Proof #8: Near Death Experiences

A reply to proof #8 of God is Imaginary.

The crux of this proof lies in the following paragraph:

What is not mentioned [about near-death experiences (or NDEs)] is that there is a drug called Ketamine that produces all of the elements of an NDE when it is injected into normal, non-dying people. In other words, an NDE is a natural, chemically induced state that the human brain enters. The trigger for an NDE is lack of oxygen to the brain and body. If you read scientific papers . . ., you find that there is a completely chemical and completely non-spiritual reason for the features of every NDE.

The conclusion that GII wants you to draw from this is that there is no spiritual cause for an NDE, which means there is no spiritual significance to death. Leaving death as a purely natural process with no significance means that GII can conclude that there is no afterlife. No afterlife isn't direct proof that God is imaginary, but in the mind of our anonymous author it is strong circumstantial evidence.

This isn't a very strong argument. Death is a natural process, and as such we would expect to be able to find natural causes. A natural process can still have a spiritual significance, however. Events of spiritual significance are not limited solely to events that have spiritual causes--it's just silly to try to argue that.

GII gives an example of a scientific paper that shows the effects of ketamine on healthy individuals. That paper, written by Dr. Karl Jansen, concludes:

Spiritualists have sometimes seen scientific explanations of NDE's as dull and reductionist. However, the exploration of the mind-brain interface is one of the most exciting adventures which humans have ever undertaken. The real reductionism lies in attempts to draw a mystical shroud over the NDE, and to belittle the substantial evidence in favour of an scientific explanation.

Thus, it seems (at first blush) to support the position that GII holds: NDEs have a natural explanation and should be studied as a purely natural phenomenon. People suggesting otherwise are impeding the progress of science.

However, since it was written, Dr. Jansen has affixed the following disclaimer to the paper:

I am no longer as opposed to spritual explanations of these phenomena as this article would appear to suggest. Over the past two years (it is quite some time since I wrote it) I have moved more towards the views put forward by John Lilly and Stan Grof. Namely, that drugs and psychological disciplines such as meditation and yoga may render certain 'states' more accessible. The complication then becomes in defining just what we mean by 'states' and where they are located, if indeed location is an appropriate term at all. But the apparent emphasis on matter over mind contained within this particular article no longer accurately represents my attitudes. My forthcoming book 'Ketamine' will consider mystical issues from quite a different perspective, and will give a much stronger voice to those who see drugs as just another door to a space, and not as actually producing that space.

So the very person who proposes that NDEs ought to be studied scientifically and is used by GII to bolster that very case now favors a more philosophical approach. An approach that is sensitive to the spiritual dimension of the human mind rather than just studying the mechanical aspects of brain chemistry. Jansen expands on the case of ketamine inducing a spiritual state in his book Ketamine: Dreams and Realities (MAPS: 2004).

But there's more at play here. Death is actually a natural process that has spiritual significance. As a natural process, we expect that it has a cause found square within our universe (for more on the philosophical interaction of discrete systems see proof #4). If death had no internal cause, then an autopsy would be a waste of time. Since a cause of death can be found within the universe, it stands to reason that a wholly natural trigger may also exist. In this case, ketamine kick starts the process of death. Once exposed to it, an otherwise healthy person begins to die. That would trigger an NDE if the subject is still conscious.

That is still consistent with a theistic worldview.

The bottom line is that just because X can be shown to have a natural cause, it does not follow that there is no spiritual significance to X. The naturalist doesn't believe that anything beyond our universe can impact our universe. That means that the naturalist searches for a cause internal to our universe for each effect, never considering the possibility that the cause may lay outside our universe. NDEs are viewed as purely a natural construction--especially because a natural cause can be readily identified--and the naturalist won't assign any significance to them.