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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Declared Winner: Against The Motion

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    • Comment Link James Saturday, 10 May 2014 12:43 posted by James

      I was put off a bit by the insistence by the for side that because you cannot say in a sentence the mechanism by which the brain creates consciousness that it therefore discredits that idea. Yet the for side simultaneously has no mechanism by which consciousness can exist without the brain and can continue on without. That hypocrisy tells me the for side hasn't really considered their position as strongly as they'd like to pretend.

    • Comment Link Tyle Saturday, 10 May 2014 11:18 posted by Tyle

      Profound feelings or experiences, like Alexander's, might teach you about what your mind is like, but that's as far is it goes.

      For comparison, I had a friend who did a lot of acid. While tripping he experienced "really serious sh!#" which convinced him that the US government suspected him of murder and was building an elaborate case against him (which, for example, involved listening devices hidden under a park where my friend often slept).

      I tried to convince him (unsuccessfully) that whatever he had felt - no matter how persuasive or dripping with truth and mystical significance it had seemed - it had just been fireworks in his head, and that's not a good way to learn about government plots.

    • Comment Link Astidkali Saturday, 10 May 2014 10:55 posted by Astidkali

      Near-death experiences cannot be proofs of life after death simply because near-death is not death.

    • Comment Link Cory Friday, 09 May 2014 23:47 posted by Cory

      My opinion of Alexander and Moody have diminished so much, it's sad. Really it was quite pathetic. Moody might as well have stayed home. Alexander, my god, just stop; it's pitiful. They offered no rejoinder to the powerful 'soft-problem' argument, where the supposedly "non-physical" mind then somehow illogically and inexplicably interacts with the physical brain. How does this work again Dr. Alexander? Can you provide even the first sentence of such an explanation for us? In attempting to distinguish between the physical and non-physical the Cartesian dualist inevitably ends up digging his own grave, and as of yet, hasn't yet managed to find a successful way back out, and this is basic philosophy 101 folks. And of course a corollary to this is the fact that physical things, such as say, being 'physically' knocked unconscious, sedated, drunk, high, etc. all somehow affect the non-physical brain...hmmmmm, I wonder why that might be... Again, please explain Mr. Descartes, Dr. Alexander, Mad eye Moody, et al. how can a ghost get high, drunk, or knocked unconscious?

      Therein lies the power in such debates: the potential of showing just how ridiculous things are, in spite of the fact that they're paraded around as truth by a man with a PhD and an even more misleading bow tie.

    • Comment Link Helen Siciliano Friday, 09 May 2014 08:48 posted by Helen Siciliano

      It's hard to believe that learned men cannot accept that the mind is beyond the brain. I need no convincing as I experienced the Truth of the above fact. I did not almost die, however, it was after deep meditation that I noticed as I looked out the window that I was ONE with the blades of grass and the rocks in the road. I was enveloped in a LOVE I could not put into words. This Divine Love was in everything and in me. At the core of my being I was this LOVE and so was everyone else. In this higher state which I refer to as a state of grace, there was no right or wrong, no good or bad, no judgement whatsoever. Fear was non-existent! There was no death and I knew that we all live forever. Everyone I met was LOVE It did not matter what they looked like, behaved like. I was them and they were me. We are all connected. The utter JOY is indescribable. I knew we did not end at our fingertips. The PEACE and BLISS are beyond words. I became aware that a Presence other than what I usually think of as myself was looking through my eyes. I had become ONE with this INFINITE AWARENESS that simply sees without judgement. It is the very essence of life, eternal life. I wanted nothing, needed nothing. It was PEACE that passeth understanding. I pray that an NDE or mystical experience occurs to a skeptical scientist for only then could they be convinced that there is so much more to us than what our senses tell us. We are SPIRIT! Thank you. Helen

    • Comment Link David Sunfellow Thursday, 08 May 2014 18:20 posted by David Sunfellow

      Kevin Williams of provided a comprehensive list of resources pertaining to evidence supporting the survival of consciousness after death. Additional resources can be found on NHNE Pulse:

      NDEs Absolutely, Positively NOT Caused By Malfunctioning Brains

      Among other things, the Pulse resource page includes many provocative videos.

