The Problem with Proving Things: NDEs and the Failures of Science

Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander wrote an account of his near-death experience that pissed off a lot of skeptics.  It sort of annoyed me too, but not as much as the skeptical annoyance annoyed me.  The conflict between NDE believers and skeptics points to bigger problems in science and culture.

“In the materialistic demand to somehow untangle ourselves from the world completely in order to understand it, we’re asked to borrow a popular theological narrative. First, researchers are meant to believe there’s a way to create an experiment and not intervene or interact with it, and that they’re meant to do everything they can to preserve this principle.  Then, they should believe that thoughts, feelings, and impressions have nothing to do with the reality they’ve set up inside the experiment and that there are laws (controls, etc.) that they’ve also created that actually prohibit them from interfering with whatever takes place inside the experiment world.  This is remarkably similar to the deist or TV-addicted version of God — an old man on a distant cloud with a billion billion TVs.  He set the show in motion so he could watch, pretending things happen independent of him.

For those who demand total objectivity, proof is Heaven, or God.  It’s a distant principle which should be always appealed to, never questioned, and of which nothing is greater.

Of course, it’s impossible to be objective…”

Click through to read the entire article on Reality Sandwich.

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  • kowalityjesus

    “His entire account of his NDE is aimed at communicating to others that
    the afterlife is real, that it is composed of beings who love and care
    about us. ”
    Am I taxed with the burden of exposing said beings if I have explicit understanding of their reality? The promulgation has proven rather poisonous to my social relationships.

  • NathanSpeller

    Excellent, that’s how I felt about his “proof” as well. I’m glad someone approached the critique with more compassion and I say reason than the average “skeptic”

  • bobbiethejean

    Here’s what we know: NDEs can be replicated in a laboratory setting by depriving the brain of oxygen.

    Here’s what we don’t know: If a man can be carried to heaven on the wings of a butterfly with a hot, mystical brunette in tow.

    Here’s what we can prove: NDEs have an explainable, biological basis.

    Here’s what we cannot prove: NDEs have a supernatural component.

    What it really all boils down to is faith. It is completely and utterly a matter of faith. NDEs have no proof. They will probably never have proof. It’s that simple. You either have faith or you don’t. And no, Eben’s case is not proof, not by a longshot.

    • Ceausescu

      What is so supernatural about that ?

      Was Einstein doing supernatural things by experiencing the notion of time at the speed of light in his head ?

      Einstein’s theories along with quantum physics have shown us that there’s much more in matter and energy that we cannot encompass with our monkey brains. We’re making progress though.

      Science is great and has brought us amazing progress in all fields. However, it has its biases and agendas, and should not, in my opinion, be taken as a Bible.

      Any fundamentalism is rigid, backwards, and kills progress.

      Nikola Tesla once said this:

      “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make
      more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its
      existence.”

      • bobbiethejean

        There may be more to the universe than we can ever know but I don’t see that as a good reason to believe in unprovable things for which we have no evidence.

        • https://sites.google.com/site/themattprather Matt Prather

          Everything is a cult. Even science. Even rationalism.

          Is science or rationalism arguably a better cult than every faith- or mystic-based cult that you have ever studied? Sure. And I bet you could argue that well.

          However, two things are to be observed.

          (1) You have not seen or learned all there is to know or see in some faith-based or mystic-based cults.

          (2) No cult is perfect. There are broken corners and holes where they are contradicted by reality. A good member of a cult is quick to deny the significance or even the existence of such things. This is where rationalists and scientists (far be it from me to speak of all people who call themselves “scientists”; I am just using a word here, not trying to limit the definition or the things-themselves which identify as “scientists”) would say that science is not a cult because it can improve itself when it is wrong. It finds those holes and adapts to them.

          Maybe the NDE or other mystic, gnostic, or faith-based phenomena are something which the cult of rationalist-scientists are being prejudicial about exploring, because it defies too much of the rest of the order of their cult view of the the world.

          And now I notice a third thing to be observed.

          (3) You said “…but I don’t see that as a good reason to believe in unprovable things for which we have no evidence.” That’s a perfect example of miscommunication and irrationality. On your part. You misinterpreted what everyone was saying. No one is asking you to “believe” in “unprovable” things, for which “we have no evidence.” On the contrary, what we ask is that you accept that this may be provable, and stop denying that the subjective experience of someone else may be evidence. I think that’s the point of gnostic or transcendental phenomena. If you experienced it, and you were satisfied that it wasn’t just a purely biological-material-rational phenomenon, then you too would be in sad position of having evidence to give but no scientist to accept it. The rational mind, as it is contemporarily thought of in the mainstream, will paradoxically be unable to discover all truths because it too often limits what it accepts as valid.

