Q: First of all, what are the main points against Near Death Experiences(NDEs)? How would you counter-argue them?
A: In the West, NDEs have been debated for over 2,300 years. Plato, for example, wrote about NDEs, and he took them seriously, that is, he heard these stories and he took them at face value. Meanwhile, Plato’s contemporary Democritus who was the first atomist, figured out that things are made of atoms, and in his writings about NDE, he made the famous statement, “There is no such thing as a moment of death,” implying that, just as we hear today, these NDEs are the dying process of the brain.
Really, in 2014, there is no difference in the way that these things are argued. There are some people, who look at these experiences, and they say, “Oh, yes, this is the afterlife.” Meanwhile, other people listen to this and they say simply, “The oxygen deprivation, the cut off of the oxygen flow to the brain, creates these hallucinations.”
The Cause of NDEs Is Not Something Physiological in the Brain
The difficulty with that point of view is that we know very well that it’s very common for by-standers at the bedside when someone else dies, for the people standing around, who are not ill or injured, nonetheless to have, identically, these same elements or features of what we call a NDE.
Sometimes people at the bedside say that as their mother dies, or whomever they’re seeing, what seems to be the spirit, the mother, leaves the body. Other people have told me that when their relative died, they themselves felt that they left their physical bodies and they rose up part-way towards this light with their dying relative, and then at some point they came back and re-joined their body, and their mother or whoever went on.
All of these features that we think of as NDEs occur also to people at the bedside who are not ill or injured. Therefore, the cause of it is not something physiological in the brain. We don’t know what it is. To me, that’s really part of the excitement of this. It’s a very important unknown that we’re dealing with.
Incidentally, I have talked with people in Japan as well who have these shared death experiences and have NDEs. This is not just in Japan and the United States. I have talked with people all over the world. This is a universal, human experience.
Only 1 out of 5 People Don’t Think the Afterlife Is Real
I think at some point the question becomes, “Why do some people want to deny this so much?” One thing I’ve found… I have been known for this subject since about 1970, and for the great majority of my life, I have been talking about this and since about 1970, I have been in a recurrent situation often where I’m in a party, for example, and it has nothing to do with my profession, that I meet someone quite outside of my profession, and then of course the social niceties and the social ritual is, “What do you do?” You know, and then you know, it’s, “Well, I write books.” And it’s never enough there. Well, “Books about what?” And then, “They’re about NDEs and so forth.” And I see something very common.
Since that time, somewhat fewer than 1 out of 5 of the people I meet under those circumstances say something to me like, “Oh, I just don’t believe in an afterlife. When you’re dead, you’re dead.” And then I get really interested because I ask people, “Well, how did you reach that conclusion that there positively is not life after death?” And I get a variety of reactions.
One reaction I often get is people say, “Well, I was tormented by religion as a child, my parents drug me to church, I was terrified, and I just gave it up, and there’s no such thing as an afterlife.”
Well, I can certainly understand the feeling, you know, that of being traumatized by religion and so on, but logically it doesn’t follow from the fact that somebody was traumatized by a religion when they were a child that therefore there is not life after death, right? It’s not logical. And so people like that are really kind of responding emotionally, and I can understand that as a way.
I’m from the Deep South in the United States, which is known for fundamentalist religion, but to my happiness, I escaped it when I was a child. I never went to church or any of those other things. And yet, I can kind of understand how religious people, who are terrified by religion when they’re a child, want to get away from it, but still it’s not a rational point of view. Just because somebody had a bad time with religion doesn’t mean that there is no life after death.
Life after Death Is Not Wishful Thinking
Other people, when I ask them why did they think there’s no life after death, some people think, they psychologize, they think it’s just wishful thinking. I don’t think that wishful thinking plays a very important part in people’s view about the afterlife. In my many decades of investigating this, I have come to think that probably the way the notion of life after death got started in the first place, in antiquity, was that people had NDEs. I think that that is part of the universal nature, our nature as human beings, and it seems likely to me that the way this notion of an afterlife came up was an attempt that people made to explain these experiences that people have.
As to how we get people to at least listen this, it’s difficult probably. For one thing, many people just don’t want to think about death. They kind of run away from it. I understand that very well in a way, I, too, run away from things. I’m not a very confrontive person. I tend to run away and turn away from conflicts, so I can understand the attitude, and yet I can also see very well that it’s not going to work.