      NHNE Pulse also features a page on the Intelligence Squared debate, which includes background information on Dr. Raymond Moody and Dr. Eben Alexander:

    • Comment Link Alexander MacRae Thursday, 08 May 2014 17:55 posted by Alexander MacRae

      The phenomenon of Anomalous Acoustic Events is not even mentioned. This provides replicable physical evidence of intelligences outwith physical existence.

      I predict that within the next decade we will see how irrational the anti position was, and such debates as this will be so unimportant as to no longer attract much attention in the religiously tolerant world.

      And many of the antis will say, 'Well .. of course I knew it all along...

      Which is why I have got this substantial rsearch grant....'

    • Comment Link Lotta Thursday, 08 May 2014 17:36 posted by Lotta

      Have also had a NDE 30 years ago. When I read Dr. Alexander's book so I recognized so much. Though my experience was as clear as I remember it so well. I was in both worlds simultaneously.Now, I also write a book about this experience where I describe my thoughts and feelings in the experience. about how surprised I was when I saw myself lying on the floor. I also paint paintings judgment is wath. I saw when I was "dead." figures, landscape, light, and paintings of myself how it looked. In the book, I also write a lot about death and our strange relationship with the The book comes out this fall, will be called "The woman who met death." I hope you can read this because I'm not so good at English, (I'm from Sweden.) Unfortunately, I have had difficultyalso to read what you have written. But still little understood. Thought I wanted to write a comment for this topic is close to my heart. And I know that death is absolutely not the end but beginning of a new life in another place, another dimention or heaven. in my experience, it was the second dimention or heaven only 5 or 6 feet from the place I fell to the floor.I hope you can read this.

    • Comment Link Scott Moreland Thursday, 08 May 2014 16:34 posted by Scott Moreland

      The argument missing from both sides is the concept of the passage of time. If time is viewed as non-linear, and eternity is the same as timelessness, then we are all eternal insofar as if we ever existed we eternally exist. What if 'heaven' is no more than a timeless perception of being--like a filmstrip if you will? In a 'zero time' state, we are all eternal beings.

    • Comment Link Rusty Ashbaugh Thursday, 08 May 2014 16:15 posted by Rusty Ashbaugh

      I understand the “against” side claiming that Dr. Alexander’s experience was not rigorously monitored and documented, that his experience was the result of some residual brain function and that he may have been mistaken as to when it occurred during his coma. Fine, his belief that he had his experience without any neo-cortical activity may be challenged or questioned, but I found his description of a sister that he had never met to be very persuasive. The “against” side ignored this specific example of something that is inexplicable without accepting that his sister’s “spirit” or consciousness was communicating with him.

      The “against” side also ignored that so-called “shared” experiences, where people attending someone who is near death recount seeing spirits, apparitions, ghosts, or whatever you want to call them.

      The foundation of science is the information provided by our senses. If you conduct an experiment you ultimately have to accept the evidence provided by your senses – whether directly or through instrumentation. If your theory is to be connected to reality it cannot contradict the evidence of the senses. Too many people have had these experiences for this to be honestly denied or ignored. It may be difficult, now, to explain this scientifically, but what new area of science isn’t difficult to explain initially? As Dr. Novella stated we know there is gravity - even if we can't explain it.

      It is hypocritical to ask for evidence and then deny any provided in the name of science. This is not science – it is willful evasion of facts. Facts that they do not wish to consider.

    • Comment Link Charlton Thursday, 08 May 2014 15:28 posted by Charlton

      At 1:26:13 Dr. Alexander totally ham handedly misquotes Carl Sagan...

      “Perhaps one percent of the time, someone who has an idea that smells, feels, and looks indistinguishable from the usual run of pseudoscience will turn out to be right. Maybe some undiscovered reptile left over from the Cretaceous period will indeed be found in Loch Ness or the Congo Republic; or we will find artifacts of an advanced, non-human species elsewhere in the Solar System. 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 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;
      (3) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them.
      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.”

