INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY DAVID LANE

The Material Basis of
Near-Death Experiences

Exploring the Patricia Churchland
and the Alex Tsakiris Controversy

David Christopher Lane and Andrea Diem-Lane

Addendum: A Case of Mistaken Identity?

Early in the morning of January 30, 2014, I became aware of a recent interview of Patricia Smith Churchland, the renowned neurophilosopher, which was conducted via telephone by Alex Tsakiris which was posted on his website Skeptiko.com under the tabloid like headline:

DR. PATRICIA CHURCHLAND SANDBAGGED BY NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE QUESTIONS

Since I have been aware of Professor Churchland's ideas since the early 1980s when she first arrived at UCSD (along with her equally respected philosopher-husband Paul) where I was also teaching and doing work on my Ph.D., I was intrigued to find out precisely how she got "sandbagged."

Interestingly, that very morning I also noticed that the interview had gone somewhat viral, as I received several letters and postings from various parts of the globe directing me to the interview and lambasting Churchland for her responses to Tsakiris.

However, after reading the transcript and listening to the taped recording of the interview, I initially thought it was much ado about a simple misunderstanding over sentence construction and its contextual intention. But the more I read varying commentaries on the interview both on Skeptiko itself and elsewhere (particularly on the yahoo forum Radhasoami Studies), I realized that Churchland's materialistic view that consciousness is a product of the brain was touching a very sensitive nerve (to coopt the very title of Patricia's latest book) amongst those who hold that consciousness cannot be materially reduced to the substratum of our central nervous system.

Perhaps what is most interesting in the current Churchland controversy is not necessarily her physicalist perspective or her contestable citation of Dr. Pim van Lommel, but the vitriolic reaction to how she conducted herself during the interview and her promoting of eliminative materialism.

Tsakiris simply doesn't like Churchland answers and thus appears more interested in creating a faux debate based on his own resistance to neurophilosophy and what it portends.

I think it might be instructive to take a closer examination of Alex Tsakiris' interview and perhaps look a bit deeper at why there has been such an outcry against a purely materialist understanding of consciousness and near-death experiences.

Patricia Churchland has long argued that the best way to go about understanding consciousness is to focus on how the brain itself works. In this regard, she is perhaps best known for her pioneering introductory textbook, Neurophilosophy. In the journal Progress in Brain Research, Churchland details her approach,

Explaining the nature and mechanisms of conscious experience in neurobiological terms seems to be an attainable, if yet unattained, goal. Research at many levels is important, including research at the cellular level that explores the role of recurrent pathways between thalamic nuclei and the cortex, and research that explores consciousness from the perspective of action. Conceptually, a clearer understanding of the logic of expressions such as 'causes' and 'correlates', and about what to expect from a theory of consciousness are required.

In Churchland's latest book, Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain she devotes chapter three, "My Heavens", to exploring the physiological basis behind near-death experiences. She doesn't doubt that some individuals who are pronounced clinically dead report having wonderful luminous experiences (seeing inner light or entering tunnels or feeling bliss, etc), what she doubts is whether such experiences are "beyond" the brain's own capacity to produce such illuminations. As Churchland cautions,

Here is what I want to know: Were all the people who reported a near-death experience actually dead or merely near death? One thing to keep in mind is that even once the heart has stopped, there may be residual brain activity for a short period—longer if oxygen is supplied. Were the subjects actually brain dead? Brain death is taken to imply that the critical brain regions for sustaining heartbeat and breathing (regions in the brainstem) no longer function, and the patient shows no brainstem reflexes, such as the pupil contracting when a light is shone on the eye. Some 25 different assessments are used to determine brain death. If, for example, there is some residual brainstem and cortical activity, then the brain is not dead. Then odd experiences may result.

