Go Where The Science Leads

Question from “Not an atheist”:
Why do you atheists believe you know better than actual scientists that figured all this shit out? Science doesn’t lead to atheism, it refuted atheism a long time ago.

Answer by SmartLX:
Science is a process, and it has definitely led many to atheism by helping them discover natural explanations for phenomena previously thought to be the work of gods. Everyone thinks of evolution as an example, but it goes all the way back to things like the existence and movement of the sun. Others simply attribute the new mechanisms to God as well and are awed by the wondrous ways in which He apparently works, so science does end up leading some farther from atheism than they started. Overall, where science “leads” in this sense is highly subjective and therefore varies wildly.

As for your last point, have a quick search of the site to see if the specific refutation of atheism you’re thinking of is already addressed. If not, we’d love to hear about it. If so, drop a comment on the article you find and we’ll pick up from there.

Breaking Down NDEs by Cause

Question from Marcus:
Does this disprove the hypoxia theory for NDEs?
http://skeptiko.com/critique-of-skeptics-guide-249/

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.

Rooting For The Ultimate Underdog

Question from Kyle:
I was wondering if you agree with me that even if we knew Christianity were true, any moral person would be morally compelled to follow Lucifer not God.

– God kills at least millions, Lucifer killed less than a handful of people.
– 1/3 of all angels rebel with Lucifer to fight a war against an omnipotent being they know they can’t win.
– Lucifer is cast out of Heaven for refusing to worship God.
– Lucifer sees human slaves so he gives them knowledge.
– God decides to torture his most beloved creation, the devil, for all eternity.

List could go on forever.

Answer by SmartLX:
When you don’t believe in either of these two characters a discussion like this is moot, of course, but think how many discussions are had over who is the true hero of Star Wars or Game of Thrones. In that spirit, there is certainly a discussion to be had over which of them is more moral – when you don’t define God as the source and model of morality and therefore incapable by definition of doing anything immoral.

The question in my mind is whether one would actually be morally compelled to follow the more moral of the two. If God controls who goes to Heaven and Hell, you would want to know that following Lucifer was actually of any use to Lucifer before potentially consigning yourself to Hell for no good reason. In most of the relevant theologies there’s no reason to think that Hell stops being an eternal torment if Lucifer acknowledges your allegiance (remember, it’s a punishment even for him), though maybe there’s a Satanist text that says otherwise. And is Lucifer expected to try another insurgency anytime soon for which he’ll need anti-Christian soldiers, by anyone other than the fear-mongering kind of Christian?

Help me pin this one down, please.

Question from Halil:
Found a new OBE [out of body experience] which sounds very compelling. Apparently this man was able to identify targets during his OBE:
https://awareofaware.co/welcome/resourc … esearcher/

Does this prove the soul? It seems quite scientific, although it has never been published in a scientific journal. That aside, what do you think of it?

Answer by SmartLX:
Normally I’m able to trace this sort of thing myself, but the break in the middle of the URL in your question (as I received it) makes it hard to tell which OBE story on AwareofAware you’re referring to. Feel free to post the full link in a comment, either Halil or anyone else who can work it out.

In the meantime there’s a basic statement I can make about NDE and OBE claims in general. They’re proof of something supernatural if all alternatives can be eliminated, both to the source of whatever information was received and to the story of what physically happened. That’s not just a contest between supernatural action and sheer luck, as we’ve seen in previous cases when other explanations and inconvenient details emerge, but even sheer luck cannot be discounted, especially if you’re literally looking for proof as opposed to merely internal justification for your own belief.

Why Israel Is

Question from Jonathan:
So tell me, how do you explain Israel’s continued victory over its neighbors despite being heavily outnumbered?

Answer by SmartLX:
A lot of faith and a lot of help. Many of its inhabitants, and importantly many others around the world, believe they are fulfilling a Biblical prophecy just by having it there. For one instance, the incredible amount of military aid it receives from the United States is due at least in part to a parade of religious American politicians who have accepted its importance in that respect. Thus I’ve previously referred to it as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To look at it another way, none of this is lost in the mists of time. You can go back through the entire history of the state of Israel since its declaration in 1948 and research exactly how and why it survived each individual or ongoing conflict. You’ll find that it just had the right resources and political goodwill at the right times. (Sometimes it literally came down to Israeli heavy artillery versus Palestinians throwing stones.) It didn’t need any miracles, or else some actual miracles would have happened on the world stage and been hard to ignore.

A Catholic PSA

Question from John:
1. Do you know that the shroud of Turin was never confirmed as a “miracle” or “real” by Catholic Church?
2. Do you know that Catholics are supposed to believe that they ARE mortal?
3. Do you know that Catholics acknowledge many of their rituals as “tradition” only?
4. Do you know that the strongest teachings in the Catholic religion are about “Free Will” of each human?

Answer by SmartLX (who also added the numbers above):
1. The Church never makes a definite judgement on the shroud, but the last three popes have made the trip to “venerate” it. They could be called out if they said anything definite, so they make the most of it by inviting people to consider it and wonder. Certainty is hardly necessary when the goal is to reassure the faithful.

2. Of course people are mortal according to the Church. Immortality through God and Jesus is the supposed reward for devotion to the church, so they need to emphasise that people don’t have it yet.

3. Many of the rituals are merely traditional because they’re not even claimed to do anything magical, but there are some claims they can’t back down from, like hundreds of thousands of transubstantiation events every week in all the wafers and wine. See article 1376 in the Catechism.

