The Case for a Creator: TV Sets and Tennis Shoes

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

I was going to wrap up my review of chapter 10 with my previous post, but looking back over my notes, I see that Moreland and Strobel made a few more claims I wanted to address. Mostly, these consist of assertions that there’s evidence for the ability of the soul to leave the body and have thoughts and experiences in a disembodied state. Moreland doesn’t dwell on these at length, possibly because these sorts of claims are usually more identified with New Age belief systems than with Christianity. But Strobel did promise us science, and this is one of the few times that this chapter comes close to offering that, so I thought it was only fair to give these claims full consideration.

In their journal article, physician Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick… describe their study of sixty-three heart attack victims who were declared clinically dead but were later revived and interviewed. About ten percent reported having well-structured, lucid thought processes, with memory formation and reasoning, during the time that their brains were not functioning. [p.251]

The citation is to this Reuters article, which refers to a February 2001 article in the journal Resuscitation. I don’t have access to this journal, but if anyone who does wants to get in touch with me, it’d be much appreciated. [EDIT: I have it now - thanks to everyone who contacted me!]

Still, going by the material as presented, I see a fairly obvious fallacy here: Conscious experiences don’t have timestamps. Even if people revived from cardiac arrest reported having memories, how on earth could anyone know that those memories were formed while the brain was not functioning? How could you rule out the possibility that they were formed, for example, in the last few seconds of erratic neural activity before the brain’s oxygen supply was cut off, or when the brain resumed functioning once the patients were revived? Strobel makes no effort to explain this, and I greatly doubt that Parnia and Fenwick do either.

He speculated that the brain might serve as a mechanism to manifest the mind, much in the same way a television set manifests pictures and sounds from waves in the air. If an injury to the brain causes a person to lose some aspects of his mind or personality, this doesn’t necessarily prove that the brain was the source of the mind. “All it shows is that the apparatus is damaged,” he said. [p.251]

This analogy would make sense if damage to the brain could do nothing more than selectively eliminate aspects of consciousness, much the same way as damage to a TV might eliminate its ability to show color or to pick up certain channels. But that’s not what happens in human beings. There are countless cases where brain damage doesn’t remove but rather changes a person’s personality, giving them new personality traits, desires, beliefs, or habits that they never possessed before. To use Moreland’s analogy, no matter what kind of damage I do to my TV, it’s never going to show me a parallel universe where the New York Mets are a football team, or play an alternate version of Star Wars in which Darth Vader is the hero and Luke Skywalker is the villain. Something like that could only happen if the programming was being produced inside the TV and could be altered by specific kinds of damage. (Moreland’s apologetic also doesn’t explain cases where only part of a person’s consciousness has access to some information, such as we see in split-brain patients.)

“This happens in near-death experiences. People are clinically dead, but sometimes they have a vantage point from above, where they look down at the operating table that their body is on. Sometimes they gain information they couldn’t have known if this were just an illusion happening in their brain. One woman died and she saw a tennis shoe that was on the roof of the hospital. How could she have known this?” [p.257]

No source is given for this, but it’s clearly the infamous story of Kimberly Clark Sharp, which I discussed in a previous post on OBEs. This story is pure hearsay, and no well-designed scientific experiment has ever shown that people can take in information while in a disembodied state. (Some researchers have tried putting LED screens in operating rooms where they could only be seen by someone floating near the ceiling, but to no avail.)

But even if these stories are all fictitious, Moreland has one more laughably desperate argument to make: the fact that we can even conceive of such things proves that they’re true!

“And clearly these stories make sense, even if we’re not sure they’re true. We’ve got to be more than our bodies or else these stories would be ludicrous to us.” [p.257]

Whenever I see an argument like this, that our ability to imagine X proves that X exists, I apply “the Santa test”: Is there a real Santa Claus? Well, there are stories from many different cultures about saintly figures who give gifts to children during the winter holidays. And clearly, these stories make sense to us, even if we’re not sure they’re true. Does this mean there must be elven workshops and flying reindeer, just because we can form a clear conception of those things and don’t instinctively find them impossible or absurd? Or does it just mean that humans have the capability to imagine states of affairs that don’t exist in reality?

