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Should reports of out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and near-death experiences (NDEs) increase our epistemic probability of non-physicalist views of consciousness? In other words, should we judge non-physicalist views of consciousness to be more probable in light of this evidence than sans this evidence?

More formally, is it the case that:

P(non-physicalism|OBEs & NDEs) > P(non-physicalism|no OBEs & no NDEs)?

To provide additional food for thought, one book that attempts to make this sort of case is Transcendent Mind: Rethinking the Science of Consciousness, by Imants Barušs & Julia Mossbridge:

Everyone knows that consciousness resides in the brain. Or does it? In this book, Imants Barušs and Julia Mossbridge utilize findings from quantum mechanics, special relativity, philosophy, and paranormal psychology to build a rigorous, scientific investigation into the origins and nature of human consciousness. Along the way, they examine the scientific literature on concepts such as mediumship, out-of-body and near-death experiences, telekinesis, “apparent” vs. “deep time,” and mind-to-mind communication, and introduce eye-opening ideas about our shared reality. The result is a revelatory tour of the “post-materialist” world—and a roadmap for consciousness research in the twenty-first century.


Other books making a similar case include:

Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences, by Jeffrey Long, Paul Perry.

“There is currently more scientific evidence to the reality of near death experience (NDE) than there is for how to effectively treat certain forms of cancer,” states radiation oncologist Dr. Jeffrey Long is his groundbreaking new book Evidence of the Afterlife. In 1998 Dr. Long and his wife, Jody, began the Near Death Experience Research Foundation with the goal of creating a forum for near death “experiencers” to share their stories. Grounded in first-hand evidence culled from over 1,600 verified NDE accounts, Evidence of the Afterlife presents the strongest argument yet for the underlying truth of those who have died and returned to share their tales.

After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond, by Bruce Greyson M.D.:

The world's leading expert on near-death experiences reveals his journey toward rethinking the nature of death, life, and the continuity of consciousness.

Cases of remarkable experiences on the threshold of death have been reported since ancient times, and are described today by 10% of people whose hearts stop. The medical world has generally ignored these “near-death experiences,” dismissing them as “tricks of the brain” or wishful thinking. But after his patients started describing events that he could not just sweep under the rug, Dr. Bruce Greyson began to investigate.

As a physician without a religious belief system, he approached near-death experiences from a scientific perspective. In After, he shares the transformative lessons he has learned over four decades of research. Our culture has tended to view dying as the end of our consciousness, the end of our existence―a dreaded prospect that for many people evokes fear and anxiety.

But Dr. Greyson shows how scientific revelations about the dying process can support an alternative theory. Dying could be the threshold between one form of consciousness and another, not an ending but a transition. This new perspective on the nature of death can transform the fear of dying that pervades our culture into a healthy view of it as one more milestone in the course of our lives. After challenges us to open our minds to these experiences and to what they can teach us, and in so doing, expand our understanding of consciousness and of what it means to be human.

Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality, by Gary Habermas & J. P. Moreland:

Death - and what lies beyond - is not something you consider every day. But the thought of it raises some intriguing questions: Are there good reasons for believing in life after death? What is the afterlife like? How valid are the reports of near death experiences? Do heaven and hell exist? And if so, how can hell be reconciled with a loving God? By sharing the very latest scientific, philosophical, anthropological, ethical, and theological evidence on life after death, noted Christian scholars Habermas and Moreland present a strong case for immortality with this book. They begin by taking up the question of whether life after death is real and what evidence supports its reality. They then explore what the afterlife is like and go on to show how having this reality in your future should affect the way you live here and now. This book will reassure you that there's no need to fear death - as long as you're prepared eternity that follows. It's also a great aid in developing a serious biblical, rational, and even scientific defense for the belief in life beyond the grave.


A fifth book that might be worth pondering over is Life Before Life: Children's Memories of Previous Lives, by Jim B. Tucker MD (Author), Ian Stevenson - foreword MD (Author), Kirby Heyborne (Narrator), Tantor Audio (Publisher):

This popular examination of research into children's reports of past-life memories describes a collection of 2,500 cases at the University of Virginia that investigators have carefully studied since Dr. Ian Stevenson began the work more than 40 years ago. The children usually begin talking about a past life at the age of two or three and may talk about a previous family or the way they died in a previous life. Their statements have often been found to be accurate for one particular deceased individual, and some children have recognized members of the previous family. A number have also had birthmarks or defects that matched wounds on the body of the deceased person.

