Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Near death experiences and evidence in support of the theory of life after death

A recent edition of the Unbelievable radio show (on 6th December 2014) looked at near death experiences and out of body experiences. Unusually, for the Unbelievable show, there was no Christian guest on the show. This made the discussion and debate somewhat different from usual, in that there was no defence of the Christian viewpoint in the show. And there was no anti-apologetic either.

The show featured Eben Alexander, a former non-believing neurosurgeon who had a "near death experience" (NDE) while in a coma and has written a couple of books about it. The experience has convinced him that consciousness does not require a functioning brain to exist in, that is, that the conscious mind will exist after the brain ceases to function. In other words, the experience has led him to believe in life after death. But he isn't a Christian. 

Also on the show was sceptical psychologist Jane Aspell, who thinks that Alexander's experience was purely a creation of the mind, and not evidence of consciousness outside the brain. Aspell contends that Alexander's 'journey' was, essentially, a creation of his subconscious mind as he was coming out of coma, not an experience he had during the time he had "no brain function".

Apparently (according to Eben), the visions he had must have coincided with the time he had "no brain function" because the vision included six people who were there when he was in the coma, and who weren't there at a later stage. Well, actually, only five of the six were there during his coma, the sixth wasn't there, but is apparently relevant, for some reason not explained in the show. I'm afraid this sounds a bit like special pleading. A vision of six people which supposedly corresponds to a visit of five of them doesn't sound like great evidence. Maybe it is, but Eben's response to questioning on this issue was "buy my book, I've discussed all the evidence there", which doesn't make for great debate.

So the discussion was inconclusive. Alexander had a vision, but didn't manage to persuade the audience that it had to have been during his "no brain function" period, so the jury has to be still out on that one. Meanwhile Aspell's explanation for the whole thing sounds compelling and really quite reasonable.

Also on the show was Graham Nicholls, an out of body experience (OBE) researcher who claims to have been having out of body experiences all his life. He is also not a Christian. He gave some hand waving examples of 'real' out of body experiences he has had, but came across as quite a credulous chap. Basically, willing to believe almost any story of 'evidence' that is presented to him.

What he (and Alexander) seem to think is that evidence which is consistent with a hypothesis necessarily lends support to that hypothesis. For example, Nicholls' remote viewing of a cathedral in Tallinn (I think that's where it was) was taken by him as 'proof' that OBEs are real.

The issue is that this is only half of the rigorous scientific method. In order to count as 'evidence' for any given hypothesis, an event or observation must also count as evidence against any and all rival hypotheses. If an observation is equally consistent with all possible hypotheses, then it lends no weight to any of them. This is the essence of Bayes's Theorem, which I've blogged about before.

In other words, if someone claims to have had an OBE, the story of their experience only counts as evidence if it contains elements which are inexplicable by 'natural' explanations. In Nicholls's story of the OBE involving Tallinn cathedral, the 'observation' of the scaffolding on the hidden side of the cathedral could only count as evidence in favour of OBE if there was no physical way that Nicholls could have seen the scaffolding before, and no way that anyone could have mentioned it, and no way he could have seen something about it on TV or the internet, etc. Given that it is almost impossible to prove that one doesn't know something, or didn't know about it before a given point in time, this hardly counts as evidence.

The possibilities in this case are (a) that Nicholls had a genuine OBE, and therefore OBEs are real, or (b) that Nicholls hallucinated the whole thing, possibly based on things that he 'knew' prior to the hallucination (perhaps he only knew these subconsciously), or (c) that Nicholls is an intentional fraudster. Note that neither (b) nor (c) entails that OBEs are either true or false.

The 'evidence' of the story as presented in the Unbelievable show is entirely consistent with all three hypotheses, so really counts as evidence in favour of none of them. Given that we have quite a lot of other evidence for people being fraudsters or deluded, but limited evidence in favour of OBEs, our reasonable conclusion cannot be in favour of the existence of OBEs based on this. Maybe other evidence will present itself, but certainly nothing presented in this radio show was strong enough to give support to the OBE hypothesis.

No evidence is not proof against any theory. No evidence is simply no evidence.

Finally, I have to comment about the flawed reasoning behind the premise of the show. It seemed to be taken as read that evidence of out of body experiences, or brain activity during the "no brain function" period, or other 'near death' experiences would in some way count as evidence for the possibility of life after death. Why should this be? The thing is that NDEs are always recounted by people who return to conscious life after the experience, similarly with OBEs, the people telling the stories are always back in their own bodies and clearly not dead. The conscious mind is always tied to the body which it inhabited before the experience. We know nothing, precisely nothing, about what happens once the link between conscious mind and living body is actually severed. Maybe the conscious mind can continue (somehow) after this, maybe not, but as far as I know, we have no way of investigating this. Well, not by talking to the living anyway...