          • http://www.facebook.com/eric.fischer.73 Eric Fischer

            “Everything is a cult. Even science. Even rationalism.”
            No. Nope. Nuh-uh.

            Cult (noun): A system of religious devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.

            Groups of people within the scientific community can form into pseudo cults or display cult-like behavior, but science in it’s pure form must be willing to accept compelling outside evidence when it contradicts established conclusions, and then adjust existing theory to account for this evidence.
            Cults do not. By definition, they have a narrative or worldview that is not permitted to be questioned by its members.

          • https://sites.google.com/site/themattprather Matt Prather

            Ironic, you.

            And the fact is that this world order of law, media, and money is held together by cultist irrationality, in spite of all the facts that prove its lies wrong. Mainstream medicine and science are high-jacked, along for the ride. I wish to free them from the cult, and free them from the sub-cults they have become.

            Your statement is one that I would identify as either the psychology of an abused child defending his parent, or that of a cult member reciting the cult mantras, as he has missed the truth which defies his cult.

          • bobbiethejean

            Cult has a very specific definition. Certainly anything can be religionized or turned into a cult but the things you mention are not cults by default. I’m only saying this for clarification because I don’t think you really meant to imply that everything is truly a cult by default.

            You have not seen or learned all there is to know or see in some faith-based or mystic-based cults. I never claimed to which is why I always keep the door open that I could be wrong. However, the burden of proof is on those people making claims. So far they have utterly failed to substantiate their claims. Ask yourself what we know about the “supernatural world” that we know with the same conviction and thoroughness we know evolution and gravity. I know that if I jump off my roof I will plummet to the ground, not go shooting sideways off into space. What can we say about the supernatural with that same potency?

            That’s a perfect example of miscommunication and irrationality. On your part. You’re flatly wrong here. I’m not the one being irrational. I have long said that these experiences may be subjective and as such, may not be provable in the same way that gravity or evolution are. I’ve also admitted that what constitutes proof of supernatural events is a very tricky matter and may never meet the burden of proof.

            However, all that intellectual honesty and due diligence aside, it’s bollocks. I’ve seen too many instances of people misinterpreting natural events, misperceiving, hallucinating, lying, deluding themselves, and so on. There is a mile long list of natural possibilities and anytime we discover one of these events it ALWAYS turns out to be natural phenomena in the end. How many times are we humans going to have to learn this same lesson before we get the point? The gods weren’t fucking up the weather out of spite; climate patterns are responsible. Demons weren’t possessing that child; he was having seizures and suffering from schizophrenia. The statue of Christ wasn’t weeping blood; it was a hoax. The virgin Mary didn’t appear on a fucking tortilla; it’s pareidolia. That wasn’t astral projection; it was a lucid dream. You weren’t filled with joy from the holy spirit; you were filled with endorphins.

            I can go on and on and on. But we never learn. We keep clinging to the ridiculous notion that there’s more to us than meat because we desperately don’t want to admit that when we die, we die. We despise that notion so we delude and lie and invent ways of escaping the ugly likelihood we’re living in a cold, hard universe that doesn’t give two shits about us and won’t mourn or even notice our utterly inconsequential deaths when we return to the random scattering of molecules from whence we came.

            Can I prove that? No. Do I want that to be true? HELL no. I’d love to go to heaven! I’d love to see my mother again someday. I’d love to have eternal paradise. But how likely is that? Especially considering the lack of evidence. And besides, if something seems to good to be true, it usually is.

          • https://sites.google.com/site/themattprather Matt Prather

            Way to miss the point of everything I said, and the re-package it into something else. You really missed my points.

          • bobbiethejean

            For the record, I thought my answer was civil, considerate, and I even conceded a few points. You, on the other, are now acting like a twat because I don’t agree with everything you say.

          • https://sites.google.com/site/themattprather Matt Prather

            No, I most certainly am not. Why would you even think or say that? Are you “trolling” me?

            * * *

            “Cult has a very specific definition.” This statement is false right out of the gate. And it narrows your lines of sight, and narrows the mental processes or logical processes that ensue. Saying that something “has a very specific definition” is actually a cult behavior.

            And you did mis-interpret what I was saying and then offered counter-points that tended to dispute your false interpretation, instead of disputing what I actually said. Don’t feel bad about this — it is very common in all people of all “levels” of “intelligence”.

            I think in the cult of America we have honed our personal abilities to misunderstand to a very fine point, and even venerated the right-to-be-wrong and not have to listen to contrary facts as a “right” of the highest order. It’s a psychological thing.