Churchland clearly doubts that those reporting near-death experiences (keeping in mind that only a minority of such patients—anywhere from 12 to 18 percent in one major study—ever recall having one) were, in fact, completely brain dead, since more sophisticated brain imaging techniques indicate that subtle neural activity may be still be operative. As Churchland radically asserts,

One fairly reliable way to assess the prospects of a patient in coma after severe anoxia, such as in drowning, is to image the brain twice, separated by several days. If the brain is severely damaged, substantial shrinkage will be observed in the images over the course of a few days. Shrinkage is seen more frequently in severe oxygen deprivation (anoxia) than in head trauma. When shrinkage is seen, the prospects for recovery of function are vanishingly small. In children, determining brain death requires two assessments separated by a time delay of several days, with the second assessment performed by a different physician than the one who performed the first assessment. To the best of my knowledge, not a single patient who has been credibly diagnosed as brain dead according to the aforementioned criteria has come to consciousness and reported seeing dead relatives, divine persons, or angels while brain dead. This suggests a more modest interpretation of experiences of life after death: patients who report 'coming back from the dead' were not in fact brain dead, though they must have suffered other effects that prevented them from emerging into full consciousness, such as lowered levels of oxygen and some swelling of the brain.

To Churchland's credit, her overarching claim (that certain "brain dead" states will not yield NDE's) is a scientifically testable one and open to falsification. In this regard, she has rightly made herself vulnerable to being wrong. That is all to her credit, since it may backfire and end up lending more support those who argue that NDE's really are glimpses of something beyond the mind-body complex.

Carl Sagan, perhaps with less elegance, also posited a testable hypothesis concerning why NDE's were part and parcel of the brain when he argued in his 1979 book, Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. In a master stroke of reductionism Sagan posited that NDE's were not glimpses of heaven but rather vague birth memories of one's obstetrician or mid-wife. As Sagan poetically put it,

[At the] end of the birth process, when the child's head has penetrated the cervix and might, even if the eyes are closed, perceive a tunnel illuminated at one end and sense the brilliant radiance of the extrauterine world. The discovery of light for a creature that has lived its entire existence in darkness must be a profound and on some level an unforgettable experience. And there, dimly made out by the low resolution of the newborn's eyes, is some godlike figure surrounded by a halo of light—the Midwife or the Obstetrician or the Father. At the end of a monstrous travail, the baby flies away from the uterine universe, and rises toward the lights and the gods.

Sagan's theory that NDE's were in actuality BBM's (being born memories) recalled because of severe birth trauma was widely publicized when it came out and even made for a popular article in Reader's Digest entitled "The Amniotic Universe." While some theorists championed Sagan's ideas at first, on closer inspection it turned out to be wildly overstated and didn't withstand closer scrutiny. As Susan Blackmore concluded as early as 1983,

Since the theory has failed this first simple test I think we can say that the comparison of the OBE with birth experiences is a superficially appealing analogy but, in terms of prediction, an unhelpful one.

Churchland, like Sagan before her, is deeply skeptical that NDE's are indicative of something trans-neuronal, since the brain has an amazing plasticity to virtually simulate almost anything imaginable, particularly when deprived of external checks and balances which may cast doubt on its almost intrinsic hallucinatory nature. In this regard, Churchland thinks it is important to draw parallels to drug induced revelries since there are many commonalities with NDE's. As Churchland points out,

Out-of-body and other dissociative episodes can be induced by ketamine, the drug sometimes used in anesthesia. According to my students, ketamine has now become a party drug, allowing them to explore the sensation of floating above their body, having their mind vacate their body, and so forth. That such purely physical interventions can induce experiences qualitatively similar to those called near-death experiences speaks strongly in favor of a neurobiological basis, one that can eventually be discovered through research.

It right here, however, where Churchland's analysis of Dr. Pim van Lommel's 2001 study (co-authored with Ruud van Wees, Vincent Meyers, and Ingrid Elfferich), "Near-Death Experience in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands," in the prestigious journal, Lancet, has generated a recent onslaught of criticism. Although Churchland provides the substance of Van Lommel's groundbreaking findings, how she has chosen to describe his results has drawn severe criticism from a cadre of Internet critics.

