Does Consciousness Depend on the Brain? By Chris Carter

Author Chris Carter’s new book Science and the Near Death Experience explains why near-death experiences (NDEs) offer evidence of an afterlife and discredits the psychological and physiological explanations for them.

Chris Carter received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Oxford. The author of Parapsychology and the Skeptics, Carter is originally from Canada and currently lives in Venezuela.

In this materialistic age, dualists are often accused of smuggling outmoded religious beliefs back into science, of introducing superfluous spiritual forces into biology, and of venerating an invisible “ghost in the machine.” However, our utter ignorance concerning the real origins of human consciousness marks such criticism more a matter of taste than of logical thinking. At this stage of mind science, dualism is not irrational, merely somewhat unfashionable. – Physicist Nick Herbert, Elemental Mind.

In March 1987 Dawn Gillott was admitted to Northampton General Hospital, seriously ill with pneumonia. After being placed in intensive care, the physicians decided to perform a tracheotomy because she could not breathe.

The next thing I was above myself near the ceiling looking down. One of the nurses was saying in what seemed a frantic voice, ‘Breathe, Dawn, breathe.’ A doctor was pressing my chest, drips were being disconnected, everyone was rushing round. I couldn’t understand the panic, I wasn’t in pain. Then they pushed my body out of the room to the theatre. I followed my body out of the ITU and then left on what I can only describe as a journey of a lifetime.

I went down what seemed like a cylindrical tunnel with a bright warm inviting light at the end. I seemed to be traveling at quite a speed, but I as happy, no pain, just peace. At the end was a beautiful open field, a wonderful summery smell of flowers. There was a bench seat on the right where my Grandfather sat (he had been dead seven years). I sat next to him. He asked me how I was and the family. I said I was happy and content and all my family were fine.

He said he was worried about my son; my son needed his mother, he was too young to be left. I told Grampi I didn’t want to go back, I wanted to stay with him. But Grampi insisted I go back for my children’s sake. I then asked him if he would come for me when my time came. He started to answer, ‘Yes, I will be back in four –’ then my whole body seemed to jump. I looked round and saw that I was back in the ITU.

I honestly believe in what happened, that there is life after death. After my experience I am not afraid of death as I was before my illness.

The near-death experience described above is not rare. Hundreds of similar cases – involving people reporting that while seriously ill or injured they left their bodies, observed the surrounding scene, entered a tunnel, emerged into another world where they met deceased friends or relatives before returning to their bodies – have been documented in several different countries and cultures. The case above is not even a particularly impressive one. At first glance, such cases seem to indicate that under life-threatening circumstances the conscious part of us is capable of detaching from our physical bodies, and may travel to another world. The over-whelming majority of those who have had such experiences are convinced of the existence of an afterlife.

However, there are those that disagree, and who argue that such experiences simply cannot be what they at first seem to be. The strongest arguments against the existence of an afterlife are those that deny the possibility of consciousness existing apart from the biological brain.

The Greek atomists were the first to define the soul in terms of material atoms. Epicurus (342-270 BC) defined the soul as “a body of fine particles …most resembling breath with an admixture of heat.” He stressed the complete dependence of soul on body, so that when the body loses breath and heat, the soul is dispersed and extinguished. The Roman poet Lucretius (99-55 BC) took up the arguments of Epicurus, and continued the atomist tradition of describing the mind as composed of extremely fine particles. Lucretius wrote one of the earliest and most cogent treatises advancing the arguments that the relation between mind and body is so close that the mind depends upon the body and therefore cannot exist without it. First, he argued that the mind matures and ages with the growth and decay of the body; second, that wine and disease of the body can affect the mind; third, the mind is disturbed when the body is stunned by a blow; and finally, if the soul is immortal, why does it have no memories of its previous existence? Similar arguments, to the effect that the mind is a function of the brain, were taken up with greater force nineteen centuries later, in the work of men such as Thomas Huxley.

More recently, Corliss Lamont, former president of the American Humanist Association, has written one of the most extensive statements of the materialist positions in his book The Illusion of Immortality, the title of which speaks for itself. He tells us in the preface that he started out as a believer in a future life, but does not give us the reasons why he held the belief against which he reacted so strongly.

Lamont rightly contends that the fundamental issue is the relationship of personality to body, and divides the various positions into two broad categories: monism, which asserts that body and personality are bound together and cannot exist apart; and dualism, which asserts that body and personality are separable entities which may exist apart. Lamont is convinced that the facts of modern science weigh heavily in favor of monism, and offers the following as scientific evidence that the mind depends upon the body:

*in the evolutionary process the versatility of living forms increases with the development and complexity of their nervous system
*the mind matures and ages with the growth and decay of the body
* alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs can affect the mind
*destruction of brain tissue by disease, or by a severe blow to the
head, can impair normal mental activity; the functions of seeing,
hearing and speech are correlated with specific aeas of the brain.
*thinking and memory depend upon the cortex of the brain, and so “it
is difficult beyond measure to understand how they could survive
after the dissolution, decay or destruction of the living brain in
which they had their original locus.”2

These considerations lead Lamont to the conclusion that the connection between mind and body “is so exceedingly intimate that it becomes inconceivable how one could function without the other … man is a unified whole of mind-body or personality-body so closely and completely integrated that dividing him up into two separate and more or less independent parts becomes impermissible and unintelligible.”3

Lamont briefly considers the findings of psychical research, but contends that they do not alter the picture, because of the possibility of other interpretations, such as fraud and telepathy.*

In summary, the various arguments against the possibility of survival are: the effects of age, disease, and drugs on the mind; the effect of brain damage on mental activity, and specifically, the fact that lesions of certain regions of the brain eliminates or impairs particular capacities; and the idea that memories are stored in the brain and therefore cannot survive the destruction of the brain. The inference drawn from these observations is that the correlation of mental and physical processes is so close that it is inconceivable how the mind could exist apart from the brain. Except for the appeals of the modern writers to the terminology of neuroscience, the arguments advanced in favor of the dependence of the mental on the physical are essentially the same as those advanced by Lucretius.

* Lamont’s portrayal of psychic research is extremely superficial, and contains several false and misleading statements. For an excellent critique of Lamont’s book, exposing a mass of inconsistencies and non-sequitur, see chapter XIII of A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death, by C.J. Ducasse.

Science and the NDE: Chris Carter on Skeptiko

Alex Tsakiris of Skeptiko interviews Chris Carter, author of “Science and the Near Death Experience” and “Parapsychology and the Skeptics”.

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