You know, we are all in a situation where at some point we will die. Some people don’t want to think about it, and they run away, but it doesn’t work as a strategy because we all will have to face it.
The Question of the Afterlife Is Not Yet a Scientific One
My interest in this came about from the fact that I was a philosophy major in college. I wanted to be an astronomer as a child, and I went away to college with the idea of majoring in astronomy, but I also took a philosophy course, and then I decided in that course to study philosophy.
That was the situation where I first encountered this notion of an afterlife. I was about 18 years old, and it was very difficult for me. I understand how people can say; first of all, it’s illogical. Death just means the final irreversible sensation of life. So, when you say life after death, it’s a self-contradiction. That is to say, there is life after death is to say there is life after the final, irreversible sensation of life. It doesn’t make any sense.
Q: Why do you believe in the afterlife? I think some people say that there’s no evidence for it. What are the reasons why you believe in the afterlife?
A: Yes, well, first of all, about the comment that some people say there’s no evidence, I think they’re exactly right. That really the difficulty here is what would evidence of life after death be? You know that’s a very hard thing to understand. What kind of observation could we make that could give us evidence of an afterlife? I don’t think that’s possible. I think it’s too early in this particular inquiry to ask questions about what the evidence is. What we need to ask is the concept.
What do we mean by life after death anyway? To me the question of life after death is not yet a scientific question. It’s still a philosophical question. That is, there aren’t any clear, scientific experiments that could give us the answer, but I have had an experience about two years ago that has made me think that there is life after death, and so I should explain what happened.
A Doctor and Patient Story
About two years ago, I met a wonderful man who’s an artist, and he told me about his NDE, which happened while he was in a terrible car crash. He lost one leg in the car crash. His wife was killed. His son was killed. He wrote this up, and I encouraged him to publish it. My thought being that artists process things by creative activity, so I thought it would be a good thing for him to write this, so he did. And then about two weeks after the book was published, he called me and he said that when he was reading through his own book, he realized that he had mentioned the name of the doctor who saved his life, the trauma surgeon. And he, like many patients, who typically do not tell their doctors about this experience because they’re afraid their doctors will judge them or whatever, had not told the doctor. But then, when he realized that he mentioned the name of this doctor in the book, he thought, “The polite thing to do is at least to tell the doctor that this book is coming out.”
So, he contacted the doctor, and invited him to lunch, and when the doctor came, he told him of this NDE, whereupon the trauma surgeon became very solemn, and said, “Well, I haven’t told anybody this, but the night you came to the hospital, I knew you weren’t going to die,” because during the procedure in the operating room, the surgeon had felt that he was in contact with the patient’s dead wife.
So, at this point, I consciously felt myself trying to run away and to escape when I was trying to put that together because you know you can’t think of alternate explanations, but at a certain point, where does the plausibility lie? Is it plausible to say that at the same time the patient was having a NDE during the surgery due to the cut off of the oxygen flow to the brain that the doctor was having, what, a psychotic episode? You see, it’s possible, it’s possible, yes, but where is the plausibility here?
And based on all those things I’ve learned over the years, it now seems the most plausible thing to say to me is that yes, there is a life after death. Although I will also say that it’s still very counter-intuitive to me since I don’t have that idea in my background as a child, it’s a very difficult idea to accept. But in one way I think I’ve reached that point where it seems to me, the most plausible and intellectually honest thing to say is that, to my utter astonishment, there does seem to be life after death.
Q: Some people say that NDEs aren’t scientific because what you’re saying that it’s empirical evidence, it’s not like hard evidence that those scientists want. What do you think? Is NDE science to you?
A: No, it’s not. In 2014, the question of life after death is not yet a scientific question. The scientific method is not the method that we would use at this point in our investigation to analyze these questions.
The Scientific Method Is Not the Only Way of Establishing the Truth
I think it’s still a philosophical question. In the history of philosophy, what has always happened is that a question will remain in the philosophical realm for a long time, as it was in the West with Aristotle and motion, for example, as to how things move. And for say 2,000 years, essentially, or 1,900 years, people in the West thought that Aristotle’s reflections on motion were correct. But then, in the early 1600s, Galileo decided to set up an experiment and showed that Aristotle was not right, and that’s when physics became a science.
And I think where we are now with this question of life after death is sort of how we were before Galileo with respect to motion, that all we have now are philosophical statements and philosophical ideas, and perhaps in the future someone will come along, who figures out some way to make this scientific, but you know science has only been around for about 400 years.
