Near Death Experiences Are Probably Bullshit, And Here’s Why

In 2003 a 4-year-old boy named Colton Burpo made headlines after he underwent surgery for appendicitis. Normally, people don’t get a taste of the public eye for having surgery, but this wasn’t a normal case. 

This surgery was special, because while it was happening, Todd Burpo went to heaven. Or so he claimed. Despite the fact that Colton had never been clinically dead, and the drugs he was given before his surgery are known to cause hallucinations, his family, and millions of other people, believed him.

Colton’s father went as far as to co-write a book about Colton’s experiences on his behalf, and the book went on to become a New York Times bestseller, called Heaven is For Real, and was later adapted to a Hollywood film. The story follows Colton meeting souls of miscarried fetuses, meeting angels with literal wings and hallows, and talking to Jesus, who, despite being born in the Middle East, was white and rode a “rainbow horse”. You could not make this story sound anymore fabricated if you tried.

The fact that such an obvious piece of fiction could be seen as credible by millions of people goes to show how absolutely desperate Christians, and religious people in general, are to believe in an afterlife.

It’s understandable. Billions of years of evolution have programmed us to be scared shitless of death, and it’s comforting to believe that our deceased loved ones are living happily ever after in paradise. However, when your strongest piece of evidence is the testimony of a 4-year-old boy, it might be time to re-evaluate your worldview.

Heaven isn’t for real. There’s no more reason to believe in heaven then there is to believe Olympus or Hades. The majority of credible scientists share this view. This isn’t because science is opposed to the idea of heaven on principle. It’s not a dogmatic issue. There is just no good reason to believe in life after death, and a host of good reasons to believe in a materialistic worldview. In science, you can’t rely on blind faith to come to conclusions. That’s what people have been doing for most of human history and it hasn’t worked. Even if you were religious, you would still agree that the majority of humanity has had faith in the wrong religions, so it’s clear that there needs to be some sort of vetting process.

Unfortunately, when held up to the standards laid down by logical reasoning, the belief in heaven starts to sound more and more like a fairy tail, and I’ll explain why.

The belief in the afterlife directly contradicts modern neurology, physiology, and physics

It’s no secret that when the brain changes, so does subjective experience. If people take drugs that alter brain chemistry, the way they behave and experience the world changes. If people get brain damage they can experience loss of motor control, lose their ability to speak, or so on. We can even go as far as systematically turning on and off different parts of a person’s brain, (which temporarily disables them), or toggle consciousness on and off, using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. For any concept of the afterlife to be credible, we would have to accept that, while a partial loss of brain function leads to disability, an entire loss of brain function leads to eternal life. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in philosophy to realize that this line of reasoning is inconsistent.

What we’re being asked to consider is that if you damage one part of the brain and the mind, something about the mind and subjectivity is lost. You damage another yet more is lost; and yet if you damage the whole at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognizing grandma and speaking English.

Sam Harris, author, neuroscientist, philosopher

To believe in the afterlife, not only would we have to accept that we can experience consciousness without the brain, but we would have to accept that we could see without our eyes, or hear without our ears. (Are all blind and deaf people just faking it for the insurance money? Are they all involved in some sort of satanic global conspiracy?)

If our perception is not limited by our sense organs, why stop there? Why don’t we hear the afterlife in ultrasound like a dolphin, see its magnetic field like a bird, or feel it’s vibrations like an animal with whiskers? Fuck it, why don’t we all just experience heaven in some weird alien sense that has yet to be discovered? Of course, this all sounds ridiculous; but it’s not any more ridiculous than suggesting that we can see without eyes or see without ears, and it just gets more ridiculous the more you think about it.

The bible makes it clear that the soul is immaterial. So not only would we need to see without eyes, but our immaterial soul would need to somehow interact with light, which is physical, or sound, which requires a physical medium. How? If it did interact with light and sound, then it wouldn’t be immaterial, so the soul isn’t immaterial? If the soul isn’t material, then why is it so illusive and hard to detect?

What does it even mean, to say the soul is immaterial? What would the soul be made out of then? Vibrations and energy? Well, no, because those are physical or need a physical medium to exist. Everything that is known to exist exists in the material realm. If there were an entire non-physical realm, it would imply that there are entire branches of physics which deal with the immaterial world yet to be discovered. While this is not impossible, it makes the burden of proof that much larger.

In order to get to the moon, it requires billions of dollars and thousands of scientists, and highly trained astronauts; yet we know a lot about the moon. On the other hand, anyone can enter the afterlife. The barrier for entry is surprisingly low. All you need to do to go there is die, and everyone dies eventually; some people more than once. If the afterlife were real, I’m sure a lot more would be known about it, and the properties of this “immaterial” world. There is suspiciously little data on what would appear to be an incredibly common phenomenon.

There are reasons to believe that NDEs are just hallucinations

Near death experiences are not unique to death. In fact, out of body experiences can be replicated in a lab by altering the behaviour of a  part of the brain known as the temporo-parietal junction. Some people report feeling dead when they’re otherwise perfectly healthy due to something known as Cortard’s syndrome. Then there’s DMT, a precursor to serotonin, believed to be produced in the brains of mammals. It’s also a psychedelic drug, and inhaling it causes vivid hallucinations that are nearly identical to near death experiences, as they are traditionally described. This has led some people to believe that the chemical is released at death, though that is just speculation.

