Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife

Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin's book is the gold standard for philosophical work aimed at a popular audience. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin make nuanced, philosophically interesting arguments about a topic largely unexplored by academic philosophers and manage to do so in a way that is accessible to any intellectually curious reader. The central aim of the book is to consider charitable interpretations of arguments for dualism and the afterlife that appeal to near-death experiences (NDEs) and to make the case that such arguments do not actually warrant belief in either. In the first few chapters, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin review representative and particularly intriguing instances of NDEs, ones that have convinced many that there must be an afterlife. One such example concerns Pam Reynolds, who had the experience of leaving her body and watching her own brain surgery. She accurately reported numerous details about the surgery (e.g., medical staff had a conversation about the difficulty posed by her small arteries) that supposedly occurred at a time the electroencephalograph was not detecting any brain activity. The details of other cases are similar. Taking the people who had NDEs at their word, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin proceed to methodically review how such experiences can be explained in purely physical terms. In the case of Pam Reynolds, they illustrate how Reynolds may have, after coming out of surgery, become consciously aware of auditory impressions her brain received at an earlier time. Chapters 4–9 transition from focusing on particular cases to general principles. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin identify, and correct, common fallacious inferences made by those who take NDEs to support dualism or the afterlife. These fallacies are readily identifiable by professional philosophers, but understandably not by everyone else. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin do an exceptional job of articulating for the lay person why these inferences are fallacious, which is one reason this book is so important. Chapter 4 carefully explains that just because science is currently unable to explain some phenomenon P, it does not follow that there is no scientific explanation for P. Chapter 5 reviews why the lucidity of NDEs is not evidence that NDEs are veridical. Chapter 6 shows that the blind having NDEs is not evidence of their veridicality. Chapter 7 reviews cross-cultural similarities in NDEs and then explains why this does not support the existence of the afterlife. It seems to be particularly common in the NDE literature to infer that since no single physical explanation can provide a full explanation for every NDE, there cannot be an adequate physical explanation of all NDEs. Chapter 8 reviews in detail why this is incorrect. After all, each NDE could be fully explained in physical terms even if no single physical explanation accounts for all NDEs. It is also surprisingly common in the literature to appeal to exceedingly simple, demonstrably false, Occam's Razor-type principles. Chapter 9 reviews why simpler explanations are not necessarily more likely to be true. Here, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin opt to discuss the demonstrably false principles that are actually invoked in the literature. However, it would have been nice to see them discuss whether plausible versions of Occam's Razor could support a non-physical explanation of any NDEs. I strongly suspect the answer is ‘No’, though a detailed explanation of why would, I think, have been beneficial. Chapter 10 contains a beautifully written and illuminating discussion of the transformative power of NDEs. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin movingly capture how such experiences can be profoundly meaningful even if they’re not veridical. This is one of the central accomplishments of the book. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin manage to effectively critique NDE arguments for the afterlife and dualism, yet do so while recognizing and validating, the significant ways NDEs deeply affect people's lives. The entire book manages to subject NDE arguments to scrutiny without denigrating religious belief. The fact that Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin were able to toe this line so well ensures that their arguments will be more dialectically effective than they otherwise would have been. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin's arguments in the previous chapters culminate into a three-step strategy for explaining NDEs. Explain how the subject acquired the information relevant to some aspect of his or her experience. Explain why this particular content would be included in an NDE. Explain when the experience took place. Chapter 11 focuses on how best to follow these three steps. Following them will help people recognize how a variety of NDEs can be explained in purely physical terms. Chapter 12 contains an important discussion of confirmation bias, which is a regrettably overlooked issue in the NDE literature. Chapter 13 concerns how narrative structures allow events to be meaningful for us. This brief, yet rich, discussion will be of interest to philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin cover a lot of ground in 208 pages. Yet, one question that I still have after reading the book was whether NDEs could ever justify belief in the afterlife. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin give the impression that they think not. However, this isn't obvious. After all, a NDE for one person might justifiably raise their credence in the afterlife more than it would for another person. To see how this could work, consider a simple analogy. Card Game: Suppose A and B are playing a game of cards that involves taking bets on which card is at the top of the deck. A and B have the natural priors to have for a fair deck.1 X = The card is an ace of spades. P = The card is black. Q = The card is an ace or a face card. Suppose that, at t0, there is nothing in A's or B's evidence about which card is at the top of the deck. So, at t0, A's and B's credence in X should be 0.0192. Now, at t1, A gains Q as part of her evidence and B does not. So, at t1, A's credence in X should be 0.0625 and B's should still be 0.0192. Finally, at t2, A and B both gain P as part of their evidence. So, at t2, A's credence in X should be 0.125, while B's credence in X should be 0.0385. The takeaway is that A's independent evidence for X means that when A and B learn P, A's credence in X should change to a different degree (and be higher than) B's credence in X. It seems to me that something analogous could be true of NDEs. We just need to switch the variables. Suppose now that X = There is an afterlife. P = A NDE Q = Evidence that points toward an afterlife that is independent of P (e.g. a philosophical argument for God's existence) Granting that Q can be part of people's evidence, a NDE may justifiably change such people's credence in an afterlife enough to warrant believing X. But for people who do not have Q as part of their evidence, no NDE may be sufficient to warrant believing X. Further discussion of such considerations would be a welcome addition to Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin's already impressive body of work on NDEs. Footnotes 1 Thanks to Shyam Nair for the example. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Scots Philosophical Association and the University of St Andrews. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Philosophical Quarterly Oxford University Press

Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife

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Publisher
Scots Philosophical Association and the University of St. Andrews
Copyright
© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Scots Philosophical Association and the University of St Andrews. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com
ISSN
0031-8094
eISSN
1467-9213
D.O.I.
10.1093/pq/pqx003
Publisher site
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Abstract

