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 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.

    • Comment Link Dan Werner Wednesday, 07 May 2014 10:15 posted by Dan Werner

      While there is no definitive proof of an afterlife, there certainly is evidence suggestive of one. A declaration by skeptics that there is no evidence is a common refrain. One that is wrong. Near Death Experiences seem to be the complete focus in this debate, but I would point folks to the Division of Perceptual Studies homepage at the University of Virginia for a more robust argument, inclusive of medium communication, death bed visions and cases suggestive of reincarnation. Carl Sagan even advocated that these apparent memories that children report back deserve further investigation.

      Focusing back on the Near Death Experience, veridical perception strikes me as the strongest evidence that there may be an immaterial soul. The Pam Reynolds case would be a great place to start - as would reading Dr. Pim Van Lommel. Lastly, Dr. Sam Parnia has been conducting the AWARE study which has placed targets above hospital beds, only visible if above looking below. If even one patient can identify the image, it would mean there was a body/soul separation of some kind. Originally skeptical that the Near Death Experience provided evidence of an afterlife, Parnia is now convinced that some essence continues on after death; he uses the word soul. The AWARE study is currently at the peer review stage.

      To sum it up again: plenty of evidence, no proof. Stephen Braude I think may have said it best: most folks either overestimate the evidence of an afterlife or underestimate it.

    • Comment Link Leah Pomerantz Wednesday, 07 May 2014 08:03 posted by Leah Pomerantz

      Remember those guys used to think the earth was flat? So NOW is when we know everything?

    • Comment Link Anne Baring Wednesday, 07 May 2014 05:19 posted by Anne Baring

      Experiences recently observed and recorded by cardiac surgeons during the "brain-dead" state of cardiac arrest suggest that consciousness can be independent of the physical brain. See the book by Dutch cardiac surgeon Dr. Pim van Lommel 2010: "Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience".

    • Comment Link Dr. Azmi Wednesday, 07 May 2014 04:48 posted by Dr. Azmi

      This is quite interesting, I guess we will never figure out what's going on after death for the simple reason no one came back to tell us. Scientifically, there is no such thing as death (according to Robert Lanza) as our brains have some electricity that simply do not vanish but rather transforms or crosses to another world, besides our conciseness is never fully understood or rather explained...

    • Comment Link Colin KLINE Wednesday, 07 May 2014 03:12 posted by Colin KLINE

      To the proposition :
      "Death is not Final"
      ... where exists any "fact-based-evidence" to support this claim?

      If the support for the claim is based only on personal anecdote, personal conviction, and on no generalised provable data, then that is merely the "Stuff of Dreams", and also of utter BS !

    • Comment Link Eternally Learning Wednesday, 07 May 2014 00:54 posted by Eternally Learning

      NDEs are real. Period. There's no dispute that they are real. It's blatantly obvious that they are real. People clearly experience something. They question is "what are they" though. The best evidence I've ever heard for a supernatural explanation for NDEs always seems to rest on not being able to explain some aspect of it scientifically which is fallacious. If we don't currently have a viable explanation from science, it's not logical to infer that it must be resultant of a completely different and even more unproven explanation like an afterlife or aliens or anything else someone might posit. Add on top of that all the scientific history of documenting completely natural ways for people to hallucinate, make false memories, and so on and I think it's infinitely more plausible that something natural is going on which causes people to interpret their experiences through a their cultural lens.

    • Comment Link San Tuesday, 06 May 2014 22:01 posted by San

      I only recommend to viewers studying several cases before watching this debate. Try to leave your beliefs aside because there are many critics who do not know what they criticize.

    • Comment Link adam Tuesday, 06 May 2014 18:34 posted by adam

      Arguing in favor of an idea without having a shred of evidence seems ridiculously stupid. Science> Religion

    • Comment Link John Howley Tuesday, 06 May 2014 10:07 posted by John Howley

      I suppose it's possible that death is not final but at present, there is absolutely no proof of this claim. I cannot support a motion that has no evidence.

    • Comment Link Patrick Ethen Monday, 05 May 2014 22:15 posted by Patrick Ethen

      To say something is beyond our understanding or not scientifically testable is as good as any lie claiming the same properties. It's a baseless cop-out that can be used to prove anything you want, if you find those that are foolish enough to accept it.

    • Comment Link Bill B Monday, 05 May 2014 16:19 posted by Bill B

      David Larsen, from what I can find, whenever NDE's are looked into in depth, they are either too vague or self-contained to be verified, or the details of the claim fall apart when examined skeptically. Some further reading on one popular case is here:

    • Comment Link William Ferrall Monday, 05 May 2014 12:31 posted by William Ferrall

      The distinction between belief and knowledge is reliable repeatability.

    • Comment Link David Larsen Monday, 05 May 2014 10:42 posted by David Larsen

      Those who claim "no objective evidence" for NDE's simply have not objectively studied the phenomena. Many who experience NDE's, even some who were blind, have been able to describe in detail, their operations, as well as conversations, objects and events in other rooms of the hospital during their operation. See, how is this possible if consciousness does not exist outside of the body?

    • Comment Link Eternally Learning Sunday, 04 May 2014 22:33 posted by Eternally Learning

      I cannot wait to see this debate. It will be the first one I've watched live streaming as opposed to downloading the podcast. A big fan of Dr. Novella, and really enjoy this topic in general as it captures so many interesting discussions about the nature of consciousness, the human experience, and what the reality of the universe actually says about who each of us are and where we really stand in relation to the rest of nature.

      Glad to be getting a break from politics at any rate!

    • Comment Link brian Saturday, 03 May 2014 18:38 posted by brian

      As someone who has had a near death experience completed with ehovering above my hospital bed looking down at myself and (apparently) realising I was dead I recall very clearly thinking " wow I've died ! This isn't so bad I wonder what comes next " and then next thing I was staring at the side of the bed , awake and aware, I have no explanation other than I had a near death experience , scientifically no explanation but I no longer fear death .

    • Comment Link Jacob Saturday, 03 May 2014 08:50 posted by Jacob

      Interesting that the idea of life before birth rarelely comes into play in these debates about life after death. Logic would dictate they are essentially the same idea, both being some sort of transcending non-corporeal consciousness. The one glaring difference being we can all speak first hand about our experience of the former, and none of us can speak to an experience of the latter.

    • Comment Link trubble Friday, 02 May 2014 16:21 posted by trubble

      This kind of things has an important lesson to teach us, that being the power of wishful thinking can make otherwise intelligent people believe some utterly foolish things.
      One thing is painfully clear, life is a one-way journey with death at the end. We can invent all the fairy stories we like but to believe them beyond childhood is foolishness.

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