On pages 70 and 71 of the print version of Touching a Nerve, Churchland summarizes the most dramatic features of Van Lommel's report in this fashion,

In one large study of 344 patients who suffered cardiac arrest, only about 12 percent (62) reported a core near-death experience (tunnel with light, felt dead, felt peacefulness). Others may have had an experience but no memory of it, because, of course, the study relied on post-resuscitation reports. Only 50 percent of the 62 patients who did have near-death experiences had the feeling that they were dead; only 56 percent (35) of the 62 patients had positive feeling such as peacefulness; only 24 percent (15) had the experience of leaving the body; only 31 percent (19) had the experience of moving through a tunnel; only 23 percent (14) had an experience with light.

Churchland then ponders, not merely rhetorically, the following, "If heaven really awaits us all after death, it is a little puzzling that only 12 percent of resuscitated patients reported a near-death experience with tunnels and light and peacefulness." Churchland, ever looking for a physical basis behind NDE's, follows up with her most revealing question, "Is it plausible that there will be a neurobiological explanation of the cluster of phenomena?"


Patricia Churchland

Certainly this is a vital question to ask, particularly given Churchland's empirical modus operandi, but instead of merely focusing on her own affirmative answer in this respect, she attempts to buttress her reasoning by citing Dr. Pim van Lommel himself, writing

As neuroscientist Pim van Lommel and his colleagues pointed out, a strong reason for saying yes is that experiences similar to those suffering anoxia following cardiac arrest can be induced by electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe and hippocampus, something that may be done in epileptic patients prior to surgery. Similar experiences can also be induced by raising the level of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia, sometimes suffered by scuba divers) or by decreasing oxygen levels in the brain by hyperventilating following the Valsalva maneuver (as when you strain at stool).

In referencing Dr. Van Lommel in this specific way, Alex Tsakiris felt that Churchland was inappropriately lending credence to her materialist agenda since Van Lommel doesn't share Churchland's brain as self thesis. Tsakiris believed that Churchland was spinning Van Lommel in a direction he never himself intended.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, I guess one of the things I did want to ask you is in your book you ask the question, "Is there a neurobiological explanation for near-death experience?" Then you cite NDE researcher and a former guest on this show as answering that question with yes. You say that Dr. Pim van Lommel believes the answer is yes. Is that your understanding of his research?

Dr. Patricia Churchland: Well, I think there's certainly quite a bit of evidence that at least some near-death experiences have a neurobiological basis. Of course, we can't be sure about all of them. Maybe you had one that doesn't have a neurobiological basis. I wouldn't really know, would I?

Alex Tsakiris: Well specifically, Dr. Churchland, you cite in your book that Dr. Pim van Lommel holds that opinion. That's clearly not the case. I mean, he's written...

Dr. Patricia Churchland: Has he? Uh-huh (Yes).

Alex Tsakiris: Right. Do you want me to read to you what he's written? He's written that "The study of patients with near-death experience (and this is from The Lancet paper that you're citing) clearly shows us that..."

What fueled the ire of a large number of commentators to the Churchland interview (besides how she comported herself) was the belief that she had misleadingly cited Van Lommel in order to prop up her own NDE as purely brain induced hypothesis. A close study of Van Lommel's Lancet paper does indicate, however, that he too does feel that there are certain components of NDE's that must have a neurobiological basis since he writes,

And yet, neurophysiological processes must play some part in NDE. Similar experiences can be induced through electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe (and hence of the hippocampus) during neurosurgery for epilepsy, with high carbon dioxide levels (hypercarbia), and in decreased cerebral perfusion resulting in local cerebral hypoxia as in rapid acceleration during training of fighter pilots, or as in hyperventilation followed by valsalva manoeuvre. Ketamine-induced experiences resulting from blockage of the NMDA receptor, and the role of endorphin, serotonin, and enkephalin have also been mentioned, as have near-death-like experiences after the use of LSD, psilocarpine, and mescaline. These induced experiences can consist of unconsciousness, out-of-body experiences, and perception of light or flashes of recollection from the past.

