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The Big Conversation – Episode 4 | Season 5
What should we make of accounts of “near death experiences”? Do they give credible support to the possibility that there is life after death, or can they be explained away as mere physical phenomena? Indeed, what is the connection between the brain, consciousness, and “the soul” (if it even exists)?
Christian speaker and former neuroscientist Dr Sharon Dirckx, author of Am I Just My Brain?, engages with atheist philosopher Dr Emily Qureshi-Hurst, college lecturer and Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and author of the book God, Salvation, and the Problem of Spacetime.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead?
- Episode 2: Christianity, the Sexual Revolution and the future of the West
- Episode 3: Can Science and Religion Tell us What it Means to be Human?
- Episode 5: The Robot Race, Part I: Could AI ever replace humanity?
- Episode 6: The Robot Race, Part II: How should humanity flourish in an AI world?
Audio Transcript for The Big Conversation (Season 5, episode 4)
Andy Kind (AK), Sharon Dirchx (SD) & Emily Qureshi-Hurst (EQH)
AK: Hello, and welcome to The Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable brought to you in partnership with the John Templeton Foundation. I am your host, Andy Kind. The Big Conversation is all about having large chats, sprawling chats about those big issues around faith, science, philosophy and culture bringing together some of the brightest and most ardent thinkers across the belief spectrum.
Today we are discussing the brain, consciousness and near-death experiences. Are NDE’s proof of an afterlife? In an age where opinion is very much divided on the nature of consciousness and the human mind or soul – if there even is one or if even that’s a proper term to use – might NDEs provide proof of an afterlife? Should we give them credence as supporting evidence? Or do we just need to accept that once it’s the end of the brain, it’s the end of the game?
Well, joining me today to definitively answer this question are two illustrious and distinguished guests, Sharon Dirchx and Emily Qureshi-Hurst. Welcome to both of you. We’ve got a lot to talk about but what I want to do is start gently and to just get your background and backstories a little bit. You are both academics, both doctors. So could you talk about your route into your chosen subject and how your world view has changed or influenced where you’ve got to at this current state. So, Sharon, we’ll start with you.
SD: Thank you, Andy. So I began life… well, my earliest childhood memory is I didn’t really have particular beliefs about the world. I remember as a child having a thought as I was just sitting watching the rain splash against the pane one day being slightly bored, I remember a series of thoughts coming into my head; why can I think? Why do I exist? Why am I a living, breathing, conscious being? Now, the thing that’s helpful to know about me at that point was that I wasn’t raised in a religious home and so those thoughts were seemingly coming from a neutral vantage point on life.
And I suppose later on I began to absorb a what you call materialistic perspective from the news, from books, from the views of my friends, from radio and TV and so on. I knew that I was a scientist from quite early on, I decided to continue in the sciences from my teenage years. And I remember my A-level biology teacher handing me a copy of ‘The Selfish Gene’, by Richard Dawkins and this was a long time ago and so this book was fairy hot off the press and I remember reading this book and this view that we are essentially material beings in a material world and not really questioning it, just kind of absorbing it. And it wasn’t really until I arrived at university that I began to really think about whether there was more to it than that. And, yea, I essentially arrived at a university with the view that God didn’t exist and that being a credible scientist was certainly not compatible with belief in God.
AK: That’s really interesting. So what then changed for you? What was the crossing the Jordan moment for you?
SD: Well, I wouldn’t say there was a moment. I would say there was a process with certain key moments along the way. In my very first week I was invited to an event called ‘Grill a Christian’ which has nothing to do with BBQing as we know! But they were Christians who you could address questions to one evening. So I went along and I spent the evening listening to other people’s questions and then about half way through I plucked up courage to ask my own question and asked, ‘surely you can’t believe in God and be a credible scientist at the same time’? And was actually told something along the lines of one of the things we are discussing today which is that these are both ways of looking at the same reality but just from different perspectives. And that, of course, you don’t need to choose. It’s like asking someone to choose between the existence of Jeff Bezos and the programming and processing languages undergirding Amazon. Of course you don’t need to choose between those two things. And together they give a more complete picture of reality. Well this, for me, opened up a whole vista, I thought well, okay, if there is a persuasive, credible answer to that question how many other responses are there out there that might be able to help me in my journey? So I spent the next 18 months grilling a lot more Christians, asking a lot more questions, and eventually – and including about the person of Jesus Christ – and eventually became a persuaded. Not that I had every question answered and I still don’t. There’s a lot of mystery there. But that I became convinced that Jesus was real, that he had risen from the dead and that he loved me and I was actually going to flourish most as a human being in a relationship with him. And so I actually changed my views about God at the age of twenty studying biochemistry.
AK: And that was just a couple of months ago, wasn’t it? (SD: Of Course)
That’s great. So you came to this conclusion that science and religion don’t have to be… or it’s not a turf war, they can both live quite happily in the neighbourhood?
AK: Great. Well, we’ll talk about that more. Emily, welcome to the show. First time. So do you want to give your backstory? (Don’t start from birth!)
EQH: So, I’ll start a little bit after birth then. So, I come from a sort of Christian family. I have Christian grandparents, my grandad was a priest, so I spent a fair bit of time as a child in church and Sunday school. I was always exposed to the Christian religion. But it didn’t really seem to resonate very deeply with me. But I was always interested in it as a perspective, as a worldview, but it just… I mean, I didn’t connect with it, I didn’t think that it was true. And then my dad always used to talk to me about the universe and he was really interested in science so I think, actually, from a very early age I was raised in an environment where both science and religion were seen as fascinating ways of understanding the world.
