Out-of-body experiences explained... or are they?
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of the original painting La Gare De Perpignan by Salvador Dali.
In my newly-released book, Brief Peeks Beyond, I dedicate a whole chapter to exploring the mainstream media's bias towards the metaphysics of materialism when reporting on scientific results. I illustrate this with examples from research on consciousness, memory and psychoactive substances. My claim is that the media too easily errs on the side of materialism, with the net result of hyping misinterpretations of scientific observations. Even in cases where these observations contradict materialism, they are spun – sometimes shockingly – so to apparently confirm it. This constitutes a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle that renders the materialist metaphysics virtually immune to cultural criticism.
As it turns out, in the past couple of days another, perhaps less dramatic but nonetheless significant example of this has come to light. The Mail Online has published an article titled 'Brain scans reveal what happens during an out-of-body experience.' The article goes on to say that 'They have been interpreted as evidence of the existence of a soul and even life after death, but now scientists may have unravelled what is going on when people have out-of-body experiences.' It then claims that the scientific finding 'suggests abnormal brain activity may lie behind out-of-body experiences.' So here we have a mainstream media piece claiming that science may have finally explained out-of-body experiences (OBEs) in a reductionist way, consistent with the metaphysics of materialism. Alas, it would appear that the brain is the mind and all those OBEs that seem to show otherwise are perfectly explainable. But is this really a fair interpretation of what the article itself reports, when looked at critically?
First of all, let us recapitulate why OBEs have been considered an anomaly under the materialist metaphysics. During an OBE, a person is said to gain a point-of-view on the world that isn't consistent with the space-time position of her body. In other words, she can allegedly view the world as if she were out of her body. For instance, the person may physically be lying in bed in her house but witness events in another city as if she were present there. The credibility of any OBE report arises from the veridical details it may contain. For instance, if a person can accurately report details of a conversation taking place in another city – and assuming that tricks or lies can be discarded – during a time when the person was lying in her bed, then this is a veridical element that can be independently verified. In this brief essay, I am not interested in arguing for the validity of any specific veridical report – this has been done by many others in the literature – but simply highlight the incontrovertible fact that it is those veridical elements, whatever they may be, that legitimize OBEs. Therefore, any attempt to explain OBEs in a materialist, reductionist manner must either refute all veridical elements reported or explain, under materialism, how a person can correctly report events outside the range of the person's five senses.
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The study reported in the Mail Online does neither. As the article itself explains, what scientists did was to fit volunteers with special video headsets displaying images captured by a remote camera affixed to another person's head. This way, they created the illusion that the volunteer was experiencing the world from another person's point of view. The volunteer was then put inside a brain scanner where his or her brain activity was measured. As it turns out, the areas of the brain correlated with our sense of location in space displayed anomalous activity. Now stop and consider this critically: is there anything really surprising about this? If I am a volunteer and I get fitted with some unnatural headgear that artificially feeds me with the visual field of another person, in another location, of course my sense of location in space will be altered. The whole situation is highly anomalous and unnatural, how could my brain activity remain normal?
Most importantly, does this result explain the veridical aspects of an OBE? I blush to have to explain this: it was the scientists themselves, through the video headset and the remote camera, who gave the volunteers remote sensory access to another location in space. No volunteer had an actual OBE at any point in this study. Obviously, the question that needs to be answered to truly explain a veridical OBE is: how can people witness distant events when they are not fitted with video headsets linked to remote cameras? As such, this study doesn't provide any materialist explanation for OBEs at all. That the headlines suggest so is a rather blatant sign of materialism's virtuous cycle of self-reinforcement so generously enabled by the media; a sign of the materialist stigmergy, or 'bottom-up conspiracy,' discussed in Brief Peeks Beyond. Even the original scientific paper itself is clear regarding the scope of its conclusions. The authors write:
These results extend our understanding of the role of the posterior parietal and medial temporal cortices in spatial cognition by demonstrating that these areas not only are important for ecological behaviors, such as navigation and perspective taking, but also support the perceptual representation of the bodily self in space. (Summary)In other words, the results simply show the role of certain brain areas in our internal representation of our own body's position in space. It has nothing to do with explaining the veridical aspects of OBEs, or even the origin of non-veridical imagery.
As I write in Brief Peeks Beyond,
the key insight here is how, through lack of rigor and misplaced enthusiasm, an entirely undemonstrated notion can be hyped by the mainstream media to the point of looking fully established. ... I suspect that many journalists feel safe to exaggerate if they’re backed by the clout of the mainstream metaphysics; what could go wrong, right? (Pages 82-83)
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