Occam’s Disposable Razor

Since new books are kind of rare right now, I’m reading through some of those I’ve collected but haven’t actually read.  One is Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin.  I bought the book because the topic, as addressed by a university press book, is interesting.  Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin approach the subject as philosophers.  Their main focus is on the widely accessible and successful books by Eben Alexander and Todd Burpo.  Also the somewhat less well known efforts of Jeffrey Long and Pim van Lommel.  (Instead of taking up blog space with all these titles, just email me if you’re curious, or read my Goodreads post.)  Applying standard scientific methods to spiritual experiences isn’t easy, and Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are clear that they aren’t trying to take the value out of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), but rather they are challenging how these authors try to make them authentic.

Philosophers parse words finely.  The authors show that “real” is not the same thing as “authentic” and demonstrate how some of the more spectacular NDEs can possibly be explained by science.  Those who’d temporarily died might’ve caught onto things that happened just before or just after brain activity ceased or restarted, for example, and then misremembered them.  As a still-living guy who can’t remember where he left his wallet half the time, misremembering is an authentic reality.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Science and religion ask different questions.  One of the mainstays of scientific method is Occam’s Razor—the solution that requires the least mental gymnastics to explain something is the most likely to be true.  Many times this razor is flashed in the face of those trying to make a religious case for something.

Ironically, the authors here dismiss Occam’s Razor.  They state that sometimes the more complicated solution is the right one.  I happen to agree with them on this, but it proved a real distraction in reading the book.  Many scientists use the exact opposite argument against spiritual things.  It also struck me that a book so brief (less than 200 pages) would necessarily struggle to explain a complex phenomenon convincingly.  Trade books, such as those by Alexander and Burpo, aren’t meant to be held up to the stiff standards of peer review.  They are meant for selling lots of copies.  Their authors aren’t philosophers.  It’s almost a mismatch in categories.  Some academic presses are now publishing on NDEs and asking plenty of questions about them.  It’s no surprise that philosophers favoring physicalism would do the same.  It seems a little hairy, however, to do so with Occam left firmly in the shaving kit.


Beyond Science

The nature of reality is not easily parsed. As a society we are still under the spell of rationalism, that wonderful left-brain system that seems to explain everything. Until we break down in tears and don’t know why. Like the proverbial chicken-and-egg, reductionists say it all comes down to electro-chemical reactions in the brain, to which non-reductionists reply “believe that if you want to.” Knowledge and belief, belief and knowledge. The truth is nobody knows. So when I see Heaven on the cover of Newsweek, I can’t resist wondering what’s inside. Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard-educated neurosurgeon, has just written a book called Proof of Heaven. In the Newsweek article he explains how during a week-long coma he had the most vivid experience of his life. While his brain was shut down. It might be more accurate to say he had the most vivid experience of his afterlife.

The classic debate for Near Death Experiences—so common they have their own acronym, NDEs—revolves around timing. Reductionists say the thought could have happened very, very quickly, just as the brain was shutting down. We all know how dreams can feel like they last far longer than we’re asleep, and how vivid they are. Those who accept the reality of an afterlife argue that many of the classic symptoms such as seeing your own body from above, or being able to describe in detail what was happening in another room at the time, count as evidence. It is the problem of the occasional phenomenon again. This is something no lab can measure, but it happens just often enough to make you wonder. The shaman might say, along with Inception, that the dream is the reality. That might explain why so much of “real life” is unpleasant.

As comfortable as the belief that reality is solid, material, quantifiable, may be, it does not count for the totality of human experience. Alexander’s heaven may not be the same as mine. Reality may not be one. Maybe Occam was wrong. Reading about shamans over the past couple of weeks, it became clear that some believe humans have more than one soul. (I can hear the reductionists rumbling—one soul is already too many!) Some cultures recognize as many as seven souls in a single individual. These, they suggest, account for the uncanny experiences of human life. Why do some people see ghosts and why are dreams so vivid and how does faith healing work? Reductionism calls them all illusions, tricks of the brain. Until his coma Dr. Alexander would have agreed. Now the newsstands suggest a different paradigm may be emerging. Dare we believe that the truth is out there?