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 Dan Werner Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:43 posted by Dan Werner

      Sean Carroll and Steven Novella deserve the win here, as they did a much better job arguing their case, though I still disagree with their conclusion.

      Carl Sagan did not say in the Demon Haunted World that the evidence for reincarnation was "overwhelming" as Eben Alexander stated, merely it merited further investigation.

      It is true that Gary Schwartz's Afterlife Experiments were picked apart by skeptics, but Julie Beischel carries on the work and improved methods and protocols. It is strong evidence in support of the afterlife hypothesis. Her work can be found at the Windbride Institute.

      The evidence for precognition and telepathy have been demonstrated repeatably in the laboratory. The effect size is relatively small, but it is larger than the effect size of aspirin in preventing a heart attack.

    • Comment Link Zazoo Bells Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:39 posted by Zazoo Bells

      I looked up the reference to Carl Sagan's _The Demon Haunted World_ that was made by Dr. Alexander. It was in fact not true.

    • Comment Link Joao Lourenco Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:36 posted by Joao Lourenco

      In the online voting results "For the Motion" won.

    • Comment Link antny war Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:31 posted by antny war

      Was a ghost story really used as evidence. Are all the 'fors' also creationists

    • Comment Link ardian Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:29 posted by ardian

      Beyond reality we human beings can't abolish the other dimensions whom even scientists aren't scientifically assured in existing but they have made an theory a string theory in this theory they postulated an 11 dimensional of reality that we might living. Second most astonishing is with photons, electron they behavior they behave in two states of matter and wave in meantime. So why u dot be alive that is afterlife

    • Comment Link Francisco Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:25 posted by Francisco

      Carl Sagan NEVER said that. I have that book in front of me and page 302 talks about questioning everything, that's it!
      Stop making up facts!

    • Comment Link Brandon Osborn Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:23 posted by Brandon Osborn

      What about Michael Persinger's "god helmet" which induces near death and out of body experiences?

    • Comment Link Brendan Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:22 posted by Brendan

      From Sagan's "Wonder and Skepticism" keynote speech:

      "Raymond Moody, who is an M.D., I think, an author who writes innumerable books on life after death, actually quoted me in the first chapter of his latest book, saying that I heard my parents calling me Carl, and so, look, even he believes in life after death. This badly misses my point. If this is one of the arguments from Chapter 1 of the latest book of a principal exponent of life after death, I suspect that despite our most fervent wishes, the case is weak."

    • Comment Link Cheryl Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:18 posted by Cheryl

      At 5:30 am while sound asleep I suddenly saw my grown son's face. Tears were flowing down his face. He said "Mom, help me." As I reached for his hand my father who died in 1963 suddenly appeared and slapped my hand hand away. He said to me Don't worry, he's fine, I've got him. As I looked at the background I found myself looking at a beautiful green countryside setting like where we used to have family reunions and everyone was dressed up and happy. I was standing on a green piece of ground and there was a huge drop between the two places. My father said it's not your turn to come here yet. And I woke up rather shaken. At 12:30pm that afternoon I received a phone call from the police in California telling me my son had died. I asked what time. They said sometime between 3:30PCT(5:30EDST) and maybe 5:30. They'd know more after the autopsy. I was dead folks. I wasn't sick. In fact I was running for Congress. But in 1968 my 2 oldest daughters had been killed in a fire. I truly I was allowed this glimpse to allow me to remain somewhat sane for the rest of my life. And I thank my Creator for that comforting glimpse. Heaven is real. Been lucky enough to get a glimpse.

    • Comment Link MalWils Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:16 posted by MalWils

      I was waiting for someone to stand up and yell, "I have Carl Sagan's book, so we're no longer in an impasse."

    • Comment Link Jason Boris Wednesday, 07 May 2014 20:02 posted by Jason Boris

      They are talking about heaven and hell, but those are a Christian concepts.

    • Comment Link Graham Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:43 posted by Graham

      The fact that this debate is happening really sums up the problems with people. why would a person trying to argue against fundamental laws of physics be given an open forum to debate with someone why has spent their life studying it. its moronic to give this man an equal footing for fairness sake just because its got a religious backdrop. if this was a debate about computer security you would not allow a random conspiracy theorist to argue with some computer security specialist just to be fair because one has spent their life learning this stuff and the other is just a lunatic who thinks stuff is real when its not.

