• What Happens When We Die? Religion, Science, and NDEs.

    • Posted on Nov 20, 2012

    Here's a long talk I offered just over a year ago to the Cedar Falls, Iowa town/gown Supper Club, a group that has met monthly.  It's composed of academics and non-academics (gown/town) and has met since the 1940s.  

    Each member gives a talk on a subject that interests him/her, but is OUTSIDE his/her area of expertise.  The talks are supposed to be designed to provoke discussion and controversy, to get members thinking outside the box.   

    Death and dying interests us all, and I researched the subject at length for this talk.   I would also now add Eben Alexander's book  PROOF OF HEAVEN to the books cited at the end.   

    Nov. 15, 2011  

             For certain Christians, what happens after we die makes perfect and certain sense: we go to meet Jesus and his Father in a celestial realm, mysteriously accompanied by the Holy Ghost, and we live in bliss for eternity.  For saved evangelicals, that is--those who have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal savior.    The unsaved billions—Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Catholics—will roast in eternal fire for their ignorance and/or wrong beliefs.   

             I heard this same story over and over in sermon and song weekly for the first twelve years of my life at Calvary Baptist Church in Cedar Falls, and came to believe it.  Eventually I too became saved--saved from eternal damnation, and to hell with those wrongbelievers.  To paraphrase the great old hymn:  “’twas the church that taught my heart to fear, and the church my fear relieved.”  What a deal. 

             Saved or not, we’ve all attended memorial services where a grieving loved one insists that the deceased has gone to a better place. Often they’re said to be smiling down, amused and honored by our comments. This happens even at relatively secular mourning events.          

             In one way, I still believe this message of comfort:  if cessation of pain is a good thing, I know they’re better off.  Death ends bodily pain, since pain begins with nerves located in the physical body.

             However, if the “better place” is the fundamentalists’ celestial realm where Jesus and his Father reign like Kings of a Sky-Utopia, it seems preposterous. I lost my born-again evangelical religion before I could legally drive, and stopped believing in all formal religion not long after.

             So I had none of the comfort that religious certainty provides when I lost my mother at nineteen, my close friend Dick Rackstraw a decade later, my brother Jim some 13 years ago, my father three years ago, and my oldest and dearest male friend Dale Phelps two years ago.

             Except for their no longer suffering, never did I think of my mother or Dick or Jim or my dad and Dale as having gone to a better place, though at times I wondered if they had gone to a different place. 

             Much, much different.  They might have discovered, as Walt Whitman asserted, “To die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.”   To even call it a “place” misleads.  

             Over the past five years I’ve been entertained by a lively and articulate bunch of atheists, partly as a reaction to my fundamentalist upbringing.  I’m speaking of Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, Dan Barker, Christopher Hitchens, Roger Dawkins, and Carl Sagan, all of whom reinforced my semi-certainty about the fairy-tale nature of literal heavens and hells. 

              Just getting a religious person to define “God” is enough to reveal they stand on shaky ground, as Hitchens points out.    Ask them to explain the massive suffering visited regularly on mankind and they stand on no ground at all, if their God is both omniscient and good.  If He’s not neither good nor omniscient, what makes Him God?  This, from former fundamentalist Bart Ehrmann, who cannot reconcile a loving and all-knowing God with massive suffering visited regularly on mankind. 

             Still, semi-certainty remained, my doubt about doubt.

             I always felt when reading these atheists that they were just too sure of themselves, too set in their opposition to everything that religion supposedly represents.  In a way, they themselves seemed like fundamentalists, the flip side of that same coin. 

             As a result, recently I’ve turned to a long-time favorite writer and thinker on these matters: Karen Armstrong.  You may have heard of or read some of her books:  A History of God, Buddha, The Prophet Muhammad, The Spiral Staircase, and her 2009 book The Case for God.   Armstrong is a former nun who fell away from religion too, but unlike most, came back to it with new eyes, partly as a reaction to those specific atheists I just mentioned.   In The Case for God she asserts that she cannot believe in religion as an ideology, but rather as an activity that leads toward respecting the vast mysteries of existence.        

             Armstrong insists that seriously undertaking the discipline of regularly contemplating what religions reveal at their mysterious best should incite not dogmatic faith-based belief so much as awe and wonder about the nature and mystery of the universe.  

