Is Modernism Having a Near-Death Experience?

Examining Shermer and Sacks for clues as we enter the postmodern era

PHI 4341 Ways of Knowing Jan Whitehouse 4/28/2009

PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse

Most geniuses responsible for the major mutations in the history of thought seem to have certain features in common; on the one hand skepticism, often carried to the point of iconoclasm, in their attitude towards traditional ideas, axioms and dogmas, towards everything that is taken for granted; on the other hand, an open-mindedness that verges on naïve credulity towards new concepts which seem to hold out some promise to their instinctive gropings. Out of this combination results that crucial capacity of perceiving a familiar object, situation, problem, or collection of data, in a sudden new light or new context: of seeing a branch not as a part of a tree, but as a potential weapon or tool; of associating the fall of an apple not with its ripeness, but with the motion of the moon… The discoverer perceives relational patterns or functional analogies where nobody saw them before, as the poet perceives the image of a camel in a drifting cloud.” (Koestler, p. 518, 519)

Abstract: I am primarily researching contrasts between the writings of Shermer and Sacks, because I am persuaded that their texts, taken together, can serve as a jumping-off point for discussing the tension we encounter as we straddle two epochs: the entrenched modern and still-emerging postmodern schools of understanding experience. Modernists, using classical science as their oracle, may declare a narrative or experience as being suspect or “untrue” by providing strict mechanical understandings as to what something “really” is or how it “really” works. Postmodernism critiques metanarratives, and modern Newtonian science is a prime example of such a metanarrative, with its own codified belief system, as outlined in John Broomfield’s Other Ways of Knowing. Modern science compulsively seeks quantification and closure. It assigns the stigma of superstition to finding meaning in narratives and experiences. It claims neutrality when its pursuits and experiments are subjectively chosen and prioritized. Modern science cannot contain the enormity of the experiences we may have, nor can it keep pace with narratives to which we subscribe. Modern - or classical - science falls


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse silent on crucial matters of the meaning of these experiences and narratives, and the impact they have on our identity. Constraints of certitude When we talk about concepts of knowing we only approximate the subjective, felt sensation of knowing. Our modern habit is to think in terms like “certainty,” “certitude,” “conclusion,” and “closure.” These words are like gauntlets thrown. They are destinations from which there is no turning back. While Shermer pays lip service to science appending itself and amending its conclusions, Shermer is quite certain of his determinations. He sounds the trumpet of victory, declaring, “..eventually the collective science of history separates the emotional chaff from the factual wheat.” (Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things, p. 214, 215). Shermer’s watchdog instincts are sometimes helpful and he reminds us that we, even in this day and age, are still juggling allegiances between pre-modern and modern, let alone incorporating the postmodern era. Along with the misplaced certitude of the greater part of this decade, we saw a kind of resurgence in militantly anti-intellectual, half-baked theology with regard to ecological, social and foreign policy issues. Our society became embroiled in “culture wars” creating fertile ground for a perilous ersatz eschatology whose believers seek to incite the “end times.” Such abusive doctrine welcomes skepticism as an antidote, provided the skeptic is fair and credible. Rhetorically, Shermer is filled with certitude as he argues his cases. He seeks to disabuse people of their “weird” notions. To characterize sets of beliefs as “weird” is at least provocative, at worst, pejorative – for after all, who wants to truly be thought of as weird? The title of the book is calculated to invite the reader to participate as judge, and


