Sunday, June 12, 2016

Near Death Experiences

Father Robert Spitzer talks about near death experiences a lot. There are some fascinating stories. Many of them have been rigorously investigated by credible scientists and published in peer reviewed journals. Yet the evidence gets ignored. Why is that? Even Christians tend to be very hesitant to go there. I feel weird about it to. I am not immune to whatever stigma our culture places over these stories. There are a few people who talk about them a lot and most people talk about them never. So the few become labelled somehow as strange. Nobody wants to be labelled that way.

Fr Spitzer approaches the data well. First of all he puts the near-death experiences in the context of other evidence for the transcendent. This is one set of data that we have that can tell us something about the relationship we have with our bodies. It is not the only data. He brings in many other thinkers that argue in very different ways for the existence of something beyond the physical world. 

Secondly he does not lean just on one story. There are stories like Heaven Is For Real that can make us think. Yet you don't want to give such an anecdote too much power over your life. The studies Fr Spitzer refers to take many examples and scrutinise them heavily. It is amazing how many of them stand up. People give detailed accounts of things that happened when they were clinically dead and have these observations confirmed independently. Sometime they observe things in other hospital rooms or even outside. Sometimes blind people see. These things are not just one example but many similar stories. A non-trivial number of people who are near death have something like this happen.

Thirdly, he does not try and conclude too much from it. A lot of times you see people jump right from "this strange thing happened" to "you have to become a Christian." He does not go there. He is very careful to analyse exactly what this proves. The idea of consciousness when the person's brain activity is being measured at zero. The notion that people seem to see and hear without their eyes or ears. Just wrestling with how unscientific that all sounds but the data is reproducible. 

He particularly questions those who believe that all consciousness and morality and faith and meaning can be explained fully by biological processes in the brain. The biology can be reduced to chemistry. The chemistry can be reduced to physics. That leaves everything completely determined by the laws of physics. No room for any sort of free choice. That has huge philosophical implications. He sees this as pretty strong evidence on the other side. Not the only evidence but some solid data that seems hard to explain from that perspective. 

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