So I went to Oxford to study philosophy and theology and to prepare myself for that I read, ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins so he features in my story as well. And I was totally convinced he was absolutely right. The mind of a seventeen-year-old is very black and white so I was like, yes, this is it. And I came to university and very early on when I was there, I think in my first term, Richard Dawkins did a talk at the union. I was like, oh great, a chance to meet him. So I went and got to talk to him and I asked him… so I was studying theology and in his book he says something along the lines of theology isn’t a real discipline. And I said to him, I am an atheist, I agree with a lot of the stuff you say, but I am here studying theology. You’ve said it’s not a real discipline, can you respond? And he couldn’t really. And I think that was the first time that I saw this new atheist world view start to fall apart. And from there on I’ve been interested in basically the intersection between philosophy, theology and physics and trying to look at all of the different ways that these can interact. I no longer think that science and religion are incompatible. Although I am an atheist so I do think religion is false but I find it fascinating. So ever since then I’ve been researching and learning more about science and religion and philosophy.
AK: That’s fantastic. It’s great that we’ve got two academics who are coming at it from different perspectives. But, again, we are not in some kind of pitched battle here so let’s talk first of all about the areas of convergence; where do the two Venn diagrams overlap? You don’t think they are incompatible?
EQH: No, I don’t.
AK: Do you think that with science you would say that religious belief is incorrect, is flawed. So how do you then compare that to science? Is science simply a best guess of what we’ve got and what we know about the universe or would you dig down a bit deeper into certainty with science? And how do those two magisteria converge in your mind?
EQH: That’s a very good question. But I think before I answer it we need to take one step back and really think about what we actually mean by the terms ‘science’ and ‘religion’. We use them all the time with certain assumptions about what they mean but actually when you start to unpick those definitions of science and religion the conceptual categories start to fall apart or at least they start to fray at the edges.
So, let’s start with religion. What do we mean when we say ‘religion’? In the West we typically think of religion as a system of beliefs particularly surrounding belief in God. But, of course, that doesn’t capture all types of religion. There are certain religions that aren’t organised around a particular God or Gods. There are also religions that aren’t primarily determined or shaped by belief. There are religions that are shaped by community, by practise, by ritual. So when we start to dig down into what religion really is we realise maybe it’s a family of things, maybe it’s a category that we can’t actually draw neat boundaries around.
So that’s the first thing I’d like to say. And with science it’s also the same. We also have conceptual problems there. So do we think of science as a body of knowledge? And if we do, what knowledge is included and what knowledge is excluded? There are always disputes between scientists, rightly so, about different interpretations of data. So it’s definitely not as clear to me to say that science is a body of knowledge and that’s it. So one of the other definitions is that science is a methodology. But, of course, the methodologies of science are multifarious. So the way that you do geology and the way that you do quantum mechanics are completely different.
So I think we also need to be really careful when we use the term ‘science’ that we are being careful and clear about what we mean by it. And the way that we define these two terms massively goes on to shape how we think that their relationship should go. So if you think of religion as a system of beliefs and science as a body of knowledge then you can look at the beliefs and the body of knowledge and see, ok, well, they seem to hit up against each other and we seem to have areas of incompatibility. If you see science as a methodology, a way of coming to understand the world, and religion as a set of rituals and community based things then they can’t really talk to each other at all. So that’s a long and maybe quite fluffy answer but I think it really, really matters how we define these terms and what we think of when we are using them and that will inform how we understand their relationship.
AK: Well, we’re all about long form answers here so you take your time, that’s fantastic! You’re in the right place, Emily.
Sharon, do you want to respond to that? Is it too simplistic to say that science and religion, obviously vague terms, is it too simplistic to say that science is about mechanism and religion is about meaning? Is that too vague? Is it churlish of me to say it like that?
SD: I think there are different layers and levels at which you can respond to the question. I definitely agree with Emily in the sense that there are many different ways in which we approach the sciences. There are many different religions. We might find it more helpful in our discussion to focus on theology as opposed to religion. There is a question as to… because there are so many different kinds of religion do they all lend themselves to the practice of science in the same way that the Judaeo-Christian framework does? And I think there is a whole conversation to be had there about the uniqueness of Judaeo-Christianity in the very fact that it enables the sciences to proceed and historically has paved the way for that.
But I guess in its broader sense if we are thinking about definitions I see the sciences and theology both as an exploration of reality. They are ways of exploring what is real and true in the world. As Einstein put it, “a scientist is a seeker after truth”. What is true in the world whether that is in the natural world or in the spiritual realm if indeed there is one. And so that’s why I would take the view that they… I really like Alistair McGrath’s view of ‘mutual enrichment’; that actually they’re both looking at the same reality and therefore it doesn’t help us to separate them off from each other and see them as different categories. Even if that lends some credence to the existence and credibility of theological perspectives I think that they should be seen as overlapping because they both describe the same reality but from different perspectives. And I know that the philosopher, Mary Midgley, talked about these maps of meaning. If we want to look at a map of the UK we could look at a political map in terms of the political positions of people around the country, or we could look at a religious map of people and their religious beliefs, or we can look at an economic map or all kinds of different ways. And no one of those maps is a conclusive summary of the country as a whole but you gain greater understanding by layering them again, one on top of the other, and with the addition of each one you gain more insight into the UK and what it’s like as a country. And that’s how I see the interaction of theology and the sciences that together they give a more complete picture of reality.
AK: Presumably you would say, in that respect, they are both true, aren’t they?
SD: They are both means of exploring what is true in the world. And I guess what’s interesting about what we’ll get to today that it seems to be that… could it be that there are spiritual aspects of the world that we can observe within a scientific context which is what’s fascinating about near-death experiences. That’s another area of deep overlap.
