Death, Data, and Theories

Death, Data, and Theories January 16, 2022


At Marbella
A sailboat just off the shore at Marbella, Andalusia, Spain    (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)




This interfaith discussion series, keyed to the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, seems to me an absolutely wonderful idea.  I intend to incorporate it into my regular ponderings for this new year:


John A. Widtsoe Foundation “Come Follow Me” Conversations: The Old Testament / Hebrew Bible




My wife and I are enthusiastic admirers of Britain Covey and of his family.  (We couldn’t have been more thrilled at his 97-yard punt return in the recent New Year’s Day Rose Bowl game between the University of Utah and Ohio State University.)  Here’s an interview with him that we also enjoyed:


“God ‘made me fast’ — Utah’s Britain Covey reflects on a football career as a small, speedy ‘Jesus boy’: From LDS mission field to Pac-12 football field, star receiver discusses his faith, his family, and what motivates him to dodge tacklers: “It’s fear.”




Coincidentally, several friends and acquaintances of mine have lost a parent over the past two or three days.  And that fact has put me in mind of a famous poem by Henry Van Dyke that’s entitled “I Am Standing Upon The Seashore.”  I hope that maybe one or two out there might perhaps find it of some comfort during a time of sorrow and loss:


I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white
sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until at length
she hangs like a speck of white cloud
just where the sea and sky come
to mingle with each other. 
Then, someone at my side says;

“There, she is gone!” “Gone where?”
Gone from my sight. That is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull
and spar as she was when she left my side
and she is just as able to bear her
load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her. 

And just at the moment when someone
at my side says, “There, she is gone!”
There are other eyes watching her coming,
and other voices ready to take up the glad shout;
“Here she comes!”
And that is dying.


And, while I’m thinking about death and dying — not, I promise, morbidly — here are some short notes from J. Steve Miller, Near-Death Experiences As Evidences for the Existence of God and Heaven: A Brief Introduction in Plain Language (Acworth, GA: Wisdom Creek Press, 2012):


According to Dr. Bruce Greyson, now Chester F. Carlson Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia and one of the foremost researchers in the field,

“Most near-death researchers did not go into their investigations with a belief in mind-body separation, but came to that hypothesis based on what their research found.” (cited at 38)


Here’s an NDE-experiencer named Chen, from China, in his own slightly non-standard English:

“I believed in Marxism.  I joined the Chinese Communist Party when I was in university and I had a great ambition when I was employed.  I deeply believe[d] in materialism and I strongly rejected anything that relate to idealism.  Neither did I believe in God.  However I experienced an NDE and it has changed me completely.”

“After the NDE . . .I started to concern about the suffering in the world.  I comfort others who is in despair. . . .  I filled my life with love and I loved to help others.  I don’t care about money or fame anymore.”  (cited at 102)


This is Victor, from Russia, who had no religious background.  Previously, he had been plagued by depression, especially related to his difficulties in completing his college education.  “I simply didn’t see the point of my own existence,” he says of his state of mind before having a near-death experience:

“The light was extraordinary.  In it were love and peace.  I was completely enveloped by love and I felt totally secure.”

“Some invisible force had opened up new paths along which I must travel, something to strive for, that my life was not in vain, and that I should have goals that fill the needs of those around me as well as my own, and that every day should be filled with good and meaningful activities.”  (cited at 102)


A frequent commentator on this blog, an atheist, frequently declares that those who find near-death experiences persuasive — whether their own direct, personal experiences or the accounts of others — do so because they’re already theists and because they come to the subject with prejudices that dictate their conclusions.  This seems to me quite mistaken; this particular commentator is demonstrably unfamiliar with the literature, which does not sustain his position.


He also frequently claims that life after death is impossible, because, supposedly, it violates everything we know about science and about what he likes to term “the real world” — which seems, candidly, to be the world as allowed and framed by his naturalistic ideology.  However — even, for purposes of argument, assuming his notion of “everything we know about science” and of “the real world” to be true (which I don’t believe it to be) —  he seems to have adopted a standpoint that would essentially rule any anomalies out up front, a priori, and, thus, that would dismiss fundamental, paradigm-shifting new discoveries in advance.  And yet it’s those anomalies (e.g., curious phenomena that Newtonian physics could not explain) that permit major steps forward in science.


There’s a story, likely fictional, about a German professor in Heidelberg who forbade his students to repeat a certain experiment.


“But,” they protested, “it’s always been successful.”


“Nevertheless,” the professor responded, “its results are absolutely untenable from a scientific point of view.  It may work very well in practice, but it’s not theoretically sound.”


That is the background of the somewhat famous and very ironic dictum “That works very well in practice, but how does it work in theory?”


The fundamental question in this particular matter is whether near death experiences are authentic and whether they really are what they seem to be.  If they are, then so much the worse for any theory that claims them to be impossible.  Data have priority over theory.  That’s the way genuine science works and has always worked.



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