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse the book cover’s graphic design harkens back to Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not tales. If one subscribes to an idea Shermer has rejected, one is implicitly a freak or an intellectual weakling. In a debate with Deepak Chopra, his initial salvo is a reference to a bumper sticker he likes: “Militant Agnostic: I don’t know, and you don’t know, either!” Chopra counters, “Is he so proud of his skepticism that literally he can tell what someone else doesn’t know?” (Shermer, Chopra, 2007) Chance, Contingency and Error The basis for what counts as knowledge traditionally has been the deep-rooted conviction that the real is unified and complete: chance, contingency, and error are conventionally considered signs that a particular theory is flawed and that a new, more ‘complete’ theory is necessary. But what if chance, contingency and error are not flaws but are inherent in the system? What kind of theories would be possible in such a world, and how would one live in it meaningfully? (Comnes, ix) For Shermer, flaws are blatant proof against design. In How We Believe, he asserts: Design arguments from nature are untenable by the simple fact that nature is not as beautifully designed nor as “perfect” as believers would have us think. The python’s hind legs – unarticulated bones buried in flesh and totally useless – are indications of quirky and contingent evolution, not divine creation. Similarly, the whale’s flipper – complete with useless humanlike upper arm, forearm, hand and finger bones – is obviously the evolutionary by-product of mammalian evolution, not the handiwork of a divine Gepetto. (Shermer, How We Believe. p. 94) Conversely, Sacks’ ostensibly “flawed” subjects are an important recurring theme in his neurological ethnographies. Without romanticizing, he transcends reporting of mere conditions and case studies to probe questions of meaning, purpose and identity in the lives of his subjects. Sacks was introduced to the possibility of “chance, contingency and error” being part of design when his brother had to contend with mental illness. In an interview attending the release of his autobiography Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse Boyhood, Sacks told Publishers Weekly, "…when my brother Michael had his breakdown and became psychotic, one of the things he said was, ‘don't call this a disease. It is my struggle, my world, my attempt to find meaning.’" ( At this moment in the world, upheavals converge, forcing us to confront great uncertainty. Certainty, certitude, conclusion are retired as dictionary abstractions. The postmodern era is now truly and circumstantially upon us, even if we are collectively not cognizant of it. Chance, contingency and error are manifesting in a most immediate sense. One may lose employment, another might contract a disease. Knowing then moves from certitude to become a living, organic, malleable process characterized by indeterminacy, resolve and assurance. Bringing me to the focal point of this examination, I will explore how indeterminacy, resolve and assurance can intersect at the point of a near-death experience. Sacks discusses a near-death experience in his most recent book, Musicophilia. He describes a patient who emerges from an NDE (near-death experience) reporting a dramatic personality change. The fellow was suddenly and overwhelmingly obsessed with music and the urge to play the piano. He also reported a major shift in his values and sense of purpose. Observe the differences in how Sacks and Shermer address near-death and out-ofbody experiences: Sacks: While out-of-body experiences have the character of a perceptual illusion (albeit a complex and singular one), near-death experiences have all the hallmarks


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse of mystical experience, as William James defines them – passivity, ineffability, transience, and a noetic quality. One is totally consumed by a near-death experience, swept up, almost literally, in a blaze (sometimes a tunnel or funnel) of light, and drawn towards a Beyond – beyond life, beyond space and time. There is a sense of a last look, a (greatly accelerated) farewell to things earthly, the places and people and events of one’s life, and a sense of ecstasy or joy as one soars towards one’s destination – an archetypal symbolism of death and transfiguration. Experiences like this are not easily dismissed by those who have been through them, and they may sometimes lead to a conversion or metanoia, a change of mind, that alters the direction and orientation of a life. One cannot suppose, any more than one can with out-of-body experiences that such events are pure fancy; very similar features are emphasized in every account. (Sacks, Musicophilia. p. 13-14) Shermer: The NDE, like its related partner the out-of-body experience (OBE), is one of the most compelling phenomena in psychology. Apparently, upon a close encounter with death, some individuals’ experiences are so similar as to lead many to believe that there is an afterlife or that death is a pleasant experience or both. (Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things. p. 77) Shermer allows that those who have undergone NDEs report similar experiences, but since he cannot, due to overwhelming numbers, disprove the phenomena of NDE itself, he discredits individual narratives first by questioning the credibility of affirming sources (Moody, Kubler-Ross, Sabom) then cites contamination of NDE subjects, either due to their believing in an afterlife or, at the least, harboring the taint of exposure to a Judeo-Christian worldview. He refutes reports of individuals with other faith traditions whose NDEs reflected their particular beliefs and religious understanding. Shermer sees these as a deal-breaking discrepancies and contends that in light of belief-specific differences, the accounts are rendered incredible. (I thought this fact lent greater credibility to the universality of the phenomenon.) He also posits that NDEs can easily be induced by trauma and various anesthesia, drugs like MDA, or hallucinogenics can induce OBEs.