AK: I mean we’ve got so much to come. We are going to talk about the mind, we’re going to talk about near-death experiences. For you then, Emily, as someone who is an atheist but also a very humble and cogent writer and not disinterested at all in theology. Your book is called, ‘God, Salvation and the Problem of Spacetime’ so it’s about the intersectionality of these things.
Where would you say is the greatest sort of conflict between theology and science? Is there an impasse at some point where you think, you know what, at this point we do need to separate the two?
EQH: So I think the conflict lies in… I’m trying to think of the right term; fundamentalist religion or biblical literalism taking particularly the creation narratives in Genesis as factually and historically accurate. The type of Christianity that takes those as the final word on matters of history is not compatible with science. So young earth creationism or a denial of evolution, I mean, at that point science and religion are coming into conflict with each other in a way that can’t really be resolved because the two sides, the science and the religion… they are starting from completely different points and so there isn’t really a place, there isn’t a common framework by which you can assess the claims that each are making. If religion rejects the findings of science, if that form of religion rejects the findings of science, then you can’t use the scientific method to say, hang on, we’ve got really good evidence that the earth isn’t 6,000 years old and that animals did evolve and humans did evolve as well. So I think that’s where there could be some potential, well, definite conflict. But you don’t have to interpret the bible that way. So the conflict absolutely isn’t necessary but there are areas of conflict that are present, for sure.
AK: So is this idea of a fundamental turf war, these two old firm enemies going at it, is that quite a modern invention do you think, Sharon?
SD: I think it probably is quite a recent phenomenon. In terms of my own story, actually one of the things that was keeping me from and that concerned me about any exploration of the Christian faith was that I was going to be asked to turn my back on the kinds of things that I was learning about in studying biochemistry and specifically the question of evolution. And, of course, it was a great relief to me to hear… actually, one of my chemistry lecturers was a Christian and the church that I ended up becoming involved with, he was a member of that church. And it was, you know, really helpful to hear that there are thinking Christians that hold different views on the age of the earth and indeed the mechanisms through which… well, cosmological evolution and biological evolution took place.
Now there’s a whole conversation around… you talked about definitions earlier. What do we mean by evolution? I mean, that’s a vast term. And how it distinguishes from evolutionism which is what we see in a lot of scientific literature where people are using a kind of an evolutionary naturalistic worldview to interpret scientific data that doesn’t necessarily go there. That’s a whole conversation.
But stepping back from that, Christians can hold all kinds of views and theistic evolution, as you know, is one of them that actually the opening chapters of Genesis are not a scientific textbook, were never intended to be about the how long ago and by what means did God create the world that we see around us. In fact, they are about the who of creation. If you look at the surrounding context it was polytheism where there were beliefs that nature was itself divine and the author of Genesis is trying to say, no, actually, the heavenly bodies are not themselves deities. God is distinct from nature but yet made the material world and it’s that God that I’m trying to make clear to you. And so the days of Genesis are not commented on in terms of how long they are. In fact, there are parts of the bible that say a day to the Lord is like 1,000 years and 1,000 years are like a day. And so they could be six evolutionary long periods of time in which we now know to be… seem to be, have observed naturally, that evolutionary processes could take place during those days. And there are many Christians that hold that view as well as Christians that might say we’re going to accept cosmology and geology but we also believe there were supernatural processes as well as natural processes involved. That would be old earth creationism and then of course you mentioned young earth. But there are a variety of views and people discuss and debate. I personally do feel that we need to accept… precisely because it’s important to have dialogue between scientists and theologians. Scientists that have done hard work and have drawn conclusions about the natural world. Well, theologians and religious communities ought to listen to that and respect each other’s discipline.
AK: That’s absolutely fantastic.
And we’re going to go on to talk about the mind and the brain and the relationship between the two. We’re going to talk about near-death experiences. But what I think is great is to have this foundation of cosy collusion if you like, both of you coming at it from different worldviews, you are both curious, you would both agree, I think, that in order to do what both of you do you need to have a belief in the intelligibility of the universe and also a curiosity. So none of this is, again, what we’re sort of eschewing here and what we’re sort of rejecting is that very binary approach of, it’s either completely black or it’s completely white. It is one or it is zero. There is a Venn diagram where we can have these great intersections.
We’re going to go into a break in a while but let’s just start, let’s just upon up and we can drill down into this after the break, about the brain and the mind. Emily, what is the mind?
EQH: That is a good question and philosophers have been thinking about this as long as there have been philosophers I think. I… maybe we should talk about some different positions you can have on the relationship between the mind and the brain at some point. But I am a sceptic about our ability to know for sure. So I think I’m going to remain agnostic on some of the issues about the relationship between the mind and the brain. But I’m certainly rejecting dualism. I don’t think there is a brain and a mind and that these two can be completely separated and one can live without the other. So I’m some form of materialist I think but whether I’m a reductive materialist or a non-reductive materialist – and we’ll get into what those are – I am not entirely sure. What I will say, though, before we get started is that all positions have significant problems with them still which is why no firm conclusions have been reached. So there’s lots to talk about with all of these different views and lots of objections we can discuss as well.
AK: Well, there’s a whole buffet for you to get into after the break, Sharon, but we’re going to have a little break now just to tantalise people watching. You are both splendid, thanks for that wonderful opening section.
On The Big Conversation today we are talking about the mind, consciousness and near-death experiences. Are NDEs proof of an afterlife? And my guests already having a wonderful time and a fascination conversation are Sharon Dirckx and Emily Qureshi-Hurst. We will be back after this short break.
