John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin. Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Near-death experiences have been hailed, especially in the United States, as evidence of an afterlife, and in some recent works as evidence of a specifically Christian one.

The authors of this book are philosophy professors, Fischer the Leader and Mitchell-Yellin a Fellow at The Immortality Project (2012-2015). They take a critical look at these claims and conclude that near-death experiences can be best explained in terms of brain function and the role of memory. In particular they challenge the view that these experiences occurred when people thought they did; rather, they argue they may occur when the brain is rebooting or perhaps even later. They also question how such narratives are compiled and, for example, they note that THE so-called experiences of children are always narrated through adult filters.

Much of their critique is directed against what they call “supernaturalist” explanations, pointing out that we do not have a complete knowledge of how the brain works. Of course the term “supernaturalist” is something of a misnomer, for if there were an afterlife it would still be part of “unitary nature”, but their point about lack of knowledge about the brain’s function is well taken.

Paranormalist explanations, to use a better word, are often seen as simpler, but the authors argue, when closely examined they turn out to be just as complex, for example how would a “non -physical” entity gather information about the physical world, store it and then transmit it to the brain, or indeed whether the notion of a “non-physical entity” makes any sense at all, (or indeed whether it makes any sense to talk of anything non- physical as having any special location at all, in or out of the body),

I wish the authors had developed some of those points at greater length, for, though I am basically in agreement with their position, their style of argument is all too often less than persuasive and I doubt they will be changing many “believers” minds. They are also hampered I suspect, by their unwillingness to question the honesty of the reporting of a number of well publicised cases, I can understand this, but one should bear in mind that two of the chief reasons that people lie are religion or ideology and money and when these are united together there are grave temptations.

The book would also have benefited from the authors having a much wider knowledge of the range of literature on near-death experiences, the paranormal in general, and of the range of philosophical discussion of life after death. -- Peter Rogerson.

1 comment:

  1. Someday the western world will come to realize that the spiritual world is normal and natural, just as everyone everywhere believed before we decided we knew everything. People get freaked out and scared because they've been convinced that there is something creepy evil and wrong about a spiritual dimension. Well, your mind as you know it would not exist without it.