“On Materialism as Science Dogma”
by Neal Grossman, Dept. of Philosophy, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago
(to appear in Journal of Near Death Studies as “Who’s Afraid of Life After Death?”)

(The following essay focuses on the Near Death Experience (NDE) as evidence that science has — to its detriment — become a dogmatic belief system wedded to reductionist materialism rather than being a neutral, objective method for investigating reality of any sort. One could effectively substitute the three letters “UFO” for “NDE.” The advantage of dealing with NDE is that there is no doubt whatsoever as to the existence of the phenomeon; the interpretation, of course, being another matter.)

When researchers ask the question “how can the Near Death Experience be explained”, they tend to make the usual assumption that an acceptable explanation will be in terms of concepts — biological, neurological, psychological — with which they are already familiar. The NDE would then be explained, for example, if it could be shown what brain state, which drugs, or what beliefs on the part of the experiencer, correlates with the NDE. Those who have concluded that the NDE cannot be explained mean that it cannot, or has not yet, been correlated with any physical or psychological condition of the experiencer.

I wish to suggest that this approach to explaining the NDE is fundamentally misguided. To my knowledge, no one who has had a NDE feels any need for an explanation in the reductionist sense that researchers are seeking. For the experiencer, the NDE does not need to be explained because it is exactly what it purports to be, which, at a minimum, is the direct experience of consciousness — or minds, or selves, or personal identity — existing independently of the physical body. It is only with respect to our deeply entrenched materialist paradigm that the NDE needs to be explained, or more accurately, explained away. In this paper I will take the position that materialism has been shown to be empirically false; and hence, what does need to be explained is the academic establishment’s collective refusal to examine the evidence and to see it for what it is. The academic establishment is in the same position today as were the cardinals who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. Why is this the case?

Before addressing this question, it is probably incumbent on to me to say a few words about the kind and strength of evidence which refutes materialism. Cook, Greyson, and Stevenson [1] “describe three features of NDE’s — enhanced mentation, the experience of seeing the physical body from a different position in space, and paranormal perception — which (they) believe might provide convergent evidence supporting the survival hypothesis.”[2] They then go on to describe 14 cases which satisfy these criteria. From an epistemological perspective, the third criterion, paranormal perception, is the most important. The materialist can, in principle, give no account of how a person acquires veridical information about events remote from his or her body. Consider, for example, the kind of case where the NDEer accurately reports the conversation occurring in the waiting room while his body is unconscious in the operating room. There is no way for the relevant information, conveyed in sound waves or light waves, to travel from the waiting room, through corridors and up elevators, to reach the sense organs of the unconscious person. Yet the person wakes from the operation with the information. This kind of case — and there are lots of them — shows quite straight-forwardly that there are non-physical ways in which the mind can acquire information. Hence materialism is false.

Perhaps the “smoking gun” case is the one described by Michael Sabom in his recent book.[3] In this case, the patient had her NDE while her body temperature was lowered to 60 degrees, and all the blood was drained from her body. “Her electroencephalogram was silent, her brain-stem response was absent, and no blood flowed through her brain.”[4] A brain in this state cannot create any kind of experience. Yet the patient experienced a profound NDE. Those materialists who believe that consciousness is secreted by the brain, or that the brain is necessary for conscious experience to exist, cannot possibly explain, in their own terms, cases such as this. An impartial observer would have to conclude that not all experience is produced by the brain and that therefore, the falsity of materialism has been empirically demonstrated. Thus, what needs to be explained is the abysmal failure of the academic establishment to examine this evidence and to embrace the conclusion: materialism is false, and consciousness can and does exist independently of the body.

Moreover, the evidence against materialism comes not only from the NDE, but from other areas of research as well. Both mediumship, which has been extensively investigated since the time of William James, and Stevenson-type cases of children who have verified true memories of past lives, offer an abundance evidence against materialism. The best epistemological analysis of the evidence is given by Robert Almeder. After a lengthy and detailed discussion of Stevenson-type cases, he twits Stevenson for concluding only that “it is rational to believe in reincarnation, given the evidence.”[5] The proper conclusion, according to Almeder, should be “it is irrational not to believe in reincarnation, given the evidence.”[6] I agree with Almeder.

