May 06 2014

Afterlife Debate

I will be involved in a debate Wednesday evening (May 7th) at the Kaufman center in New York.

The debate will be from 6:45 to 8:30pm.

The debate is hosted by Intelligence squared, which hosts a series of such debates. While tickets are sold out, the debate will be live streamed. I have embeded the stream below, or you can see the stream here: 

The specific topic is “Death is not Final”

Against this proposition will be me and Sean Carroll. Sean is  a physicist, so he will cover the physics angle, while I will cover the neuroscience.

For the proposition will be Eben Alexander, author of Proof of Heaven, and Raymond Moody, author of Life after Life.

The evening promises to be very interesting, so please tune in.

You can view the live stream of the debate here:

35 responses so far

35 thoughts on “Afterlife Debate”

  1. grabula says:

    Good like Dr. Novella, I’ll miss this live but hoping to catch in on youtube or something afterwards.

  2. EvanHarper says:

    I will look forward to this.

    I hope this doesn’t seem off-topic or mean, but looking at those thumbnail images: you should really get proper headshots taken by a professional photographer. It’s not at all vain or egotistical for a public person to do this; and it’s absolutely staggering to a non-photographer how much better all of the little details of pose and lighting will make you look. As we know, people do form opinions based on fluff like this.

  3. Pixy Misa says:

    I was about to recommend that you watch Sean Carroll’s lecture on Youtube on the fundamental nature of reality, and how Quantum Field Theory precludes any sort of afterlife. And then I saw that you’ve done one better. 🙂

    For those who haven’t seen the video, it’s here:

  4. Lumen2222 says:

    I love these debates. You should link to the podcast feed for this group. They release them for free, so anyone who cannot tune into the live stream should be able to listen later when it is more convenient.

    The format is kind of fun. The audience is polled when it walks in the door about their opinion on the topic (for/against/undecided) The “winners” are chosen based on who can sway the bigger percentage of the audience to their side of the proposition. I suspect you and Sean are going to be the underdogs though, at least in this type of debate structure. Even the people who claim to be “undecided” (and I’ll be curious to see how many claim that position to start) are almost certainly going to have a strong predisposition towards one side already. Not that it matters who “wins” in these. It’s the opportunity to present a solid argument and plant some seeds that is important.

    Also I agree Evan. It’s time to get a professional head shot. Being more than passingly familiar with New Haven I’m going to suggest you save some time and call over to the School of Drama and ask if they can recommend someone local. Their acting graduates go through this every year so they should be able to give you some reliable options.

  5. Johnny says:

    I suspect Daniel Loxton will not be entirely happy with a skeptic (in his official capacity as a skeptic) debating about what he views as a metaphysical question.

    Interesting nonetheless. I may not be able to watch this live due to my timezone. Hopefully it will be uploaded for later watching.

  6. Lumen2222 says:

    Based on the panel, I’m guessing that Dr. Novella is actually on it in his “official capacity” as a neurologist. The “for” side features a Neurosurgeon who wrote a book about the afterlife that heavily references his career and credentials. The blurb says it’s called “Proof of Heaven” But it’s full title is “Proof of Heave: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife”

  7. Johnny says:

    Lumen2222: This very blogpost is categorized under “Paranormal” and “Skepticism”.

  8. Bill Openthalt says:

    Johnny —

    Why do we care about what Daniel Loxton thinks (or how this blogpost is categorized)?

  9. Lumen2222 says:

    I’m merely pointing out that it’s Dr. Novella’s career specialty that makes him the appropriate choice to counter the neurosurgeon in this debate, not his activism as a skeptic. If a neurosurgeon is going to write pop culture books about an afterlife where he makes claims based on his medical expertise, than it is entirely appropriate to have another professional in a similar expertise produce a counter argument. To say that a skeptic should not debate it because it’s a metaphysical issue is beside the point. The “For” debater has already dragged it into the realm of neuroscience, and that should be answered.

    Frankly Sean Carroll seems the odd person out here, as both of the “For” debaters are medical professionals. I’ll be curious to see how they handle his assertions, though I suspect it would be more interesting if they had found a physicist to counter him. We’ll see, I suppose.

  10. nybgrus says:

    I hope I will be able to watch a recorded version later on as I have a previous engagement to meet an astronaut and learn about the challenges of building the ISS.