Welcome back to The Big Conversation with me, your host, Andy Kind. And today is a great topic, we’re talking about the mind, consciousness and near-death experiences. Are NDEs proof of an afterlife? And we’ve already had a fantastic conversation with our two guests, Sharon Dirchx and Emily Qureshi-Hurst. Before the break we got onto the massive, contentious potentially, subject of mind and brain dualism. And we left you tantalisingly hanging, wanting to respond there, Sharon. Emily, you are saying that you reject the dualism?
EQH: Absolutely. I’m a physicalist/materialist.
AK: What is your response to that, Sharon, but also could you outline for us some of the ways that we can think about mind and brain?
SD: Yea, absolutely. Well, first of all, it’s worth setting the scene a little bit. And the reason why we find ourselves talking about this is because the view exists out there that your neurons drive everything about you; your personality, your choices, even your religious beliefs, they are all dictated by the neurons in your head. Is that the case? And is that the best story that can be told about what a human being is? So that lead me to write a book, ‘Am I Just My Brain’, and to think about this question in more depth.
And, of course, we’ve already started to dig into this because we don’t just have a brain we also have a mind and the question, what is the mind, is another thing along the way. Ultimately, we don’t just have a brain, we have neurons, chemicals transmitters and so on but we also have a mind with its thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories and so on. In other words, there’s something that it’s like to be you. There’s something that it’s like to be me. And how do you get from one to the other? And that is known as the mind/brain problem. How do you get from neurons in your head to what it’s like to be you? The kind of inner life we seem to have or the stream of consciousness that seems to be going all the time.
AK: And this is what Philip Ball described because he’s written a lot about the mind, this aboutness, reducing it to the idea that having a mind means that there is something it is like to be that thing. And that’s, again, seems a bit vague and non-mathematical but is that the best we’ve got in terms of mind identity?
SD: Right. I suppose a reductive physicalist at its sharpest end, and I recognise there is a spectrum, is essentially saying that mental states are brain states. That mental processes are brain processes which is kind of like saying there isn’t something that it is like to be you. There’s just brain activity. At its sharpest edge. Now, of course, I know you’ll want to respond to me on that and there are different ways of looking at it.
But the reason why I’m not persuaded by that is to do with something that philosophers refer to as ‘qualia’. So, if I were to ask you to describe to me, for example, the smell of coffee. All we have at our disposal are physical descriptions. You may offer me the chemical structure of caffeine but that doesn’t get you any closer to the smell of coffee. (AK: And the inner experience of joy in things like that) Right, as you drink it, depending on the level of your dependency, yes. We can talk about that. And you might describe the physiology as you digest it but that doesn’t get you any closer to the smell of coffee. If you want to understand the smell of coffee you need to smell it. And there’s no way of capturing that experience physically in terms of physical descriptions. And this is why many philosophers, atheists and agnostics as well as theists argue that actually conscious experience and brain process are two very different things and one does not capture the other. Nor is one synonymous with the other. And so this is why alternative ways of looking at the mind/brain relationship are needed because this doesn’t capture the ultimate qualia of what it’s like to be you as a person.
AK: And it’s great – and we’ll let you come back on that in a moment, Emily – it’s fantastic because although this is a very gracious and charitable conversation there is a lot at stake. In your most recent book, ‘Am I Just My Brain?’ by Sharon Dirchx (that’s you), you say, ‘we don’t merely secrete brain chemicals, we also think thoughts. And we don’t think with our brains but with our minds. But what exactly is the mind and how does it relate to the brain? And herein lies the rub. Essayist Marilynne Robinson in her book, ‘Absence of Mind’ reads the situation well by pointing out that whoever controls the definition of the mind controls the definition of humankind itself’. It’s a bit like the Battle of Waterloo when Napoleon said whoever controls the farmhouse wins the battle. Is it that serious? Is that why we’re having this conversation because…
SD: Well there all are kinds of implications that go way beyond just those of the interests of the neuroscientists and philosopher. If we are just our brains, if it’s true that mental states are brain states then there are implications for free will. Are we just our brains and if so do we just do what our brains tell us? And if so what are the implications for moral responsibility? Can anyone be held morally responsible for any action if it’s not actually coming from them it’s coming from forces beyond their control. But we don’t seem to live in that kind of world. People live as though their choices mean something and we fight for our rights and the rights of other people precisely we are not just packs of neurons we are conscious beings who live meaningfully. There are implications for AI, implications for ethics, I could say more about that…
AK: Feel free to circle back to that but, Emily, do you want to respond to what you have heard so far and give your feelings and thoughts? Speak from the mind.
EQH: It certainly does feel to us like we have a mind that is distinct from our brain. We’ve always been aware of ourselves as thinking conscious creatures as far back as philosophical reflection goes But as we learn more and more about the brain we learn that there are certain areas of the brain that do certain things and also when you injure certain parts of the brain you undergo significant changes in personality and capability, etc. So it’s clear at the very least there is a strong and profound connection between the sorts of things we experience, the qualia, the thoughts, the emotions and the physical brain that sits in our heads.
I mean, there’s somebody who you discuss in your book and who comes up a lot in kinds of conversation known as Phineas Gage who was around 200 years ago, 150 years ago, and experienced an accident where a pole… there was an explosion and a pole went through his eye socket and through his brain and caused significant damage. And now what happened to Phineas is he lost whatever it was, according to the stories, that made him, him. His personality changed, he stopped being able to hold down a job, his personal relationships broke down. There was something fundamentally about who he was that was changed because of damage to the brain. And we know this with patients who undergo lobotomies and also something much more mundane, everyday, people take medication for psychiatric disorders, for mental illness. So there is clearly a deep connection between the mind and the brain. And so I guess my question to you is… the question you asked me; What is the mind and how can we be sure that it is something distinct from the brain when we know that physical impact on the brain have profound consequences on the mind.
