What the Hell?

gunI usually don’t post about the concept of Hell because I’d much rather post about ideas that I have a higher chance of changing my mind on.  But it’s a concept that should be talked about because many people still believe in the idea and many are haunted by it (most of them believers – at least the ones that are humble enough to realize that they could be wrong about their worldview, or humble enough to realize that because they are human it’s possible that their sincerity of belief may not be pure enough to surpass the level they imagine required).

There are a growing number of believers who have more nuanced versions of Hell which aren’t really all that bad.  Some say that Hell is just a description of what life on earth could be like when we don’t act in kind and loving ways.  The Universalists say that Hell is a place that will be empty because all roads, no matter what, lead to a God who loves and cares for all of his created beings.  A growing number of intelligent, well-studied believers who hold strongly to a high view of scripture have found that annihilationism is strongly supported after a proper in-depth study of the original language and context of the bible (my own view related to the bible is shown in the comments that Travis and I wrote on this post.)  And some believe that everyone will always be able to choose love/heaven, even after death, and that the only people who will be left in Hell are the ones who eternally want to remain completely hateful and don’t want anything to do with love.

But there are still some who believe in the idea of eternal torment for all who don’t choose a certain belief before death.  The concept of Hell comes in different forms – real fire, some kind of physical pain, or just the complete lack of love – all things which are horrific ideas.  I can’t make any sense of an all-powerful being who creates creatures and loves all of them yet will allow any of them to be in a place like that (and who even knew that would happen before creating them).  There is another idea that I can’t make sense of – the idea that even though this type of Hell is real, we shouldn’t think about it, and we should only concentrate on the fact that a God exists who loves us and wants us to be with him.

Imagine if I had proposed to my wife like this:


Me: Honey I love and care about you so much and I want for the two of us to be together forever.  Will you marry me?

Potential wife: Um, why is there a man pointing a gun at me?

Me: Oh honey, why are you concentrating on insignificant side issues like that?  All you need to do is concentrate on how much I love and care about you.  The choice is completely yours – will you marry me?

Potential wife: No seriously, what’s the guy with the gun for?

Me: It’s totally not important, but if you really want to know – he will kill you if you say no.  But again it’s so insignificant when you realize how incredibly strong my love is for you and how much I care about you and wish the best for you.  Will you marry me?

Potential wife: Um, uh… oh, I just realized I forgot something really important in the car outside – I’ll be right back to answer your question after I get it.


I think the story speaks for itself.

I feared the idea of eternal sadness for many years:  when I was first introduced to it by my friend in high school, while I was a Christian with doubts, and many years afterward.  If you still fear this idea I recommend this post, as well as Charles’ post.  The first link is a more general post related to angst about ultimate questions, but Charles’ post goes into specifics of the Hell concept.  His post and all of the comments there are very instructional and helpful, and you can learn more about my own thoughts on the concept of Hell by reading my own comments there.


(image credit: fineartamerica.com)

 

Could I Ever Return To Christianity?

I’m sure I’d get a very warm welcome back into the fold if I returned, and I don’t mind answering the question of the subject line.

Well, I’m certainly no fortune-teller and given my past performance at predictions I’d say I’m not so good at predicting my future beliefs, but I can at least give some more detail to my answer, as well as some background.

At 18 years of age I told my friend there was no way I’d ever become a Christian.  A year or so later and that was corrected.

Then at 20 years of age, when my father asked me if I could ever leave the Christian fold, I told him that there was absolutely no way that could happen.  I was so sure of myself (even more sure I had thought than when I was 18.)  I had dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s when doing my research.  I had researched Isaiah 53 and Daniel 9 to the point that I knew for sure that it proved there was a God and that Jesus was that God.  That prediction took almost 5 years to be corrected.