Not only do descriptions of near death experiences also match the descriptions of many common hallucinations, but brain scans would lead us to believe that they are hallucinations.

Scientists at the University of Michigan have studied the brains of rats after they undergo cardiac arrest. They discovered that 30 seconds after cardiac arrest, not only is there still brain activity, but there’s a lot of it. The patterns are nearly identical to what you’d expect to see if someone were undergoing asphyxiation. They wrote:

In fact, at near-death, many known electrical signatures of consciousness exceeded levels found in the waking state, suggesting that the brain is capable of well-organized electrical activity during the early stage of clinical death.­­­

This also leaves a perfectly plausible explanation as to why these experiences seem so profound and real. (Putting aside the fact that the same thing is said about drug induced hallucinations). The electrical signals implied that the rats were actually more conscious in this state.

When you analyze the situation analytically, it’s easy to see that there’s nothing uniquely credible about near death experiences. Anecdotes about near death experiences are no more believable than alien abduction stories, or Loch Ness Monster sightings.

It’s not uncommon for our mind to play tricks on us. (Even perfectly healthy people experience this when they go to bed every night.) There’s no reason why near death experiences should be considered to be a supernatural experience, whereas every other well-documented hallucination is just that: a hallucination.

Applying Occam’s Razor

There is a logical principle used in science known as Occam’s Razor. It states that the solution that makes the fewest assumptions, or in other words, the simplest, is usually the correct one. Let’s apply this to near death experiences. What makes the fewest assumptions?

  • A brain that is functioning abnormally, deprived of oxygen, and in a high state of stress, is having common, well documented, hallucinations.
  • Everything we know about neurology and human physiology is false. There are entire branches of physics yet to be discovered. When you die you go to a perfect paradise where entropy doesn’t apply and you live happily ever after for eternity.

Hmm… tough one.

It’s also equally unlikely that there is life before birth as well. Yet, not a lot of people seem to be making the case for life before life. I wonder why? It’s almost like the belief in heaven is so prevalent because it brings people comfort, and not because it makes sense…

But what about energy?

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, and since we’re just made of energy, wouldn’t that mean that we can live on after death?

I hear this all the time. Yes, energy cannot be created or destroyed, but consciousness ≠ energy. Consciousness runs on energy. It’s like software. This would be analogous to saying “I disassembled my computer and threw all the parts in a lake. But energy cannot be created or destroyed, so I know that all my porn is saved in the big hard drive up in heaven.” It doesn’t work like that.

We’re all going to die

Heaven isn’t real, which means there is a good chance that this life is all we’ve got. It can be depressing, I know. However, burying your head in the sand and denying reality has never been, and will never be, a healthy coping mechanism.

We’re all going to die one day. There are no exceptions to this rule. To quote Sam Harris again, “it’s the only thing about life that is truly certain”. Between now, and when our great ancestors started to develop a concept of their own mortality, there have been thousands of generations. There have been billions of people, (and those peoples ape-ish ancestors), that were the psychological centers of their own universe, just like we are our own. None of them wanted to die any more than we want to die, and they all played just as many mental gymnastics, (if not more), than we do, in order to try and shield themselves from this harsh reality. Yet 99.999’ percent of them have been dead for thousands of years, and one day we will follow suit.

If we’re lucky we’ll have some time before that big day to look back at our lives, and try to make peace with the prospect of eternal unconsciousness. This is terrifying and depressing. But instead of denying it, a healthier coping mechanism would be to make peace with it.

When we stop denying the unavoidable fact that we will die we see things more clearly. We realize that our day-to-day struggles don’t matter. We realize that our social status, our wealth, or looks don’t matter. Nothing matters, and that’s liberating. It takes a weight off of our shoulders that we didn’t even know was there.

Once we accept this fact of life, it frees up our attention to focus on what’s really important. It helps us reassess our priorities, and find what really matters most to us. It helps us live in the moment, and be content with existing just for the sake of existing.

It humbles us and fosters a sense of connection for other beings. It helps us step out of our own head and realize that we’re really not that important, but that’s okay, we don’t have to be. We realize that, no matter what arbitrary divisions we create amongst one another, we’re all in the same boat. Once we truly realize that we aren’t unique in our suffering, it’s hard not to love everybody.

This is why, to put it bluntly, religion needs to go. Not just because it’s false, but it creates a sense of division. Is it any surprise that religion has, and still is, responsible for a great number of atrocities? What greater division is there than the one religion creates? Is there any belief that would kindle a feeling of superiority and division more than the belief that everyone in your ingroup is going to live in harmony with one another for all of eternity, and everyone in your outgroup is going to burn in hell for the rest of eternity, and that they’ll probably deserve it? Not that I can think of.

History has shown that the more we are invested in reason and enlightenment values, the better society becomes as a whole. The belief in the afterlife is no exception to this. We need to get past tribalism if we ever want to reach our full potential as a society, and the belief in heaven and hell is the greatest form of tribalism there is. If we ever truly want to live in harmony with one another we need to accept that we’re going to die, and that’s okay.

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could we the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Richard Dawkings, author of the God Delusion

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