But, in a revealing transition, Van Lommel makes a sharp distinction between drug-induced ecstasies (which include OBE's and phosphenic visions) and NDE's because of the latter's transformative qualities. As Van Lommel argues,

These recollections, however, consist of fragmented and random memories unlike the panoramic life-review that can occur in NDE. Further, transformational processes with changing life-insight and disappearance of fear of death are rarely reported after induced experiences. Thus, induced experiences are not identical to NDE, and so, besides age, an unknown mechanism causes NDE by stimulation of neurophysiological and neurohumoral processes at a subcellular level in the brain in only a few cases during a critical situation such as clinical death. These processes might also determine whether the experience reaches consciousness and can be recollected.

Churchland seems quite aware of Van Lommel's distinction (which contravenes her own more sweeping connection with drug inducements) because right after citing Van Lommel's Lancet study, she proceeds to give her own theory about why NDE's are so transformative.

To be sure, in contrast to hyperventilating following Valsalva, nearly dying may be transformative, for then the end of life cannot be very far away, and the reality of death is starkly evident. In such circumstances, people will be inclined to reevaluate their lives, relive memories, and reexamine what matters in life. They do this regardless of whether they believe in heaven or not. That very reexamination may be the transformative element in those who do have an unusual experience. The experience merely triggers the reflection that is transformative.

Perhaps one of the reasons Churchland has received so much flack from those advocating a spiritual interpretation of NDE's is that she consistently tries to upend transcendental explanations with more grounded ones and in the process may give the impression of being somewhat flippant in her consideration of alternative hypotheses. Calling NDE's "brain oddities" and such is reminiscent of Carl Sagan's ad hoc reductionism of out-body experiences as "a miswiring in human neuranatomy."

Such language choices can be seen as dismissive and disrespectful to those who feel strongly that what they and others have experienced deserves more than cursory rebuttals that don't fully address the complexity of what they perceive as glimpses of a wholly numinous realm.

Churchland, of course, will readily concede that she cannot prove that heaven doesn't exist or that NDE's couldn't potentially offer previews of an afterlife, but the thrust of her argument is unmistakable in its import when she writes,

This list of perceptual oddities reminds us that the brain may do surprising things, things that have no special significance regarding afterlife or past life or spiritual life. They are just neuro-oddities for which we do not—not yet, anyhow—have complete explanations. Fascinating, poorly explained, sometimes annoying or disturbing, they are what they are: oddities.

Van Lommel appears more open to a less materialist explanation of NDE's, though he appreciates its brain related underpinnings. Comments Van Lommel,

How could a clear consciousness outside one's body be experienced at the moment that the brain no longer functions during a period of clinical death with flat EEG? Also, in cardiac arrest the EEG usually becomes flat in most cases within about 10s from onset of syncope. Furthermore, blind people have described veridical perception during out-of-body experiences at the time of this experience. NDE pushes at the limits of medical ideas about the range of human consciousness and the mind-brain relation.

In reviewing Churchland's citation of Van Lommel, it is debatable whether she intended to hijack him into her camp by only focusing on where they agreed (looking for certain neurobiological correlations) or was rather merely underlining his own conclusion in The Lancet where he encouraged more, not less, empirical work when he wrote,

Research should be concentrated on the effort to explain scientifically the occurrence and content of NDE. Research should be focused on certain specific elements of NDE, such as out-of-body experiences and other verifiable aspects.

Interestingly, how we parse Churchland's one sentence reference to Van Lommel and how we contextualize it within Touching a Nerve's chapter on NDE's may be more reflective of our own particular interests and emphases than with any objective indices about Churchland's ulterior motives or lack thereof.

What is even more intriguing, at least in terms of human psychology, is to witness how Alex Tsakiris and others who sided with his particular twist reacted to Patricia Churchland's demeanor during the telephone interview which apparently suffered a series of technical mishaps.

Here is how Alex Tsakiris characterized Churchland's responses:

It was stunning to me. It was laughable. In fact, I think you heard he [sic: me? her?] laugh a couple of times. Here's a woman... I can hear the background noise and yet she's suggesting that there's some kind of malfunction in the equipment and that's the reason why she can't respond to my questions. I just offer up one question and it's a recurring question on Skeptiko and that is: What's going on here? How have we devolved into a scientific and academic system that props up such nonsense? Again, the really scary thing about Dr. Churchland is that her opinion is the status quo majority opinion. It's nonsensical; it's indefensible, but it's the majority opinion. And don't question it.

