Despite cries of “Follow the science!” and “Listen to the science!” it’s healthy to be reminded of the limits to what science can tell us. Often, those limits come into play in their starkest form when the focus is on the issues that matter to us most. The topics in science that are best understood tend to be of more modest significance for our lives.
As an example, public health science has flailed in its response to the coronavirus, the subject on everyone’s mind at the moment. Evolutionary science flails (even as it denies doing so) in answering the ultimate question anyone can ask: How did we, as complex biological beings, come to be here?
The Mandate of Naturalism
The pattern holds when it comes to another profound concern: What lies on the other side of dying? Neuroscience has sought to beat back the reality of reports pointing to an existence beyond death. Near death experiences (NDE) violate the mandate of naturalism: everything must be explained in material terms, which is impossible to do if an immaterial soul can separate from the body.
At Mind Matters, however, neurosurgeon and neuroscientist Michael Egnor explains that accounts of NDEs can’t be explained in any strict materialist fashion. Individuals in NDEs may return with perceptions of what was going on around them when they were “dead” or near-dead that their own physical senses could not have captured. Nor are the experiences like states of intoxication, where weird things are also reported. With NDEs, memory is enhanced not blunted.
There are other reasons for thinking that these experiences involve a genuine out-of-body journey. As Dr. Egnor notes, NDEs have been reported across cultures and down through history, and are not more common among people whose faith tradition prompts them to expect a life after death. So this can’t be mere confirmation bias.
“Digging in the Wrong Spot”
Egnor notes the remarkable failure of neuroscience to explain not just NDEs but the entire relationship between the brain and mind:
It is as if cosmology had failed to tell us anything meaningful about the universe; or medical science failed to tell us anything about health and disease; or geology failed to tell us anything about rocks. Neuroscience has told us nothing — nothing — about how the brain gives rise to the mind. The Hard Problem, after two centuries of neuroscience and a vast trove of data, remains utterly unsolved.
Philosopher Roger Scruton (1944–2020) famously described neuroscience as “a vast collection of answers with no memory of the questions.” It seems reasonable to attribute this abject failure of neuroscience — and neuroscience is a failure (how many other scientific disciplines have utterly failed to explain the salient phenomenon of the system they study?) — to the rigid materialist bias of its practitioners. If you’ve been digging in the same spot for centuries and haven’t found the treasure, maybe you’ve been digging in the wrong spot.
The scientific challenge is to explain NDE’s, not to explain them away.
Read the rest of Mind Matters.
Materialism has the same problem with other profound questions we wonder about. Egnor asks, “How many other scientific disciplines have utterly failed to explain the salient phenomenon of the system they study?” I can think of one. In the context of evolution, you could reformulate his final sentence this way: “The scientific challenge is to explain the infusions of information in life’s history, the marvelous jumps and discontinues in the fossil record, the ultimate biological discontinues in the origin of life and in the origin of our species, not to explain these things away.” Evolutionary science, like neuroscience, will take a great step forward when everyone can agree that its mission is to explain, not explain away.