Have you ever died and come back to life? Me neither. No one has. But plenty of people say that they have, and their experiences were the subject of an episode of Larry King Live last December on which I appeared as the token skeptic among a tableful of believers, including CNN’s medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, New Age author Deepak Chopra, a football referee who “died” on the playing field, and an 11-year-old boy named James Leininger who believes he is the reincarnation of a World War II fighter pilot.
Dr. Gupta started us off by recalling that when he was in medical school the residents were taught to mark the time of death to the minute, when death can often take anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours to occur, depending on the conditions. As Gupta noted, people who have fallen into freezing lakes and “died” were not quite dead, and their core body temperatures dropped so rapidly that their vital tissues were preserved long enough for subsequent resuscitation. In other words, people who have near-death experiences (NDEs) are not actually dead!
The same definitional problem arose when guest host Jeff Probst (of Survivor fame, fittingly) introduced the football referee: “A man died on a football field seven years ago and came back to life.” Gupta added that he “was dead for two minutes and 40 seconds.” When I was asked for an explanation, I said: “He wasn’t dead! You started this hour off with Sanjay Gupta explaining we can’t say somebody’s dead at one given moment at a particular time on the clock. That’s not how it works. It takes two, three, five, 10 minutes to go through a dying process. The ref wasn’t dead. He was in a near-death state.” In fact, moments after collapsing, the ref had his heart restarted by an automated external defibrillator. There was nothing miraculous to explain.
Fuzzy language is pervasive in such discussions, and no one uses it better than Dr. Chopra, as in this explanation for NDEs: “There are traditions that say the in-body experience is a socially induced collective hallucination. We do not exist in the body. The body exists in us. We do not exist in the world. The world exists in us.” Here is Chopra on death: “Birth and death are spacetime events in the continuum of life. So the opposite of life is not death. The opposite of death is birth. And the opposite of birth is death. And life is the continuum of birth and death, which goes on and on.” When I asked what had happened to little James Leininger’s soul if his body is now occupied by the soul of a World War II fighter pilot, Chopra offered this jewel of Deepakese: “Imagine that you’re looking at an ocean and you see lots of waves today. And tomorrow you see a fewer number of waves.... What you call a person actually is a pattern of behavior of a universal consciousness.” Indicating our host, he continued, “There is no such thing as Jeff, because what we call Jeff is a constantly transforming consciousness that appears as a certain personality, a certain mind, a certain ego, a certain body. But, you know, we had a different Jeff when you were a teenager. We had a different Jeff when you were a baby. Which one of you is the real Jeff?” Jeff looked as confused as I felt.
When Gupta was asked how a physician deals with such apparent medical miracles, he fell into the fallacy of the argument from ignorance: “When I was researching this for a long time, I thought I was going to explain it all away physiologically. But things that I heard and validated and subsequently believed convinced me that there were things that I could not explain. There were things that were happening at that moment, that near-death experience moment, that simply could not be explained with existing scientific knowledge.”
So what? The fact that we cannot fully explain a mystery with natural means does not mean it requires a supernatural explanation. It just means that we don’t know everything. Such uncertainty is at the very heart of science and is what makes it such a challenging enterprise.