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 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.

    • Comment Link Mark Wednesday, 07 May 2014 17:11 posted by Mark

      My wife contacted Lung Cancer and three weeks before she died we were under the assumption that she was in remission and going to at least have a chance to survive for some time. According to her doctors. As i lay one night in my game room watching intently a sporting event all of a sudden as if someone pulled a screen in front of my face i saw my wife lying upstairs in our bed and two very bright figures with her. One was standing at her head touching and soothing her, and the other was floating above her at a 45% angel looking at her very very concerned. This bright see through figure then came down about a foot above her and looked intently at her, then the vision stopped. To say the least, it stunned me. I ran upstairs and awoke her and ask if she was dreaming of spirits or angels. She said no. Keep in mind that at this time we were under the impression that she would survive for some time. No skeptic in the world will ever convince me that what i saw was some type of hallucination or a figment of my imagination. It was as real as the sky above and the earth below us. There are somethings we do not understand, and i was lucky enough to get a glimpse of one. NDEs?? I have read some of them. Our human imagination is not astute enough to make some of them up in my estimation.

    • Comment Link Lynne Wednesday, 07 May 2014 16:31 posted by Lynne

      I understand why the naysayers remain skeptical, and it doesn't matter. I know it's real because there are no words in our vocabulary to explain it.

    • Comment Link Robert Adam Wednesday, 07 May 2014 15:18 posted by Robert Adam

      Could someone please explain to me how NDEs are, in any way, shape or form, proof of life after death?
      Even if it's not simply the effects of the electro-chemical cocktail being released by the brain in the throws of trauma, what about it points towards other-worldliness? My guess is, absolutely nothing. Even if people have incredibly similar experiences, that can most likely be explained by being incredibly similar beings (same species from the same world), it seems to be just more grasping and craving born out of a desperate fear of death. No?

    • Comment Link sean Wednesday, 07 May 2014 12:10 posted by sean

      Near death experiences are in no way evidence/proof of life after death. They're called NEAR death experiences for a reason- the patient who experiences an NDE doesn't actually die. If they did, they wouldn't be able to explain their experience because they'd be, uh, dead.

      It's just as silly to claim there is life after death as it is to claim we were alive before we were born. Consciousness arises from the physical brain. Anyone who doesn't accept this should cut open their skull, cut out their brain and see if they're still conscious/alive.

    • Comment Link Bruce Costa Wednesday, 07 May 2014 11:33 posted by Bruce Costa

      I'll paraphrase what I once heard Sam Harris say: "For the past 150 years we've learned exactly what stops working when part of the brain is damaged. It's not like the rest of it houses the original mind that is now struggling to get out. It's often that the person cannot even maintain previous behaviors or recognize family members. So we are to believe that the self is lost when this or that part of the brain is damaged, but when it is thoroughly damaged in death, a full consciousness lifts out unimpeded and goes to hang out with grandma."

    • Comment Link Patric Miller Wednesday, 07 May 2014 11:22 posted by Patric Miller

      While I find this kind of debate fascinating, and somewhat entertaining (good radio), I see it also being destructive to the REAL debate, which should resolve around the existence and nature of external consciousness.

      As soon as we allow the debate of our existence and the “next state” after this physical existence to be labeled in terms like “Heaven” or “The Afterlife,” any hope of unification of the theories breaks down.

      As an NDE survivor, I have shared the stage with Dr. Alexander, and spent the better part of the last 15 years trying to make sense of what happened to me. But, one thing is for certain to me at this point; the standard models of physics, as well as any standard concept of “Heaven” or the afterlife, are both sadly lacking and narrow.

      There is some amazing research being done by the science community that point to our consciousness being outside of the restraints of the standard model and the limitations of this space/time. But, there is also a great deal of money at risk from old school folks who see it as a threat to their livelihoods.

      Likewise, the “business of religion” relies on the carrot of a “heaven” for those who “believe” (and give), so the concept of “God” must be sustained.

      My experience, and those of millions of others who have reported NDEs, points to something far greater and unusual than the simple firing of a chain of neurons and chemicals. Until both sides can agree that the “operator” of the machine is outside of the machine, we will not get anywhere in these kinds of debates.

    • Comment Link Julio Siqueira Wednesday, 07 May 2014 10:52 posted by Julio Siqueira

      First: there *is* evidence for the afterlife survival. Second: this evidence comes from a few different areas, mainly mediumship, memories of reincarnation, and NDE. Third: this evidence must be studied *meticulously* (as I myself have done in my site, regarding the case Imad Elawar), for it is often tenuous and always highly tricky. Forth: *NO* scientific laws are imperiled by afterlife survival. Sixth: there is a rarely understood difference between survival of our objective personalities and survival of our subjective consciousness (I doubt any of the four debaters are aware of this…). Forth: this area of intellectual endeavor demands the highest possible standards, due to its social, psychological, and existential impact. And Finally: we are far far away from any verdict on this matter. That said, I think the four contenders do not really grasp the subject well enough to talk about it masterly. Yet, I think this debate will be interesting and informative, and I will be watching it. If I happen to wrong about the current standard of the contenders/debaters, so much the better for all of us!

    • Comment Link Peter Wednesday, 07 May 2014 10:49 posted by Peter

      I am looking forward to attending tonight. I've always believed in following the data, even as a nerdy science oriented child. But data is subjective as well as "objective". Quantum mechanics and psychology reveal that absolute objectivity is difficult to ever attain. An open but sceptical mind is vital.

      There are a lot of defensive comments here. Both those with adherence to religious faith and those with adherence to the materialist assumptions that underpin the last couple of centuries of Western scientific endeavour - seem perturbed by the phenomena of NDE's. I've read at least half of the 3,500+ NDE's at the website That is following the data. You should examine the raw data before coming to conclusions.

      I also had a brief but for me dramatic NDE myself just over 10 years ago in an accident - as a medical practitioner I think I can distinguish between dream, delirium and clear conscious awareness - the presence clear lucid awareness during the NDE and the post-concussive delirium during recovery was stark. The emotions and experience within the NDE (void and tunnel and other being) were exhilarating and nothing like even a vivid dream.

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