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 Violeta Ciorita Sunday, 20 July 2014 15:21 posted by Violeta Ciorita

      NDE is exactly that ....NDE.
      I have almost every day 1 NDE experience when I read the newspaper and I see the pain in the World.
      I have 1 when the newspapers ask for new foto´s of a war in some country wile internet is full of old wars.
      I have 1 when i see that people film a human on fire but does nothing to put the fire out.
      I have 1 when I read how many people are affected by the economical crisis
      I have 1 every time I read a sick story on people hurting each other
      I even have 1 when I read that smart gents like yourself are trying to erase somebody´s experience by denying it.
      Is his experience and not yours so you have just as much proof it did not happened as much proof as he gave you that it did happened. What makes you better scientists an why should the world believe your stories en or your explanations


    • Comment Link Rob P Friday, 18 July 2014 18:35 posted by Rob P

      As a species we are singularly egotistical! Why should there be life after death for us and not every living thing? Why should there be multiple universes based on every action WE take?(sorry, I had to add that in,) It's insane how we set ourselves on a pedestal.

      This is an entirely human notion based on a deep seated fear of death, both for ourselves and our loved ones. It is of course comforting to think that people we love carry on in some other realm but that does not make it true. As always the"evidence" FOR is anecdotal and unproven. Remove emotion from the debate and you remove any opposition to the AGAINST position. I say this not because iI want it to be true but because it is. And no amount of, admittedly clever, analogy can make it true.

    • Comment Link Temy Thursday, 17 July 2014 15:08 posted by Temy

      How can it be that so many allegedly sane and educated people cannot grasp the most fundamental fact of life that exists....that dead means dead?

    • Comment Link Michael Donnell Friday, 04 July 2014 15:08 posted by Michael Donnell

      One side of this debate views mind as an epiphenomena of matter. The problem with this positions is no adequate definition of 'matter' of 'physical' exists. Another problem with this view is that it presumes all of science supports the 'materialist' view (matter is fundamental) and contradicts the 'idealist' view (mind is fundamental), while the truth is that the opposite is the case. This is widely known and accepted in philosophic circles but denied in scientific circles because it is a philosophic, not a scientific, question. Which is to say the widely accepted idea the mind is an epiphenomena of the brain might be true, but is not the 'scientific' view its adherents imagine it to be.
      But the question 'What happens to the self when we die' begs the question, 'What is the self?' Buddhists would say what we take for a self is the result of an ego positing that bifurcates 'the world' into subject and object and claims to have developed a praxis leading to 'satori' which restores the essential unity of existence.
      As the transmigration of souls is part of Buddhist philosophy, it might seem similar to a belief in an 'afterlife.' But while the Buddhist position is inherently idealist (mind is fundamental), the point for a Buddhist is not the survival of an individual mind, as all is mind, but whether that mind has achieved wholeness (the word 'health' means 'whole') or is still fragmented.
      So what I'm doing is suggesting a view that turns this whole debate on its head.
      I'm suggesting--
      1) nothing in science is incompatible with an idealist position.
      2) only a mind that believes it is separate from existence views birth and death as alternating rather than simultaneous phenomenon.
      3) Therefore, the whole question of the scientific validity of an 'afterlife' is wrongheaded and shot through with fundamental misconceptions.
      I would add that to take the idea of satori seriously from a scientific point of view necessitates some archimedean point outside of 4D space/time--perhaps Bohm's implicate order, or something like it as suggested by nonlocality.

    • Comment Link Jason Orgone Thursday, 03 July 2014 04:16 posted by Jason Orgone

      This is a great program. As a hardcore atheist and scientist, I find it interesting that people all find a need to construct these irrational extra 'domains'. However, I was ashamed by the insulting and snide tone from Sean Carroll. My ears turned red as I imagined the audience growing cold to science, imagining that we are all so arrogant and needlessly condescending.

      There are good scientists out there who are respectful towards people with whom we strongly disagree. Please try to represent us more fairly.

    • Comment Link p Wednesday, 25 June 2014 01:51 posted by p

      crazy how different the irl audience votes vs internet.

    • Comment Link Erik Fjell Tuesday, 24 June 2014 16:31 posted by Erik Fjell

      Worthy debate, but I find that the AGAINST argumentation is a bit intellectually naive or dishonest.

      What is frustrating about the line of argumentation from Novella is that no matter what line of argumentation brought up by those in favor of NDE, he said it wasn't enough.
      No evidence -
      B: NDE shows production without brain activity.
      A: Timing of it did not have diagnostic equipment measuring specifically for that.
      B:There has been registering at the time of NDE retrieval
      A: You haven't provided the argument in my naturalistic/100% materialist verbiage
      B: We all realize that there is a "beyond-physical" call for explanation of consciousness, memory, and other topics involved in NDEs.
      Ex : Think of an elephant..... There is no probe or equipment that tells you where in the physical brain there is an elephant. Memory maps DO NOT find identical travel paths. Consciousness, and the larger "mind" topic, goes beyond when registers on the naturalists/materialists' radars.

