Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience by Pim van Lommel
Reviewed by David Lorimer
Near-death studies are now a well-established field, even if they receive scant attention from the mainstream scientific community. Between 1975 and 2005, 42 scientific studies were published involving 2,500 patients. Among the foremost of these studies was the one led by Pim van Lommel, the results of which were originally published in The Lancet in December 2001. Pim’s new book is the most significant contribution to the field to appear for many years, containing as it does his mature philosophical reflections on the implications of his findings. Chris Carter covers much of the same ground in his important new book, reviewing a wide range of studies and vigorously challenging materialist orthodoxy.
Both books address scientific resistance to serious investigation of paranormal aspects of consciousness. As early as the 1890s, Dutch researcher Frederick van Eeden observed that this resistance was emotional rather than empirical and was based solely on ‘an unphilosophical attachment to a closed system’, which he found barely credible and which represented the greatest foe of scientific progress. In his introduction to Chris Carter’s book, Neal Grossman forecasts that it would take another generation before the findings of these two books are taken on board and overturn the belief that consciousness is produced by the brain. Although this is assumed as a self-evident proposition, it has never in fact been proven, and cannot be sustained in view of the data described these two books. Besides, as Grossman observes, the data have convinced virtually everyone who has taken the trouble to examine it that materialism cannot provide an adequate explanation.
Indeed, Pim goes further in concluding that ‘there is no biological basis for endless or enhanced consciousness, which is rooted in a multidimensional nonlocal space.’ The paradox is that experiences of enhanced consciousness occur when the normal neural correlates of waking consciousness are not functioning, which suggests that the brain must exercise a channelling or inhibitory effect. He proposes that our waking consciousness does have a biological basis because our body functions as an interface. This enhanced consciousness is not limited to the brain because it is inherently nonlocal, and this nonlocal consciousness or space is metaphysical in that there is no distinction between nonlocal space and consciousness – David Bohm articulated a similar concept with his implicate order. In formulating this theory, Pim draws on the work of a number of physicists, including Henry Stapp.
A fundamental point emerging from both books is that consciousness is no mere epiphenomenon, but has causal powers, as indicated by psychokinesis, the placebo effect and neuroplasticity demonstrated by long-term meditators. These findings are increasingly recognised, but they are fundamentally at odds with a one-way deterministic understanding of the nature of consciousness. The materialist model is in need of urgent revision. It can only be maintained by continuing to ignore the field covered in these books. For philosophers like Dennett, dualism is to be regarded as anti-scientific while materialism is self-evident in the equivalence of mind and brain. At this point, one needs to re-emphasise that this is simply an unexamined philosophical assumption. In addition, much of the thinking is based on Newtonian mechanics of separation, linear causality and localisation and has not taken into account the much more subtle and extensive framework of quantum mechanics when applied to consciousness.
Research into NDEs stems from the insights of the experiencers themselves, and Pim cites an extensive set of experiences from Monique Hennequin, which gives the reader a glimpse into the hidden workings of consciousness in the universe. Many of us live in fear and without taking full responsibility for our thoughts and feelings, still less realising that we already live in many dimensions. Ultimate knowledge is achieved by becoming one with the Source, which also entails understanding the oneness of life and consciousness, of light and love. This perspective helps one penetrate the veil of separation represented by our bodily distinctness. Our essence is being, thoughts are causal – and, as Monique expressed it: ‘what you think matters; in fact, it forms matter.’
Pim’s book presents a comprehensive account of his own research and the key findings from other studies. He defines the nature of the NDE and the changes people experience in the short and medium term. It was particularly interesting to compare changes in the lives of those who did have NDEs and other members of his study who were near death but had no NDE. The core of the book is concerned with what happens in the brain when the heart stops and how this relates to what we already know about brain function. It is at this point that Pim brings in quantum physics and arrives at the conclusions described above. These are by no means final, but they are a great deal further down the road than most current thinking. Towards the end of the book, Pim considers some implications of NDE studies and the practical significance of NDE in healthcare, for instance in relation to organ donation and the definition of brain death. Some readers may not realise how much courage it takes to nail one’s colours to the mast and separate oneself from the scientific pack. Pim has received his fair share of unwarranted intellectual abuse, and has demonstrated exemplary integrity in pursuing his studies and their implications. His book is essential reading for students of consciousness, who will find their minds stretched in new directions.
Chris Carter dedicates his book to Henri Bergson, William James and Ferdinand Schiller, who were among the first people a hundred years ago to question the assumption that the brain produced consciousness, suggesting instead that we needed some form of transmission theory. I discussed this theory extensively in my book Survival, citing original sources which Chris reproduces from my page references without commenting on my own analysis. However, I don’t disagree with this and he brings the arguments up to date, also discussing the views of Wilder Penfield and Sir John Eccles. The first part asks if consciousness depends on the brain, covering similar ground in physics but also with an extensive discussion of memory drawing on the theories of Rupert Sheldrake. The second part is a detailed analysis of the near death experience, considering proposed psychological, physiological and pharmacological explanations. He also discusses the dying brain theory of Susan Blackmore, veridical near death experiences and NDEs in the blind. All this makes it very clear that NDEs represent a serious challenge to scientific materialism: the hypothesis that the brain produces consciousness has in fact been falsified, but most scientists remain blissfully unaware of this fact! The usual procedure is simply to ignore this evidence rather than engage with it, although occasionally sceptical commentators like Michael Shermer come up with astonishing observations like the following: ‘if the brain mediates all experience, then paranormal phenomena are nothing more than neuronal events.’ As it happens, Shermer even managed to draw the conclusion that Pim’s study supported his materialistic position that mind and spirit are identical with brain and body, in flat contradiction to Pim’s own conclusion.
In the third part of his book, Chris addresses the literature of deathbed visions, showing how it is consistent with descriptions of NDEs. This works as far as it goes, but Chris is evidently not familiar with the more recent work by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick as described in their book The Art of Dying. Here they described not only deathbed visions, but a whole series of other phenomena which they characterise as end of life experiences (ELEs) – so another edition of this book could update the third part. However, the book is a bold and well argued statement. The only question remaining is whether a significant number of scientists will actually read these books and find themselves able to modify their views, drawing on a new evidence base which can no longer be dismissed, even if it is still largely ignored.