Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pensmore Dialog on Science & Faith - Breakout 1 - Robert Spitzer

This post is part of a series discussing the Pensmore Dialog on Science & Faith from College of the Ozarks. 


Breakout Session 1
Topic:  Evidence for the Supernatural from Consciousness
Speaker:  Robert Spitzer


At this point, we broke into multiple, smaller sessions. I of course could only attend one, and I hope that I can watch other breakout sessions and add them here as the DVDs come out. I attended Fr. Robert Spitzer's breakout on the human consciousness, and I am very happy that I did so--a few of us noted after the conference that Spitzer was the only speaker we had not heard of, and he turned out to be the best of the group!

Fr. Spitzer is a brilliant Jesuit priest, holding three master's degrees and a PhD with a specialization in the various fields of philosophy. He is the former president of Gonzaga University and founder of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith; and in addition, he is a fiery and entertaining speaker. No matter the depth of topic, he had everyone on the edge of their seats.

The topic Fr. Spitzer was discussing was the human consciousness--can this be explained without a belief in the supernatural?

Spitzer noted that there are two basic ways of viewing human consciousness:  (1) consciousness is the result of physical and chemical reactions in the brain (naturalism); or (2) consciousness has a trans-physical or supernatural cause (could be theism or some other transphysical idea).

Today his topic was to point out five major problems with the first or naturalistic idea--can Nature alone explain consciousness? There were, he argued, five major issues. (However, we didn't get to hear the fifth, which is Chalmer's Hard Problem of Consciousness. I have done a bit of research on that since the conference and will try and summarize. We were already 15 minutes over the session length just with the first four and they finally cut him off.)

Let's take each of these evidences one at a time.

1. Evidence from medicine of near-death experiences.

Now I admit that as soon as I saw this pop up on the screen, inwardly I groaned. I have always been a complete skeptic of near-death experience phenomenon. I have always chalked it up to some sort of brain-related process: oxygen deprivation causing a white light, or something like that. To me, it was about as believable as UFOs. So I was not sure I'd picked the right conference at first.

But I immediately felt a little better when Spitzer opened by saying that he always had trepidation talking about near-death experiences (NDE), for all the same reasons that have made me a skeptic: anecdotal rather than clinical evidence, New Age-ish feel-goodism, etc. So he began by clearing up that he would only be using clinical, longitudinal studies in well-respected journals, and then indeed gave us the list, specifically: Parnia et al (2014), van Lommel et al in the Lancet, and over forty other studies. In each case, he argues that the only evidence we should accept are firm clinical studies in which it can be confirmed that the events recorded as NDEs occurred during periods of complete flat-line of brain activity (brain-death) and therefore are not a byproduct of ongoing processes. By limiting it to this hard-line level, for example, only 9% of the NDE possibilities from Parnia's study are considered valid NDEs, with no possibility of brain activity ongoing.

That said, he points out four fascinating things which have come from these studies of people with verified brain death who nevertheless later are able to accurately report conscious ideas, senses, etc.

(1.1) Accurate reporting of verifiable data

In people with verified brain death who were later resuscitated, 18% of adults and 85% of children reported experiencing near death experiences.

They were also able to accurately report details of things which happened while they were brain-dead, such as where tools in surgery were misplaced and what the doctors did to their bodies, including describing tools which they had never seen before the surgery, but claim to have been watching from outside their body during the surgery. Some of these were very extreme--one woman was able to describe in near-perfect detail the existence of a shoe on a ledge out of sight behind a window at the other side of a hospital--which required the psychologist climbing out on a ledge to find a 20+ year old shoe there; the woman reported having seen it during her journey toward the white light. One patient was able to report what everyone in the waiting room was wearing, even though she had not seen them that day. One was able to recount a conversation she overheard happening between her brother-in-law and a business associate outside during her journey which she could not possibly have overheard from her operating room. One man was able to tell the doctors exactly which drawer they had placed his dentures in after he had flatlined and they began resuscitation efforts. One was able to describe a nurse wearing plaid shoelaces who was only in the room while the person was brain-dead.

As van Lommel's study concluded, if the cause was purely physiological, then all of those in their study should have had similar experiences, as they were treated by the same doctors and same medicines in the same procedures. The fact that 82% did not have such an experience and 18% did have such an experience indicates that something else is at work.

(1.2) Blind sensations

Furthermore, 31 of those experiencing brain death have been blind since birth. Of the percentage of blind people who have a NDE, over 80% mention having gained the ability to see during the experience. Now the skeptic might see this as wishful thinking on their part; however, this does not explain the fact that those blind were able to describe colors ("the nurse's hair is the same color as the shoelaces of the doctor's shoes") and shapes which they had never before seen.

The number may in fact not be 80% but 100%; one of the "non-see-ers" said afteward that he perceived things "beyond his senses" and knew things that he couldn't ordinarily have known. But when asked if this was seeing, he said--"I'm not sure...I don't know what seeing is, so I'm not sure if that is what I experienced."

