Near-Death Experiences Without Being Near Death

I've written before about near-death experiences and what they can prove about the existence of the soul. Now another study has come to my attention, one that has an even more potent conclusion. (HT: Boing Boing)

It's long been known that the content of NDEs is influenced by religion and culture. People who have them consistently encounter the kind of afterlife they expect and meet the religious figures they've been taught to believe in. For example, while Christian NDEs often include Jesus or angels, Hindus report NDEs in which they meet Hindu gods, or a clerk in a celestial bureaucracy who says that there's been a paperwork error and someone else with the same name was supposed to die instead.

This suggests that NDEs, rather than a glimpse of another reality, are brain-generated experiences. Like dreams or hallucinations, they're shaped by people's background beliefs and expectations. And there's more evidence for this in a 1990 article in the Lancet, with the wonderfully sardonic title, "Features of 'near-death experience' in relation to whether or not patients were near death". (The abstract is online, as is full text.)

As the article says:

The medical records of 58 patients, most of whom believed they were near death during an illness or after an injury and all of whom later remembered unusual experiences occurring at the time, were examined. 28 patients were judged to have been so close to death that they would have died without medical intervention; the other 30 patients were not in danger of dying although most of them thought they were.

There were some differences between the two groups. People who were genuinely near death were more likely to report perceiving some kind of strong light (whether diffuse, at the end of a tunnel, or emanating from people they saw during the NDE). They were also more likely to report "enhanced cognitive function", including greater speed or clarity of thought or unusually vivid sensory perceptions. However, when it comes to the "classic" NDE elements, the sense of leaving one's body and of experiencing a "life review", there was no difference between the people who were actually near death and those who weren't:

Belief in having left the body and seeing it from above. The two groups showed no difference in this belief. 68% of both groups reported this belief.
Memories of earlier events in life. The two groups also did not differ in proportions reporting memories of earlier events in the subject's life (sometimes called "life review" or "panoramic memory"). 6 (27%) of 22 patients near death and 4 (17%) of 23 patients not near death reported some such memories. Most patients reported only a few memories; only 2 (9%) patients near death and 2 (9%) patients not near death reported a review or replay of his or her whole life.

Some of the patients who were not near death were judged to have no serious illness or injury; others had a serious illness or injury, but not one that put them in danger of dying. Regardless, they believed they were dying or near death, and they had NDEs that seemed indistinguishable from those of people who had serious impairment of vital signs and would have died without medical intervention. The conclusion is clear: NDEs are the product of imagination, of a brain that thinks it's dying, whether it actually is or not. As the authors of the paper say:

The psychological interpretation receives support from the evidence that persons who are not near death (from illness or injury) may have experiences that in all respects resemble those of persons who are near death. It would seem that among those who were not near death their experiences were precipitated by their belief that they were.

September 19, 2011, 5:45 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink19 comments
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Treating Demon Possession with Antipsychotics

As I've written in the past, modern Christianity has never outgrown the demoniac fixation of its founders, who believed that evil spirits were constantly on the prowl and assaulting them. People like Gary Collins - an evangelical, a clinical psychologist, and the head of a 15,000-member association of Christian counselors - still believes, based not on evidence but on his "theological beliefs", that demons exist and are the cause of at least some cases of mental illness. Although this post from Boing Boing is a little old, it sheds a powerful illumination on these stories.

The case was that of a 22-year-old Hindu man, whose story came to light when he was arrested for stealing a taxi and robbing the driver. In prison interviews, he claimed that he had been cursed by a spiteful relative, allowing the ghost of an old woman to possess him. He could hear the ghost speaking to him, and sometimes it would take control of his body and force him to commit criminal and self-destructive acts against his will. He could see the ghost when it invaded him, settling upon his body like a fog and entering his nose and mouth, and while it was possessing him he was conscious of his actions but helpless to stop himself. The doctors noted:

The patient was an intelligent, well educated and insightful young man, westernised in his appearance and apparent outlook. He said he gained nothing from his behaviour, deriving no excitement from his adventures while possessed and did not need the things he stole... He recognised the effects of his behaviour on [his] family...

But most incredible of all, the young man's story was corroborated by his cellmates and even the prison chaplain:

We were disturbed by a telephone call from the prison chaplain who described seeing the ghost possess the patient in prison, seeing a descending cloud and an impression of a face alarmingly like a description of the dead woman given to us by the patient, of which the chaplain denied prior knowledge. Similar reports came from frightened cellmates.

So far, this story sounds just like the accounts of demonic possession in apologetic literature: the seeming rationality of the patient in the face of his condition, the lack of evidence for a disconnect with reality, even external evidence that seems to indicate the truth of his story to outside observers. If that was where this story ended, we'd probably be hearing about it on Christian apologetic websites, and it would be quoted in the next Lee Strobel or Josh McDowell book. But the paper ends with this laconic comment:

Treatment commenced using trifluoperazine and clopenthixol... The patient underwent remission during neuroleptic treatment, despite previous evidence of genuine possession.

As a commenter on the BB thread noted, a psychotic person is "the world's best method actor". The impairment of their brain's ability for rational thought gives them an unshakable confidence in the truth of their delusions that could never be achieved by relying on mere evidence. If it was part of this patient's delusions that he was being possessed by a ghost that was forcing him to act against his will, it's not surprising that he "played the part" so well as to convince the more suggestible people around him.

The Christian apologist's "lord/liar/lunatic" trilemma assumes that when a person is suffering from mental illness, this fact should be obvious to everyone around them. In reality, such people can be seemingly calm, rational and in all other respects capable of leading a normal life, except in areas that touch upon their delusional fixation. And if this is true of our society, how much more true must it have been in more superstitious past societies, which readily accepted mental illness as a sign of divine favor or demonic attack?

The human brain is a marvelous belief-forming engine, and when guided by reason and informed by the proper functioning of the senses, it's adept at grasping the true nature of reality. But when it malfunctions, it can produce an endless variety of strange delusions, fantasies and hallucinations, all of which seem utterly real and convincing to the people experiencing them. By following the dictates of reason, we can help many of them. But when the mentally ill are immersed in a culture that accepts such delusions as real, their suffering is needlessly prolonged. How many people have been denied needed medical treatment because their culture leads others to believe their disturbed state must be supernatural?