Our collective irrationality with respect to the wealth of evidence against materialism manifests in two ways: (i) by ignoring the evidence and (ii) by insisting on overly stringent standard of evidence, which, if adopted, would render any empirical science impossible. The refusal of academics to examine the evidence against materialism is not new. Writing one hundred years ago, William James complains

I invite eight of my scientific colleagues to come to my house at their own time, and sit with a medium for whom the evidence already published in our proceedings had been most noteworthy. Although it means at worst the waste of an hour for each, five of them decline the adventure. I then beg the ‘Commission’ connected with the chair of a certain learned psychologist in a neighboring university to examine the same medium, whom Mr. Hodgson and I offer at our own expense to send and leave with them. They also have to be excused from any such entanglement. I advise another psychological friend to look into this case, but he replies that it is useless, for if he should get such results as I report, he would simply believe himself hallucinated….This friend of mine writes ex cathedra on the subject of psychical research, declaring (I need hardly add) that there is nothing in it; …and one of the five colleagues who declined my invitation is widely quoted as an effective critic of our evidence. So runs the world away! [7]

More recently, Michael Grosso reports a similar experience in attempting to get colleagues to read anything on the evidence for life after death.

The type of person I have in mind will come up with weak, if not irrational, excuses for not reading the book I place in his hand. In one case, the argument ran: “It’s only words on paper; no reason to take any of it seriously.” Another academic said he didn’t have the time. “You mean you can’t find a few hours to read a book that might change your basic outlook on life and death?” I asked.

How strange that these intelligent people should be not merely indifferent but resistant to the data. It’s as if there were a conspiracy against this information, a need to make it harmless, irrelevant, or nonexistent.[8]

One of my earliest encounters with this kind of academic irrationality occurred over twenty years ago. I was devouring everything on the Near Death Experience I could get my hands on, and eager to share what I was discovering with colleagues. It was unbelievable to me how dismissive they were of the evidence. “Drug induced hallucinations”, “last gasp of a dying brain”, “people see what they want to see” were some of the more commonly used phrases. One conversation in particular caused me to more clearly see the fundamental irrationality of academics with respect to evidence against materialism. I asked:

“What about people who accurately report the details of their operation?”

“Oh”, came the reply, “they probably just subconsciously heard the conversation in the operating room, and their brain subconsciously transposed the audio information into a visual format”.

“Well”, I responded, ‘what about cases where people report veridical perception of events remote from their body?”

“Oh, that’s just a coincidence or a lucky guess.”

Exasperated, I ask, “What will it take, short of having a Near Death Experience yourself, to convince you that it’s real?”

Very non-chalantly, without batting an eye, the response was “even if I were to have a Near Death Experience myself, I would conclude that I was hallucinating, rather than believe that my mind can exist independently of my brain.” He went on to add that Dualism (the philosophical thesis which asserts that mind and matter are independent substances, neither of which can be reduced to the other) is a false theory and that there cannot be evidence for something that’s false.

This was a momentous experience for me, because here was an educated, intelligent man telling me that he will not give up materialism, no matter what. Even the evidence of his own experience would not cause him to give up materialism. I realized two things in that moment. First, this experience cured me of any impulse to argue these things with recalcitrant colleagues; it is pointless to argue with someone who tells me that his mind is already made up, and nothing I can say will change it. Second, this experience taught me that it is important to distinguish between (a) materialism as an empirical hypothesis about the nature of the world, which is amenable to evidence one way or the other (this is the hallmark of a scientific hypothesis — that evidence is relevant for its truth or falsity) and (b) materialism as an ideology, or paradigm, about how things “must” be, which is impervious to evidence (this is the hallmark of an unscientific hypothesis — that evidence is not relevant for its truth). My colleague believed in materialism not as a scientific hypothesis which, qua scientific hypothesis might be false, but rather as dogma and ideology which “must” be true, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. For him, materialism is the fundamental paradigm in terms of which everything else is explained, but which is not itself open to doubt. I shall coin the term “fundamaterialist” to refer to those who believe that materialism is a necessary truth, not amenable to empirical evidence.

With respect to (a) materialism held as an empirical hypothesis about the world, the evidence against it is overwhelming. With respect to (b) materialism held as an ideology, evidence against it is logically impossible. A complicating factor is that the fundamaterialist typically holds the metabelief that his belief in materialism is not ideological, but empirical. That is, he misclassifies himself under (a), while his behavior clearly falls under (b). The debunker and skeptic believes that he is being “scientific” in ignoring and rejecting the evidence against materialism. He claims that the evidence is weak, that it is not compelling, that it can be easily explained away by the materialist paradigm. But when asked what kind of evidence it would take to convince him that materialism is empirically false, he is, like my colleague, usually at a loss for what to say. If he’s not familiar with the data, he’ll come up with a criterion of evidence which in fact has already been met. When it is pointed out to him that there exist many well-documented cases which satisfy his proposed criterion, he will simply make his criterion more stringent, and at some point he crosses the line between the reasonable demand for scientific evidence and the unreasonable (and unscientific) demand for logical proof.

