A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest
physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by
his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a
loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself
moving very rapidly through a long, dark tunnel. After
this, he finds himself outside of his own physical body…
Soon, other things begin to happen. Others come to meet
and help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and
friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit
of a kind he has never encountered before--a being of
light—appears before him…. (and) presents to the person
a panoramic review of his life…The review, almost
always described as a display of visual imagery, is
incredibly vivid and real. *
The above description of a paradigmatic Near Death Experience (NDE) is taken from Raymond Moody’s 1975 book, Life After Life. Moody is a medical doctor who has also earned a Ph.D. in philosophy. He coined the phrase “Near Death Experience” and for almost fifty years has continued to study the phenomenon. In the debate I recently watched, Moody, of course, supported the proposition that death is not final.
Joining and supporting him in the debate was Dr. Eben Alexander, a renowned neurosurgeon whose 2012 book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, was on the New York Times’ non-fiction bestseller list for over a year.
* (For a naturalistic explanation of the life review, click HERE.)
Opposing the proposition were Sean Carroll and Steven Novella. Carrol is a physicist and author who has taught at Harvard University and is presently on the faculty of the California Institute of Technology. His debate partner, Steven Novella, is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He’s also the host and producer of a popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.
The debate itself was sponsored by the Intelligence Squared Foundation. It may be viewed in its entirety on the the Wondrium site (which offers a free trial subscription.) Complete closing arguments can be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.
In his opening statement, Moody, of course, summarized the results of his decades-long study of NDEs; and Eben Alexander recounted his own personal NDE. In 2008, Alexander—at the time a “reductive materialist”—fell gravely ill with a meningococcal infection that destroyed the functionality of his neo-cortex and even almost shut down the activity of his brain stem. Astonishingly, Eben Alexander not only survived, but made a complete recovery. He has vivid memories of visiting an ultra-real realm of joy and love while he was effectively brain dead. This, he maintains, is evidence of an after-life.
Sean Carrol presents himself as a naturalist who believes in one natural world, the subject of scientific investigation. He reminds us that the human brain constructs its picture of reality and may often be mistaken in what it perceives. He doesn’t doubt that Eben Alexander had the experience of an ultra-real realm but doubts that Alexander’s experience corresponds to anything real. He reminds us that anecdotal experiences are notoriously unreliable and that brains under stress can concoct deceptive experiences. And Carrol asks how an immaterial soul or spirit could possibly interact with a material brain.
Novella asserts that the mind is the product of brain processes and that when the brain is changed or damaged, that change is reflected in the mind. So, when the brain is dead, the mind or “soul” is also dead. Novella asks if we really want to cast aside the scientific paradigm of the brain in favor of NDEs. With Carrol, he maintains that we can’t really know what activity was occurring in Eben Alexander’s supposedly dead brain. Perhaps parts of his neo-cortex were still working and capable of imagining an ultra-real realm. Alternatively, perhaps Alexander’s images of “Heaven” arose during his recovery when the neo-cortex was again beginning to function.
Well, in the IQ2 format, the audience votes before and after the debate. Whichever side receives the highest percentage of vote changes is declared the winner. In this debate, the initial vote was 37% for the proposition that death is not final, 31% against, and 32% undecided. In the second vote, 42% agreed with the proposition while 46% voted for the finality of death. Thus, the Carrol-Novella team won.
Who do I think won? I’m not sure, but—from my Catholic Church days—I can’t forget the last line of the Nicene Creed. “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Of course, that statement is dogma, the product of faith, and wouldn’t win many points in a debate.
~ Richard Russell
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