March 30, 2011, 5:56 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink19 comments
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How to Think Critically: Anchoring

I'm pleased to announce the first-ever holiday edition of How to Think Critically. If you're planning to do your Christmas shopping soon, this post might just save you some money!

The mental phenomenon called "anchoring and adjustment" was first described in the 1970s by the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. When we're trying to estimate an unknown quantity, such as judging whether a price tag is reasonable or guessing what percentage of the population belongs to a certain age group, the first number we see tends to become a benchmark that colors all our subsequent estimates.

If you get charity solicitations in the mail, you've probably seen the anchoring effect at work. If it's written by a smart advertiser, the part of the letter that asks you to check off the amount you want to donate will look like this:

_ $250	_ $100	_ $75	_ $50	_ $25

and not like this:

_ $25	_ $50	_ $75	_ $100	_ $250

In experiments that expose people to situations similar to this, the first layout will consistently get higher donation amounts than the second layout. The "$250" you see first becomes an anchor that biases your judgment, subconsciously affecting your decision about how much is a reasonable amount to give.

Surprisingly, this effect persists even when the numbers that people are exposed to have nothing to do with the price of the item - as in this study by MIT economists. Study participants were asked to bid on an array of everyday items, from a bottle of wine to a cordless keyboard. But before placing their bids, they were asked to write down the last two digits of their Social Security number and then say whether or not they'd be willing to pay that amount for the items on bid. As it turns out, this meaningless exercise made a great deal of difference to the amount of the students' bids:

If people were perfectly rational, then writing down their social security numbers should have no effect on their bids. In other words, a student with a low valued social security number (like 10) should be willing to pay roughly the same price as someone with a high valued number (like 90). But that's not what happened. Look, for instance, at the bidding for the cordless keyboard. Students with the highest social security numbers (80-99) made an average bid of $56. In contrast, the average bid made by students with the lowest numbers (1-20) was a paltry $16. A similar trend held for every single item. On average, students with higher numbers were willing to spend 300 percent more than those with low numbers.

Retailers are well aware of the anchoring effect and consistently use it to their advantage. Take this post from the amusingly titled blog You Are Not So Smart:

You walk into a clothing store and see what is probably the most bad ass leather jacket you've ever seen.

You try it on, look in the mirror and decide you must have it. While wearing this item, you imagine onlookers will clutch their chests and gasp every time you walk into a room or cross a street. You lift the sleeve to check the price – $1,000.

Well, that's that, you think. You start to head back to the hanger when a salesperson stops you.

"You like it?"

"I love it, but it's just too much."

"No, that jacket is on sale right now for $400."

It's expensive, and you don't need it really, but $600 off the price seems like a great deal for a coat which will increase your cool by a factor of 11.

One of my first jobs was selling leather coats, and I depended on the anchoring effect to earn commission. Each time, I figured it was obvious to customers the company I worked for marked up the prices to unrealistic extremes. Yet, over and over, when people heard the sale price, they smiled and wrestled with their better judgment.

Of course, labeling an item with an inflated sticker price and then offering the customer a "discount" is one of the oldest tricks in the book. But anchoring can be used in even sneakier ways. Some retailers, for example, deliberately offer items for sale at "decoy" prices they don't expect anyone to pay, knowing that this will make everything else they sell look like a better deal. Some examples are cited in this review of William Poundstone's book Priceless:

Once you've seen a $150 burger on the menu, $50 sounds reasonable for a steak. At Ralph Lauren, that $16,995 bag makes a $98 T-shirt look cheap.

According to the review, the artist Damien Hirst even bought one of his own works - a platinum skull encrusted with diamonds - for $100 million, as a way of boosting the perceived value of the others. Apparently, it was successful, as a later auction of Hirst works smashed presale estimates.

The next time you go to the mall, you can be assured that some ad or salesperson will try to use this trick on you. The real dilemma for shoppers is that, unlike other kinds of cognitive bias, the anchoring effect tends to persist even when people are told about it. How to get around this? My suggestion: If you're dead-set on getting a deal, don't ever buy something the moment you lay eyes on it, even if it seems like a great bargain. Go to a competitor's store (or check the internet, if you have a smartphone) and compare prices. Having two or more numbers to compare against each other, rather than one number to anchor your decisions, ought to make it easier to judge the true value of what's on sale.

Other posts in this series:

December 1, 2010, 6:47 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink24 comments
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Another Response to the Theist's Guide

I've received another response to my essay "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists". This response, which can be viewed here, comes by way of an author calling himself Roq.

I am, at heart, a simple person, so it'll only take one thing for me to become an atheist.

When science can create a mass hallucination in a group of fifty or more people where the generalities all line up. They get extra bonus points if they can do it without drugs.

I'd like to congratulate Roq for coming up what is, I think, the very first answer to my challenge that consists entirely of a clear, empirical, achievable standard. Bravo to him! I respect anyone who has the courage to put their beliefs on the line in this way - it's a standard of intellectual honesty that relatively few people are able to meet.

While I'm not rejecting Roq's proposal, I do want to discuss the assumption that apparently lies behind it: that if fifty people all agree they saw something supernatural, this is sufficient evidence that something real must have occurred, and that their vision should be trusted, at least in the basic details, in the absence of evidence otherwise. There are three points that bear on this.

First: the self-selection issue. Creating a hallucination in a group of fifty people randomly chosen from the street isn't necessarily going to be the same as creating one in the group of fifty that launch a new religion. If susceptibility to hallucination is like other human characteristics, it runs in a spectrum from more to less susceptible. It may be that religions tend to get started by the people at the farthest end of the bell curve, the ones who are most liable to hallucinate, precisely because those people tend to seek each other out and congregate in an attempt to explain their experiences.

Second: the peer pressure issue. What really counts as a hallucination? If there's a large group of people and only a handful have the same hallucination, but the rest convince themselves that they saw it to go along with the group, does that qualify? This is just what happened in the famous Asch experiment on social conformity, where people are easily swayed into giving an obviously wrong answer when they see others do so.