This is not a minor point. Fundamaterialism is so deeply ingrained in the academic establishment that most researchers on the NDE fall prey to it. For, after presenting case after case which would satisfy any reasonable standard of empirical evidence against materialism, even sympathetic researchers almost always deem it necessary to add the disclaimer that their research does not prove that there is life after death. But no scientific hypothesis is ever proven in this sense. Theorems in logic and mathematics can be proved. In science, hypotheses are not proved; rather, empirical evidence renders a given hypothesis more or less probable. There is no such thing as logical, or mathematical certainty in science. The fundamaterialists are correct in that the hypothesis that consciousness exists independently of the body cannot be proven with mathematical certainty. But neither can any other scientific hypothesis, because empirical science deals with evidence, not proof. Evidence never “proves” a hypothesis, it just makes it more probable. And, when evidence for a given hypothesis accumulates to a certain degree, we accept the hypothesis as true. But “true” in this scientific sense never means “proven”; it means very very probable. In science there is always the possibility that a given hypothesis may turn out to be false. The fundamaterialist will not accept the hypothesis of an afterlife until it is “proven” beyond a logical possibility of being false. That is, he is using a concept of proof which belongs in logic and mathematics, not in science. And NDE researchers are playing the fundamaterialist’s game when they utter caveats that their research does not prove the hypothesis of an afterlife. What researches should say, in my opinion, is simply that they have amassed sufficient evidence to render the hypothesis of an afterlife very probable, and the hypothesis of materialism very improbable.

In the above paragraphs, I have been using the terms “science” and “scientific” in its epistemological sense. Science is a methodological process of discovering truths about reality. Insofar as science is an objective process of discovery, it is, and must be, metaphysically neutral. Insofar as science is not metaphysically neutral, but instead weds itself to a particular metaphysical theory, such as materialism, it cannot be an objective process for discovery. There is much confusion on this point, because many people equate science with materialist metaphysics, and phenomena which fall outside the scope of such metaphysics, and hence cannot be explained in physical terms, are called “unscientific”. This is a most unfortunate usage of the term. For if souls and spirits are in fact a part of reality, and science is conceived epistemologically as a systematic investigation of reality, then there is no reason why science cannot devise appropriate methods to investigate souls and spirits. But if science is defined in terms of materialist metaphysics, then, if souls and spirits are real, science, thus defined, will not be able to deal with them. But this would be, not because souls and spirits are unreal, but rather because this definition of science (in terms of materialist metaphysics) has semantically excluded nonphysical realities from it scope.

Peter Fenwick uses the term “science” in this metaphysical sense when he writes

So far we’ve taken a largely scientific, and therefore a rather limited view of the NDE. We’ve been looking at mechanism, and almost everything we have said has been based on the assumption that the NDE takes place in or is constructed by the brain. We’ve confined “mind” to the brain because, scientifically, we have no other option. When the brain dies, the mind dies; the scientific view does not allow for the possibility of a soul, or for any form of personal survival after death.

It is only by looking at some non-scientific views that we might find a wider explanation of the NDE….[9]

If the term “materialistic” is substituted for “scientific”, then the above passage is an accurate statement with which I have no quarrel. The last sentence becomes “it is only by looking at non-materialistic views that we might find a wider explanation of the NDE….” And this is absolutely correct. Materialism is a woefully inadequate framework in terms of which to understand the NDE. And, I wish to insist, it is science itself, understood epistemologically as a metaphysically neutral method of inquiry, which has discovered the limitations of materialism. After all, the primary researchers in the field are not philosophers or theologians, but well-trained scientists and physicians, who, using standard scientific methodology, have been forced by their data to conclude that materialism cannot be the whole truth.

I stress this semantic point about how the word “scientific” should be used in part because the term carries a lot of emotional weight. To be labeled “unscientific” is sufficient for having one’s work or one’s self dismissed and ignored by the academic establishment. And I think this is part of the reason academics are in fact dismissive of the research on the NDE. The reasoning goes something like this: to be scientific is good; to be unscientific is bad. Science = materialism. To believe in souls and spirits, or even to talk about souls and spirits, is to talk about and/or believe in something which is not materialistic. Therefore it is unscientific, which is bad, and hence we shouldn’t waste any time on it. I believe that most of my colleagues think like this. The false premise, upon which the argument hangs, is the equating of science with materialism, an equation so deeply ingrained that it is difficult to root out. But I think even the most die-hard materialist ought to grant the following hypothetical: if souls, etc. are real, that is if non-material objects exist, then it should be possible to study them, to acquire data about them, to construct generalizations and theories about them, etc., which is to say, it should be possible to study them scientifically. Hence science ought to be construed as a method of inquiry only, not as a metaphysical theory which stipulates by definition what there is, and what can or cannot exist.