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse He settles any considerations of possible meaning associated with a near-death experience by appealing to our logic dripping with his dismissive rhetoric: Finally, the “other-worldliness” of the NDE is produced by the dominance of the fantasy of imagining the other side, visualizing our loved ones who died before, seeing our personal God, and so on....NDEs remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of psychology, leaving us once again with a Humean question: Which is more likely, that an NDE is an as-yet-to-be explained phenomenon of the brain or that it is evidence of what we have always wanted to be true – immortality? (p. 81, 82) For Shermer it all comes down to whether an NDE is a biological function or a spiritual experience, especially whether or not near-death experiences provide compelling evidence for life after death. That consideration for him is cause for alarm. He sticks adamantly to the purely clinical explanation. He would tell you having a near-death experience is merely the result of the chemical processes attendant to a dying brain. To attach meaning to such an event is to chase after the wind in an attempt to secure immortality. But others see it differently: …such rationalizations do not legitimate the social realities and hence the social experiences of the person, since these are barely acknowledged in the first place. Privation, life review, sensed presences, and the whole gamut of psychological and social experiences of dying are not the common lot of most people. Recounted experiences..can assume the appearance of oddity. In these sociological terms, clinical NDEs may be seen as part of a wider social experience that every member of society shares – the status passage. However, the status passage of the NDE, both social and clinical is not normative; it is unlike transitions to, for example, parenthood or adulthood. (Kellehear, pg. 52, 53) Setting aside the agenda to debunk belief in life after death, what if, as with the transition to parenthood – specifically motherhood – where the brain releases endorphins so as to ease pain of giving birth, the processes involved in the chemical and biological shut-down of the brain and the resulting sensations, which are more corroborative than


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse contradictory, are likewise purposeful and designed to assist the individual in transition to new life/non-being? Why does Shermer kick so hard against the goads? Even if Shermer’s insistence against personality survival is correct, that does not mean that the reports of seeing loved ones, life review, ecstasy, etc., are not meaningful. Does Shermer consider a mechanism in nature to ease this passage? Can it be that there is design in death? In all his writings involving case studies, Sacks employs what I would offer is a kind of individual-inductive approach. He shares individual narratives and incorporates pertinent information about related cases in order to provide context and substantiation about his subjects’ experiences, but he adamantly refuses to corral these individuals into neat diagnostic categories. In Sacks’ portraits he surgically removes the stereotype from the person. He studiously avoids defining his subjects by their neurological challenges as he helps to tell the stories of how they perceive their altered selves. Reading Sacks is a lesson in honoring one’s fellows. These studies also challenge our conceptions of how we know, and how we form and even reinvent our identities. They open for inquiry how one knows anything, and do so in a non-threatening environment that bridges the personal and the foreign. Shermer works impersonally, from a top-down, phenomenon-deductive vantage point, beginning with the ideas of near-death experiences/creationism/UFO sightings, etc., and working downward to “hapless” believers. He speaks in terms of phenomena rather than persons, casting various beliefs as agents of antagonism. These “weird” ideas brainwash their adherents, which he then labors to debunk. Classical science’s holy grail of closure is Shermer’s stock-in-trade. He crusades with the confidence that the available


