One of the things that amuses me in “science vs. religion” debates (in quotation marks because I think that’s a false dichotomy, like have a debate between Superman and pizza) is the overblown rhetoric coming from the supposedly objective, rational, empirical side. (I’m sure the theists do it too, but they’re supposed to be the emotional hotheads, so it’s not as ironic.)
For example, in discussing evolutionary biology and Intelligent Design, you will hear things like, “the Darwinian theory of common descent is as well-established as the law of gravity,” which is insane.
Another typical example goes like this: “I do not reject the existence of God out of hand, and in that weak sense I’m an agnostic, not an atheist. I can’t prove there is no God. But if he does exist, why isn’t there a shred of evidence?”
On this blog, I’ve brought up things like the fine-tuning argument, the unexpected beauty of mathematics, my own personal experiences (which I realize shouldn’t convince any of you guys much, but they were certainly evidence to me), as well as the whole legacy of a guy named Jesus thing. But how about these two recent items instead?
==> An account from a neurosurgeon who had an out-of-body experience while in a coma. An excerpt:
As a neurosurgeon, I did not believe in the phenomenon of near-death experiences. I grew up in a scientific world, the son of a neurosurgeon…I understand what happens to the brain when people are near death, and I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death.
Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief. I didn’t begrudge those who wanted to believe that Jesus was more than simply a good man who had suffered at the hands of the world. I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.
In the fall of 2008, however, after seven days in a coma during which the human part of my brain, the neocortex, was inactivated, I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.
I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history. But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma. [Bold added.]
===> But that’s just another anecdote, from a self-professed believer, right? So how about this NPR interview with the scientist who studied many such reports?
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. What happens when we die – wouldn’t we all like to know? We can’t bring people back from the dead to tell us but in some cases, we almost can. Resuscitation medicine is now sometimes capable of reviving people after their hearts have stopped beating and their brains have flat lined. And some of those people report being conscious during the period after their heart stopped, before they’ve been restarted.
These experiences are popularly known as near-death experiences. But my guest, Dr. Sam Parnia, prefers to call them after-death experiences. He’s a critical-care doctor who is the director of resuscitation research at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine. He’s conducting research into optimal cardiac arrest care, and into the experiences some cardiac arrest patients report they have brought back from the other side of death.
[PARNIA:] Now, what we study is not people who are near death. We study people who have objectively died. These people have been dead for tens, sometimes hours – tens of minutes and sometimes hours of time. And therefore, what we’ve understood is that the experience that these people have of going beyond the threshold of death, entering the period after death for the first few minutes, tens of minutes or hours of time, provides us with an indication of what we’re all likely to experience when we go through death.
And that’s why I call these an actual death experience, because the physiology and the biology of the human brain is very well-studied, it’s very well-understood, and it’s standardized, which means that we can study it in a scientific fashion.
And what I find most fascinating about the experiences are the cases where people have come back and described to their physicians, with astonishing detail, of what had been going on. And they described watching things, and described hearing conversations – and recalling them incredibly accurately.
GROSS: When you say what had been going on, you mean going on in the hospital room after the patient’s heart had stopped, while doctors were trying to resuscitate them?
PARNIA: Absolutely. So they may describe events that were going on while they were being resuscitated. They may describe events that were going on outside their room, family members’ conversations that were going on that were not even in the room they were in, but things that have been verified.
And although a lot of people had traditionally tended to discard these experiences – and possibly for the right reasons because we didn’t have a science to explain it. But if you look at it scientifically, there are now millions and millions of people around the world who have had these experiences, sometimes children less than 3 years old, who have had very accurate descriptions of what was going on that were similar to what adults have described. And therefore, it’s important for scientists like ourselves to bring them into the mainstream and study these objectively.
The general trend of what they describe, aside from the sensation of being very peaceful, is seeing a bright light; sometimes a very warm, welcoming, loving being that they describe as being full of compassion, that guides them through their lives. They often describe having a review of their lives, everything that they had done from early childhood to that point. And interestingly, the way they describe their review is very much like they experience, sometimes, everything that they had done. So for instance, if they had hurt somebody’s feelings, even inadvertently, without purpose, they feel the pain that they had given somebody else. And therefore, they judge themselves, in effect, and their actions. And that’s why when they come back, many of them are motivated to lead their lives in a completely different way. I remember one person who said that, I particularly wanted to make sure that I don’t fail again; and I want to make sure that I at least end up with a C, when I get back there again. [Bold added.]
I submit that there is far more objective, “scientific” evidence of an afterlife than there is of many things that atheists believe in without hesitation. And for that last part I put in bold, let’s recall what I said about such matters on this very blog, when I wrote:
Suppose for the sake of argument then when you die, there is indeed an afterlife. You are still conscious. However, you suddenly have access to all of history; you can contemplate, in one fell swoop, every event in the universe, from the moment of its creation to its destruction.
Now, from that newfound perspective–which is so far beyond our current abilities that we can barely even talk about it, let alone really imagine what it would feel like–you become acutely aware of the ramifications of people’s free choices. There are obvious things, of course, like seeing the effect of Karl Marx putting his views down on paper, when history might have unfolded very differently if he had written commercial jingles instead.
But there’s more. You realize, to your absolute horror and astonishment, how much extra misery YOU brought into the world. Even if you thought you were a “good person,” the effects of your relative slips were that much more severe. You see that when you were in a bad mood one morning, and honked on your horn unnecessarily when a lady cut you off in traffic, that set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to a bicyclist getting paralyzed 8 minutes later.
Can we admit that that was a pretty good guess that I had? I had never heard of that from others; that was “my” idea (in quotation marks because I actually thought it was inspired at the time the notion occurred to me, and I really do mean that it “felt different” from how I come up with thoughts about overlapping generation models or Say’s Law).
Finally: I hardly expect this blog post to change anyone’s mind on the ultimate question of whether there is God or an afterlife. But can we at least stop saying, “There’s no evidence for your irrational beliefs.”? There’s a bunch of evidence, it’s just that many atheists apparently can’t even see it.