AUTHOR: Richard Barager | POSTED: 10/28/10 11:34 PM
CATEGORIES: Near-Death Experiences, The Literary Doctor
“I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” — Woody Allen
Near-death experiences, as first reported by Raymond Moody in Life After Life, typically consist of patients leaving their bodies and floating above their own Code Blues—essentially watching themselves die—before passing through a dark tunnel toward a brilliant light while in a state of serene ecstasy. Such accounts, which now number in the millions, have been uniformly consistent across different age groups, cultures, races, and religions.
An article by Melinda Beck in the October 25 edition of The Wall Street Journal describes a multi-hospital study in which investigators suspend specific images—face up—from the ceilings of emergency rooms and intensive care units in an attempt to verify claims of patients who report out-of-body experiences after being successfully resuscitated. The study, which has yet to report even preliminary results, seeks not only to authenticate such experiences, but to use its findings to help settle a question that has fascinated philosophers since the days of Aristotle: Does human consciousness—the mind—exist separately from the human body?
The seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes believed it did. His theory of Cartesian dualism asserts that mind is not matter, but rather a nonphysical, immaterial substance capable of interacting, in a causal way, with the material body. The so-called mind-body problem, then, arises from the implausibility of this assertion: How can existential vapors of an immaterial nature cause the material body of a human being to get up out of a chair and stretch? How can the mind cause the body to do anything if the mind is not itself part of the body?
In the nineteenth century, Arthur Schopenhauer termed the conundrum of consciousness “the world knot,” and was pessimistic an explanation for the mind would ever be discovered. But much has changed since then. Contemporary neuroscientists and philosophers regard consciousness—the mind, that thing apart that registers thought, memory, awareness—not as the immaterial stuff of Descartes, but as the result of processes of the physical brain, a neurobiological event that can be explained entirely by the sequential firing of specific neuronal circuits. A previous post of this blog discussed a paper on the biology of empathy that even named the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex as the brain’s empathy centers, capable of creating feelings of sympathy for other human beings.
So what about near-death experiences? Did patients who have had them briefly straddle a spiritual DMZ between Heaven and Earth? Or can these incidents be explained on a neurobiological basis, the firing of spent brain cells in a specific way as the brain begins to die, a final common pathway of neuronal death that results in a reproducible perception of out-of-body floating and tunnels of tranquility leading to white light?
As the mission statement of this blog maintains, scientific method is not the only way to learn. Stories can instruct us, too. Stories that are textured, layered, with complex meanings embedded in their narratives in a manner beyond the capacity of empiric reasoning to convey. So what does the world of contemporary fiction have to say about the nature of consciousness?
I’m glad you asked.
A pair of novels by Barnard philosophy professor Rebecca Goldstein—The Mind-Body Problem and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God—explore this very question. I refer you to the 1983 New York Times review of The Mind-Body Problem and to this year’s Washington Post review of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God for full-length book reviews of each, but suffice it to say that Goldstein is a witty, intelligent, and mostly accessible writer—though she does succumb at times, as you might expect of a philosophy professor, to fits of academic indulgence and narrative wandering before finding her way back to the main thread of her engaging stories.
More importantly, though, she does what a good novelist should do: considers all sides of the argument and in the end leaves the reader to decide. Though a credible case for atheism and the mind-as-extension-of-the-brain is made in these two novels, one could just as easily conclude from them that the mind and soul may not ever be discoverable by scientific method, because they are infinitely intangible and not part of the observable universe. Rebecca Goldstein loosens Schopenhauer’s world knot, perhaps, but she does not untie it.
What about you? Where do you think consciousness resides?