Moving from locker to locker as if there was some sort of angry dog or animal inside them.

      This place is scary enough, with a chandelier, classical 8ft frames hanging from the sides of the lobby, the deserted and isolated feel of everything, since it was a theater originally..

      The one that really took any shred of skepticism away for me though was when I actually heard the ghost for myself. I wanted to maintain my skepticism, in part because in any other way I think I would have been to afraid to go back, but after I actually heard it I dont know if I could explain it away.. Late midnight as I was resting in my chair in the lonely hallway near the exit, I heard a very audible groaning, but it wasnt a passive groaning, the one I heard was a suffocated, tired and violent groaning as if to say "I cannot take it anymore, I am enraged, someone help me.." After I got my nerves back I went and checked the empty locker hallway next to where I was, just to check if anyone was actually there... there was no one. My boss was upstairs and apparently I finished too early and I assumed we were done so I waited.. The sound could not have come from outside because there was a very real sense of the audio sounds bouncing from the walls of the locker hallway. It happened about fifteen feet from where I was!! It sounded really disturbed to be honest.

      As the months went by they decided on getting the school a new paint job, you know for the coming year and because the aesthetics were beginning to show its age. They remodeled and brought in new equipment. And at night came a group of painters that were hired to give the walls of the school a new paint job. The first week into the job the painter lost his whole crew and got stuck finishing the job by himself. The crew fled that week in fear. Also a skeptic, he scoffed at the idea of ghosts and at his workers for being "cowards". From what he tells, that is one night he wont soon forget. I must assume he is now a somewhat changed man as well due to the trauma of his experience.

      As he was left painting the remainder the building from the inside, right in the same spot that I heard the grueling voice, he said a body clung to his back as he was benched over painting and gathering his supplies.. He felt it was some sort of playful wrestling that tossed his body around and pulled from the neck. After the four hours of work he came home a shivering person, shocked and confused. Denouncing that place and swearing he would never go back there no matter what they payed him..

      I could go on and on about the stories and experiences.. But this is why I simply am not okay with hearing that these things dont happen.. These things need to be accounted for and need to be taken seriously as they affect people and can leave them traumatized..

      This is why I think its unwise to dismiss these things or to treat them without respect. The debaters in opposition claimed to be coming from a level headed and respectful position but I dont think this is true... There was a lot of sarcasm and explanations given in a joking tone from the opposing debaters that made me cringe when in the same debate they claimed to be respectful as well.. It might be only my opinion, and I could be wrong on this, but that is the attitude I perceived during the debate.

      I think it is naive at best, to believe that looking through this limited filter of the materialistic position can solve all discussions. It is important to view these things with humility and simply accept that we do not yet have all the answers. That somethings might be within our reach and others might simply not be within our reach, now or ever at all.

      I think the scientific community needs to have a perspective of self criticism and humility and to simply say, "we dont know and our proposed hypotheses are not adequate to explain supernatural phenomena, but we still acknowledge its importance and presence in our everyday lives. " It would be nice to hear scientists saying this more and more often. That the materialistic perspective is but a small portion of the entire amount of knowledge.

    • Comment Link ST Thursday, 15 May 2014 17:44 posted by ST

      If there was nothing there, there would be nothing there. Considering western scientists... can't even measure 96% of the Universe, the most unscientific thing one could do is assume anything about it. Some of us didn't have time to argue, it's easier to just do it.

    • Comment Link David Thursday, 15 May 2014 01:56 posted by David

      Death is the ultimate personal experience. I do not personally believe death is final. But one cannot "know" until one has the experience. I'm content to wait and find out for myself. The talking heads can argue ad nauseum. They'll find out soon enough.

    • Comment Link Raven Wednesday, 14 May 2014 16:38 posted by Raven

      Science continues to equate, and confuse, "mind" with "consciousness." In the eastern sciences, which do not deny life after death, mind is indeed produced by the brain; but it is Consciousness that exists independent of the brain. Until science is able to sort out its own definitions, debates like this one will continue on false premises.

    • Comment Link Yuoma Wednesday, 14 May 2014 16:07 posted by Yuoma

      Clever, clever undecideds

    • Comment Link Conny Galloway Tuesday, 13 May 2014 14:16 posted by Conny Galloway

      Near death critics should watch Pim van Lommel's video.

    • Comment Link Paul Newcomb Monday, 12 May 2014 16:32 posted by Paul Newcomb

      I don't really care for the format of these debates with the voting from the audience. There's too much bias potential from the audience. What if they vote "undecided" beforehand even though they have a definitely opinion on the matter, just so they can make it seem as though more people have been swayed by their side? How are we to know if the audience is actually balanced? Even though it turned out that the 'against' side garnered more votes in the end, I don't believe for a second that it's a accurate reflection of how convinced the audience was of the arguments.

    • Comment Link Paul Newcomb Monday, 12 May 2014 16:22 posted by Paul Newcomb

      Alexander's entire argument is based upon an argument from ignorance. He doesn't have any other explanation for what he experienced, therefore it's the afterlife. It's just one huge logical fallacy. It doesn't exactly help that he believes in remote viewing and such....that just adds to my confidence that he's not a person to be taken seriously.

    • Comment Link John Hurd Sunday, 11 May 2014 21:28 posted by John Hurd

      Eben (a name he gave himself, not his birth name) was thoroughly debunked in a fine journalist piece (in Vanity Fair or the New Yorker, I think.) I read it a while ago. The guy's got a scam going. He lied about a lot of things and got busted by a thorough journalist.

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