Third: the retransmission issue. Rumors tend to evolve as they spread, as people misremember and unconsciously add details that make the story more impressive in the retelling. It takes surprisingly little time for this to happen - it can even happen to eyewitnesses. In his book UFOs, Ghosts and a Rising God, Chris Hallquist quotes the Christian magician Andre Kole:

I enjoy listening to people try to describe some of my illusions. Once when I was in Madras, India, I appeared to cause my daughter to float within the framework of a large pyramid. The next day, a waitress excitedly told me what some of her customers had said about my show. According to them, I had not only levitated my daughter, but I also had caused her to float out over the audience, turn in a large circle, and do several impossible gymnastic feats.

Did Kole's audience have a mass hallucination? Or did some people hallucinate or misremember what they saw, being more prone to it than others, and then were insistent enough to convince people who didn't have the same experience, with the story growing and changing further in the telling? I tend to think it's the latter - and I think a similar combination of factors is probably at work in the origin of most religions, as opposed to a singular event where a large group of people all have the same hallucination at the same time.

Still, I think Roq's standard is basically a fair one, and I applaud him for it. What do you have to say, readers - do you know of any experiment that could give him the answer he seeks?

September 25, 2010, 4:12 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink34 comments
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The God of the Reptile Brain

Evolution is a blind tinkerer, lacking the foresight of human engineers. Rarely, if ever, does it discard established designs and start over fresh, even when that would be more efficient. Instead, it builds on and around past adaptations, using the old as a foundation for the new. This is true throughout the biosphere, and it's especially true of one of the most complex structures ever evolved, the human brain. The physical architecture of the mind shows, through and through, the evolutionary hacks and kludges that went into creating it.

In his book The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan points out that the human brain has a threefold division. The most complex and most recently evolved structure is the neocortex, responsible for rational judgment, self-control, long-term planning, and all those other characteristics we think of as most uniquely human. Below it, somewhat older, is the limbic system: shared by all mammals, producing feelings of parental love and pair-bonding. And oldest and most primitive, shared by all vertebrates, is the brainstem, which controls the instinctive drives and behaviors known as the four "F"'s - fight, flight, feeding, and reproduction.

And if you're feeling allegorical, you might notice a correspondence with the world's religions. No organized religion in existence today posits a god of the neocortex. A few of the best offer a god of the mammalian brain, but even they rarely aspire to anything higher. But most - the belligerent, aggrieved, crudely literal fundamentalist faiths that command the allegiance of hundreds of millions - have gods of the reptile brain. These deities well up from the brainstem, the evolutionary remnant that sees the world as a dark palette of anger, fear, hunger and lust. Like the promptings of the brainstem, they're concerned, more than anything else, with the lowest and most primitive animal drives: what we eat, how and with whom we have sex, whether we observe rituals and taboos relating to purity and contamination. Also like the promptings of the brainstem, the religions they preside over tend to include generous amounts of aggression, submission, and xenophobia, and inflexible rules on when these are to be displayed and toward whom.

Of course, I'm not saying that religion originates solely in the brainstem. Were that the case, we'd see distinctly religious behavior throughout the animal kingdom, which we obviously don't. Religion requires other mental capabilities that are largely unique to humans and other intelligent mammals - social dominance hierarchies, pattern-seeking behavior, and an awareness of personal mortality. Still, it's striking how close is the correspondence between the concerns of fundamentalist religion and the instinctive drives mediated by the most evolutionarily primitive part of our brains.

But from the rational perspective - the highest, most uniquely human perspective - it's clear how ridiculous and morally outrageous this is. The fundamentalists believe in a supreme, universe-transcending creator whose single-minded, all-consuming focus is what people do with their genitals - a clownish, laughable notion deserving only ridicule. But even worse is the notion, held by millions of believers, that this being threatens humans: "Obey me or I'll hurt you!" This idea is a moral depravity that could only be born from wicked minds.

Any god worthy of the name wouldn't coerce its creatures' obedience through fear or pain, but would set up the world so that they would all freely choose through reason to do the right thing. That would be how a supreme intelligence would create; that would be a god of the neocortex. Instead, the religions of this world are stocked with clumsy, brawling, belligerent gods of the reptile brain - gods who are constantly bewildered and enraged when their plans go astray and who can think of no better tools than violence and destruction.

Religion is supposed to bring out the best in us, we're told by its defenders; it's supposed to encourage the decency and compassion that human beings are capable of. And perhaps, sometimes, it does do this. But more often, it gives vent to the violent, destructive side of our nature, gives us license to express our xenophobia and violence and rage under the illusion that these qualities are endorsed by God.

July 21, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink16 comments
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Do Near-Death Experiences Prove the Soul Exists?

"A qualitative and quantitative study of the incidence, features, and aetiology of near death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors." Resuscitation 48 (2001): 149-156.

In my most recent post on Case for a Creator, I mentioned that Lee Strobel referenced a February 2001 paper which allegedly provided proof that people had conscious experiences during the time that their brains were not functioning. I have a copy of that paper now, thanks to several helpful readers, so in this post I'm going to dissect it.

The principal researcher, Sam Parnia, carried out a study in which he interviewed all survivors of cardiac arrest at his hospital over one year, asking them if they had any memories and, if so, to describe what they experienced. There were 63 such people over the course of the study. Here's the first important point: the vast majority of those who were revived from cardiac arrest had no memories or experiences of any kind:

During the 1 year period 63 patients survived and were interviewed. Of those, 56 (88.8%) had no memory recall of their period of unconsciousness; the remaining seven survivors (11.1%) had some memory.

Only seven people had any memories at all, and only four of those had enough of the "classic" NDE elements (feelings of bliss and peace, seeing a bright light, the sensation of traveling through a tunnel or entering some other world) for Parnia to classify them as such. The other three had only vague hallucinations (one reported a sense of peace but no other elements, one reported seeing deceased relatives but with no other accompanying experiences, and one just saw "some unknown people jumping off a mountain"). This is difficult to explain under theistic assumptions. If everyone has a soul, shouldn't everyone who suffers cardiac arrest have an NDE?

