Sunday, January 16, 2011

Do we end with death?

The Tribune, Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

Science and the Near-Death Experience
How Consciousness Survives Death
By Chris Carter
Inner Traditions
Pages 304, Price: Not stated

Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives DeathIn the present volume Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death, philosopher Chris Carter (not to be confused with the creator of The X-Files) mentions the strange case of A. S. Wiltse, a physician suffering from typhoid, who was declared ‘dead’ by his doctors. It later emerged that he had actually gone into a coma. After regaining consciousness he told the doctors that he had had the strange experience of leaving his body during the comatose state. ‘As I turned, my elbow came into contact with the arm of one of two gentlemen who were standing in the door. To my surprise his arm passed right through mine without apparent resistance . . . I directed my gaze in the direction of his and saw my own dead body.’

This is one of the several cases of the near-death-experience (NDE) reported in the book from all over the world from a wide spectrum of peoples who were declared clinically dead or very close to death. The common experience of most of the subjects who report an NDE is a feeling of detachment from the body, levitating in the air; extreme fear and supreme bliss at the same time; and a sense of absolute dissolution. Some talk of going through a tunnel and seeing bright light at the end, while others speak of meeting dead relatives or friends. Many subjects recall that they could think a lot more rationally and clearly; some claim to have had a 360-degree vision during the period and could read the thoughts of others. However, not all the NDEs are a result of life-threatening situations for one might have such an experience during meditation or even while doing mundane activities. Sceptics regard such experiences as hallucinatory, while paranormal specialists find them to be evidence of an afterlife.

After the experience most subjects find a greater urge to know their purpose in life; they also show increased compassion for others, and an increased interest in spirituality and a lack of interest in sectarian religion. Most of them fear death no longer as they begin to believe that this life is not the end. Carter cites studies which indicate that among those individuals who come close to death, about 30 per cent report an NDE.

Apart from the mysterious nature of these cases, Chris Carter has a more serious purpose in writing this book. The central question he poses is whether the mind depends upon the brain, or can it also exist independently of it. This is a perennial problem in philosophy and science, and in spite of tremendous progress made in neuroscience and other disciplines, the solution eludes us. Most philosophers and scientists would say that the mind cannot exist independently of the brain — Chris Carter boldly argues that it can.

One phenomenon that might shed new light on the mind-body problem is the near-death experience (NDE) just mentioned. Those who believe that consciousness is dependent upon the brain say that as a strong blow to the head often results in a loss of consciousness, it is proof enough that mind depends upon the brain. This inference is flawed counters Carter. For example, if the radio we are listening to is smashed, it does not follow that the music we were listening to was being produced by the radio. The implicit assumption here, Carter points out is that "the relationship between brain activity and consciousness was always one of cause to effect, and never that of effect to cause. But this assumption is not known to be true, and it is not the only conceivable one consistent with the observed facts mentioned earlier. Just as consistent with the observed facts is the idea that the brain’s function is that of an intermediary between mind and body, or in other words, that the brain’s function is that of a two-way receiver-transmitter — sometimes form body to mind, and sometimes mind to body."

The point Carter is making is that there is something like universal consciousness which the brain manifests in a limited way. So even if the brain perishes upon death of a person, the universal consciousness continues to remain independently. "The fact that up until the brain’s death the mind can be affected by the condition and limitations of the brain does not entail that the mind cannot continue to exist without the brain and carry on at least some of its processes."

This book is an open attack on established materialistic science which is based on classical physics in which all interactions between particles are local and occur independent of anyone observing them. Some theorists of this school hold that consciousness is outside their domain, while others stress that it is just an illusion. There are many theorists who have rebelled against the assumptions of classical physics, and they point out that quantum mechanics might hold the key to consciousness. Carter devotes over 50 pages in the chapter Physics and Consciousness where he gives a very clear and lucid picture of quantum mechanics, and tries to show how it could explain consciousness. Readers familiar with quantum mechanics would know that the apparent observer-induced change in an atom’s mode of existence is called the collapse of the wave function. In other words, the conclusion of the experiment depends upon the conscious observer. Hence, some theorists propose that the collapse of the wave function cannot be a physical process; instead, the intervention of something from outside of physics is required. Something that is not subject to the laws of quantum mechanics, and the only such entity is consciousness.