I wish to turn my attention now to the discipline of philosophy. It would seem that, of all the disciplines, philosophy ought to be most interested in, and meticulously study, all the research on the NDE. After all, isn’t philosophy supposed to be concerned with questions of ultimate meaning, of the purpose of life, of the relation between mind and body, of God? NDE research has data which are directly relevant to all of these questions. So how is it possible that philosophy has collectively managed to ignore and even ridicule this research? To those outside of academic philosophy, it may come as a surprise to learn the great majority of academic philosophers are atheists and materialists. While, as I have argued above, they incorrectly use science to support their materialism, they systematically ignore the findings of science [10] which refute their materialism. Since their materialism is not empirically based, I call it fundamaterialism, to make explicit comparison with fundamentalism in religion. Fundamentalism connotes an attitude of certainty towards one’s core belief. Just as the fundamentalist Christian is absolutely certain that the world was created in the manner described by the Bible (fossil evidence notwithstanding [11]), so also the fundamaterialist is absolutely certain that there exists nothing that is not made up of matter (NDE and other evidence notwithstanding). In fact, and this is the crucial point, their respective beliefs have nothing to do with evidence. As my fundamaterialist colleague put it, “there can’t be evidence for something that’s false.”

And, more surprisingly, even those philosophers who are not materialists (and their number, I think, is growing) refuse to look at the data. One would think that a Cartesian Dualist, or a Platonist, would eagerly devour the wealth of data which strongly support their point of view. I would like to share a few more personal experiences which highlight some of the attitudes involved. In the late seventies, when the early research on the NDE was just being published, I was involved in team-teaching a course with one of the campus chaplains. Excitedly, I shared what I was learning about the NDE with the chaplain, thinking that he would welcome empirical data which, at the very least, constituted strong prima-facia evidence for much of what he believed in — soul, afterlife, ultimate responsibility for one’s actions, Higher Power, etc. To my astonishment, he was just as dismissive of the evidence as was my fundamaterialist colleague. When I questioned him about why he was so resistant to the data, he said, in effect, that his belief in God, afterlife, etc. is based on faith, and if these things were decidable empirically, there would be no room left for faith, which for him, was the foundation of his religious convictions.

I knew then that the NDE was between a rock and a hard place, as far as being taken seriously by the two disciplines, philosophy and theology, which should be the most interested in it. On the one hand, fundamaterialist philosophers believe in the truth of materialism a priori; empirical evidence is not relevant to them, and they are committed to ignoring and/or debunking anything that looks like evidence. On the other hand, theologians and other intellectuals who do believe in an afterlife, tend to base their belief on faith, which they feel would be seriously undermined if empirical evidence were relevant to their beliefs. Moreover, once theology and religion open the door to empirical evidence, then the possibility arises that the evidence may contradict some aspects of what was believed solely on the basis of faith. Indeed, this has already happened. The evidence from the NDE, for example, suggests that God is not vengeful, does not judge us or condemn us, and is not angry at us for our “sins”; there is judgment, to be sure, but the reports appear to be in agreement that all judgment comes from within the individual, not from the Being of Light. It seems, in fact, that all God is capable of giving us is unconditional love. Well, the concept of an all-loving non-judgmental God contradicts and undermines the teachings of many religions, and it is no wonder that the religious fundamentalists are up in arms about the Near Death Experience.

One more story: a few years ago, a Plato scholar from England gave a colloquia at my university. Afterwards, I found myself sitting next to him at dinner, and he politely asked me what my interests were in philosophy. I replied that I was interested in examining the various kinds of evidence suggestive of an afterlife.[12] He, assuming falsely that my interest was in debunking the paranormal, proceeded to tell us of a recent lecture he had attended in England. The lecturer, he said (with a slight sneer of contemptuous ridicule which only the British have truly perfected) was a certain neuropsychiatrist who talked about the Near Death Experience, and (with heightened tone of ridicule) actually believed that it was real. Even though I am quite used to the limitations of my metaphysically challenged colleagues, his attitude surprised me. In the first place, here was a Plato scholar, who, like the chaplain, was summarily dismissive of even the possibility that there could be evidence that Plato’s views, the views of the philosopher about whom he is an “expert”, might actually be true. The first recorded NDE is at the end of Book 10 of The Republic, so I would have thought that a Plato scholar would at the very least be curious about it. But even more disturbing to me was his implied reasoning. Whenever I hear that a highly trained scientist has studied some sort of esoteric phenomena, and has come to the conclusion, based on his research, that there is something to it, my curiosity is piqued, and I want to investigate.[13] My reasoning is that, if respectable, well-trained scientists have concluded that there’s something to it, then maybe there is something to it, and I proceed to read what they have to say. But my colleague, the Plato scholar, was reasoning quite differently: if a respectable, well-trained neuropsychiatrist has come to the conclusion that there might be life after death, what this shows is, not that there might be any empirical reason to believe in an afterlife, but rather, that even a rigorous training in neuropsychiatry cannot protect an individual from believing in such foolish absurdities as an afterlife. This is the reasoning of a closed mind. With respect to the question of an afterlife, his mind is already made up; like most academic philosophers, he believes a priori that there is no afterlife, and since there can’t be evidence for something that doesn’t exist, anyone who believes otherwise betrays a mind that has fallen victim to superstition, wishful and fuzzy thinking, irrationality, and so forth.

