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Ask An Atheist: After death experiences

Ghost photo by Yosomono/Flickr

Ask An Atheist: After death experiences


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By Jim Downard 

I’m an atheist, but I would like to know how to justify the claims of people who have died and came back to life, and they saw heaven, and their loved ones, etc. Also, how can i explain all those paranormal sightings, even those caught on camera.

Survival of bodily death, spirits, ghosts, reincarnation — these are part of our human history, but with some important caveats. People tend to channel their experiences into their expected frame. Thoughts of heaven tend to show up in cultures that believe in heaven; experiences of reincarnation tend to come from peoples who believe in reincarnation. That means it is very difficult to tease out what may actually be “real” about the experiences, especially in drawing inferences of survival of bodily death.

I have some close religious relatives who swear they lived in a haunted house, even to seeing an occasional vague figure floating in a corner. I have no reason to doubt the reality of their experiences, even as I remain unconvinced that their house actually was haunted. Identifying exactly what cognitive properties may have been in play to cause my relations to independently perceive “something” is at the moment beyond the range of the technology or my utility of it. It can be argued that a cognitive architecture that could generate such experiences naturally may be considerably more interesting than the idea that some smudgy spirit hung around in the upper corners of a bedroom for awhile without much of anything happening in the end.

As for survival, there is some scientific work that suggests the brain keeps doing a lot of things even as death is occurring. To what extent that lies at the root of Near Death Experiences (white light tunnels, communing with loved ones or whatever gods you happen to believe in) is unclear, but suggestive that there may be a natural phenomenon involved. Remember, we do not experience “reality” directly, like some recording camera, but instead perceive a “reality” constructed by our brains (the process is more directly surreal in our dreams, an experiential frame our ancestors couldn’t have helped mistaking for insights into a spiritual realm). That the perception of our waking state usually bears a close resemblance to the external world is understandable, since an organism stuck in an inaccurate matrix simulation is likely to have become extinct, most likely as something else’s dinner.

I have written some on the topic of why I find the existence of an incorporeal spirit scientifically implausible (“Dr. Doolittle in the Cartesian Theater” ) but if evidence should emerge that causes a revision of that view, so be it. As I’ve previously remarked in postings here on SpokaneFāVS, nothing in an atheist worldview presupposes that incorporeal spirits can’t exist, so even in a godless system that could still go on. Conversely, a god or extradimensional entity could supply a survival mode even if we don’t have a spirit internally that floats off after death on its own.

I’m not at all sure there are any solidly convincing instances of genuinely paranormal sightings caught on camera, though. As far as I have seen, the most impressive ghost sightings are the ones shown in movies, where the special effects department can make up for the limits of reality. The stray noises and thumps recorded on ghost hunter shows leave much to be desired (are ghosts really that ineffectual or boring?). This has been a problem of long standing, by the way, as attempts to scientifically investigate spiritualism in the 19th and 20th centuries fell prey to wishful thinking and self-fulfilling expectations. Self-deception and credulity haven’t gone away in the age of digital.

So that’s where things stand for me. No clear cut answers because, so far, the data ain’t particularly clear cut.

Jim Downard

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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