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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:

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...