Life Before Life presents the cases in a straightforward way and explores the possibility that consciousness may continue after the brain dies. It is a provocative and fascinating book that can challenge and ultimately change listeners' understanding about life and death.

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    "findings from quantum mechanics, special relativity, philosophy, and paranormal psychology" that's a lot of quackery red flags in very few words...
    – armand
    Mar 12 at 1:22
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    Special relativity, in particular, claimed to be affecting things on the scales that human beings live on, is a massive sign that the advocates don't really understand special relativity.
    – JonathanZ
    Mar 12 at 2:02
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    It only should if they display special features (beyond those of other conscious experiences) pointing to something likely non-physical. But considering that they are akin to psycho-trips caused by mind-altering chemicals and amenable to hallucinatory explanations, the increase in probability should be marginal, if any.
    – Conifold
    Mar 12 at 2:50
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    After studying it for my PhD and reading and thinking about it for 40 years, I still can't get to the bottom of quantum theory, so I always laugh when I hear how some author claims it has startling implications for consciousness when everything they say suggests the have no idea about how it works. Mar 12 at 6:43
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    Only if these reported experiences have no plausible physicalist explanations
    – Nikos M.
    Mar 12 at 7:17

7 Answers 7

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Very Short Answer

Yes. Both physicalist and non-physicalist models of consciousness are testable in principle, and every observation that is compatible/predictable from the perspective of one of those models, but would be surprising based on competing ones, IS evidence for the predictable/compatible one.

Excursion into the theory of empiricism

In fields that are currently not well settled, which is the case for both theories of consciousness, and for metaphysical ontology as well, the best working model for how to do competing models is that of Lakatos' Research Programmes. Lakatos calls for a framework which is infinitely amendable (per Quine Duham), but has a family relationship due to some central assumptions that characterize a family of views that are called a Research Programme. Particular Research Programmes are testable, but not refutable (due to infinite amendability). Multiple active Research Programmes are supportable in a field, and the current active collection of theories of consciousness include non-physicalist as well as physicalist theories, and the ontology of our universe is a very open question that includes both physicalist and non-physicalist Programmes.

Another key concept form current empiricism theory is consilience. A Research Programme should be looking at all possible areas of supporting or challenging evidence, and one gathers support for a Programme from this consilience of data.

Relative to OBE and NDE, the observations and evidence from both add to a consilience of data supporting idealist and spiritual-dualist non-physical theories of consciousness, and non-physicalist ontologies in general, while decreasing the support for physicalist models and theories.

Caveats that need to be recognized -- first Bayesian vs. Frequentist statistics

The statistics that are used to do frequentist statistics are -- only approximately valid. Statisticians developed some working assumptions and rules of thumb that made frequentist statistics theoretically suspect, but pragmatically very useful.

When one works through the details of the logic of how one SHOULD do statistical confidence, one arrives at Bayesian statistics. Bayesian statistics are more complex to work with, AND rather than the approximate "rules of thumb" that statisticians adopted, Bayesian statistics make subjectivity central to the process. One starts with a "prior" which has a "confidence level", but deriving the confidence in this prior, and the relative weighting of subsequent testing, CANNOT be done objectively -- these are judgement calls.

So the Bayesian math is self consistent, while freque3ntist math isn't BUT Bayesian calculations are subject to self-deception based on subjective prior confidence. Ideologues tend to latch on to this feature of Bayesian thinking, and use our intrinsic overconfidence in our beliefs, to then do Bayesian reasoning to rationalize not changing them in the face of conflicting evidence.

Anyone who has had a very frustrating conversation with a Vaccine Denier, or committed ideologue on any other question (religious, economic, political, etc.) will likely have experienced the rationalizations to ignore clear evidence, based on overvaluing the ideologue's priors, that Bayesian thinking enables.

Note some of the comments here are ignoring Quine-Duhem, and are calling for definitive evidence for non-physicalism, which is an impossible standard.

Consilience, and explanatory power, are really critical

IF one has an observation, that is repeated, and it strongly supports one model over another, that is NOT actually sufficient to reach a significantly confidence conclusion on a choice between two or more active Research Programmes. Quine-Duhem does not just apply to theories, it also applies to data/observations. We use assumptions about the testing, methodology, analysis methods, etc. that also may be in error, and an alternative set of assumptions might be the case. That is why we sometimes see experimental results overturned, when digging further into the experiment or analysis, it turns out that there is a better way to look at the test.