A number of respondents to Tsakiris' interview felt that Churchland consciously hung up on him because she was backed into a corner about misappropriating Van Lommel's opinion and was afraid of taking any more heat. Jason Enger's own comment is indicative of several others:

Her dubious claims about technical difficulties don't explain her bad arguments, bad responses, hesitations, and silence during the times when she was responding to you and wasn't claiming any technical difficulties. And when she did claim to be experiencing technical problems, she didn't come across as convincing. She's a poor actress. And why would she let her interaction with you end in that manner, if there was nothing other than technical issues involved in ending the telephone interview? Why didn't she email you an explanation of what she said about Pim van Lommel, for example? Why would she let the interview end that way if she was being honest? I'd expect an honest person to quickly email you with the relevant information. Maybe she'll email you with some sort of response in the future or provide a response to somebody else if asked for one or pressured to give one. But the fact that she didn't quickly provide you with a response, whether over the telephone or otherwise, is revealing.

Having witnessed how Patricia Churchland has responded in the past to sharp, critical questions (via telephony to boot), I personally don't buy that she was afraid of Tsakiris' criticism as much as she may have been put off by his tone. For example, back in the spring of 1990 one of my brightest students at the time, Meredith Doran (who is now a professor of French Literature at Penn State), conducted an in-depth telephone interview of Patricia Churchland on behalf of our newly formed philosophy journal, Plato's Cave. At that time Meredith Doran had a distinctively spiritual viewpoint and didn't share Churchland's eliminative materialist perspective. However, Churchland was quite engaging and open to critical feedback throughout the interview process and even went the extra mile to explain her views in a clear and forthright manner. A large part of this interview was originally published as a small booklet entitled, A Glorious Piece of Meat, the Dalai Lama, and the Neural Basis of Consciousness. It has had a wide circulation and recently was published on Integral World under the abbreviated title "The Neural Basis of Consciousness".

Alex Tsakris later criticized Churchland for apparently not being prepared for the interview and dodging his hard questions, but Churchland immediately corrects his mistaken impression of her own views (he conflates her nuanced understanding of consciousness with his own caricatures of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins) on the nature of consciousness and what it means, making one pause about who was the real unprepared participant.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, great. That's really an interesting place to start, this idea that consciousness is an illusion of a biological robot.

Dr. Patricia Churchland: Oh, I wouldn't say it's an illusion. It's not an illusion at all.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, this is the quote. That's what Daniel Dennett said, right?

Dr. Patricia Churchland: Yeah, but that's not what I said.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so it's not an illusion. What is it? Are we biological robots like Richard Dawkins thinks?

Dr. Patricia Churchland: I don't think Richard thinks that we're biological robots. I think what does seem to be emerging from science is that consciousness, for example, is a property of the physical brain. That's one of the many things actually that the physical brain does and it changes when we fall asleep. It changes when we drink alcohol. It changes when we're tired or very hungry. And it changes also as a result of changes in hormones. So if you think about your own puberty, for example, you will remember that as the levels of sex hormones and your pituitary changed and consequently as the levels of sex hormones in your brain changed, you began to think about things in a rather different way. You began to notice certain kinds of things, to pay attention, to be fixated by a certain kind of thing, and so forth.

We think that consciousness is a function of the physical brain. It's a very fascinating function. It's almost certainly not unique to humans but it is a very real property of the physical brain in just the way that eye movements or many other functions like memory, attention, problem-solving, reasoning, self-control, these are all things that are properties of the physical brain.

