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The question in the title, although meant to be general, is mainly motivated by a specific type of Near-Death Experience (NDE) that currently perplexes me. Specifically, I am referring to NDEs recounted by individuals blind from birth who claim to have had experiences resembling 20/20 vision. This topic is discussed in detail in a journal article titled Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind: A Study of Apparent Eyeless Vision, Kenneth Ring, Ph.D. Sharon Cooper, M.A. University of Connecticut. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 16(2) Winter 1997. 1997 Human Sciences Press, Inc.

In the article, the authors put forward Eyeless Vision and Transcendental Awareness as their most reasonable explanation for these sorts of cases, after having eliminated one by one four candidate naturalistic hypotheses, namely, (1) the Dream Hypothesis, (2) Retrospective Reconstruction, (3) Blindsight, and (4) Skin-based Vision.

The Abstract:

ABSTRACT: This article reports the results of an investigation into near death and out-of-body experiences in 31 blind respondents. The study sought to address three main questions: (1) whether blind individuals have near death experiences (NDEs) and, if so, whether they are the same as or different from those of sighted persons; (2) whether blind persons ever claim to see during NDEs and out-of-body experiences (OBEs); and (3) if such claims are made, whether they can ever be corroborated by reference to in dependent evidence. Our findings revealed that blind persons, including those blind from birth, do report classic NDEs of the kind common to sighted persons; that the great preponderance of blind persons claim to see during NDEs and OBEs; and that occasionally claims of visually-based knowledge that could not have been obtained by normal means can be independently corroborated. We present and evaluate various explanations of these findings before arriving at an interpretation based on the concept of transcendental awareness.

The authors add:

An Assessment of the Evidence for Alternative Explanations

Our search for a non-retinal-based mechanism that could in principle account for the results of this study and thus demonstrate that vision in the blind is indeed only apparent and not actual has considered theories and data relating to dreams, retrospective reconstruction, blindsight, and skin-based vision, and has come up empty. Of course, it would be absurd to claim that we have exhausted the list of naturalistic or conventional possibilities or eliminated all conceivable artifacts, but we believe we have ruled out some of the most obvious candidates for explanatory honors. At the very least, we have perhaps managed to cast some doubt on the tenability of this type of explanation for our findings, and consequently increased the likelihood that however they might be accounted for, we would do best to seek elsewhere for our answers.

And also:

Theories of Transcendental Awareness

When confronted with the evidence for transcendental awareness we have presented in this paper, both from our own study and from the research of others, it is obvious that the generally accepted theories of human perception and cognition that derive from mainstream science will not, without some extraordinary extrapolations, be able to account for such findings. If, however, we turn instead to some recent theoretical developments in New Paradigm Science we can quickly discern the shape of the explanation we need to seek.

In recent years, a number of thinkers, influenced by developments in modern physics, have elaborated a variety of theories of consciousness which, despite their somewhat different basic postulates, all either predict or imply that blind persons should be able to have something like visual perception during NDEs and OBEs. In addition, all of these theories explicitly address the phenomenon of the NDE in general and also posit the existence of a state of consciousness that corresponds to what we have called here transcendental awareness. Among such formulations are Kenneth Arnette's "Theory of Essence" (Arnette, 1992, 1995a, 1995b), Larry's Dossey's "Nonlocality Theory of Consciousness" (Dossey, 1989), Amit Goswami's "Quantum Theory of Consciousness" (Goswami, 1993, 1994), Michael Talbot's "Holographic Theory of Consciousness" (Talbot, 1991), and Jenny Wade's "Holonomic Theory of Consciousness" (Wade, 1996).

Are we justified in exploring explanations that go beyond conventional physics and naturalism when all known physicalistic/naturalistic explanations appear to be inadequate?


BONUS: For those who are curious and have some time to spare, you can watch a 33-minute video here featuring an interview with one of these blind-from-birth NDEers (title: Vicki Noratuk Blind Person NDE). This case is quite impressive, and is actually referenced by the aforementioned journal article (Disclaimer: the YouTube channel hosting the video has an evident religious bias).

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    I'm not sure from the excerpts you included that anything supernatural is being postulated here. transcendental awareness is presumably a natural phenomenon, although probably not a physical or material one. Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 9:35
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    @DavidGudeman How can something not be physical/material and yet natural at the same time?
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 15:52
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    See the answer titled "Naturalism does not presuppose materialism" here: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/2406/… (the accepted answer is wrong). Materialism is more restrictive than naturalism, it holds that only the physical world exists, that there are no minds or other non-material substances. Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 18:33
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    Weren't you just telling me that I can't use my own definition of something because it's dishonest? In any case, it doesn't matter whether a non-materialist naturalism is possible or not; they are different claims. Naturalism is the claim that there is nothing supernatural. Materialism is the claim that everything is material. The first answer was wrong. Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 6:03
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    @NotThatGuy, are you saying that you find it incoherent that mind might be a natural event that has no material properties like mass and volume? Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 8:54

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The answer is “no”, as you are misrepresenting what the alternatives are.