    • Comment Link Ivan Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:42 posted by Ivan

      A vital answer to every person should be: Are you a Christian?

    • Comment Link BarbaraB Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:41 posted by BarbaraB

      I am an NDEr and returned from my cardiac arrest in 1987, to tell the neurosurgeon, orthopedic surgeon, and medical staff in the room EXACTLY and ACCURATELY what they'd said and done while I was flatlining, including witnessing and describing the precordial thump procedure that restarted my heart. I was not under anesthesia, I was having a Myelogram and the xray tech mistakenly tipped the xray table in the wrong direction, causing the iodine dye to flood my brain, rather than to successfully travel down my spinal cord so that xrays could detect any spinal cord damage, prior to a laminectomy/diskectomy surgery that was scheduled for the next morning. You can read about my experience on the NDE Research Foundation website (Google "Barbara B NDE 3389"). I was actually dead for a number of minutes, so my experience could more accurately be called a Death Experience.

      During my NDE, I was located above my body, on the ceiling, and I immediately felt the presence of a spiritual being next to me. I felt very connected to this being, as though they'd been with me throughout this life, and also beyond it, and I strongly felt the being had the ability to allow me to return to my life. I call this being God, for I lack any other adequate term. I conveyed to the being that I wished to return, as I had an infant daughter and young son, but also felt strongly, in those moments on the ceiling, that I had not completed my "life purpose". I watched, from above, as the orthopedic surgeon struck my chest with his fist (precordial thump), and immediately found myself back in my body, extremely happy to have been allowed to return to my life!
      My consciousness was constant, from my body, to the ceiling, and back to my body again. I shocked the entire resuscitation team by immediately, and completely accurately, recounting everything that I had just watched happen to my body from my "on the ceiling" vantage point.

      There absolutely is a continuation of consciousness beyond the point of death. Death is not final!

    • Comment Link Martha Wharton Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:39 posted by Martha Wharton

      My brain was fried with bruising throughout most and bleeding in the corpus callosum.However, my mind was completely in tact. I KNEW I was what I was unable to do. Anyone with severe TBI will tell you that, when they are finally able. My brain wasnt able to form words, sentences correctly but my mind could think them, my soul remembered things my brain did not. Accessing the soul is what allowed the brain to heal so quickly. Physical recovery took much longer.

    • Comment Link sonia Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:38 posted by sonia

      I am trying to believe in life after death as I lost members of my family including my beautiful son I would like to think we will be together again We can debate all we like but at the end of the day we are mere mortals and will not know for sure until we depart fom this world

    • Comment Link Hayward Withers Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:36 posted by Hayward Withers

      If the mind is created by the brain - when the brain is not functioning the mind also is "turned off" - but the flip side of that is the mind can be lost (dead) but this mind "comes back" if the brain starts functioning again. I.e. if we could repair a dead man's brain his mind would also be re-created.

      So is it possible for a young new brain to develop, by chance, into a replica of some previously dead man's brain - then doesn't that person then become the mind of the man who previously died?

    • Comment Link Torre Mastroianni Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:31 posted by Torre Mastroianni

      Case of woman's being brain dead and having a life after death experience.

    • Comment Link Steve Fleming Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:27 posted by Steve Fleming

      Apparitions seen by bystanders are probably made up by the mind/brain at a HIGHLY charged moment when we are highly emotional as a loved one is dying. We want to hold on to them at all costs.

    • Comment Link Ben Wednesday, 07 May 2014 19:23 posted by Ben

      Useful articles - K. Ring and S. Cooper, "Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind: A Study of Apparent Eyeless Vision," Journal of Near-Death Studies 16 (1998): 101-47:

      The Ketamine false analogy for NDEs has been covered in van Lommel (2006):

      see also, fro refutation of objections, a 2013 Journal of Consciousness Studies article (van Lommel, P. (2013). Non-local consciousness: A concept based on scientific research on near-death experiences during cardiac arrest. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20, 7-48.) - search "hallucination" in it for some important revelations:

      Michael shermer famously misrepresented van Lommel:

      For some rebuttal to Augustine, see:
      See also, "Do Prevailing Societal Models Influence Reports of Near-Death Experiences? A Comparison of Accounts Reported Before and After 1975":

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