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Why Reasonable People Think Near-Death Experiences Are Real

Distinguished engineers Walter Bradley and Robert J.Marks sift through the evidence

In a recent podcast, “Walter Bradley on Near-Death Experiences,” Center director Robert J. Marks discusses these experiences with Walter Bradley, after whom the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence is named. Dr. Bradley is an emeritus distinguished professor at Baylor University, formerly professor and mechanical engineering head at Texas A&M University.

Here are some selections from the transcript: (You can download the entire transcript here.)

Marks and Bradley started with first principles: Is it reasonable to believe that there is anything out beyond the material world? Many people assume that science exists to defend materialism. But Walter Bradley has defended the idea that there is also an immaterial world, of which we are a part, in a legal case:

Robert J. Marks (right): Before we begin our discussion, let’s talk about the impact of worldview in pursuing truth. You have shared with me a deposition that you had with an ACLU attorney that asked you kind of some snide questions. And I think that your answer to one of the snide questions sets the table nicely for our topic, the mind-body problem. Could you tell us about that? What happened?

Walter Bradley: I was invited to be a witness in one of the early cases with what can be taught in public schools [about evolution]… But anyhow, the question had to do with, how can I be objective?

And he was pretty arrogant guy. His first question right out of the box was to ask if I was a Christian. And I said, yes. “Do you believe in God?” “I do.” And then he said, “Well, then how can you possibly be objective as a scientist? Anybody who believes in God can’t really be an objective scientist.” And I said, “Well, quite to the contrary, I can be objective because for me it’s only a question of how God did it, not whether he did it. He could have done it in a patterned way. What we call the laws of nature. He could have done his work in an extraordinary way, what we call miracles. And when I’m studying through the eyes of science, I can sort of infer which of these is more likely.

I think the real problem is for the person who’s an atheist. And in that case, no matter what the data says, he’s going to conclude one way or the other that it had to have been undirected forces of nature that was ultimately responsible for all of the amazing things that we see in the natural world. And it seems to me that he can’t possibly be objective because he’s already decided a priori that there isn’t a God and this had to be a product of nothing more than a natural processes that occur in nature. And even those, how do you explain where they came from?”

He was quite taken aback by that. But he quickly moved on to other questions because I think he realized that he’d really stepped into a big pile of, you know what.

It’s a priori assumptions about the conclusions. And then that we’ll torture the scientific data until it confesses what we want it to.

Robert J. Marks: The old expression I learned from Gary Smith is, if you can torture data long enough it will confess to anything.

Note: Philosopher Edward Feser points out that something as simple as the concept of a triangle can disprove materialism: “When we grasp that formal nature of being a triangle, we are grasping something that is totally abstract. It applies to every single triangle that has existed, does exist, will exist or, for that matter, could exist, whether it is a triangle drawn in ink, whether it is a triangle drawn in sand, whether it is a triangle you construct by putting three sticks together, whether it is a triangle formed by the side of a pyramid, the idea or the concept is entirely abstract.” The concept would be valid even if there were no instances of triangles.

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor similarly points to the chiliagon, a geometric figure with a thousand sides. We can’t really picture it and there may never have been physical instances, but we realize that it can exist as an idea. A large part of the human world is immaterial, though we do not often stop to think of it.

Marks and Bradley then turned to the question of whether it is reasonable to think that humans are a union of body and spirit (dualism) as opposed to only a body (monism) and how near-death experiences fit into the dualist view. Bradley has compared the body and soul to a piano and its player:

Walter Bradley (right): Somebody who didn’t realize there was a pianist might simply assume that the piano somehow is a beautiful instrument that plays all of this wonderful music when in reality, it’s not ultimately responsible. It’s simply the means by which the pianist is able to express himself. And I think that that’s really what people who are atheists believe… that it’s all biochemical. There’s no difference between love and acid indigestion. They’re both chemical processes at a fundamental level.

Robert J. Marks: What evidence is there for dualism outside of the philosophical debate? I know the mind-body debate has been going on for quite a while, but it seems to me that it’s primarily in the area of philosophical debates. So do we have any physical evidence that indeed dualism is true?

Walter Bradley: With the development of modern technology, the possibilities of really exploring that have gotten dramatically better. People experience this dualistic phenomenon of having a physical body that is dead but recognizing they still have a consciousness. They still have a capacity to see, to observe, to experience, much like they did when they were in their body, but in a much more enriched way. At least these are the tales that people tell.

