Afterlife Debate Review

Debate Results

First a copy of the debate results from Sean Carroll’s post-debate review (click on images to enlarge):

death-crosstabsdeath-piesThe winner was the team whose numbers changed the most and the first chart shows that Carroll/Novella won.  The second chart is just interesting because it shows that they won not by changing minds of the undecided, but rather more people who started out “For” the proposition changed their minds to be “Against.”

My Own Views

As far as my own views go, I’m doubtful that there is life after death but not with very high confidence because while I have read more about it than the average person I still am a layperson to the topic.  At any rate while the topic is certainly of interest to me I definitely believe that it is not worth worrying about.  No need to worry about things that are very uncertain and even unlikely.  But if science can shed light on this question then I feel it is worth the effort, so I was very glad to see this debate.

I was hoping for more references to controlled experiments that have been done related to the topic, but there was only generalities and not a lot of specifics in this debate which is kind of par for the course in public debates.  I was definitely not persuaded by the “For” team.  In my opinion Alexander and Moody did a poor job and it was mainly mistakes in strategy.  The “Against” side did better but again I was hoping for more specifics so I wasn’t moved dramatically.

Opening Statements

Alexander’s main thrust throughout the entire debate was the story of his own NDE.  In fact, that was practically his entire opening statement.  Only in the last 30 seconds did he add that he has read and heard of many NDE stories and has found that the similarities far outweigh the differences.  I thought it was a mistake to base most of his case on an anecdotal story.

Carroll’s opening statement was typical of his style – a non-technical Bayesian type approach detailing what we would expect if there was an afterlife and what we would expect if there wasn’t and then comparing those expectations to what we all see.  There was nothing earth shattering there.  All points that most people like myself are familiar with but a lot of people probably don’t systematically list them out.  A very important and common point that he brought up was that the NDE stories tend to match with the cultural biases of the individual (Christians see Jesus, Hindus see Hindu gods, a young girl met Santa).

Moody’s opening statement and his entire strategy was a poor choice in my mind.  His main argument was that this is not a scientific question, but rather that critical thinking and logic will solve this problem.  He also conceded that parapsychology is a pseudo-science.  Obviously I’m all for critical thinking but when it comes to questions that involve evidence that can be analyzed, logic alone cannot make a strong case.  Nevertheless Moody did contribute a little more later in the debate.  He also mentioned the common features of NDE’s (feeling outside of the body, and seeing a light, a panoramic view of life and deceased loved ones), and further added that sometimes bystanders of dying loved ones have identical experiences.  More on this later.

Novella’s opening statement and entire performance was the best of the four.  He claimed that science is very sure that mind is a process of the brain.  (Of course anyone can claim whatever they want, and it would be nice to see polling on this but I don’t anticipate that happening).  He then went on to form a hypothesis that “mind is entirely the brain”, and listed what we would expect if that were the case: (1) if we change the brain then the mind will change, (2) if we damage the brain then the mind would be damaged, (3) if we turn off the brain then the mind will turn off.  He didn’t detail any experiments showing that these things have been demonstrated but I don’t believe it is hard to find data to back these statements.

As far as (3), I was immediately reminded of my “conscious sedation” in my outpatient surgeries.  After the surgeries I had absolutely no memory of what had happened.  Where was my “soul” during that period?  Sure enough doctors have drugs that interact physically with our brains that can “turn them off”, and they are utilized daily.

Then Novella went on to talk about natural explanations for NDE’s:  there can still be brain activity during a coma, vivid memories could form while coming out of a coma, reality module in our brain could be malfunctioning.  Finally, an important point for me was the claim that every element of an NDE can be duplicated with drugs, anoxia, lack of blood-flow, or by turning off circuits in the brain (later he mentioned 2 others: hypotension and electromagnetic brain stimulation).

