The following is a guest post be nkendall:
One of the striking things about our experience as conscious, thinking humans is how constant our sense of self–our identity–is. Never in my life has there been any suspension or change of my conscious sense of who I am other than during sleep. Throughout our lives our brains change considerably. A myriad of new synaptic connections are formed especially in the early years. Yet one’s identity is immutable. Aside from these ongoing modifications of the brain, there are catastrophic changes as well. Those who have experienced surgery under general anesthesia or suffered cardiac arrest have had their brains shut down and consciousness suspended even if only briefly. Near death experiences represent a more profound disruption of consciousness often involving complete cessation of detectable brain activity. Yet we know from countless surgeries conducted under general anesthesia and near death experiences that one’s consciousness, sense of self and mental faculties, i.e. memories, knowledge, beliefs, etc. are usually fully restored even in extreme cases following the event. Why is it that our sense of self is so constant even when the brain is subjected to change and catastrophic effects? What material causal processes in the brain could account for this constancy of self?
Near death experiences are dismissed by materialists as hallucinations resulting from a brain in distress; this despite the fact that many near death type experiences occur when the subject is not near death and even cases where multiple persons witness the events, i.e. “shared death experiences”. Nevertheless, materialists believe that by dismissing near death experiences as hallucinations they are safeguarding their materialist world view. The reality is that when materialists make this claim they are unwittingly embracing an explanation that disproves materialism. If the near death experiences are hallucinations, they cannot be hallucinations of a material brain, they can only be hallucinations of an immaterial mind. The reason is simple: the brain, being an electro-chemical computer in a sense, cannot possibly generate vast quantities of novel, continuous, unique, complex specified information spontaneously especially when it involves unearthly and ineffable visual and abstract mental content which accompany near death experiences. The brain cannot even account for the complex specified information we experience in our nightly dreams. It requires a callous disregard of reason to believe that a brain in distress could spontaneously produce an interactive audio-video experience, with the most real, unearthly and spectacular mental phenomena one has ever experienced. There are no material process that could account for this even in principle. Furthermore, out of body experiences associated with near death experiences, also dismissed as hallucinations by materialists, cannot be hallucinations if what the subject is experiencing is real and can be corroborated as such. And in fact several, and perhaps many, out of body experiences have been corroborated to some extent.
The last refuge of materialism is simply to dismiss near death experiences as a bunch of unverifiable anecdotes. The subjective nature of near death experiences and the timing as to when they actually occur, make it difficult to disprove materialism based on human testimony alone. Therefore, I want to take a different approach in order to disprove materialism with respect to near death experiences. I want to focus on the materialist claim that consciousness, one’s sense of self, along with memories, knowledge and beliefs could be restored by material processes unaided by an immaterial mind following a near death experience. First lets take a brief look at materialist claims about the brain.
Although it is not known or even imaginable how our mental experiences could be reducible to physical phenomena in the brain; nevertheless, that is what materialists believe. According to materialism, consciousness and all mental phenomena we experience are the result of complex molecular interactions in the brain. Since all mental phenomena involve time, there is a dynamic quality to them. If materialism is true then it has to be the case that precise and specific neural sequences of events underlie these mental phenomena. These sequences of events have to be precise and specific because there is an incalculable number of ways in which various thoughts, memories, beliefs and knowledge can be modified in just the slightest and nuanced ways. Imagine a memory, belief, insight, or bit of knowledge that you possess. Then think of the innumerable ways in which it can be slightly modified even in very subtle ways. Each version of these mental phenomena would have–must have if materialism is true–a slightly different underlying neural signature otherwise they would not be distinguishable from thoughts which were slightly different.
What would happen–what should happen–under a materialist accounting of mental phenomena, if the precise and specific causal sequences of events in the brain, from which all mental phenomena are purported to be derived, were disrupted in a catastrophic way? Many such cases have occurred. I want to focus on one well-known case involving a women named Pam Reynolds.
