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Thursday, July 4, 2019

How could science explain out-of-body experiences?

Recognizing the importance of mechanistic explanations as the basis of understanding is one of humanity's greatest achievements.

I t's sometimes said that when a person dies, they move toward the light, as if, like plankton, moths, nocturnal birds, and certain species of sea slugs (which I studied many years ago), our souls exhibit positive phototaxis when we're dead.

Scientists generally discount such stories. The general idea among neurologists is that the peaceful sensations said to occur in near-death experiences are the brain's way of encouraging us to lie still until help arrives. The bright light is caused by the brain's occipital lobe, where visual signals are processed, being starved for oxygen.

Yet stories of out-of-body experiences are increasingly common. In this article, I will discuss what it would take to provide a coherent explanation of them.

Humans are biological machines. Therefore, postulating life after death is a way of saying that a mechan­ism can function without a machine. This is, of course, inconsistent with our current scientific under­standing: it would imply that a non-corporeal process can exist independently of a physical body.

But suppose we grant it. In what ways would our views have to change to explain it scientifically?

Take, for example, the anecdotes of patients in an operating thea­tre who claim to have been floating outside their bodies. Right away we notice some odd facts:

  1. They're usually floating in an open space above their body, never beneath it or, say, inside the cinderblock wall, in an electrical wire closet, or out on the roof.
  2. Their senses (hearing, vision, etc.) and their memories, self-identity, and localization in space and time are retained, but their sense of pain and their emotional feelings are not. Additionally, the memories are retained upon reawakening, which is to say the memories become imprinted on specific neurons and synapses in the patient's brain.

The conventional explanation is that the memories aren't real, but only dreams. But let's speculate a bit. This is, after all, a blog, and we're on the Internet, where everything is fake, so we're entitled to do that.

In order for the memories to be real, we'd have to postulate some entirely new physics. Some of these could be:

  1. A new form of matter that has some very weird properties. It would have to co-exist with regular matter and be invisible but still affect it in some way. This would imply further that our brains are receptacles specially adapted to contain and shape this weird spiritual form of matter.
  2. The universe is actually much like the Internet, and these patients are actually experiencing the equivalent of cat videos. Or maybe life is like those old driver's ed filmstrips: when Death On The Highway is over, the film ends and we just see a bright light. As Buddhists might say, the light was there the whole time, but it was obscured by the false images of pyrotechnic Pintos, flat Fiats, careening Corvairs, and flipping F-150s that we thought were the real physical world.
  3. Space has weird properties that we don't understand: perhaps consciousness, whatever that may be, once created, can continue exist in space without a body, and distances are not defined by physical contiguity but by their proximity in consciousness. This would imply that consciousness is not just a function of the brain but that it's tied in some way to how space works.
  4. Or maybe we're really just plankton or moths dreaming that we're a person, and in the end we're unknowingly heading toward that big bug zapper in the sky.

Many people claim to have been visited by friends and relatives who have died, as if the recently deceased person feels a sense of loss and wishes to see them one last time. Psychologists would probably say the person just picked up on a real event through their subconscious mind. Here's a true story of how that might happen.

Several years ago, I was driving at night on Connecticut Avenue in suburban Maryland. Suddenly I got the absolute conviction that there was a terrible accident up ahead and that someone had died. I didn't see any flashing lights, but after a few minutes, several miles down the road, I did indeed come across a bad accident.

I acquired the information not by magic, but by observing how cars coming from the other direction were driving. When people pass an accident, they drive more slowly and cautiously. Instead of rounding the curve at sixty miles an hour, they will slow to fifty-five, or maybe even the speed limit (30–40 mph) if the accident was bad enough. Perhaps something similar happens when a person senses that a friend has died.

But there are other possibilities. Recent ideas from physics suggest that space may consist of entangled wave functions. It's been suggested that this may explain those weird twin-photon results.

In twin-photon experiments, researchers create two photons that shoot in opposite directions. Quantum mechanics tells us, and experiments confirm it, that if you measure the polarization of one of the photons the polarization of the other one instantly becomes fixed, as if they were still in physical contact with each other despite being tens of kilometers apart. The new hypo­thesis is that the photons actually stay in their original location, and distance is relative.

We don't even really understand causation. Causation is usually expressed as a counterfactual: If A happens, then B usually happens. If A doesn't happen, then B never happens. Therefore A causes B. Example:

Dinner always comes after lunch. If there is no lunch, then there can be no dinner (because, in that case, it would just be a late lunch). Therefore, lunch causes dinner.

Only by hours of deep thought using our superior intellects can we convince ourselves that this is not really true.

What I'm saying is that anecdotal stories will probably never be quite enough to convince us that supernatural phenomena exist; science must have a theoretical framework, however tentative, before it can ever accept anything. What we need to believe in life after death, if there is such a thing, would be a much deeper understanding of the natural world.

A canonical example of this is the theory of continental drift. Before a plausible mechanism of conti­nental drift was found, based on the discovery of magnetic stripes in the Atlantic seabed, the similarities in the shapes of the continents could be easily dismissed as mere coincidence.

Another example is Darwin's theory of evolution. His theory was immediately compelling because it proposed a convincing naturalistic explanation for how species could diverge.

This doesn't mean we need materialistic explanations for everything. But suppose we tried to prove the existence of a deity. Without an explanation of how a supernatural being could influence the world, we're just inventing empty words and assigning attributes to him: infinite, omniscient, benevolent may be desirable qualities, but they don't explain anything. It is pointless to try to prove that God exists without specifying who you're talking about.

That's not a failing of science. It's how understanding things works: we must relate them to some­thing we already understand. Nature is all there is, and a deity would have to be part of it if we are to make sense of him. Our recognition that mechanistic explanations are the basis of intellectual understanding is one of humanity's greatest achievements.

Creationists should take note. Even if they somehow managed to prove that evolution was false, their task would be just beginning.

jul 04 2019, 3:02 am. edited jul 05 2019, 6:19 am

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