Highlights in the Exchange

The rest of the debate was interactive followed by short closing statements.  Here are some highlights:

  1. (48:37) Moody explained the “mind body problem”, mentioned epiphenomenalism, and then actually said “my answer is, I don’t know”.  (!!)
  2. (49:40) An interesting exchange between Novella and Alexander ensued for a while:
    1. Alexander asserted that his neocortex was non-functional during his NDE and that there were memories he had that he knew had to have happened during that period.  I agree with Novella that there is no way that he could tell that those memories formed during that period.  They could have very well have been formed in recovery.  A very interesting point Novella made was that the parts of the brain that construct our sense of time could also have been malfunctioning.  Novella also noted that no fMRI, Petscan or EEG was taken to document zero brain activity during the coma.
    2. (53:35) Alexander noted that there are cases of people getting information they could not have gotten by any natural means.  Novella’s response was clear-cut: the cases he has read like this are just like cold readings from psychics, and are not controlled experiments.  He also mentioned there are attempts at controlled experiments that have failed; e.g. cards on a shelf only viewable if the patient was actually floating above – “and by the way, we can make you float above your body!”.
  3. (57:04) Moody claims respect for physics but says it doesn’t rule out another dimension, and that it is conceivable.  Carroll’s response at 58:00 is spot on, stating that it is conceivable that angels are in the moon guiding it around the earth, but we don’t take that seriously as an idea because there is no need or evidence for it.  Moody also ends up conceding the falsifiability problem.
  4. (1:00:13) Great quote from moderator to Moody: “What you’re saying sort of reminds me of the editorial to Virginia about Santa Claus written in the 19th century in which Frank Church who wrote this editorial said to the little girl, ‘do you see fairies dancing on the front lawn, no of course you don’t but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there'”.  That link is well worth the read by the way.
  5. (1:01:12) Moody describes a story of a dying patient (from a car accident), his doctor, and scrub nurse all having similar feelings of the presence of the patient’s dead wife (who died in the car accident).  It’s these kinds of stories that is at the heart of the whole afterlife topic so it’s worth listening to.  While some people have their beliefs because of indoctrination, there are definitely others who honestly believe because they think these stories are good evidence for the afterlife.
    1. Another quote from the moderator: “we are talking about ghosts now, and I’m sorry that sounded pejorative but we are talking about something that a lot of people would challenge as incredibly implausible…”  This is exactly the kind of point I’ve tried to make before – why are skeptics clearly judged for doubting afterlife and gods when many people find it quite acceptable to doubt the existence of ghosts?  I believe it’s because historically we’ve gotten morality all wrapped up in the question of afterlife and gods.  I don’t believe they need to be wrapped up and there are certainly many eastern religions and liberal western ones that would agree.
    2. Novella said that these stories could be constructed after the fact and that we have this similar level of evidence for UFO’s, bigfoot, and many other paranormal phenomena.  To be consistent you would have to accept all of those if you accept this kind of evidence for the afterlife.  This is a good point, but I’m not sure it’s that easy to clearly compare the level of evidence between all of these types of claims.
  6. (1:04:28) Discussion about the fact that scientists don’t understand the mechanism by which the physical brain creates consciousness.  I appreciate this mystery as well, but I don’t believe it a strong case for the afterlife.
  7. (1:12:15) I was glad to hear from Novella that there are currently some ongoing bigger controlled experiments to test out remote viewing, but no references.
  8. (1:21:30) Telepathy, remote viewing, OBE’s, past life memories:
    1. Novella: 100 years of parapsychology hasn’t come up with compelling evidence.  He didn’t give specifics, but I think the Stargate Project is relevant here.
    2. Alexander: evidence is overwhelming, and he gave 2 references: Irreducible Mind, and The Afterlife Experiments.  Novella strongly questioned the methodology of the second and said the writer allowed himself to be bamboozled.
  9. doh(1:26:27) Alexander saved the best for last.  A clear distortion of Carl Sagan’s views on past life memories in children.  Alexander said: “Carl Sagan admitted that past life memories in children, the evidence for that is overwhelming…he said that in his book The Demon-Haunted World on page 302; he says exactly that, {applause} period.” -> well I own the book and this is what was written: “At the time of writing there are 3 claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.  I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true.  The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support.  Of course, I could be wrong.” [bolding is my own, but italics is not]  Alexander was clearly stretching the quote beyond reasonable on this one – apropos in my mind, because it is a hint at the kinds of things that could be going on with some of these “beyond coincidental” stories.  Also apropos is the second part of Sagan’s book title: “Science as a Candle in the Dark”.


