Near-death experiences

Christian author Bryan Appleyard writes an article for The Sunday Times which argues that near-death experiences (NDEs) are evidence that the mind can be separated from the brain, and there actually is an afterlife.

Bryan refers to the “consistency and clarity of these [NDE] reports across cultures and time zones,” which is misleading, not only because people of different religions see different religious figures in NDEs, but as Carol Zaleski detailed, “through her comparative studies of medieval and modern NDEs, many features of these experiences vary in ways that correspond to cultural expectations. A striking instance of this is the minimal role played by judgment and damnation in modern NDEs; unlike the medieval cases, the modern life-review tends to be therapeutic in emphasis. In view of this, Zaleski ascribes the experiences to the religious imagination.”

As Appleyard himself points out, “all the evidence [for NDEs] remains anecdotal, and even the most impressive stories…tend to look less convincing on closer examination.” Moreover, as Michael Shermer explains, the hallucination of flying is triggered by atropine, out-of-body experiences are triggered by ketamines, the perception of the world enlarging or shrinking is triggered by dimethyltryptamine, the retrieval of long-forgotten memories is triggered by methylene-dioxyamphetamine, and a feeling of oneness with the cosmos is triggered by LSD. “The fact that there are receptor sites in the brain for such artificially processed chemicals means that there are naturally produced chemicals in the brain that, under certain conditions…, can induce any or all of the experiences typically associated with a NDE,” (Why people believe weird things, p80).

Bryan attempts to support a dualistic approach to the ontology of the world, by arguing that thoughts cannot collide with bricks. “Dualism,” says Appleyard, “means that the mind and the brain are not made of the same things and therefore in theory, they can be separated, as in NDEs.” However, in general, an object cannot collide with a process. For example, a brick cannot collide with evaporation, but this is hardly evidence of a fundamental ontological duality. Moreover, if non-collidability enables the mind and the brain to be separated, it follows that computer software can also be separated from computer hardware. Presumably, a terminating program will briefly float at ceiling level in the IT department, above the computer it was running on, before it enters a cybernetic afterlife.

Most remarkably, Bryan takes huge liberties with the interpretation of quantum theory, and claims that it supports mind-brain dualism, quoting with approval the eccentric opinions of Henry Stapp. “‘The observer,’ Stapp tells me, ‘is brought into quantum dynamics in an essential way not only as a passive observer but as an active part of the dynamics’.” This is the familiar canard that observers are a crucial part of the quantum world because it is observers who trigger wave-function collapse. In fact, wave-function collapse is triggered by any measurement-like interaction, and observers are completely superfluous to the process. Appleyard even claims that “quantum non-locality could mean the mind is capable of being non-local to the brain, of floating to the ceiling of the room.” Quantum non-locality pertains to non-local interactions between particles separated over large distances, and entails no such possibility of separating the mind from the brain.

There seems to be a quite remarkable degree of selection and manipulation of the facts going on here. Appleyard is twisting some well-known canards in the interpretation of quantum theory, to provide a post-hoc justification for a belief about the nature of the mind which is crucial to his religious world-view. Honesty and integrity seem to have taken something of a backseat here.

Bryan Appleyard

Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 10:27 am  Leave a Comment  

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