Atheism, Philosophy, Near Death Experiences, and Causal Dependency

In terms of atheism and philosophy, a big issue that near death experiences (NDEs) drive us to confront is what we think about the causal dependency of the mind upon the brain. In British philosopher Keith Ward’s exceptional book, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins (Lion 2008), he writes (p. 18):

The existence of consciousness refutes radical materialism, the theory that nothing exists except physical things in space and time. But emergent materialism, the theory that minds arise from matter, even though they are not just material, is more plausible. However, if you are an emergent materialist, you have already taken the first step towards forming some idea of God. You have said that not everything is a physical object in space. There are non-physical, non-spatial entities—minds, perceptions, thoughts and feelings—that really exist, even if they are, as Dawkins claims, causally dependent on physical brains. Causal dependence is, afterall, a contingent matter. It could have been otherwise.

It could have been otherwise. Whoa! Stop right there. There is no need for this timidity. Near death experiences change the ballgame and expand the range of reasonable discussion. NDEs suggest that mind may not just be an emergent property of matter, causally dependent on it, and therefore susceptible to passing away with the brain’s dissolution, but may be separate from the brain. In other words, NDEs force us to confront the possibility—not just that minds are real and cannot be reduced to matter—but that minds cannot be reduced to matter precisely because they are really and wholly independent of the brain (as radio waves are independent of radio receivers). In short, NDEs drive us to a reconsideration of dualism—and dare I say it?—of ghosts.

Mind. Blowing.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Atheism, Philosophy, Near Death Experiences, and Causal Dependency

  1. gonovelgo says:

    I’m a little confused about the quote from Ward. Specifically this bit:

    However, if you are an emergent materialist, you have already taken the first step towards forming some idea of God. You have said that not everything is a physical object in space.

    It seems as if he’s taking a bit of a leap here. Emergent materialism is more or less how I think of the mind right now (although I didn’t know it was called that until I read this post), but I’m not sure how that means I’ve ‘taken the first step towards forming some idea of God’. The fact that I’m leaning towards a vision of the mind that isn’t strictly material doesn’t invalidate any of my problems with the concept of God. I still don’t think that the traditional arguments are very persuasive, or that theists can offer many good reasons at all for believing in God. Just going off that single paragraph, it seems as if Ward is getting ahead of himself, or else being drawn in by the semi-pervasive idea that anybody who moves away from strict materialism will inevitably gravitate towards theism.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Gonovelgo:

    I like your Dark Star image of gravitation in your last sentence. But I think Ward is simply suggesting that matter might have been otherwise. In other words, matter might have continued to make just, well, more matter. But matter apparently has the property of producing minds. Why does it have this curious property? It drives us into a question of where this contingency came from in the first place. Why is there mind in the universe when there might have been no mind—when it might have been just as easy, in a material universe, to have no mind? It’s not the kind of universe you would think a strictly materialist universe would produce. It’s baffling.

    —Santi

    • gonovelgo says:

      Quite baffling indeed, but I’m not sure that I see how this connects in any way to God. Isn’t what Ward doing, if I’m reading him right, equivalent to invoking God as a sort of ‘fall-back’ explanation when all others fail? (Or when we’re baffled, to put it another way.)

  3. santitafarella says:

    Gonovelgo:

    I agree it is a kind of god of the gaps argument. But I think that most theistic arguments are god of the gaps arguments. I don’t think that god of the gaps arguments are necessarily poor ones. They are the places where theism can be reasonably entertained (though not proven). They are the places where material explanations do not suffice.

    We want science to close all routes to god via material explanation. We want science to do its work. It is a tool for closing causal routes via material explanation. But what science gives with one hand, it may take away with the other. God will probably always be that piece on the chessboard that you can’t quite get in checkmate, and that makes life interesting. You close one route, another opens. Materialism chases its tail, and that tail is God.

    —Santi

    • gonovelgo says:

      I don’t want to see pedantic here (perish the thought :P), but I would have thought that materialism’s ‘tail’ would be ignorance. As in, one would be more justified in simply saying that they don’t know something than they would be filling the gap with God. That’s always been my view – I can never understand people who seem to feel that a ‘coherent’ or full explanation, no matter how speculative or outright unsupportable, is always better than no explanation at all.

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