I actually don’t judge others for having a difficult time accepting that some of these surprisingly coincidental stories don’t have some “higher” explanation to them, but I don’t appreciate the lack of respect toward skeptics who don’t believe that these stories rise to an acceptable level of evidence – because they believe they are being consistent with the expectations of evidence in other fields of investigation.  My own educated guess is that Carroll and Novella are correct that all of these claims only rise to the level of anecdotal and pseudo-scientific, and that once a sufficient amount of scientific experiments are performed in this arena, consciousness is better understood, and the more the public is educated on that, belief in afterlife will slowly fade away much like alchemy, astrology, and young earth creationism.

27 thoughts on “Afterlife Debate Review

  1. Thanks for posting.

    I pretty much agree with your summary. I’m inclined to say that the problem for Alexander and Moody, was that the evidence was not there to support their positions.

    On the other side, Carroll gave a pretty good presentation of the typical scientist’s skepticism on the issue. But this is outside of his main field. So I give the real credit to Novella, for having pretty good explanations of the the kind of experience that Alexander and Moody are using to support their claims.

  2. I haven’t watched this, but nice job on your review. Very thorough. I plan to check out the debate when I have some time.

  3. Thanks Neil – I agree. I also thought Sean had a pretty good sense of humor – I got a kick out of some of his remarks. Overall the debate was pretty civil which I thought was nice. And like Sean Carroll said in his own review, Moody was the kind of guy you feel you could have a beer with and talk philosophy.

  4. Thanks Nate! You would probably also be interested in Sean Carroll’s debate with WLC – he did a way better job in that one because he is an expert on the subject.

  5. If only people would work harder on integrating these supernatural concepts with study-able reality rather than looking at it as one way or the other. I look forward to a time when people will be more aware of the silliness of their adversarial ways.

  6. Howie, thanks for this. You have been very kind to watch and review this debate.
    I will try and find time to watch it later.
    Thanks again

  7. Howie, why did you post it, I had to stay up and watch it then write this! 😀 I’m kidding, thanks. It was a good debate for the most part. Here are the strongest points I thought:

    Novella – the problem with NDE is that we cannot rule out the possibility that the experience occurred in moments close to the cease of brain activity
    Moody – there are also reports of shared death experiences that defy explanation
    Moody – this should be a philosophical debate
    Novella or Carroll (I can’t remember which) – if we take these anecdotes seriously we have to take all paranormal claims seriously because they rise to the same level of evidence

    I think a big problem with this debate is that science cannot adjudicate the question. Science cannot tell us if there is not life after death, this is an invalidated argument from silence. For example, when we do autopsies we can rule out many known causes of death, but quite often we cannot tell you what actually caused the death. There are certain causes of death an autopsy is validated to rule out, but it can only rule out these validated ones. In this same way, science is not in a position to say, “There is no life after death.” Another way of putting is that science cannot adjudicate questions that are not falsifiable, and we do not have falsifiable criteria for a life after death. It might be NOMA. (A whole other debate, no doubt).

    The second problem is that the whole debate focused around NDEs. NDEs have cultural-specific features but also universal features. The fact that both occur does not help. Also, NDE-like experiences may occur in the brain and we don’t know if NDEs are a separate phenomenon. Also, we cannot tell exactly when the NDE occurs. This is a huge problem! We cannot tell if it occurred during the final moments of brain activity or initial moments of recovering brain activity or if they temporally occurred while the person was brain dead. It’s these difficulties that have led people like Gary Habermas to only consider the “veridical” NDEs as evidence. There are a handful of allegedly veridical NDEs, but these are criticized as not being carefully and appropriately documented. (Debate ad infinitum. . .)

    The last problem is that we do not know if science monopolizes access to the truth about reality. The truth about reality may also be accessible by testimony, revelation, rationality, etc. Skeptics often view this suggestion as a devaluation of science and philosophers see skeptics response as dogmatic about the assumption that science only holds the key to reality. Everyone thinks their worldview is the most rational but hardly spend enough time talking about base assumptions (epistemology and ontology).

    So, my overall take is that this debate is not terribly helpful in deciding the question. I would have voted “yes” twice but for different reasons than given in the debate.