And lastly, Moreland favors us with another of his classic philosopher’s apologetics:

“I had a student a few years ago whose sister had a terrible accident on her honeymoon. She was knocked unconscious and lost all of her memories and a good bit of her personality….
    Now, we all knew this was the same person all along. This was Jamie’s sister. She was not a different person, though she was behaving differently…
    Now, if I were just my consciousness, when my consciousness was different, I’d be a different person. But we know that I can be the same person even though my consciousness changes, so I can’t be the same thing as my consciousness. I’ve got to be the ‘self,’ or soul, that contains my consciousness.” [p.260]

Moreland doesn’t attempt to explain how this hypothesis is compatible with the TV-antenna analogy discussed earlier, even though this case raises some interesting questions. If damage to the brain can cause you to lose your memories, doesn’t that imply that memory is stored in the brain and not in the soul? If so, how is it possible that people having an out-of-body experience can remember it when they’re revived later? (For that matter, how can a disembodied soul have experiences of any kind, if it doesn’t have sensory organs?)

To address the substance of his argument, let’s consider a parallel case: Am I the same person now that I was when I was four years old? Most people would probably say yes, since there’s an unbroken thread of physical and psychological continuity from me-then to me-now. But you could make an equally sensible and plausible argument that the answer is no. After all, if all my likes, beliefs and preferences are different now from what they were then – if even the atoms in my body have been replaced by the steady turnover of biological processes – then in what sense are we the same?

There’s no fact that could resolve this question one way or the other. The answer is just a matter of definition and convention. And the same is true for Moreland’s example: Whether Jamie’s sister before the accident and Jamie’s sister after the accident are the same person depends entirely on your definitions of “same” and “person”. Moreland has fallen into the philosopher’s trap of thinking that definitions create objective reality – that because we choose to call Jamie’s-sister-before-accident and Jamie’s-sister-after-accident the same person, this implies there must be some concrete, persisting thing for that definition to attach to. In fact, all it shows is how we choose to categorize objects in the world through our use of language. This is really a rather obvious and simple fallacy. Did Moreland the clever philosopher not notice it, or did he and Strobel just choose to overlook it?

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • silentsanta

    Hey there, just writing to let you know that I have emailed the article to your gmail account.

  • NoAstronomer

    “He speculated that the brain might serve as a mechanism to manifest the mind, much in the same way a television set manifests pictures and sounds from waves in the air.”

    Then why do other animals have brains? Do they have souls too? What a pile of cr*p!

  • penn

    I think you are definitely right that it is only a convenient convention to say we are the same person from moment to moment and year to year. We like continuity and we like concrete definitions. It’s like asking if the Mississippi River is the same river as it was 100 years ago. Well, water is still flowing through the same general vicinity, but the flow rate, water chemistry and ecology have changed a great deal. The actual water flowing through it changes every second. Rivers and people are just concepts, and we conceive of people through the physical and psychological continuity that you mentioned. Moreland runs into trouble by assuming that reality conforms to our conceptions instead of realizing that our conceptions are just useful ways of representing reality.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Perhaps next time you could choose a book that is less ludicrous. Give yourself more of a challenge. ;)

  • Monty

    I especially like your last point. I occasionally get questions like “do you think you are the same person you were X years ago?” and don’t have the slightest clue how to answer them.

    Also, I agree with SuperHappyJen. This is like playing darts against a blind person.

  • Valhar2000

    I don’t know, Jen, reading that load of crap would be an insurmountable challenge for me. I still can hardly believe that Ebon was capable of pushing through the pain and getting to the end.

  • javaman

    Evidence that NDE is caused be brain seizures from O2 depletion in the dying brain

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/medicine/article7140165.ece

  • http://www.jamichon.nl John A Michon

    Conscious experiences don’t have timestamps. Even if people revived from cardiac arrest reported having memories, how on earth could anyone know that those memories were formed while the brain was not functioning? How could you rule out the possibility that they were formed, for example, in the last few seconds of erratic neural activity before the brain’s oxygen supply was cut off, or when the brain resumed functioning once the patients were revived?

    This issue reminds me of Dan C. Dennett’s account of how people report/interpret their dreams. You may find that paper as ch. 8: ‘Are dreams experiences?’, in his volume “Brainstorms” (Harvester Press, 1978; pp 129-148). I use his presupposition as a plausible account of what happens to people who, surviving an near fatal accident, like falling off a cliff, report “My fall seemed endless and I saw my whole life happening in front of my eyes” or some such experience. One may ascribe such experiences to a state of overarousal and, if you like, ‘mental flooding’ caused by a frantic (hormone-driven) effort to retrieve from memory a life-saving action to perform. Afterward this, may leave the person with a feeling of being overwhelmed by recollections which, as in the case of Dennett’s dreamer, are then rationalized and put together into patterns of memories that make narrative sense (probably in ways that make them acceptable to others — e.g., rescuers, family, friends, reporters, creationists — as well as to themselves.