Ah, but I was so young then, right?  The age where we are all so cocksure of our beliefs.  I’m 43 and more mature now, right?  Well age hasn’t given me more confidence in the answers to ultimate questions – quite the opposite has happened.  The last thing I want is to feel like I’ve “arrived” or reached a place of firm conclusions. I value greatly the humility of accepting that I’m human and capable of mistakes – in fact this lack of humility was a big problem I had with the evangelical groups that I hung with.  Being open to change is important to me because I believe that being open to possibilities is an important part of forward progress.  I consider all worldviews as possibilities if at some point they could be shown to be true.  So the answer to the subject line really is a yes, but it is a yes for all worldviews and not all yeses carry the same weight. And while I leave the doors cracked open to all ideas, they are not open in a way that means they all haunt me and can suck me in without reason and evidence.

We’d go insane if we didn’t make our best guess at what worldviews are more worth our effort in pursuing.  My priorities in my own pursuit is in worldviews which are similar to naturalism (although I certainly have not settled on naturalism) because right now I believe those are more worth my time and effort.  This post is not intended to explain why as the rest of my blog has made some attempt at that.  As far as effort goes I’d also rank eastern religions higher in my scale of interest than Christianity.

I no longer see mainline Judaism, Christianity and Islam as worth the concerted effort. But this doesn’t mean I’ve got my hands over my ears.  I’m more than willing to listen to any suggestions that believers in these camps have and I will still listen, read and consider material pointed to by them. I truly believe I can learn from people of all different worldviews. Just because I disagree with them on their overall conclusions doesn’t mean that some of the details wouldn’t be beneficial for me.

So while the answer is a possible yes, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting.

Judgment Day Concept is Bizarre

judgmentdayA lot of evangelical Christians believe in some version of Judgment day and to me it is a very bizarre concept.  Granted, some versions are more bizarre than others, but let me explain further:

I mean here we are on earth with so many varying religious beliefs, and where even some people who claim to be Christian admit that God’s existence is not very obvious.  Prayer feels like a one way conversation, scientific studies trying to detect effects from gods or a God fall short of detecting anything.  We are unable to experience this God with any of our senses.

Even those that are Christian seem to be so divided in beliefs.  Sure there is some commonality but some of the differences are actually pretty important, like what requirements there are for salvation.

The most common responses from Christians to explain this hidden God are that God must allow us free will, or that God has reasons which we wouldn’t understand for being so hidden.  There are others but they all just seem like ways to explain away what may be the most likely explanation – that gods either do not exist or are not interested in communicating with us.

And then comes the belief in Judgment day.  We are told that after we die we will stand before God and at that point it will all be very clear that he exists and at that point it will be too late.  So much for free will at that point, because it will be very clear that he exists then.  And even though there was much reason to doubt here on earth, we aren’t given any chances when it’s clear he exists.  It’s like God pops out and says “surprise, here I am; see you should have trusted that one sect (which one is anyone’s guess) that had the truth, and now it’s on to eternal punishment for you.”

But anything is possible, so I don’t mind entertaining the question of “what would you say if you die and end up standing before the almighty God?”.  At least it’s a good thought experiment.  This is my guess on how it would go down:

First, I’d crap in my pants (which I suppose is ok if I died of old age since I’d likely have a pair of Depends on).  Then I’d throw up all over the clouds.  At that point my heart would be racing so fast and I’d probably have a heart attack.  Interestingly enough, that may very well be the “second death” that the bible speaks about, so perhaps annihilationism is correct.

Anyways, if I was able to make it through all that and finally pull myself together I’d likely say “I really wasn’t expecting this, but at this point I don’t think I’ve got anything to say.”  He’d be reading my mind anyways, so he would know all the expletives going off in my mind (like “WTF, this is some insanely crazy sh-t”).

I mean seriously though, I’d be so scared out of my wits that I’m not sure that I’d even know what to say.  If I’m allowed I’d ask which sect was the one that got it right.