SD: Absolutely. I actually agree with you on that and I think that’s partly why we have this conversation and why many neuroscientists have sought to find more holistic ways of describing the mind/brain relationship precisely because of the close correlation that we see. One of my PostDocs was in the study of human cocaine abuse. We put someone in an MRI scanner and you give them cocaine which generates a certain experience; you see networks lighting up in the brain. Of course these two things are connected. And, you know, one of the biggest challenges that we face as a society is how we care for an ageing population because we have people whose brains are in a state of degeneration with very clear impact on the mind and the personality of the person.
There’s a question there, though, about personhood. If there’s a person that’s beyond their brain, then even if the brain changes, is there still a person there? And that’s one of the reasons why this question is so important. But the thing that I find to be really helpful and really interesting is that the science gets you to connection. All of the examples you’ve just quoted and the ones I’ve given say that the mind and brain are connected. But the scientific data doesn’t enable you to establish the nature of that connection or the relationship. For that you have philosophy. But the science doesn’t get you to philosophy which is why it’s very frustrating to read sometimes in scientific journals and interpretations, for example, the front cover of Scientific American in 2017 talked about how the mind arises – very enticing title – and then underneath it said, ‘network interactions in the brain create thought’. As if some scientific study has shown that network interactions in the brain create thought but there is actually no study you can do that will enable you to draw that conclusion. The study will have been that networks in the brain correlate with certain aspects of thought but not that one creates the other. That’s a philosophical assumption or interpretation that’s been imposed upon the data. And we see this happening all the time, in all kinds of areas, and in this area of mind and brain. So the science doesn’t get you to the nature of the connection it simply says the two are correlated. So then we have the question; what is the best way of making sense of how these things are related? But that’s not from science, that’s from philosophy and theology.
EQH: Yea, absolutely. I mean, there are fundamental limitations to science and we have to recognise that. But just because science can’t tell us the nature of the connection between mind and brain, or at least it can’t demonstrate that physical processes and mental processes are the same thing, that in and of itself doesn’t give you any evidence that that’s not the case either. So I think you’re right, we have to look to philosophy.
SD: I think qualia give you a good reason to believe that that’s not the case. That conscious experience is not the same thing as the processes that are involved. You know, when you experience pain, we can describe that physically but the experience is not the underlying processes. There are two things happening there.
EQH: I suppose that’s the open question, isn’t it? Because I would say that they probably are the same thing. But it’s just that one of them gives you an experience of what it’s like in a scientific sense and the other is what that physical process feels like to the person. I don’t think that we have to say that because you can feel… I mean, we can feel physical pain, we can give a physical explanation for it and I don’t think that the fact that it has an impact on us necessarily shows that there are two separate things going on. I think we probably can, at some point, give a physical explanation for all of it. Just because we aren’t able to right now… maybe we will in the future or at least could in principle even if there are limitations to what science can tell us there is an explanation in principle there.
SD: I wonder if psychologists might take you to task on that a little bit because, I mean, if you want to access what’s in someone’s mind you need to ask them, you can’t simply measure their brain.
EQH: We can’t at the moment but science isn’t finished. We don’t have perfect technical capabilities so maybe we could at some point. I don’t know. Again, I think that’s something I want to remain agnostic on but I think we should be careful not to say that because we can’t do it now, because our brain imaging technology isn’t there now, it couldn’t ever be.
SD: Just to respond, I think that actually underlying that is the assumption that it has a physical basis that can be objectively measured. But even now the fields of psychiatry and psychology are… the only way they proceed and function to the maximum is if the patient or the volunteer is asked about their experiences. There are some aspects of our humanity that can’t be objectively measured in an empirical scientific sense. And that’s why we are even having this conversation. If I wanted to do a study of what it’s like for you to write your next book and I put an EEG cap on you and put you in an MRI scanner and measured the data from your brain is that going to tell me what’s it’s like for you to go through that process? (EQH: No) It’s not. And so we need access to a different category of information in order to access your mind. We can’t measure your brain. And that, for me, and for many philosophers, puts that in a completely different category. Conscious experience and brain processes are two fundamentally different things and one is not synonymous with the other.
EQH: I wonder if we’re talking about… (AK: Do you want me to go out for a bit? You guys seem really happy…) I think we might be confusing questions of epistemology with questions of ontology. So questions about knowledge and understanding with questions about the way that things are in themselves. I agree that there are two different types of explanation going on which is the epistemic point; that we explain mental processes and physical processes differently. I think we can’t go from the epistemic point to the ontological or metaphysical point that those two things are different because we explain them differently. I think that’s where the argument breaks down for me.
SD: For me it’s actually that we experience one and we measure the other. And so I think that’s what makes the difference.
AK: Watching this wonderful, non-fatal sparring match between the two of you. But it’s great we’ve got areas of convergence, areas of divergence, but a wonderful gentility towards one another.
Is it fair to say that at the moment the best we have is this sort of mappae mundi, these sort of old maps of the world and the closer you are to home the easier it is to map out the landscape but the further away you get the more obscure and gratuitous some of the maps become. Is that the case with what we’re talking about here? We’ve got some observable points, some navigable points, but there is actually a lot of unchartered territory which you’re thinking presumably we will start to chart as we go along?
EQH: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. We may also be fundamentally limited in how much we can come to understand the brain. I remember hearing a quote and I can’t remember who said it but it was, ‘if the human brain was simple enough for us to understand we would be too simple to understand it’. So maybe the brain coming to understand itself is just one of those things that science will never be able to tell us. And, of course, we might draw different conclusions from that. I might say, well, there is in principle a physical explanation for what’s going on in the brain but we havers of these brains can’t get there. And you might say, well, that’s because we can’t give a physical explanation for everything that goes on in the mind. Would that be fair to say?