But Tsakaris doesn't appreciate Churchland's rejoinder and resorts to calling it "splitting hairs" and responds with a series of rather confused follow-up of questions to which Churchland is forced once again to correct his mischaracterization of her philosophical views.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but aren't we trying to split hairs and move away from the consciousness is an illusion thing without really jumping all the way to the other side where the physicists are taking us? They're saying that consciousness is somehow fundamental. I mean, if we break down this debate on what is the nature of consciousness, we have these two camps that we've been talking about... or I guess talking around. One is this very materialistic view like I think you started out but then I don't know if you really were holding to that... that consciousness is purely a result of an epiphenomena of the brain?

Dr. Patricia Churchland: No, it's not an epiphenomenon. It is an actual phenomenon in the physical brain. It's one of the things that the physical brain does in just the way that your brain stores memories. Some of those memories change over time as a result of changes in the physical brain. We know, for example, that people who have Alzheimer's, because they have lost many neurons in their brains, no longer have the capacity to remember certain things. Memory is a real function of the physical brain and so is consciousness. It's not an illusion; it's the real deal.

Alex Tsakiris: But what is it? I mean, I think we're dancing around. You're saying it's immaterial or it is material or it's immaterial. Don't we need to nail it down a little bit more than that? You're saying it's an emergent property of the brain. Isn't that kind of passing the buck a little bit? Here's the other possible explanation. Consciousness is somehow fundamental and the brain is somehow interacting with this consciousness which is a reality. Somehow in the field of consciousness it's out there and brain is somehow interacting with it. But that's not to confuse it with being purely a result of brain activity. I mean, that is a completely different theory, right?

Dr. Patricia Churchland: It's a theory for which there is essentially no evidence. One of the problems with that approach is that we can't understand why taking a drug, for example, should change your consciousness if consciousness is not part of the physical brain because we know that the drug changes the physical brain and that consciousness is somehow completely independent of that because it's a fundamental feature of the universe.

Alex Tsakiris: It doesn't have to be completely independent. Obviously there's some relationship, a close relationship...

Dr. Patricia Churchland: Ahh, okay. What always puzzled Descartes is if there is an independent non-physical soul, how does it interact with the physical brain? The problem with dualism is that nobody has ever been able to address that in a meaningful, testable way.

What is ironic in closely reading through this interview transcript is how clear and lucid Churchland is in her responses (whether we agree with her view or not) and how muddled Tsakiris can be in his rebuttals, particularly when he accuses her of dancing around issues.

Churchland never deviates from her materialist purview, but Tsakiris confusingly claims,

I think we're dancing around. You're saying it's immaterial or it is material or it's immaterial. Don't we need to nail it down a little bit more than that?

Yet Churchland never once indicates that consciousness was immaterial at all. Rather, she very clearly points to the neural basis of self awareness when she says,

We know, for example, that people who have Alzheimer's, because they have lost many neurons in their brains, no longer have the capacity to remember certain things. Memory is a real function of the physical brain and so is consciousness. It's not an illusion; it's the real deal.

Tsakiris simply doesn't like Churchland answers and thus appears more interested in creating a faux debate based on his own resistance to neurophilosophy and what it portends. This becomes even more evidential when we read Tsakiris' own prefatory commentary after the interview was finished which contains a number derisive (and unnecessary?) asides that I have highlighted by italics:

She is a well-respected academic, Oxford educated, also UCSD which is a prestigious university out here in California, highly regarded at conferences, gives speeches, and has blabbed about these ridiculous ideas about consciousness that she has.
She's blabbed about it for years. How else would one confront her on the nonsense that she talks about? I mean, how do you that in a nice way? How do you do that in a non-confrontational way? I don't know that you can. So it really surprised me, the extent to which she breaks down and squirms and just goes out in the outer limits of reality and believability in this interview. But I don't really know how to approach these things any other way if you really want to get answers.

Yet, in going over Churchland's answers both on audio and in the transcript I don't find her squirming in the least. She is remarkably straightforward in her views. While it is perfectly understandable that Tsakiris may not like Churchland's philosophy, what seems peculiarly odd is that he thinks she was unprepared when, in point of fact, she consistently and without equivocation presented her self as brain thesis.

