Breaking Down NDEs by Cause

Question from Marcus:
Does this disprove the hypoxia theory for NDEs?

Answer by SmartLX:
A quick search on this topic makes it apparent we’ve wandered into a battlefield. The hypoxia hypothesis has been viciously attacked elsewhere as well, always with the express purpose of legitimising claims of near death experiences.

The core issue is that the link has four separate lists of the effects of hypoxia (lack of oxygen), and “hallucinations” isn’t in any of them. This contradicts (for example) the common trope of mountain climbers hallucinating at high altitudes, which has been properly researched but remains largely an anecdotal claim. More widely accepted is that hallucinations, especially auditory, can be an after-effect of brain damage as a result of hypoxia, so potentially it could trigger as soon as the life-threatening event has caused enough damage.

So no, hypoxia is not eliminated as a cause of the kind of hallucinations that can be mistaken for NDEs, but it’s only one of many possible causes anyway. The link attempts to cover some of these but not with nearly as much rigor; one point is dismissed solely on the basis of Occam’s Razor for instance. The other major problem is that it considers each potential cause individually, taking as counter-examples instances of patients only experiencing one (e.g. hypoxia or a seizure). People near death are often experiencing several of these at once: reduced oxygen, harmful CO2 levels, minor seizures or similar convulsions, powerful drugs administered by medical staff, high levels of various hormones and all kinds of issues with blood flow. The consistent cause of the “classic” NDE may lie in a combination.

Eben Alexander’s Adventures In Bed

Question from Halil:
Hello guys,

Recently I read about the Eben Alexander case, a neurosurgeon, who went to Harvard. He claims that he was in a coma, that his brain was 100 percent shut off due to meningitis. I’m sure many have heard of this. There was an article published by Luke Dittrich in 2013 which many atheists took at face value, as they believed that Dittrich proved many flaws in the Alexander story. However, now Alexander himself has come up with a rebuttal, and many of the people Dittrich interviewed said that they were misled by him, and that he changed actual quotes by Alexander.

If this is true, do you believe that Alexander went to heaven? He is a neurosurgeon, and says it could not have occurred as his brain was coming back online. He says that he has had hundreds of patients who have terrible, painful hallucinations when they come back online. Then he says when he was coming back, he hallucinated that his doctor and his wife were trying to kill him. What do you guys think, is Alexander proof of afterlife, or is it possible that even a neurosurgeon is incorrect?

Answer by SmartLX:
Of course it’s possible that a neurosurgeon is incorrect, because neurosurgeons disagree about things all the time (the most common example is how best to treat a given patient) and they can’t all be right.

Anyway, Alexander’s response to Dittrich would constitute proof of an afterlife if Alexander’s response were perfect and Dittrich’s points were the only things keeping it from being a certainty, which isn’t the case. Dittrich’s isn’t even the only major response to Alexander’s claims, because Sam Harris, Michael Shermer and Oliver Sacks chimed in too.

To address your one specific point on the details, Alexander says his patients have told him about having horrible hallucinations while coming “back online” but that doesn’t mean all hallucinations in that state are unpleasant, especially when the few pleasant ones are likely to be characterised by believers as NDEs. That’s a convenient way to explain away any experience that doesn’t fit his claim, including his own experience. And none of this says anything about what dreams may come as the brain is going “offline” before the inactive period.

Young Earth Creationism is So 6000 Years Ago

Question from Cameron:
If the snow rings dating have been proven to be wrong (they represent cold and warm days not years) how could I come to believe carbon dating and other dating types. They seem like all a fraud to me. And like saying that the stalagmites in caves formed over millions of years when I could make one in my garage in just a few months.

Answer by SmartLX:
I assume you’re referring to Kent Hovind’s argument regarding the warm-cold layers in snow cores from Greenland. Here’s Hovind’s own spiel on the subject.

There are plenty of rebuttals online if you care to look as Hovind was saying the same thing for years (almost literally the same; he had a script memorised) but to be as brief as possible, once the snow is packed down under enough layers you might get a maximum of one additional warm-cold layer per year, and not very often. Any other fluctuations are mashed together and lost as the layers flatten. Someone digging a couple of hundred feet will see lots of extra layers, and that’s why the deep cores were taken in the first place: to get the good information down where nature has naturally removed much of the “noise”.

