What I Think about Near Death Experiences (NDEs)

For the past couple of weeks now, I’ve been reading and thinking about NDEs as a phenomenon, and if I were forced to bet, I think that the near death experience is real. In other words, it’s probably more than just the chemical fritzing of a brain heading for total shut down. I’m reading an academic book on the subject that is very good. It’s called The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences (2009). It’s the most serious and authoritative (from a research point of view) of any of the books that I’ve found on the subject. I’m a skeptic and an agnostic, and I continue to be so, but I don’t think it is unreasonable to believe that something real is going on with NDEs, with all the implications that entails.

And what are some of those implications? I would suggest five:

  • I think NDEs are an extraordinarily hopeful piece of evidence that maybe the universe is not just material atoms shuffling in the void, that the mind is not reducible to matter, and there is some loving providence that will meet us at death. I, personally, do not want to die an atheist’s or an agnostic’s death (even though, as I say, I am an agnostic). I don’t want to die like the pathetic characters in John Updike’s late fiction. I want to see my dead mother and grandmother, and other long gone relatives. I’ve got a few questions for God. These desires may be clouding my judgment of the NDE phenomenon, but NDEs strike me as a definite check on the theism side of the evidence ledger.
  • NDEs help with the problem of evil (theologically and philosophically). If our suffering is limited to life on this Earth, and there really is a place of greater sensual acuity than here, and it is spectacularly positive, it makes God’s existence less problematic for sensitive liberal people. Poetic justice may well be a fact for every suffering and ill treated person. I want that to be true. I hope that it is true. 
  • NDEs say something (at least to me) about the problematics of atheism. Even if NDEs are hallucinations born of brain trauma, it’s interesting that at the very base of the human mind is love and connection to the light, and a vision of paradise where those we love are reunited. If atheism means living without a core fantasy of the human imagination, what does that say about the desolation that atheism represents, and its prospects for ever satisfying the human psyche?
  • As medical resuscitation technologies advance, it is likely that more and more people will, over the next century, have near death experiences under monitored medical surveillance, and that more researchers will devote themselves to the study of this phenomenon. This means that there is an aspect of science that may well, over time, prove a bolster to theistic belief. In other words, in any generation, scientific investigation may take from theism with one hand, but may give a reasonable person evidence for belief in God with the other hand. NDEs are an example of science advancing to a point where it assists theistic inference in an area where, say, 100 years ago, such accounts would have been more difficult to believe.
  • The reorientation of existence. Something that seems to be characteristic of virtually all near death experiencers is that it changes their orientation to the world. Love becomes of paramount importance to them, and they seem to have lost their fear of death, or to have become more deeply philosophical about searching for the meaning of life (in light of a less than pleasant near death experience, which also happens). A question I have is whether the shift in life orientation changes their orientation to politics and social change on Earth. Do near death experiencers become quietist, otherworldly, and indifferent to how the world is going in general? I wonder if anyone has researched this question.

Near death experiencers remind me of Prometheus. In the extremities of their encounters with death, they have stolen a bit of knowledge-fire from heaven (or the deepest part of the human mind) and have lived to tell about it, and share it with the rest of humanity.

We should listen.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to What I Think about Near Death Experiences (NDEs)

  1. Hugo says:

    I miniblogged this, thought I should add a comment too:

    I noted that you didn’t (your post didn’t) take into consideration how our prior expectations and culture shape our interpretations of NDE’s: I’d like to know how the experiences/interpretations of NDE’s differ for people that have never heard of the typical afterlife ideas of our culture.

    (I guess people believing in reincarnation might interpret it as approaching a new… um… “host”?, and then getting pulled back? Or some place of limbo where they await rebirth? ponder ponder)

    I also commented on the history of afterlife belief, but that’s probably rather too far removed. (As I understand it, afterlife belief developed in Judaism as a response to perceived injustices in this life and a need for some divine justice.)

    So while I don’t share your desire to believe in an afterlife, and see talk of heaven and hell as being more about something that exists in this life and in this world’s future (our influence on it), I do like the thoughts you raise. The development of afterlife belief I just mentioned is pretty about your second bullet point.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Hugo:

    The cultural question is a good one. I’m thinking about it. I don’t mean to sound perverse, but I think that if God exists it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that God would be a trickster and let people experience different heavens. Hell, I think it is almost a requirement of any sane theistic hypothesis that God must also be a trickster because, from the get-go, this universe is so weird and confusing. One of the NDE experiencers that I posted (the trial lawyer) says the being that took him away from his body said: “Call me Gabe.” Well, I suppose if the light was compassionate, it would call itself Gabriel for a Catholic, Elijah for a Jew, Carl Sagan for an atheist, and Krishna for a Hindu. I suppose a UFO enthusiast would think it was an alien flying them off. But curiously, the cross cultural elements are pretty close to one another. A large academic China NDE study found the same basic structural pattern that Westerners experience. The flies change but the shit is the same. I hope I’m not being trite or rationalizing. You ask a good question. That’s my best answer at the moment.

    —Santi

    • Hugo says:

      Good answer, thanks!

      I recognise my own bias is one of “a Christian notion or nothing”, I don’t really consider the trickster option.

      So my biases? : I have a habit/bias of automatically combining agnostic-epistemology with apathy towards what we cannot know. My views might be somewhat “emergent materialist”, though I can’t be sure if it’s the perfect label as haven’t explored the other available labels yet.

      I happily declare a “lack of belief in” an afterlife since I understand heaven and hell to be here and now, and all that really matters. “The mysteries” simply don’t catch my interest anymore. I care about science, and for the rest I care about having the right relational and pluralism-friendly stance for productive social interaction.

      Apologies for the verbosity 😉 – my point is just to admit my own “naturalism bias”, and say I’m very happy that other people don’t share my biases. Keeps things interesting and helps society as a whole overcome the incorrect notions it believes. Keep up the honesty!

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