Question from Halil:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Question from Jonathan:
So how do you explain events life Fatima where over 70000 people simultaneously saw a miracle as it was foretold by a little girl, check it out if you don’t believe me it’s very well documented. If that’s not enough for you it also made accurate predictions.
Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve addressed both of these points quite recently: the mass miracle here and the predictions here. If I’ve missed some detail which you think is important, comment in the appropriate article.
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.
Question from John:
Do atheists have “free will” or is it just everybody else except them?
Answer by SmartLX:
I think we’re all agreed that as a human race the same state of affairs is true for all of us regardless of what we think, so either we all have free will or none of us do.
The reason a lot of atheists reject the idea of free will is that it seems to require a supernatural mechanism within the brain. The actions we take result from the decisions we make, and the decisions we make are determined by the physical state of our brains and the electrical signals within them at the time. To go against all that and avoid the choice which is pre-determined by the external and internal factors beforehand literally requires that the brain go against the laws of physics. Many people who do think we have free will get around this by thinking that the soul influences the brain in such matters, which doesn’t give atheists much confidence that free will is compatible with a materialistic view of the brain. But again, if atheists are wrong then they have a soul like everybody else, and therefore free will.
This scientific perspective on the problem sounds abstract and doesn’t strike people as having any bearing on the decisions they’ve made themselves, so I like to explain it this way instead. We have things that we want and we make decisions and take actions to achieve them – in other words we have will. It’s not free will because it is driven entirely by the things we want, and we can’t decide what to want. The only reason, the ONLY reason we ever act in a way that denies us something we want is because we want something else more. We refuse a delicious cake because we want to lose weight. We don’t pursue romance with someone we desire because we want to avoid rejection, or because we want to preserve an existing relationship. This is not necessarily selfish in the usual sense because what we want most might be for someone else to be happy, or to advance a cause that will benefit a group we’re not in. Nevertheless we are literally slaves to our desires, it’s just a matter of which desire wins out in the moment.
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.
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.