Friday, October 16, 2009

Are Near Death Experiences Real?

The lead story on CNN.com at the moment is titled Doctor says near-death experiences are in the mind. Yet within the story, the doctor calls NDEs "real":

Dr. Kevin Nelson, a neurologist in Louisville, Kentucky, studies near-death experiences and says they're not imagined. The explanation, he says, lies in the brain itself. "These are real experiences. And they're experiences that happen at a time of medical crisis and danger," Nelson said.

Huh? The doctor suggests that an experience explained by brain activity is real and not imagined. There must be other experiences that he'd call unreal and imagined. Where would these imagined experiences come from? Somewhere else, somewhere other than the brain?

We're always faced with big, imponderable questions. What caused the universe? In philosophical discussions, some may say the cause is God, others may say The Big Bang. Neither response resolves anything, as it just pushes the question a bit further down the road. What caused The Big Bang? Who made God?

In the early days of chess-playing computer programs, an interesting problem arose. Say the program could analyze a chess position six moves ahead (a very impressive accomplishment). If the computer was threatened with check-mate, but could make a move that pushed that disaster beyond six moves in the future, it would treat that variation as if the check-mate didn't exist.

Our brain-computers seem to operate the same way. We're faced with a great question of original cause. It can initially be disturbing to realize that we don't know where we came from (and indeed don't know who we are). If we throw in some ideas about Gods or Big Bangs, it pushes the questions a little further away, to a more abstracted level... so we can comfortably pretend that the mystery doesn't exist.

Likewise with claims that "everything is in the brain." If we assume that it all resides in the brain, what have we accomplished? We're left with the slightly more abstracted mystery: in what does the brain exist? Don't know...

We commonly posit two distinct types of phenomena: the unreal ones that exist in the mind, and the real ones that exist outside the mind. Is that true?

Our bodies have skins, so it's easy to distinguish what's inside them from what's outside. Kidneys are inside the body, trees are outside of it. But where is the mind's skin? If we can't locate the mind's skin, how can we say that one thing is inside the mind, while something else is outside it?

4 comments:

gniz said...

Hey Stuart, Sorry to be a tad spammy...hope this is okay. Just want to let you (and others) know I am starting a blog called http://rebloggingbradwarner.blogspot.com/

Brad Warner has disallowed comments on his blog so I have started an unmoderated place where we can continue commenting.

Stop by!

Gniz

Stuart said...

Hi, gniz. For other readers who may not know... the Brad Warner referred to here is a Zen Master in Los Angeles, in the Japanese Soto tradition. He keeps an extremely popular blog called Hardcore Zen.

In the past, Hardcore Zen postings have drawn hundreds of comments. Warner has just shut off commenting, explaining his reasons in this posting. At the same time, Warner suggests that someone do what gniz is doing: estabish a separate blog to host Hardcore Zen commenting. Warner says he'll link to such a blog if requested. If gniz does so, then I'd expect his rebloggingbradwarner blog to quickly take off.

gniz said...

Hey Stuart,

Thanks for the response--sorry to go off topic on your recent post--i watched that CNN piece as well. It does raise questions about real vs unreal and mind vs reality--lucid dreaming does that for me as well...

Anyway, I did email Brad to tell him about the new blog but as i am one of his most vocal critics/trolls, i'm not sure he'll be too keen about linking to it.

Anyhoo, i did a new post today. Stop by if you'd like!

Stuart said...

Great, gniz. It'll be interesting to see how Brad greets your request.

One of the things I most value about my own Zen teacher is that he seems to appreciate it when people disagree with him.