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Dead as a Doornail. Prof. Matt McCormick Department of Philosophy California State University, Sacramento. Near Death and Out of Body Experiences (NDEs and OBEs).

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dead as a doornail

Dead as a Doornail

Prof. Matt McCormick

Department of Philosophy

California State University, Sacramento

near death and out of body experiences ndes and obes
Near Death and Out of Body Experiences (NDEs and OBEs)

“I had the sensation of floating up out of my body and hovering over myself on the operating room table. Then I travelled up a tunnel towards a light.“

“After waking up I found myself still very, very tired and I allowed myself to fall back asleep. In doing so, I became conscious of some familiar sensations attributed to out-of-body experiences - I felt very heavy yet very light and I felt gentle electric-like pulses running through my body. Very soon after the onset of these sensations I knew it was time to get up - not up in the physical world - up outside my body in the astral plane!”

evidence for transcendence
Evidence for Transcendence?
  • There are many who take OBEs, NDEs, prayer feelings, religious feelings, intuitions of certainty or poignancy, or other extraordinary subjective phenomena as evidence for something that transcends the physical.
  • Let’s call these magical methods for acquiring knowledge.
  • Roughly I have in mind methods that are subjective, not intersubjectively verifiable (the way elephants are,) but not wholly deductive. They involve some sort of divination of the truth.
magical knowledge magical forces
Magical knowledge, magical forces

Your mind can reach this other place and draw from it.

Or maybe your mind can channel the magic into this world.

are obes and ndes are too extraordinary to be natural
Are OBEs and NDEs are too Extraordinary to be Natural?
  • Deja vu
  • Jamais vu
  • Disassociated states
  • Auditory and visual hallucinations
  • Detachment
  • Capgras Delusion
  • Fregoli Delusion
  • Prosopagnosia
  • Cotard’s Delusion
  • Blindsight
  • Phantom limb pain
  • and so on
it s all in the brain
It’s All In The Brain
  • The important point is not that these are in the brain. All experience, real or not, has neural correlates in the brain.
  • The important point is that in all of these cases there is a brain phenomena, and nothing else.
  • Your spouse isn’t an imposter. (Capgras)
  • Your arm isn’t in pain. (Phantom Limb)
  • You can’t see. (Anton’s Delusion)
  • You do exist. (Cotard’s Delusion)
are there natural ways to get to the other side
Are There Natural Ways to Get to the Other Side?

There are many ways to get there falsely:

  • psychoactive drugs
  • sleep deprivation
  • fasting
  • sweat lodges
  • dancing
  • dehydration
  • meditation
  • chanting
  • sensory overload/stimulus
  • a philosophy lecture
philosophers have feelings too can those get us to the other side
Philosophers have feelings too (Can Those Get us to the other side?)

Some philosophers are tempted by this sort of method, I know I have been:

  • Here are some poignant feelings I have.
  • They feel really important because they feel so feely, so certain, so true. They must be philosophically significant.
  • So here’s a theory about reality based on them. Or our theories about what’s real must conform to them.
  • The presumption seems to be that the feelings map onto some reality beyond the mind. Or that analyzing words and meanings hard enough will uncover truth.
but that doesn t feel right
But That Doesn’t Feel Right
  • Remember this guy:
  • And remember these:
  • Transcendence is going to have to be based on more than just feelings.
but if someone has an obe while they are dead then that s interesting
But If Someone Has an OBE while They are Dead, then that’s Interesting.
  • If he’s dead, then the OBE isn’t coming (falsely) from the brain, right?
  • Clinical Death
    • occurs in a patent when the heart stops beating and respiration ceases.
    • Being clinically dead isn’t really being dead.
dead and deader
Dead and Deader
  • Brain death
    • Brain death is irreversible, real death
    • Indicators: no reflex responses, no breathing, no brain stem activity.
measuring brain death and real brain death
Measuring Brain Death and Real Brain Death
  • Given that there are billions of neurons with activity at the molecular level, our methods for determining brain death are quite crude.
  • An EEG machine gives a gross indicator of electrical activity in the brain. And reflexes are macro behaviors.
  • If all of the diagnostic criteria for brain death have been met, has all neural activity ceased?
be the deadest you can be
Be the Deadest You Can Be
  • There are about 100 billion neurons in the human brain.
  • Each one of these cells has a metabolism that is fed by oxygenated blood.
  • Its metabolic processes produce an electrical/chemical charge called an action potential.
  • When the cell’s firing threshold is met, that charge is sent down the axon and the signal is passed on to the next neurons in the chain.
  • These cascading electrical charges across various neural networks produce consciousness (and hallucinations.)
  • The typical neuron fires 1-500 times a second.
  • Neurons can have as many as a 1,000 connections.
  • Real brain death? I suspect that even if the EEG is flat, some of this activity persists for a while.
obe during clinical death
OBE During Clinical Death?
  • We have every reason to think that OBEs during clinical death are the product of brain function.
  • Brain functions can produce those sorts of experiences falsely.
  • And the brain can be functioning at least partly during clinical death.
  • OBEs during clinical death are no more suggestive of a transcendental world or experience than the dreams you have while sleeping or the hallucinations you might have while stoned.
  • That is, clinical death OBEs are not philosophically or transcendentally significant as evidence for life after death, immortal souls, a transcendent realm, etc.
obe during brain death
OBE During Brain Death?
  • Suppose that someone had an OBE during real brain death or during a period when the portions of the brain that could produce it were not active. That would be suggestive about a reality beyond the body.
  • There have been no reported cases of an OBE during brain death. (It’s irreversible.)
  • Hypothetically, how could it be established that such an OBE had occurred?
flat liners
Flat Liners


Could it be established that someone had an OBE during a period of brain death?

It doesn’t look like it.

the timing problem
The Timing Problem

OBE report at 10:45




Suppose someone came back from real brain death and reported an OBE.

How would we establish that the experience the patient reports happened during the period of flat brain activity?

Do we just take their word for it?

“I was floating up through space to heaven. And they had a clock there that said 10:04. I also checked my angel watch.”

testimony from a brain dead patient isn t very reliable
Testimony from a Brain Dead Patient isn’t very Reliable.
  • People are notoriously unreliable in their testimony about events during periods of stress.
    • They get the order of events wrong.
    • They leave out significant events.
    • They revise their stories.
    • They are highly suggestible.
    • They fabricate.
    • And people’s subjective sense of time is very poor.
  • To make matters worse, the patient in question has just suffered severe brain trauma, is full of psychoactive medications, has had severe blood loss, and had other mind alterations.
an obe reported by someone who had been brain dead would be inconclusive
An OBE reported by someone who had been brain dead would be Inconclusive.
  • A person’s testimony that the experience occurred during the flat line period won’t be sufficient—they were dead then.
  • So there appears to be no way to get the evidence we would need.
  • There is still a very real possibility that the experience they had (if they had one) was generated by the brain (falsely) while it was functioning.
  • The notion that our feelings are some magical guide to some secret knowledge common and seductive.
    • “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
  • But those feelings can be produced by abnormal or even normal brain states.
  • Being clinically dead, it turns out, isn’t being really dead. Your brain could make an OBE then.
  • No one comes back to tell stories from real brain death.
  • But even if you could, the Timing Problem would keep us from believing you.
  • The prospects for successfully arguing for the existence or reality of some transcendent, non-physical, non-brainy reality on the basis of our feelings are dim.