From the Archives: Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul. The tl;dr: Most arguments for spiritual belief that I encounter are so bad, they don’t even count as arguments. But some believers in religion or spirituality do try to make real arguments for their beliefs, and try to defend them with evidence and logic. This evidence and logic are never very good… but they are sincere attempts to engage with reality instead of ignoring it. So I want to do these arguments the honor of taking them seriously… and pointing out how they’re completely mistaken. This piece takes on the argument that near-death experiences provide some sort of real scientific evidence for the existence of an immaterial soul separate from the brain, and which lives on after the brain dies.

A nifty pull quote:

Given that the evidence supporting the “biological process of the brain” explanation is rigorously gathered, carefully tested, thoroughly cross-checked, internally consistent, consistent with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, able to produce mind-bogglingly accurate predictions, not slanted towards wishful thinking, and is expanding our understanding of the mind every day.

Given that the evidence supporting the “immortal soul separate from the brain” explanation is flimsy, anecdotal, internally inconsistent, blasted into non-existence upon careful examination, totally at odds with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, and strongly biased towards what people most desperately want to believe.

Which of these explanations of consciousness seems more likely?

And which explanation of near-death experiences seems more likely?


And now a quick question: Are there any of these evidence-based arguments for religious or spiritual belief that I’m missing?

I wrote this series to address the arguments for religion that actually take the question of whether religion is true or not seriously, and that attempt to offer real evidence in favor of religious claims. Of the countless arguments I’ve seen for religion I was able to come up with five — the first cause argument, the argument from design, the argument from fine-tuning, “I feel it in my heart,” and near-death experiences — that fit this category. The rest are just bafflegab: excuses for why evidence isn’t necessary, defenses of the notion that we shouldn’t care whether religion is true as long as it’s useful, accusations that atheists are mean for raising the question in the first place, Pascal’s Fucking Wager, etc. Are there any actual evidence- based arguments for religion that I should be addressing in this series? If so, please let me know.

From the Archives: Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul
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12 thoughts on “From the Archives: Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul

  1. 2

    Are there any of these evidence-based arguments for religious or spiritual belief that I’m missing?

    Is the the ontological argument evidence based? No, it is just silly. It might be worth ripping another hole in that one though. Just for fun.

    It might be fun to cover why personal experience isn’t reliable as evidence of a deity from a wider perspective outside of the NDE thing.

    Historical evidence might also be worth looking into. The schoolboy in me still remembers the description of primary, secondary and tertiary historical evidence and how they are combined to gain an understanding of historical events. Many Christians (for some insane reason) seem to think that there is as much evidence for Jesus as there is for someone like Gaius Julius Caesar (100BC to 44BC) but they are wrong. There’s no primary evidence for Jesus and secondary sources (Josephus is often cited) are based on hearsay and statements of belief rather than reference to primary sources now lost. Tertiary sources alone (including the gospel books) are insufficient as historical evidence.

    I’d also be interested on your take about the evolution of the Abrahamic religions from Judaism to Christianity to Islam and Mormonism. Why aren’t Christians still Jews? The Gospels don’t portray Jesus as a man who wanted to start a break away religion but as a Jew so why don’t Christians return to the roots of their faith? There are arguments but they apply to converting from Christianity to Islam as much as from Judaism to Christianity. So why aren’t Christians abandoning their faith to take up the “new and improved” religion of the Muslims? How about the very latest example of Christian primitivism attempting to restore the faith to a purer form? Joseph Smith was apparently visited by an angel just like Mohammed was. Why doubt their accounts and not the account of Mary and her encounter with a winged messenger of God?

    Well, you did ask.

  2. 3

    One that I’ve gotten a time or two which is sssssort of evidence-based is the testimonial “my life changed so much for the better when I found religion.” This may fall on the line between the “religion is true” versus “religion is useful” type of arguments, but I’ve actually had it presented to me as evidence that religion is true – it had the effect they said it would have! A testable claim! It’s also a hard thing to counter in one-on-one discussions because it sort of puts you in the position of appearing to want to change their life back to its unhappy, pre-born-again state. (This may be too close to the “I feel it in my heart” type of argument to need its own post, though.)