             In her conclusion she describes the truly religious person who has found success in practicing what religion offers at its best:  “Instead of being a mere workaday cup, they aspired to transform themselves into a beautiful ritual vessel brimful of the sanctity they were learning to see in life.  They tried to honor the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being and create societies that protected and welcomed the stranger, the alien, the poor, and the oppressed.  Of course, they often failed, sometimes abysmally.  But overall they found that the disciplines of religion helped them to do all this.  Those who applied themselves most assiduously showed that it was possible for mortal men to live on a higher, divine, or godlike plane and thus wake up to their true selves.”

             Armstrong here articulates what I’ve been feeling about these ultimate issues.   And I agree with her that hard-core atheists are refuting a straw deity.   Armstrong calls fundamentalist beliefs aberrations, at least in the larger scheme of centuries of theologians wrestling with questions of faith and knowledge.

             But non-evangelical Christian theologians believed that certain Bible passages pointed to a great mystery, and that whenever humans pretend to understand it on their own terms, and especially if they take any of it literally, they become idolaters.   In other words, many Christian theologians were non-believers in a literal God too—they believed that religion at its most valid challenges us to contemplate the mysteries behind the veil, which must forever remain beyond our ability to even begin to understand, much less presume to use for daily needs.  Just undertaking that journey requires a rare mix of humility and curiosity, a willingness to remain a permanent beginner.  And a willingness to reject religions that have turned idolatrous. 

             Modern atheists don’t seem to notice or care about this powerful insight, which sits firmly in the Christian and Jewish tradition, according to Armstrong.  We can attempt to explain what God is not, but can’t begin to comprehend what He/She/It is.

             Armstrong’s insights have helped me explain some experiences that anti-fundamentalist atheism cannot.  

             I’m speaking of NDEs, or Near-Death-Experiences.  Atheists of the Hitchens variety will dismiss what follows as patent nonsense.  For them, life begins in the womb and ends in the tomb.  I’m not so sure.  

             I’ve had two experiences, one first-hand and another second-hand that have made me wonder whether the tomb is the end of our road.

              The first happened the night after Dick Rackstraw, a dear friend and colleague, committed suicide in 1974.  He died by inhaling carbon monoxide from his car exhaust in his garage the previous night about four blocks from where I was sleeping near the UNI campus.  The next night he came to visit.

             I woke from a sound sleep well after midnight and realized that some version of Dick Rackstraw was sitting in the living room, waiting to talk face to face about his passage to another realm.  Understand, he didn’t talk out loud; there was no human voice literally speaking to me.  But I understood everything he was communicating.   

             Dick insisted that if I wasn’t ready to talk, it was no big deal.  He knew I would find meeting my deceased friend beyond strange. 

              I wasn’t exactly scared, but I knew that communicating directly with a spirit I could actually see was going to change my life forever. I had no frame of reference that allowed me to talk to ghosts, holy or otherwise.   So I didn’t.

              I still wish I had, and would now in a heartbeat, assuming my heart could take it.   However, if I had, I doubt I would ever talk in public about it; it just sounds too crazy.

             The second experience involved two conversations I had with a friend’s wife.  I visited them in Arizona years ago when she first talked about it and again at the end of September when we dined before my fiftieth class reunion.  Both times she grew too emotional to talk about it, and after catching her breath, talked about how utterly beautiful it was, how much she wanted to stay there, on the other side of this bright tunnel.  She regretted coming back, since she had gone through a car windshield and was in considerable pain.    After that, she never feared death at all; in fact, she was looking forward to it, realizing that she had in fact come back from being dead, or near-dead. 

             So, what is this “Near-Death Experience,” or NDE?  What do materialist-minded scientists say about it?  Religions, by the way, are fairly quiet about it, some of them even claiming that such visions are the work of the devil.

              I’m drawing here on Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, by Pim van Lommel, Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death, by Chris Carter, and Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences, by Jeffrey Long with Paul Perry.  There are many others, beginning with Raymond Moody’s 1975 book, Life after Life, and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s earlier studies on death and dying.   There’s also a web site you may want to visit if you find this subject engaging:  NDERF, for Near-Death Experience Research Foundation.  

