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Book Review: Science and the Near-Death Experience - How Consciousness Survives Death

I started Chris Carter's new book on near-death experiences some months ago, and got half-way through before events forced me to stop. Frustrating not to be able to write about it then, and I'm guessing that most Paranormalia readers will by now be well familiar with it from reviews elsewhere. But here are my thoughts, for what they're worth. 

Carter's previous book Parapsychology and the Skeptics was a welcome attempt to redress the balance against the decidedly uncritical criticisms made by some high-profile sceptics. (My review is here).  It was deservedly well-received, not least by parapsychologists who are at the receiving end of their assaults. Having an interest in this area myself I've long felt that parapsychology needed to speak up for itself a bit more firmly.  Of course psi-researchers and their supporters complain about the way their work is trivialised and misrepresented. But there's a need for people outside the field to assess the arguments and clarify the issues for a wider public. In that regard I'd say the expectations raised by Carter's earlier book have been exceeded here.

Carter first clear away some conceptual difficulties with survival of consciousness, specifically the proposition - accepted by the great majority of scientists and intellectuals today - that the mind is a product solely of brain functions. 

I've often wondered at the insistence on this. Experiences with mescaline in my student days - including trips that turned out a lot more intense than I'd anticipated - brought home to me just how very particular our every-day consciousness actually is. As I later discovered, this was the insight that William James arrived at after experimenting with nitrous oxide: consciousness comes in different guises, and what we humans experience could well be just one of them. His conclusion - shared by thinkers like Ferdinand Schiller, Henri Bergson and Aldous Huxley - was that the brain does not create consciousness from scratch but filters and regulates that great Consciousness out there - Mind at Large, Huxley called it - to a form that works for human needs.  

To me this seemed to fit with evidence that impairments to the brain - epilepsy and schizophrenia, just to take two examples - are often the source of mystical or religious feelings, not to mention the effects of hallucinogens themselves.   Of course the materialist view of the mind-brain problem is dominant for all sorts of reasons, but I was puzzled how little consideration this alternative 'transmission' view of consciousness receives. It's hardly discussed anywhere; the publication of the Kellys' Irreducible Mind recently was the first time I had seen it given serious consideration. So it's good to see Carter focusing on it so fully, and exposing the theoretical difficulties with the 'production' model.

Carter is good at exposing the logical fallacy of materialist philosophers assuming a functional dependence of consciousness on the brain that in fact has never and nowhere been demonstrated. I especially appreciated his dismantling of Paul Edwards's argument relating to Alzheimer's.  Edwards insists, on the basis of observing a friend with the disease, that the implications of the survivalist position is that inside she remained her normal self, but was simply unable to express it. As Carter firmly points out this is a 'crude caricature', and when Edwards suggests it is 'perfectly natural' to argue that a person's mind has deteriorated with age, the correct response is that all sorts of observations that once seemed 'perfectly natural' in fact turned out to be wildly mistaken (for instance the proposition that the sun goes round the earth).

'It is testimony to the desperation of the materialists and the weakness of their case,' Carter suggests, 'that one of the strongest arguments Edwards can invoke for his cause is that "the annihilation theory is completely consistent" with what he feels it is "perfectly natural to say."

I was also glad to see Carter's exposition of neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield's work, again tackling the objections of Edwards along the way. In operations aimed at curing epilepsy Penfield discovered that electrical stimulation of certain areas of the cortex would produce in the patient very lively and detailed memories.  Sceptics have sometimes produced this as evidence that the panoramic flashbacks reported by near-death experiencers are the effect of the dying brain - the memories being lodged in the brain tissue.  But Penfield himself eventually decided that these sorts of investigative methods provided no good evidence that the brain alone can carry out the work of the mind, and he became personally convinced that it does not. 

Carter then dives into the history of science, describing the development of classical physics, to which he sees the scientific establishment still firmly wedded while it largely ignores the implications of modern quantum mechanics.