The cores are irrelevant to the accuracy of radiometric dating because they were not used to verify the accuracy of radiometric dating. If you wonder about that, actually look up how it’s been tested. If you simply dismiss all old-earth evidence because you think some of it is incorrect and therefore non-creationist scientists aren’t worth listening to, let me introduce you to the genetic fallacy.

Stalactites and stalagmites can form using different materials and in different circumstances, some of which are fast enough to show results in weeks and some of which are slow enough to take millions of years, and geologists know the difference. Even before you consider these structures, the cave they’re in has to form first, and that can take millions of years too. There’s lots more detail here.

In the Face of a Miracle

Question from Markian:
Ok so sometimes people make claims that they saw something that some would file into the “paranormal” or “supernatural” category. Two examples come to mind. 1) a girl wakes up at 2:30 am, sees a transparent image of a girl she hadn’t talked to in 10 yrs. Then she sees the devil’s face, prays to God, the images go away. 2 days later she sees in the newspaper that this exact girl died at 2:30 that night from an accident. Another one actually happened to my parents. They were at a Church event, and they claim that suddenly things turned demonic. One blonde haired lady suddenly had black hair, people were choking, and finally the priest shouted at “demonic spirits” to leave and then everything turned back to normal. Both of these events are anecdotal and I know many would reject these as hearsay. Although you are being rational by doing so, let’s just say for argument’s sake that these events somehow took place, just give them the benefit of the doubt for a second. Would that confirm the supernatural or paranormal? Or would it still be more appropriate to say that we don’t know what caused these events therefore we could never say they are supernatural or paranormal? I personally believe that even if these 2 events are totally real that they don’t necessarily confirm the existence of spirits, gods, supernatural etc. I want your opinions on my opinion. I know many will say these events are bull but I want to know hypothetically if they were real, does that mean supernatural or is it just something currently unknown? People used to think thunderstorms were gods fighting. Others thought lunar eclipse was something to do with gods. Now we know this isn’t true, so could these cases (granted that they actually occurred) be placed into that category?

Answer by SmartLX:
Thanks for getting the basic point about whether the stories are true out of the way for me.

So, say as far as we can tell one of these things really did happen as described and wasn’t essentially made up by the witnesses. The first thing to ask would be whether or not a hoax can be ruled out. Someone could have scared the first girl with a projection of a photo from Facebook and a devil mask, and turned the clock back to allow for several hours of preparation after the news of her death. The church could have had a quick spray of a noxious gas or odour that affected people sharply before dissipating, and if the woman was a plant she could have had a wig. Elaborate in both cases, yes, but if something apparently amazing has really happened, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that someone just went to a lot of trouble. Some of Derren Brown’s shows have put people through some incredible stuff and not told them right away that it was a trick.

So then let’s say it can’t have been a hoax (the kind of evidence for this would have to be pretty convincing), and therefore you can finally say with confidence that something supernatural or paranormal (the definitions are practically the same) has happened. The nature of both events you describe have elements specific to Christian mythology: the antagonist is the devil or the location is a church and, most importantly, invoking God makes everything all right. That does suggest that an otherworldly intelligence is behind it if it can respond to a specific declaration, but there are several possible reasons why it might do so. Maybe it really is Satan and he fears God. Maybe it’s some lesser poltergeist pretending to be Satan, or who fears God regardless – whether God is also real or not. (If humans can fear a God who appears to be non-existent, why can’t a spirit?) Maybe a living human psychic/telekinetic is making it happen, consciously or not. Use your imagination, but the point is that even if the supernatural occurs exactly the way believers expect they may still need to wonder whether they’re being supernaturally had. Lots of them fall for false miracles done in old-fashioned ways as it is, or Peter Popoff would never have got anywhere.