Therefore, if one has an observation that supports a Programme, then one should immediately make projections of related phenomena and events that one should expect if this data actually DOES support that programme. Then go looking for these supplemental/consequence predictions too. IF one sees them, THEN the combined observations dramatically increase the level of consilience that the observation alone would provides for its Programme.

Relative to OBE and NDE, the derived prediction is the utility of Remote Viewing. And as Remote Viewing is testable in laboratory settings, this provides a significant advantage in data gathering compared to the field tests of NDE and OBE. And the statistically significant results demonstrated with Remote Viewing provide that significant consilience vs. NDE and OBE alone.

Note that consilience includes failures as well as successes

Physicalist models of consciousness have been struggling with the Hard Problem of Consciousness -- that if they were true, we should therefore not be conscious -- for a century and a half. Physicalism itself also struggles with Hempel's dilemma, with the intrinsically open nature of both physics and consciousness, and the embedding of abstraction within physics.

Spiritual dualism struggles with the effect of chemical influence and neurological damage changing consciousness, and idealism additionally struggles with a "hard problem of independent existence of matter".

Pan-psychist parallelism struggles with the lack of causal laws to accomplish parallelism, plus the A=/=A problem of consciousness seemingly being tied to a very NON fundamental object of a human.

None of these worldviews, or theories of consciousness are without major problems they have not yet been able to address. Any statement of confidence in one of them, is therefore very plausibly an example of the self-deception that all of us are subject to in overstating our self-confidence in our priors.

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    "Bayesian statistics make subjectivity central to the process" objectivist Bayesians would disagree (c.f. E.T. Jaynes) Mar 13 at 8:35
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    "Spiritual dualism struggles with the effect of chemical influence and neurological damage changing consciousness". How so? If you have consciousness operating in the physical world, obviously the state of that matter the consciousness operates with of course would matter for said operation. Mar 13 at 10:13
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    I feel the the section on freqeuntist vs Bayesian statistics is distracting and potentially incorrect. My reading of the discussion is that there's actually no consensus in neither statistics nor in philosophy of science that Bayes is "how one SHOULD do statistical confidence" and may be even the majority of philosophers would claim that epistemology and scientific reasoning should NOT be fully Bayesian (I think D. Mayo articulates those views quite well). Bayes is a useful tool, but it is not everything. Mar 13 at 12:52
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    Beyond objectivist Bayesians (as noted by @DikranMarsupial) there is also the strain of Bayesian thinking represented by e.g. A. Gelman that take priors as just another modelling assumption - yes, there is some subjective judgement involved, but just like any other element of a statistical model/reasoning, priors can - and should - be critiqued and bad priors discarded. In this sense, subjectivity cannot be fully avoided, but can be managed and reduced - and this is true for priors as well as any other part of scientific process. Mar 13 at 13:01
  • @MartinModrák as a statistician, there are times where a frequentist approach is completely fine (e.g. quality control of a repeated batch process). The main issue is that a frequentist can't associate a non-trivial probability with a particular event or truth of a particular proposition. If you want to do that, you can only be talking about a Bayesian probability. A lot of users of statistics are unaware of the differences in definitions, and hence treat confidence intervals as if they were credible intervals, or p-values as probability that H0 is true etc. Mar 13 at 13:07
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Near death experiences seem to largely be culturally and theologically neutral, and when they'renot they match the beliefs of the person having them, which suggests to me it's an entirely psychological phenomenon.

I think you could possibly still make a case that it's very weak evidence for non physicalism, but only very weak at best - physicalism doesn't have any problem explaining people having experiences that match their beliefs, we have dreams and day dreams and hallucinations already.

Then again, perhaps a case could be made that the clearly subjective nature of near death experiences is evidence against any spirit stuff. I'm not sure how the probabilistic math works out on this.

Really strong evidence for a spirit world would be if NDEs were universal regardless of the religion of the person having it, universal and specific to one religion. If everyone saw, say, Muhammad when they NDEd, especially people who had never learned of Islam before, then that would much more strongly point towards spiritual reality.

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I'll go ahead and say it. Yes, reports of out of body experiences and near death experiences make non-physicalist views of consciousness more likely than they otherwise would be.