    • Comment Link Jayarava Thursday, 08 May 2014 15:28 posted by Jayarava

      I follow the blogs of both the speakers against the motion, and was against from the beginning. But it was interesting to hear the arguments for both sides put forward.

      It seems to me that the question boiled down to standards of evidence. On the For side the standard of evidence was clearly much lower. They relied on the 50 Million Elvis Fans Can't be wrong argument. But the research they presented doesn't pass muster. The evidence references by the Against side is far more broadly based, subject to scrutiny and rigorously tested.

      The best point the Against side made was the inability to begin to describe a mechanism for consciousness as a function of the brain. However their own argument suffers from this same weakness and to a much greater degree. They want to rewrite physics, but they don't say how. As for the idea that something new might come from philosophy I think this is delusional. Speculative philosophy of the kind the ancient Greeks did is not much better than theology. And the proponent of it sounded not only wishy-washy but confused.

      I study Buddhist afterlife beliefs as an independent Buddhist scholar with some peer reviewed articles. When I compared them to afterlife beliefs around the world I realised that the evidence for different kinds of afterlife is simply culturally determined. Christians and Buddhists cannot both be right, but they cite precisely the same kinds of evidence (and none of it falsifiable). Nor can the Against side be right at the same time as Buddhists. We Buddhists traditionally deny just that kind of afterlife.

      Like Sean I don't necessarily want to believe that death is final. But I think the evidence suggests that it is. The argument about memories is particularly strong. Damage the brain and you damage memory. Kill the brain and how does memory survive?

    • Comment Link amphianda  baskett Thursday, 08 May 2014 15:24 posted by amphianda baskett

      Very disappointed that the newest bit of validation of the NDE as a real experience was not mentioned, as surely both sides of the panel are aware of it… "Dr. Steven Laureys is a man who absolutely does not believe in life after death. A director at the Belgian National Fund of Scientific Research, he is firm that all NDEs can be explained away through physical phenomena. Nonetheless, his research into such experiences has thrown up some facts which are difficult to explain away.Chief among these is the “hyper-reality” of NDEs. When Laureys and his team set out to study the memory of these events, they expected to find they worked in the same way as dreams or hallucinations: becoming more faded as time went by. Instead, they found the exact opposite. Rather than become dull with age, they found that the memory of an NDE stayed vibrant and fresh no matter how much time had passed—to the extent that it completely eclipsed the memory of real events.This isn’t supposed to happen. Generally, the only memories that are meant to stay vibrant are the big ones—like your wedding day or the birth of your kids or watching the Twin Towers come down. These patients were unanimously reporting that their NDE was more vivid than all of that combined, with the added bonus that it never faded. They retained perfect recall of that moment, convinced they’d experienced a fragment of heaven. Dr. Laureys doesn’t believe this is anything supernatural. However, he does believe all of us probably go through this when we die: an experience of “heaven” more intense than anything we’ve felt in all our waking lives. In its own way, that might even count as an afterlife of sorts." - -This study and the results were published in the highly respected medical science journal THE LANCET. The results, to me, are fascinating especially because I myself had an NDE 25 years ago. The fact that the memories have and retain a quality of realism unlike any other categorical memory, and do not fade in the least with time, fits in perfectly and intriguingly with the reports from NDE's of timelessness in that realm. Also, it fits perfectly with the reports of NDE's that their NDE was more real than waking life. To me this study should only validate on the side of those who are in doubt of the NDE and all it implicates. Besides all of this, there is the common experience of an exponential expanse of rich knowledge, wisdom and feelings of love. The after effects of NDE's are so totally convincing in and of themselves. People who have had NDE's are forever changed, and most often they eschew religion, preferring a perspective of all inclusive love, forgiveness and unity for all of life. Their lifestyles are less destructive to themselves, others, and the planet, because of their changed perspective brought about by the NDE. Its all about LOVE. I, having experienced an NDE, need no convincing.