The point of this study should not be underestimated, because there is no physical manner for sight to appear in these individuals. They have never experienced it and their bodies do not have the physical capacity to do it--it isn't as though they woke up with sight for a quick minute and saw something and remembered it later...even had they woken up (despite brain death) they couldn't have seen anyway.

(1.3) Reports of the beyond

Let us assume for a moment that these are random dream-like states or just the mind assimilating information. How often do your dreams match up with (a) reality and (b) other people? We would expect of several thousand individuals with NDEs, they would have very different experiences, yes?

But that is not at all what happens. They have almost universally the same experiences.

People experiencing NDE report that they knew that their physical bodies were dead. They had positive emotions of peace and joy. They could look down on their body in the operating room. They could observe colors and shapes, even if they were handicapped in these ways during life. They moved through some sort of tunnel toward a bright light. They could communicate with this bright light and found it to be comforting and loving and peaceful. They could identify and communicate with dead relatives, even some whom they had never before met.

Remember that these are people from different cultures, different languages, different physical situations, and even different ages. It defies reason to conclude that it is coincidental.

(1.4) Absence of death anxiety

Also interestingly, while one might expect those who had in fact died and come back to have a severe fear of death, the opposite seems true. Those who have had a NDE no longer fear death, for they found it to be peaceful, loving, and familial; they welcome the opportunity to return.

Spitzer concluded by briefly alluding to how shockingly closely this mimics a Scriptural understanding of death. Based on Scripture, we would conclude that your consciousness or soul is separate from your physical body; will survive its death; that at that time you will overcome handicaps like blindness; that you will meet Jesus (the Light of Heaven) who will know you intimately and yet love you anyway; that you will be reunited with deceased relatives in paradise; that you will finally know pure joy and peace; that most or all children will in fact be there regardless of faith or works;...AND that most adults, having rejected faith, will instead NOT experience this but instead experience nothing but a sleep as they await final judgment,

It is, indeed, a compelling argument. When I heard it last week I moved from "NDE doesn't happen and is crazy" to "Hmm, let me think about it." And now that I have reflected for a few days and gone over my notes, I am moved into the "cautiously believing" category. I just cannot see a rational, non-supernatural explanation for this--not even close.  You can find Spitzer's full paper on it here:

2. Five Trancendental Desires

At this point, Spitzer moved into an area I am more familiar with, and an argument I've made many times before.

All humans--regardless of culture, regardless of belief system, regardless of language, share five key desires: (1) love, (2) truth, (3) justice, (4) beauty, and (5) home.

And indeed, we all measure ourselves and our situations and each other against a perfect ideal of each of these.

We look at our lovers to see if they are The One, the love-of-our-lives, perfection of love. But they aren't. (Spitzer said about those who break up or divorce, "Why? What were you expecting of them? What were you looking for? Is it possible you were looking in them for Perfect Love that you can only get from the source of Perfect Love?")

We listen to people carefully to ensure they are telling us the truth, and the full and perfect truth.

We expect perfect fairness and justice--as anyone with a child knows, they are always baffled that their parents are unfair at times.

We look for beauty and marvel the closer to perfection that we can get.

We all want a perfect feeling of home, but fail to achieve it.

The question that the ancient Greeks asked--and it has never been sufficiently answered by naturalists--is this:  if we have never experienced perfection in any of these areas, how is it that ALL humans are consistently able to imagine it and desire to seek after it?

Animals don't do this. We can take our dogs to a perfect sunset and they will ignore it while we marvel. Why?

The classical answer of both the pagan Greeks and the Christians is the only one which, I think, holds water:  we seek these things because our souls/consciousness know a Source which is in fact perfectly true, is perfectly just, is perfectly loving, is perfectly beautiful, and is our true home, and we want to get back to it!

Spitzer argues that because God is those things and is present to you in your soul, you desperately are seeking to create those things.


If I may add to his argument, I think you could make a very strong argument that EVERYTHING humans do in our careers or our joy is to seek one of those five transcendental desires. Science itself, indeed, is nothing but a thirst for truth. Why are we doing this? Because we had those things in Eden, and lost them. We are in God's image and are desperately trying to re-create in the world the five desires which He alone can create.)

3. Godel's Proof

Mathematician and philosopher Kurt Godel was a Christian of the Lutheran persuasion who read the Bible each Sunday (although he did not attend church, finding most organized religions to be hopelessly wrapped up in the wrong things).

Godel offered a proof for the supernatural nature of our consciousness which as yet has not been beaten.

(NOTE:  Spitzer makes, I think, an error here. This is confusing to call it Godel's proof. Godel also had an ontological proof of God, called Godel's Ontological Proof, which many find unconvincing. For clarity, most people call the proof we will be discussing as Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.)

Now at this point Spitzer was running out of time and really wanted to cover point four. So he summed up the Incompleteness Theorem thusly:  how can we view a mathematical formula knowing only what we were told, see errors, correct them, and invent new formulas? We do it constantly, but this is not possible unless we have an intuitive internal connection to True Mathematics.