  • M.

    Actually, Ebon, you can make a much stronger argument.

    Modern neuroscience has shown that there is no possibility for immaterial soul* to exist, even though many people (including some who should know better, such as V.S. Ramachandran) are still denying it.

    There are many separate lines of evidence, strongest one having to deal with the nature of will and decision making processes. That one is, however, too difficult to explain in a comment (it would probably require a series of blog posts).

    But there is one piece of evidence that is simple and devastating: lack of compensatory activity after brain lesions.

    Think about it this way: you drive a car, and the gas pedal suddenly goes limp. The car accellerates out of control. You can still do a lot of things: you can hit the brakes, you can put the transmission into neutral, or you can turn off the engine. You are driving the car.

    Not so with brain injury. If an ability is destroyed, there is no compensation. If memory is gone, person acts and behaves as if that memory is destroyed. If there was an immaterial soul that still had the memory, it could alter the behavior (through still-functioning speech and movement centers). But there is no such compensation.

    An even better example for purposes of arguing with believers is morality. There are several classes of injuries to the prefrontal cortex which severely impair impulse control and moral reasoning. Now, if there is a good man with a good soul, that good soul controls his brain. The areas of the brain that control the body are intact, and operate perfectly. Yet the man goes on to commit crimes, or say immensely hurtful things. Where’s the soul?

    There is a lot more of that, and an incredible amount coming up. This is going to be the new battlefield in a decade or so, once these things percolate from scientific journals into the public arena.

    *(Just to deflect one obscurantist obfuscation that often pops up. We don’t have any idea what consciousness really is. Therefore, it is possible that pure consciousness survives death somehow. But the point of the above is that self doesn’t. Self is quite definitely the brain: everything that makes me me, and that makes you you, all the memories, opinions, ideas, emotions, etc. So if someone pulls the consciousness argument, you can say that yes, it is theoretically possible, but it doesn’t change the main point that immaterial soul does not exist.)

  • Lyra

    I looked up that article (I can send it to you if you want). First of all, only 7 out of 64 patients queried had any memories at all from their time of unconsciousness, and only 4 of those qualified as near-death experiences (apparently somebody made a scale to measure this stuff). The authors dismiss the possibility of the memories being formed before or after the period of brain inactivity as “unlikely” because the the transition to and from unconsciousness happens quickly. They also make no mention of the possibility that either the memories themselves or people’s reporting of them could easily be influenced by similar stories they’ve been exposed to (they do mention that near-death experiences have some commonalities across cultures which is probably intended to forestall this argument). The best part of the study, though, is that the researchers hung a board above the beds in all of the hospital rooms with something written on it, hoping that when one of the patients’ souls was floating around up there they would read what it said and thus be able to confirm that their experience was genuine (citing this book as evidence that such things have been known to happen). Unfortunately, none of the four subjects reported any out-of-body experience as part of their near-death memories. How frustrating; you know Home Depot is not going to let you return a board with a bunch of random stuff written on it, not even for store credit!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    1) Brain probe triggers out-of-body experiences
    Out-of-body experiences can be induced by stimulating a part of the brain called the right angular gyrus, Swiss researchers have discovered. They think a dysfunction in this region could account for the experience of leaving and floating above the body reported by some surgical and psychiatric patients.

    2) Suppose Kimberly Clark Sharp, or whoever claimed to see things from a perspective other than that of their body, actually had a mind which was separate from her brain, and which left her body during a NDE (near death experience) or OOBE (Out of body experience). How would that mind see anything? We understand vision pretty darn well; much better than we understand consciousness. We understand that photoreceptors such as those in the eye are necessary for vision. We understand that if someone’s eyes are covered, they can’t see anything. Even if that woman had a mind which left her brain, her eyes were still in her head down below on the operating table.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Here’s a point worth hitting on: If minds are not brains, then what exactly are brains (for)? It would seem like an awful waste to put these massively complex organs into our heads that consume an awful lot of energy for no real reason.

  • javaman

    Here is a great background article from Sci. Am. MIND by Ramachandran on out of body experienes and the drug Ketamine. Anybody like to share ?

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=hey-is-that-me-over-there

  • jack

    I’ve emailed several files relevant to this topic, including the one you requested.

    The idea that the brain is some kind of “receiver of consciousness”, like a radio or TV, is extremely popular among religious believers, New Agers and mystics of all stripes. It seems to be like a straw to a drowning man… not a real solution to their logical problem, but something to cling to in the face of the onslaught of neuroscientific knowledge. As others have pointed out, the radio/TV analogy is extremely lame and can be easily shot down using any of a great many lines of reasoning.