However this does not mean that non-physicalist views of consciousness are likely overall.

To be honest requires us to acknowledge evidence that may oppose what we believe. Simply to acknowledge a piece of evidence as supporting the other side does not mean that the other side "wins" or that we've been refuted. Too often, people treat a discussion like a combat, where to acknowledge any opposing point means that the opposition has scored "first blood" and now you're "losing." This is obviously illogical, but it's done anyway. Honesty requires acknowledging all evidence, and it is rarely if ever the case that every single piece of evidence increases the probability of any particular proposition, even if the proposition is very likely.

Let's look at Bayes' formula. O = OBE/NDE reports, H = consciousness is non-physical. H^c would be the complement of the hypothesis, "consciousness is physical," and O^c the complement of the observations, "no OBE/NDE reports." For this it is convenient to use the odds form of Bayes' formula:

P(H|O)/P(H^c|O) = P(H)/P(H^c) P(O|H)/P(O|H^c)

In other words:

Odds of H given O = (prior odds of H) * (Bayes factor)

Now, the prior odds of H, that is, the chance that consciousness is non-physical prior to considering the presence or absence of OBE/NDE reports, would be fairly low. We have pretty decent explanations of how the brain produces all cognitive behavior. P(H)/P(H^c) is low.

The Bayes factor is the ratio of how likely it is that we would observe OBE/NDE given that consciousness is non-physical, to how likely it is that we would observe OBE/NDE given that consciousness is physical. I don't think it can be reasonably doubted that the Bayes factor here is greater than 1. If consciousness is non-physical, it becomes more likely that people would report out of body experiences. P(O|H)/P(O|H^c) > 1

Because the Bayes factor is greater than 1, the posterior odds of H are greater than the prior odds of H. So yes, OBE/NDE are weak evidence in favor of non-physical consciousness.

However, the prior odds of H are quite low to begin with (because science explains cognitive function quite well), and the Bayes factor is not very large. There are plenty of reasons people would report OBE/NDE without a supernatural explanation. People join all sorts of fringe cults and report all sorts of supernatural experiences that you probably don't agree with at all! This shows people have a natural disposition to believe in the supernatural or fraudulently report supernatural events regardless of whether it is true. So the Bayes factor is not much greater than 1.

On balance, then, the posterior odds of non-physical consciousness are still fairly low.

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I understand your question in the following sense:

Do of out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and near-death experiences (NDEs) support the view that consciousness is a non-physical phenomenon?

OBE and NDE are astonishing phenomena. Today OBE are investigated experimentally by scientific methods. These investigation allow to stimulate OBE by means of virtual reality, see Manipulating Bodily Self-Consciousness.

These experiments and their explanations are part of neuroscience. Conscious experience is generated by our brain, more precisely by certain mental processes. The search for the circuitry of these processes is part of the project to find the Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC). Neuroscientist do not expect to find consciousness as a material substance. Instead NCC are dynamic processes in the brain.

One can doubt that the dichotomy tagged “Consiousness: physical or non-physical?” provides any insight into the phenomenon of conscious mental processes and their subjective perception. These tags are rather bold.

Today neuroscience operates with much more refined concepts.

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Before I answer this, I want to point out a general problem with the notion of epistemic probability. Can you give me the epistemic probability you should have in any belief? An actual number or even a range? Many are able to answer this in the form of how sure they feel of a belief. But that would answer how sure you feel about a belief: not how sure anyone should feel about a belief.

It may thus be wise to rephrase this as: Are NDEs and OBEs evidence of a non physical form of consciousness? Presumably, by this you mean the notion of consciousness existing in a way where it doesn’t supervene on the physical.

The answer to this is arguably no. NDEs mean “near death” not “death”. Because they were near death, it implies they were not dead, hence the brain was still functioning. If the brain was still functioning, you cannot rule out that the experience depended upon the physical brain.

OBEs are interesting evidence or would be interesting evidence if they can show a person seeing things that they could have otherwise not seen (such as books on top of drawers or conversations in other rooms). There are reports of this having occurred but none of these have been experimented upon in any controlled setting. Given our prior experience of natural reasons explaining odd events or odd reported stories, there is no reason to doubt naturalism here until these controlled experiments are done.

Do not underestimate how widespread false anecdotes can get. We are human after all.