There's also this part, which must have made Strobel decidedly uncomfortable if he read the actual paper:

All the NDE group were Christians. However, none of them described themselves as practising members and nor did they see a figure during their NDE specifically related to Christianity. One of the four also described himself as a Pagan. [According to a table later in the paper, three described themselves as non-practicing Anglican, while one identified as non-practicing Catholic and pagan. —Ebonmuse]

How is it that non-practicing Christians - one who described himself as a pagan, no less - had the same blissful hallucinations that are the most common kind of NDE? If Strobel's born-again beliefs are true, shouldn't these people have had only the frightening, "hellish" NDEs that are sometimes reported?

Again, please note that every conclusion in this study is inferred on the basis of just four people's experiences. This is hardly enough to draw any kind of firm conclusion, and Parnia and his co-authors say so themselves:

In this study possible physiological causative factors could not be investigated adequately in view of the relatively small number in the study (NDE) group. Nevertheless it was interesting that patients in the study group had higher oxygen levels than those in the control group. This may simply be a skewed result due to the low patient numbers. Alternatively it may indicate that patients who had NDEs had better oxygenation during the resuscitation, allowing better cortical function.... However, it would be unwise, with such small numbers, to draw any significant conclusion from this finding.

Strobel, meanwhile, inflates this noncommittal, tentative statement into a clangingly unequivocal conclusion:

"About ten percent reported having well-structured, lucid thought processes, with memory formation and reasoning, during the time that their brains were not functioning. The effects of oxygen starvation or drugs - objections commonly offered by skeptics - were ruled out as factors." [The Case for a Creator, p.251]

Not only is this a ridiculous exaggeration of what the study claims, it's also factually inaccurate. Parnia says only that "all patients followed a standard resuscitation protocol", which includes the administering of emergency drugs. He says nothing about whether these could or couldn't contribute to an NDE. As for oxygen starvation, of course patients with cardiac arrest experience oxygen starvation! That's what happens when your heart stops. What Parnia says, and what Strobel misunderstands, is that patients who had NDEs had higher blood oxygenation levels while they were being resuscitated, compared to those who had no such experiences. And even though the small numbers don't allow for robust conclusions, this is a very suggestive detail. It raises the possibility that NDEs are the result of neural activity starting up again in the brain as it's being revived.

Despite their small sample size, Parnia and his co-authors do argue that NDEs happen while the brain is unconscious, not at the onset of unconsciousness or during the process of revival. Here's how they defend that conclusion:

An alternative explanation would be that the observed experiences arise during the loss of, or on regaining, consciousness. However, it is unlikely that the NDE arises either when the cortical modules are failing, that is, during the process of becoming unconscious, or when the cortical modules are coming back on line, that is, when consciousness is returning... The EEG data during fainting shows a gradual slowing of the cerebral rhythms with the appearance of delta activity before finally, in a minority of cases, the EEG becomes flat. In the case of cardiac arrest, the process is accelerated, with the EEG showing changes within a few seconds. The transition from consciousness to unconsciousness is thus rapid, appearing immediate to the subjects.

So, their argument is that people suffering cardiac arrest become unconscious too quickly for the entire NDE to take place during that time. But that's a weak argument: We know of drugs that can skew the sense of time, and Parnia himself points out that one of the elements of a classic NDE is a sense that "time [has] speeded up". Why is it not possible that a few seconds of activity in a dying brain can produce experiences which subjectively seem much longer when the person is later revived?

Even if the unconscious brain is flooded by neurotransmitters this should not produce clear, lucid remembered experiences, as those cerebral modules which generate conscious experience and underpin memory are impaired by cerebral anoxia... Experiences which occur during the recovery of consciousness are confusional, which these were not.

Now hold on, there - Parnia is treating this claim as a matter of fact, when clearly it's a matter of opinion. The classic NDE isn't dreamlike or confusional? The feeling that a person has left their body, is entering a mystical realm, and encounters religious figures and deceased relatives? I think an atheist would reply that that's as hallucinatory and dreamlike an experience as you could hope to get.

Furthermore, Parnia's very small sample size may have caused him to overlook the fact that many NDEs which otherwise conform to the standard definition have unambiguously hallucinatory elements. Keith Augustine's essay on the Secular Web, which surveys reports of NDEs, has many examples: people who saw living friends and relatives in the afterlife, people who met talking animals or fictional characters, and in one amusing case, a winged centaur Jesus. Even Parnia's study had one case that he dismissed as merely confusional in nature, a man who saw "some unknown people jumping off a mountain" - but the only reason he dismissed it is that it didn't fit the classic NDE description, even though the man went through a cardiac arrest and revival the same as his other subjects.

And how do we know that his NDE subjects didn't omit dreamlike elements when telling him their stories? Parnia and his co-authors say they didn't prompt their subjects with leading questions, but the possibility can't be overlooked that people who are familiar with NDEs from pop culture prune the discordant elements from their story to make their experience more of a coherent narrative, making it sound more like the way they thought it "should" be.

In sum, Parnia's study, despite Strobel's overblown and grandiose assertions, doesn't prove anything about the timing of NDEs or demonstrate that they occur while the brain is nonfunctional. The only conclusive way to prove that they result from the soul leaving the body would be for people in such a state to gain information they couldn't have accessed through ordinary methods - but as I said earlier, aside from unverifiable hearsay and anecdotes, this never happens. Every careful, controlled experiment set up to prove this has turned up empty.

June 21, 2010, 5:43 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink29 comments
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The Case for a Creator: TV Sets and Tennis Shoes

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

I was going to wrap up my review of chapter 10 with my previous post, but looking back over my notes, I see that Moreland and Strobel made a few more claims I wanted to address. Mostly, these consist of assertions that there's evidence for the ability of the soul to leave the body and have thoughts and experiences in a disembodied state. Moreland doesn't dwell on these at length, possibly because these sorts of claims are usually more identified with New Age belief systems than with Christianity. But Strobel did promise us science, and this is one of the few times that this chapter comes close to offering that, so I thought it was only fair to give these claims full consideration.