SD: I think fundamentally where I am coming from is that simply looking at human beings through the lens of their brain gives you a diminished view of what it means to be a human being. That we are more than just neurons and there are more than physical explanations in this world and in reality and we need to access those in order to have the most holistic view of what a human being is. And therefore we need to draw not just from neuroscience but also from the clinic, from theology, from philosophy… and actually when you start to look at patients things get really interesting. You know, you’ve got patients who have recovered from childhood hydranencephaly who are missing 95 per cent of their cortex and yet function normally as adults. Or you’ve got, well, you’ve got the near-death experiences that we will get to… (AK: Almost imminently) Or we have things like psychosomatic illness where there are illnesses that are born in the mind that have no organic cause or no detectable organic cause. (EQH: As far as we know). Fascinating things. When you look at actual people neurons are not enough… I’m not diminishing the neuroscience, I was one, and I loved my research, but on its own to make sense of human beings I don’t believe it’s enough.
EQH: I think there is actually a difference between saying that you are a physicalist and that neurons explain everything. There is an emerging field known as embodied cognition which talks about… I guess it’s trying to unpick this idea that the brain can explain everything, it says cognition actually extends beyond the brain. We are fundamentally embodied, we can’t understand the whole of human experience just by talking about the brain. But the body is still physical. So I do think that there’s a difference… I think it might be a bit too reductive to say that everything about the human is neurons. And I don’t want to endorse that position. But I do think that we could probably, at some point, or at least there is an in principle physical explanation of everything. And maybe embodied cognition is one of the ways we can move towards a more holistic understanding of the human person that still doesn’t propose this ghosts in the machine, this disembodied soul living in the body and somehow causing thing to happen.
SD: And actually I don’t want to imply that the only alternative view to what we’ve talked about is that because actually there are other forms of looking at the mind/brain relationship that offer a more holistic… and actually I love the word embodied because actually the Christian perspective on human beings is that they are embodied beings and so that’s very important.
AK: Let’s use that as a segue into what we want to talk about, part of the topic of the conversation is near-death experiences. And we’ve talked about the mind and the brain. I don’t want to be the cook that spoils the broth but can I introduce the word ‘soul’ into that? Now, Julien Offray de La Mettrie said that the soul is an empty word to which no idea corresponds. So we can speak to that and we’ll start now and again we’ll carry on after the break.
But you use this word ‘embodied’ and obviously near-death experiences, we want to talk about the history, what counts as one and where they come from. But this idea of a near-death experience presumably has something to do with a disembodied experience which is not located in the mind? Not located in the brain? Sharon, can you start to unpack that for us? Tell us what is the history of the study of near-death experiences?
SD: Well I think that one of the assumptions around a physicalist position, whether it is embodied cognition or a reductive approach, is that the mind is still tied to the physical brain and so when the brain dies conscious awareness and the mind dies with it. But it seems to be that since the 1970s, since resuscitation technologies became available there have become… there seems to arrive patients who had been in a state of clinical death who, when were revived, started to tell stories about being conscious during this experience.
There’s an example that goes back as early as 1943 from someone called George Ritchie who was a medical student who ended up getting severe pneumonia and at the time they didn’t have many antibiotics. And he actually died, he was dead for nine minutes. And then someone persuaded the attending doctor to inject adrenaline. He actually revived and he went on to describe a very vivid experience which he then wrote about and when he qualified as a doctor he began to share it with his medical students and some of those got fascinated and so people then began to systematically investigate this phenomenon of, when you are in a state of clinical death where there is no cardiac signal and in some cases no detectable EEG signal, no brain stem signal, patients are reporting being vividly conscious. And what do we do with this data? Is it evidence that the mind can exist without the body? What I want to say, probably at the offset, is that I don’t see it as a proof of heaven, I am not resting all of my beliefs on this particular phenomenon but it’s certainly interesting and it’s particularly baffling if you are just your brain. But, of course, I know there are various critiques of it. But is it evidence of there’s more than just our brains, that there is a non-physical realm? It’s a fascinating data set.
AK: So help us with that distinction again. What counts as a near-death experience? What is classified as an NDE? Just go over that again for us.
SD: Well, so one of the…there are a number of features actually and one of the things that is quite persuasive about them is that these features seem to be very consistent across many patients from different cultures and of different beliefs as well. So some key features are being out of their body and having a perspective on what’s happening with some details that can be corroborated. Also, and not being confined to the limitations of their physical body. There’s no pain anymore from whatever they were needing to be operated on, that the pain is gone. They talk about a being of light which… this is where different people of different beliefs interpret this being of light differently; they might bring their religious beliefs to bear on that being. But, nevertheless, in each case there is a being of light in some way that interacts with them. Some people talk about seeing deceased relatives and communicating with them. And then others also… another key feature is a perception of a border; that there is a point beyond which if they cross that it’s the point of no return. And then there’s a life review where they actually review, are shown their life back to them and they become aware of things they did and said. And then there’s a return to the body which often is against their will because they were actually preferring this disembodied state. And then the final feature is a life transformation. Some actually undergo a dramatic change in how they live their life and their purpose and meaning has changed and shifted. And these features are actually common to all NDEs, I think, or certainly lots of them. I think NDEs are rated on the number of these different features that make up any given persons NDE.
AK: That’s wonderful. Well, we have reached a near-break experience and there’s lots to talk about in the final section. It’s not the point of no return, we are coming back from this. We are talking – and it’s spectacular, thank you so much for the substantive and supremely good conversation we are having, I feel so appreciative to be witnessing it as well as moderating it – so we are talking today on The Big Conversation about the mind, consciousness and near-death experiences. Are NDEs proof of an afterlife? Join us for the final section shortly where we will solve this problem once and for all.