The point here is to demonstrate that quantum theory provides a potential gateway to viewing the brain as interacting with an external source of mind. Again, it's good to see this subject grasped in a philosophical analysis so firmly and authoritatively, as it's one that few parapsychologists - Dean Radin is a notable exception - have much concerned themselves with. (In conversation with the late Bob Morris, head of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University, I once mentioned that I intended to get to grips with the arguments of Evan Harris Walker. 'Good luck with that!' was Bob's curt response.)

Walker makes an appearance here, as does the quantum physicist Henry Stapp, who has remarked:

The only objections I know to applying the basic principles of orthodox contemporary physics to brain dynamics are, first, the forcefully expressed opinions of some non-physicists that the classical approximation provides an entirely adequate foundation for understanding mind-brain dynamics, in spite of quantum calculations that indicate just the opposite; and second, the opinions of some conservative physicists, who, apparently for philosophical reasons, contend that the successful orthodox quantum theory, which is intrinsically dualistic, should be replaced by a theory that re-converts human consciousness into a causally inert witness to the mindless dance of atoms, as it was in 1900. Neither of these opinions has any rational basis in contemporary science.

It was good, too, to see Carter tackling Daniel Dennett, whose book Consciousness Explained has been hugely influential in reinforcing the materialist conception of mind and brain recently, as Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind was back in the 1950s. Dennett, it appears, offered a hostage to fortune in basing his rejection on dualism firmly on the apparent violation of the principle of conservation of energy.  Henry Stapp brushes this aside, pointing out that the Dennett is basing his argument on classical physics, and that the objection disappears in contemporary physics. 'Contemporary physical theory allows, and its orthodox von Neumann form entails, an interactive dualism that is fully in accord with all the laws of physics,' Stapp insists - a message that Carter's quite full analysis drives home.

The second part of the book gets down to the NDE research. It capably describes the phenomenon with full reference to specific cases, identifies the challenges to orthodox scientific thinking and picks off the sceptical objections. I particularly appreciated Carter's skewering of research by Michael Persinger that purports to show most of the NDE features being artificially created by means of electromagnetic stimulation. I have long wondered at the ability of sceptics to see in these rather weak phenomena a significant and illuminating parallel to the far more dramatic reports made by near-death experiencers, showing as they do little or nothing of the latters' clarity, intensity and transformative effect.

Carter reproduces Persinger's own table of effects, which - with sensations of dizziness, tingling and vibrations, all more or less absent from NDE research, topping the list - shows how unwarranted the comparison actually is. Yet more interesting is the failure of a Swedish team to replicate his findings. Even using his own equipment it found no effect whatsoever; suggestible subjects reported strange experiences whether or not they were actually receiving a current.  The study surely deserves to be quoted by sceptics in their discussions of 'pathological science' along with landmark examples such as Blondlot's mythical N-Rays, although I somehow doubt that it will be.

I wondered whether Carter would respond to the recent cavils of NDE sceptics who creatively come up with loopholes that subvert the conclusions of dedicated researchers without really explaining anything (for a typically tetchy discussion see this comments thread on Paranormalia.) I think he is wise to pay them no particular attention. Instead he provides very full descriptions of key arguments and cases and addresses the key objections, leaving it up to us as readers and observers to judge the validity or otherwise of sceptical nit-picking.

Personally, I'd find it hard - after reading his very full account of the celebrated Pam Reynolds's case, for instance - to sympathise with the argument that a woman in surgery, anesthetized and unconscious, her eyes taped shut, micro-speakers in her ears emitting a stream of clicks at 100 decibels, could accurately have described the instrument with which her skull was being sawed open (apparently from an out-of-body perspective), by means of 'hearing and background knowledge, perhaps coupled with the reconstruction of memory'. This sort of thing leaves one thinking that the determined sceptic can believe absolutely anything.

Two qualities stand out in this treatment: clarity and confidence. The clarity with which some quite difficult philosophical and scientific concepts are elucidated, and their relevance demonstrated, and the confidence with which the challenges of sceptics are confronted and answered. As I think has been said by other people, I wish Carter's books had been around when I first started trying to figure out this stuff.  It's not that there aren't some great books around, but to the beginner especially, the dismissals of sceptics and the absolute certainty with which they are expressed - NDEs are obviously "hallucinatory wishful-thinking experiences" and so on - can create a great deal of confusion.  It needs a strong logical mind with a good grasp of the totality of the research to provide proper guidance.