Life, Oh Life, Ooohhh Liiiiife, Oh Life…(doo doo doo doo)

Question from Madnomas:
I just read your response to the question regarding biogenesis. While you gave the only answer you could have, it is severely lacking. To claim that it “is unlikely that the conditions could have been right at least once in the distant past” (paraphrasing) is a gross over reach. If abiogenesis were “not unlikely,” one would presumably be able to predict that the more we learn about the earliest life forms, the less complex these forms would appear, and the more likely the conditions that might be able to generate life would what we’ve found. However, it is exactly the opposite. Even the earliest life is infinitely complex. Not only is life extremely complex but has as its foundation, information. So, as we discover more about early life and the conditions surrounding the early atmosphere, it has only become more improbable, but without mutation and selection to fall back, we have to account for the appearance of information. So instead of casually brush off this extremely potent evidence for a creator, as understandably would for convenience, this is still a monumental challenge for atheism to address. Unfortunately, it’s only becoming more improbable with each new discovery.

Answer by SmartLX:
There is no physical or chemical barrier to an increase in the amount of information on Earth as long as we have the Sun, even before the emergence of life. I’ve explained this briefly here.

The first life was complex but it was less complex than much of modern life, unless you think human beings are no more complex than bacteria. And the Miller-Urey experiment gets a lot of flak but it proved beyond doubt that the introduction of electricity (via lightning) can produce amino acids, so inorganic processes do important work and therefore not all of the complexity had to pop up at once.

Not knowing how something happened is not an argument that it didn’t happen, except for an argument from ignorance. Eliminating every possible method might be evidence for same, but that clearly hasn’t happened as long as there are potentially viable models, and in this case there are lots. And the proposed alternative requires that we assume the presence and participation for an entity not only for which there is no evidence, but about which nothing is agreed upon even hypothetically. It would be much stronger to establish the existence of God without the requirement of faith and then argue that God created life than to support God with apparent creation.

Was Blind, But Now I See

Question from Halil:
Does this experience prove the existence of souls? It is of a woman who was born blind, had a visual NDE, and saw things, including Jesus. There have been studies done which say that the people born blind cannot see in their dreams, but this woman could see in her NDE. What is your opinion about that?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s true, if people are born blind then their dreams are auditory, tactile and olfactory but not visual. Thing is, if people are born blind then they have no basis on which to recognise sight. This woman has been around sighted people all her life and knows the language of visual imagery, and has chosen to use that language to describe what she experienced, but we have no way of knowing whether what she was actually experiencing was sight regardless of what she says.

One very important thing to remember is that we have documented cases of people who have gained sight for the first time as adults, when lifelong conditions like congenital cataracts are discovered and treated. It’s a downright traumatic experience for many, and universally they spend a long time with no idea what they’re looking at. (There’s a good account by an opthalmologist here.) By contrast the woman in your video immediately knew what she was seeing, ws completely comfortable with processing the visual signals and enjoyed the whole thing. It doesn’t sound like anything we’ve seen in real life, because it’s as if her brain was rewired in an instant to process the new signal perfectly. Sounds miraculous indeed.

The Beginning Ain’t the Be-All and End-All

Question from John:
Universe had a beginning, “proved” by second law of thermodynamics.
Dear Sir, I understand that an argument used by creationists, in favour of a Universe that had a beginning, is that the second law of thermodynamics requires that it will inevitably wind down. In essence, the claim is that the universe can not have been infinite into the past as it would have inevitably already run down. The fact of a purported finite amount of usable energy therefore implies that the universe MUST have had a beginning or else we would not be here now to discuss this. Is there a scientific rebuttal to this claim please?

Answer by SmartLX:
There are two principal possibilities which address the idea of an infinite universe having run down by now, both of which are centered around the concept of renewal.

1. The universe periodically contracts in a Big Crunch before a new Big Bang. This drags together not only all the matter in the universe but all the space and time as well. All the unusable energy lost to the edges of the universe is brought back to the singularity and can be useful once again.
2. The matter and energy in the hypothetical (but currently quite likely-looking) multiverse is infinite. When one universe runs down, countless others are still going and more universes spontaneously start up all the time. No laws of physics are broken by this sudden emergence if the amount of anti-matter that emerges is equal to the amount of matter, because matter and energy are conserved in an equation akin to 0 = 1 + -1.