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Faith is extrapolation...

I started writing this post ages ago, following an Unbelievable show featuring Peter Boghossian and Tim McGrew. It languished in a semi-finished state for a few months. I thought I may as well finish it and post it now. Apologies if it seems half-baked. It probably is.

I'm not going to say too much about that show as it was simply annoying, Boghossian (the atheist) grinding his axe the whole time, while McGraw repeatedly pointed out that it wasn't an axe, it was something else. Or something. Anyway, the discussion was fairly pointless, as it never really got beyond a dispute about what the word 'Faith' actually means.

Boghossian asserted (without evidence) that faith really means "believing something even though it is not supported by evidence"and "pretending to know things you don't know".

McGrew pointed out that the dictionary definition was more along the lines of absolute trust, and made a few examples of faith that is basically putting your trust in something where you have no control of the outcome, but choose to trust someone or something; for example taking a parachute jump - you trust the guy who packed the parachute, with your life... you get the idea.

Anyway, I don't think that the majority of believers use the word 'faith' the way that Boghossian claims, but neither do I think that believers generally use the word the way that McGrew claims either. The truth is somewhere in the grey area in between.

So what is faith? Or rather, what is religious faith? 

I'm currently putting my faith in the chair that I'm sitting on. But that doesn't tell me much about religious faith. When I go to the dentist I put my faith in his ability to detect decay in my teeth, and occasionally have to put faith in his ability to fix the decayed bits. But that doesn't tell me much about religious faith either. One of the problems here is that we have the same word used in different contexts and there are nuances to the word that we miss if we assume it means exactly the same in all instances. It doesn't.

"Faith", without a given object of faith is not a useful concept to debate. If someone says "I have faith" or "I'm a person of faith" it means nothing without saying what it is they have faith in. Even saying "I have faith in God" doesn't help much, because to understand your meaning for that phrase, I have to understand your concept of God, or more importantly, your interpretation of what your God has apparently promised to do.

Most of the Christians I know (so we're talking about British evangelicals, for the most part) use the word faith to mean something like this:
In situations where I do not know what the outcome will be, I will act in a way consistent with my past experience and my understanding of what the biblical promises say the outcome will be.
That is, the believer essentially extrapolates from their understanding of the bible and their understanding of reality and, if exercising faith, will behave as if this extrapolation is true.

Of course, a good many Christians would omit 'past experience' and 'reality' from that if you asked them. The promises of the bible should trump experience. In theory, given enough faith, they can move mountains or walk on water - the bible explicitly says that they can do this - but experience and reality tend to temper those biblical principles, so nobody really expects mountains to fall into the sea if commanded to do so.

So its not a question of believing without evidence, its a question of deciding to take a particular course of action, when there is no evidence (or, perhaps, when the evidence is not known by the person taking the 'leap of faith').

Occasionally Christians use the word faith to mean this:
I will obey the commands of scripture, as I understand them, even though my past experience and understanding of the situation would suggest that this isn't the best course of action, from a human perspective.
This is, of course, what most Christians mean by living by faith, even if few Christians actually exercise this kind of faith regularly. Note that this version of faith doesn't claim to know anything without evidence, it just seeks to trust a promise of God more than an expectation. And even if the expected outcome happens, and the action leads to loss of respect, loss of money, or loss of something else, the Christian may still feel that it was the right thing to do because God may be at work in some hidden way.

Problems arise for the believer when evidence or experience suggests an outcome that is contrary to biblical promises and there is no divine hidden agenda apparent. I guess this is most apparent in the 'snake handling' churches in the USA. Mark 16v17-18 says:
"And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."
So there are some minority churches who practice handling poisonous snakes as part of their church services. And you know what, most of the time, the snakes do not bite the people. And sometimes when a snake bites a person, they don't die. All of this confirms the promise of scripture. Of course, occasionally someone is bitten and they do die - does this disconfirm the promise of scripture? No. It shows that the person who died didn't have enough faith! And so the snake handling continues.

Here its easy for a person with even a vague understanding of snake behaviour, venom toxicity and probability to realise that when you do all the calculations, there's pretty good odds of survival from handling a poisonous snake. Faith doesn't need to come into it at all. I've commented on this before. For the believer, there is no negative feedback loop (here and here). Failed promises are explained away or reinterpreted. But if this happens again, and again, and again, then the honest believer will end up having to question the promises. When the evidence consistently goes against the faith, then faith will begin to erode. Of course, probabilistically speaking, faith will sometimes be validated and sometimes not. It really comes down to how often faith 'gets lucky'.

