Sunday, December 14, 2008

Near-death experiences

Christian author Bryan Appleyard writes an article for The Sunday Times which argues that near-death experiences (NDEs) are evidence that the mind can be separated from the brain, and there actually is an afterlife.

Bryan refers to the "consistency and clarity of these [NDE] reports across cultures and time zones," which is misleading, not only because people of different religions see different religious figures in NDEs, but as Carol Zaleski detailed, "through her comparative studies of medieval and modern NDEs, many features of these experiences vary in ways that correspond to cultural expectations. A striking instance of this is the minimal role played by judgment and damnation in modern NDEs; unlike the medieval cases, the modern life-review tends to be therapeutic in emphasis. In view of this, Zaleski ascribes the experiences to the religious imagination."

As Appleyard himself points out, "all the evidence [for NDEs] remains anecdotal, and even the most impressive stories...tend to look less convincing on closer examination." Moreover, as Michael Shermer explains, the hallucination of flying is triggered by atropine, out-of-body experiences are triggered by ketamines, the perception of the world enlarging or shrinking is triggered by dimethyltryptamine, the retrieval of long-forgotten memories is triggered by methylene-dioxyamphetamine, and a feeling of oneness with the cosmos is triggered by LSD. "The fact that there are receptor sites in the brain for such artificially processed chemicals means that there are naturally produced chemicals in the brain that, under certain conditions..., can induce any or all of the experiences typically associated with a NDE," (Why people believe weird things, p80).

Bryan attempts to support a dualistic approach to the ontology of the world, by arguing that thoughts cannot collide with bricks. "Dualism," says Appleyard, "means that the mind and the brain are not made of the same things and therefore in theory, they can be separated, as in NDEs." However, in general, an object cannot collide with a process. For example, a brick cannot collide with evaporation, but this is hardly evidence of a fundamental ontological duality. Moreover, if non-collidability enables the mind and the brain to be separated, it follows that computer software can also be separated from computer hardware. Presumably, a terminating program will briefly float at ceiling level in the IT department, above the computer it was running on, before it enters a cybernetic afterlife.

Most remarkably, Bryan takes huge liberties with the interpretation of quantum theory, and claims that it supports mind-brain dualism, quoting with approval the eccentric opinions of Henry Stapp. "'The observer,' Stapp tells me, 'is brought into quantum dynamics in an essential way not only as a passive observer but as an active part of the dynamics'." This is the familiar canard that observers are a crucial part of the quantum world because it is observers who trigger wave-function collapse. In fact, wave-function collapse is triggered by any measurement-like interaction, and observers are completely superfluous to the process. Appleyard even claims that "quantum non-locality could mean the mind is capable of being non-local to the brain, of floating to the ceiling of the room." Quantum non-locality pertains to non-local interactions between particles separated over large distances, and entails no such possibility of separating the mind from the brain.

There seems to be a quite remarkable degree of selection and manipulation of the facts going on here. Appleyard is twisting some well-known canards in the interpretation of quantum theory, to provide a post-hoc justification for a belief about the nature of the mind which is crucial to his religious world-view. Honesty and integrity seem to have taken something of a backseat here.


passer by said...

And round the roundabout we all go.......How do we know that God is not an evil deceiver and we are living in fact living in a computer made "matrix"?

I too am a skeptic, I prefer to call myself a militant agnostic rather than an atheist, but there have been a handful of points in my life when I have to consider that an event was more than just plain random.

For example, Ive only ever made one bet in my life, my grandfather was an addicted gambler I have always been against, but in 1992 I went to the bookies to place a bet, John Mayor and the Conservatives to win the election with a 21 seat majority, they took my money with a big grin their faces, and not so when I went a few months later to collect my substantial winnings, I gave it to the local hospice, I dont like gambling. All this based on a dream I had a few months earlier that left we spooked.

Yes I was keen to see the Welsh wind bag stuffed, and yes it could well be random, but 21 seats against the backdrop of the politics of the time?

The dream was like a NDE, as described, it was like getting a peek at something you should not as a child and giggling at what you saw, I really felt that part of me had separated from my body, coming back, for use of a better term, I felt my external body reconnect with my physical body, I even felt a strain in both my legs and arms for many days afterward, this was more than a dream, much more this was insight. I am still puzzled and alarmed by it, it goes against most things I accept as fact. The whole thing haunts me.

