There are, to be sure, other types of evidence. In Patrick Glynn’s book, God: The Evidence we find a sample of some of the evidentary claims made on behalf of religious faith. First, there is the run through of the improbable universe evidence which, though greatly strengthens the case for agnosticism and gives a generous toehold to deism, hardly gets us to a legitimate position of actual religious faith, with all the concomitant theological bells and whistles. Glynn then offers us some intriguing though hardly conclusive evidence of the utility of religion as psychological therapy and medical placebo. But evidence of utility can hardly be equated with evidence of truth or existence. We know from Sorel and Pareto that false views, or “myths,” can be useful despite being false. So what, then, is Glynn left with? He presents, in his last chapter on evidence, one of the stranger and more confounding phenomena to confront human intelligence in recent years, so-called near death experiences (NDE), with their bizarre tunnels, “mystical” lights, out-of-body experiences and “life reviews.”
Objectivism, of course, would reject the very notion that such experiences could be evidence of anything other than a warped epistemology. The so-called “paranormal,” as Objectivists have told me, is a contradiction, and therefore can’t exist. It’s a claim that a person can sense things that don’t come from the senses—a palpable absurdity. This view, however, is based on a confusion regarding logic. Contradictions can only exist between two propositions. No single claim about a matter of fact, regardless of how strange or incongruous with normal experience, can ever be a contradiction. It can only be a contradiction in relation to another claim of truth; and it is only false if it contradicts a claim that is actually true. Hence what Objectivists are really saying is that the paranormal contradicts some principle of reality which the Objectivists regard as true. Yet in making that claim, the Objectivist is surreptitiously assuming the very point at issue, and is himself committing a logical fallacy.
The first prerequisite for attaining any kind of rational understanding of such strange phenomena as NDEs and the like is to overcome the modern assumption that such things are impossible. Such an assumption may be practical and prudent in everyday life. The historical evidence, however, when impartially collected, is, as the philosopher Santayana noted, “far from supporting it, and logically it is untenable. Logically everything is possible; and if a certain sequence of events happens not to be found in our experience, nothing proves that it may not occur beyond.”
With this in mind, let us examine the naturalistic explanation of NDE, known as the “dying brain hypothesis,” compliments of Susan Blackmore:
Severe stress, extreme fear and cerebral anoxia all cause cortical disinhibition and uncontrolled brain activity, and we already have most of the ideas needed to understand why this should cause NDEs. Tunnels and lights are frequently caused by disinhibition in visual cortex, and similar noises occur during sleep paralysis. OBEs [i.e., Out-of-Body-Experiences] and life reviews can be induced by temporal lobe stimulations… The visions of other worlds and spiritual beings might be real glimpses into another world, but against that hypothesis is evidence that people generally describe other worlds that fit their cultural upbringing. For example, Christians report seeing Jesus, angels and a door or gate to heaven, while Hindus are more likely to meet the king of the dead and his messengers, the Yamdoots.
For the most part, this is a respectable hypothesis—though it is only a hypothesis, as Blackmore herself has stated. I would merely quibble with the relevance of playing the temporal-lobe-stimulation card. Blackmore is not bringing up lobe stimulations merely to disprove that NDEs provide a glimpse into another world: she is also using them to reaffirm the epiphenomenal nature of consciuosness. The fact that specific characteristics of NDEs can be artificially stimulated allegedly proves that NDEs are brain events arising from physical processes. This is the steam-whistle theory of consciousness smuggled into the discussion on NDEs. It should raise alarms even among those who believe that NDEs are purely “natural” phenomenon.
What about the other side of the argument? Is there any possibility that these NDEs constitute a veritable intimation of immortality—a glimpse into the “undiscover’d country from whose bourne no traveller returns”? Those who regard NDEs as evidence for an after-life attempt to stress the difficulty of explaining them on materialistic or conventionally naturalistic grounds. Even Blackmore concedes that some phenomenon associated with NDEs could potentially raise problems for materialism. She relates the experience of a 44 year old man who, while still comatose, had his dentures removed by a nurse. When he saw the same nurse for the first time a week later, he said, “Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are.” (Supposedly, during his NDE, this individual had seen the nurse remove his dentures.) There are other reports of individuals having out-of-body experiences during NDEs and remembering seeing things they could not have possibly witnessed while comatose. One of the strangest episodes involves singer and songwriter Pam Reynolds, who was subjected to a desperate procedure to remove a grossly swollen blood in the brain stem in which her body temperature was lowered to sixty degrees. All her vital signs, including her EEG brain waves, flattened to silence. As the surgeon began cutting her skull, Reynold’s felt herself “pop” outside her body and hover above the operating table. She would later describe, with considerable accuracy for a person who knew nothing about surgical practice, the Midas Rex bone saw used to cut into her head. She also described the nurses in the operating room and listened to what they were saying. In short, a very strange experience all way around, very difficult to explain on materialistic grounds. “These cases are potentially important,” admits Blackmore, “because if they are true, then there is something seriously wrong with all materialist and functionalist theories of consciousness.”
Do such experiences constitute, not merely proof against materialism, but evidence for God and the after-life? That is difficult to say. While NDEs aren’t easily explicable on conventionally naturalistic grounds, perhaps its the narrowness of this conventional naturalism that is at fault. Nature, after all, may be as strange as she likes. Yet I can hardly blame those who have experienced NDEs for regarding them as a glimpse into the after-life and as evidence for their religious convictions. To be sure, whether they are or not, no one really knows. But it is not irrational or “mystical” to suspect they might be. We will all find out one way or the other at some point. Until then, we’re all just guessing.