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Traditionally, the contributors to the study of near-death experiences have broken into two groups, some endorsing the Afterlife Hypothesis and others defending the Dying Brain Hypothesis.   The question is whether the dualist-based Afterlife Hypothesis can ever win over the more materialist-based Dying Brian Hypothesis.  Unfortunately, it is very difficult to make a case for it.  The argument that relies on psychic explanations may hurt more than it can help.  But, not all is lost in this debate.

What do these two positions say about NDEs?  According to the afterlife hypothesis, NDEs are a glimpse into life beyond death.  Basically, conscious experiences continue after the demise of the body.  NDEs are these conscious experiences that are remembered as part of an integral history of the total experiences of the individual.  This hypothesis treats NDEs as actual, “real” experiences outside the physical world.  The dying brain hypothesis interprets NDEs differently.  According to the dying brain hypothesis, NDEs can be accounted for by the dying process itself that takes place in the brain.  NDEs are caused by the biological and psychological processes that go on in the brain.  It means that these experiences can be accounted for by the biological changes, psychological stress, socio-cultural influences or, the combinations of these factors.  This hypothesis does not treat NDEs as actual, “real” experiences outside of the physical process.

Why is it so difficult to make a case for the Afterlife Hypothesis? The studies have inspired some scientific-minded researchers to come up with a materialist explanation of NDEs, supporting the dying brain hypothesis.  The explanation is very believable in the minds of many experts.  They suggested a number of possible physiological causes for NDEs: hypoxia, hypercarbia, endorphins, ketamine and temporal lobe seizure.  They also cited a number of possible psychological causes: reliving birth trauma, depersonalization, fantasy proneness and cultural influences.  Basically, any numbers of alternative explanations are possible.

Why do psychic explanation hurt more than they can help?  If extrasensory perception is a contender for an explanation in case of NDEs, the person does not have to operate apart from the brain and outside of the body.  The entire experience could be the result of telepathy; the acquisition of information from another person outside the use of the five human senses; or the result of clairvoyance; the acquisition of information about an object outside the use of the five human senses.  Or, the person could gain information as the result of precognition or post-cognition, the acquisition of information about an event outside of the use of human senses; information, which will take place in the future or which took place in the past.  None of these psychic alternatives require that a person be outside of the body and operate outside of the brain.  If the brain possesses these psychic powers, survival of death is not necessary.  Therefore, a psychic explanation does not make a case for survival of death.  In fact, it helps the defenders of the Dying Brain Hypothesis simply by giving them an extra argument for a special power the brain may possess.

There is only one thing to ask the defenders of the Dying Brain Hypothesis at this point.  If the brain possesses psychic powers, what does this say about the nature of the brain and the nature of matter itself?  Can a person be a real materialist, if he admits to these special powers?  What does materialism mean at this point?  What is matter itself?  If matter has psychic powers, is not matter a form of consciousness?  If it is, then, isn’t it possible that consciousness always remains and it is indestructible?  So, is there a life after death in some form, after all?

There are some questions to think about.  The presence of psychic powers may not help the case of the Afterlife Hypothesis directly, but it certainly weakens the traditional understanding of matter and the brain.

M. J. Mandoki