One of the first great philosophical books, Plato’s Republic, concludes with the recounting of a near-death experience. Socrates relates the myth of Er, a soldier who died in battle but came back to tell what he saw in the other world. Like other myths in Plato’s works, this is meant to supplement Socrates’ philosophical arguments and to help instill noble beliefs. It’s a last ditch effort at making the case for living a just life.
The transformative power of near-death experiences is not lost on us in the 21st century. But Plato’s use of Er’s story stands apart from the way near-death experiences are presented nowadays. We have books with titles like Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, and Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences. The idea no longer seems to be that near-death experiences are stories that serve to prepare us for rational argumentation. Rather, the idea seems to be that near-death experiences are arguments. Or perhaps the idea is that there is no need for arguments—a sincere report is all it takes.
This shift in emphasis raises the rather obvious question of whether we should be convinced of the content of a report simply in light of its sincerity. In some contexts the answer is clearly ‘No.’ Even sincere testimony may be faulty. False memories appear real to the subject reporting them, even though they do not correspond to actual events. This is one reason why the testimony of young children is not simply taken at face value in court. They are especially vulnerable to suggestion, and so their accounts of past events, no matter how sincere, may not be the best guides to what actually took place. Religious convictions provide a second example of why sincerity should not be taken as evidence of truth. Members of different faiths often sincerely believe in conflicting tenets. But the fact that they conflict means that not all of them can be true. Though particular religious convictions may be true, the sincerity of those who hold them is not evidence that they are. In general, it seems, sincerity is not a sure guide to truth. And yet this is what we are asked to accept when it comes to near-death experiences.
As someone who thinks that near-death experiences do not prove that there is a heaven, I commonly hear that am failing to let the scales drop from my eyes. I have been told that what I need to do is go out and hear the stories of those who have had these experiences. Then I will see the light.
I think this advice is misguided. But the motivations behind it may be noble. Near-death experiences often transform those who have them for the better. They become more compassionate, less afraid of death, and more understanding and loving of others. One might feel as if a naturalistic account of near-death experiences would undermine these transformations. Such an account might seek to explain why someone experienced seeing deceased relatives in heaven by appealing to the comforting psychological effects this would have in the context of a brush with death. By citing them as causes of the experience, however, this explanation may seem to risk eliminating these comforting effects. Even worse, it may do so not just for the subject of this experience, but also for all those who found hope and optimism in a sincere account of heaven. Books on near-death experiences are best sellers because people find great hope in them. One motivation for simply accepting people’s sincere reports of what they’ve experienced may be to save the power and meaning of these experiences from the deflating explanations of psychology and neuroscience.
Even if this motivation displays a heart in the right place, it rests on a mistaken assumption. Naturalistic explanations of the causes of phenomena associated with near-death experiences need not undermine their transformative effects. Consider the life review, a characteristic element in many near-death experiences. Watching one’s life unfold as if it were a movie provides one with a detached perspective from which to witness one’s choices and actions. It involves adopting another standpoint on what one has done. Taking up different standpoints is often cited as a means to improved moral thinking. The familiar thought is that one might begin to make better choices, to be more compassionate and loving towards others, if only one could get outside one’s narrow point of view and see things as others do. The life review affords just this possibility, no matter how it’s caused.
At the end of the day, there is no inherent conflict between naturalistic explanations of near-death experiences and the preservation of their power to transform people for the better. The tools of science can allow us to make sense of these experiences in a manner that preserves their deep significance and positive effects. We are not forced to choose between a better understanding and a better world.
Featured image credit: “Stars and Lights” by Ed Dunens. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.