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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

    For

    Dr. Eben Alexander

    Neurosurgeon & Author, Proof of Heaven

  • Moody90px

    For

    Dr. Raymond Moody

    Psychologist, Medical Doctor & Author, Life After Life

  • Carroll90px

    Against

    Sean Carroll

    Physicist & Writer

  • Novella90px

    Against

    Dr. Steven Novella

    Academic Neurologist, Yale School of Medicine


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      MODERATOR

      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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Alexander90px

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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Moody90px

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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Carroll90px

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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    159 comments

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    • Comment Link The Barking Unicorn Thursday, 08 May 2014 11:21 posted by The Barking Unicorn

      "Is there life after death?" is an unfortunate question to debate. Neither side can prove its position. Anyone who is convinced by either side is swayed by mere opinion.

      "Is it beneficial to believe there is life after death?" would be a more useful question.

    • Comment Link Sue Fox Thursday, 08 May 2014 10:31 posted by Sue Fox

      I have real difficulty in understanding why people don't believe in this. I recommend you go and find - "seek and ye shall find"

    • Comment Link Peter Thursday, 08 May 2014 08:27 posted by Peter

      I attended the debate last night and it was enjoyable. As a psychiatrist (in NYC to attend the American Psychiatric Association convention) but also having experienced an NDE 12 years ago and read widely on this topic and spoken to patients with NDE like experiences - it is a topic that fascinates me.

      The awareness in my NDE was the same as right now - if not more clear - in stark contrast to the awareness in a brief hallucinatory phase and then confusional phase as I was recovering from the concussion and "loss of consciousness" (whilst to me there was no loss of my awareness/consciousness - I was just somewhere else - initially in a dark void and then in a tunnel moving at vast acceleration with what looked like stars whizzing by outside the translucent tunnel wall and I was accompanied by a loving protective guide - both of us had spirit like "bodies" that were far from the "blobs" that Dr Carroll jokingly referred to them as).

      This was my subjective experience, it was of a completely different quality of conscious being-ness to having a dream.

      I felt that Dr Carroll and Dr Novella were tactically far better debaters than Dr Alexander and Dr Moody. Dr Alexander and Dr Moody would have benefited in a much longer forum to fully expand their argument. Dr Moody's focus on philosophy was eloquent but I think went over the heads of many in the audience.

      Yet Dr Moody is correct that the materialist "scientific" position that Dr Carroll and Dr Novella so skilfully defended - breaks down in the realm of philosophical reasoning. The question/comment I wanted to ask was - MATERIALISM WITH ITS INHERENT EPI-PHENOMENALISM IS ACTUALLY MORE "SUPERNATURAL" THAN BELIEF IN AN ONTOLOGICAL REALITY TO CONSCIOUSNESS THAT IMPLIES EXISTENCE OF A "SOUL". The "Soul" perspective does not need an inexplicable gap as to how consciousness arises from non-conscious matter such as subatomic particles, atoms, cells and neural tissue.

      The trouble with the "naturalism" that Dr Carroll and Dr Novella were promoting as scientific is it requires this super-natural gap and leap of faith to say your sense of being you (awareness and intentionality/free-will) arises from total non-aware matter by some kind of magical means. This is obscured to many who don't know their philosophy of mind by calling the essential part of you and i an "epiphenomenon". Dr Moody and Dr Alexander don't need you to believe in this super-natural philosophical leap of faith.

      Dr Alexander pointed out there is much research in science and philosophical discourse to support their position on this issue and I felt Dr Novella and Dr Carroll were overly quick (but clever from a tactical perspective) to shut this part of the debate down.

      There is a book written on this by a group of scientists called "The Soul Hypothesis". Essentially they argue cogently that the materialism put forth by Drs Carroll and Novella is dead.

    • Comment Link Bhcreatives01@gmail.com Thursday, 08 May 2014 07:32 posted by Bhcreatives01@gmail.com

      I could believe that consciousness is separate from the brain because it is plausible that the consciousness is experiencing a real phenomena but when the brain interprets it after coming back after an NDE into this reality it seems cultural. So to say that there is only one real world as the debaters for the against the motion believe has not been proven scientifically.

    • Comment Link anna Thursday, 08 May 2014 04:50 posted by anna

      to colin kline,
      to the proposition,
      death is not final,
      where exists any fact based evidence to support this claim.
      where is the evidence that it is final.
      those of us who have experienced it ,
      can never convince those who havnt.

    • Comment Link Chris foote Thursday, 08 May 2014 03:44 posted by Chris foote

      Death being final sucks. IWhen you see how strongly people want to survive, it makes me wonder if so many people really believe in an afterlife. That being said, I think there will be a natural bias in people because they want there to be something after. It would be nice but there is no evidence for it. Its probably the oldest fairytale told because death of a loved one or one's self sucks so very very much.