            For the record, I do not care one whit if you agree with me or not. In the long term, I believe you will come around to see how science, for all the goodness and consensus-of-truth it has enabled, has been limited in a very cult-like manner by what I call “Masters of Capitalism” and “Masters of The Dialectic”. The modern Homo Americanus derives much joy from ridiculing the cult irrationalities in other humans he sees, but then hysterically insists that his cult is not a cult. The reason you will come around, just like everyone in the cult of America will come around, is that the power of Truth (truth = those things which persist no matter how much any one wishes it wasn’t so)

            Mainstream Science, subordinate to the cult politics of our systems of law, money, and ownership we have which cohere us, has actually been high-jacked to the requirements of our true political elite class — our cult masters. These people need us to cohere around arbitrary systems to implement their long-term agendas. Thankfully, they are being exposed now more than ever, now that their money system is breaking down. Remember all the good things science has provided you, and then try to preserve them after our sick cult leaders are removed from power (whenever that day comes) by the simple fact that we don’t consent to follow their cult rules.

            And try and pick the next mainstream cult you join with greater wisdom, since everything really boils down to making a cult around a set of arbitrary axioms.

            I see everything now in dialectic or thesis-antithesis-synthesis terms. This conversation is just another potential for synthesis in you, I, and all those who read it.

            And I do wish that scientists would more honestly question their construction of knowledge, and their personal heuristics for sorting “good” from “rubbish”. It is in these mental sorting procedures that a lot of truth gets thrown out as “rubbish”.

          • bobbiethejean

            Saying that something “has a very specific definition” is actually a cult behavior. That is something people say when they want to win an argument without actually having to do any mental leg work. If we can make any word mean anything we want, then communication becomes impossible. What if I decide your brain is actually cottage cheese because cottage cheese lacks the capacity to make cogent arguments? Well, then I guess I better stop wasting my time because arguing with cottage cheese is stupid. QED I win.

    • Ceausescu

      What is so supernatural about that ?

      Was Einstein doing supernatural things by experiencing the notion of time at the speed of light in his head ?

      Einstein’s theories along with quantum physics have shown us that there’s much more in matter and energy that we cannot encompass with our monkey brains. We’re making progress though.

      Science is great and has brought us amazing progress in all fields. However, it has its biases and agendas, and should not, in my opinion, be taken as a Bible.

      Any fundamentalism is rigid, backwards, and kills progress.

      Nikola Tesla once said this:

      “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make
      more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its
      existence.”

    • Monkey See Monkey Do

      Your mind produces better paintings than philosophical enquiries, if only you used the same imagination for both.

      • bobbiethejean

        That’s a cheap, pointless, inaccurate insult. Imagination has nothing to do with this. This is about simple fact. You have no facts. Until you people can pony up some facts, this is purely a matter faith AKA adult makebelieve.

        • Monkey See Monkey Do

          It wasn’t meant as an insult. Just an observation with a small agenda. The statement “we can never prove NDE’s have a supernatural component” is such a narrow minded and dogmatic thing to say, i’m really surprised it comes from someone with such an affinity for the fantastical realms of the mind. Philosophy is a valuable part of the human intellect and without it you probably wouldn’t have your cherished ‘facts’ (which always follow philosophical ideas) Constant deductive reasoning isn’t helpful in philosophy which is one of sciences most important disciplines.

          • bobbiethejean

            I don’t think I said you can “never” prove it and there is nothing narrow minded about not believing in something for which there is no proof or even spurious, indirect evidence. Am I narrow-minded because I don’t believe in Thor? Am I narrow minded because I don’t believe in the toothfairy?

            I start from a place of not believing and I wait to be convinced by the evidence. I see NO evidence for an NDE. None. So I don’t believe. I don’t see how that can be considered unreasonable or narrow-minded, especially when I generously concede that NDEs may be real and simply as of yet unproven. I say “generously” because it is my inclination to flatly dismiss it as bullshit; I know better because I can’t prove NDEs don’t have a supernatural component. However, you guys are the ones making the claim, the burden of proof is on you.

            Lastly, you seem to think I am an enemy or opponent of philosophy and I’m not. I simply have very little patience for pseudo-philosophical shenanigans.

      • http://www.ContraControl.com/ Zenc

        Yeah, this seems to be a surprisingly cheap and personal insult. Not something we’ve come to expect from you.

        We’ve got other people in this site to handle that sort of thing.

        • Monkey See Monkey Do

          It was tame. You must admit the irony is a bit hilarious. I love Bobbie Jeans art, its inspiring, supernatural and beautiful. I find ‘professional skeptics’ (code word for materialists) to be tiresome and their ideas quite ugly and unscientific. If people get insulted by how I view their philosophy, its only because they threw away philosophy in search for their ultimate truth.

    • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

      Well we don’t really have any proof that NDE’s have an explainable biological basis. Brain deprived of oxygen is not a biological explanation, it is simply inducing “near death” and when the “near death” happens, the experience comes with it.