  11. BillyJoe7 says:

    That’s 8:45am Thursday in my time zone.
    Unfortunately, I’ll be on my way to work.

  12. tmac57 says:

    nygbrus-As Lumen222 pointed out,this is an Intelligence Squared podcast as well,and can be picked up in iTunes or Sticher for later listening.

  13. Fair Persuasion says:

    Certainly, death is not final. There is always American taxes on the estate of the deceased and their last bills.

  14. nybgrus says:

    Thanks tmac57! I hadn’t actually read through the comments before posting as I was in a rush.

    And as for Sean Carroll being part of the team – I venture that he will provide the fundamental physical sciences that preclude the possibility of some sort of “soul” (i.e. energy) existing that can then go “somewhere else” in the cosmos (perhaps outside the universe, but must still technically be in the cosmos). That’s my guess anyways.

  15. Lukas1986 says:

    I just hope that the believer side will not mention that the AWARE study was a success like Parnia did who went on to claim that there is life after death in the last debate where Dr. Kevin Nelson was, when it was not the case – no one saw the images:

    “During the AHA meeting, Dr. Sam Parnia, head of intensive care at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York, reported early results of a 25-hospital study of how frequently cardiac arrest survivors see or hear things while their hearts are stopped. Of 152 survivors interviewed, 37 percent said they had recollections from the unconscious period. Only two recalled actually seeing events and one described any events that could be verified. None saw images mounted in the treatment room as part of the experiment.”

    Taken from:

  16. tyro says:

    Did anyone catch that alleged quote Eben Alexander fired out about Sagan? I was shocked when he tried that – if he’s wrong and I’m guessing he is – it’s such a trivial thing to check which would make him look really dishonest. I gotta check it out for myself. It’s like a bet, Novella v Alexander in “SAGAN QUOTE-OFF”! 🙂

  17. the devils gummy bear says:

    Page 302, Demon Haunted World. Got it. Thumbing through my copy now. Standby…

  18. the devils gummy bear says:

    Yeah, Sagan, to paraphrase, said the children remembering past life memories is probably not valid and is at best dubious.

    All I can say, as I’m watching this live, is Alexander flat out lied and misrepresented Sagan… Deliberate misrepresentation…

  19. grabula says:

    I was only able to catch the last 30 minutes but congrats to Dr. Novella and Sean Caroll for “winning”. I was a little surprised at the end during closing statements the audience appeared to clap more enthusiastically for the Pro side but I guess I was misdirected.

  20. Paulz says:

    Raymond Moody couldn’t make a coherent argument the entire time.
    Eben Alexander was a crank who accepts telekinesis, telepathy, and more.

    That’s some weak opposition right there.

    I wanted to reach through the screen and tear Alexander’s face off when he lied about the Demon-Haunted World and Carl Sagan.

  21. DevoutCatalyst says:

    The old Psychic Friend’s Network gambit, haha.

  22. Rogue Medic says:

    Here is the full Sagan quote from page 301 of the paperback book.

    The chapter is “The Marriage of Scepticism and Wonder.”

    The final paragraph is what is relevant. Sagan is not saying he believes these are valid, but only that we should investigate them further because of the tiny possibility of them being valid. That is – as opposed to everything else that has much less than that tiny possibility of being valid.

    “Perhaps one percent of the time, someone who has an idea that smells, feels, and looks indistinguishable from the usual run of pseudoscience will turn out to be right. Maybe some undiscovered reptile left over from the Cretaceous period will indeed be found in Loch Ness or the Congo Republic; or we will find artifacts of an advanced, non-human species elsewhere in the Solar System. At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study:
    (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers;
    (2) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation;
    (3) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them.
    I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true. The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong.”


  23. Adaboi says:

    What a wonderful debate. I thought Dr. Novella would have a tough time following Sean Carroll’s opening statement as he, in my opinion, outright won the debate right there but Dr. Novella followed it up with an excellent point about how the mind is a byproduct of the brain.

    Having not known very much about Dr. Alexander beforehand (outside of the book and previous mentions by SGU) I was really surprised that he brought up telepathy, remote viewing and all sorts of other nonsense. How he comes to this conclusion after a near death experience is beyond me. He wasn’t just trying to prove life after death, but several other pseudosciences that probably even Dr. Moody would have found crazy (by his own earlier admission about being skeptical of pseudoscience). Or perhaps I am just giving Dr. Moody too much credit. After all, he didn’t really bring much to the debate except for his policy of “This is a Philosophical argument only”. It was framed as a scientific debate, so I really question his involvement.

