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University Professor Lecture: Near-Death Experiences: The Stories They Tell

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I argue that we can interpret the stories told by near-death experiences (NDEs) in a naturalistic way. Thus, the profound significance of NDEs need not come from a supernaturalistic conception of them, according to which in an NDE the individual is in touch with a heavenly realm. We can respect the sincerity of NDE reports, but we can capture their meaning in a naturalistic framework.

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  1. The Persian poet, Rumi, wrote: “We are departing for the skies. Who has a mind for sightseeing?”.

  2. I believe it is important to respect the sincerity of the majority of NDE reports. But I also think we have to call out the dishonest ones. For a particularly sad account of such a report, see:

    Alex Malarkey, the American boy who disavowed his bestselling account of meeting Jesus after an accident, has launched a lawsuit against the book’s Christian specialist publisher. While the publisher has “made millions of dollars”, the suit alleges, it has “paid Alex, a paralysed young man, nothing”.

    The car accident that almost killed Malarkey happened in 2004 in Ohio, when he was 6 years old. 2 months later he woke up from a coma to find himself paralysed from the neck down. He and his father, Kevin, a Christian therapist, wrote The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven together. According to Chicago’s Tyndale House, the firm that brought the book out in 2010, Malarkey wrote of “the angels that took him through the gates of heaven itself. Of the unearthly music that sounded just ‘terrible’ to a six-year-old. And, most amazing of all … Of meeting and talking to Jesus.”

    But when he was 16, Malarkey revealed on his blog that he had made it all up. “I did not die. I did not go to heaven,” he said. “When I made the claims, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough.”

    Tyndale House pulled the book, which had already sold a reported one million copies, saying in a statement that it was “saddened to learn [Alex is] now saying that he made up the story of dying and going to heaven”.

    Malarkey, who is now 20, filed a lawsuit against the publisher earlier this week, claiming his father “concoct[ed] a story that, during the time Alex was in a coma, he had gone to Heaven, communicated with God the Father, Jesus, angels, and the devil, and then returned”, and alleging that while Tyndale House has “made millions of dollars off Alex’s identity and an alleged autobiographical story of his life, [it has] paid Alex, a paralysed young man, nothing”.

    The article goes on to point out that Alex and his mother, who supports him, are on the verge of homelessness. For interesting background, see:

  3. This case is discussed in various places, including Van Lommel (2013).

  4. In this paper I am only attempting to show how a naturalistic understanding of NDEs is possible; I will not argue that it is necessary, or even the best conceptualization of the phenomena In Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin (2016) we do argue that naturalism is the best explanation of NDEs.

  5. For important work that links narrativity to emotional understanding, see Velleman (2003). For further discussion and development, see Fischer (2006).

  6. Again, see Velleman (2003).

  7. A true story: I recently purchased a rather heavy piece of exercise equipment to help me to strengthen my back; I had to carry it to another room, and in doing so I strained my back.

  8. Kimberly Chang-Haines, quoted in the Stanford Magazine (July/August 2017: 26).

  9. For discussions of negative NDEs, see Bush (2012, 2016).

  10. A bizarre negative NDE is reported in Bush (2016):

    A flurry of agitation accompanied the Internet news that a former Buddhist monk in Myanmar (Burma) was claiming that he had seen the Buddha in hell. He said Yama, king of the Buddhist hells, had shown him a terrible lake of fire which held not only the Buddha but famous spiritual and political figures much loved throughout the country. Goliath was in the lake, too, the giant from the Bible. They were there, he said Yama told him, because they did not believe in the Christian God. They did not accept Jesus.

    The experience was so stunning, the monk was converted instantly. (p. 3)

    Bush goes on to express skepticism about this report, and to focus on more plausibly sincere negative NDEs. Many others have deemed the monk’s story a “hoax”—the negative version of Malarkey’s positive NDE report. Fake news!

  11. This point is parallel to the Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena. Some interpret Kant’s distinction as point to two “worlds” or realms, whereas others interpret it as indicating two perspectives on a single world.

  12. Don Lattin writes, about the scholars at Harvard who began experimenting with psychedelic drugs in the 1960’s:

    Richard Alpert [later named Ram Dass], Timothy Leary, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil each laid a cornerstone for what would be built what can still be built—from the progressive vision of the psychedelic sixties. The story does not end with them, for the forces they helped unleash were immeasurably larger than those four men, and the changes they wrought are still with us today. They changed the way we view the world, heal ourselves, and practice religion. They changed the way we see the very nature of reality. We see the best of them in the best of ourselves. In the end, it’s not about the drugs. It’s about remembering all the life-affirming moments along the way—those glimpses of wonder and awe, empathy and interconnectedness—and finding a place for all of that in the rest of our lives. (Lattin 2010: 221–222)

  13. As shown in an HBO documentary, Long Strange Trip (Amir Bar-Levy, Director).

  14. And Gerald Dworkin writes, “There are those who know from the start where they are going and those who only realize after the journey where they have been traveling. (Dworkin 1988): ix

  15. Ernest Becker, an anthropologist, is the “father” of Terror Management Theory (TMT). (Becker 1973). Contemporary proponents of TMT include Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski in their (2015). TMT posits that all of human activity aims either explicitly or implicitly at managing our fear of death.


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I thank Chancellor Kim Wilcox and Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences MIlagros Pena for hosting this lecture at the University of California, Riverside. I also delivered this as the Lanier Leckture at Santa Clara University. I have benefited from the questions and comments on these occasions. I am very grateful to Gary Watson and Eric Schwitzgebel for helpful questions and conversations about this material. Much of this lecture is based on ideas in the book I wrote with Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin: Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife. At various points in this lecture I follow closely the presentation in our book. Mitchell-Yellin’s significant intellectual contributions to this book have continued to influence me, as have our many conversations on these topics. Some of the material in this paper will appear, in re-worked form, in my book, Death, Immortality, and Meaning in Life (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2019). I am extremely grateful to the John Templeton Foundation for two generous grants that have provided indispensable support for my work on near-death experiences and related topics: “The Immortality Project” and “Immortality and Meaningfulness in Life.” The views I express here are not necessarily those of the Templeton Foundation.

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Fischer, J.M. University Professor Lecture: Near-Death Experiences: The Stories They Tell. J Ethics 22, 97–112 (2018).

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