But the same book that people get this idea from they also get the idea that God loves his creation.  This whole judgment day scenario doesn’t match up with a God that cares about his creation.  A lot of other questionable stories come from this book, so this is why I can take this thing with a bit of a sense of humor – it just doesn’t seem real to me.

Maybe There Are Gods

godsWrapping The Series Up

In this post I ended with this:

In my future posts I plan to give a few more reasons why I don’t believe in gods, will try to explain why proofs for gods aren’t very convincing to me, and will end with my personal opinion on the best approach theists should use to convince others of the existence of gods.

and this post is the final in the series where I’ll share my opinion on the best approach for theists to convince others.  I also mentioned several times along the way that I would share why I still wonder whether gods might exist, what would change my mind, and even share my own views of which formulations of that would make more sense to me if I were to change my mind.

The philosophical arguments for God’s existence are basically interesting questions or conundrums about existence that we really just don’t have the kind of information we need to form any conclusions about, so they didn’t help me before, during, and still after I was a Christian.  I can understand that others might find them helpful, but as I’ve explained they just aren’t convincing to me.

SerendipitySerendipity, Miracles, and Coincidence

Maybe you just happened to be thinking about religion that night just at the very same time that you turned on the telly and they were amazingly talking about Jainism.  Or perhaps you experienced a healing after being prayed for.  Everyone has these stories that seem to go beyond coincidence.  A lot of them aren’t too impressive, but every once in a while you’ll come across some that do seem surprising.  These are the things that make me wonder if there is any meaning or agency involved behind the scenes.

As far as serendipitous stories go, the most amazing one I’ve heard was from my wife’s grandfather.  He believes in a Taiwanese tribal god, and he was in the midst of bombings in World War II when he saw a shiny object on the ground.  He decided to walk over to get it and right as he went to pick it up a bomb exploded in the place that he had just moved from.  The shiny object ended up being a trinket with the symbol of the tribal god of his family on it.  He has other stories about why he believes in that Taiwanese god but that one in particular has always stuck with me.  While this causes me to wonder, it doesn’t cause me to believe that his god exists as I’m sure many people reading this wouldn’t be convinced either.  But if you are willing to toss away these miraculous stories from other religions why are you so quick at judging others for doubting your own?

So instead perhaps all these miracle stories could be studied by probability theorists, and perhaps a good case could be made for causation.  Doesn’t sound like an easy task but it would be certainly something I would be very interested in following up on.  My suggestion to anyone who does this however is to stay in the bounds of science, because people are starting to become more educated about pseudo-science, and while there will always be those that are convinced by that, I believe if current trends continue we will see credulity like that become less prevalent.

There are several issues with serendipity – first, these strange events also seem to happen even for the most mundane of things.  For example, several months ago I was teaching the playing card game “war” to my son and trying to teach him the concept of less than or greater than.  We went through maybe 6 or 7 rounds before I decided to tell him the rules that happen when the numbers match, and wouldn’t you know it the very next cards that showed up matched.  I tried to remember that example just for this post, and there are many other extremely mundane “coincidences” like that which I don’t even make a point to remember, some even stranger than that.  Should we really be making some conclusions based on these kind of events?  Is “coincidence” a valid / justified explanation for these events?

And some do believe that these rare events that some would call miracles are actually to be expected given natural probabilities.  I’ll likely write more about this in the future, but here’s a primer.

It’s also very clear that these events happen across all religions and across all cultures.  Given that, if I was to believe in a traditional monotheistic God then I can’t see picking the God of just one religion.  While I have a hard time seeing the traditional personal omni-god (POG) concept as probable, if I did return to that belief it would be a more universalist type of belief in a God who for some strange reason doesn’t seem to be a very good communicator yet is somehow trying to communicate with humans through all different religions.