    One of the times I encountered it, this woman was explaining to me how her boyfriend introduced her to Jesus, and her life has been so much better/fuller/happier/meaningful since then. My response was something like, “It sounds like you found in your boyfriend and his church a support structure that you really needed in your life. I think you do your boyfriend a disservice by attributing all of the positive effect he’s had on you to a fictitious third party.” The discussion was terminated pretty soon after that, so maybe it was a presumptuous thing for me to say, I don’t know.

  3. 4

    I’m in agreement with hoverFrog. I often hear from people about how there is “real, historical evidence/proof” of an itinerant preacher named Jesus who got into trouble with the Romans or what not. (I think these people have been reading Lee Strobel?) I’d certainly be interested in seeing your take down of that line of thinking . . . but that’s certainly a specific religion, not a religion writ large kind of thing.

  4. 5

    “Are there any of these evidence-based arguments for religious or spiritual belief that I’m missing?”

    These are not always that hard to knock over, but:

    1. Miracles. By definition, a miracle would mean there were gods, but we could refine it to ‘there may be a class of event that only a god could enable’ or hedge and say ‘there may be a class of event where “gods did it” is just more likely than any other explanation’. (spoilers: there aren’t, but there are a lot of crude fakes).

    2. History. The Catholic Church claims the historical fact that Jesus gave them the car keys. It further goes on to say that the fact it’s lasted all this time is evidence of divine protection. Many nations have suggested that their success is down to divine providence.

    3. Prophecy. If a holy book makes a series of concrete, accurate predictions, particularly if they involve knowledge that would have been impossible to acquire from other human beings when the book was written, that would be compelling evidence that, at the very least, *something* unusual was up.

    4. As we’d expect, what people say that God has told them directly is remarkably consistent, across every country and cultu… DOH!!!!

  5. 6

    “…countless arguments for religion..”

    You got that right. There’s heaps. Of course they arent all equally persuasive – and some ppl are not persuaded by ANY

    But the questions remain.

    Which one out of so many and why are there so many?

  6. 8

    Which one out of so many and why are there so many?

    Lion IRC, are you saying that the fact that there are lots of arguments in favor of various religions is notable? If so, I disagree; coming up with arguments for and against stuff has got to be in the top ten list of most-popular human pastimes.

  7. 9

    I just read the original comments in the archived article. Wow, you certainly received a heaping helping of hostility! I had to keep focused on the dates of the posts just to keep from entering the fray.

    As to your question…

    The arguments I get most often are the utility argument, sundry arguments from ignorance, and the argument from popularity. These are generally played as a shell game: they tell me that religion makes people feel better, and I suggest that soothing lies are still lies; “they aren’t lies, lots of people believe them,” they say, and I say that lots of people can be flat out wrong; “when you tell people that, you make them unhappy,” they say, so I say that avoiding unhappiness is less important than the truth; “We can’t know all of the truth, and look at how much you can’t explain, so maybe that’s where religion comes in,” they say, and I want to slit my wrists with Occam’s Razor…

    Nobody ever seems to argue from evidence, unless we get deep into debunking widespread popularity. Follow that chain back far enough, and somebody in the popularity pool must have come to believe what they do from some kind of evidence. Even if I’m willing to accept hearsay as valid evidence, I’d like to know what sort of evidence this popular source had at hand.

    Direct observation of miracles (mentioned above by Steve Jeffers). Revelation by god(s) and/or messenger(s) (see: Jeffers, above). Received wisdom by a direct observer or messenger/prophet (hearsay, often bolstered by the miraculously unbroken chain of history, see: Jeffers, above). These are all poor types of evidence, but the arguments *are* evidence-based.

    The level-best dodge I’ve ever encountered is the unrepeatable nature of miracles. A god could exist who performed exactly one miracle, leaving no traces beyond the unvarnished testimony of unimpeachable witnesses, and how could that real event be effectively debunked by anyone later on? It’s akin to the “we don’t need no stinkin’ evidence” argument, by arguing that evidence is effectively impossible to deliver.