John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin's book is the gold standard for philosophical work aimed at a popular audience. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin make nuanced, philosophically interesting arguments about a topic largely unexplored by academic philosophers and manage to do so in a way that is accessible to any intellectually curious reader. The central aim of the book is to consider charitable interpretations of arguments for dualism and the afterlife that appeal to near-death experiences (NDEs) and to make the case that such arguments do not actually warrant belief in either. In the first few chapters, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin review representative and particularly intriguing instances of NDEs, ones that have convinced many that there must be an afterlife. One such example concerns Pam Reynolds, who had the experience of leaving her body and watching her own brain surgery. She accurately reported numerous details about the surgery (e.g., medical staff had a conversation about the difficulty posed by her small arteries) that supposedly occurred at a time the electroencephalograph was not detecting any brain activity. The details of other cases are similar. Taking the people who had NDEs at their word, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin proceed to methodically review how such experiences can be explained in purely physical terms. In the case of Pam Reynolds, they illustrate how Reynolds may have, after coming out of surgery, become consciously aware of auditory impressions her brain received at an earlier time. Chapters 4–9 transition from focusing on particular cases to general principles. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin identify, and correct, common fallacious inferences made by those who take NDEs to support dualism or the afterlife. These fallacies are readily identifiable by professional philosophers, but understandably not by everyone else. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin do an exceptional job of articulating for the lay person why these inferences are fallacious, which is one reason this book is so important. Chapter 4 carefully explains that just because science is currently unable to explain some phenomenon P, it does not follow that there is no scientific explanation for P. Chapter 5 reviews why the lucidity of NDEs is not evidence that NDEs are veridical. Chapter 6 shows that the blind having NDEs is not evidence of their veridicality. Chapter 7 reviews cross-cultural similarities in NDEs and then explains why this does not support the existence of the afterlife. It seems to be particularly common in the NDE literature to infer that since no single physical explanation can provide a full explanation for every NDE, there cannot be an adequate physical explanation of all NDEs. Chapter 8 reviews in detail why this is incorrect. After all, each NDE could be fully explained in physical terms even if no single physical explanation accounts for all NDEs. It is also surprisingly common in the literature to appeal to exceedingly simple, demonstrably false, Occam's Razor-type principles. Chapter 9 reviews why simpler explanations are not necessarily more likely to be true. Here, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin opt to discuss the demonstrably false principles that are actually invoked in the literature. However, it would have been nice to see them discuss whether plausible versions of Occam's Razor could support a non-physical explanation of any NDEs. I strongly suspect the answer is ‘No’, though a detailed explanation of why would, I think, have been beneficial. Chapter 10 contains a beautifully written and illuminating discussion of the transformative power of NDEs. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin movingly capture how such experiences can be profoundly meaningful even if they’re not veridical. This is one of the central accomplishments of the book. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin manage to effectively critique NDE arguments for the afterlife and dualism, yet do so while recognizing and validating, the significant ways NDEs deeply affect people's lives. The entire book manages to subject NDE arguments to scrutiny without denigrating religious belief. The fact that Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin were able to toe this line so well ensures that their arguments will be more dialectically effective than they otherwise would have been. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin's arguments in the previous chapters culminate into a three-step strategy for explaining NDEs. Explain how the subject acquired the information relevant to some aspect of his or her experience. Explain why this particular content would be included in an NDE. Explain when the experience took place. Chapter 11 focuses on how best to follow these three steps. Following them will help people recognize how a variety of NDEs can be explained in purely physical terms. Chapter 12 contains an important discussion of confirmation bias, which is a regrettably overlooked issue in the NDE literature. Chapter 13 concerns how narrative structures allow events to be meaningful for us. This brief, yet rich, discussion will be of interest to philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin cover a lot of ground in 208 pages. Yet, one question that I still have after reading the book was whether NDEs could ever justify belief in the afterlife. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin give the impression that they think not. However, this isn't obvious. After all, a NDE for one person might justifiably raise their credence in the afterlife more than it would for another person. To see how this could work, consider a simple analogy. Card Game: Suppose A and B are playing a game of cards that involves taking bets on which card is at the top of the deck. A and B have the natural priors to have for a fair deck.1 X = The card is an ace of spades. P = The card is black. Q = The card is an ace or a face card. Suppose that, at t0, there is nothing in A's or B's evidence about which card is at the top of the deck. So, at t0, A's and B's credence in X should be 0.0192. Now, at t1, A gains Q as part of her evidence and B does not. So, at t1, A's credence in X should be 0.0625 and B's should still be 0.0192. Finally, at t2, A and B both gain P as part of their evidence. So, at t2, A's credence in X should be 0.125, while B's credence in X should be 0.0385. The takeaway is that A's independent evidence for X means that when A and B learn P, A's credence in X should change to a different degree (and be higher than) B's credence in X. It seems to me that something analogous could be true of NDEs. We just need to switch the variables. Suppose now that X = There is an afterlife. P = A NDE Q = Evidence that points toward an afterlife that is independent of P (e.g. a philosophical argument for God's existence) Granting that Q can be part of people's evidence, a NDE may justifiably change such people's credence in an afterlife enough to warrant believing X. But for people who do not have Q as part of their evidence, no NDE may be sufficient to warrant believing X. Further discussion of such considerations would be a welcome addition to Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin's already impressive body of work on NDEs. Footnotes 1 Thanks to Shyam Nair for the example. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Scots Philosophical Association and the University of St Andrews. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com

Journal

Philosophical QuarterlyOxford University Press

Published: Jan 1, 2018

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