Paranormalia: Book Review: Science and the Near-Death Experience – How Consciousness Survives Death

Book Review: Science and the Near-Death Experience – How Consciousness Survives Death

From the page: “….It was good, too, to see Carter tackling Daniel Dennett, whose book Consciousness Explained has been hugely influential in reinforcing the materialist conception of mind and brain recently, as Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind was back in the 1950s. Dennett, it appears, offered a hostage to fortune in basing his rejection on dualism firmly on the apparent violation of the principle of conservation of energy. Henry Stapp brushes this aside, pointing out that the Dennett is basing his argument on classical physics, and that the objection disappears in contemporary physics. ‘Contemporary physical theory allows, and its orthodox von Neumann form entails, an interactive dualism that is fully in accord with all the laws of physics,’ Stapp insists – a message that Carter’s quite full analysis drives home.

The second part of the book gets down to the NDE research. It capably describes the phenomenon with full reference to specific cases, identifies the challenges to orthodox scientific thinking and picks off the sceptical objections. I particularly appreciated Carter’s skewering of research by Michael Persinger that purports to show most of the NDE features being artificially created by means of electromagnetic stimulation. I have long wondered at the ability of sceptics to see in these rather weak phenomena a significant and illuminating parallel to the far more dramatic reports made by near-death experiencers, showing as they do little or nothing of the latters’ clarity, intensity and transformative effect.

Carter reproduces Persinger’s own table of effects, which – with sensations of dizziness, tingling and vibrations, all more or less absent from NDE research, topping the list – shows how unwarranted the comparison actually is. Yet more interesting is the failure of a Swedish team to replicate his findings. Even using his own equipment it found no effect whatsoever; suggestible subjects reported strange experiences whether or not they were actually receiving a current. The study surely deserves to be quoted by sceptics in their discussions of ‘pathological science’ along with landmark examples such as Blondlot’s mythical N-Rays, although I somehow doubt that it will be.

I wondered whether Carter would respond to the recent cavils of NDE sceptics who creatively come up with loopholes that subvert the conclusions of dedicated researchers without really explaining anything (for a typically tetchy discussion see this comments thread on Paranormalia.) I think he is wise to pay them no particular attention. Instead he provides very full descriptions of key arguments and cases and addresses the key objections, leaving it up to us as readers and observers to judge the validity or otherwise of sceptical nit-picking.

Personally, I’d find it hard – after reading his very full account of the celebrated Pam Reynolds’s case, for instance – to sympathise with the argument that a woman in surgery, anesthetized and unconscious, her eyes taped shut, micro-speakers in her ears emitting a stream of clicks at 100 decibels, could accurately have described the instrument with which her skull was being sawed open (apparently from an out-of-body perspective), by means of ‘hearing and background knowledge, perhaps coupled with the reconstruction of memory’. This sort of thing leaves one thinking that the determined sceptic can believe absolutely anything.

Two qualities stand out in this treatment: clarity and confidence. The clarity with which some quite difficult philosophical and scientific concepts are elucidated, and their relevance demonstrated, and the confidence with which the challenges of sceptics are confronted and answered. As I think has been said by other people, I wish Carter’s books had been around when I first started trying to figure out this stuff. It’s not that there aren’t some great books around, but to the beginner especially, the dismissals of sceptics and the absolute certainty with which they are expressed – NDEs are obviously “hallucinatory wishful-thinking experiences” and so on – can create a great deal of confusion. It needs a strong logical mind with a good grasp of the totality of the research to provide proper guidance.

… However more detail specific to this subject will doubtless be provided in Carter’s third and final book of the series, which will deal with children’s memories of a previous life, apparitions and channelled communications. These offer all sorts of challenges, and it will be fascinating to see Carter’s take on them.”

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