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse scientific knowledge at hand is either complete or as good as it comes. Our classmate, Benjamin Aguda, voiced a plausible defense for Shermer and his prescribed cure of skepticism: “I think we should distinguish between scientific skeptics and philosophical skeptics. Philosophical skeptics ... deny the possibility of knowledge. Scientific skeptics .. simply deny unfounded claims that people call science.” That works if we are thinking in siloed compartments of here is science, there is philosophy, but such segregation is the hallmark of modernism and is part of the critique brought against it by postmodern thought. A hallmark of postmodern thought is its potential for recovery for ways of knowing that were previously consigned to the archives in the modern boom. Medieval philosophers, for example, shared a large tent including the theoretical and practical, the speculative and active. Theoretical philosophy included physics, mathematics and theology. Practical philosophy consisted of ethics, economics and politics. In short, the study of philosophy was foundational to all other disciplines. If we accept Shermer’s focus on unfounded claims, his assessments of reality then are somehow segregated from more abstract pursuits of meaning, and we could be satisfied that he has found his niche. But Shermer is determined to let his audience know that if they derive meaning from an experience they are free to do so, long as they know they are deluding themselves. These older models of integrating thought /knowledge/experience seemed on the verge of extinction now regain relevance as we enter a time where exalted science, with the advent of quantum physics, string and chaos theories, refutes itself. Sacks’ approach, reflected in his individual dealings with patients is integrative in this


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse ancient/modern/postmodern sense. I wish to avoid making sweeping claims relying on connections drawn from quantum physics and postmodern philosophical thought, but the vision of classical science, the Newtonian vision strains under the pressure to resolve its promise that nature, and anomalies in nature, can be explained by an “objective observer.” John D. Barrow, in New Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation states, Science is predicated upon the belief that the universe is algorithmically compressible and the modern search for a Theory of Everything is the ultimate expression of that belief, a belief that there is an abbreviated representation of the logic behind the universe’s properties that can be written down in finite form by human beings. (Barrow p. 11-12) Where Shermer is a structuralist in his efforts to make clean delineations between knowledge and ignorance, mathematicians like Benoit Mandlebrot turn the modernist’s perception of objective truth on its head. Mandlebrot’s fractals are a kind of icon of chaos – an emblem of the endless permutations of postmodernity. If, under Mandlebrot, geo-metry goes back to the Earth, then it is only to prove that the Earth, once thought flat (pre-modern), then spherical (modern), is now fractal and infinite, thus demonstrably postmodernish (“ish” because should that turn out to be The Truth of earth’s nature, then chaos is refuted.) (Sim, p. 63) In The Sleepwalkers, Arthur Koestler wrote about “the conservatism of science,” saying, The materialist philosophy in which the modern scientist was reared has retained its dogmatic power over his mind...he reacts to phenomena which do not fit into it much in the same manner as his scholastic forebears reacted to the suggestion that new stars may appear in the immutable eighth sphere. (Koestler, p. 535) Seconding Koestler is Allen Kellehear. In Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion, he makes connections with regard to methodology and motives, …despite the claim of value neutrality, more than a few current neuroscience explanations are partisan ones…I will connect the rhetorical features of this writing to the sociological circumstances of their rise and use: the resistance of conservative elements in the scientific community to recent developments in