    Dr. Alexander’s Carl Sagan reference in The Demon Haunted World is also taken out of context. Allow me to reproduce the actual paragraph Dr. Alexander was referring to.

    “At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP Field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.”

    Sounds like Dr. Alexander was right! But wait, there’s more. Carl Sagan continues…

    “I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might [Adaboi – MIGHT is emphasized in italics] be true. The last three have some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong.”

    Not only was Carl already skeptical of these claims, but these claims have been put to rest by further research since the book came out. Carl made this point because a pseudoscientific claim may one day turn out to be true and that we should be open minded even if an idea has been labeled as pseudoscience. This is the point Dr. Alexander should have emphasized, not that Carl claimed this as factual.

  24. Attila says:

    Thank you for the quote Rogue. I have been tearing my house apart looking for my copy of the Demon Haunted World because I wanted to fact check that as well.

    Bottom line from their argument. Life after death is real you just can’t depend on science or logic to prove it for you. WTF.

  25. Roman says:

    What an unalloyed pleasure it was, to watch this extremely civilized debate. A stellar performance by Drs Novella and Carroll!

    @ Lumen2222, thank you kindly for the links to the podcast download.

  26. pro.reason says:

    Great job Steve and Sean. You were formidable opponents.

    As for the other team… Wow. It was actually uncomfortable listening to Moody’s comments as they came across as almost entirely vacuous – pure wishful thinking. Not a shred of scientific skepticism in that man. And Alexander strikes me as the type who will forever remain unswayed no matter what evidence or logic is presented. Too much riding on keeping his current belief system… $$$.

    As clear as the win was, you have to wonder how ANY undecided’s were swayed to the “For the motion” side.

  27. Junkey says:

    Here is the video if anyone missed it.

  28. Ian Wardell says:

    I watched it. It was a complete waste of time. The 2 skeptics gave every impression that they have no conception whatsoever of the mind-body problem, had no conception of the philosophical issues, and gave the impression that consciousness is a scientific problem which can ultimately be resolved by science.

    Novella kept saying that the mind is the brain? Er . . no it isn’t. That’s incoherent. Although to be charitable he might well have meant that the brain produces the mind. He said we know it does? As a scientist he really ought to be cognizant that correlations do not entail causation! And with brain/mind correlations we have many reasons to question a simple causal relationship — not that *any* of the 4 seemed to be aware of this.

    The only one of the 4 who at least knew what he was talking about to a certain degree was Raymond Moody!

    And why on earth was the filter model of the brain not mentioned??

  29. grabula says:

    @Ian Wardell

    I’m not going to bother to take apart your whole comment but here’s a few tasty bits I couldn’t ignore

    “As a scientist he really ought to be cognizant that correlations do not entail causation!”

    Except in this case it can be observed in tramautic brain injury and the changes wrought by those injuries. This fact seems to be missed the most by people who have a hard time understanding the science.

    “and gave the impression that consciousness is a scientific problem which can ultimately be resolved by science.”

    Why couldn’t it? Do you so misunderstand the scientific process that you believe there are things that lie beyond it?

    Moody was wishy washy and relies on anectdotal evidence to support his magic. That’s a horrible route. It shouldn’t, but it always does surprise me when someone who should understand the evidence, doesn’t. You’d think his experience would lead him to the water and convince him to drink. Instead he waves his hand and says many people agree there is no water, so it must be so.

  30. Ian – I said – the mind is what the brain does.

    I am well aware of the philosophical discussions of dualism. Just search for dualism on this blog and you will see many posts going into depth. Unfortunately, the conversation on dualism during the debate never came around to me.

    But – I did quickly address the correlation is not causation argument – the arrow of causation clearly goes from brain to mind, not the other way around, and not from some other third thing. When you change the brain, you change the mind, without practical limit as far as we can tell so far. This cannot be explained by the filter model. And I am not aware of any good reason to doubt the standard interpretation of causation.

  31. BillyJoe7 says:

    The proof that there is no life after death:

    i\gamma^\mu \partial_\mu \psi_e – m \psi_e = ie\gamma^\mu A_\mu \psi_e – \gamma^\mu\omega_\mu \psi_e .

