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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Declared Winner: Against The Motion

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    • Comment Link Nicola Benson Saturday, 28 November 2015 10:08 posted by Nicola Benson

      There are two separate questions raised here. For physical death to not be final, there has to be some kind of metaphysical self. This is the question that is dismissed so quickly by mainstream science but embraced by philosophers and supported by dualists.

      The second question is, given that there is a distinct, metaphysical self in existence while a person is alive, can that metaphysical self persist after death and further what information can it pass on?

      If the answer to both questions is yes, the curious will raise yet further questions. Can this metaphysical self act independently from the brain while the person is alive?

    • Comment Link frankie klein Tuesday, 24 November 2015 01:00 posted by frankie klein

      Having died fading in and out for 40 minutes after having my scalp ripped off my skull and losing an estimated 70% of the blood in my body I should not be here.
      90% of the out of body experiences we hear about as people's heart stop as they are on the operating table are totally ridiculous to me! Duh!!! They see a bright light and a tunnel because a bright light is shinning in their faces!!!! And how to you feel when you simply stand up too fast depriving your brain from a bit of oxygen?
      Ignorance is bliss! and Exuberant ignorance or nativity, simply becomes comfortable complacence for 95% of the educated populous! Yes, I died, and medical science says I should be dead now for several different reasons. The religious would praise the lord as they do in any similar situation, and that disgusts me.

      When you stop breathing and you are in the back of an ambulance stolen by two lumber-jacks as the fire-house was unmanned when we arrived. We are still 20 minutes away from the hospital we I stop breathing and my twenty-five year old mother must supply my brain with the oxygen to survive; the weight of that situation is indescribable! But here is the way I try to articulate what I felt when I died and the dreams that followed for the next twenty-five years. When we try to comprehend the universe and the unbelievable vastness, the distances in the deep field photo, or the size and weight of an entire galaxy.
      From what we know of a black hole is what I felt I was being dragged into, surrounded by the mass of a collapsed star, captured by its gravity there is no escape, the blackness and crushing pressure that was enveloping me was my experience of death outside of the ICU or an operating room. No drugs, no EMT's, no nurses and no doctors for 25 more miles....

      It's not the pretty story that gets picked up and disseminated by the believers, and its not the story that gets exploited and run over and over on the 700 club or by the televangelists distorting it to deprive the desperate of what little they do have.

      It's an honest objective experience of a just, ethical and moral person who has lived all over the world. Lived and worked in war zones on multiple continents as well as the war zones they call the Ghetto in the US.
      I live grounded in logic and reason and find joy in seeing others prosper emotionally.

      This is the truth I lived through.

    • Comment Link trina Wednesday, 18 November 2015 13:43 posted by trina

      Eben Alexander is not a scientist, he was a surgeon with pending law suits against him prior to his experience.

    • Comment Link Jesse Blair Sunday, 11 October 2015 13:47 posted by Jesse Blair

      While I think the skeptics overall argued their case a little better I think the evidence for the other side is greater than it came across in this debate.

