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On Near Death Experiences: Comment on “Tales of the Dying Brain,” by Christof Koch

Science’s reliance on sensory perception to establish what’s real is neither objective nor rational. It is inherently subjective and irrational. This was pointed out by the physicist-philosopher Erwin Schroedinger, an admission that was noted in Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity (2017). Our bodies and their senses being part of their own material environment disqualifies them from attesting to its reality. For this another perspective is needed, one that is not built into its own environment and doesn’t have to be “spiritual.” It only needs to be mind, which is manifestly not coterminous with the brain, as distinguished neuroscientists have concluded.

Putting sensory perception on the witness stand to attest to its own reality is self-referential circular reasoning. It isn’t reasoning, which means the logical foundation for all of body-centered “science,” including the science of mind, is inherently illogical. It means “science,” which prizes objectivity, is subjective. A “science” that denies itself access to the perspective of mind, that rigidly adheres to bodies’ sensory perception and their brains’ circular reasoning, sacrifices not only objectivity for subjectivity, it sacrifices its legitimacy.

This, I think, is ample reason to question Christof Koch’s “hypothesis that all our thoughts, memories, percepts (sic) and experiences are an ineluctable consequence of the natural causal powers of our brain rather than of any supernatural ones”. If what he means by “supernatural ones” is mind, nothing could be farther from the truth. Reason says so, and that’s what near-death experiences (NDE’s) are telling us. NDE’s reveal that, in the space between sensory perception and what lies beyond, attributes of reality take over that mock the limits our bodies impose.

They do so just as the behavior of quanta mock the limits of reality that physics imposes in the space between matter and what lies beyond. Whether the neuroscientist Koch is willing to question all-knowing sensory perception, theoretical physics concerned with quantum mechanics long ago expressed its doubts in Nils Bohr’s “Copenhagen Interpretation” [ref: Adam Becker, What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics (2018)] and, more recently, in Rovelli’s appeal for help from philosophy to make sense of quantum gravity.

What the brain during NDE’s and quanta under observation may both be telling us is that what lies beyond material reality is another reality. Koch says NDE subjects describe it as “realer than real,” a subjective valuation that can’t be measured, so he and science will leave its significance to us. But to NDE subjects and to this observer, its significance seems obvious: The reality they are experiencing is mind beyond matter.

Koch explains that NDE’s “are triggered. . . when the body is injured by blunt trauma, a heart attack, asphyxia, shock, and so on.” Then why does it change the logic of what transpires when the cortex is stimulated electrically or “exciting the gray matter elsewhere”? In either case an external force physically alters the brain, the subject’s mind is released from the body, and it takes with it all the powers of consciousness – observation, thought, and feeling – except the power to act and sense with the body. What transpires is a clear separation of a part of consciousness that belongs to mind from a part that’s tethered to the body, and that would be the brain. Electrical stimulation of the brain only differs from the usual causes of NDE’s by being deliberate.

The “origin” of NDE’s can only be traced to the brain because, by definition, a “near death experience” refers to a condition of the body and its brain. It has nothing to do with the death of the mind or “spirit.” Since there was never any logic to declaring that the “origin” of NDE’s is “spiritual,” it’s absurd for Koch to conclude that “subjective experience provides support for a biological, not spiritual origin” – to declare, in effect, that the origin can’t be “spiritual.”

The issue isn’t “origins.” The issue is causes and effects. The cause is physical alteration of the body’s brain, one that places the brain in a weakened, dying state, that gets it out of the way of mind. The effect is an irrefutable experience, documented many times over, of an other-worldly state of consciousness which can only be mind.

If we can get the distinction clear between brain and mind, and the cause-effect relationship between brain alteration and mind that’s unattached to body, NDE’s will begin to make perfect sense. They clearly suggest that there’s another reality that’s not matter but mind. And, if NDE subjects are to be believed, it’s the reality of mind that’s real and the other that isn’t. It’s the reality of mind that’s natural and the other that ought to be labeled “supernatural.”

But we don’t have to go there to make a point. The point is that messing with the brain is no grounds for siding with body-centered science that there’s no reality beyond sensory perception or that all consciousness is seated in the brain. To do so is to fly in the face of evidence provided by NDE’s. Worse, to do so is to side with circular reasoning -- not to be truly “scientific” but to be hopelessly subjective and irrational.

Let Rovelli search for quantum gravity and Professor Koch study the brain. But while they’re at it, let’s all get off our self-referential addiction to sensory perception and acknowledge its subjectivity. Let’s get serious about metaphysics and trace the story of mind. Why? Because only in intuition, an attribute of mind, will we find objectivity. Only there will we find reason beyond appearances, the perspective that’s qualified to distinguish between competing realities. And because that’s what quantum mechanics and NDE’s are telling us to do.

Like the story of the brain and matter, all accounts of the human experience are ultimately the story of mind. To learn it is not to surrender to unreason, to contradictory ideologies that science rightly fears, but to open the door to guidance that is both rational and felt, that provides values and meaning. It is guidance that science dependent on numbers and measurements cannot provide by itself. Should Professor Koch convince us that we have only the brain, matter, and measurements to guide us, that the evidence of NDE’s to the contrary can be ignored, it will be a disservice to his own cause – to the cause of reason and knowledge, science and learning. It will be a disservice to the cause of mind.

Letter submitted to Scientific American
Commenting on Christof Koch, "Tales of the Dying Brain"
In Scientific American (June 2020 pp. 71-75)

May 30, 2020

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