  32. Ian Wardell says:

    It would have been much better if we people debating who knew their stuff. Keith Augustine for example for the skeptics. Perhaps Stephen Braude for the other side.

    grabula, let’s be clear, I’m not denying that brain injuries strongly suggest that the brain creates consciousness. I’m taking issue with Novella’s claim that it *compels* that conclusion.

    And you really don’t want me to go into details here do you why it’s not a scientific problem per se? (although of course science can inform the debate)

    Steven Novella, it seems to me to be untrue that the filter model cannot accommodate the evidence from changes to the mind brought about by brain damage. Materialists have a certain conception of the “self” (in quotes since materialists can’t believe in a self properly speaking, only the *sense* of self). That “self” is basically the sum of our psychological propensities, our moods, intelligence, dispositions and so on.

    Those who subscribe to the survival hypothesis on the other hand have a different conception of the self where such psychological propensities are properties of that self rather than constituting the self.

  33. The various transmission or filter hypotheses of the mind suffer from several severe problems.

    They do not adequately account for the tight correlation between brain activity and mental activity, from every angle, including altering brain function in various ways and its increasingly predictable affect on mental function.

    Also, it does not account well for what the brain is actually for if it is not responsible for mental activity.

    And finally, such notions as the brain as transmitter or filter are simply unnecessary. They add nothing to our understanding of consciousness, and they make not falsifiable predictions. It is simply an unnecessary step that Occam would slice away.

    Evidence from neuroscience compels the conclusion that the mind is what the brain does, as much as any scientific evidence compels the most consistent and straightforward conclusion.

  34. M_Morgan says:

    Dr Novella, I am sceptical about the sufficiency of “brain” to encompass “mind”. I have written about the connection in a piece available at The idea is to broaden to neurons generally, and not merely those in the brain, as a first step. Its surprising where this can develop.
    For example, receptors and effectors are at all sites of anatomy – distributed throughout. They “finalize” by firing in the brain for the experience of awareness (both thoughts and feelings) after firing at sites for recognition of site events (sight, sound, touch, viscera, etc etc).

    They also fire in the brain in for anticipation of site events in the same process – as recognition-anticipation, or sensory-motor. The brain processes a response to recognition, as anticipation, as inputs become outputs to give effective responses. By recognition-anticipation we can condition ourselves to produce responsive motor moves – developed from childhood. We can condition useful collections of stimulation from the world because we also stimulate ourselves and our motor responses become a literal frame (literally anatomically, and in thoughts and feelings) for collections of stimulation from a world. We are aware of our own moves, and their collections in the world. We frame our collections by our moves, to a very complete anatomical and neural frame explained in my work. In fact it is so complete and comprehensive, we have the impression that we have Free Will, and that we occupy a pivotal position in a world for many choices around us, literally (and reasoning about them).

    Dr Novella, we are completely immersed in a world in every way, from breath, to morsel, to gravity, and warmth, and our diverse anatomical sites have sensory receptors and motor effectors to use a brain as their junction for signal finalizations. The neural cycle is continual, and all site diversities (from “nose to toes”) can be integrated in a brain for integrated (and coordinated) outputs to be sent in response to inputs. Diversity becomes integrated after 100 milliseconds or so for an intact experience as the cycle continually finalizes in the brain while flowing in from and out to sites. At sites, neurons are diverse, but by integration using the processing delay we can identify and anticipate (sensory-motor) before responsive outputs from an “intact and integrated” brain back out to diverse sites to move them to collect – but coordinated and prioritized to circumstances as they change in the world, as we change from prioritized touching to seeing to hearing, or whatever. Outputs are well coordinated by being sent from an integrated brain back to diverse sites in the cycle.

    By laying out the process in this way, it is clear that the brain is the junction for receptors and effectors at sites of anatomy and completely bound to them. Of course any damage to that essential junction, which finalizes and integrates diverse site inputs, will alter the experience of awareness. However, plasticity shows the fundamental importance of site conditioning to overcome many deficits – both to sites (missing limbs as phantoms) and the brain (bypassing damaged regions). Consequently, we need to consider sites as “causal”, and see the brain as a rapid automatic facilitator for manual site functions to literally be aware of their functions in the world.