      1. It’s an awfully big coincident that dying brains create a vivid experience that so closely resembles a journey to another dimension, meeting a higher being, and reviewing the merits of your life. People will argue that it’s our brains creating what we expect to see but regardless of peoples’ culture, beliefs (atheists included), and time period the similarity in their experiences is remarkable. The only counter argument I see is that the brain just happens to create this experience as a result of its dying process. What a big coincidence! One could argue that this evolved because people that had this experience gave more hope to their tribe than those who did not. But I think that is weak because near death experiences were less frequent long ago because medicine could not bring people back to life as easily. Plus – how much of an evolutionary advantage would this really offer? I think this evolution theory is a weak one. Skeptics also like to hang their hat on the fact that drugs can mimic a near death experience. I’ve read some of these accounts and the experiences are not as closely aligned as the skeptics would have you believe. This explanation would have to tie into the evolution theory to explain how big of a coincidence this is and it has its own flaws as well. Just because we can manipulate the brain to mimic an experience does not mean that the original experience wasn’t real.
      2. I think their rebuttal of Moody’s “shared death experiences” was very weak. They claimed that this is just personal stories and therefore if we don’t discount it we have to believe all types of wild personal stories. Why didn’t they just use that argument from the beginning to discount all near death experiences? The reason is that there are enough people having the same experience to be taken seriously. Why is this not also true for the shared death experiences? Dr. Moody has interviewed hundreds of people having this experience and I trust his judgment over someone who dismisses it without even looking into it. Hundreds of people having shared experiences that seem to agree with the near death experiences seems to me to be worth further investigation.
      3. I agree with one of the audience members that asked that the question be better defined. “Death is not final” is not a clear black or white issue. Here are just a few possibilities I can imagine:
      a. We retain our memories after death as we continue to exist in another realm. (I believe this is the position held by Moody and Alexander).
      b. The consciousness that we are ceases after death and “we” never experience anything else. (I believe this is the position held by Novella and Carroll).
      c. If consciousness is a process of the brain like the skeptics proposed, then perhaps we live wherever there is consciousness. We might not have any memories of our other individual lives but this certainly doesn’t mean that death is final. The fact that we arrived in our current state of consciousness suggests that it is just as plausible that we will arrive in a future state of consciousness. If we find ourselves in a new state of consciousness and have no recollection of the previous one, that doesn’t mean we cease to exist, it just means we don’t remember.
      d. Perhaps there is some mixture of the above possibilities or something we have not thought of. “Death is not final” allows for more possibilities than “Death is final” and therefore seems more likely considering all the unknowns on this subject.
      4. Skeptics like to argue that they are not bias and that those that believe in life after death are. This argument does have some weight but I would argue that they are often bias as well. Believing there is no life after death is more desirable to some than the idea of living on for an eternity (as Carroll himself admitted). Believing in life after death can be much scarier than no life after death, depending on what that existence would be. I personally think this argument is pretty evenly matched and that people on both sides often choose what they want to believe.

      Our universe has some serious depth to it. Where we once saw emptiness in the sky we now see galaxies going on for as far as we can see. The more we look inside an atom the more we see. It seems to me there is a pattern emerging. Wherever we look, we find more to explore and learn about. I think consciousness and life after death will be no different.

    • Comment Link Jack Graham Tuesday, 15 September 2015 09:20 posted by Jack Graham

      If science is understood as a search for physical causes only, and rests on the premise that only physical causes are possible, then he only possible cause for consciousness is the brain. But science is not confined to the search for physical causes, nor is cognitive experience limited to sensory experience or physical instrumentation, least of all is cause limited to physical explanation. Descartes is one of the fathers of modern science, yet rightly maintained that meditation upon consciousness yields knowledge clearer and surer than sensory experience. Empirical experience is not limited to sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Study of the paranormal, including of study of the afterlife, is as empirical as physics or chemistry. The case against the afterlife is built upon a simplistic and false view of what science is.

    • Comment Link Jack Graham Sunday, 13 September 2015 00:12 posted by Jack Graham

      Carroll and Novella have effectively defined science as an inquiry based exclusively on sensory experience and/or physical instrumentation (with the aid of logic and mathematics). In this view, science is a search for physical causes only, and assumes nothing but physical reality. If only physical causes operate and only physical reality exists, God does not exist, death is final, life is an accident of nature, and the meaning of life is making the most of here and now, nor can consciousness derive from any source but the brain, as must be held whether we understand the causal mechanism or not. The problem here is that Carroll and Novella have eliminated higher dimensions and reality by arbitrary fiat upon a simplistic view of science. Consciousness, as empirically examined in meditation, includes features which physical reality does not contain, and so is a higher state of being, inherently incapable of a mere physical cause or explanation. Consciousness can no more generate from the brain than a solid is contained in a surface or plane.

    • Comment Link Mr. White Wednesday, 09 September 2015 08:53 posted by Mr. White

      Both sides took a very narrow minded approach, as if they were debating the existence of the soul. Even if there were no soul we would still live on after death in the memory of others and in the effects of our actions. St. Augustine in the Confessions writes that God and the soul exist in eternity, which he claims is _beyond_ time, not for all time. So even if we don't come back as ghosts after our physical death, death might still not be final once you go beyond our current perception of time.