The rational method of the Greeks goes back to time of Plato and Aristotle, you see, so there are other ways to investigate questions than science, and I think what happens is in the modern world, people get so enraptured or enchanted by the scientific method that they say that the scientific method is the only way of establishing the truth, but it’s not. There’s philosophy, there’s history, there’s logic and the law, and there are plenty of other methods of inquiry other than the scientific method.
Doubters Should Talk with Their Friends that Have Been Critically Ill
Q: What do you want to say to those who cannot believe in NDEs? Do you have any message to them?
A: Well, I would just say that I understand perfectly why some people don’t want to believe in NDEs. It’s because I understand that, too. To me, it’s very counter intuitive. It’s something that’s very hard to come to terms with, and what I would say is if they don’t have any interest in it, then I don’t see any reason why they should have to study it, right? It’s entirely someone’s option if they just don’t want to think about this, and I understand that point of view.
However, if somebody is, and tends to reject it or tends to think it’s not true, but at the same time, is at least interested enough to try to find out, I would think probably the best thing they can do is ask around among their own friends because this is so remarkably common as we know all over the world. I have been to Japan and had colleagues there, you know, and it’s the same thing as in the United States in terms of these experiences, so they’re very common. Probably the best thing for a doubter such as you describe is just to ask around among their own friends who have been critically ill and near death, and ask very sympathetically, because once you hear a few of these from somebody that you know already in another context and that you trust, then it becomes very much more difficult to explain them away, I think.
Q: You explained the reason why you believe in the afterlife. So, how about reincarnation, past lives, do you believe in them?
A: Well, first of all this may sound evasive, but you know before I went to medical school, I got a Ph.D. in philosophy. That was my initial career. Logic was my specialty in philosophy, and I know that people use that word “belief”, you know, they say, “I believe that there’s life after death.” To me, that’s not an accurate way of saying it.
I couldn’t really tell you that I believe it because as a logician, I see the term “I believe” as serving a very specific function. It doesn’t really describe what’s going on in here. When you say ‘I believe” that such and such, basically what you’re conveying to your audience is what degree of authority they can put on what you say based on your say so or your authority. So, I don’t put it in terms of belief.
Children that Can Remember Before They Came to Their Parents
What I would say is that I have heard things from my own children. They absolutely say that they remember before they came to us. Now I must explain here. I think it’s probably very easy to imagine that my wife and I sit around at home all the time talking about life after death and such, but that doesn’t happen. We, my wife and I, never talk about that subject.
We talk about how to help the kids with their homework, you know, like, “What’s on the television?”, “What’s for dinner?”, “What are we going to do about the report cards?”, and all these things. Plus, we don’t take these children to religious services. We’re not religious.
Actually, my wife and I have two adopted children, both adopted at birth. Carter is 16 years old now, and he is Mexican-American by heritage. We adopted him from Texas, and my 13 year old daughter is a Blackfeet Indian by heritage from Montana. But again, we adopted both of them at birth, and they just don’t get any religious talk in the family, and they don’t go to churches, and yet both of them related at a very early ages memories of how they had come to us.
My son Carter, who is now 16, when he was, some years ago, we were sitting on the bed watching television, and I was turning the channels by remote control, and when I passed through this one channel, my son Carter became very animated and said, “Dad, dad, that’s my village.” And I said, “What?” So, I turned it back, and it was a National Geographic Channel documentary about village life in China. And so my son can tell you to this day his memories about how before he came to us he had a family in China, and he’s fascinated with Chinese culture.
And similarly my little Blackfeet Indian daughter, one day just announced to me, “I was with God, and he pointed you out to me.” And God said, “You gotta go down to be his daughter,” and then she told a story.
Since I’ve had this, you will learn I think as you grow older, I’m 70 years old now, and I’ve watched these kids so closely it’s, in one way, it’s like I’m their grandfather because I pay so much attention to them and all… I know that they didn’t get that from us, you know, they’re reporting things that they recall.
So this has, yeah, brought me around to this idea that I don’t know whether I want to call it reincarnation, who knows, but yeah, the idea at least that we can re-live; we apparently live more than one lifetime.
Consciousness Comes First
Q: Do you think it’s like the memories of the soul instead of memories inside of the brain?
A: Yes I do, and you know I have never in my life been a physicalist. I love physics, by the way, and I love astronomy. I’ve always. You know, I keep up with all the latest information in astronomy and so on, and I love science, but to me, I think I’ve always, since I was a child, realized that consciousness comes first. Even as a child, I could be absolutely sure that I was conscious, but the extra-physical is always inference.