In their journal article, physician Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick... describe their study of sixty-three heart attack victims who were declared clinically dead but were later revived and interviewed. About ten percent reported having well-structured, lucid thought processes, with memory formation and reasoning, during the time that their brains were not functioning. [p.251]

The citation is to this Reuters article, which refers to a February 2001 article in the journal Resuscitation. I don't have access to this journal, but if anyone who does wants to get in touch with me, it'd be much appreciated. [EDIT: I have it now - thanks to everyone who contacted me!]

Still, going by the material as presented, I see a fairly obvious fallacy here: Conscious experiences don't have timestamps. Even if people revived from cardiac arrest reported having memories, how on earth could anyone know that those memories were formed while the brain was not functioning? How could you rule out the possibility that they were formed, for example, in the last few seconds of erratic neural activity before the brain's oxygen supply was cut off, or when the brain resumed functioning once the patients were revived? Strobel makes no effort to explain this, and I greatly doubt that Parnia and Fenwick do either.

He speculated that the brain might serve as a mechanism to manifest the mind, much in the same way a television set manifests pictures and sounds from waves in the air. If an injury to the brain causes a person to lose some aspects of his mind or personality, this doesn't necessarily prove that the brain was the source of the mind. "All it shows is that the apparatus is damaged," he said. [p.251]

This analogy would make sense if damage to the brain could do nothing more than selectively eliminate aspects of consciousness, much the same way as damage to a TV might eliminate its ability to show color or to pick up certain channels. But that's not what happens in human beings. There are countless cases where brain damage doesn't remove but rather changes a person's personality, giving them new personality traits, desires, beliefs, or habits that they never possessed before. To use Moreland's analogy, no matter what kind of damage I do to my TV, it's never going to show me a parallel universe where the New York Mets are a football team, or play an alternate version of Star Wars in which Darth Vader is the hero and Luke Skywalker is the villain. Something like that could only happen if the programming was being produced inside the TV and could be altered by specific kinds of damage. (Moreland's apologetic also doesn't explain cases where only part of a person's consciousness has access to some information, such as we see in split-brain patients.)

"This happens in near-death experiences. People are clinically dead, but sometimes they have a vantage point from above, where they look down at the operating table that their body is on. Sometimes they gain information they couldn't have known if this were just an illusion happening in their brain. One woman died and she saw a tennis shoe that was on the roof of the hospital. How could she have known this?" [p.257]

No source is given for this, but it's clearly the infamous story of Kimberly Clark Sharp, which I discussed in a previous post on OBEs. This story is pure hearsay, and no well-designed scientific experiment has ever shown that people can take in information while in a disembodied state. (Some researchers have tried putting LED screens in operating rooms where they could only be seen by someone floating near the ceiling, but to no avail.)

But even if these stories are all fictitious, Moreland has one more laughably desperate argument to make: the fact that we can even conceive of such things proves that they're true!

"And clearly these stories make sense, even if we're not sure they're true. We've got to be more than our bodies or else these stories would be ludicrous to us." [p.257]

Whenever I see an argument like this, that our ability to imagine X proves that X exists, I apply "the Santa test": Is there a real Santa Claus? Well, there are stories from many different cultures about saintly figures who give gifts to children during the winter holidays. And clearly, these stories make sense to us, even if we're not sure they're true. Does this mean there must be elven workshops and flying reindeer, just because we can form a clear conception of those things and don't instinctively find them impossible or absurd? Or does it just mean that humans have the capability to imagine states of affairs that don't exist in reality?

And lastly, Moreland favors us with another of his classic philosopher's apologetics:

"I had a student a few years ago whose sister had a terrible accident on her honeymoon. She was knocked unconscious and lost all of her memories and a good bit of her personality....
    Now, we all knew this was the same person all along. This was Jamie's sister. She was not a different person, though she was behaving differently...
    Now, if I were just my consciousness, when my consciousness was different, I'd be a different person. But we know that I can be the same person even though my consciousness changes, so I can't be the same thing as my consciousness. I've got to be the 'self,' or soul, that contains my consciousness." [p.260]

Moreland doesn't attempt to explain how this hypothesis is compatible with the TV-antenna analogy discussed earlier, even though this case raises some interesting questions. If damage to the brain can cause you to lose your memories, doesn't that imply that memory is stored in the brain and not in the soul? If so, how is it possible that people having an out-of-body experience can remember it when they're revived later? (For that matter, how can a disembodied soul have experiences of any kind, if it doesn't have sensory organs?)

To address the substance of his argument, let's consider a parallel case: Am I the same person now that I was when I was four years old? Most people would probably say yes, since there's an unbroken thread of physical and psychological continuity from me-then to me-now. But you could make an equally sensible and plausible argument that the answer is no. After all, if all my likes, beliefs and preferences are different now from what they were then - if even the atoms in my body have been replaced by the steady turnover of biological processes - then in what sense are we the same?

There's no fact that could resolve this question one way or the other. The answer is just a matter of definition and convention. And the same is true for Moreland's example: Whether Jamie's sister before the accident and Jamie's sister after the accident are the same person depends entirely on your definitions of "same" and "person". Moreland has fallen into the philosopher's trap of thinking that definitions create objective reality - that because we choose to call Jamie's-sister-before-accident and Jamie's-sister-after-accident the same person, this implies there must be some concrete, persisting thing for that definition to attach to. In fact, all it shows is how we choose to categorize objects in the world through our use of language. This is really a rather obvious and simple fallacy. Did Moreland the clever philosopher not notice it, or did he and Strobel just choose to overlook it?

