A couple of people emailed me links to Gerald Woerlee's review of Jeffrey Long's new book about near-death experiences, Evidence of the Afterlife. I haven't read Long's book, but the review itself makes interesting reading. It shows clearly how the prison of a particular paradigm can box in a person's thoughts, rendering even the most intelligent critic rather silly.
A prime example is found in Woerlee's analysis of veridical perceptions of NDErs. After noting that NDErs who report out-of-body experiences sometimes give accurate accounts of what people around them were doing, wearing, saying, etc., he writes:
Observers see with physical light waves, and hear with physical sound waves. But the supposedly disembodied consciousness of a person undergoing an out of body experience is immaterial, and this has major provable consequences.
The immaterial disembodied consciousness of a person undergoing an out of body experience does not interact with physical matter at all, because it can depart from the body, actually passing through the solid matter of the body, and even pass through solid walls. Accordingly, the disembodied consciousness cannot possibly hear, because it would also have no interaction with sound waves in air...
The disembodied consciousness of a person undergoing an out of body experience is invisible and has no interaction with physical matter. These things mean it cannot be seen, and cannot be photographed or imaged at any wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum. Accordingly, the disembodied consciousness of a person undergoing an out of body experience does not interact with light at all, which means it cannot possibly see anything...
So how can [the] consciousness of a person undergoing an out of body experience hear and see? The answer is evident. The very fact that people do report observing verifiable things during out of body experiences, means that the apparently disembodied consciousness of a person undergoing an out of body experience sees with physical light waves, and hears with physical sound waves. After all, if this were not the case, these same observations could not be confirmed by observers present near the person at the time of the out of body experience. But an immaterial consciousness cannot see and hear, which means that people undergoing out of body experiences hear with their ears, see with their eyes, and build images of all that occurs within their minds.
This somewhat repetitious passage seems designed to drill one point into our heads: that because NDErs and OBErs report visual and auditory experiences, they must be using their physical senses.
But this merely begs the question. The whole issue is whether some form of consciousness, which includes perception, can operate independent of the physical body (and the physical senses). Nothing Woerlee has written can establish that such perception does not take place, since, clearly, if it does take place, it will function according to some mechanism that is not yet understood.
Woerlee's materialistic outlook leads him to assume that the only possible form of perception is via the physical senses, which collect data from a physical world. But if so, how to explain the many well-documented cases of remote viewing, in which a clairvoyant is able to accurately describe a location many miles - even thousands of miles - away?
Presumably, Woerlee would reject all evidence for remote viewing out of hand, on the basis that (according to his materialistic presumptions) such a phenomenon is impossible. Again, however, this is begging the question.
Far be it from me to explain how remote viewing and NDEs work, but I can offer a suggestion: maybe the physical universe consists ultimately of information. If so, then possibly consciousness, when disembodied, can decode this information directly, translating it into the familiar terms of pictures and sounds. Something like this is implied by Robert Lanza's book Biocentrism and by Brian Whitworth's theory of the universe as a virtual reality environment (PDF). (I discuss both Lanza and Whitworth here.)
One interesting quirk of remote viewing is that sometimes the target location is accurately described according to its appearance many years ago, or even its appearance at some point in the future (later confirmed), rather than its present appearance. This can happen even when the remote viewer is not consciously attempting to access a different time period. Some remote viewers have even specialized in retrocognition - seeing the past - in order to assist archaeologists in finding new places to dig. Stephan A. Schwartz's books detail his successful experiments in this area.
It would appear that what the remote viewer perceives is a data set connected with that location, but it can be a data set linked to just about any time period. The time period is just one more coordinate, along with the geographical coordinates of the site. If the universe is akin to a virtual reality simulation, then the remote viewer apparently is accessing the data files directly; consciousness itself renders the images out of these data.
I'm not saying that this hypothesis is correct, only that it is one way of looking at it. The simplistic view that the ultimate nature of reality must be physical, and therefore accessible only through the physical senses, is a metaphysical assumption, not a statement of "provable" fact.
In addition to begging the question, Woerlee also engages in rather crude equivocation on the meaning of the words "conscious" and "unconscious." He argues:
An out of body experience is indisputably a conscious experience. After all, an unconscious person has no experiences. An unconscious person hears nothing, sees nothing, and experiences nothing. So even though the physical body of a person undergoing an out of body experience is seemingly unconscious, they are nonetheless very conscious, and only appear unconscious... Accordingly, veridical perceptions of seeing things, people and events, as well as hearing sounds and speech during out of body experiences are due to the apparently unconscious person actually seeing and hearing these things.
Get that? A person who is in cardiac arrest, or in a coma, or clinically dead, is nevertheless conscious if he has an NDE. He must be - because he is having a conscious experience. QED!
Clearly this argument depends on shifting the meaning of the term "consciousness." No one denies that NDErs are conscious in the sense that their consciousness is still operating. Indeed, this is the whole point of the massive NDE literature. The contention of survivalists, however, is that the NDEr's mind (or spirit) remains conscious even though his body is inert and unconscious. In other words, a distinction is drawn between being physically unconscious (or dead) and being mentally unconscious (or dead).
You might think that no one could make such a poor argument innocently, and that Woerlee is deliberately trying to confuse his readers. But I don't think so. I think he sincerely believes this is a knockdown, slam-dunk argument. From the point of view of strident materialism, there simply cannot be a distinction between mental and physical awareness.
The same attitude surfaces in Woerlee's rejection of other evidence for NDEs. He dismisses Kenneth Ring's investigation of visual experiences in blind NDErs by saying that even the ones who were blind from birth might not have been completely blind, or might have been able to distinguish light and dark. But how could the simple ability to sense light and dark lead to elaborate visual perceptions, including (in one case) the accurate description of the colors and pattern of a necktie? Woerlee says the tie must have been described to the patient, but the patient has no recollection of this, so Woerlee's explanation is pure conjecture. But for Woerlee it has to be true, because the contrary - that the blind patient actually perceived the tie in some nonphysical way - is literally unthinkable for him.
I don't want to leave the impression that Woerlee's review is entirely without interest. As an anesthesiologist, he has extensive experience in the operating room, and provides some interesting perspectives on cases where anesthetized patients report veridical perceptions. Here the million-dollar question is whether the presumably minimal, sketchy, and disorganized level of brain activity possible under anesthesia (or, for that matter, during cardiac arrest, even with heart massage) can adequately explain the vivid perceptions and complex narratives of NDEs. I've been told that Woerlee will be interviewed by Skeptiko in the near future. Hopefully he can expand on this issue in that forum.
Overall, however, it seems that Woerlee is so committed to his materialistic outlook that he honestly cannot imagine any other way of interpreting the evidence. Perhaps he would benefit from taking another look at visual perceptions of NDErs who were blind from birth ... and to keep in mind the old adage, "None so blind as those who will not see."