NDE: Book Review: Science And The Near-Death Experience

NDE: Book Review: Science And The Near-Death Experience

Sep 28


Book by Chris Carter
Review by Robert Perry
NHNE Pulse
September 28, 2010

After reading Carter’s masterful Parapsychology and the Skeptics, I eagerly awaited the second book in his three-book series. Science and the Near-Death Experience builds a powerful and compelling case that the mind is not dependent on the brain and can exist independently of the brain. (To read excerpts, you can go to the book’s website.)

To build this case, Carter postpones discussion of near-death experiences (NDEs) and survival of death until after he has spent the first 100 pages discussing the fundamental question underlying these issues: Does consciousness exist independently of the brain? I think this was a wise move, because, for the skeptic, the real decisions regarding the ability of consciousness to survive death take place here, at the question of the fundamental nature of reality. Having decided that reality is obviously strictly material, the skeptic then feels justified in dismissing the specific evidence for survival with flimsy, ad hoc explanations.

Carter takes us through us through eye-opening, extremely lucid discussions of neuroscience, quantum physics, memory storage, and theories of life (what animates and organizes living organisms). He presents eminent neuroscientists, like Wilder Penfield and John Eccles, whose research led them to conclude that there is an independent mind operating the mechanism of the brain. He explains at length why quantum physics permits, and in one prominent school of thought, even requires a dualism of mind and matter. He concludes that empirical evidence, philosophical logic, and the known laws of science fully permit the filter theory, which says that the brain doesn’t produce consciousness, but rather acts as a filter that allows through, as Aldous Huxley put it, only “a measly trickle” of consciousness. This broad conclusion frees us up to let the issue be settled by the evidence, rather than before the evidence.

He then moves on to the near-death experience, describing the classic stages of the NDE. At this point, I would have personally liked to see him highlight the expanded consciousness apparently present in NDEs (which, in the life review, can seemingly take in millions of events, each seen in astounding detail, from a host of different physical, personal, and interpersonal perspectives, simultaneously). This connects so strongly with the filter theory he has been propounding that I would have like to see this connection drawn out more.

Then he explores horrific NDEs, breaking them down into 1) inverted NDEs, in which the NDEr experiences the same classic stages as frightening rather than peaceful; 2) meaningless void NDEs, which appear to be the unpleasant side effects of drugs; and 3) hellish NDEs, which are the rarest of the three and strikingly idiosyncratic.

Carter then explores NDEs across cultures. He concludes that certain core features are cross-cultural, but that the life review and tunnel appear to be culture-specific. I really wish he had been able to include the NDERF cross-cultural study of NDEs, which was published in Jeffrey Long’s Evidence of the Afterlife (which came out earlier this year, probably after Carter’s book was finished). This study, the largest cross-cultural study yet carried out, found the life review and tunnel in non-Western accounts (all first-hand) at roughly the same frequencies as in Western accounts. I would like to have heard what Carter thought about this study.

Then Carter moves on to what seemed to me to be the strongest part of the book: several chapters exploring and refuting the proposed psychological, physiological, and pharmacological explanations of NDEs. These chapters were a real tour de force. He examined each of a dozen proposed explanations in detail, finding in each case that the phenomenon that supposedly explains NDEs (e.g., dissociated states, oxygen starvation, ketamine) is simply not a good match for the actual characteristics of NDEs. I particularly like how he dispatched Michael Persinger and his “God Helmet” and Susan Blackmore and her contrived, patchwork “dying brain” theory. By the time he is done, all of the proposed alternative explanations look so weak and flimsy that they appear to really rest on the underlying confidence that a materialist explanation simply must be true.

Then come chapters on NDEs that contain veridical perceptions from an out-of-body perspective and NDEs in which those born blind experience sight. These seem impossible to explain from the standpoint of any materialist hypothesis and appear to be direct refutations of the mind’s dependence on the brain (drawing on Karl Popper’s idea that science advances by refutations, which Carter explained so masterfully in his first book). In the end, the common equation of science with materialism comes out looking like an ideology, like its own kind of dogmatic faith.

A final, brief section explores death-bed visions, their consistency across cultures, their resistance to alternative explanations, and their parallels with NDEs. This sets us up for the third book in his series, which will present what he feels is the strongest evidence for survival: children’s apparent memories of previous lives, apparitions, and mediumistic communication.

This deserves to become a landmark book in the survival debate. Carter has a real gift for presenting complex, technical issues in simple, layman’s terms. And he has an even more impressive gift of total fearlessness in the face of prevailing dogma. He never flinches, yet he meets this dogma, which depends so heavily on ridicule, without ridicule of his own. His arguments have the feel of a Zen swordsman, dispassionate but deadly accurate.

I am simply glad that Carter is out there writing. His book shows that those who believe in survival do not have to apologize, be timid, or take refuge in the mystery of “faith.” On strictly scientific grounds, they are in the stronger position. With more books like this one, our society may start slowly waking up to this fact, with all its immense implications.



By Chris Carter



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