As to whether the phenomenon provides proof of survival of death, this is more implied than actually stated. In the absence of alternative candidates - the sceptics' counter-explanations having been examined and rejected - survival does seem all-but-certain. However more detail specific to this subject will doubtless be provided in Carter's third and final book of the series, which will deal with children's memories of a previous life, apparitions and channelled communications. These offer all sorts of challenges, and it will be fascinating to see Carter's take on them.

Comments

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A quite simply excellent review Robert.

Very good summary and analysis, Robert.

Regarding the Pam Reynolds case, I don't think it's been conclusively established that Pam was hearing the clicks throughout her procedure. There is some question of whether the clicks were played intermittently or constantly. One reason to play them intermittently might be to prevent permanent hearing damage, since the clicks were so loud.

I disagree slightly about whether Chris Carter should have responded to some of the more current skeptical arguments. Of course it's not possible to address every criticism, but I would have liked to see a little more engagement with some of the most recent critiques.

This quibble aside, I found the book very worthwhile, and I hope your review helps it to find an even wider audience.

As it is Dr Woerlee and I got into about the Pam Reynold's case.

The clicks were playing constantly, it was necessary for the procedure.

Here is the link with mine and Woerlee's debate on this.

http://www.amazon.com/review/R2PDWUDNGPXJT3/ref=cm_cr_pr_cmt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0061777250&nodeID=&tag=&linkCode=#wasThisHelpful

Hi Kris,

I've read your online dust-up with Dr. Woerlee, but I didn't see any citation for the statement that the clicks were continuous throughout the entire procedure. They may well have been, and Dr. Woerlee seems to suggest as much when he says Pam must have heard the song "Hotel California" over the clicks when she was coming out of anesthesia. But I don't know if there is any definitive statement by the medical personnel who handled the surgery. Maybe there is such a statement, and I've forgotten it.

I do find Dr. Woerlee's style of reasoning very odd. At one point he says that obviously Pam must have been able to hear conversations over the clicks, because she reported hearing them in her OBE/NDE! This of course completely misses the point, since the whole argument revolves around whether she heard the conversations via her physical senses or via some paranormal means. He also insists that of course she was conscious during anesthesia or she couldn't have had the perceptions she later reported. Again, this misses the point, since what we need to know is what kind of consciousness (normal or paranormal) she was exhibiting.

I think until the "skeptics" can produce a statement saying the clicks were not continuous it makes most sense to think they were. This would make most sense of the surgery, after all the point of the clicks was to monitor brain activity. I think if the "skeptics" could have found any evidence of it by now Augustine would have brought it to everyones attention. Certainly his mentor Woerlee would have brought that argument against me if he felt it would work. As it is he pretty much threw everything including the kitchen sink at me in that discussion.

Yes Woerlee is an odd duck. He does not understand the fallacy of circular reasoning at all! He really sees no problem with Pam hearing as she did!

Well done, Robert: a concise overview of an excellent book. Here's hoping Carter's comprehensive and well-reasoned arguments compel a furtherance of research and understanding into psi, the nature of mind, and the continuation of consciousness beyond the death of the body. Like you, I'm all anticipation in awaiting the author's next installment.

I was especially pleased that you chose to highlight Chris Carter's analysis of Daniel Dennett's misguided thoughts on the nature of thoughts (could his book "Consciousness Explained" possibly be MORE mistitled?). The History of Science is a history brimming with the authoritative dismissals by officially-credentialed experts who, time and again, proved to be unutterably wrong regarding what is or isn't possible. As author Carter's efforts (and those of many others) demonstrate, History continues to repeat.

'The History of Science is a history brimming with the authoritative dismissals by officially-credentialed experts who, time and again, proved to be unutterably wrong regarding what is or isn't possible.'

Well said.

-Meta

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