  8. Hey Mak – You’re welcome! I’m glad I spent the time to write it – it helped organize my thoughts.

  9. Hey Brandon – I agree in part, and thanks for the very thoughtful comment. Yes, deep metaphysical questions are outside of the realm of science. The very best example of this is that science cannot explain why the “precepts of science” are correct.

    This does not mean that science cannot be helpful in shedding some light on this topic. Some of the claims of NDE’s can be investigated and Novella briefly mentioned some of the controlled studies that can be, and are currently being done to help. Also, just the general scientific investigations of the brain can continue to help shed more light on what right now seems like a mystery.

    I think it’s also important to note that science cannot actually adjudicate the question of whether or not there is a “Sun God”. What science has shown through many investigations and observations, however, is that there seems to be natural rules to describe the effects we see from the sun. But there still remains the conceivable possibility that a spirit is guiding it and science cannot help us answer that question. This is similar to Carroll’s response to this point. So with many investigations and observations of the brain and it’s effects it is possible we can come to a similar feeling of justification that the “mind is what the brain does”. Neither problem can be resolved with 100% certainty.

    Which goes back to one of my original statements in my post – something so uncertain, and arguably unlikely is not worth worrying about. I do believe it’s worth being curious about, but not worth worrying about. Unfortunately some religions still exist today based mostly around a fear of the afterlife. I know you don’t hold to that view, but it is prevalent enough in our world that it is worth speaking against. I agree with Siddhārtha Gautama’s views on this topic – he was much more eloquent than myself in describing his point of view regarding this.

  10. What interests me most would be trace at what point our race started to think of such places where they have life after death.
    I don’t consider NDE’s as giving any pointers. My reasoning is that as long as we are alive we don’t know what it means to die. How different is it from a deep sleep? I don’t think there has been anyone among those all of who claimed NDE’s who has shared anything that they learnt from their environment. That they shared something that is factual but that they have had no way of knowing.
    To satisfy our egos, men have believed they survive their death. I on the other hand who was not before I was born has stopped worrying about what will be when am not.

  11. @Mak,

    What interests me most would be trace at what point our race started to think of such places where they have life after death.

    I recently took an online course which touched on this a little: (not sure if the videos are still available since the course has ended). This is a link to some materials in the course related to your interest. I believe Ruth also mentioned she may be doing a post on the history of afterlife beliefs.

    I don’t think there has been anyone among those all of who claimed NDE’s who has shared anything that they learnt from their environment. That they shared something that is factual but that they have had no way of knowing.

    Both Carroll and Novella brought this up in the debate and it is a very good point.

    I on the other hand who was not before I was born has stopped worrying about what will be when am not.

    This did not come up in the debate and I was surprised that it didn’t. I’ve always said that I have no memories of being conscious before my brain formed, so why should I believe that I will be conscious after my brain de-forms?

  12. I agree with all your analysis, Howie. I need to look into Gautama’s specific teachings or maybe just ask my wife.

    I remember seeing a discussion between two Christian philosophers and the lesser known one suggested that dualism is false. The well known philosopher acted like this idea was ludicrous, that dualism was just obviously true, a philosophical necessity. But, I doubt the arguments. Further, as a Christian I’m still not sure of even what to believe about dualism. Resurrection does not require souls. But, there are a few stories in scripture that strongly suggest an intermediate state if they actually occurred. The greatest of these is the transfiguration. I just have no idea what to do with all this material. It’s beyond strange!

    Here’s something interesting to think about. Suppose we had gained empirical evidence of afterlife, how would this change the dialog between agnostic/atheist and theists? I wonder if naturalism could just adopt afterlife and say it was natural. (What is “natural” in the first place?)

  13. Hey Brandon – I’m not even sure if what I’ve read of Gautama’s teachings are even originally his given that he lived so long ago, but I was just talking about his one viewpoint regarding the afterlife – he is known to have an interesting allegory that essentially comes down to teaching that it isn’t worth the trouble worrying about things that are beyond our knowledge.