Certainty

Another thing that should be avoided is this insistence on certainty.  When someone like Ray Comfort says that he knows that God exists as much as he knows that his wife exists, I believe a whole lot of people see through that, and are also pushed away by things like that.  It’s just way too oversold, and gives the appearance of a sneaky used car salesman.  Belief in the existence of gods should fall along the continuum of certainty levels just like any other belief we would take in life.  For example, while I usually take a multi-vitamin in the morning I’m not terribly convinced of its efficacy.  I’ve read different things regarding vitamins, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of consensus.  So I don’t always take them, and I certainly wouldn’t go around pushing them on others or judging them for believing differently.  This is the normal way that we believe things in life, and frankly a belief in gods shouldn’t be different.  This is why I have great respect for some of my theist friends who have said things like “Christianity works for me, but by all means I realize that I could be wrong about it being true and I don’t judge anyone for doubting.”

Just a Very Small Smorgasbord of Different Possibilities

So to me there is certainly no reason for me to take a hard stance on any worldview as a result of these kind of strange events, and given the law of truly large numbers I even see reason to doubt there is meaning behind any of them, but nevertheless my human mind still wonders, and I think about different possibilities involving ultimate questions.  Here’s just a few:

pantheism– Spinoza’s or Einstein’s God, which is very much like pantheism – a popular option that some paradoxically call the “God of the atheists”.  Here’s an interesting talk about Spinoza’s God.  If gods were just described as “entities higher than us” or if a God is described as a “being of infinite attributes” then the universe or whatever else there is that exists seems to fit this.  But as I’ve said before that definition of gods doesn’t seem to fit the traditional understanding of gods as personal thinking agents, so perhaps it just causes confusion in communication.  Just like Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Paul Davies and a lot of other atheist scientists use the word “God” in their popular books and while I’m sure it helps them sell more books, it gets misinterpreted by many.  Either way some of this is just semantics.

– Several gods messing with us – Every once in a while I wonder whether there may be spiritual entities out there somewhere messing with our minds and laughing it up at the scene down here on earth.  Monotheists obviously aren’t very fond of polytheism, but interestingly enough it only takes 2 gods to completely wipe away the problem of suffering or evil.

Transcend– Entirely transcendent gods – perhaps the answer is way above and beyond what our human minds are capable of understanding.  Or perhaps we are byproducts of a universe whose purpose was actually meant for some things or some beings (aliens) way more advanced than ourselves.  Much like we view amoeba or other animals as not being as important a part of the purpose of existence as the conscious, thinking agents that we are, maybe there are other beings out in the universe (or other universes) who would think the same of us if they were ever to meet us.  Perhaps they would think that our inability to obtain certainty in knowledge, our ability to be wrong, and our inability to fit the concept of infinity into our finite brains are surprisingly primitive.  Or perhaps they do something even beyond what we understand as “thinking”.  Something entirely transcendent.  I’ve seen a lot of traditional theists describe the God they believe in as a transcendent concept – something that we humans are not capable of defining or understanding, but yet at the same time they feel comfortable assigning certain attributes to their God.  To me if one or more exists then I’d lean more toward thinking they were entirely transcendent.

– Just to encourage people to think more outside of the box, here’s a link to some videos that Closer to Truth has of philosophers discussing alternative concepts of gods.

Maybe try to come up with your own conceptions and think them through.  Any way to confirm or falsify those ideas?  Any way for them to be empirically tested?  Perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks of all of these ideas is that they are unlikely to be able to be tested.  Much like Max Tegmark’s (MIT professor) multiverse.  Well, more on that another time.

The more I experience life and the more I read studies done relating to human nature, our minds and religion the more I lean toward thinking we live in a godless reality.  But for me I don’t have good reasons to be close-minded about it.

But If You Can’t Disprove It Then Aren’t You Agnostic?

Agnostic

I don’t believe the title of this post is correct, and I’d really like input from all my readers on this topic.

But before I go there I’d like to go over my own views again.  The graphic to the right totally cracked me up and it was one of those “yup, that’s definitely the image I want for this post”.  As I promised I would a couple of times before, I’m turning a bit of a corner now in my series (you know the one which is not very clearly a series and has been going on for 9 months) and I’m going to express the other side of the story, and will share even more on that in my next post.