    • Comment Link Kevin Williams Thursday, 08 May 2014 02:48 posted by Kevin Williams

      The list of evidence supporting the survival of consciousness after death is long and you can read some of the evidence here:

      ++ Scientific evidence suggestive of an afterlife: http://www.near-death.com/evidence.html

      ++ Evidence from quantum theory supporting the survival of consciousness after death: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/research08.html

      ++ Evidence of an afterlife from near-death research:
      Near-death experiences (NDEs) offer the best scientific evidence suggestive of an afterlife. But skeptics and materialists like to dismiss NDEs as being caused by brain anomalies – even though it doesn’t matter WHAT mechanism causes NDEs when determining whether NDEs are real afterlife experiences or not. Nevertheless, brain anomalies have already been ruled out (see A.) Also, the materialists’ so-called “CAUSES of NDEs” are actually only the SIDE-EFFECTS of having an NDE.

      And if NDEs are nothing more than a final hallucination before total oblivion (as claimed by materialists), then they need to examine ALL the evidence such as:

      (1) Studies that show NDE experiencers can have verified out-of-body perceptions where they see and hear very detailed events and conversations sometimes hundreds of miles away. Read: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence01.html and Google: http://www.google.com/search?q=“veridical”+”near-death”

      (2) A study shows that people born blind (or color blind) can see correctly for the first time in their lives during a NDE. Read Vicki Umipeg’s NDE at: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence03.html

      (3) One study shows that memories of NDEs are more real than normal memories. Read: http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/09/health/belgium-near-death-experiences/

      (4) A study by Dr. Jeffrey Long shows that the level of conscious alertness during NDEs are usually greater than that experienced in everyday life – even though NDEs generally occur when a person is unconscious or clinically dead. Read Dr. Jeffrey Long’s “Nine Lines of Evidence” here: http://www.nderf.org/NDERF/EvidenceAfterlife/evidence_afterlife.htm

      (5) A vast number of NDEs occur while the NDE experiencer is under general anesthesia – at a time when any conscious experience should be impossible. Read: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/skeptic04.html

      (6) The NDE “life review” provides the NDE experiencer with a perfect playback of real events which previously occurred in their lives – even if the events were forgotten or happened before they were old enough to remember. Read Dr. Jeffrey Long’s “Nine Lines of Evidence” here: http://www.nderf.org/NDERF/EvidenceAfterlife/evidence_afterlife.htm

      (7) NDE experiencers bring back important scientific discoveries. Read this press release: http://prlog.org/12312248 and http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence07.html

      (8) NDE experiencers report seeing visions of the future which actually occur as foretold. Read: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/research32.html

      (9) Studies show that children’s NDEs, including very young children who are too young to have developed concepts of death, religion, or NDEs, are essentially identical to those of older children and adults. Read: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence04.html

      (10) Studies have shown that NDEs are remarkably consistent around the world and across many different religions and cultures. Read: http://www.near-death.com/judaism.html and http://www.near-death.com/buddhism.html and http://www.near-death.com/hindu.html

      (11) Studies have shown that NDE experiencers encounter people who are virtually always deceased and are usually relatives of the NDE experiencer including relatives who died before the experiencer was even born. Read Dr. Jeffrey Long’s “Nine Lines of Evidence” here: http://www.nderf.org/NDERF/EvidenceAfterlife/evidence_afterlife.htm

      (12) Studies also show it is common for NDE experiencers to have powerful, life-enhancing, and long-lasting major life changes and aftereffects after having an NDE. Read: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence05.html

      (13) Studies show that NDE experiencers themselves are practically universal in their understanding that their NDE was a real afterlife experience. Read: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence08.html

      (14) Studies have shown that NDEs are drastically different from hallucinations. Read: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/articles009.html and http://www.near-death.com/experiences/lsd04.html

      (15) NDEs have been documented throughout history including ancient times. Read: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence12.html and http://www.near-death.com/experiences/buddhism01.html

      (16) Dr. Norma Bowe described a patient who successfully read a 12-digit number while out of their body:
      http://www.npr.org/books/titles/263101025/the-death-class-a-true-story-about-life#excerpt

      (17) Other research related to veridical (verified) perception exists, such as:

      A. Veridical out-of-body experiences – Read: http://www.near-death.com/tart.html

      B. Veridical deathbed visions – Read: http://www.near-death.com/deathbed.html

      C. Veridical dreams – Read: http://www.near-death.com/dreams.html

      D. Veridical after-death communications – Read: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/triggers15.html

      E. Veridical remote viewing – Read: http://www.skeptiko.com/psychic-spy-joe-mcmoneagle-near-death-experience-led-to-remote-viewing/

      F. Shared death experiences – Read: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/triggers10.html

      Too many skeptics and physicalists who draw materialistic conclusions about NDEs have simply not done their homework. Skeptics also claim that all anecdotal evidence is unscientific which is not true. Science uses anecdotal evidence as scientific evidence every day in the field of evidence-based medicine. More about this can be read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidence-based_medicine

      Kevin Williams
      http://www.near-death.com

    • Comment Link Bob Askew Thursday, 08 May 2014 00:47 posted by Bob Askew

      One can argue veracity in regards to both propositions. The truth is still beyond us. However the materialistic view (which is also our intuitive perception) seems to be gradually loosing ground to science based arguments for the primacy of consciousness.
      Tom Campbell gives the best advice which is "one needs to be both open-minded AND skeptical"
      In this case both arguments are plausible but none can be confirmed as the truth (yet!).
      Maybe the emergence of artificial intelligence will help provide some answers (or soon to be released) AWARE study results of Sam Parnia.

