Thursday, December 9, 2010

We need to remain sceptical

While on the subject of inappropriate experiments and conclusions let me add another.
Let’s try out of body experiences (OBEs for short), in particular those associated with near death experiences (NDE). The claim of many theists is that these experiences demonstrate the existence of some sort of metaphysical component to our existence. Atheists of course reject this as nonsense and correctly argue that it is not proven.

But there is much experimentation in this area because if the results are conclusive, one way or the other, then there will be some solid evidence for the existence or otherwise of a spiritual/metaphysical dimension and that will materially add or detract from arguments for the existence of a spiritual being.

There are three main directions being followed.Wikipedia as an OK overview.
1) Documenting personal OBE: Authors such as Penny Sartori is dismissed by many as unscientific. No control, can't replicate etc. The fact that the critics are unable to deliver an explanation for seemingly impossible occurrences does not of course bother them

2) Simulating OBEs. Coming to the aid of the critics of the anecdotal evidence is work done to artificially create an OBE. Henrik Ehrsson and others have used sensory stimulation to cause people to feel detached from their bodies. These experiments can and have been replicated. It is argued that this proves that the OBE associated with near death experiences are mere hallucinations.

3) Peek-a-Boo tests. Used Parnia as part of his research they are conducted by placing objects out of sight of patients who may have OBEs and then if they claim such an experience are asked if they have seen the objects. This seems valid and many await the outcome.

OK, what’s wrong with all this?

Firstly the simulations – at best they demonstrate that such experiences are possible and provide an explanation of the neurological mechanisms. They do nothing to address any metaphysical component. On the whole I would regard them as positive for case of spiritual experiences but certainly in no way definitive and clearly they do not disprove a metaphysical component.

What about the Peek-a-Boos. Certainly Parnia is being very thorough – he wants an undisputed result. But what does the experiment actually test? It tests a physical ability – sight. Now the NDE OBEs often make claims of having seen persons whom the patient had not previously met enter or leave their room, so fair enough to ask if they saw the hidden object ... ?

I argue that the Peek-a-Boo experiments cannot validly test if an OBE occurred. An OBE is by definition a metaphysical phenomenon – why should it respond to physical objects. Certainly those in NDE OBE claim to have “seen” people when they were incapable of vision. ... but the spiritually inclined argue that we can identify people from their spiritual presence – a cardboard object does not have such a presence, so why should we be able to detect it in an OBE?

Certainly there is more to Parnia’s work than the hidden objects with patients being extensively quizzed and where possible measurements made of brain activity together with time correlations. So Parnia may well get somewhere with the anacdotal component, but those others who base their claims on only the hidden object being seen or not are in my opinion drawing a false conclusion from their experiments.

OK what about the anecdotal evidence. Simply put, not much of it was very scientific. However this is not the case with the rigour of some of the more recent studies. The results of these more rigorous studies seem to produce at the very least some very difficult questions for the critics. If the impossible cannot be explained by conventional science then perhaps we should as a last resort use Occam’s Razor and accept the simple a metaphysical explanation.

Still no takers on designing an experiment to test if prayer works? Maybe review those that have been undertaken?

Hamba kahle - peace


Pete Chown said...

'... perhaps we should as a last resort use Occam’s Razor and accept the simple a metaphysical explanation.'

An explanation that overturns all the laws of physics doesn't sound simple to me.

akakiwibear said...

certainly simpler than the fancy footwork required to dismiss all the anecdotal evidence.

still looking for the methodology to test if prayer works ....

hamba kahle - peace