    It’s not a great dodge. The words “unvarnished” and “unimpeachable” are damn poor things to shore up the gaping holes in such a line of reasoning. “Supposed those witnesses were fools, and/or they lied like hungry fishermen afterward,” I say, and they tell me how many people like these whoppers and how good it makes them all feel…

    – emc

  8. 10

    “Direct observation of miracles (mentioned above by Steve Jeffers). Revelation by god(s) and/or messenger(s) (see: Jeffers, above). Received wisdom by a direct observer or messenger/prophet (hearsay, often bolstered by the miraculously unbroken chain of history, see: Jeffers, above). These are all poor types of evidence, but the arguments *are* evidence-based.”

    I think it’s this simple: if there’s one miracle, once, then it’s game over for us atheists.

    It doesn’t mean it’s the Christian god, or a benevolent god, or anything close to any god any human has ever conceived of, but – by definition – it would mean there was *a* god.

    So it becomes a question of terms – what’s a miracle? Well, the Catholic Church has set a low bar these days: look up the ‘miracle’ attributed to Cardinal Newman (who didn’t believe in miracles), in which a Catholic priest prayed and his back pain cleared up. Oh, nearly forgot to mention *he was in hospital being treated for back pain and the medicine he took kicked in actually a little later than average*.

    And, y’know, if the best God can do is make a statue weep, then … fuck him. To quote St Edward of Izzard: ‘If there was a God, don’t you think he would have flicked Hitler’s head off? Don’t you think? “Oh,I’m not allowed to do anything.”, well, fuck off then. If you’re not allowed to do anything, then
    what’s the use? Just piss off and stop asking us to mumble things on Sundays.’. If there really is a God who feels that intervening to make a statue weep is a good use of his power, but he’ll let the Holocaust stand … quite frankly, that’s a rather sad god who deserves pity.

    But I think we can see that, theoretically, there is a class of event that is *best explained* as divine intervention. We can work out the exact definition, but … a particular group or intervention asks for the help of a particular god and something utterly beyond the ken of science happens to favour them. An angry horde of New Atheists pursues some sweet innocent Southern Baptists who were doing the Lord’s work by picketing the funeral of some murdered schoolgirl, and the Baptists reach the edge of a lake and pray and the waters part and they make their escape, then the waters close up and drown all the atheists, and a deep booming voice says ‘Ha, that shows you, you pinko faggots, for I am the Lord’

    There might be a perfectly rational explanation. But if an investigation can’t find one, I think the very best working explanation would be ‘God did that’.

    One miracle, once. That’s all it would take. The fact that every single one that every single religion has ever claimed has been very easy to explain, and a vast number are shown to be faked … well, unfortunately it doesn’t disprove the point.

  9. 11

    Above, Nisan wrote:
    Another argument seriously advanced by theists is the following argument from morality:

    “1. If there are objective moral values then God exists.
    2. There are objective moral values.
    3. Therefore, God exists.”

    (JBH) This is something we hear a lot, and it deserves a short, clear reply.

    Religion does not provide any such “objective basis” for goodness or morality. Religion offers a hearsay account of some guy claiming to have had the subjective experience of meeting a really big ghost who claimed to be the Creator of the Universe, demanded obedience, and offered promises and threats. We have to take on faith that the account is correct, that the “prophet” was telling the truth about his subjective experience, that he was not hallucinating or dreaming, AND that the ghost he encountered was telling the truth, was not some local shade playing a practical joke, or a demon who feeds off worship and sacrifices. Nothing that you have to take on faith is an “objective basis” for anything.

    For an “objective basis” for ethics, look at the consequences of actions for real people in this world. Because we are social animals evolved by natural selection, who survive by cooperating in groups, the great majority of people are going to value the health (survival-ability) of their families and the peace of their communities. A “good person” is a desirable neighbor, desirable from the point of view of people who wish to live in peace and raise families. If you want to maintain peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors, don’t kill, steal, lie, or break agreements. This is objective. As Shakespeare wrote, “It needs no ghost, Milord, come from the grave, to tell us this.”

  10. 12

    I agree that premise 1, “If there are objective moral values then God exists” is flawed. And I believe evolution plays a role in explaining the causal origins of our moral intuitions. But I don’t think it justifies our morality. Indeed, evolution is contingent, so it can’t be a basis for any objective morality.

    Evolution is part of a good answer to the related epistemological question, “How do we know what is right?”

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