    • Comment Link Tim Thursday, 08 May 2014 13:56 posted by Tim

      Novella keeps asserting that all the features of the NDE can be reproduced by drugs and brain pathology and they can't. Drugs, seizures, electro magnetic stimulation, G-lock and all the rest are pale imitations of the profound NDE.

      Also his statement that there are no persuasive cases that demonstrate that the mind can function without the brain is also wrong. There are stacks of veridical experiences during cardiac arrest. Every single one has to be incorrectly interpreted ? Horse manure.

      Pull the other one, Steve bells on it

    • Comment Link Snod Thursday, 08 May 2014 13:42 posted by Snod

      There are few, if any, that have experienced an NDE and consider it to be "unreal." Direct experience trumps intellectual analysis - always. The same holds true for those that frequent the "out-of-body" state. It becomes apparent that "real" is relative to the experiencer but not relative to the reality itself or to the "stuff" of the reality.

      "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." -Albert Einstein

      The “hard problem” of consciousness is not hard at all. Our current paradigm is what makes it "hard." The idea that the earth was round was obviously wrong because the people on the bottom would fall off. Obviously, those folks were just missing some key info - gravity. In this case of NDEs, the missing bit of info is that consciousness is fundamental and everything else is derivative.

      "I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness." - Max Plank

      The idea that consciousness is fundamental is not a new idea, but it may still take some time to settle in. To quote Max Plank again:

      "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

      Those that have had experiences as consciousness while seemingly "apart" or "separate" from their body tend to side with the notion that consciousness continues after death, while those that have not had such experiences tend to claim that consciousness is a construct of the brain. That, in and of itself, is telling.

      The good news is that we don't have to almost die to experience what it is to exist and function as pure consciousness. Naturally, many will scoff at this, but then, they do so from a stance of limited experience - never having experienced it themselves.

      There are ways to begin accumulating direct experience with the matter and begin collecting your very own evidence - though it does require some courage, humility, and tenacity. Direct experience is the one way to find out for certain and to better assess the "hard problem." What better way to understand consciousness, than to start by getting to know your own?

    • Comment Link Thursday, 08 May 2014 13:10 posted by

      Such excellent comments (from what I've read), nicely extending the scope of the debate

    • Comment Link jeff olsen Thursday, 08 May 2014 13:08 posted by jeff olsen

      Dr. Raymond Moody mentioned an NDE involving medical staff who also experienced something paranormal during the NDE. Below is a link to the book containing the account:

    • Comment Link Iyace Thursday, 08 May 2014 12:46 posted by Iyace

      There is no afterlife and parapsychology is a pseudoscience

    • Comment Link Shirley Ryan Thursday, 08 May 2014 12:29 posted by Shirley Ryan

      Debating publicly is a very difficult thing to do, I concede that it is challenging. However, I was somewhat disappointed in the group's debate from both sides. The "pro" side, with whom I have the utmost respect, targeted the debate from their singular perspective of NDE, rather then working with the topic from many angles, and a more global perspective. There are many different routes to the afterlife, and tied together, more compelling arguments. I did my dissertation on consciousness, the "routes to the slip stream of consciousness" aka, the afterlife, which I am turning into a book. On the "con" side, their main thrust was that no one has proven that the Afterlife exists to their satisfaction. I believe they really "want" to believe. The tired examples they offered, was a perfect segue into challenges that were never met. (I agree, hard to think on your feet, not my strength either) Unfortunately, the pro side, while Dr. Moody alluded to it, didn't provide topics outside the paranormal box that would tie up the topic. Eg. Studies show through EEG's and other tests that consciousness resides outside the brain. Look for my book, Bridges to the Afterlife coming soon. Shirley Ryan, PhD, CCHt

    • Comment Link Shirley Moulton Thursday, 08 May 2014 12:25 posted by Shirley Moulton

      Attended the debate last night... good one. I stay open and believe that anything is possible in this mysterious and 'unknowing' life. The more I know the less I know. We really don't even know how we got the world began, so how can we say there is no life after death. All things are possible!

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