The Essential Nuttiness of Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Supernatural

There's a new argument some Christians are trumpeting about. I heard an old “Infidel Guy Show” featuring Dr. Gary Habermas recently, and he suggests that near death experiences or NDEs are somehow evidence that there is a supernatural world.

This of course is nutty. First of all, Christians believe that all death experiences are near death, since they believe everyone will be resurrected at some point, and that Lazarus could come back to life after 3 days, Jesus could come back to life after slightly more than 36 hours, Jairus' daughter could come back to life ... and so on.

That a Christian would believe that any death is permanent gives the lie to their stated belief system.

None of the NDEs that they use as evidence these days are nearly so clear cut however, we certainly don't have a Lazarus in the bunch. These stories relate anecdotes of people having knowledge of things they couldn't have known unless they were having an out-of-body experience. One common example is of a woman in Seattle named only “Maria” who claims to have seen a tennis shoe on a hospital roof. The interesting thing about this story is that there is only one witness, and that witness is a social worker, Kimberly Clark Sharp who also had an NDE and who feels that Maria's tale was so compelling she started a foundation to study NDEs called IANDS. Obviously she's the paragon of objectivity though.

However, even this is also nutty. It's time for Christians who believe NDEs are evidence for Christianity to come clean.

First they need to explain exactly what the theory of the soul is. They may say that the soul is an entirely non-physical spiritual entity that is separate from the body. If so, they are obliged to explain what happens to it when someone undergoes anesthesia, or is in a coma, or simply falls asleep? Why then does their soul not show them things while it was out and and about? If it doesn't go out during other losses of consciousness why is the soul coming out during near death? What specific triggers allow a soul to come out of the body and how can they be reproduced?

Second, they need to explain where the soul is going. Is it going to heaven? Where is that? What rate should a soul travel at to reach it? Why do souls always go up? The direction to a fixed point that is not on the earth should vary significantly depending on the time of day, location on the globe, and the season – in fact if heaven is a location, by definition something between 40% and 50% of souls going there should go through the earth and we should be getting reports of veins of gold underneath hospitals as well.

If heaven is indeed a location – can we find it?

Third, they need to explain what mode of interface the soul uses to re-inject its spiritual knowledge back into the brain after the NDE and explain how this is impossible for the soul to do during other losses of consciousness -- head trauma, sleep, anesthesia, etc.

Finally, if Christianity, Hinduism, Islam or any other dominant religion is true, than actual, verifiable near death experiences should result in all people having them affirming the truth of the one true religion, why is this not the case?

I eagerly await the responses of Dr. Gary Habermas, or his boosters. However, pseudoscientific drivel usually just brings out more speculative idiocy, so I'm not optimistic.

In the interests of fairness, however, here's my explanation: Near death experiences are the properties of brains. Like deja vu and other consciousness related neural phenomena, they are primary reactions of the areas of the brain that create consciousness to specific stimuli (in this case hypoxia). The areas involved are primarily the superior and inferior colliculi, the peri-aqueductal grey, and certain other areas of the mesodiencephalon.

If my explanation is true, then under rigorous conditions, people undergoing near death experience should not become aware of any facts that they could not otherwise learn and should not be able to immediately recall them on returning to consciousness.

A simple test would be to place rotating images of seventy common animals on screens above emergency room areas where patients are resuscitated. The screens would be turned toward the ceiling. These images would rotate on a one per minute basis, controlled by a central computer. No member of the ER staff should know the purpose of the screens, what images were on the screens, or that the study was being done in regard to NDEs. Patients should be interviewed by disinterested 3rd parties shortly (within 1 hour) after regaining consciousness after a resuscitation. According to some figures about 12% of patients who are resuscitated will have an NDE.

After resuscitation, patients would be asked simply if they recalled the experience. These recollections could be compared to logs for the resuscitation and an independent 4th party could compare them to the logs of images for given beds in that room. Statistical tests could then be done to determine if any accurate responses were due to more than random chance, the study shouldn't take longer than 10 years given the 12% figure above.

My prediction is that patients will properly identify the situation in the room only rarely (there is a screen above the bed), and only by random chance will they correctly identify the animal image(s) that was/were present at the time they were having their arrest.

In addition, my prediction is that more than 99% of patients with NDEs will “travel up” and “see” things that are above their beds in relation to the earth and that less than 1% will “go down” and report seeing the basement or lower floors of the hospital.