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June 9, 2010, 5:45 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink30 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Science by Armchair

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

Science is hard work. Normally, to make any significant contribution to human knowledge, a scientist really has to get their hands dirty - experiments in the lab, research in the field, long days and longer nights, and the meticulous testing of hypotheses. But J.P. Moreland must be an especially brilliant scientist, because he doesn't even need any of those trappings. In this chapter, Strobel interviews him not in a lab or an office, but at his own home:

When I pulled up to J.P. Moreland's house on a cool and foggy morning, he was outside with a cup of coffee in his hand, having just walked home from a chat with some neighbors. His graying hair was close-cropped, his mustache neatly trimmed, and he was looking natty in a red tie, blue shirt, and dark slacks.
    "Good to see you again," he said as we shook hands. "Come on in."
    We walked into his living room, where he settled into a floral-patterned chair and I eased onto an adjacent couch. [p.252]

I quote this passage not just to point out how cringingly bad Strobel's writing is, but to call attention to the setting of this interview. For in this chapter, Moreland claims to prove the existence of the soul - certainly a Nobel-worthy result! - without once doing an experiment, running any sort of test, or even leaving his floral-patterned armchair.

"...if physicalism is true, then consciousness doesn't really exist, because there would be no such thing as conscious states that must be described from a first-person point of view... if everything were matter, then you could capture the entire universe on a graph - you could locate each star, the moon, every mountain, Lee Strobel's brain, Lee Strobel's kidneys, and so forth. That's because if everything is physical, it could be described entirely from a third-person point of view. And yet we know that we have first-person, subjective points of view - so physicalism can't be true." [p.255]

Look, I realize there probably aren't many philosophical materialists on staff at the Talbot School of Theology, where Moreland teaches. I appreciate that this makes it slightly more difficult to do research for this interview. But really, would it have killed him to at least try to find out what we actually think?

I don't know where Moreland got the odd fantasy that materialists are committed to denying anything that can't be found on a map. Materialists believe in many things that have no physical location. I can name a few: justice, music, erosion, mathematics. What we really assert is not that there are no such things as abstract concepts, but that there are no abstract concepts that are not ultimately reducible to patterns of matter and energy. We deny that these concepts exist in their own right, independently of whatever arrangements of matter and energy happen to instantiate them at particular times and places. Just so with consciousness: it exists, but only as the product of brains. (This is the same thing I said in my Statement of Principles.)

"Nothing in my brain is about anything. You can't open up my head and say, 'You see this electrical pattern in the left hemisphere of J.P. Moreland's brain? That's about the Bears.' Your brain states aren't about anything, but some of my mental states are. So they're different." [p.259]

This argument, which Moreland apparently makes in all seriousness, betrays such an elementary confusion of terms that I scarcely even know where to begin. The whole point of science is that it's about reductionism: explaining the properties of a complex phenomenon in terms of simpler components, which come together to create that property but don't possess it themselves. A cloud of gas has the property of temperature, but the individual atoms that make up that cloud do not. That doesn't mean that the gas and the atoms aren't the same.

Or, for an example that hits even closer to home: a book. A book is about something, it contains thoughts, ideas; but the ink and paper that make up a book aren't about anything. (This is true even if no human being ever reads the book, so it can't be said that the meaning of the book exists only in the reader's mind.) Does that mean that books have souls, to contain the ideas that inhabit them?

This simple concept is one that Moreland apparently doesn't grasp. It should be obvious that, if we materialists are correct, the electrical pattern in your brain is the thought. The two are one and the same, just described at different levels of organization. Moreland is trying to turn a basic confusion of definitions into a sweeping conclusion about the nature of ultimate reality. A philosopher as renowned as Strobel describes him to be has no excuse for not understanding why this is fallacious.

"[If scientists believe that mind emerges from material processes] they are no longer treating matter as atheists and naturalists treat matter - namely, as brute stuff that can be completely described by the laws of chemistry and physics. Now they're attributing spooky, soulish, or mental potentials to matter... They're saying that prior to this level of complexity, matter contained the potential for mind to emerge... That is no longer naturalism," he said. "It's panpsychism.... the view that matter is not just inert physical stuff, but that it also contains proto-mental states in it. Suddenly, they've abandoned a strict scientific view of matter and adopted a view that's closer to theism than atheism." [p.264-5]

Again, Moreland has some bizarre notions about what materialists believe (and if I were feeling unkind, I'd say that he's the only one here for whom "proto-mental states" are in evidence).

Atheists believe that the mind emerges from the functioning of the brain. This isn't panpsychism - it simply means that matter arranged in certain ways has causal powers that matter arranged in other ways doesn't have. You can build a car out of metal, but that doesn't mean that metal had an ethereal notion of "transportation" inherent in it from the beginning. It just means that a set of atoms arranged car-wise produces an object which has certain causal powers that other arrangements of atoms don't have. Similarly, the mind arises from an arrangement of matter arranged so as to possess a sufficient degree of information-processing power.

"If a finite mind can emerge when matter reaches a certain level of complexity, why couldn't a far greater mind - God - emerge when millions of brain states reach a greater level of consciousness? You see, they want to stop the process where they want it to stop - at themselves - but you can't logically draw that line. How can they know that a very large God hasn't emerged from matter...?" [p.265]

Okay, and what's the evidence that this has happened?

As with the other sections of this chapter, Moreland mistakes armchair speculation for argument backed by evidence. The mere hypothetical possibility of a god emerging from matter is held to be "a problem for atheists". (Lest you think this represents a daring flirtation with unorthodoxy, Strobel immediately emphasizes that this "wouldn't be the God of Christianity", once again making it clear who his intended audience is.)

In fact, at no point in this chapter does Moreland get out of that armchair. Despite the fact that this is supposed to be a book about science, he acts as if philosophical arguments and thought experiments are all the proof he needs. Given that this is Strobel's last interview, you'd think he'd want to go out with a bang - but whimpers are all he has to offer.

UPDATE: As Siamang points out in the comments, Strobel declared in an earlier chapter that:

"I wasn't interested in unsupported conjecture or armchair musings by pipe-puffing theorists. I wanted the hard facts of mathematics, the cold data of cosmology, and only the most reasonable inferences that could be drawn from them." [p.95]

Yet this entire chapter consists solely of "unsupported conjecture" and "armchair musings". Did Strobel think no one would notice, or is it just that his "interests" have changed now that he's reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel to find Christian fundamentalists with scientific credentials?