One conclusion I have come to over the years is that both the atheist and the believer, from the fundamaterialist to the fundamentalist, share something in common. In fact, from an epistemological perspective, what they have in common is much more significant than what they disagree about. What they agree about is this: beliefs pertaining to the possible existence of a transcendent reality — God, soul, afterlife, etc. — are based on faith, not fact. If this is true, then there can be no factual evidence which pertains to such beliefs. This metabelief — that beliefs about a transcendent reality cannot be empirically based — is so deeply entrenched in our culture that it has the status of a taboo. The taboo is very democratic in that it allows everyone to believe whatever they want to believe about such matters. This allows the fundamaterialist to feel comfortable in her conviction that reason is on her side, that there is no afterlife, and that those who believe otherwise have fallen prey to the forces of irrationality and wishful thinking. But it also allows the fundamentalist to feel comfortable in his conviction that he has God on his side, and that those who believe otherwise have fallen prey to the forces of satan and evil. Thus, although the fundamentalist and the fundamaterialist are on opposite extremes of the spectrum of possible attitudes towards an afterlife, the extreme positions they hold unites them as “strange bedfellows” in their battles against the possibility that there are matters of fact about the afterlife which empirical research might discover. The very suggestion that empirical research might be relevant to beliefs pertaining to a transcendent reality — that such beliefs are subject to empirical constraint — runs strongly against this taboo, and is hence very threatening to most elements of our culture.

So, at the very least, there is a failure of curiosity among the academic establishment with respect to a large body of data suggestive of an afterlife. And if I am right, if, to paraphrase Almeder, it is irrational not to believe in a transcendent reality, given the evidence, then academia is permeated by a widespread and recalcitrant irrationality which blinds it to the findings of science. I think there are three inter-related factors, or causes, which converge to generate the resistance with respect to this issue: (a) resistance to paradigm change, (b) intellectual arrogance, and (c) social taboo.

(a) Resistance to paradigm change: Ever since the publication of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the concept of a paradigm has been a familiar, useful, albeit sometimes controversial, tool. The concept of a paradigm helps us considerably in understanding scientific revolutions, when dramatic changes occur involving deep-rooted assumptions about how things are or how things must be. All academics matriculate within the context of a specific discipline which trains its practitioners to think in terms of the currently operating paradigm. Once the operating paradigm has been internalized in the mind of the individual, other, competing paradigms appear wrong and/or foolish. For example, I seem to remember, as a graduate student, spending a pleasant afternoon ridiculing phenomenology, which is a different way of approaching philosophy than the analytic paradigm which is dominant in America. None of us had read any phenomenology, or understood what it was about, yet to us it was meaningless gibberish, foolish French philosophy. Examples, historical and personal, could be multiplied without limit. Indeed professional meetings, both in science and humanities, not infrequently degenerate into mere debunking sessions. It seems there is something very deep in us humans that causes us to dismiss and ridicule any way of thinking which is different from our own. There is a natural resistance to forms of thinking which differs from what was internalized during the educational process.

Academic philosophers matriculate within a paradigm which is largely atheistic, materialistic, and reductionistic. There is no God, only material objects and processes exist, and human experience and behavior is to be explicated mechanically in terms of brain states. Books with the terms “mind” or “consciousness” in their title, for example, tend to have as their primary goal the “reduction” of mental and conscious experience to neurophysiology. To one who has internalized this paradigm, this way of approaching things appears to be right, reasonable, objective, and sensible. The paradigm itself is rarely questioned; it is the very water in which the academic philosopher is swimming, which is why it is so difficult for one who is immersed in the paradigm to see it as a paradigm, rather than as the way things “must be”. Someone operating out of a different paradigm appears to be out of touch with reality, irrational, and so forth.