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    Although it is usually intractable to assign consistent probabilities to things, this is a computational problem, and with a sufficiently powerful computer such probabilities can be calculated. See AIXI/Solomonoff induction.
    – causative
    Mar 12 at 8:01
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    "Can you give me the epistemic probability you should have in any belief?" by definition an epistemic probability is a statement about your beliefs, not about reality. If epistemic probabilities are the same for two people with the same state of knowledge, then they are objective probabilities. Construct a model that expresses your belief (and the reasons behind it) and you can calculate the epistemic probability. The problem is that most people can't rigorously set out their beliefs or their reasoning (in which case it is unsurprising they can't quantify them). Mar 12 at 10:53
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    If you are happy with subjective Bayes, just assign a number that seems right to you (or better still a distribution of values), the mechanics of Bayes still works just fine. It will tell you how to rationally update your subjective beliefs as you acquire evidence. But remember it is a statement about your belief, not about reality. If your reasoning is good, then your beliefs should map reasonably well onto reality, so there is still value in subjective Bayesianism. Sometimes it is all we have. Mar 12 at 10:55
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No. The brain is so incredibly complex - we see the complexity, and nevermind that we are only scratching at the very surface, if at all, of many aspects of the brain, there is plenty of space to accept anything the brain does (that we have witnessed so far) purely by physical means.

So if you are a physicalist, then no, OBEs would NDEs does not give you reason to doubt that. There is enough complexity there, and enough avenues to explain those reports without enforcing a non-physicalist view or making it really more likely.

If you are not a physicalist, then it does not matter - you are already not limiting yourself to physicalist viewpoints, so a data point more or less would not matter. You might use OBEs or NDEs for research into how your non-physicalist interpretation of the world would actually work, but it would not make you "more" non-physicalist.

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    What about fence-sitters on the physicalism/non-physicalism debate?
    – Mark
    Mar 12 at 15:13
  • @mark I would say if some so far unexplainable (but not in principle unexplainable) report moves you from the fence to the non-physicalist side, then you were a non-physicalist before, without knowing it.
    – AnoE
    Mar 12 at 15:19
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    So babies who become non-physicalists at some point in their life were already non-physicalists from the womb?
    – Mark
    Mar 12 at 15:42
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    I'm just trying to understand the implications of what you are suggesting. If someone has to have been unknowingly non-physicalist as a necessary precondition before they become consciously non-physicalist, when does this "subconscious" non-physicalism have to have been accepted prior to it becoming conscious? Since one was a baby? It seems to me too bold a claim to assert that everyone who is unsure about this issue can become consciously non-physicalist if and only if the idea was already subconsciously implanted maybe decades in advance (?)
    – Mark
    Mar 12 at 19:50
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    How about someone simply becoming convinced because of compelling evidence?
    – Mark
    Mar 12 at 19:50
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There is an observation related to OBEs that could provide very strong evidence against the standard physicalist view of consciousness.

If there was a repeatable experiment where people experiencing OBEs could read symbols on a card placed such that they couldn't see it from their body, but could see it from above their body, then this would basically falsify the physicalist theory. Upper level college psych classes would hand out the ketamine, perform the experiment, and see that ~17 out of a class of 20 correctly guessed which side was up on a die thrown onto a high shelf, and then write reports about it.

There is not an observation that could basically falsify the standard non-physicalist theory. This is because the physicalist theory and the non-physicalist theory, despite having similar names and trappings, are not actually two epistemologically-linked sides of the same coin. They are from fundamentally different forms of thought.

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  • A google away: Three of these studies found distinctive physiological correlates of OBEs in the two talented persons investigated, and one found strong evidence for veridical, paranormal perception of the OBE location Springer Original Also can be found here
    – Rushi
    Mar 13 at 12:52
  • @Rushi the article is made unimpressive by the fact that a single researcher personally interacted with individual patients to get these singular reports, which were all verified exclusively by the one researcher himself. They amount to anecdotes, essentially, due to their lack of repetition.
    – TKoL
    Mar 13 at 13:56
  • @Rushi Those studies are fascinating and frankly well done- After seeing the phenominal result with the card, the next time he finds a potentially psychic subject he immediately tries to replicate it and then factually reports that he is not able to. In the aftermath of these early reports, many bodies including the military (correctly in my opinion) took it very seriously, and made every effort to turn the early suprising results into an experiment that they could replicate- but nobody has been successful at finding such an experiment. Mar 17 at 15:25

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