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 Richard Olson Wednesday, 30 April 2014 16:05 posted by Richard Olson

      Trees produce leaves annually if there is sufficient water, soil nutrients, sunlight, and air quality. If any of these necessary conditions is sufficiently depleted, leaves may not arrive seasonally. And of course dead trees produce no leaves. There is no evidence consciousness is external to the brain. When you croak you croak. The end.

    • Comment Link MD-PhD Sunday, 27 April 2014 16:26 posted by MD-PhD

      As a neurosugeon who knew Dr. Alexander's father, a brilliant man & world recognized neurosurgical authority in his day: I can assure you that he's turning over in his grave at the absurdity of his son's ignorance.

    • Comment Link Dave Thursday, 24 April 2014 03:46 posted by Dave

      This debate is the wrong one to be having. The idea that consciousness is due to the workings of the brain is directly challenged, not by NDE's, but by purely philosophical considerations. David Chalmers popularised the notion of the "hard problem" of consciousness. I would like to have seen Carroll and Novella debate Chalmers.

    • Comment Link Anand Fiske Thursday, 24 April 2014 03:44 posted by Anand Fiske

      You bring nothing at birth & take nothing at Death...
      Then for whom to live find an answer to this question you have to take birth.....Your life is a is a page from God's diary, where the pages of birth & death are written and the middle pages are left blank which have to be written with care, whether the deeds are good or bad, once writeen the pages cannot be torn, so care has to be taken on the content as relations are involved, you destiny has to be shaped by none other than you, to gather friends not enemies and a day comes when you are ready to leave, what you carry with you is either the love others for you or otherwise so you have to decide how to lead your life as death is not final & the journey goes on......

    • Comment Link Stacey Wednesday, 23 April 2014 20:14 posted by Stacey

      It's all semantics... If we understand death as the end of life, and life is what we know through our senses, our ability to think, our experiences (with our limitations given our condition as humans), then death is in fact final. Once the senses are not there to "sense", our brain is not there to think, and our experiences no longer exist, we are no longer alive. There might be some other state after we die, or for that matter, before we live, but with a different awareness, perceived with different tools the ones we are equipped with now. Certainly not life as we know it. So yeah, life as we know it is final with death, why are we so afraid of calling death final?

    • Comment Link Kenelm Wednesday, 23 April 2014 12:27 posted by Kenelm

      "Previously established by respected philosophers..." Plenty has been postulated, nothing has been established.

      Dr Novella, a master at wordcraft might not mind if I slightly adjusted his position's statement too: "The belief in an immaterial soul, existing in realms independent of the body, contradicts the basic laws of physics ..." Ever the optimist, I might suggest that "The belief in an immaterial soul, existing in realms independent of the body, contradicts the KNOWN basic laws of physics."

      I hopefully await the discovery of the new laws of physics that account for the anecdotes that will be presented.

    • Comment Link John Wednesday, 23 April 2014 10:26 posted by John

      Faith is the belief in anything for which there is less than a 50% chance of it being true or accurate, like hoping the Knicks will someday have a decent owner. Astonishing that humans are smart enough to use a computer or learn to feed themselves but are so biologically flawed that billions cling to various kooky delusional mass psychosis like the existence of life after James Dolan.

    • Comment Link Tyler Tuesday, 22 April 2014 09:01 posted by Tyler

      There's no good evidence of life after death. While consciousness is a fascinating subject and there is still much to be explored, our ignorance of it doesn't point to anything except our ignorance of it.

      I'd add as well, that you can believe in god, but not believe in near death experiences, as a lot of religious friends of mine don't. It's not tied solely to non-believers.

    • Comment Link Aaron Tuesday, 22 April 2014 05:27 posted by Aaron

      "What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence."

      The problem with NDEs is that there are thousands of them and they're all different. People have NDEs that match up with Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc

      How do you explain the NDEs where God gives no indication that he has a problem with the person being an atheist?

    • Comment Link Thomas C Friday, 18 April 2014 19:50 posted by Thomas C

      I agree that the brain "creates" consciousness, but the brain does not both create and experience consciousness. Something, or rather someone, experiences the consciousness that the brain creates. That someone is the person, or spirit if you will, that goes on to experience another state of consciousness that is not prodiced by a brain or a physical anything. I strongly support the motion!

    • Comment Link James Apronti Thursday, 17 April 2014 03:31 posted by James Apronti

      John 11:25-26 - Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” I believe this so there is life after death. I vote for the motion!

    • Comment Link Kenyon Harris Wednesday, 16 April 2014 09:22 posted by Kenyon Harris

      Being a believer in the ressurection of Jesus, i vote for the motion that death is not final. But that's just my opinion.

    • Comment Link Romann Arithmetic Tuesday, 15 April 2014 13:30 posted by Romann Arithmetic

      The notion of a "soul", a formless non-physical "spirit" with no physical characteristics, took place in a world with no science. No one knew what an atom was, what a molecule was, that we needed one component of "air", oxygen, to continue living. Now we know that every thought an memory has a physical component: calcium ions, sodium ions, enzymes, complex biochemistry. When you die, all this amazingly complex, unfathomably complex, machinery stops working. There is no life after death.

    • Comment Link Ben Monday, 14 April 2014 14:20 posted by Ben

      Go Steven! I've been a huge fan since 2007 :D

    • Comment Link Michael T. Monday, 14 April 2014 10:47 posted by Michael T.

      I'm convinced that death is final. There's no reason to believe that consciousness is anything other than the brain experiencing thoughts as they form.

      There's certainly no reason to think there's a soul.

      As nice as it is to think that life goes on after death, I suspect that the experience after death will be very much like the experience was before birth.

    • Comment Link mike Friday, 04 April 2014 16:32 posted by mike

      depends on whose death. Each leaf on a tree buds, grows, and dies. New leaves come next season. These are not "reincarnations" of former leaves, they are just the continuing expression of the life of the tree.

      the consciousness that inhabits has always been here, and will continue eternally.

    • Comment Link Becki Hawkins Wednesday, 19 March 2014 17:43 posted by Becki Hawkins

      I vote yes!! Death is not final! YouTube: Nurse Shares 30 Years

    • Comment Link Yao Kra Sunday, 16 March 2014 02:37 posted by Yao Kra

      I vote for the motion. Death is not final.

    • Comment Link ben Thursday, 06 March 2014 00:40 posted by ben

      wow being an agnostic this is going to be good! hope they mention technological singularity!!

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