Welcome back to the third and final part of The Big Conversation featuring my guests, Sharon Dirchx and Emily Qureshi-Hurst and today we have been discussing and are continuing to discuss the mind, consciousness and near-death experiences. Are NDEs proof of an afterlife? And we may have to disagree on this but that’s okay because there’s method in the madness and iron sharpens iron and all of that, so that is really good.
We talked for a long time about the mind and the brain. Now I then threw a complete spanner in the works by mentioning the soul. Emily, as an atheist, what do you think when you hear people talking about the soul? Is it a helpful fiction, is it something that you think should be completely disregarded? Because I think there are these phrases that we use in common parlance, people say, ‘follow your heart’ or ‘go with your gut’. We’re not really telling people to just do that. So how do you feel and how would you respond when someone says, ‘oh my soul hurts’ or ‘that’s my soul mate’. What is a soul for you as an atheist?
EQH: I think its rich with symbolic meaning. And I think we all know what somebody is talking about when they talk about a ‘soul mate’ or ‘soul food’ or that ‘nourishes my soul’. I think it’s a beautiful metaphor and I don’t think it’s any more than that.
AK: Okay. Sharon?
SD: I think that soul varies depending on who you are talking to. In the context of our current conversation some might see it as synonymous with mind; whatever that inner reality is that some people think is distinct from the physical brain. It’s that.
Theologically, it depends who you ask. There are those that would say that the soul is that which integrates the mind and the will and that kind of inner self. What we definitely don’t want to say, and when often we think of soul we might go back to ancient Greece and think about Plato as this kind of immaterial but eternal, immortal part of the person that one day floats off to heaven. Which is particularly unhelpful when we think about neuroscience which seems to show mind and body or body and soul to be so integrated. Actually, Christian theology offers a very different view and a Hebrew notion of soul is very embodied and very holistic. For example, in Genesis 2 v 7 it talks about God creating a human being. It talks about creating a man from the dust of the earth, breathing into his nostrils the breath of life and the Hebrew word there is neshamah or ruach which is ‘breath of life’ or life force or spirit. The product of that is a living nephesh which is the Hebrew word for soul. So, soul in a Christian context is actually not some immaterial part of you that floats off to heaven. Indeed, heaven is not immaterial it is physical and spiritual. And so whatever it is it’s embodied and holistic which agrees with everything that we’ve been saying so far about any persuasive argument for what a human being is needs to match those criteria.
AK: So from your point of view, Sharon, do NDEs – and we’re talking about best guesses here – do they signpost towards the truth of Christian theism more than they point towards atheism? And we’ll let Emily respond. But from your point of view?
SD: Yea. I think that if the accounts are accurate and if people are actually… have genuinely had these experiences and it seems that they have – and we can talk about the kinds of evidence and how reliable that is – then that gives us pause for thought in line of the view that the physical mechanisms of the brain drive and determine the person. Because if there is a subset of data where there is no detectable signal from the brain in the cortex or in the brain stem and yet the person is vividly conscious. And so I think that we have to wrestle with these kind of data sets that surely point us to, at the very least, that human beings are complex. That when you start to look at people you see a more complex, more rich tapestry than simply when you look at data in a laboratory or indeed ideas in philosophy and so I think it deserves to be looked at.
There’s now 50 years of research, dozens and dozens of studies from clinicians who have no interest in gaining a reputation in this area, from people who have actually changed their position based on their near-death experience. One example would be Eban Alexander who was a former Harvard Neurosurgeon who was a strict physicalist and his patients, upon resuscitation, used to tell him they’d had NDEs and he would dismiss them because if you don’t have a functioning cortex you can’t be conscious. Until he himself developed severe bacterial meningitis as the age of 54 and went into a comma and was not expected to survive. All of his near cortex had shut down, his family were told to put their affairs in order because he wasn’t going to make it. And yet, extraordinarily, he pulled through somehow and went on to describe a very vivid near-death experience which included meeting a sister that he never knew he’d had that had died before he’d had a chance to meet her and then when he was shown a photo of her it exactly matched the person. He went on to become a dualist, he’s not a Christian, but he dramatically changed his view. And actually why would you do that in a very physicalist neurosurgery environment where everyone else is a physicalist? Why would you do that unless something happened to you that you consider to be genuine and real? So those kinds of things are fascinating to me. When people undergo position changes based on their experience, that gives me thought.
AK: That’s great. Well, let’s ask Emily about that then because at least on the surface, as Sharon herself said, it’s not proof of heaven, it’s not proof of the truth of Christianity. But it does seem to slightly undermine materialism and naturalism?
Well, I think that these experiences are clearly extremely significant for the people that have them. I don’t doubt their credibility in terms of what was experienced by the individual. But I think we need to be really careful about what we do with that information and what we do with that data set as you called it.
So one of the things that I would like to mention first is that when we are looking at different types of evidence, the most unreliable is what philosophers call first person experience and what the court room would call eye witness testimony. We know that we are notoriously fallible. We remember things incorrectly. There have been studies about looking at what people can remember from scenes of crashes and all of that sort of stuff and our memories are not very reliable in those environments, particularly when we are under a lot of stress. So I think we need to be careful about what we do with this information. We need to view it with a healthy amount of scepticism I think.