    • Comment Link Froggy Tuesday, 23 June 2015 08:53 posted by Froggy

      Eban Alexander: Carl Sagan "admitted that past-life memories in children, the evidence for that is overwhelming," for which he specifically cites p.302 of Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World." Indeed Sean Carroll is right in calling this out as complete baloney. Sagan says nothing even remotely resembling what Alexander characterizes as his position.

    • Comment Link dice Monday, 18 May 2015 08:42 posted by dice

      I am for the motion. I think a lot of question that was not brought up that could of change the result for the motion. Like atom being particle wave which is pure science with full evidence. Atom itself is not solid matter because it is 99.999999999 empty space and it basically a wave particle and the only thing that is holding it together is a conscious observer. If our brain is made of atom and it self is a wave particle than how can it observing create solid particle? Unless the conscious mind is different from the brain than it observing can make all thing solid as the Buddha believe.

    • Comment Link s.kumar Wednesday, 01 April 2015 02:00 posted by s.kumar

      This question seems to have been extensively researched by sages In India where there are literally tons of literature . ( eg. Brahma sutra and may tamil sidhar's poems) ) All of them suggest that on death one takes along the "vasana" loosely translated as desires or tendencies and the good and bad deeds one does in one's life time. Life then is incorporated into another body where these are seen as the new person's abilities, tendencies and he reaps the fruits of his efforts according to the good and evil he/she had accumulated.

      This is very comfortable to explain away the huge differences in life standards one encounters and also seemingly different results of almost identical efforts to achieve by two different individuals.

      When someone says almost all the functions of mind can be simulated by triggering the brain regions, it is quite the same as saying one can bring about what the software does in a computer by shorting of selected leads of a micro processor chip,

      While this corresponds to the effect, it still does not explain what causes this to happen. you cannot physically touch the software. So may be the mind is like the software and the brain is like the hardware.

    • Comment Link nakayama Sunday, 01 March 2015 21:08 posted by nakayama


      1. The present is a special (moving) point in long length (long segment) of time.
      2.“To me”, existence of I is a special (peculiar, unique, only one) existence.
      3.“To me”, the span of years in which I live (my lifetime) is a special span.
      4.“To me”, overlap of 1 and 3 is unthinkable, unimaginable (if life is only once).
      5. Answer to 4, after death, existence of I will revive. Thus, life will be eternal. Also it must be the same for all.

      P.S. Sorry, I cannot receive E – mail. I don’t have PC.

    • Comment Link Shirah Wednesday, 31 December 2014 18:54 posted by Shirah

      I think social influx made this debate too black and white. Collectively as a society we tend to consider the term "life after death", to be the individual continuation of human experience, particularly from a religious perspective. However, this does not take into account the dynamic nature of consciousness. In order to effectively answer the question of "what happens when we die", we need to determine whether consciousness exists elsewhere in the universe and in what form. If consciousness can exist independently of the brain, this is evidence to suggest that perception can exist independently of brain function, regardless of whether that is before birth or after death. However, this still does not indicate, or suggest, that the individual, or ego, continues. Personality, moods, and thought processes are products of mind, so if consciousness does indeed continue, it would furthermore be reasonable to assume that consciousness is an integral, elemental component of the universe, and is collective, rather than individual in nature. We are barely scratching the surface of this issue, thus to draw definitive conclusions in either way I think is somewhat naive. I think it will require the eventual synthesis of quantum mechanics and Psychology/Neuroscience to fully explore this fascinating philosophical question

    • Comment Link Art Colaianni Sunday, 14 December 2014 01:01 posted by Art Colaianni

      If you argue against scientific methodology you admit to lack of critical thought. That is why I am surprised by the scientists taking such a rigid stance against life after death.

      How can you be so doctrinaire about your knowledge when you don’t even know the fundamentals of your subject: quantum physics? They have categorically proven to themselves that consciousness changes the playing field of the physical universe on subatomic level - throwing out many of the classical laws of physics. Similarly, the placebo effect is mandatory in most critical testing, but they have no idea how it works - something else that consciousness is doing.

      They admit to not fully understanding gravity, nothing really about most of the universe in dark energy and dark matter, completely adrift when asked to explain the leap from chemistry to biology, inanimate to animate, and haven’t gotten to first base with consciousness.