None of the alternate science you list is supernatural. It is subject to reasoning, as demonstrated by the theories proposed being THEORIES! It is subject to prediction forming, as your paper demonstrates, and therefore it is testable.

Natural/supernatural is a dichotomy in epistemology. Something natural is subject to human investigation and understanding. Something supernatural is beyond one or both of our ability to investigate or understand, hence our epistemology has to resort to alternative means to evaluate the claim.

Asserting a subject or question is supernatural is a very strong claim, and I at least demand an asserter back this claim up with significant justification.

Rather than natural/supernatural, what you seem to be interested in is whether alternatives to materialism can be supported by parapsychic experiments and observations. The short answer is “yes, obviously”! That is why materialists are so motivated to dismiss all parapsychology data!

In general, no single observation, or experiment, or even large collection of observations or experiments are sufficient to overturn a worldview. As Quine pointed out, all worldviews are infinitely amendable to be compatible with every possible observation. What one must do to justify rejecting a worldview is to satisfy Lakatos’ “regressive research programme” criteria to show a worldview has accumulated a large and growing number of ad hoc and predictively useless patches to accommodate potential falsifications across several subject areas.

This is actually the case with parapsychology, as there is substantive evidence for telepathy, telekinesis, remote viewing, past life memories, etc, including of course your example of anomalous knowledge gained during NDEs, and materialism is in conflict with all of this evidence set. Here is a summary of the state of the evidence from an AAAS member society: https://parapsych.org/articles/36/55/what_is_the_stateoftheevidence.aspx

Materialism has multiple other problems, as it is also challenged by all experienced qualia, all abstract objects, all values and agency, and by physics having shown it to be false over a century ago when Einstein demonstrated that matter was not fundamental.

So, given the multiple problems with materialism, and the large evidence set for various parapsychic phenomenon, the evidence for blind seeing you cite IS a reason to consider alternative physics theories. But it would be only one small application of these alternate physics, and they each will make some pretty strong predictions that are testable, and testing those predictions would provide far stronger support for those physics theories.

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Are we justified in exploring explanations that go beyond conventional physics and naturalism when all known physicalistic/naturalistic explanations appear to be inadequate?

Yes.

But the key words are "exploring" and "known explanations".

The issue is not that people "explore" supernatural explanations. It's that they say e.g. "we can't find a natural explanation, so it must've been a ghost", which is an argument from ignorance. There is no direct evidence for the supernatural, and people commonly accept supernatural explanations with a far lower burden of proof than what they require to accept a natural explanation above the supernatural (which is the exact opposite of the rational approach).

As for increasing our credence: if we have a plausible and evidence-based natural explanation, any different explanation (supernatural or not) would have lower credence, until it has better evidentiary support. But this wouldn't raise a supernatural explanation to a point where it would be justified to accept it, at least not based on our experiences of reality thus far, and assuming the person in question has a relatively firm grasp of reality (i.e. not someone experiencing vivid hallucinations on a daily basis).

About that article...

I had a brief at the article.

As they note, corroborating evidence is needed to rule out hallucinations, so I focused on the section where they address that.

For that purpose, they present 2 cases (already far too little for a meaningful scientific result). One case, as they say, was "inconclusive", and the other case involved a woman seeing her father and partner across the hall, and this was corroborated by her partner, but these interviews took place years after the fact. It's not unreasonable that she could've interpolated these details (if she knew both were there, it's not unreasonable for her to have a vision where she sees both). But even without that, we know memory is far too malleable to trust that their accounts didn't change to be more closely aligned in response to them discussing the event with one another.

The authors also "confidently reject" the dream hypothesis on the basis that participants said these experiences they had were different from their normal dreams (as if it would be particularly strange for experiences on the edge of death to be different from normal everyday experiences). And they reject a retrospective reconstruction because it's inconsistent with otherworldly visions (as if a combination of factors isn't possible) and because there's no direct evidence of it (as if that is inherently a much less plausible hypothesis than magic vision, and as if the latter should be the default position, as opposed to the inverse).

It's just not good science.

I was curious who actually published this (not that reputable journals never publish bad science). I found that the lead author of the paper is also the founder and chief editor of the journal in which the paper was published. That alone should raise all sorts of red flags. Also, the publisher of the journal is the International Association for Near-Death Studies, which was founded by... guess who? Tom Cruise. No, just kidding, it was also founded by the author of the paper.

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For thousands of years humans had 'increased credence' in any number of supernatural explanations which were subsequently shown to be misguided when more natural explanations were found. The constellations were supposed to be gods. Disturbed people were possessed by demons. The Earth was created in seven days. Lightning was the anger of the gods. And so on and so on. Clearly the absence of a natural explanation- even a persisting absence- is not a reliable indicator that a supernatural explanation is the right candidate to back.

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