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May 28, 2010, 7:55 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink18 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Why We Lost the Vietnam War

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

In this section, J.P. Moreland (with the help of softball questions obligingly lobbed by Lee Strobel) continues to pour scorn on the idea that the brain could produce consciousness. As in the last installment, his rhetorical strategy is to attack only the weakest and most simplistic hypothesis of how this could occur - to set up a straw man that he can easily push over - and when he's done this, he declares victory and concludes that he's proven human beings must have souls, factory-installed by Jesus at the time of conception.

Strobel has asked what the implications would be if we had no souls. Moreland responds thusly:

"...there would be no free will. That's because matter is completely governed by the laws of nature. Take any physical object... For instance, a cloud," he said. "It's just a material object, and its movement is completely governed by the laws of air pressure, wind movement, and the like. So if I'm a material object, all of the things I do are fixed by my environment, my genetics, and so forth.
    That would mean I'm not really free to make choices. Whatever's going to happen is already rigged by my makeup and environment. So how could you hold me responsible for my behavior if I wasn't free to choose how I would act?" [p.256]

In this passage, Moreland sets up a dilemma: Either my choices are determined by me, or they're determined by the sum total of my causal history and the natural laws operating on me at that moment. It sounds like a convincing argument; but his mistake is in thinking that these are competing positions.

Moreland's narrow and restrictive view of free will requires thinking of himself as a point source of action, a supernatural locus spontaneously originating decisions with no prior cause. In this view, any reason for our actions can only override free will, because reasons are necessarily enmeshed in the causal history of the world. But human beings clearly do have reasons for our actions - in many cases, those reasons are clearly visible. We have a nature, not chosen by us, which primes us to act in certain ways. In Moreland's view, this is a frightening and disturbing idea, for all that it's obviously true.

But what if we draw the boundaries of the self somewhat more broadly? What if I consider myself to be a complex nexus of character traits, dispositions, emotions and reasoning capacity, an animal shaped by evolution and also a human shaped by culture? In that case, the causes that determine my decisions aren't things pressing on me from outside, but part of me, part of the nature that I have. The laws of nature, as well, are not external impositions upon me but simply facts about the way the organic machine that is my brain works.

Moreland's dilemma, therefore, is a false one. We're not something separate from the unfolding of the universe's physical laws. That notion implies that they could "prefer" one outcome while I prefer another, and I could struggle against them in a battle that I would inevitably lose. But that's clearly absurd. I choose what I will, and the laws of nature are part of the explanation for why I had that will in the first place - and this is true no matter what I choose. (See my post series "On Free Will" for more on this view.)

What Moreland seeks is a kind of radical freedom where a person's choices aren't determined by their genetics, their environment, anything in their personal history, or even by the structure of their brain. So what does determine them? The only possible answer, in his view, is that nothing determines them, which is the same as saying that they're random. But how is this an improvement? If our free acts have no causal history to explain them, but arise ex nihilo without rhyme or reason, we haven't established moral responsibility but eliminated it. How can you hold someone responsible for their behavior if their decisions are as random and reasonless as spins of a roulette wheel? Moral responsibility in that scenario would be as futile as blaming the wheel for landing on double 0 when you were betting on black. It's the materialist view, which roots our decisions firmly in the causal weave of the world, that provides the most solid basis for true moral responsibility. When a person errs, we can find the cause of their wrong decision, and then change the way they make decisions - through persuasion, through punishment, or through any other method - so that they will not be caused to make similar bad choices in the future.

"So if the materialists are right, kiss free will good-bye. In their view, we're just very complicated computers that behave according to the laws of nature and the programming we receive. But, Lee, obviously they're wrong - we do have free will. We all know that deep down inside." [p.256]

For a book that claims to be based on science, this is a very peculiar mode of argument. Compare: "My colleagues in the academy, my eleven-dimensional supersymmetric string theory explaining dark matter and unifying gravity with the other physical forces is true. I don't have any evidence, but you all know it deep down inside."

"You already know I'm right" may be an effective argument for Strobel's intended readership: the Christian cheering section who already agrees with him and needs only the thinnest excuse to start nodding vigorously. But to convince people who don't already agree with everything you believe, you need hard evidence - you need science. Strobel and Moreland don't even attempt to provide that here. Obviously, a hard determinist would say that this "feeling" of personal freedom is an illusion, that we're determined in advance to feel that way just as all our other feelings and desires are determined. Moreland has nothing to counter that explanation, which is why he retreats into bald assertion.

To close out the chapter, Moreland offers what he thinks is evidence for the soul. He tells an unlikely story of how the Pentagon, during the Vietnam War, was supposedly basing its military strategy on B.F. Skinner's behaviorism. Because of this, he says, they believed that victory was certain if we dropped enough bombs, because eventually the negative stimuli of the bombing had to condition the North Vietnamese army into surrender:

"It didn't work... [b]ecause there was more to the Vietnamese than their physical brains responding to stimuli. They have souls, desires, feelings and beliefs, and they could make free choices to suffer and to stand firm for their convictions despite our attempt to condition them by our bombing." [p.256]

With this passage, Moreland has not only dodged the obvious counterarguments, he's sprinting far past them into the distance, leaving a curl of dust as he vanishes over the horizon. He argues as if Skinnerian behaviorism is the only possible theory of non-supernatural decision-making, and if it's shown to be false, then we have no alternative but to conclude we have souls, God exists, and Jesus died for our sins.

?! Has it ever crossed his mind that there's more than one possible hypothesis to explain how a physical brain makes decisions? Does he really think there's no materialistic way to account for the obvious fact, denied by no one, that some people hold fast to a chosen cause despite suffering for it? You might as well say that I should be able to make a computer do whatever I tell it by sending electric shocks through its CPU, and if that doesn't work, it proves that my computer is run by magical elves that are immune to electricity.

Since I apparently need to, permit to recount the obvious truths about human nature which Moreland fantasizes that materialists deny. Human beings are not flatworms responding blindly to stimuli, but reasoning creatures with a highly developed neocortex capable of abstract goals and long-term planning. We do possess the same basic drives - hunger, lust, aversion to pain - as all other animals, but we, unlike most species, can hold those drives in check by using our ability to anticipate the future, delaying immediate gratification in the name of achieving a larger goal. Nothing about this is incompatible with the brain being a physical machine.