             So, what is an NDE?  A “Near-Death Experience” is actually fairly well-reported among humans in all cultures and times.  Plato reports on the story of Er, a soldier who died and came back on his funeral pyre after 12 days and reported on what he saw, which bears a few striking resemblances to modern NDEs.    According to Pim Van Lommel, “a near-death experience is the (reported) recollection of all the impressions gained during a special state of consciousness, which includes some specific elements such as witnessing a tunnel, a blinding light, a panoramic life review, meeting deceased relatives, or observing one’s own resuscitation.  This special state of consciousness can occur during a cardiac arrest, that is, during period of clinical death, but also in the course of a serious illness or without any apparent medical indication.” 

             I’m convinced Walt Whitman had such an experience, and in fact all mystics, including the founders of world religions, seem to have undergone a visitation to an afterlife realm or beyond life realm—another form of existence, but not really “life” as we understand it.  When someone asks me whether I believe in either God or life after death, I offer my best answer:  Depends on what you mean by God and life.  Definitions change everything.

             Now, thanks to new and widespread use of resuscitating devices after heart attacks, people can be revived after losing consciousness and in some cases all signs of life, including heartbeat and brain waves.  Flatliners returning to talk about what’s over there.   

             In some cases, doctors had completely given up (these are rare) yet the person seems to snap back to life spontaneously.   These people have been reluctant to report what they saw and heard, but now they’re actively sought out and interviewed at length.  (See the NDERF web site) [Near-Death Experience Research Foundation]

             They describe these aspects, and I’m giving them here arranged here from most to least frequently reported:

    • feelings of peace or joy
    • out of body experience
    • encountering a light
    • meeting the deceased or a being of light
    • unearthly realm
    • entering a tunnel or darkness
    • life review

             How does science explain these anomalous reports from

    people who were supposed to be deeply unconscious?  Pim Van Lommel explains,  “I grew up in an academic environment where I was taught there was a reductionist and materialist explanation for everything. And up until that point, I had always accepted this as indisputably true.” 

             His large-scale NDE research project changed his mind completely.      

             Conventional science (and common sense, for that matter) leads to what seems clearly and obviously true:  brain and mind are one and the same.  Whatever happens to the brain affects the mind, directly and indisputably, and whatever happens to the mind seems to connect to and directly affect the brain.  This is the standard “materialist” explanation, and would lead to the logical conclusion that when the brain dies, the mind dies, along with all memories and personality of the brain’s owner.  Just like our senses tell us the earth is flat and sits still while the sun orbits around it.  

             As both Van Lommel and Chris Carter argue, the materialist explanation does not fit what research is beginning to reveal, nor what many relate as first-hand experiences.   In fact, as Van Lommel observes, “On the basis of . . . studies of near-death experience, recent results from neurophysiological research, and concepts from quantum physics, . . . consciousness cannot be located in a particular time and place.  This is known as nonlocality.”

             He continues:  “Complete and endless consciousness is everywhere in a dimension that is not tied to time or place, where past, present, and future all exist and are accessible at the same time . . .”

             “Our brain may be compared both to a television set, receiving information from electromagnetic fields and decoding this into sound and vision, and to a television camera, converting or encoding sound and vision into electromagnetic waves. Our consciousness transmits information to the brain and via the brain receives information from the body and senses.  The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness.”   

             Of course at the level of mere speculation, this assertion amounts to a Twilight Zone episode or ruminations of spiritualists and theosophists.

             It’s the doctors and scientists, many of whom were former skeptics like Van Lommel who provide compelling evidence beyond anecdotes and wishful thinking.

             Van Lommel devotes a chapter to reviewing the materialist explanations for NDEs and convincingly refutes them, at least for me.

             Here’s an overview of his main refutation.  NDEs, which are now accepted (even by skeptics) as actual experiences that about five percent of the population have had, are nothing more than an oxygen deficiency, which causes the brain to go into a kind of overload and produce so called “Near Death” hallucinations. 

             As Van Lommel states, “This used to be my own firm belief.”

    Hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, however, and a related increase in carbon dioxide, will in fact produce fragments of an NDE experience, but not the whole integrated experience that affects people so deeply that it changes their lives.  Nor can other chemical release explanations, since the experiences people report are more like extended lucid dreams, and in fact they can sometimes relate actual verifiable conversations among the living which took place while they were being resuscitated—hardly possibly while unconscious and barely breathing.     In effect, Van Lommel insists, none of the many explanations—whether physiological, psychological, or hallucinogenic drug related—explain the NDE in all its complexity.  He asserts “there appears to be an inverse relationship between clarity of consciousness and loss of brain function.”