Pam Reynolds had a large aneurysm deep in the base of her brain. In order to remove the aneurysm, the medical team would have to use a procedure referred to as “standstill” whereby all molecular activity in her brain would be halted. To achieve this the doctors would have to chill her body and drain all the blood out of her brain. The surgery was a success. The surgeon removed the aneurysm, the medical staff warmed the blood and re-infused it back into her brain. They then resuscitated her which required a defibrillator. During the operation Pam Reynolds had many of the classic elements of a near death experience, including two out of body experiences, an trip through a dark tunnel with a bright light, a visit with deceased relatives and it appears a brief life review. Pam’s near death experience began while she was under deep general anesthesia and ended just prior to her resuscitation. She is reported to have said that her experience was continuous–uninterrupted–from the time of her first out of body experience in the operating room prior to “standstill” to her second out of body experience, also in the operating room, just prior to her resuscitation. This time period would include the time she was in “standstill.” Much of what she claims to have witnessed in the operating room during her first out of body experience, has been corroborated by the medical staff who were present in the operating room. I suppose skeptics can nitpick about a few things here and there. But in any case, if she was correct that the experience was continuous, then materialism and atheism can be relegated to the ash heap of history once and for all where they belong.
For the primary point I am making in this post, it really does not matter whether or not Pam Reynolds had the subjective experiences associated with near death experiences that she claims. Personally I have little doubt that she experienced what she claimed. What matters here is that her brain was entirely shut down with no molecular activity for about 45 minutes. She was effectively brain dead throughout “standstill.” This is known with certainty based on medical records. Yet when she was resuscitated, her consciousness, sense of self, memories and presumable all, or most all, mental capabilities were restored. That her sense of self and all other complex mental phenomena were restored, is an inference that can be made by watching interviews with her on Youtube and reading accounts of interviews with her. Just to cite one example, shortly after she regained consciousness, she recognized the Eagle’s song “Hotel California” and commented about a particular line in the song in a clever way to the attending physician. In order to do this, she would have to have been conscious, cognizant as to who she was and what had happened to her, recognized the song, understood the meaning of the lyrics and applied the meaning differently in a metaphorical way. All these mental phenomena are extraordinarily complex and would necessarily have extraordinarily complex material process underlying them if materialism is true.
In order to re-establish one’s consciousness, sense of self, beliefs, knowledge and memories and all associated mental capabilities following complete cessation of the brain, some prior set of conditions would have to have been re-established and resynchronized throughout the brain. But by what set of complex material causes could a prior set of conditions been preserved and re-established? And how could such a marvelous function have evolved in the first place? There could have been nothing like an orderly shutdown of her brain given the nature of the general anesthesia and the “standstill” process. There must have been countless molecular reactions interrupted, neuro-transmitters half built, aborted synapse firings, synaptic connections partially constructed as she transitioned through deep general anesthesia to “standstill” without any blood in her brain. The delicate balance of inter-dependencies that must have existed during her prior set of neural sequences of events would have been irreparably lost. There would be no conceivable way to restore the prior conditions to any sort of “known-good” state. Rather, a new set of “initial conditions” would have asserted themselves upon resuscitation and, given materialism’s strict bottom up causation, the sequence of molecular activity would continue to act in accordance with this new set of local causal sequences of events. But it would have been totally random as to which synapses within which neuron’s within which area of her brain would have come up first and begun operating. To gain just a hint of the complexity involved, imagine if you stored a computer’s boot loader, operating system and application programs in volatile memory and then pulled the power plug. What would you expect to happen when you plugged the power cord back in?
To think that the precise, specific set of complex brain processes that materialism alleges give rise to consciousness, one’s sense of self, memories, knowledge and beliefs could re-establish themselves, strictly through material causation following complete cessation of brain function, is an appeal to miracles but without any human testimony or empirical evidence to support them. Calculating the probabilities for the material causation required to bring about the necessary causal sequence of events to restore the same person cannot be done and is utterly pointless. The only reasonable conclusion is that there is some sort of immaterial quality we are endowed with–mind–that orchestrates the resumption of all the necessary brain functions to re-establish the person and all their accompanying mental faculties.