Humans also aren't the only creatures capable of this. Consider the famous experiment where one monkey voluntarily starved itself, in one case for days on end, rather than pull a chain that would dispense food but would also give an electric shock to a monkey in an adjacent cage. Skinner's behaviorism fares poorly at explaining this. Does this mean that monkeys must also have souls?

Actually, he does think that - and the way I know this is the strangest part of this book yet. A bit later in the chapter, Moreland veers off into an utterly bizarre tangent about whether animals have souls. He says they do (which we know because "[i]n several places the Bible uses the word 'soul' or 'spirit' when discussing animals" [p.262]). But according to him, the difference between us is that humans are capable of "free moral action", while animal souls are "determined" (those monkeys sounded a lot like they were performing free moral actions to me); and also, "the animal soul ceases to exist at death" [p.263].

For a book that claims to be based on science, this sudden detour into angels-dancing-on-pinheads theological fantasy is as jarringly misplaced as it would be to find a passage on voodoo rituals inserted into the middle of a calculus text. It confirms, again, that what we have here is not an actual recounting of what science has discovered, but an exercise in Christian theology dressed up in just enough scientific language to fool people who don't know the difference.

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May 7, 2010, 6:15 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink25 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Belief and Decision

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

The essence of science isn't test tubes or lab coats, but a special kind of scrupulous intellectual honesty. It's the willingness to try to prove yourself wrong, to subject your own ideas to the most rigorous, make-or-break tests you can conceive of. Equally as important, it's the willingness to consider every plausible alternative and weigh them all fairly - and if a competing hypothesis explains the data better than your own, to acknowledge that and respond accordingly.

This is a standard that this book doesn't meet, and chapter 10 shows why. A recurring theme of this chapter is that Strobel and Moreland consider only the simplest possible hypotheses of how the brain causes consciousness - and when they identify a weakness, they conclude that not just that hypothesis, but all the more complex alternatives as well, are false.

In this section, Strobel has asked, "What positive evidence is there that consciousness and the self are not merely a physical product of the brain?" Here's how Moreland responds:

"For example, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield electrically stimulated the brains of epilepsy patients and found he could cause them to move their arms or legs, turn their heads or eyes, talk, or swallow. Invariably the patient would respond by saying, 'I didn't do that. You did.'....
No matter how much Penfield probed the cerebral cortex, he said, 'There is no place... where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide.' That's because those functions originate in the conscious self, not the brain." [p.258]

This argument only works if you assume an extremely simplistic model of consciousness: that beliefs and decisions originate from one single spot in the brain, and by poking that spot, you can activate the processes that produce them. But this is unlikely in any plausible materialistic view of consciousness. It's much more likely that these higher-order functions involve the coordinated activity of many brain regions, since after all, forming a belief or making a decision necessarily requires integrating many different sources of input. In fact, Moreland's view that simple electrical stimulation should produce beliefs and decisions would make more sense under a Christian view of the brain - like that of Descartes, who believed there was a single anatomical region (the pineal gland) where the brain interfaced with the soul and received its marching orders.

But you'll notice that Moreland, unintentionally I'm sure, has committed himself to a completely testable claim: if we have a soul, our beliefs and decisions originate there and not in the brain. Therefore, it's a necessary consequence of his view that no physical alteration of the brain, whether caused by accident, disease or anything else, should cause a person to believe or decide in a particular way.

Well, if that's his challenge, I'm happy to take him up on it. It may be that Penfield's crude electrical stimulation didn't cause his patients to form beliefs or make decisions, but there are many types of brain disorders that do exactly this. I'll list a few, all of which are described in greater detail in my essay "A Ghost in the Machine":

Capgras' syndrome: Sometimes occurs in people suffering from schizophrenia, dementia, or head injury. The patient suddenly begins to insist that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an impostor who looks and acts exactly like the missing individual. This meets Moreland's criterion of brain injury causing a person to believe.

Frontotemporal dementia: A disease similar to Alzheimer's that causes degeneration in the frontal lobes of the brain. Individuals suffering from the early stages of FTD have been known to show dramatic changes in their personal likes and dislikes, political preferences, and even their religion. This meets Moreland's criterion of brain injury causing a person to decide.

Environmental dependency syndrome: Often caused by tumors pressing on the frontal lobes or other types of frontal lobe dysfunction. Patients with this disorder act as if their behavior is governed by external cues rather than internal decisions. They also show dramatically reduced impulse control, often choosing to act in ways they previously never would have done. One famous case is Phineas Gage, a railroad foreman who survived a freak accident that destroyed part of the frontal loes of his brain, but in the aftermath, baffled his friends and family by transforming from a diligent, well-respected worker to a lazy, shiftless drifter.

Akinesia: Unlike paralysis, the inability to move, akinesia is the unwillingness to move. Akinesia sufferers lose the motivation to do anything except respond to the most immediate needs. Again, this condition is often caused by tumors or brain damage. One case I detail in my essay is of a Baptist preacher who quit his church because he no longer felt like going to work. When a surgeon removed a tumor pressing on his frontal lobes, he soon regained his motivation and returned to work.

All these disorders, and others like them, are totally inexplicable on Moreland's view. If the soul is the source of belief and decision and is not dependent on the brain, as he insists, then we should never find cases like this. On the dualist view, we might expect to find cases where the soul's "lines of communication" to the body were cut by brain damage, but that should only produce effects like paralysis or coma, not actual alterations to a person's desires and personality. But the dualist view clashes with reality. In cases like the ones I've described, people can still do exactly what they want; the problem is that what they want has changed.

Strobel and Moreland never address evidence like this, so it's hard to tell how they would respond to it. The thoroughly mechanistic nature of consciousness, and the fact that it can be changed by changing the brain, as surely as a computer can be reprogrammed, is evidence that Christian apologists in general haven't acknowledged or come to terms with. But to anyone who's familiar with the discoveries of modern neuroscience, the idea that beliefs and decisions originate somewhere other than the brain, in some separate and supernatural "conscious self", is as laughable as the idea that mental illness is caused by demonic possession.

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April 30, 2010, 10:55 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink14 comments
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