I can't complain about this explanation given the fact that he had only 20 seconds to make it, but there is much more here we can say. (The below is mine, so blame me for errors, not him.)

In brief, what Godel said was this: there are always more things that are true than you can ever prove. He said that if you draw a circle around anything, anything within the circle is incapable of explaining its own existence without an appeal to something outside it. You can draw a circle around your geometry textbook, but you have to assume Euclid's five postulates to be true--you have to start with an assumption. You can't prove it by itself.

Godel expanded this in many ways and most logicians and mathematicians agree he is absolutely correct. And this has implications that very few have reflected upon in the scientific community. This means that it is impossible to create a "universal theory" or "theory of everything" in any field. No matter what you can explain 'in the circle' you will ALWAYS have to refer to an unproved assumption 'outside the circle'.

What this means is that no matter how far science goes, no matter how much we learn...we will never be able to eliminate the supernatural. If you draw the largest 'circle' possible, the entire universe, even if we knew perfectly everything that functioned in it from the smallest quark to the largest black hole...we would still have incomplete knowledge. We still would be unable to explain everything without appealing to outside the universe.

In other words:  naturalists tend to think that the entire universe is explainable but hasn't been explained yet; what Godel proved is that no, some things are simply unexplainable without reference to something outside.

4. Heuristic Notions

As I mentioned, at this point Spitzer was running out of time but I think his brief example got this idea across quite well.

We have two types of thinking:  perceptions (seeing a banana and connecting it to a range of feelings and images, like hunger), and conceptions (seeing a banana and connecting it to an abstract idea like "fruit").

Animals can do the first one but not the second one. Take the smartest chimp, who can learn over 200 words of American Sign Language, and you will find that 100% of the things they can learn are perceptions. They can learn "banana" and "hunger" and connect those two; they cannot learn that "banana" is part of an abstract category we call "fruit" or "sweet" or whatever.

This is why syntax is impossible to teach chimps. They can learn the words "man", "dog" and "bites" but cannot see any difference between the sentences: "man bites dog" and "dog bites man." Yet a human two year old with a similar sized vocabulary to the chimp (200+ words), intuitively understands the difference between those sentences (and finds it funny).

How is this possible? Every time you make a sentence you are taking a concrete perception word and connecting it to an abstract world of the mind and ideas, which do not exist in physical reality.

For the naturalist who wishes to argue against the supernatural, this seems quite impossible. How can we create "abstractions" purely in the brain? And if we do create them purely in the brain, then how could they be trusted to actually be real in any meaningful way?

5. Hard Problem of Consciousness

Spitzer didn't get to this but I think I can cover it briefly.

David Chalmers, the cognitive scientist, says that when it comes to understanding consciousness there is an easy problem and a hard problem.

The easy problems of consciousness are things readily explained by brain chemistry and naturalistic studies. For example--why do I crave sweets when I see them? We can explain naturalistically how the eye works to get information to my brain; my brain perceives this as "sweets"; my brain remembers that the last time I ate sweets, I got lots of sugars and fats which are good for survival; therefore my brain releases chemicals that make me want to eat it.

The hard problem of consciousness is to explain the existence of qualitative experiences -- why can we appreciate the sound of middle C, or associated feelings with the color "deep" blue, or hold a mental image in our head, or experience an emotion? Computers process information as well, but they do not have an experience. They just take inputs in and spit them out; but we not only process the information but actually have a cognitive experience of the experience.

It reminds me a bit of the Turing Test. Alan Turing, the mathematician most directly responsible for the invention of the computer, speculated that one day Artificial Intelligence (AI) could grow so intelligent that it would be virtually indistinguishable from having a conversation with a human after five minutes. At this point in history, no AI has even come close to passing the Turing Test.

I would argue that it never will, because of Chalmers. No matter how well we make the physical "brain" of a computer, it is still just processing information. But it will never be able to experience a feeling of the situation. So all you have to do is keep asking it, over and over, to describe how it felt about a particular experience.

The point is this--naturalism can explain our brains as good information processors, but not as experiencers. Experience requires something beyond consciousness.


This was the session of the entire conference that I found most surprising, most engaging, and of which I have spent the most time reflecting. I think that it was masterfully presented and, frankly, is a devastating case against naturalism.

Near death experiences indicate that consciousness continues after the death of the brain and share consistent experiences. We all seek perfection in certain transcendental desires even though none of us have ever experienced such perfection. We cannot explain mathematics or any field of endeavor purely from the physical, but must defer to abstract assumptions from our consciousness. Humans differ from animals in that we not only perceive of objects but can abstractly categorize them. And while human brains process information, it cannot explain experience.

These seem to me to be devastating to the naturalist. To try and explain these purely through evolutionary reductionism is a fool's errand--it cannot be done. You must simply try to wave your hands and ignore that the issues exist.

The far more logical conclusion is: these things occur because you do in fact have a non-physical consciousness which simply cannot be physically measured and which in fact exists separate from your body.

No comments:

Post a Comment