Back Goldfinch looking backwards

Endnote 4 to Mind-Matter Argument 2


As a student I could never understand why Plato paid so much attention to what the Greeks called the Sophists. It was clear they didn’t like the arguments of these guys, and it looked to me like you called someone a Sophist when you disagreed with him. But I didn’t see what was otherwise special about them.

Now just recently, as I read with astonishment a paragraph by Michael Shermer describing a study of near death experiences published by the Lancet, a study that I had already looked at on my own, I realized that the term is quite precise and useful in the sense of giving us a name for an important phenomenon spread all across our culture, one people tend not to notice clearly.

I’ll start off by giving a little background on the Sophists from The History of Philosophy by William Turner (1906). My underlining.

History of the Sophists. The word Sophist, etymologically considered, denotes a wise man. In the earlier pre-Socratic period it meant one who made wisdom or the teaching of wisdom his profession. Later on, the abuse of dialectic disputation of which the Sophists were guilty caused the name sophism to become synonymous with fallacy.

The Sophists flourished from about 450 B.C. to 400 B.C.; not that Sophism as a profession disappeared altogether at the latter date, but, after the appearance of Socrates as a teacher, the importance of the Sophist dwindled into insignificance.

The first Sophists are represented as going about from city to city, gathering around them the young men and imparting to them in consideration of certain fees the instruction requisite for the conduct of public affairs. In the instruction which they gave they set no value upon objective truth; indeed, the ideal at which they aimed was the art of making the worse seem the better cause, and vice versa. Readiness of exposition and presentation of arguments in a specious manner were all that they pretended to teach.

....  It is difficult, as Plato{fn} points out, to define accurately the nature of the Sophist. ... They were characterized more by their mode of thought than by any fixed content of thought. Besides, Plato, Aristotle, and all our other authorities are so avowedly hostile to the Sophists, and raise so unreasonable objections to Sophism (as when they accuse the Sophists of bartering the mere semblance of knowledge for gold), that we must weigh and examine their every statement before we can admit it as evidence. (Source.)

The paragraph by Michael Shermer that I mentioned earlier appears in his regular Scientific American column describing an NDE experiment that others have characterized much differently. For instance:

On December 15, 2001, the highly respected international medical journal, The Lancet, published a 13-year study of NDEs observed in 10 different Dutch hospitals. This is one of the very few NDE studies to be conducted prospectively, meaning that a large group of people experiencing cessation of their heart and/or breathing function were resuscitated during a fixed period of time, and were interviewed. Through those interviews the doctors discovered who had experienced NDEs. The advantage of this type of study is that it gives scientists a matched comparison group of non-NDE patients against which to compare the near-death experiencers, and that in turn gives scientists much more reliable data about the possible causes and consequences of the near-death experience.

For example, in the past some scientists have asserted that the NDE must be simply a hallucination brought on by the loss of oxygen to the brain [called "anoxia"] after the heart has stopped beating. This study casts doubt on that theory, in the words of its chief investigator, cardiologist Pim van Lommel, MD, "Our results show that medical factors cannot account for the occurrence of NDE. All patients had a cardiac arrest, and were clinically dead with unconsciousness resulting from insufficient blood supply to the brain. In those circumstances, the EEG (a measure of brain electrical activity) becomes flat, and if CPR is not started within 5-10 minutes, irreparable damage is done to the brain and the patient will die. According to the theory that NDE is caused by anoxia, all patients in our study should have had an NDE, but only 18% reported having an NDE... There is also a theory that NDE is caused psychologically, by the fear of death. But only a very small percentage of our patients said they had been afraid seconds before their cardiac arrest — it happened too suddenly for them to realize what was occurring. More patients than the frightened ones reported NDEs." Finally, differences in drug treatments during resuscitation did not correlate with the likelihood of patients experiencing NDEs, nor with the depth of their NDEs.

Of the 344 patients tracked by the Dutch team, 18% had some memory from their period of unconsciousness, and 12% (1 out of every 8) had what the physicians called a "core" or "deep" NDE. The researchers defined that as a memory by the patient from their period of unconsciousness which scored six or more points on the scale published by Dr. Ken Ring in his 1980 study, Life at Death: A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience (linked page size: 40Kb),. This scale includes, among other things, out-of-body perception, moving through a tunnel, communication with light, blissful feelings, observation of a celestial landscape, meeting with deceased persons, life review, and presence of a border. The scientists were surprised that the NDErs recalled their experience with the same degree of detail when interviewed again several years later.