    I only have a couple of points to add to the discussion. One is made in one of the articles I sent you, the one by Christopher French of the University of London, which is a commentary on a similar study of NDEs by van Lommel (Lancet 2001 Dec 15;358(9298):2039-45). French points out that van Lommel did a follow-up study on his subjects after 2 years, including 37 control patients (i.e., patients who did NOT originally claim to have experienced NDEs in the original study). When asked 2 years later about their experience with surgery 2 years prior, four of these controls, about 10%, claimed to have had NDEs 2 years earlier.

    French argues that the most reasonable interpretation is that these are false memories, and that at least some of the other reports of NDEs are likely to be false memories as well.

    Another point (from me, not French): reports of NDEs or OBEs following surgery under general anesthesia are rare. By far the most common experience reported after general anesthesia is a complete and absolute absence of experience. The NDE believers claim that our consciousness survives death. We are told that when every neuron in the brain has died, after the entire brain liquefies in the skull and is then incinerated in a crematorium, our consciousness persists in some unspecified incorporeal state. If this is so, then why is consciousness so easily and so totally obliterated by the infusion of general anesthetics, a truly mild and trivial perturbation of brain physiology compared to the one just described?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I have a copy of the article now, thanks to several different people. I’ll review it and write a followup post in a few days. Thanks to everyone who helped me out!

    I still can hardly believe that Ebon was capable of pushing through the pain and getting to the end.

    Actually it wasn’t so bad, although my margin notes grew more and more exasperated near the end. :) Then again, I have to confess I’ve been known to read the Left Behind books for amusement…

    Modern neuroscience has shown that there is no possibility for immaterial soul* to exist, even though many people (including some who should know better, such as V.S. Ramachandran) are still denying it.

    Alas, M! Does Ramachandran really deny that? That would be disappointing: it was his books (among others) that first made me realize how potent an argument for atheism we have in modern neuroscience. Do you have a citation?

    Another point (from me, not French): reports of NDEs or OBEs following surgery under general anesthesia are rare. By far the most common experience reported after general anesthesia is a complete and absolute absence of experience.

    Another excellent point, Jack. If we all have souls, why doesn’t everyone who comes close to death have an NDE? Or maybe only some of us have souls, and the rest of us have nothing to look forward to but annihilation. Not a very comforting thought for the believer, although I could imagine some interesting theologies being built on that.

  • Snap

    It seems to me an important point is being overlooked in the quote above.

    “who were declared clinically dead but were later revived and interviewed. About ten percent reported having well-structured, lucid thought processes, with memory formation and reasoning, during the time that their brains were not functioning. [p.251]”

    These clinical deaths were almost certainly based upon lack of heart function, NOT brain death. Their brains certainly WERE “functioning” during these periods. Lack of consciousness does not equate to lack of brain function.
    Given that fact, I have never been able to understand why NDEs are considered so mysterious. The brain is still alive so why shouldn’t such experiences still be possible? No one finds it mysterious when they wake from the ‘unconsciousness’ of sleep and have memories of dreams etc.
    Anyway, my main point is to not let religious apologists equate death with anything other than brain-death. Nobody comes back from brain death (real death) with near-death experiences because they don’t come back at all!

  • Lyndi

    Regarding the “conscious experiences don’t have timestamps” idea… I have an unfortunate penchant for passing out. In every single case, I have vivid and lovely dreams (that are immediately lost in the commotion of everyone freaking out around me once I wake up); however my fainting spells don’t last more than 5-10 seconds. It’s easy for me to imagine that someone having an NDE would have ample time between close-to-death and even-closer-to-death to report conscious thought.

  • TEP

    2) Suppose Kimberly Clark Sharp, or whoever claimed to see things from a perspective other than that of their body, actually had a mind which was separate from her brain, and which left her body during a NDE (near death experience) or OOBE (Out of body experience). How would that mind see anything? We understand vision pretty darn well; much better than we understand consciousness. We understand that photoreceptors such as those in the eye are necessary for vision. We understand that if someone’s eyes are covered, they can’t see anything. Even if that woman had a mind which left her brain, her eyes were still in her head down below on the operating table.

    Presumably the soul has some sort of ‘soul vision’, a means of perception which allows it to gather information about its surroundings without any sensory apparatus. Of course, the obvious problem with this is, why do we need eyes and ears if our souls are able to detect our environment without them? Why do people lose the ability to see if their eyes are damaged, even though they’ve still got a soul which should be capable of seeing its environment without needing eyes?