Robert J. Marks: I personally am always skeptical of anecdotes supporting this or that position. Isolated anecdotes describing the incredible can be interesting, but should always be viewed with skepticism. But a preponderance of anecdotal evidence points to truth, especially when anecdotes are from people with no skin in the game. As Stephen Hawking said in his book, A Brief History of Time, nothing in physics is ever proven. We simply accumulate evidence. And accumulation of anecdotal evidence, I think, is a powerful way to support a theory. Stories about near-death experiences are numerous and they’re compelling. What is the definition of a near-death experience?

Walter Bradley: A near-death experiences is a term that describes what today has become quite common in emergency rooms across the country, as well as occasionally and accidents that happen maybe in highway accidents or so forth. A person has a complete loss of heartbeat and brainwaves. In the absence of a heartbeat and the consequential absence of brain waves, if the heart beat stops for very long, the brain ceases to function. What’s happening during that period of time? And if they are resuscitated, what can they tell us about that intervening period where they were so-called clinically dead and yet in many cases they have remarkable experiences during that interval of time? So it’s called a near-death experience and it wasn’t permanent. But at least during the time interval that we’re interested in, they were clinically dead in the sense that their physical body was medically dead. But it didn’t mean that they ceased to exist.

Walter Bradley: And so, I think some of the most interesting empirical data that’s been accumulating over the last 30 to 40 years about this mind-body question has come through these so-called near-death experiences, which provide what I think of as remarkable evidence for what happens after we die. Told to us by people who actually did die and were subsequently resuscitated. What’s been interesting and in many ways remarkable is that these people come back with amazing stories. And it’s very clear that they’re not making this up. We know during the time period that they were clinically dead what was going on in the operating room, but these people can tell you because their spirit, in many cases, hovers over the activities going on in the emergency room. They can see what the doctors are doing. They can see themselves on the operating table.

Note: A skeptic found herself unnerved by the recollections of near-death experiencers, for example: “In one, for example, a man identified only as John D (folks who contribute are usually only identified by their first name and last initial) described being in a car crash during his job as a water meter reader. He had an out-of-body experience, seeming to hover about 10 feet in the air over his body, during which he was able to see and sense the arrival of an ambulance. Then, he says he went to ‘a place that was foggy, but not foggy.’ At one point, he heard someone say, ‘Do we know the next of kin?’” (Lucia Peters, Bustle, September 5, 2017) People have recounted near-death experiences while brain-dead, where they sensed things that they should not have been able to sense, such as the sound of a surgical saw. Materialist efforts to account for the experiences often suffer from significant limitations. (Erica Edwards, NBC News, June 18, 2019.)

Walter Bradley explained how he became interested in near-death experiences.

Robert J. Marks: Let’s talk about John Burke (right). He wrote a book called Imagine Heaven. I’ve listened to it and it was just compelling. It is definitely a popular book and he documents many accounts of near-death experiences. More compelling than that I found out was John Burke’s series of six videos on YouTube.

Listening to firsthand account interviews with people is much more powerful than reading about them. They are just astonishing. You see these people break down and get emotional about their experiences and indicate how this has changed their lives. And it has changed a lot of lives. Now, John Burke’s book, Imagine Heaven was a book that you had your hand in. You went to John Burke’s church and you knew him. And you got acquainted with him. Tell the story about you and John Burke and the book, Imagine Heaven.

Walter Bradley: I had known John Burke, interestingly enough when he was working, doing Christian ministry in Russia right after the iron curtain fell. And I was over there doing some speaking. And so, he’d invited me to come and speak at one of the universities. Ten years later when we were both back in Texas, and he’s a pastor now to a church in Austin, he asked me to come and speak to his congregation on a Sunday morning in an interview format having to do with, is there scientific evidence for the existence of God?

Robert J. Marks: Which you have given on just about every major campus in North America. Some of them twice.

Walter Bradley: Yeah. At least 75. So that’s how John and I got reconnected. Well, we so appreciated his approach to ministry and not just because he invited me to speak, but he really is a very, very thoughtful guy. And I think as pastors go, he is in many ways exceptional.

So when he had written the first draft of this book. He really wanted an objective opinion by somebody who had been or was currently a practicing scientist, to evaluate it based on the evidence. Did he do a fair job in a way that is scientifically credible. Well, I told him I’d be happy to read it. And if it did (seem credible), I’d be happy to endorse it. And if not, then I can’t do that and he wouldn’t want it anyhow. So he gave me the manuscript and I read it and it was so amazing. Just one chapter after another chapter, after another chapter.

John did something that it took him 20 years to do. He read 1000 different accounts of all of the people who’d had these near-death experiences. And in those 1000 accounts, he found many, many different common threads. And so I think he did a wonderful job of starting with empirical data, not with assumptions about what the answer is, but as I like to say, to let the data do the talking.

