A New York Times opinion piece makes an excellent point about near-death experiences that applies equally to all kinds of spiritual, mystical, and religious experiences.
There's plenty of evidence that people have these sorts of experiences. So that makes them real in a limited sense.
It's the same sort of reality that arises when someone goes to a country music concert and absolutely loves it. Their mind produces a feeling of subjective pleasure from being at the concert.
However, this doesn't mean that the concert was objectively lovable. Someone who doesn't like country music could be sitting right next to the "loves it" person and have an experience of "hates it."
Likewise, John Fischer, the author of this opinion piece who has written several books about near-death experiences, says that while there's no doubt that people have them, there's no solid evidence that they prove the reality of life after death, heaven, and such.
Being similarly scientifically-minded, I keep this in mind whenever I hear about someone's claim that they've had some sort of supernatural experience. I'm perfectly wiling to accept that they believe they had a supernatural experience, while being deeply skeptical that the experience actually was of a supernatural reality.
Here's the opinion piece. I've boldfaced passages that refer to the "real" question.
“Have you stood at the gates of doom? Or looked through the gates of death? Have you been to the edge of the universe?” In the Old Testament, The Voice from the Whirlwind poses these questions to Job.
The implied answer is no, for these seem to be divine prerogatives. For humans, heaven is a gated community, and we typically can’t even peer through. This is one reason (among many) near-death experiences inspire awe: They seem to give us a “God’s eye” view of what really lies beyond. They take us to the edge of the universe.
While it’s not exactly a scientific term, most of us have an agreed understanding of what “near-death experience” means. Obviously, an N.D.E. takes place in a “near-death context” — a situation in which one’s life is in jeopardy.
Most who have studied or discussed them agree that to count as an N.D.E., the experience must occur while the individual is not wakefully conscious and have a significant number of these aspects: an “out of body” experience in which one seems to be floating above one’s physical form and can see it and its surroundings; a life review; guidance by deceased loved ones or revered religious figures toward a “guarded” realm (a light in the darkness, a gated or fenced domain, the other side of a river).
Many people who have had an N.D.E. report being profoundly transformed — less anxious about death, more spiritual and more “prosocial” (including more concerned with morality).
These sorts of experiences have been reported throughout history and across cultures. Plato described one in “The Republic” — the Myth of Er. They are partly dependent upon the particulars of an individual’s life situation, religion and culture, but there are common elements as well.
For instance, the religious figures may be different — a Christian would see Christian figures, a Buddhist would see Buddhist figures, Hindu gods and goddesses would appear in a Hindu’s N.D.E., and so forth. Yet at a deeper level there is guidance by respected figures, a voyage led by trusted mentors from the known to the unknown. This time it is perhaps the most daunting journey, from life to death. Loving guidance on our last journey, or the last leg of our journey, is deeply resonant.
In popular literature, N.D.E.s are almost always interpreted “supernaturalistically.” They are interpreted as showing (or “proving”) that the mind is not the same as the brain and can continue after the brain stops functioning, and also that the mind has contact of some sort with a “heavenly” or nonphysical realm.
The titles of popular books about N.D.E.s proclaim that “heaven is for real” or that we have a “proof of heaven.” Medical doctors and neuroscientists writing about these issues claim that N.D.E.s offer “evidence for the afterlife” and “consciousness beyond life.” They think of them as round-trip tickets to the Good Place — the trip of an afterlifetime.
The proponents of a supernaturalistic interpretation of N.D.E.s insist that they are “real.” The neurosurgeon Eban Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven” even includes a chapter titled “The Ultra-Real.” I do not deny that people — many people — really have N.D.E.s, with their reported contents. They really have these experiences, just like people really dream.
So N.D.E.s are real in the sense of “authentic” — they really occur. No one should deny this; to do so is to disrespect a vast majority of those who sincerely report them.
There is, however, another sense of “real”: accurate. Are N.D.E.s, interpreted literally, accurate depictions of an external reality? This is an importantly different question. It is crucial not to slide from “real” in the first sense to “real” in the second, but this is precisely what many of the supernaturalists do. N.D.E.s really occur. But we cannot infer from this that they accurately depict guidance by deceased loved ones to a nonphysical realm.
The big question is: Do N.D.E.s provide a proof of heaven? Or hell? I don’t think so. None of the arguments is persuasive. There are clear, vivid dreams and hallucinations. There are deeply profound and transformative experiences caused by the ingestion of psychedelic substances. All of these experiences present their contents as “ultra-real.”
This is a known feature of any spiritual experience, and N.D.E.s are a kind of spiritual experience. People throughout the world have sincere and absolutely certain belief in their religions, but it does not follow from this sincerity and certainty that the religious beliefs are true, literally interpreted. How could they all be, given their radical differences? So too with N.D.E.s.
The arguments for supernaturalistic interpretations of N.D.E.s are glaringly problematic. Many of the most visible proponents of the idea that N.D.E.s prove the existence of an afterlife are doctors. They include Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon; the cardiologist Pim van Lommel; and the oncologist Jeffrey Long.
It is important to emphasize that their conclusions are not medical but philosophical. The ideas that the mind can separate from the body and have contact with a heavenly realm are clearly not medical conclusions, and physicians have no special authority here. After all, they are physicians, not metaphysicians.
I trust my physician to interpret my blood work, but not to let me know that my soul left my body when I was under general anesthesia. It is striking that some doctors employ such homeopathic doses of logic. They are trapped in a kind of tunnel vision.
It would be desirable to have a more plausible interpretation of N.D.E.s which they are real in both senses: They really occur and they are accurate. I propose that we interpret N.D.E.s as fundamentally and primarily about our journeys from life to death — dying.
Most N.D.E.s depict a journey toward an imagined guarded realm, but not a successful passage to it. Just as in the literature on living forever, such as the ancient “Epic of Gilgamesh” or myth of Tantalus or the quixotic search for the Fountain of Youth, we come ever so close, but in the end we don’t quite make it. In N.D.E.s we get right to the gates, but we don’t go through; we get right to the edge of the universe, but we stop there.
N.D.E.s show not that there is an afterlife, but that it is possible to die well, surrounded by loving companionship. We can die in sterile, cold hospitals — alone. (There are negative N.D.E.s.) Or we can die in a more humane setting, surrounded by loved ones. N.D.E.s are thus real in both senses: They really occur, and they accurately portray these possibilities.
They are important because they remind us of the possibility of dying well. We don’t have to accept either extreme: that N.D.E.s do not really occur or that they prove that heaven exists. They point us to something profound and beautiful about dying. They give us real hope, not false hope, in facing the next part of our journey, whatever that will bring.
John Martin Fischer is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of “Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife” and “Death, Immortality, and Meaning in Life.”