4. Belief in free will is required to even try to justify rewarding or punishing people for obeying or disobeying God with an eternity in Heaven or Hell. It’s still not justified very well.

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.

“Our Lady” Around The World

Question from Jonathan:
So what is your explanation for Our Lady of Akita whose tears were indeed human?

Answer by SmartLX:
Lucky you, I’ve recently addressed Akita. The short answer is that you sound more confident in that one than the Church is.

First Fátima, now Akita…what next, Our Lady of Lourdes? I know Mary really gets around.

Touring the Hospital the Hard Way

Question from Marcus:
Here is an interesting case from Laurin Belgg’s book, Near Death in the ICU. I do not know how any skeptic could potentially debunk this, as this experience pretty much proves that the soul exists in my eyes. What do you think?

It involves a man who suffered cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated. After he had recovered sufficiently to talk, he described an NDE that took place while he was unconscious:

“I felt myself rising up through the ceiling and it was like I was going through the structure of the building. I could feel the different densities of passing through insulation. I saw wiring, some pipes and then I was in this other room.

It looked like a hospital but it was different.… It was very quiet and it seemed like no one was there. There were individual rooms all around the edge and on some of the beds were these people, except they were not people, exactly. They looked like mannequins and they had IVs hooked up to them but they didn’t look real. In the center was an open area that looked like a collection of work stations with computers.

Dr Bellg, a critical care physician, says her jaw dropped when she heard this. She writes:

I stole a look at the nurse who looked equally surprised. What we knew that Howard didn’t, is that right above the ICU is a nurse-training center where new hires spend a few days rotating through different scenarios. There are simulated hospital rooms around the perimeter with medical mannequins on some of the beds. In the center there is indeed a collection of workspaces with computers.”

The patient also repeated statements made by Bellg during the resuscitation effort, when he was being defibrillated, and accurately reported who was present during the event.

How could a man under Cardiac arrest get this information?

Answer by SmartLX:
He could get it from anywhere beforehand, and we wouldn’t know.

The man’s name is changed to “Howard” in Bellg’s book from something else entirely, which gives you an idea of how much information about him is actually available. We don’t know who this person was outside of his alcoholism, how many times he’d been in the same hospital or one with a similar setup (documented chronic alcoholism and having just had some intestines removed suggests several), who he knew in the hospital or the local medical community, what he saw on the way in this time around, what leading questions he was given by the staff (and particularly Bellg, who was in retrospect collecting NDE stories at the time) and so on. Use your imagination.

As for what he supposedly heard during the resuscitation, it’s been established that the resuscitation itself can push enough blood through the brain to briefly restore consciousness. He didn’t necessarily need to go all Doctor Strange, he could have heard it with his own ears. Otherwise, verbal communication between medical staff is highly standardised to prevent ambiguity and confusion. If you’ve heard one “code blue” procedure, you’ve heard them all, complications notwithstanding.

Jumping to a conclusion based on an anecdote while knowing almost nothing about the surrounding circumstances is one’s own prerogative, but trying to convince others based on the same information you’ve got is right back to an argument from ignorance. We don’t know how or when he got the information, so the most likely explanation is that his soul left his body and picked it all up? Literally anything else seems more likely – unless you already believe in independent souls and want to hear that they exist. Then it’s marvelously reassuring, which is why these books sell well.

Hope Is A Plentiful Thing

Question from Jun:
This may be similar to a question already asked about dealing with adversity, but I feel it is sufficiently different to stand on its own: How does an atheist overcome thoughts of despair, of giving up, even suicide, when things look hopeless? Christians turn to passages in Scripture or to prayer. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you very much.

Answer by SmartLX:
That’s okay, I think Jake answered the last one about this so I haven’t had a go in a while.

Look at it this way: what does God provide that gives you hope and a reason to go on? Whatever the answer, atheists get it from somewhere else because since they don’t believe in God they don’t believe God is the only source of these things. That can be hard to comprehend for people who think God IS the only source, which is why this question crops up regularly, but without a central theist belief a lot of secondary theist assumptions which you might not even realise you make suddenly go out the window.

Purpose, for example, can come from almost anywhere because people choose their own purpose. Even those who believe in God admit they don’t know what God’s larger plan is or how they personally figure into it, so they make their own choices about how best to serve Him. Not thinking that one has a divine purpose isn’t much worse than not knowing what one’s supposed divine purpose is, and allows more freedom in the choice because it can go entirely outside the realm of religion. Many social and political activists choose what cause to support in direct opposition to the mainstream religious dictates of the day, some because they don’t think the deity is real and some because they think the deity actually disagrees with the religion. Whatever is most important to you in life can become your purpose if you throw yourself into it. And if it ceases to be fulfilling or worthwhile, you can spin on a dime and pursue something else.

To tackle the other major point, people looking for a reason not to commit suicide need not only a purpose but a reason to think there is good to be found in the world. The point is worth hammering that if God doesn’t exist, God isn’t the only source of good in the world because there IS good in the world regardless. However you define “good” it’s happening out there somewhere, you just need to look for it. There’s no denying that terrible things happen all the time, but even in the middle of tragedy some of the greatest deeds are found. The Reverend Fred (aka Mr) Rogers often said as his mother said to him that whenever something awful was happening one should look for the people helping.

Another thing atheists see differently is that they think this life is the only one we have. Therefore leaving it prematurely gives no chance of a better subsequent life. Happiness can only be found in this life, so the only way to achieve it is to stick it out.