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.