      And where was the definition of “mind” they so doggedly argued with? Try to find in science, specifically the psych fields, a non-associative definition of mind that actually defines what IT IS - not it’s manifestations. They don’t really understand psychosomatic illness. Notice that when science runs into life, it tends to confuse its classical laws.

      Is that why quantum mechanics hasn’t substantially advanced for almost 100 years? They need not take the route of conventional religion in assigning everything they don’t know to the gap god of Higher Darwinianism or something. Situations like this is where scientists actually earn the term, hubris.

    • Comment Link Paige Saturday, 13 December 2014 18:53 posted by Paige

      This was utterly painful to watch. The gentlemen for the motion were, to me, babbling endlessly. No verifiable evidence to support their beliefs, whatsoever.. They consider hearsay and "experience" to be their evidence. They are not critical thinkers, they are wishful thinkers.

    • Comment Link Herschel Thursday, 11 December 2014 15:41 posted by Herschel

      This was a discussion not a debate; it is almost impossible to debate as issue when both sides are arguing from difference presumptions of what constitutes the definition of "reality". Dr. Moody alluded to this issue in his opening statement. To me, Sean Carroll seemed to be the one who was less an authentic scientist compared to other panelists in this discussion. I do think the panel highlighted the issues on this topic for both philosophers/mystics and data based scientists. For me, it is a both-er; science only serves as the empirical vehicle to one's experience of the mystery of life.

    • Comment Link Lagorce C. Thursday, 11 December 2014 00:39 posted by Lagorce C.

      Never doubt of one thing : Science is an unfinished and incompleted Art. It's a world built on "no end of evolving" assumptions at best partially demonstrated. Science is a view of the mind. Science is not a source of absolute certainties but rather a source of beliefs based on evidences subjectively interpreted as highly relevant. There is no better than a scientist to know that, so it is sad to note that they are very few among them to recognize it - these last ones are called "true skeptics" - if you really search you can find some of them generally among very high level one's).

      Humanity consists of two categories:
      - Those who lived NDE or Out of Body Experiences. These ones know that it's true. They can no longer doubt (even the most ardent "former skeptics" among them).
      - And those who will live it one day or another. These can not yet know. So either they believe, or they doubt it, or they convince themselves that this is impossible, despite the absolute lack of scientific evidence in support of their belief.

      But debate is pointless. The path of enlightenment always takes unexpected paths in our lives. Regardless of knowledge, belief, doubt or denyind a thing or its opposite. The important thing is the spiritual path.

      If Heaven deigned to send us the percentage of "diehard materialist scientists" who have relied to a god of any kind on their death bed, in my opinion, it would be enough to die of laughing, as it must be high rated, right ?

      Take care of you

    • Comment Link Evangeline Woods Tuesday, 02 December 2014 20:31 posted by Evangeline Woods

      I think the real question being debated here is whether there is a reality that exists beyond the physical. For those who are certain there is not, I ask, have you considered that you could be lacking the organs of perception required to be aware of that reality? For the determinedly materialistic, any attempt to understand a spiritual experience must be like a person blind from birth trying to comprehend color.

    • Comment Link Laurie OHara Sunday, 30 November 2014 13:39 posted by Laurie OHara

      We are so blessed that Galileo, Einstein and Columbus and others like them met much of their "burden of proof". Keep on Truckin' Eban.

    • Comment Link Doug Thursday, 20 November 2014 10:36 posted by Doug

      What Dr. Alexander experienced when he "died" was the dissolving of his ego, which allowed his mind pure perception for a little while. Since he probably never experienced this in life, his natural propensity is to call it "heaven."

      I don't doubt what he experienced. But after the mind (brain) completely ceased functioning (which did NOT happen to him), he would then be not-conscious forever. And his matter would then decay, and his identity and essence disappear forever as well.

    • Comment Link Gustave Wednesday, 08 October 2014 14:54 posted by Gustave

      All the babbling in the world does not dispel the notion that man can neither prove nor disprove through science that God exists or does not exist. However, I would suggest to the true pragmatists out there that they read Pascal's Wager. You have nothing to lose but your soul.

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