  • Polly

    Then again, I have to confess I’ve been known to read the Left Behind books for amusement

    Is this the atheist equivalent of self-flagellation?

  • http://timecube.com Oro Mezclado

    Reginald Selkirk #11:

    How would that mind see anything? We understand vision pretty darn well; much better than we understand consciousness. We understand that photoreceptors such as those in the eye are necessary for vision. We understand that if someone’s eyes are covered, they can’t see anything. Even if that woman had a mind which left her brain, her eyes were still in her head down below on the operating table.

    How can souls see? Because they’re beyond space and time, DUH.

  • Archimedez

    Like some posters above, I don’t accept the premise that all the brain activity has stopped completely in these cases. In addition, if the patient is successfully revived and soon recovers most or all of their psychological capacities (perceptual, motor, cognitive, etc.), this is almost certainly because most of the neurons were not killed or severely damaged. “Clinical death” is not “death” in the usual sense of the word. The neurons can not only remain firing for some time after the heart stops (a time period that varies depending on such factors as temperature), but there are all kinds of other changes that can take place in and between neurons besides action potentials. Even a small amount of activity from small patches of neurons could contribute to memory of (imagined) experiences during the “clinical death” period. In addition, minor changes in the neurons during “clinical death” could somehow influence neural connectivities once the brain is back up and fully functioning again after the person is revived, which could lead to construction of (imagined) “remembered” experiences. Even a slight modification to existing neural networks due to the trauma of “clinical death” could lead to previous memories being modified and reconstructed as “new” experiences.

  • Jeff

    While various aspects of NDE’s and OBE’s have been explained satisfactorily in terms of neurobiology – e.g., endorphins accounting for states of euphoria – there is the matter of some patients describing the procedures performed on them while they were out. I understand they’ve described them from a visual, not merely an auditory, perspective. As far as I know, no one has addressed this yet.

    That being said, evangelicals and New Agers embarrass themselves when they try to discuss matters they simply haven’t the intelligence to understand – which is pretty much everything. Rather, they would be embarrassed, if they had the awareness to be. Strobel is such an idiot it’s demeaning for an intelligent person to waste his/her time even bothering to deconstruct his crap.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Strobel is such an idiot it’s demeaning for an intelligent person to waste his/her time even bothering to deconstruct his crap.

    Only assuming everyone who reads him is as perspicacious as you. Personally I think Ebon is doing a public service here.

  • Jeff

    Personally I think Ebon is doing a public service here.

    I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    That being said, evangelicals and New Agers embarrass themselves when they try to discuss matters they simply haven’t the intelligence to understand – which is pretty much everything. Rather, they would be embarrassed, if they had the awareness to be.

    Being gullible doesn’t mean being stupid. Conflating the two is not only inaccurate, but uncharitable.

  • Jeff

    Being gullible doesn’t mean being stupid. Conflating the two is not only inaccurate, but uncharitable.

    Well, we would differ on that.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Yes … er… well! I struggle with this all the time. For example, I was in a bar ( well my bar actually) talking to a customer, and she let slip that she had a PhD in biology, so I naturally assumed she would be a skeptic, only to find that she was anything but. She was into alternative therapies, Reiki, Homeopathy, disagreed fundementally with my views on Prince Charles (we’ll save that for later) and generally subscribed to that whole episemological relativism crap that you hope educated people can avoid. Bottom line? I can’t say she was stupid. I’d love to, but I can’t. She top trumps my BSc in the same subject so she can’t be stupid. Can she?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I distrust the idea of defining such a complex phenomenon as intelligence on a single criterion. It may say something, but in my experience it’s hardly the final word.

  • Kennypo65

    I’ve had, what I thought, were OBE’s while under the influence of LSD. This has led me to believe that they are a function of the working brain, and not anything supernatural.

  • Pedantic Speaker

    “Am I the same person now that I was when I was four years old? Most people would probably say yes, since there’s an unbroken thread of physical and psychological continuity from me-then to me-now. But you could make an equally sensible and plausible argument that the answer is no. After all, if all my likes, beliefs and preferences are different now from what they were then – if even the atoms in my body have been replaced by the steady turnover of biological processes – then in what sense are we the same?”
    From a biometric standpoint, you would have the same fingerprints and DNA, for instance. Of course, this is also flawed and a common plot point in fiction is the fact that biometric identity, for instance as recorded by security systems, does not necessarily verify personal identity.