    • Comment Link Bill Thursday, 08 May 2014 00:25 posted by Bill

      In the same way that you can't run your favorite applications and pursue your unique data on a computer whose hardware has been fatally damaged, you can't remember, think and emote in the unique character of "you" without your intact brain. After I die, my tongue will not go on tasting, nor my stomach go on digesting, nor my kidneys go on filtering, nor will my penis go on procreating in some ethereal realm. Your brain is no different. The study of damaged brains have demonstrated that when you damage/modify brain structures and chemistry in specific ways, you modify the behaviors, feelings, character and the subjective experience of the individual. Restoration, when possible, restores the changes to the original state. Whe the brain dies, we return to the oblivion we were in prior to bring born. As Mark Twain said "I don't fear death, I had been dead for millions of years before I was born and it never caused me the slightest inconvenience." See you all on the other side...NOT.

    • Comment Link John Lambert Thursday, 08 May 2014 00:11 posted by John Lambert

      I am interested in the debate and want so badly to believe. But I know better than to run off with the charlatans who would channel my grief into their collection plates.

    • Comment Link Jay Tyson Wednesday, 07 May 2014 23:45 posted by Jay Tyson

      Maybe a person is like a computer after all. When the hard drive goes, everything is lost, right?....except on my computer, since, in addition to recording everything on the hard drive, I automatically have a back-up copy made. I do this because I know that sooner or later, the hard drive will fail.

      When do I do this? Every nighttime, while I'm sleeping.

      Where is this other copy stored? In "the cloud" of course.

      Sounds familiar?

    • Comment Link Jered Schaugaard Wednesday, 07 May 2014 22:32 posted by Jered Schaugaard

      Interesting. Some will call this an ad hominem; however, perspective, in this case, seems relevant.

      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2529048/Proof-Heaven-doctor-faced-3million-malpractice-lawsuit-fell-coma.html

      Sam Harris does a great job of intelligently laying out the facts here: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/this-must-be-heaven

    • Comment Link steve Wednesday, 07 May 2014 22:14 posted by steve

      Sorry skeptical trolls. You are dead wrong. Used to be blind like you until started researching myself. Consciousness is separate from the brain like a radio does not produce radio waves. Anyone who would like to discuss further, you can find use on FB at MIA paranormal.

    • Comment Link Roger Shuffield Wednesday, 07 May 2014 21:39 posted by Roger Shuffield

      Why aren't we studying the Pineal? I have a sneaking suspicion it has more to do with all this than anyone can imagine. Yet, no one seems to be able to crack that nut. I think it has been made taboo through time to even consider its mystical/alchemical/extrasensory properties. I think it is linked to extra-dimensional realms.

    • Comment Link william Wednesday, 07 May 2014 21:18 posted by william

      predictable.

      moody should have sit at the table of the skeptics. he tried to come off as a great philospher. phd intellectualism thing.

      eben's only strong points was his summation.

      determining the winner was joke. skewed research to the nth degree.

    • Comment Link Kayla Rachelle Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:52 posted by Kayla Rachelle

      Well, of course NDEs are "real". They are just not what you think they are.

    • Comment Link T. Van Zandt Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:46 posted by T. Van Zandt

      Dr. Alexander claimed in the debate that Carl Sagan believed that children can "recover memories" from "past lives" and cited page 302 of Sagan's book The Demon-Haunted World in support of this claim (to much applause).

      I pulled down my copy of the book, found the page, but can't find any evidence in support of that claim, nor can I find anything on the 10 pages previous and following. Was this just pulled out of thin air?

    • Comment Link Ed Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:44 posted by Ed

      Everyone who wants to understand both sides of this debate must read, and understand the "hard problem of conscienceness"

    • Comment Link Vaughn Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:44 posted by Vaughn

      Final Vote was unbelievable! We are body, mind and spirit! The body & mind will die. The Spirit lives on! To deny that is frankly stupidity! There is a God who created all of this universe, and created us humans in His image. NDE's are real! There is a spiritual dimension! Dr. Alexander, previously a scientific skeptic, is a perfect proof of the reality of an afterlife! He ain't no dummy! Wake up America!

    • Comment Link Julio Siqueira Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:44 posted by Julio Siqueira

      Just as I had thought, a very weak debate. The format of the debate was wonderful. The contenders seemed to me very nice people indeed. Yet, they are actually very unprepared for the subject they were debating. It stunned me when I heard Moody saying Parapsychology is pseudoscience, and also when Steven was so clumsy at defending Sagan from the incorrect remark made by Eben (regarding Sagan's purported belief in cases of the reincarnation type). But it was worth the while, anyway.

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