The paragraph on the same study by Shermer is the second in the excerpt following. (I give the first paragraph for proper context.) The whole short essay is on line here.

A related study is cited in the 2001 book Why God Won’t Go Away. In it, Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and the late Eugene D’Aquili found that when Buddhist monks meditate and Franciscan nuns pray, their brain scans show strikingly low activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, a region the authors have dubbed the orientation association area (OAA). The OAA provides bearings for the body in physical space; people with damage to this area have a difficult time negotiating their way around a house, for instance. When the OAA is booted up and running smoothly, there is a sharp distinction between self and nonself. When the OAA is in sleep mode — as in deep meditation or prayer — that division breaks down, leading to a blurring of the lines between feeling in body and out of body. Perhaps this is what happens to monks who discern a sense of oneness with the universe, or nuns who feel the presence of God, or alien abductees who believe they are floating out of their beds to the mother ship.

Sometimes trauma can become a trigger. The December 15, 2001, issue of the Lancet published a Dutch study in which 12 percent of 344 cardiac patients resuscitated from clinical death reported near-death experiences, some having a sensation of being out of body, others seeing a light at the end of a tunnel. Some even described speaking to dead relatives. Because the everyday occurrence is of stimuli coming from the outside, when a part of the brain abnormally generates these illusions, another part of the brain interprets them as external events. Hence, the abnormal is thought to be the paranormal.

These studies are only the latest to deliver blows against the belief that mind and spirit are separate from brain and body. In reality, all experience is mediated by the brain. ......

That’s my emphasis. Shermer has taken a study strongly tending to disprove the materialist hypothesis and persuasively represented it as proving the contrary. He has made “the worse seem the better cause,” and we recognize that his position with Scientific American and as a speaker and popular writer is both highly remunerative and dependent on the success of his sophistry.

It is instructive to examine just how Shermer gets his stunning effect. Disregarding the sophistry of his treatment of the study of monks in the preceding paragraph, we can note that he manages to end the paragraph by bringing in the to most people far more dubious notion of alien abductees. This floats an aura of foolishness over the OBE, which has nothing to do with alien abductions. Next he begins his paragraph on the Dutch study by conflating the extreme near-death experience itself

All patients had a cardiac arrest, and were clinically dead with unconsciousness resulting from insufficient blood supply to the brain. In those circumstances, the EEG (a measure of brain electrical activity) becomes flat, and if CPR is not started within 5-10 minutes, irreparable damage is done to the brain and the patient will die.

with “trauma.” It is technically true that flat-lining with cardiac arrest is trauma, but it is also technically true that “it all depends on what ‘is’ is.” We see the same intention to minimize in the expression “resuscitated from clinical death” and in the non-emphatic review of the experiences of the NDEers. Having thus lulled his reader into a ho-hum sort of attitude on the experiences themselves, Shermer then actually falsifies the situation he is reporting on by implicitly stating that these experiences were known to be illusions generated by “ part of the brain abnormally.” Given the fact that he is summarizing a report as if it were one of several that “are only the latest to deliver blows against the belief that mind and spirit are separate from brain and body,” and the fact that the explicit intention of the Dutch report is exactly and explicitly the contrary, this is an almost grotesque case of “making the worse seem the better cause.”

In fact, the misuse and distortion of the Dutch study in this context by Shermer was so great that the lead author of the study, Professor Pim van Lommel, felt compelled to write a lengthy rebuttal letter to Scientific American. It can be read here.

Those who actually care to discover the truth will at least go there and read that much. The contrast with Shermer’s sophistry is instructive.

The source of this summary of the study (not complete in this extract) is two doctors (Jeffrey Long, MD & Paul Bernstein, PhD) at The Institute for Afterlife Research. I can’t but think they have a pro NDE bias.

See my notes here for the great Sophist of the Ludlow Massacre, Ivy Lee.

See Michael Shermer’s place in Gary E. Schwartz’s book The Afterlife Experiments. There Schwartz reports permitting Shermer’s Fox network show to examine some of the experimental data he reports on in the book. As Schwartz reports it, Schermer’s show turned  overwhelmingly persuasive evidence into paltry subterfuge by completely failing to mention it and by selecting out from it snippets that all alone might indeed be judged as potentially dubious. This is in Chapter 15, What’s Fraud Got to Do with It?, the section called “Double Deceit.” (Using Google Books for the first time and I’m not sure of the page numbering system yet. Maybe page 302.) In any case, here’s a screen clip:

Actually 18 percent.