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse postmodernity and science; the ongoing conflict of science with religion; and the historical rise of the medical profession and the political authority of its theories. (Kellehear, pg.120,121) Such skeptical critiques of NDEs are losing their credibility in the postmodern atmosphere where faith in the authority of a neutral, scientific rationalism has faded in the face of critiques of economic and gender bias, for example. Appeal to the dispassionate scientist has been hurt by hidden bias and shrill rhetorical embellishment. Neuroscience needs better arguments than reduction to ‘nothing but’ materialist ‘mechanisms’ to answer the NDE’s appeal to personal and religious needs. (Bailey, Yates. Pg. 18)] Indeterminacy, resolve and assurance In Near-Death Experiences: Exploring the Mind-Body Connection, Ornella Corazza cites a 2000 study (Ring, Valarino) of a boy who had an NDE at the age of 9 months. The doctors spent 40 minutes reviving him. He subsequently was in a coma for three months, and a trachea tube remained in place until he was three. Another two years passed until one day, out of the blue, he surprised his parents talking about “when he had died.” He recounted not only images compatible with typical NDE reports, but gave detailed, verifiable information about the goings on in his room while he was out-of-body. He described communication with a being he understood to be God who told him he had to return to fulfill his particular purpose, and upon its fulfillment, would be able to return. (Corazza, p. 32-33) In his book, How We Believe, Shermer recounts an insincere (by his own admission) conversion to Christianity and tells of an afternoon he met with a Presbyterian minister, asking him about free will, predestination and the character of God. It can be difficult to comprehend the Reformed systematic theology the Presbyterian affirms, even if one does sacrifice part of an afternoon inquiring. Shermer dismisses the answers he


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse got: “The minister, who had a Ph.D. in theology, did his best to address the problem but it all seemed like labyrinthine word games and obfuscating analogies to me.” (Shermer, How We Believe, p. 5) That Shermer gives short shrift to theological concerns is indicative of his Cliff’s Notes approach in representing science. He proposes to perform proper empirical due diligence, and in certain cases, such as his masterful refutation of Holocaust deniers, he is painstakingly thorough, though he is at home with such a case, having access to great amounts of quantifiable data. For Shermer, if there is no “hard data,” his response is to get back to him when there is some. Researching that which took the minister years of study entailed more effort than he was willing to invest. Therefore, the expedient thing to do was dismiss what could not quantify nor understand. The frequency of reports of near-death experiences precludes dismissal of the phenomena, but the subjective experience of an NDE and its implication of personality survival is a call-to-arms for Shermer. Sacks does not deny the neurological processes of the “dying” brain, he does not attempt to refute his subject’s intensely held conviction of having undergone a life-changing experience. One of the most striking differences in reading these works is Shermer’s incapacity to disguise his contempt for the people who harbor so-called “weird” beliefs. Such impatience stood in stark contrast with Sacks’ forbearance and compassion. Sacks considers it to be no loss of authority to present himself as being on equal footing with his patients. If anything, his credibility is magnified by his magnanimity. Near-death experiences, which serve to reveal how ephemeral this world, this life, our assumptions can be personally revelatory. Add to that a postmodern skepticism of the


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse bias of scientific research and an emphasis on the elusiveness of knowledge and meaning and one can be left to wonder if the only choice is to abandon all interpretations of the experience. Finally, it is my contention that neither starched biological explanations, nor skeptical views of life after death nor skepticism toward the metanarratives often entwined with NDEs necessarily refute the purpose or meaning of the other-worldliness of these experiences. I think whether they are indicators of a chemical process or indications of life-after-death, or something else again, near-death experiences teach us something profound about what it is to be human. They demonstrate the power to, at least metaphorically, wake the dead.


PHI 4341/Ways of Knowing/Whitehouse

Works Cited: (author uncredited) Bailey, Lee W. Near-Death Experiences: A Reader. Routledge, New York. 1996 Barrow, John D. New Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation. Oxford University Press, 2007 Comnes, Gregory. The Ethics of Indeterminacy in the Novels of William Gaddis. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. 1994 Corazza, Ornella. Near-Death Experiences: Exploring the Mind-Body Connection. Routledge, New York. 2008. Kellehear, Allen. Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion. Oxford University Press, New York. 1996. Koestler, Arthur. The Sleepwalkers. Hutchinson & Co., London. 1959. Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York. 1995. Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia. Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. New York. 2007, 2008. Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Culture. Henry Holt and Company LLC. New York. 1997. Shermer, Michael. How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. W.H. Freeman and Company, New York. 1999. Shermer, Michael, Chopra, Deepak. "" 01/2007. (accessed 04/27/2009). Sim, Stuart. Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. New York. Routledge, 2005.


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