Frank Wilson said...

Hi Gordon:
Could you provide an example of a measurement-like interaction that did not involve an observer and if we know of such wouldn't that be because an observation had been made?

Gordon McCabe said...

Long time no hear Frank!

The formalism of quantum theory represents the wave-function to collapse in measurement-like interactions in which observers play no part at all. For example, when a photon impinges upon a photographic emulsion, quantum mechanics represents the wave-function of the photon to collapse when it interacts with the molecules of the emulsion. No observer is required to represent the collapse of the wave-function.

Of course, the only photographic emulsions we observe are the ones we observe, but knowledge is not restricted only to that which we observe, or that which can be derived directly from observation. Rather, knowledge is also obtained from the hypothetico-deductive technique, which in the realist worldview of science, postulates a world existing independently of perception, derives predictions from specific theoretical hypotheses, and observationally verifies those hypotheses.

One can always challenge these underlying naturalistic postulates, and resort to a type of idealism, a la Berkeley, but this is not the issue here. The crucial point is that the mathematical formalism of quantum theory is perfectly capable of representing wave-function collapse by measurement-like interactions in which the observer plays no part.

Gordon McCabe said...

To gain an authoritative and informative understanding of the interpretation of quantum theory, Bryan could have consulted or quoted from one of the majors figures in the field, such as Jeremy Butterfield, Harvey Brown or Michael Redhead.

In fact, Bryan did exactly that when he consulted Michael Redhead, then Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, for his 1992 book, Understanding the Present, so let's see what Professor Redhead has to say about the role of consciousness in quantum theory.

In his book, Incompleteness, nonlocality and realism, Professor Redhead considers three possible interpretations of quantum theory. In the first, the Bohmian interpretation, Redhead points out that:

"It is anti-idealist, in the sense that human consciousness plays no role in the specification of the interpretation," (p47).

The second candidate interpretation accepts that the values of physical quantities can be unsharp or 'fuzzy', but again Redhead points out that:

"The experimental probings under which propensities manifest themselves have nothing to do with human minds or consciousness. Everything could work out in a world without human beings at all," (p49).

And the third candidate, Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation, holds that classical physics applies to macroscopic systems, so there's no question of quantum theory applying to the mind/brain here.

By quoting from a crank such as Stapp, and by treating Stapp's opinions as if they provide a reliable guide to the interpretation of quantum theory, Bryan has engaged in a wilful twisting of the facts. It's the action of an unprincipled propagandist.

Bob said...

I love the software analogy. That's probably because I work with software.

We would sure have al lot of dead programs flying around in our company, if this was the case. Maybe that's what is haunting me on monday mornings when my computer refuses to obey me. I knew it was something from the other world...

Gordon McCabe said...

And just imagine, Bob, what happens when a program gets terminated after entering an infinite loop; from immortality to death, and then back to immortality in the cybernetic afterlife.

Brit said...

Harsh, Gordon.

I didn't feel that Bryan espoused a particular viewpoint. It's a journalistic feature article in a Sunday paper, not an academic argument.

Gordon McCabe said...

You don't think Bryan expressed a viewpoint? Well, how about this:

"But is such a thing as a separable mind possible or even conceivable? The answer is yes. In explaining why, it will be necessary to plunge into philosophy and quantum the end of it, you might just believe you are immortal."

Yes, you're right, that's extremely impartial.

But seriously, it is precisely because Bryan is writing a journalistic feature article, rather than an academic paper, that I would expect an informative account, which quotes from reliable and authoritative sources, rather than the biased and misleading article which was written.

Brit said...

Well it is conceivable - indeed, it is the default belief for most people.

Gordon McCabe said...

In which case, why the need to invoke quantum theory to explain why it is conceivable?

Brit said...

Because it's an interesting and provocative viewpoint?

Gordon McCabe said...

Agreed, but you started off by claiming that Bryan didn't express a viewpoint, and if you're explaining a controversial and extreme viewpoint to a general audience in a mainstream newspaper, it's only professional to acknowledge that the viewpoint is controversial and extreme, otherwise you will mislead the general audience.

Anonymous said...

Is Bryan a Christian?

Rene said...

Weather NDEs are evidence of mind/body separation or not, science still needs to account of consciousness.

Let's find a way to detect and measure consciousness, then maybe we are closer to an answer and a proof of either direction.