Now I’ve expressed the kind of labels I think apply to my own viewpoints here and here.  I believe they still fit.  As I mentioned there I don’t see a need to argue semantics and some believe the labels are used as tactical debate moves, but that kind of stuff just irritates me – I’d much rather get at the meat of what’s real rather than win some silly debate.  I was recently invited to a neighborhood evangelistic small group and was asked why I called myself atheist when I wasn’t really that certain about the existence of gods.  My response was something like this: “I know that by strict definitions I am implicitly an atheist, and I also know that I am agnostic as well, and I frankly think possibilian fits me the best, but feel free to call me whatever you like, as long as it’s not a curse (wink) – instead of getting the right label on me what I’d much rather do is get across to you the kind of views I have, and maybe I can learn some from yours as well if I force myself to truly listen.  I am doubtful that the kind of gods that humans have described exist, but my certainty level is not extremely high on that.  I’m not so sure I am a naturalist but it’s probably fair to say I lean in that direction.  I highly value humans and all conscious beings (hide that chicken leg I’m chewing on, gulp).  If someone put a table with all possible worldviews out before me and forced me to bet which was true I’d likely choose one that had naturalistic tones to it (whatever that means), but I do wonder quite a lot about reality and whether there is something deeper to reality that perhaps transcends any experience or description that any human is even capable of describing at this stage in our development.”  Now how’s that for some cool dinner talk?

And then in this post I described some more about my somewhat relaxed view toward all this stuff, and likely confused some of my readers a little.

So a little more on point – agnosticism – I am an agnostic, but I’m not the kind that says “I don’t know and you don’t either.”Agnostic2  My agnosticism is my own and it really just means that I’m not quite so sure of my conclusions.  Perhaps I haven’t read enough or learned enough to realize that I can be sure about this topic.  Perhaps one can be epistemically justified in claiming that gods do not exist.  Which leads to my question.

I’ve seen a lot of theists (and some agnostics) say that that if you cannot disprove something then you should claim agnosticism.  But there are some analogies that kind of fly in the face of this.  The issue is not about 100% certainty – all who are well thought know that.  I’ve given the example of ghosts before.  I don’t believe the arguments for the existence for ghosts is very convincing.  Do I have proof that ghosts do not exist.  Of course I don’t.  Perhaps they exist but for some reason would prefer to only make themselves known to a select few (sound familiar?).  But should I say I’m agnostic about ghosts?  This is not how most people practically communicate their everyday beliefs.  A lot of people simply say they do not believe in ghosts.  And yes I do believe this relates to the burden of proof, but I don’t see it as a burden I need to put on anyone else – for me it is a burden on myself – if I want to say I believe in ghosts then I feel I should have convincing reasons that justify that belief.  If I don’t have them then I feel I am epistemically justified in claiming that I believe ghosts do not exist.

Take the spirit in the closet that my 6 year old son is afraid of.  It’s dark in there at night and he’s seen some movement in there (shadows maybe), and noises as well (shifting toys maybe due to gravity).  But no matter what I tell him he still wants me to make sure the closet door gets closed before he goes to bed.  Can I prove there is no spirit in there?  Actually no – in fact it may very well explain things he has heard and seen.  Ah, but there seem to be some better explanations for those things (at least to me).  But are those really better explanations?  We don’t know do we?  But why would the spirit not come out and simply reveal itself to us, or why can’t we see it when we go look in there.  Well it’s invisible of course, and we should not place any assumptions about the way that spirit thinks – for all we know it has it’s reasons for wanting to remain invisible (sound familiar?).  So then I should be forced to claim agnosticism about that spirit then right?  I’m thinking not.  I’m thinking there is some good epistemic justification there.  Is there the same for more deeper metaphysical questions that may relate to spiritual beings in general?  I’m not so sure.  Perhaps the strange experiences that so many people claim to have really do end up going a bit beyond just anecdotal – more on that in my next post.  And then there’s just the general question of existence itself – deep questions that seem strange to think about sometimes.