Creationists often think, as they are told to by people like William Lane Craig, that once they establish that the universe had a beginning the argument is basically sewn up. Even if the above two possibilities are dismissed and you take it as read that the universe began, that it was begun by a god can only ever be an argument from ignorance. Without knowing how it happened, you can’t just assert it was one particular thing without eliminating all other possibilities, even the ones people haven’t thought of yet. The potential for spontaneous emergence from the “quantum foam” suggested by quantum mechanics, for one, ensures for the moment that well-formulated alternatives are out there, and you don’t even have to appeal to the un-thought-of.

O Fátima

Question from Jakob:
I have a question about the supposed Sun miracle at Fátima. An crowd of about 70,000 people saw it; I should note that nobody saw the same thing and thousands saw nothing at all. The Vatican said it’s worthy of belief. Now 70000 people can’t hallucinate at the same time, can they?

Answer by SmartLX:
If thousands saw nothing at all at the so-called Miracle of the Sun that gave rise to the incarnation of the Virgin Mary now known as Our Lady of Fátima, then 70000 people didn’t hallucinate at the same time. It doesn’t mean none of them did.

A multitude of people with beliefs ranging from fervent to non-existent crowded into an empty field with high expectations of something miraculous happening, but no idea what. As soon as exposure, overlong gazing at the sun, rare weather effects like a parhelion (check the Miracle link above for a picture) or pure zealotry drove someone to declare that they saw something strange in the sky, thousands more looked up instead of around them, and were far more prone to have a similar experience. Afterwards, there was much discussion among the lucky subset about what they had seen, which would have resulted in much greater consistency between accounts once they went to write it down. Once stories got out, the crowds got bigger, the expectations were higher and the chances of strange perceptions only went up, until it all peaked on 13 October 1917. The initial stories mentioned the sun, so later you had thousands of poor sods staring right at the thing far longer than they should, which would have played havoc with their eyes.

Several specific explanations have been suggested over the years, but I just look at the circumstances and I think I would have been amazed if no one had had a strange experience. It was a strange thing to do, and to be told to do by three Portuguese preteens.

Akita and the Incorruptibles (if that were a comic book I’d read it)

Question from Jacob:
Hello. Recently I stopped believing to a small degree, probably class 4 or 5 on the Dawkins scale (ATA Note: this indicates neutrality tending towards disbelief), mainly from reading the Old Testament. None of the mainstream Christian arguments are really that great like morality and so forth. But there are 2, well I would not call them arguments, more like paranormal activity. They are incorruptible bodies and the statue of Akita. They are the 2 main things that are still part of my chains of religion. My question is how do you explain them or brush them off at least? I heard atheists had high levels of intelligence.

Answer by SmartLX:
I can save myself some work here because I wrote about the so-called incorruptibles for a similar site: Ask The Atheists. I was SmartLX on that one too, just scroll down a bit. Since I’ve become acquainted with the power of Google Images in the 8+ years that followed, I’ll simply add that the examples available to us today do not exactly look natural or as fresh as a daisy.

As for “Our Lady of Akita”, much is unexplained about the events that brought it to the world’s attention but the most damning factor is the Catholic Church’s own reluctance to hail it as a miracle. See the Wikipedia article: though the local Bishop endorsed it, the Archbishop of Tokyo dismissed it completely in 1990, and then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who would have made the call at that level within the Church, made no call at all. If those with the most to gain from a miracle by the Virgin Mary won’t get behind it, what reason do you have? The Church all but abolished the office of “devil’s advocate” in 1983 so they don’t even actively try to debunk these things anymore, and they still didn’t give this one the rubber stamp.

A Relatively Simple Afterlife Question

Question from Jason:
Besides our energy living on for all eternity (watch 10 Myths About Death at 1:50) is any other afterlife possible? Is any, all (especially regarding Hell) of telling the truth? I am Fira777 on YouTube.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve written a great deal on the afterlife, because of course many are curious about (or troubled by, or desperate to salvage) the idea. The simple answer to your question is that anything is possible (science does not support an afterlife in any meaningful sense, but the mechanism of the supposed soul may be beyond science if real) but if the Evangelical Outreach page is correct about any of this stuff, it is not because they know for sure. They are relaying their interpretation of the scriptures they accept as the word of God, and they are right or wrong if the text is. “Telling the truth” is subjective based on what one believes; one can be honest and still wrong.