      • bobbiethejean

        *Sigh* Congratulations on missing the point. Let me repeat:

        Here’s what we know: NDEs can be replicated in a laboratory setting by depriving the brain of oxygen.

        Here’s what we don’t know: If a man can be carried to heaven on the wings of a butterfly with a hot, mystical brunette in tow.

        Here’s what we can prove: NDEs have an explainable, biological basis.

        Here’s what we cannot prove: NDEs have a supernatural component.

        • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

          I was contesting one of the points you were trying to make, so repeating it verbatim adds nothing to the argument. Let me try and help you see my point.

          You have a presupposed definition of death as the ceasing of biological function. Then very unscientifically, you go backwards from that conclusion to say that NDE’s have an explainable biological basis. Without the presuppositions, assumptions, and dogma, you can understand that while creating a situation of near death through suffocating a biological organ may TRIGGER a near death experience, it in no way EXPLAINS its complexity or origin. Much the same of how rolling a boulder off a cliff triggers a fall, but does not explain the fall, because you need the extra concepts of wind resistance, gravity, force and impact etc.

          • bobbiethejean

            you have a presupposed definition of death as the ceasing of biological function No I haven’t. That is what we know to happen. We don’t KNOW anything else about death except that when we die, our bodies decay. We know nothing about what may or may not happen to our souls which may or may not exist.

            very unscientifically, you go backwards from that conclusion to say that NDE’s have an explainable biological basis. I “unscientifically” nothing. They are KNOWN to have a biological basis. This is a fact. We can cause NDEs in a controlled laboratory setting. Yes, maybe certain biological events trigger an NDE but you can’t prove there is a supernatural component and it’s not just all this: http://sciencebasedlife.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/researchers-again-verify-that-near-death-experiences-are-all-in-your-head/

    • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

      It boils down to faith mainly in the case of reductionist materialism. Faith and experience aren’t the same thing. “from authority” is the epistemology of faith not the epistemology of experience.

      • bobbiethejean

        Experience could also mean delusion or mental illness. I’m not saying NDEs are necessarily fake or only biological. I’m saying until I have a good reason to believe there is a supernatural component, I won’t believe.

        • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

          All you basically said with your biological basis of NDE’s is that Nearly dying (lack of oxygen to the Brain) causes an NDE.

          Not a lot of explanatory power there. Reductionism never explains much. . Says nothing about the content or meaning of the experience. But the experience is an experience. Its not a faith position. A Faith position is that you have faith there is a Heaven because it says so in the Bible/Koran etc.

          Having an experience that you interpret as visiting heaven, is not faith. Its experience. Its not authoritative for other people, but its authoritative for the person who has the experience. Interpreting others experience by explaining it away as lack of oxygen, isn’t an explanation. It has nothing to say about the content of the experience.

          Reductionism doesn’t explain the common archetypes, geography etc. It doesn’t explain paralells to other experiences brought about by visions, Shamanic journey’s drug trips etc.

        • Monkey See Monkey Do

          No one is asking you to believe.

          • Ceausescu

            I think the reason she keeps commenting on these kind of articles is that she’s forcefully trying to consolidate her belief systems. Yes Bobbie, those factual, scientific, objective, non-ludicrous belief systems :) There you go, free consolidation for your ego’s wall.

            If I were to take a guess, I’d say she had some bad experiences with some religious fundamentalists in the past.

          • bobbiethejean

            No. That’s what you want to believe because you desperately don’t want to admit I have a point. You can’t prove NDEs have a supernatural component. Even something as tenuous as string theory, we have reasons to believe it might be the truth- even if it turns out not to be in the end. NDEs have nothing. We have no reason to believe except the people who have been through them and apparently they are incapable of providing proof. Does that mean NDEs aren’t real? Not necessarily. I can’t prove they’re not real. But then I couldn’t prove an invisible, undetectable pink unicorn isn’t real either.

            You can keep insulting me for being reasonable, logical, rational, and not being reeled in by ridiculous woo-woo if that makes you happy; it doesn’t bother me. But the bottom line is that I will have the upper hand in this debate until you can posit some proof, or evidence, or even a hint of a reason these absurd things should be believed. Hint: It needs to be some kind of proof or evidence that couldn’t have a naturalistic explanation.

          • bobbiethejean

            So you mean people blabber on about the NDEs they have are just doing it to convince themselves then? That makes sense. I can believe that. People jump through a lot of hoops to convince themselves of things.

  • DeepCough

    Subjective metaphysical experience constitutes a science not. Read “The Myth of ER” by Plato in his landmark dialogue “Republic,” you’ll find it infinitely more fascinating. Eben Alexander would not have experienced so much vitriol if he weren’t shilling his experiencing as pop-theosophy.

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