    Yes, that question about the definition of “natural” is a very common one that a lot of people bring up and I’ve always wondered about it as well. I’ve seen people try and define what naturalism is, and then there are actually different types of naturalists. e.g. can you be a platonist and a naturalist at the same time? – some say yes, some say no. I haven’t figured out exactly what I am to be honest. While for a long time I have been skeptical of claims that seem pseudo-scientific (and yes that’s not as easy to distinguish for the layperson as some people may say), I’m not sure I am a naturalist. I think it would be very fair to say that I lean in that direction, and when I started blogging I actually wasn’t sure of that, but now I do think that is the case after reading all that I have. I have a book in my reader that I have wanted to read but haven’t had time called “Nature is Enough”. It’s written by Loyal Rue and he calls himself a religious naturalist. I’m not sure what that is (and I know some would say that is an absurd label) but I am curious to find out.

  14. I had only just started watching debates in general since I was able to catch the Nye/Ham debate. I’ve seen some on youtube, but debates are more interesting as live broadcasts.

    That being said, since the Nye/Ham was essentially my first full watching of a debate, this one here was not as entertaining. I’m the kind of person who finds the preposterous exertions of a guy like Ham as a bit fun to watch. In this case, however, the people arguing for life-after-death were a bit dull, because pseudo-science itself is dull. The individuals arguing against, however, seemed to exhibit a sort of “Do I really have to refute these claims” type mantra. I can appreciate that.

    Your review, however, was very helpful since I only caught the last thirty minutes, including the remark the moderator makes when he interprets the meaning of the debate being won, that “there is no life after death.” Haha, very blunt. On that note, however, I don’t see how winning or losing a debate on matters that can only be proved through science helps anything.

    At any rate, I’m on the verge of renting a two hour documentary on this topic. Makes for interesting viewing seeming how it appears as another means of ammunition for religionists.

    Thank you for writing this out, so I have something to reference and enhance my understanding when I go to watch the DVD.

  15. @LEjames – You’re welcome and I’m glad my review helped.

    Yeah, I did notice a bit of that attitude from the against side, especially from Carroll, but luckily they did a good job of keeping things civil. You could sense that attitude quite a bit more from the Nye/Ham debate because Ham’s viewpoint is so far out in the minority at this point (thankfully), quite a bit more than this topic. Even then I was surprised Nye kept it on a civil level. And yeah, I totally agree on the win/lose thing as far as these debates go.

    What’s the name of that documentary?

  16. Howie, I just watched Loyal Rue’s “The Nature of Religion” lecture on YouTube, it’s well worth it. Rue has good insight into the natural development of religion, and even suggests while the audience seems discomforted that we should start a world federation because the idea of 182 sovereign nations is becoming inadequate somehow. And, he suggests that we can construct a sort of natural religion that gives us meaning and justifies our ethics as do the religious traditions we have inherited. I’m sure his book is just as fascinating!

  17. Howie,

    The name of the documentary is The Life After Death Project, a Paul Davids Film (2013). Here’s the link:

    The comment across the top of the DVD states, “The events in this film are true. The mysteries and anomalies have not been invented or contrived.”

    It consists of one DVD at 106 minutes and another at 101 minutes, so there will be a lot to examine. Maybe I’ll do a post when I finish.


  18. @Brandon
    Thanks for the reference. I just finished watching the lecture. Yeah, I couldn’t deny a little bit of discomfort with those ideas as well. He spoke mostly in generalities so I wasn’t totally clear on what he was saying. The book I have is a discussion of the question “what is the meaning of life”. In his introduction he does the typical philosopher thing and he starts off by scrutinizing the question. I thought it was worth it and he did it with painstaking attention to detail, but it’s been about as far as I’ve gotten. I need lots of time to digest the thoughts in his book.

  19. @LEjames
    Thanks for the link – I just watched the trailer. Now it’s my turn to encourage you to write up a review. 🙂 I’d be curious at least to hear if you think it’s worth the watch.

  20. I don’t know if it’s worth the watch. It was a bizarre investigation into which the filmmaker was trying to demonstrate that Forrest J. Ackerman was trying to communicate from beyond the grave.

    Rather comical if you ask me.

    Not sure when I can do a post about it all, I’m experiencing a hectic situation at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen eventually.

  21. LEjames: yeah I wasn’t very impressed with the trailer so your comment is not a surprise. Maybe it’s not even worth a post. Hope your situation resolves quickly and painlessly.

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