The thing is, faith works. I know plenty of folk who live 'by faith' and get by just fine. Along the way, some of them have experienced some very fortuitous situations, and their faith is boosted. But even to those who didn't get unexpected windfalls of cash at "just the right moment", living by faith seems to work. I'm just not sure that there needs to be a God behind it, sending 'good luck' at all the right moments. When you consider every fortuitous event as a blessing and every hardship as character building and a challenge, the net effect is a faith boost and a confirmation that living by faith is the right thing to do. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The package deal of faith

I seem to have heard or read a few discussions / debates / articles touching on the subject of "what is faith?" recently. Generally, atheist types claim that faith means something like "claiming to know things you don't know", while Christians tend to emphasise the role of evidence and reason in faith.

I've found myself thinking recently that 'faith' is more of a kind of package deal than most Christians (and probably most atheists too) actually realise. Christian faith (and I guess this applies to other religions too, but I'm just talking about the belief system I have been part of) contains beliefs about many different things which all seem to come lumped together into the package of faith. Some of the individual beliefs are things for which there is (or may be) evidence. But there is no evidence at all for others, those must be taken 'on faith'. What I have noticed in the various debates, etc., that I have been reading and hearing is that Christians (generally) don't seem to notice that there are different categories of belief within faith. Just because some aspects of faith can be evidence based, it doesn't follow that all aspects of faith can be evidence based.

Here is a list of ten (randomly selected) beliefs that form part of the faith of most Christians that I know (different beliefs are available within what some define as Christianity, but lets not go there just now):
  1. Jesus Christ is the Son of God
  2. Jesus was crucified and died
  3. Jesus was bodily resurrected
  4. Jesus is now (physically, in a body) in heaven
  5. Jesus is part of the everlasting Trinity
  6. Jesus was the agent through whom the universe was created
  7. Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to his followers; you can experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit today
  8. Followers of Jesus will go to heaven after they die
  9. Those who don't follow Jesus will go to hell after they die 
  10. Jesus acts in the world today to heal people, transform lives and do other miraculous things
I would argue that most of that list is a package deal. As a teenager I was already a believer in a few of those points (by upbringing), but it was when I came to believe in 10 and 7, on the basis of evidence, that I finally decided to become a Christian. I casually accepted the rest of the package without much scrutiny, it all just came as part of a package - if 2, 3, 7 and 10 were all true then (I assumed) 1, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 must also be true.

It was only a few decades later that I came to question individual beliefs in isolation and realised that there are no good reasons for believing most of the things that are part of Christian faith.

Looking back at that list, I now realise that, for example, item 2 is a matter of history. Given sufficient historical data it would be possible to confirm this belief. (I'm not going to get into the issue of whether or not there is sufficient data in this post.)

Item 7 is a different matter. This is something which is, or should be, testable in the present day. Experience should provide evidence to support or deny this claim. And I think there is evidence to support this claim (whether the same evidence also supports alternative beliefs is a different question, which I will address in the next post). Item 10 is much like it, although with an unseen causality chain built in. Someone's life being transformed is not necessarily evidence that the transformation was due to some action by Jesus.

But there can be no evidence to allow us to decide on the truth of claims 4, 5, 6, 8 or 9. Not just that there is no evidence, but there actually can be no evidence. These are articles of pure faith. Which have to be either accepted or rejected with no evidence. It is impossible, literally impossible, for us to know what will happen in the future. We have precisely no data on what happens to people after they die (note: Near death experiences don't count; I'll be addressing them in another post soon). You believe this as part of a package deal, or you don't. That's it. Future prophecies are unconfirmed, by their very nature, and thus don't provide evidence for anything. What happens after death must be taken entirely on faith.

What happened at the origin of all things is also something that is forever beyond our reach. There is no contemporary evidence that can prove, one way or another, whether any god was involved in the initiation of our universe, let alone give us any evidence as to which god it was. Again, belief in any creation or creator is a purely faith based position.

For the Christian, the only 'evidence' for the majority of claims made as part of the Christian faith is the words of the bible. "The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" as the saying goes.

I'm afraid that, for me, that doesn't settle it anymore. When I came to realise that some things in the bible were outright fiction and some biblical prophecies have (demonstrably) failed to come true, I had to give up on a bible-based faith. It took a long time (best part of a decade) for me to work through the implications of that realisation. But finally the package deal fell apart and I realised that most of what I had been taught to believe was based on false premises. One by one I have had to reassess and give up on my old beliefs. I'm afraid not much is left.

So where do you go without faith? Well, onward into the unknown. What I found when I lost the certainty that comes with faith, was that the uncertainty left behind leads to all the same places. The same sun shines down, the same rain falls, just as many bad things happen, just as many good things happen, I 'get lucky' just as often, and oddly enough all this is quite comforting. There's a big unknown 'final frontier' out there. Might as well boldly go where no-one has gone before...