Interestingly enough, he read the book Life After Life the night his father died. And his father had been reading the book. He’d been there in kind of a vigil knowing his father was going to die. And his father passed away.

That same evening John had been reading, just out of curiosity, the book Life After Life. And he read enough into it that he said, “Oh my gosh.” He was an atheist at the time. “This might really be true.”

Robert J. Marks: Burke was an atheist at the time?

Walter Bradley: He was an atheist or agnostic at the time. He was already out of college. He was a practicing engineer. And so, it was reading Life After Life that started him on his own spiritual journey. And over the next year he eventually came to faith. But he came to faith as an adult. And I think he obviously, given how he came to faith, took an early and very keen interest in the whole business of near-death experiences and began to read over 20 years and do what I think of his research for this book. I think initially he was doing it because he was interested. And then eventually he read 1000 different accounts of near-death experiences. And with that big a database, he was able to see some remarkable patterns that seem to be consistent. There were differences from one to the next, in ways that are not significant.

Walter Bradley: But there were ways in which it was very significant. And these patterns became in sense the heart of his book that he wrote. But boy, it took him 20 years to do the research for it. He didn’t do what a lot of people do go out and get a few pieces of data and then make what I’d call a $1000 story on $10 worth of data. No. He did it the other way around.

Robert J. Marks: Well, the interesting thing about Burke’s book is that he emphasizes people with near-death experiences that don’t have any skin in the game. He talks to people that are not interested in making money. They’re not interested in being famous. They’re just laying it out there because it’s true. Here’s a question a skeptic would ask. Why should we trust the work of an engineer turned pastor John Burke in writing about such things?

Walter Bradley: Well, I think the critical question is how good is the data? Because you don’t have to be a rocket scientist. If you have enough data, then you are not having to do a lot of what I call speculation based on formal training of some kind. The data itself, I think, tells such a compelling story. It was his collecting the data and systematizing it to see the patterns and so forth that I think provided for me incontrovertible evidence.

Some of our earlier stories about near-death experiences:

● Newfound respect in science literature for near-death experiences. For example, when people claim that they could see colors not normally available to humans, there is at least a possible science basis for that.

● What if a near-death experience is as vision of hell? It happens but isn’t the end.

● Do near-death experiences defy science? NDEs do not defy science. They sometimes challenge human senses, which are based on our biology. For example, if the human eye’s usual limitations were not a factor, previously unknown colors—which we KNOW from science to exist—might be perceived.

● Why medical scientists take near-death experiences seriously now. Today, we know much more about what happens to people when they die—and what we are learning does not support materialism. Near-death experiences are generally seen as real, even among hardcore skeptics and research focuses on how to account for them

● Does the Bible talk about near-death experiences? Walter Bradley points to an incident in the life of the apostle Paul in the New Testament that sounds like a near-death experience

Transcript here.

Show Notes

  • 0:00:45 | Introducing Dr. Walter Bradley, Emeritus Distinguished Professor at Baylor University
  • 0:01:10 | Beliefs and objectivity
  • 0:03:35 | A priori assumptions
  • 0:05:01 | What is the mind/body problem?
  • 0:05:55 | The body is like a piano
  • 0:06:31 | Are we simply matter and chemical processes?
  • 0:08:20 | Herd instinct
  • 0:09:14 | Monism vs. Dualism
  • 0:09:59 | Evidence for dualism
  • 0:12:19 | Definition of a near-death experience
  • 0:13:38 | Near-death experiences and the mind/body problem
  • 0:14:36 | A blind woman sees
  • 0:17:05 | Common threads in accounts of near-death experiences
  • 0:18:08 | An indescribable experience
  • 0:22:22 | Our impact on other people
  • 0:24:11 | A preponderance of stories about near-death experiences
  • 0:26:39 | John Burke, Walter Bradley, and Imagine Heaven
  • 0:32:05 | Why should we trust these accounts of near-death experiences?
  • 0:33:17 | Heaven is for Real
  • 0:34:57 | More common threads in near-death experiences
  • 0:37:18 | A drowned physician
  • 0:40:41 | A life review
  • 0:42:29 | Earthly awards
  • 0:43:19 | Where are my dentures?
  • 0:45:01 | The shoe on the roof
  • 0:46:55 | Near-death experiences with Hell
  • 0:49:38 | Akiane Kramarik
  • 0:51:30 | Heaven is for Real
  • 0:55:57 | Near-death experiences in the Bible
  • 1:00:09 | Encouragement stemming from near-death experiences

Additional Resources

Podcast transcript here.

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Why Reasonable People Think Near-Death Experiences Are Real