    • Comment Link Henry Wednesday, 11 June 2014 01:22 posted by Henry

      "John Hurd"

      You are thinking of the Esquire article I think. Yeah 'Eben' seems like a pretty scummy guy.

      Concerning his carl Sagan quote:

      I'm not sure why anyone gives him credit at all, other than a desperate fear of death, which they allow him to alleviate with his lies.

    • Comment Link Thomas Nofziger Tuesday, 10 June 2014 16:41 posted by Thomas Nofziger

      I've noticed that arguments from Michael Shermer, Sean Carroll, and my physicist friends here at Los Alamos Labs are not arguments, per se. They are a series of jokes and personality defamations. None have ever researched the copious literature that abounds in this inquiry. How can you have an opinion when you've never studied the subject you're debating? The NDE contingency, on the other hand, has studied (and endorsed) both sides of the isle.

    • Comment Link Rodney Tuesday, 10 June 2014 00:16 posted by Rodney

      It is commonly stated by people who have not checked, that there is no evidence for an afterlife. There are many types of evidence, including veridical NDEs, spontaneous recollection by children of former lives, lucid visions by those near death, mediumistic phenomena, after death communications. Very few people remain sceptical after properly reviewing the evidence. Attempts by armchair critics to explain it all away as hallucinations or other such nonsense do not match up with the actual reports. The evidence itself provides answers to all the sceptical objections.

      On the other hand, the widely accepted materialist paradigm does not have supporting evidence. There is plenty of evidence, for example, that the brain mediates consciousness, but none to show that it actually produces it.

    • Comment Link jedbeetle Saturday, 31 May 2014 18:25 posted by jedbeetle

      This was a fun debate, and seemed to sum up the the intellectual state of this argument.
      I thought the for side did a poor job of debating, but that isn't helped by the fact that there is not much science for them to fall back on in the matter. It really just seems to come down to human experience vs. current atheist threads in neuroscience and cognitive science.

      There's a couple arguments on the "against" side that I just don't buy. One was that they can somehow recreate, under experimental conditions, the same things people experience during NDE and OBE and trance and whatnot.

      I seriously doubt this. Just producing a similar experience in experimental circumstances does not prove correlation, and correlation is a far cry from causation.

      I would seem that the logic used here could be used to prove that sticking a fork in my eye is roughly the same as covering my face with a cloth. They both cause a disturbance in my ability to see, and so the cause must be roughly the same.

      Just because we know we can trigger images and emotional responses in the brain doesn't mean we are showing how a given experience must have shown up. In fact, I seriously doubt that our current information about brain activity rules anything out. It seems that operating under the assumption that, until scientifically proven otherwise, we can simply claim there is only a brain active in our consciousness and experience of the world; however, without that assumption in place, there is still a fundamental break in the logic of a definitive statement on the matter. I know, I know - there is no verifiable experience shown necessitating the existence of a soul or subtle body. Parapsychologists would disagree vehemently with this, though, but they've been seemingly angrily removed from the playing field.

      Also, the against side gave the argument that, while we can't find "consciousness" itself, we can show that it must originate in the brain. This argument smacks of assumption as well and I seriously doubt not only its completeness but its value to the scientific process as it continues forward.

      I think something misunderstood in this discussion often is the idea of separateness between what might be called a "soul" and what we know to be our body. It would seem, that if a soul exists, that there is no separation between the two while we are alive, and that one is essentially an extension of the other.

      One more point repeated by the against side is that life after death is merely a product of wishful thinking. The implication here is that Eben and Raymond, and anyone who, due to actual experience, thinks there may be life after death, incapable of separating desire from the evaluative process. This is simply insulting, has no real foundation, and does nothing for the argument.

      There is a great challenge to the for side to produce experimental results even meriting further study into other-than-body-consciousness. It may never happen, of course, but I hope they don't stop trying.

      I have my own conclusions, as I'm sure we all do, but accept all possible explanations of reality as possible. Still, it's clear this argument will always break apart on the shores of human experience. We are still a long ways from producing similar and vivid enough results experimentally to satisfy those who have actually had the experiences that have convinced them of a spiritual dimension.

    • Comment Link Aragis Gregory Thursday, 29 May 2014 20:12 posted by Aragis Gregory

      Per se, the idea of serious discussion of fundamental questions such as origins of consiousness is highly commendable. However, testablishing the answer through voting is as meaningless as would be voting how much 2 times 2 is. In this case, the simple fact is that we humans simply do not have sufficient valid information to answer the question, so no amount of speculation or voting is going to settle it.

      Of course, not having enough information at this time doesn't mean that such information is impossible to come by because of laws of nature. In fact, the main reason such information is not available to us is simply because nobody had so far expended adequate effort to accomplish it.

      The efforts by small groups like the DOPS of the University of Virginia, or individuals like Dr. Moody and Dr. Alexander, are almost heroic, but these efforts are much smaller in scale than needed to solve such a fundamental problem. To put it in perspective, these efforts are equivalent to trying to buy a brand new Mercedes Benz car having $1,000 to spend. With such inadequate funds, the task would naturally appear quite daunting if not outright impossible. However, try approaching the same task with $100,000, and it might just work very well.

    • 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.

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