I love science. Like many young boys, I was probably enticed to science through science fiction. While I didn’t follow science to a career, I used it to study religious texts. Those who’ve never undertaken the challenge of trying to figure out what something written thousands of years ago—on clay!—really says may be surprised to learn just how much science is involved. Nevertheless, as comforting as reductionism may be, something just doesn’t feel right about it. Science is how we explain and understand our world, and it does a spectacular job of it. The problem arises when science becomes what Stephen Jay Gould called a “magisterium.” Magisteria have all the answers. Yes, science explains how matter and energy work and interact, but it has yet to explain satisfactorily what it feels like. Most days I feel like the person I’ve become accustomed to show to the world. That person is very much like every other—being born, eating, breathing, dying. Medical science can explain most of it, but what about the parts it can’t?
I just finished reading Ornella Corazza’s Near-Death Experiences: Exploring the Mind-Body Connection. I remember when the craze about this hit in 1981 with the release of the movie Life After Life. I was fascinated and terrified by it. Since a materialistic view of science dismisses anything that has the residue of spirits or souls, the phenomenon of the resuscitated dead reporting seeing their bodies from above, shooting through tunnels into the light, and sometimes meeting the dead (or God), were explained as last nano-second hallucinations as the brain prepared to shut down or reboot (upon resuscitation). That’s that. The answer, however, didn’t satisfy everyone. What about those cases where the dead person reported, in detail, what happened in other rooms, or things they couldn’t have seen in their own room, had they been conscious? Corazza takes these considerations seriously and tries to understand what may be going on. Obviously, her explorations will not convince a reductionist, but they may give pause to some of us.
What makes her approach so interesting is that Corazza takes into account an alternative way of looking at consciousness. While the facts of science are, by definition, universal, the contexts within which those facts are viewed are not. Having spent considerable time with Japanese scientists exploring consciousness, eastern ideas of the body inform her research. In the western world we have an easy familiarity with the Cartesian dualism of body and soul that does not fit into other worldviews. Corazza takes the interesting step of asking what if we apply an eastern paradigm of the body (one that understands soul as body, and not just in a materialistic sense) and apply it to the question of Near Death Experiences. The results are mind-stretching. I feel as if my consciousness got up from months of laziness and ran a marathon (or at least a 5-K). It’s a bit winded and parts of it are starting to ache a little. No reductionists need worry, however, because in that worldview none of this exists.