So, one of the forces which cause academics to ignore, dismiss, and ridicule the evidence for an afterlife is the force of the paradigm which the individual academic has internalized. The force of a well-entrenched paradigm has, throughout history, always caused scientists and humanists to actively resist both (i) paradigms, theories and hypotheses which are different from their own, as well as (ii) information which runs counter to the general contours of their own paradigm. Indeed, I think the concept of a paradigm partly explains why philosophers are, as a whole, much more resistant to the concept of an afterlife than are scientists. (It is scientists, not philosophers, who are actively engaged in this research). It is because atheism plays a much more central role in the contemporary philosopher’s paradigm than it does in the scientist’s. In today’s academic climate, a physicist could write a book called “God and the New Physics” [14], but not a philosopher.

(b) Intellectual arrogance: In addition to the normal kind of resistance with which any paradigm defends itself against change, the atheist paradigm of academia generally, and Philosophy in particular, feels especially threatened by the findings of paranormal research. This is because intellectuals like to regard themselves as the highest manifestation of intelligence on the planet, if not in the Universe. Embracing an evolutionary model according to which consciousness is correlated with brain development, intellectuals regard the human brain as the highest development of evolutionary forces [15], and an educated human brain as the highest of the high. Intellectuals like to feel that they are riding atop the crest of the wave of Evolution. This intellectual smugness is greatly threatened by paranormal research, especially the NDE, the results of which strongly suggest (I am tempted to say “clearly show” instead of “strongly suggest”) that the human intellect is by no means the highest form of intelligence. The Being of Light is Itself often described as infinite intelligence and love; moreover, intermediate between the humans and God there appear to many forms of non-embodied intelligence, greatly superior to our own. And furthermore, NDEers report that they feel themselves to be more alive and intelligent while out of the body than when in the body. NDE research seems to be confirming Plato’s view that the body acts as a damper on the soul’s native intelligence, weighing it down, so to speak, such that the soul is not able to manifest its full intelligence as long as it is embodied in material form.

All this is deeply unsettling to us academics. When we were younger, we may have been poor at sports, we may have been frequently teased by other children for being “squares” or “nerds”. But we were smart, and our whole sense of self-worth got tied up in being smart. We were praised by our teachers for getting A’s, and we worked hard to achieve the highest possible academic honors and rewards. It is thus quite natural for us to desire theories which support and justify those qualities which are strongest in us. It is therefore very comforting, although blatantly self-serving, to embrace a paradigm according to which we intellectuals are the most highly evolved beings in the Universe, or at least, on the planet. So to ask us to take seriously current research on the Near Death Experience is to ask us (i) not only to entertain the possibility that the atheist paradigm in terms of which we were raised and educated might be inadequate, (ii) but also that human intelligence, of which we academics are the supreme manifestation, is not only not the highest form of intelligence in Creation, but may very well be among the lowest. No wonder there is so much resistance!

(c) Social and cultural taboo: This is the most serious and powerful source of resistance, because it involves not only the university system, but our whole culture, indeed, our whole way of life. Despite avowals to the contrary, we live in a completely atheistic and irreligious culture. To be sure, most people profess a belief in a Higher Power of some sort, and many people attend religious services regularly, but religion, by which I mean religious values, plays no role in shaping the economic and political forces which structure and control our culture. Let me explain: the primary religious value, common to all of the world’s religions, is love. The religions of the world agree that Divine Love is the force which creates and sustains our world, and that our primary purpose while embodied is to grow in our ability to understand and express this love. The world’s religions advocate that we practice compassion and forgiveness towards others, that we treat people as ends in themselves, and that we not value material possessions. The “goodlife”, according to religion, consists, not in the pursuit of wealth, reputation, or power, but rather, in the pursuit of right relationship with the Divine.

Now, the values of our culture are diametrically opposed to the values of religion. Success in our culture is measured by wealth, reputation, and power; and the desires which are requisite for obtaining this success are greed and ambition. Religious values have been safely shunted off to at most one hour a week on Sunday morning, where they are completely ineffective in mitigating the forces of greed and ambition which drive our culture economically. The primary religious values of love and compassion play no role in shaping the economic and political life of our culture. Politicians and corporations seek only to win fame and fortune for themselves; they do not value kindness, they do not seek to share their wealth, and most importantly, they, like everyone else in our culture, measure their self worth according to their wealth, status, reputation, etc. No one gets rich by being kind to their competitors; no one gains political office by being loving towards their opponents. Religious values may be paid lip service to, but they are inoperative in our culture. Indeed, they are fundamentally incompatible with the values which do, in fact, drive our culture.[16]

The reader can probably already see where I’m going with this. Research on the NDE has yielded the following unambiguous conclusion. NDEers confirm the basic values of the world’s religions. The purpose of life, NDEers agree, is Knowledge and Love. Studies on the transformative effect of the NDE show that the cultural values of wealth, status, material possessions, etc., become much less important, and the perennial religious values of love, caring for others, and acquiring knowledge about the divine ascend to greater importance. That is, the studies show that NDEers not only verbally profess the values of Love and Knowledge, but they tend to operate in accordance with these values, if not entirely, then at least more so than before.

