Scientific Explanations for Out of Body Experiences
07 Feb 2012
OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCES (OOBs) are fascinating experiences that the dead or dying often report having before being revived or spontaneously recovering. They can also be called Near Death Experiences or NDEs. Of course, they often happen away from the moment of death as well, and they offer a possible glimpse at our true nature and what might lie beyond the veil of that very final moment of death. Many people have reported very powerful and consistent visions of a reality that seems independent or beyond everyday experience, a reality in which they meet angelic beings and deceased relatives.
This morning, I watched an online documentary on OOBs which interviewed some of the people who had had them. The program, however, was marred by the inclusion of an interview with Dr. Susan Blackmore, a colourful academic who has studied paranormal phenomena including OOBs for a couple of decades and concluded that they are nothing more than the fantasies and natural experiences of dying material brains. I felt that the inclusion of her "expert" explanations alongside individuals who felt they had been touched by the divine just seemed dismissive. Blackmore stated that she herself has had an OOB after smoking marijuana as a student, and that the numinous experience she had led her into paranormal research, research which I understand she eventually stopped because she came to the conclusion that there was no reality to paranormal phenomena.
I have nothing against individuals who choose to take a materialistic worldview in which OOBs can only be the fantasies and perceptions of the dying brain because… well… that is all it can be from that perspective by definition. But to make it any more than an opinion of one person betrays a naive belief in the current core beliefs of science, in this case the belief that consciousness is merely an epiphenomena of brains, and therefore something that must disappear when the brain dies.
What researchers like Blackmore seem to think is that if the OOB experience can be given a material explanation, then any non-material aspects of that experience must therefore be illusion. But this is not logical because it rests entirely on the assumption that consciousness is somehow an emergent property of complex material systems (brains), an assumption that is not actually provable one way or another by scientific experiment. After all, even if you can build a computer network that exhibits aspects of what might be considered consciousness, the possibility that the network is merely acting as a "receiver" for consciousness that is already present cannot be dismissed. (Occam's Razor in this instance is not helpful because perspectives that have consciousness as the foundation of reality rather than matter could well be considered the more simple and elegant explanation for these sorts of phenomena.)
Therefore, our view of whether consciousness is an emergent property of complex material systems, or whether it is a "thing" in its own right, is not actually testable scientifically, and so is always just opinion. After all, even basic emergent properties of material complex systems cannot be predicted from the behavior of those systems — complex systems can exhibit novelty — and so a scientist can never be certain whether what she is experiencing is emergent material phenomena or the expression of some "thing" that is more fundamental than matter, a "thing" that is able to interact with matter.
But Blackmore seems to fall into the fallacious logic that just because material explanations potentially exist, that this dismisses non-material explanations. She does not realize that this is merely an affirmation of her own prejudices.
And I certainly have my own prejudices too. As someone who has experienced OOBs, including even watched another have an OOB whilst being stone-cold sober and awake, convinces me that they are real phenomena, and that the mind or consciousness can dissociate itself from biological systems. This belief, based on direct experience, is very comforting to me, and an integral part of my spiritual life, but I have absolutely no desire or ability to try to convince others of its veracity. That will depend on their own scientifically-untestable assumptions as to what consciousness actually is.
So it is time we all became much more honest with what we actually know and what we don't know, and where the boundaries of science actually are. For it does have boundaries, and only the ignorant allow science to determine the veracity of direct experiences of consciousness.
By the way, I do like Blackmore... she seems to be quite a character with her blue hair and Zen ways!