Tsakiris' analysis seems primed to create a greater controversy out of the interview than it merits. The very title he uses to advertise it—"DR. PATRICIA CHURCHLAND SANDBAGGED BY NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE QUESTIONS"—reads like a headline from a tabloid and has been used by Tsakiris before in his interview with Dr. Gary Marcus with the same exact heading (with only the names being changed).

Jerry Coyne, an eminent Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, was also interviewed by Alex Tsakiris and had this to say about the process:

Well, this is certainly the most contentious interview I've ever had, and it's with Alex Tsakiris at Skeptiko. The 'discussion' is 57 minutes long, and things get pretty heated (it's both recorded and transcribed; I'd recommend listening to get the full flavor). When I first agreed to the interview, I was told we'd talk mainly about my book and about evolutionary biology. Several readers acquainted with the show warned me that Alex was a woo-meister who was into things like parapsychology and near-death experiences. Forewarned, I emailed Alex and he verified that we would indeed talk about evolution with perhaps a bit of discussion on the side about free will. He told me I wasn't going to be "sandbagged." LOL! It quickly became clear in the interview, though, that he wasn't much interested in evolution. . . .

Jerry Coyne then goes on to point out that Alex Tsakiris wasn't really interested in understanding the subject at hand but rather pushing his own particular agenda and in so doing neglecting to grasp even the basic fundamentals of evolutionary theory. In addition, it seems all too evident that Tsakiris is trying to make a name for himself by piggy backing on the stellar reputations of those he chooses to interview. He does this by his after-the-fact commentary that invariably highlights his own purview. While this is not surprising in itself (it is his own website, needless to say), Tsakiris' spin doesn't always do justice to those he interviews and thus oftentimes creates a false and misleading impression on his readers. As Coyne pointedly explained,

The man has a habit of inserting his own summaries, recorded post facto, at the end and beginning of the podcast. That, of course, gives him the last say. Tsakiris was full of misconceptions about evolution—misconceptions to which he clung tenaciously. He was almost obsessed with the idea that Alfred Russel Wallace isn't just given too little credit for his contributions to evolutionary biology, but that he was in fact more important than Darwin in bringing about the acceptance of evolution. He was confused about group selection, which he sees as the reigning paradigm among evolutionists of how natural selection works. Tsakiris also wanted to talk about how quantum mechanics negates modern evolutionary theory, about the evils of materialism, about "quantum entanglement of neurons" (!) and about precognition. Anyway, I wasn't in any mood to put up with either woo or Alex's many distortions of evolutionary biology and its history, and I'm afraid I went a bit Hitchens on him. Too bad—but he deserved it. I hate it when hosts ask you on to talk about your field and then wind up using the discussion as a platform to expound their own ideas, especially when they're crazy ideas.
I think it is wise to fully exhaust the brain-based possibilities for why NDE's may exist before prematurely theorizing about potential spiritual explanations.

Outside of how we ultimately interpret Tsakiris' interview with Patricia Churchland, there is no doubt that NDE's and how we ultimately interpret them is a hugely controversial topic. There seems to be a deep resistance amongst many to a physical explanation for why extraordinary experiences happen near or at the time of death. Yet, as I have argued before in several essays, I think those positing a mystical worldview are actually much better off by encouraging scientists to continue looking for a purely physical causation behind NDE's. Why? Because if NDE's are truly trans-neuronal then researchers will inevitably uncover aspects which cannot be adequately explained by naturalistic methodologies. Thus, ironically, the empiricist ends up proffering more, not less, evidence for something transcendental. However, if we forego such a rationalist endeavor too early, then we run the very real risk of confusing a physical phenomenon with a spiritual one.

In other words, I think it is wise to fully exhaust the brain-based possibilities for why NDE's may exist before prematurely theorizing about potential spiritual explanations.

To flesh this out in a more graphic, if slightly hyperbolic, example, I am reminded of an incident that happened to me last year when I riding my electric skateboard. As I was entering Mother's Beach, a park adjacent to where I live in Huntington Harbour, I tried to ride my board over a little bump only to find myself falling off and landing on my left elbow directly on the concrete sidewalk. I immediately knew something was wrong as I couldn't move my arm even a couple of inches. So, naturally, I went to the doctor who ordered an X-ray, but the film didn't reveal anything broken. However, he suggested that the X-ray might have missed something so he encouraged me to have an MRI, which I thankfully did, since it turned out that I did indeed have a broken elbow. I was out of surfing and skateboarding commission for 8 weeks after that.

