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Sunday, October 16, 2016

These “Near-Death Experience” Skeptics Offer No Legwork and Little Logic

Oxford University Press has recently published a book entitled Near Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife by the philosophers John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin. University presses typically publish books by people who are experts in what they are writing about. But being a philosopher is no qualification at all for writing a book on near-death experiences. Being a neurologist, a psychologist or a parapsychologist might be a relevant credential, but we should not expect a philosopher would be more qualified to write about near-death experiences than, say, a plumber or a baseball pitcher.

Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin certainly have not made up for their lack of relevant credentials by being diligent in doing original research on their topic. They seemed to have done no original research whatsoever, and seem to show no evidence of having personally talked to anyone who had a near-death experience. They also seem to show no evidence of having personally interviewed any of the doctors or scientists who are researching near-death experiences. Where's the legwork? Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin have taken a lazy armchair approach which fails to offer any substantive new contribution to this topic. They haven't even done any numerical or classification work such as numerically categorizing or classifying near-death experiences. 

Armchair indolence

Their discussion of near-death experiences has curious omissions. In recent years probably the biggest event in the field of near-death experiences was the 2014 AWARE study published in a scientific journal, a paper authored by Sam Parnia and co-authored by many other doctors and scientists. The study receives no mention in Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin's book.

They do discuss the well-known Pam Reynolds case of a woman who reported verified details of her operation while she was unconscious and allegedly having an out-of-body experience. Reynolds had both her eyes and her ears blocked (the latter being blocked by an earphone emitting 100-decibel clicks). To try to explain this, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin offer an explanation (on page 23) that is not credible: “Rather, we are raising the possibility that, even though she was unconscious, auditory impressions may still have registered, and they could have come to be conscious awareness later.” That's absurd. A sound is not something that sits in your brain like an unread e-mail message to be read at your leisure. If a sound isn't part of your conscious experience, the sound will not be remembered later. I may note that in this case Reynolds had earphones that were blocking her hearing and sending in 100-decibel clicks, so in this case a “delayed perception of received sounds” theory is particularly lame.

We can imagine someone suggesting something similar: “While I was out cold from all those sleeping pills, and while I had my headphones on, that were sending me loud white noise, I heard you insult me, and when I woke up I remembered hearing that when I was in deep sleep.” That's hardly a claim you'd believe.

To try to support this untenable theory, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin imagine a case of someone who drives home passing by a traffic accident, pays no attention to it, comes home, and then sees a report of it on the TV, leading him to recall seeing the accident. But that's a case of paying little attention to a perception you are consciously experiencing, which does nothing to make credible Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin's preposterous idea that your brain can store memories of something you heard while you were unconscious.

Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin do not champion any one natural explanation to account for near-death experiences, relying on a pastiche of sketchy ideas, suggestions and suspicions. One of the main things they rely on is an utterly dubious appeal to an unbelievable psychological theory called terror management theory. On page 68-69 of their book, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin suggest that “terror management theory can explain why people who have near-death experiences would experience reunions specifically with their loved ones.”

Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin attempt to pass off this extremely dubious “terror management theory” as some kind of established science, claiming that it is “well-validated” and that “over the past three decades, its predictions about human behavior have been repeatedly verified.” They offer no evidence or reference to back up this claim, which is off the mark. A 2009 paper entitled “Mortality Salience: Testing the Predictions of Terror Management Theory” discussed four studies that all failed to verify the predictions of terror management theory. The paper here notes a case where terror management theory (TMT) makes the wrong prediction:

TMT researchers assert that disgust reactions to death are part of such defenses, generating the prediction that death disgust should increase with age. Here, using the measure of disgust sensitivity devised by the Rozin School, we have shown that, contrary to this prediction, disgust sensitivity in the death domain declines with age.

On page 141 of their book, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are trying to explain a near-death experience in which a child named Colton reported floating out of his body, and then observing his father praying in one room and his mother praying in another room (an account confirmed by his father). Again Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin appeal to terror management theory. They say:

For the second step, we might appeal to terror management theory. It is plausible that a visual representation of his parents praying would help to relieve some of Colton Burpo's anxiety about his severe illness and surgery.

This is weak logic, since it does nothing to explain the accuracy of the reported observation or vision, nor is it clear why anyone would hallucinate about their parents praying as an anxiety-reducing mechanism (since your parents would be most likely to simultaneously pray for you if you were on the brink of death). A sight of your parents praying for your survival is no more anxiety-reducing than the sight of a priest giving you last rites.

Like Freud's simplistic theory which attempted to explain most human psychological problems as being caused by a single cause (childhood traumas), terror management theory is a simplistic psychological theory that claims that the fear of death is the motivating cause behind very much or most human behavior. But the idea that human behavior is mostly motivated by anxiety about death is completely inconsistent with a large variety of observed human behaviors that are very risky, such as suicides, unsafe sex, bungee jumping, jaywalking, cliff-diving, cigarette smoking, eating unhealthy foods, and people who drive fast and drive without seat belts. So these types of human behaviors are strong evidence against terror management theory, which is not something “well validated” as Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin claim.

A paper here rebuts terror management theory:

Although terror management theory's proponents claim that it is an evolutionary theory of human behavior, its major tenets are implausible when examined carefully from a modern evolutionary perspective. We explain why it is unlikely that natural selection would have designed a “survival instinct” or innate “fear of death,” nor an anxiety-reduction system in general, or worldview-defense system in particular, to ameliorate such fears.

The point is a solid one. Natural selection is “interested” only in your survival until you are finished reproducing, and has no interest whatsoever in whether you might have pleasant hallucinations when you die. I may note that terror management theory is an attempt to explain common human behaviors and beliefs, and does not at all predict that you will have pleasant visions when you die. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin have hijacked terror management theory, using it for some purpose that it was not intended. It's rather like some person claiming that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (part of quantum mechanics) helps explain why his girlfriend is uncertain about spending the night with him.

There is, in fact, no evidence that humans not close to dying have anxiety-reducing hallucinations when they are faced with anxiety or are in fear of death. No one who is approached by a threatening gunman ever has a hallucination that the gunman is bearing a bouquet of flowers, and no one who is on a sinking ship ever has a hallucination that a ship has come to save him. Moreover, people have near-death experiences when their heart has stopped or they are unconscious, so any psychological theory to explain a near-death experience vision is futile. Psychology is not going on when you are unconscious. Your brain does not do “fear management” when you are unconscious, because there is no fear at such a time.

I can think of ways in which a philosopher could use his philosophical training to add to the debate about near-death experiences – perhaps by offering some insight from the branch of philosophy called the philosophy of mind, or perhaps by speculating about some metaphysical reality that might explain such experiences. But we don't seem to get any such thing from Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin, who just lazily give us garden-variety armchair skepticism without any original research.