We’re always, whenever we think about physics, or about things in the external world, we’re always making an inference based on our consciousness, you see, and the reason I think there’s a table here is that I every time I come into this room I see it, you know, it seems to persist. And yet, deep down I realize that’s just a projection of my mind. So, to me consciousness comes first. Yes!
Q: Do you think ghosts exist?
A: Well, I never would have believed it until I saw it. Some years back, a friend of mine asked me to go to a haunting investigation with him in New Jersey, and I must confess just to be completely honest with you, I thought that I was going to go there to see very hysterical people. The man who took me arrived at these people’s house out in the middle of the woods in New Jersey, and they were somewhere else. He was to meet them to interview them, and I was to sit in this house all by myself until he came back with the people he had interviewed.
And I gotta confess, I saw something, and honesty is the best policy. If I said to you that I didn’t see anything, in a way that’s rather what I would say, because it’s embarrassing to have to admit, that yes, I can’t even describe what I saw. It was, you’re too young to remember, but when I was young, when you turned on the TV, sometimes you would see another channel sort of coming over the one channel. They stopped that now, but used you could get these interference things, and that’s sort of what it was like.
I saw this very difficult to describe kind of dark energy field that I could feel. So, I know those people saw something, and when they got back, and they told us what they had seen, it was exactly what I had seen. So, I don’t know what I saw, and I don’t know whether it was anything to do with somebody who had died, but it was very much like what people had thought of as a ghost.
So, I have to admit, yes, that I’ve seen that. I think that there’s phenomena there that deserves investigation, but I don’t know the answer. I don’t know.
Q: In today’s society, some people say that it’s taboo to talk about those experiences. What’s your opinion on this trend, not to discuss those things?
Many People Are Reluctant to Talk about Very Personal Experiences
A: Yeah, well, that goes up and down. I remember back in the late 60s and early 70s, when I was interviewing people who had had these NDEs, at that time people were very reluctant to talk about it. You know they, number one, were afraid that somebody would make fun of them, or criticize them, but I’m from the Deep South as I told you, and down south, we have a very similar thing that you do in Japan.
I know when I was a kid in the 1970s, a Japanese zipper maker came to Macon, Georgia where I lived, and Japanese people came there to run the factory, and what everybody observed was how beautifully the Japanese people fit into Macon, Georgia society because down in the south, you see, we understand very well that when somebody asks you a question, you’re not just supposed to say what you think, but rather, being a Southern, you first have to sort of try to figure out what you think that person wants to hear so that you can tell them because that’s what we regard as polite, right?
And so, many people used to be reluctant to talk about these things, and I think for several reasons. Number one, they were afraid that somebody else would think that they were crazy. And even another thing is that many people think that it’s just too personal to tell. They had a very personal experience that they’re not willing to share with others. I don’t know why some people are reluctant to talk about it other than those things.
What we saw in the United States is that once there was a lot of information related about this, then people who had had such experiences were more likely to talk about if they knew that other people had the same experience, but it’s very personal.
Q: Right, I think we have to share this experience. We have to examine if there are really NDEs, so what can we do? What are some ways to discuss things in the open?
A: Let’s see… well, you know I’ll tell you how I’d do it, and that is that I’d just say to people, “Look, I know you came very close. I understand you almost died, and I have interviewed 1,000s and 1,000s of people who have been through that experience, and I know that it’s very personal, but I would like to hear of your experience.”
To express interest, number one, that I’m interested in this, and I’m sympathetic to it, and that I have interviewed lots and lots of people who have had these experiences; those things do tend to reassure people. I hear from people all the time who have had these experiences because if you convey to them that you’re not going to criticize them or to think that they’re crazy, then by and large people are happy to talk about this.
It’s, I think, on the baseline level that most people do want to talk about important things. They may have inhibitions, but the primary urge, I think, of people is to talk about what’s happened to us and what’s important to us.
Q: Should the role of media be to let people talk openly?
A: That’s a good question. Back when I was a child in the United States, boys, for example, would never talk about their feelings, not even to another boy much less to a girl, right? And then, in the 1970s, talk shows got started in the United States, and for the first time, Americans could start talking about things that for generations they would only talk about privately or only keep to themselves. So, I saw that happen.