    I hope you get to read my work, as it goes far far beyond what I have written here, which is merely a tipple in your blog. You might be interested in my ideas about “language”, for example, as I have a complete and simple theory consistent with the above. Languages are about our functional interfaces with a world, and must encompass the world’s objective facts while being a subjective construct – thus we endlessly reason to greater satisfaction that our subjective view is more objective using languages affectively to do so. Knowledge evolves as the use of effective language evolves. I hope you find my work both an example of effective language and of advanced knowledge (they, ideally, go together).

  35. Luoge says:

    You have made some somewhat shaky assertions, both in the debate, and here in your comments. You stated, for example, that it is shown that consciousness is definitely produced by the brain.

    But the brain-as-mediator model has bot yet been ruled out. We can tamper with a TV set and modify its behaviour just as a neurosurgeon can do with a brain. We can shut down some, or all, of its functioning, and we can stimulate to show specific responses. And yet no neurologist is known to have thought that the TV studio was inside the TV set.

    So, you cannot be 100% certain that the brain is the source of consciousness.

    In response to the claim that neuroscience has no viable theory as to how consciousness can arise, you responded that the afterlife proponents do not have one either. But this is not entirely true.

    First of all, you are presumably aware of the double-slit experiment, that has been repeated many times around the world, and which shows that the consciousness of an observer appears to affect how particles behave. (No neuroscientist can explain how a particle might know when somebody is watching it.) And you are probably also aware of the Quantum Zeno effect, where it has been shown that a particle will not change state while it is being observed. You have probably also seen recent research, by Anirban Bandyopadhyay, showing quantum effects inside a cell’s microtubules. It does not require a brain scientist to figure out that an external consciousness source (such as a Soul) could play the brain (as one might play a musical instrument) by observing or not observing particles inside a neuron’s microtubules, making use of the Zeno effect, so that the neuron will fire, or not fire, according to the wishes of that consciousness source.

    That is somewhat more of a theory than the neuroscientists themselves have provided so far.

    You could also have a look at the theories of physicist Tom Campbell, starting with his “MyBigTOE” website, which also offer, in quite a simple way, more answers than the brain-as-source theories can provide.

    You state that there is no reason to consider the brain-as-mediator effect, since you believe the brain as source to be fully satisfying. Well, in that you do not have an actual brain-based consciousness mechanism in view, this cannot be entirely correct. And there is also evidence of consciousness occurring outside of the brain. You dismiss such evidence as not being extraordinary enough to warrant serious consideration. This is hardly a scientific approach.

    The claim that consciousness might arise from the complex workings of physical matter is itself an extraordinary claim. How can one envisage a bunch of molecules going into rhapsodies over the beauty of a brightly starlit sky, or laughing at the absurd humour of Monty Python? Surely that is far too extraordinary a claim for anybody to be able to accept it as an Article of Faith, as you seem to have done!

    It seems that you are applying a double standard when you will readily believe one extraordinary claim, and even proclaim it to be the indisputable truth, while totally scorning another extraordinary claim as being too way out.

    “Extraordinary”, like beauty, rests in the eye of the observer.

    And there is evidence for the claim that you reject. When you dismiss Near Death Experiences as being merely what the brain does, you do not attempt to account for veridical accounts, such as when a patient under anaesthesia, and eyes closed, can correctly describe events in another room, correctly report that a relative, not known to the patient to have died, is there with the other deceased relatives.

    Nor is the brain-based theory able to account for apparitions of the dead, particularly those in which the perceived had not yet received news of the person’s death. (This is reported, for example, by the Guggenheims in their “Hello from Heaven” chronicles.)

    Nor can it account for the thousands of cases of verifiable memories of past lives in children, as recorded in the research of Drs Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker.

    Nor can it account for the positive results of research with mediums, such as that of the Windbridge Institute, or the Scole Experiments, or the Criss- Correspondences, or even the results of Dr Gary Schwartz, who was loudly scorned in the course of the debate for his removal of the possibility of “cold reading” from his experimental sessions. (Scorn does indeed seem to be the primary tool of sceptics when they are faced with data that they dislike. No sceptic has ever offered to repeat his experiments to show how he could have achieved his results.)

    Until all of these phenomena can be properly (and not merely speculatively) accounted for, then there certainly is a reason to entertain the theory of brain-as-mediator, as an alternative to the brain-as-source theory of consciousness.

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