As long as religious values are presented as merely religious values, then it is easy for popular culture to ignore them or give them minimal lip-service on Sunday mornings. But if these same religious values are presented as empirically verified scientific facts, then everything changes. If the belief in an afterlife were to be accepted, not on the basis of faith, nor on the basis of speculative theology, but as a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis, then this could not be ignored by our culture. In fact, it would mean the end of our culture in its present form. Consider the following scenario: further research on the NDE confirms in great detail what has already been established, many more cases of verified veridical perceptions while “out of body” are collected and documented, advancing medical technology makes possible many more “smoking gun” cases of the type discussed above, longitudinal studies on NDEers confirm the already observed behavioral changes aligned with their newly acquired (or recently reinforced) spiritual values, and so forth. The studies are replicated in different cultures, with the same results. Eventually, the weight of evidence begins to set in, and scientists are ready to announce to world, if not as fact, then at least as highly confirmed scientific hypotheses:

  1. There is an afterlife.
  2. Our real identity is not our body, but our mind or consciousness.
  3. Although the details of the afterlife are not known, we are reasonably certain that everyone will experience a life-review, in which the individual experiences not only every event and every emotion of his life, but also, the effects his behavior, positive or negative, has had on others. The usual defense mechanisms with which we hide from ourselves our sometimes cruel and less than compassionate behavior towards others seems not to operate during the life review.
  4. The purpose of life is Love and Knowledge — to learn as much as possible about both this world and the transcendent world, and to grow in our ability to feel kindness and compassion towards all beings.
  5. A consequence of (3) is that it appears to be a great disadvantage to oneself to harm another person, either physically or psychologically, since whatever pain one inflicts on another is experienced as one’s own in the life-review.
This scenario is by no means far-fetched. I believe there is already sufficient evidence to present the above propositions as “probable”, or “more likely than not”, based on the evidence. Further studies will only increase the probability.

When this happens, the fallout will be revolutionary. When these findings are announced by science, it will become impossible for our culture to do business as usual, either economically, or politically, or in the universities. For our universities, as I have written elsewhere [17], are institutions of our culture, and as such, manifest and perpetuate the values of our culture. It would be interesting to speculate what an economy, or a university, which tries to align itself with the above five empirical hypotheses might look like, but that is a project well beyond the scope of this paper. It is sufficient for our present purposes simply to note that acceptance of the findings of NDE researchers would mark the beginning of the end of a culture whose driving forces have been greed and ambition, and which measures success in terms of material possessions, wealth, reputation, social status, etc. The present culture, therefore, has an enormous vested interest in undermining NDE research, which it does through ignoring, debunking, and otherwise marginalizing the research.

More subtly, our culture has created an atmosphere of “taboo”, for want of a better name, around any serious discussions of spirituality. This is why we tend to feel uneasy and awkward in discussing these things with colleagues. We can discuss spirituality in the academy as something that other people believe, but not as something for which there could be empirical evidence and which might be empirically true. Even the former is difficult. I remember attending a conference on Spinoza some years ago. A member of the audience wanted to ask the speaker whether he thought Spinoza was a mystic. But the questioner could not bring himself to utter the word “mystic”. He stuttered and stammered until someone else asked the question for him. The taboo against spirituality is so strong in academic philosophy, that we feel awkward and embarrassed even to say the word “mystic”. And this is why I say that something like a taboo is operating here, something which we have all internalized, and which generates feelings of unease and anxiety whenever spiritually is discussed as something that might be true, rather than merely intellectually, as sociology, history, psychology, or literature.

To avoid these feelings of discomfort and anxiety generated by the taboo, academics try to protect themselves by employing the same strategies that everyone uses to avoid anxiety. The first strategy is denial. By paying no attention to the research, by ignoring it and dismissing it a priori, the academic is spared the uncomfortable feelings which would arise from violating the taboo. The second strategy is to debunk, to explain away, and to otherwise marginalize the research, and sometimes even the researchers themselves.

I believe I have identified several of the major factors which are involved in academia’s collective refusal to take seriously the results of research into the paranormal. Those disciplines which would be most affected by this research, such as Philosophy and Psychology, are the most resistant to the data, because the data calls into question their most fundamental presuppositions of what a person is and of what life is all about. There is thus much for academics generally, and philosophers and psychologists especially, to fear in this research.