I have two sons who are grown now. One is 43 years old. He’s a medical doctor, and I have a 40-year-old son, who’s a Professor of Spanish and Italian, and I remember the change when they were young. They would have to have been 9, 10, 11, and 12. They would have their friends over, and of course, you could hear them talking in the other room. I was so amazed that American kids at that time started talking about their feelings openly.
When It Gets Public, Everybody Can Say, “Yes, It Happened to Me, Too”
So, I think in the United States, the media did a great job of making Americans more comfortable with talking about things that for generations and generations they just didn’t talk about. And that same thing happened to the NDE. I had interviewed so many people who had never told anybody else except me, and then once the book came out and so on, then people realized they weren’t alone.
I think that’s the most important thing because when people have an experience like this, they often assume that nobody else in the world would ever have heard of anything like this, but when it gets public, then everybody can say, “Ah, yes, it happened to me, too.”
By the way, can I give you a couple of references here?
One is my website, lifeafterlife.com and there’s a lot of material in there on it.
You also might look at the thing on there called, “Conversations with Eben Alexander”. That’s a very good one. Eben Alexander, do you know of him? He’s an American neurosurgeon, who had an amazing NDE.
Resuscitated Patients Routinely Report Near Death Experiences
And here’s another background information. The 5th most reputable medical journal in the United States is called “Missouri Medicine”, and they’ve been having an 18-month series of articles on NDEs. All of the articles are written by medical doctors either who have had such an experience or studied it.
I think that would give some good background for your question, too, because in the United States, at least, the medical community is now waking up to this, not necessarily because of its connection with life after death, but rather because it’s so common among patients that are resuscitated that it just seems reasonable that whatever these experiences are that doctors need to know about them because they happen so routinely to patients who have cardiac arrest.
Q: Why have doctors changed these days? Is it because many people started to talk about it?
Many Physicians Have Had These Experiences
A: That’s one thing, and another thing that’s happened is that a lot of doctors are having these experiences. There’s this wonderful man named Rajiv Parti, who is an American Anesthesiologist, and for a long time he was the Chief of Anesthesiology at the Bakersfield California Heart Hospital, and he had a phenomenal NDE that just changed his life. He was a very materialistic person who was also very competitive; always wanted the biggest house, the biggest car. It had a profound effect on him, and his book is coming out in the summer of 2016 in the United States.
There’s an amazing orthopedic surgeon. Her name is Mary Neal, who again had just a phenomenal NDE in Peru. She got trapped under a canoe for over an hour and was believed dead, but had this amazing experience. There are so many physicians now who’ve had these experiences, and who admit to it, that I think that’s one of the things that’s bringing the medical profession along because you can’t quite say to your colleague, you know, “Oh, that was a hallucination.”
Q: I think accepting life after death is a life changing experience.
A: It is.
Q: How does accepting life after death change a person’s view on life?
A: Well, there are four major after-effects of these NDEs, and the most common one is that people say that after this experience, that whatever they were chasing before, whether knowledge, power, fame, or money, that after this experience, they universally say that they learned from that experience that the most important thing we can do with our lives while we’re here is to learn how to love. That’s the primary one.
Conducting Our Lives in a Way to Become More Loving
Now I should also say that people say that it doesn’t make it any easier. I was a forensic psychiatrist, so I always like to say, that let’s face it, it’s very difficult to get through the average day without wanting to choke at least one person, right? We all have hostile impulses, and what people with these NDEs say is that when they come back, that’s still the same. We still have these thoughts, like saying things that you wish you hadn’t, but they genuinely try to conduct their lives in a way to become more loving. So, that’s one thing.
The second thing is people say that it absolutely eliminates the fear of death. That because their experience convinces them that what we call death is just a transition into another world.
The third after-effect and this is somewhat less frequent, but it does occur, is that sometimes people will say that their NDE inspired them to pursue knowledge. I’ve had quite a few people who had this experience and became so curious that after the experience, they went back to college or pursued some academic or scientific field just to satisfy their curiosity.
And the fourth thing is artistic inspiration. It’s statistically rare, you know, only a very small percentage, but when you talk to 1,000s and 1,000s of people, I’ve had probably a dozen cases over the years of people who say that prior to their NDEs, they had absolutely no interest in art, and after the experience, they were moved to become creative artists.
You’ve probably never come across the name Andy Lakey, but Andy was a man who had a NDE and came back as an artist. Actually the reason I’m bringing him up is that his art was very popular in Japan. A lot of people liked his art. My wife and I have one of his paintings.