I bring this example up because I think it serves as a good analogy for why it is important not to dismiss too early the viable idea that NDE's may be products of our own neuroanatomy. The brain is the most complex structure we have uncovered in the universe so far and neuroscience is still in its infancy in understanding precisely how its various neural components work and interact. As such, the brain consists of extremely subtle and intricate pathways that have yet to be completely understood.

If a broken elbow can go undetected by an X-ray, but can later show up with a more sophisticated MRI scan, it gives one pause about how much more we will understand about the brain when our technology exponentially advances so we may unlock hitherto unknown lines of communication.

This is not to say a priori, though, that NDE's are merely brain generated, but that we should be exceptionally cautious before succumbing to what Paul Kurtz rightly called the "transcendental temptation," whereby in our desire to support a mystical worldview we carelessly and hurriedly forego a more rationalist and grounded approach.

The good news in championing intertheoretic reductionism is that if NDE's really are glimpses of a spiritual afterlife, then our science will end up driving itself to the very brink of an epistemological cul de sac and in the process reveal that which cannot be explained away. In this way we should always keep an open mind to new data, even if we should also be highly skeptical at the same turn. As Patricia Churchland explained to Alex Tsakiris,

Well, I think there's certainly quite a bit of evidence that at least some near-death experiences have a neurobiological basis. Of course, we can't be sure about all of them. Maybe you had one that doesn't have a neurobiological basis.

ADDENDUM: A Case of Mistaken Identity?

Today (February 7th, 2014) I received a letter from Frank Visser sent to him informing me of a recent development concerning Patricia Churchland’s one line citation of Pim Van Lommel. The letter to Visser explains that Churchland had mistakenly referenced Van Lommel where it should have read Dean Mobbs. As Linda Schutz argues:

“The paragraph in Dr. Churchland's book in which Pim van Lommel's name is mentioned is not about the study published by van Lommel et. al., but about the work by Mobbs and Watts, and by Marsh, referenced earlier in the chapter. Dr. van Lommel is a cardiologist, not a neuroscientist. Rather than a misrepresentation of van Lommel, it looked to me like the wrong author name had been used in the paragraph. I contacted Dr. Churchland about this, and after checking this out, she confirmed that it should say "Dean Mobbs" where it says "Pim van Lommel", and she is taking steps to correct the error.”

However, a line-by-line analysis of pages 70 and 71 clearly demonstrates that Churchland was indeed following Van Lommel’s line of thinking and almost cites him verbatim in the process. To underline this contentious point, look at Churchland’s wording and sequencing and compare and contrast it with what Pim Van Lommel and his colleagues wrote in The Lancet, the very study that Churchland cited in her notes.

Pim Van Lommel writes: Patricia Smith Churchland writes:
"And yet, neurophysiological processes must play some part in NDE. Similar experiences can be induced through electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe (and hence of the hippocampus) during neurosurgery for epilepsy with high carbon dioxide levels (hypercarbia)." "As neuroscientist Pim van Lommel and his colleagues pointed out, a strong reason for saying yes is that experiences similar to those suffering anoxia following cardiac arrest can be induced by electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe and hippocampus, something that may be done in epileptic patients prior to surgery. Similar experiences can also be induced by raising the level of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia. . . .)"

It would stretch credulity to believe that Churchland had actually meant to say “Dean Mobbs” given that she actually cites and uses Van Lommel’s own wording and particular word choice (from “electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe,” “hippocampus”, “epileptic”, “carbon dioxide” and “hypercarbia.”, etc.)

In conclusion, it is painfully obvious that Churchland did indeed use Van Lommel research and wording in this context. The debatable issue is whether she should have been clearer in her citation and to what extent Pim Van Lommel shared her views about the neurobiological basis of NDE’s.




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