And also I would like to say that when we are talking about near-death experiences, clearly there has been no death. These people haven’t died. We know that death is irreversible. So even if there is no detectable activity in the brain that doesn’t mean there was no activity in the brain. Our instruments are not perfect so there could have been a lot of stuff going on. It’s definitely possible that people could be seeming to be completely unconscious but actually aware of what was going on around them. So this idea of floating up out of your body and watching things happen and being able to describe it afterwards, that could be formed in your imaginative mind almost like a dream from things that you hear going on around you. I mean, perhaps a silly example but when I was younger I had a very, very vivid dream that me and my friend, who was a songwriter, were writing a song. And I remember waking up thinking, wow, that song was incredible, I need to write it down, I don’t want to lose it. And then I realised that it was playing on the radio. And so I thought that I had this experience that I was writing this song and that it was coming from me and it was mine. And actually my mind was forming images, experiences out of the auditory information that was going into my brain that I wasn’t really aware of.
So I do think that it’s possible that these descriptions people give of what doctors did to them could be formed out of this auditory information that they have being built into something that forms into a more coherent picture as they wake up, like when you wake up and form the narratives out of your dreams. So it’s fascinating stuff but I do think we need to view it with, as I said, a healthy amount of scepticism.
SD: I agree we need to bring scientific rigour to it. But what’s fascinating about it is it seems that spiritual realities are now being observed in a clinical context and that’s why some clinicians have given it time and have been surprised. One of the things that has been notable is the consistency across different testimonies that people have. There are these common elements that we listed earlier are across all kinds of people from different cultures with different religious beliefs. There is something about the consistency that means that actually maybe it’s not as unreliable as we thought.
AK: It’s not a knock down zinger for Christianity either is it as you have people from different world views experiencing what they would say is their God or their avatar…
SD: Yes, and actually, you know, your example about dreaming; in order to dream you have a functioning brain but we do have to be real here that these are people whose brain is shutting down. I agree there’s no detectable signal and we need to exercise caution if in time the technology improves that signal can be detected. But, nevertheless, there is a discontinuity between the lucid consciousness that people have in these situations compared with the sort of disordered state of their brain which is in the process of dying. There’s a disproportionality there that needs explanation. Their brain is shutting down but they are more awake, more alive and more free than ever. How do we make sense of that?
On the point of eye witness testimony, I feel you do a discredit to the whole discipline of history which rests on eye witness testimony. There is no way that an historian can access the event itself unless they rely on this. People are sent to the electric chair, peoples whole lives and destinies are determined on the basis of eye witness testimony. There is such a thing as reliable eye witness testimony. That’s the basis the gospels are considered reliable as well.
EQH: We need to be really careful about that because there are cases where people have misidentified suspects in certain… saying this person was there and they weren’t.
We miss things in our visual perception all the time. So it is notoriously fallible. And so I’m not trying to do a disservice to the whole discipline of history but I am trying to say, in the court room for example, we need to take these things with a pinch of salt. And so, you know, when somebody is in a state of trauma, as you say, their brain is shutting down, they’ve got lots of medication in their system, maybe what they are reporting is not as reliable as what we are seeing right now.
And I would also like to push back on this idea that there is complete agreement in near-death experiences. Actually, the figures that people see and interact with are often very culturally informed. So Christians will report seeing Jesus and Hindus will report seeing gods from their particular faith. So actually, in my view, that undermines the idea that there is some… that God is communicating with you in these moments and actually what’s happening these are visions from a dying brain and you are filling in your own cultural expectations into those experiences.
SD: I suppose my point is that the fact that they’re experiencing anything at all is noteworthy.
AK: Let’s use that to make some concluding statements. You’ve both expounded and exposited your respective views so lucidly and beautifully. So, the question is in the last couple of minutes we want to sort this out. Do near-death experiences offer proof of an afterlife? Maybe, Emily, you would say no? If it’s a one-word answer! Sharon – And I’m going to give you time to unpack that a bit more, or at least give a concluding statement -Might you say, Sharon, they don’t offer proof but they might offer an inference to the best explanation?
SD: Yea, I would say that I’m not expecting near-death experiences to offer proof of heaven. I also agree that the brain in a state approaching death, not final full biological death itself. However, if we are just our brains they pose more of a challenge to interpret. Arguably they are impossible. If there’s truly no detectable signal in the brain, then they’re a complete anomaly if we are just our brains.
If God exists, then we already have within that framework that there is a non-physical realm. The whole conversation about how that interacts with the brain normally is one that we haven’t been able to have but there’s a non-physical realm and so we have a framework for making sense of these. That we are more than just our bodies and brains that we are physical and non-physical, arguably spiritual beings in this life and that there is a life to come. And the reason that we know that is because Jesus bodily rose from the dead as the kind of forerunner of all who want to follow Him, the same will be true for them.
AK: Final world from you.
EQH: So I don’t think near-death experiences are proof of anything. They are absolutely fascinating and we should definitely do more work investigating them. We need better scientific tools to be able to do that. We need to be able to measure the brain much more accurately than we can measure it now. FMRI scanners are good but they are definitely not very… they can’t measure the brain which a huge amount of fine structure. So we need to, I think we need to suspend our judgement about what this means and I think scepticism is the best way to view it.
AK: Fantastic. Well, we are now at the point of no return. Will we go on after this, after the cameras have shut down? Who’s to say? But we will continue to look into that.
It’s been absolutely amazing, thank you so much to both of you. Sharon’s book, ‘Am I Just My Brain?’ is amazing and worth getting. Emily’s book, your first book, ‘God, Salvation and the Problem of Spacetime’, is also fantastic, worth reading and worth getting.
You’ve been wonderful guests, thank you so much. We’ve talked today on The Big Conversation about the mind, consciousness and near-death experiences. Are NDEs proof of an afterlife? Well, maybe not. But there may be something in them. Anyway, my name is Andy Kind, thank you so much and we’ll see you next time.