Questions: If you are a theist, can you see that there may be cases where things cannot be proven yet we would still say it is fair to claim they do not exist?  What other thoughts do you have on this?  If you are not a theist, do you feel you are epistemically justified in claiming that you know gods do not exist (not 100%, but enough practically speaking), and if so how would you formulate that?

The Unknowable Is Not Worth The Worry

ReligionsToChoose

Has there ever been a time in your life where you’ve thought deeply about ultimate questions?  Whether you call it religion, philosophy, metaphysics, or just important life questions, many (not all) people wonder about these things.  For some it even gets to the point of worry or fear when they begin to realize that they are human and may be wrong about what they believe.  Perhaps it is worry about the afterlife.  Or maybe just general worry about not having the correct answers to ultimate life questions.  For example, Robert Kuhn, host of Closer to Truth, has said in some of his interviews that the question of whether or not God exists has even tormented him.

There were several times in my life that these questions tormented me, but I no longer see any benefit from allowing them to control me.  I still have what I like to call a healthy interest in ultimate questions but I don’t let them get to me in the way that they did years ago.  Two periods in my life stand out very clearly to me – the first was right before I converted to Christianity, and the other was around the time that I left Christianity.  The second period especially was a very dark time for me, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to a noise fearing that God was about to punish me.

Fear is a natural thing and it saves us many times from getting badly hurt or killed, but it can be distorted and used in the wrong ways if it is applied toward “the unknowable” region of ultimate questions.

While I am not a Buddhist, many times what people of eastern religions say seems much more healthy to me than the more traditional mono-theistic religions.  What Ananda Guruge says in this particular video really resonated with a lot of what I have been thinking for several years now (especially the last part about the man shot with an arrow):

The “parable of the poisoned arrow” has a lot of wisdom in it that I believe we can all learn from.  This link explains it even clearer than the video and it’s worth the read.

My point is not that we should entirely give up on thinking about and exploring uncertain questions – obviously trying to understand the truth about reality is an important part of life and has the obvious benefits of improving our lives the closer we get to the truth about that reality.  That is what scientific, philosophical, and all other fields of investigations are all about.  By all means that should continue, but a healthy balance and understanding of uncertainty is also an important part of that process.

There isn’t too much I can say to people who don’t believe ultimate questions are elusive, that’s just something that some people begin to realize at some point in their lives, and some people never get there.  I’ve shared some of these ideas in the first few posts of my blog – much of it has to do with the realization of our humanity and ability to be wrong, especially as knowledge claims become more and more removed from our sphere of experience and more nebulous (or inscrutable) as far as probability claims might go.  But if you have gotten to that point then it should be very clear that worrying about these elusive questions cannot end up being healthy for your life in any way.  All that it does is physically stress your mind and your body with no productive purpose or conclusion to help it reach to.  In fact in some cases stress can negatively impact our rational decision making process – so in effect allowing these questions to torment you can possibly cause you to form the wrong conclusions about the very questions that you want properly answered.  If you want to learn more about the mind, fear, stress, and ways to overcome fear this post by Victoria N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ is a great place to start.  Victoria has a lot of information related to the mind and has studied a great deal on the subject.

During that dark period of my life I described before, I searched several different religious traditions, spent a lot of time with several different religious groups, and met weekly with my former pastor to discuss and read many different books related to religious questions.  There came a point where I realized that the torment was hurting me more than helping me so I decided after a year or so to take a break.  I ended up spending several years very rarely reading or thinking about religion.  What is interesting is that instead of that being a dark time in my life, It ended up being filled with light – filled with life, love, friends, family, falling in love, getting married, having children…  It was after that long period that I was able to return to a more balanced, healthy, and much more enjoyable exploration of ultimate questions.

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”.

Summary

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.