             Moreover,  “There is no explanation for the fact that people across all ages and cultures have reported essentially similar experiences.” 

             Van Lommel conducted a large study in the Netherlands in the first part of this decade, which was published in Lancet, and replicated with essentially the same results in America and Britain.  All three studies concluded that NDEs are real, they reveal a definite conscious awareness when the patient was unconscious, and that “This finding all but forces us to reconsider the relationship between the brain and consciousness.”    “The fact that clear, lucid experiences were reported during a time when the brain was devoid of activity does not sit easily with current scientific belief.” --This, from Penny Sartori, the British researcher who replicated Van Lommel’s study.

             These studies led Van Lommel to conclude  “We have no direct evidence to prove if and how neurons in the brain produce the subjective essence of our consciousness.”  

             Now here’s the mind-boggler:  Van Lommel asserts there’s no way our physical brains can both store and process the information needed to create consciousness.  It’s like a computer putting out information with a processor that’s too small to have processed it.      Van Lommel mentions Simon Berkovich, a computer expert, who calculated that “despite the brain’s huge number of synapses (each cubic centimeter has approximately 10 to the 11th power of dendrites connected to synapses, which means that the brain contains a total of about 10 to the 14th power of synapses.”

             Yet at any waking moment the brain’s output in terms of processing and short and long-term memory requires approximately 10 to the 24th power of synaptic action.   That’s not possible, given the number of connections within the brain itself, according to recent brain research.

             Or as Van Lommel puts it,  “On the basis of these findings, we are forced to conclude that the brain has insufficient capacity for storing all memories with associated thoughts and feelings or retrieving capacity for stored information.”

             The only explanation for this disparity is that memories are stored not in brain tissue itself but in electromagnetic fields of the brain.  Again, Van Lommel explains: “Neurosurgeon Karl Pribram was equally certain that memories cannot be stored in brain cells, but only in the coherent patterns of the electromagnetic fields of neural networks.” (p. 194) LOCATION 3678 of Van Lommel book.

             To Pribram, the brain is less like a central processing unit and more like a hologram, which is “capable of storing the vast quantity of information of the human memory.”  Some 90 years ago, psychologist Karl Lashley proved that “memories are not stored in any single part of the brain but throughout the brain as a whole.”        

             Moreover, the brain is highly plastic, meaning it can be physically altered by thoughts—thoughts can alter physical structures in the brain, which explains a good deal about the placebo effect, not to mention hypnosis.

             The conclusion of all this speculating?  The brain facilitates consciousness, but does not create or merely contain it.

             And here’s the larger point:  consciousness can be experienced independently of brain function.   That’s what NDEs reveal.

    We can and do leave our bodies at times, to put it more directly, since consciousness is not located only in our brain.  

             Van Lommel concludes, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that our endless consciousness preceded birth and will survive death independently of the body and in a nonlocal space where time and place play no role.  According to the theory of nonlocal consciousness there is no beginning and no end to consciousness.”

              Jeffrey Long, a doctor who founded the Near Death Experience Research Foundation and author of Evidence of the Afterlife:  The Science of Near-Death Experience, asserts that “I long ago quit believing that death is the cessation of our existence.  I was born into a scientific family. My father was the chair of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Iowa and a onetime contender for the Nobel Prize.  Through him and others in our family I developed great respect for science.      

             By scientifically studying the more than 1,300 cases shared with the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation, I believe that the nine lines of evidence presented in [his] book [mentioned earlier] all converge on one central point: There is life after death.”

             Again, I want to remind us that it’s not “life” as we know it—it’s an ineffable state of consciousness free of time and space—whatever you choose to call that.   I would avoid calling it “heaven,” which sounds like a place with definite features—clearly a projection that arises from our bodily attachment to time and place.

             To close, I’d like to quote what Mona Simpson related about her brother’s death.  In her printed eulogy printed recently in the New York Times she said that he spoke three sets of two monosyllables as he looked over his family’s shoulders:  Oh wow.  Oh wow.  Oh wow.   Those were his last words.  

             Mona Simpson’s brother, of course, was the lucky Steve Jobs.  

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