I would like to close by telling a little story I heard about C.D.Broad. C.D. Broad was a famous British philosopher who wrote in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. He served as president of the British Society for Psychic Research, and was the last philosopher with an international reputation who believed there was something to it. Towards the end of his life he was asked how he would feel if he found himself still present after his body had died. He replied that he would feel more disappointed than surprised. Not surprised, because his investigations led him to conclude that an afterlife was more likely than not.[18] But why disappointed? His reply was disarmingly honest. He said, in effect, that he had had a good life: that he was comfortable materially, and that he enjoyed admiration and respect from students and colleagues. There is no guarantee that his status, reputation, and comfort would carry over intact into the afterlife. The rules by which success is measured in the afterlife might be quite different from the rules according to which success is measured in this life. And indeed, NDE research suggests that Broad’s fears were well-founded, that “success” by afterlife standards is measured, not in terms of publications, grants, or reputation, but rather by acts of kindness and compassion to others. Perhaps those whose sense of self-worth arises primarily from their status within academia have, as Broad expressed, something to fear from the findings of NDE research.


  1. “Do Any Near-Death Experiences Provide Evidence for Survival of Human Personality after Death?”, Emily Cook, Bruce Greyson and Ian Stevenson, Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol.12, No. 3, p. 377, 1998.
  2. Ibid, p 377
  3. Light and Death; Zondervan Publishing House, 1998, chapter 3
  4. Ibid, p.49
  5. Robert Almeder: Death and Personal Survival
  6. Ibid:
  7. William James: Frederic Myers Service to Psychology, in The Works of William James; Essays in Psychical Research, Harvard, 1986, p.194
  8. Michael Grosso, PhD. Fear of Life after Death in What Survives?, Gary Doore (ed); Tarcher, 1990. (Italics mine)
  9. Peter Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, Berkeley Publishing, 1997, p.249
  10. I think it is time to be quite candid about this; there is a tremendous body of research on the paranormal, accumulated since the time of William James, which should properly be called the “findings of science”, because the researchers have been trained scientists who adhered to strict, methodologically scientific rules of evidence. When I say that the findings of science refutes materialism, I am using the term refutes in the standard empirical (not logical or mathematical) sense in which a hypothesis (in this case materialism) is said to be refuted, or falsified, by strong evidence to the contrary.
  11. Fundamentalists are just as inventive in explaining away fossil evidence as fundamaterialists –at least those who bother to look at paranormal research –are at explaining away NDE research. One particularly ingenious fundamentalist explanation is that, when God created the world 5000 plus years ago, He created it with fossils and dinosaur bones in place, to make it look as if the world were older, as a sort of test of our faith. The Creationist then challenges the evolutionary scientist to “prove” that God did not in fact create the world in this way. One does not need to be an astute logician to see that the Creationist’s hypothesis is unfalsifiable in principle, hence unscientific, and hence, the evolutionary scientist does not need to show (because it cannot in principle be shown) that God did not Create the world with the fossil evidence in place. The arguments of those fundamaterialists who look at the evidence from paranormal research are just as convoluted, involving unfalsifiable premises, confusing evidence with proof, etc. See Almeder, op. cit., for a more detailed examination of some of the convolutions the fundamaterialist must undergo in order to save his materialism.
  12. As an aside, I must say that it has taken me twenty years to gain the courage to be able to reply simply and honestly to questions pertaining to my interests. The taboo against having any interest in the paranormal except for the purpose of debunking it has persisted in academia since the time of William James; and the punishment for violating this taboo is to be ridiculed and marginalized by colleagues. My fear, which has now left me, of being on the receiving end of such ridicule has kept me silent for many years. Everyone desires approval from their peers, and I have nothing but admiration for those researchers whose love for truth gave them the courage to publish their findings despite fears of their colleagues’ disapproval.
  13. e.g. William James on mediumship, John Mack on UFO’s, Brian Weiss and Ian Stevenson on reincarnation, etc.
  14. Paul Davies
  15. Although, it must be noted that intellectuals are not consistent in their application of their own criteria. If species intelligence is to be correlated with brain development, then dolphins and whales must be regarded as the most intelligent life forms on the planet.
  16. I do not mean only the corporate and political culture, but popular culture as well. Consider, for example the value of forgiveness, common to all religions. In what per cent of our movies is the protagonist a hero because he has successfully applied this value and has forgiven his enemies? Compare this with the percentage of movies in which the protagonist is a hero because he successfully applied the opposite value of vengeance and destroyed his enemies.
  17. See my Context & Content in Academia; Parts 1 and 2, as yet unpublished.
  18. C. D. Broad reached this conclusion based on studies of mediums and apparitions. The evidence available today, through NDE research and Stevenson-type cases, is even more compelling