Of Rats and Death

I recently read an online article about rats and death which offers an interesting commentary on the spectacles through which we view the world.

Professors at the University of Michigan found that dying rats, after their hearts ceased to beat, experienced an unusual surge in electrical activity in their brains. A remarkable feature of this surge was that it was more intense than normal rat-brain activity. But what made this article particularly interesting was the suggestion by one of the researchers that this surge might offer an explanation for near-death experiences (NDE’s).

NDE’s are intriguing and puzzling experiences. They are almost irresistibly suggestive of the idea that we somehow survive the death of our bodies. However this is an idea which, for many people, it would be far too weak to characterize as “controversial.”

We are firmly convinced that every effect has a cause, and if we are “educated” persons, we know that all causes must ultimately reduce to scientific ones. (If we probe a little more deeply, scientific means physics, chemistry, biology, and someone writing equations on a whiteboard.)

To such an educated person, this survival idea is surely a false conclusion since consciousness (the basic fact of our existence) must have a physical cause, and medical and biological science have presumably shown that consciousness depends on the correct functioning of the brain. It then seems annoying that many who have had NDE’s are somehow unable to accept the iron-clad logic of this position. For example, a neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander, who underwent a particularly spectacular NDE wrote a book about his experience titled Proof of Heaven.

The Michigan researchers suggest that humans, at the point of death, experience similar surges and that NDE’s are somehow produced by these electrical surges. They were careful not to claim that this is an explanation of NDE’s. They merely raised the possibility.

Now there are other philosophies than the scientific/physicalist floating around out there. Indeed, so far as I know, such other philosophies have been dominant through most of human existence. To be sure, they have often involved disreputable concepts such as magic, spirits, and gods, but some of them – various forms of idealism, the philosophies behind Catholicism, Buddhism, etc. – have been thought about very carefully. Let us call such philosophies paraphysical.

The paraphysical philosophies tend to believe that mind is something that stands apart from the physical world, that it has an independent existence. They can be quite comfortable with the idea that NDE’s might reflect a reality external to our ordinary experience.

Given that fact, a question I find interesting is this: How would someone who subscribes to a paraphysical view interpret the findings of the Michigan researchers? Let me be a little more particular: How would someone who tried to think about things scientifically and critically – yet subscribed to a paraphysicial point of view – receive this news about the rats?

(Some of my readers will complain, “You can’t have anybody like that! Those are contradictory characteristics!” But yes you can. There certainly are and have been many reputable scientists who are also religious or at least “spiritual.” An outstanding example: Einstein, who believed in God, though not a personal one.)

Perhaps if someone looked at things from the paraphysical side, she would be disposed to say, “Ah ha! These electrical surges must be caused by something. We know that mind has an existence that is not purely dependent on the body and that it may well survive the death of the body. It is very possible that it is the near-death experience, the beginning of the entry of mind into a post-physical mode of existence, that causes them!” In other words, she might consider that the electrical surges supported the reality of life-after-death.

Now I expect most of my readers would consider this argument perverse. There would be a feeling that any argument that explained a phenomenon on physical grounds or placed it in a physical context must be favored over any argument that did not.

I am not quite sure why this is so, but we touch here on a subject that may deserve a lengthy and careful discussion. A topic, I expect, for some other time.

The Michigan researchers saw in their results the possibility that the electrical surges caused NDE’s. This is because – from their point of view – there could not be an external reality to which those experiences refer; the experiences must have a physical cause.

I do not argue with their conclusion, but it is a conditional conclusion.

However if one takes the paraphysical perspective, post-death existence is usually assumed; at least it is a strong possibility. It occupies a theoretical position something like the one that was occupied by the neutrino or Higgs boson till proof was found for their existence. So – if survival of death is a real phenomenon, should we not hope it will produce effects that we can “see”? Then does it not seem perfectly reasonable to think of these electrical surges as a possible “footprint” of after-death existence?

Now this is also a conditional conclusion. It seems to me just as respectable as the suggestion of the Michigan researchers. What will, I suspect, make it distasteful for many people is that it starts from the “wrong” condititons.

So it would appear that the significance of things we see lies at least partly in the spectacles we wear.

That leaves us with the question of why the scientific/physicalist spectacles are the “right” ones. A topic, as I said, for another time.