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Is Death Final?

Is the prospect of an existence after death “real” and provable by science, or a construct of wishful thinking about our own mortality?

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Overview

If consciousness is just the workings of neurons and synapses, how do we explain the phenomenon of near-death experience? By some accounts, about 3% of the U.S. population has had one: an out-of-body experience often characterized by remarkable visions and feelings of peace and joy, all while the physical body is close to death. To skeptics, there are more plausible, natural explanations, like oxygen deprivation. Is the prospect of an existence after death “real” and provable by science, or a construct of wishful thinking about our own mortality? Arguing for the motion is Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon and author of "Proof of Heaven" with Dr. Raymond Moody, medical doctor and author of "Life After Life." Arguing against the motion is Sean Carroll, physicist and writer with Dr. Steven Novella, an academic neurologist from Yale School of Medicine. John Donvan moderates. This conversation was taped on May 7, 2014.

FOR:
· Human consciousness remains a mystery. People may claim that it's produced by the brain and bound by the laws of physics, but the truth is that the origins of consciousness is a mystery.
· Previously established by respected philosophers, from Plato to William James, mind-body dualism and the immateriality of the soul have been further supported by recent studies on the afterlife.
· Near death experiences (NDEs), as well as psychic phenomena - experienced throughout history - provide strong evidence that consciousness exists independently of the body and thus, independently of physical life.

AGAINST:
· Humans, composed entirely of atoms, are part of the natural world and subject to its laws. Individual life and consciousness are not immaterial and thus cannot extend beyond physical death.
· NDEs, the centerpiece of recent research, are purely anecdotal, descriptive accounts, which, despite some commonalities, are not evidence of a universal experience but rather reflect the subject's cultural background.
· NDEs are simply altered mental states akin to the complex brain phenomena that occur in delusions, hallucinations, oxygen deprivation, and drug-induced experiences. There is no evidence that they have occurred while subjects' brains were inactive.

About

John Donvan (Host and Moderator): The moderator of Intelligence Squared U.S. debates since 2008, John Donvan is an author and correspondent for ABC News. He has served as ABC’s White House Correspondent, along with postings in Moscow, London, Jerusalem, and Amman. John is the coauthor of In a Different Key: The Story of Autism (Crown, 2016). In addition to premiering his first one-man show, “Lose the Kid,” in 2013 in Washington, D.C., John is a four-time Emmy Award winner and was a National Magazine Award finalist in 2010.

Sean Carroll

We need to push on our understanding of cosmology, particle physics, gravity, not to mention how complexity and entropy evolve through time, and eventually you'll be able to really understand what our theories predict.

INSTITUTION

California Institute of Technology

Professor Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in Physics at the California Institute of Technology. He earned his undergraduate degree from Villanova University and his Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Harvard in 1993. Before arriving at Caltech, Professor Carroll taught in the Physics Department and the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago, and did postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Professor Carroll is the author of Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity, published in 2003. He has taught more than 200 scientific seminars and colloquia and given more than 50 educational and popular talks. In addition, he has written for numerous publications including Nature, New Scientist, The American Scientist, and Physics Today. Professor Carroll has received research grants from NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation, as well as fellowships from the Sloan and Packard foundations. He has been the Malmstrom Lecturer at Hamline University, the Resnick Lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a National Science Foundation Distinguished Lecturer. While at MIT, Carroll won the Graduate Student Council Teaching Award for his course on general relativity. In 2006 he received the Arts and Sciences Alumni Medallion from Villanova University.

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Steven Novella

All of our beliefs are open to revision: When new data comes in, or maybe just a better way of interpreting data or looking at the way things work, we have to be open to revising what we thought we knew.

INSTITUTION

Yale School of Medicine

Dr. Steven Novella is Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. He earned his M.D. from Georgetown University and completed his residency training in neurology at Yale University. Dr. Novella is active in both clinical research and in medical education at every level, including patients, the public, medical students, and health professionals. An expert in neuroscience, Dr. Novella focuses his practice on neuromuscular disorders. His personal blog, NeuroLogica Blog, is considered one of the top neuroscience blogs and covers issues in neuroscience as well as the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella is also the founder and senior editor of Science-Based Medicine, a medical blog dedicated to promoting the highest standards of basic and clinical science in medical practice. Dr. Novella is president and cofounder of the New England Skeptical Society, a nonprofit educational organization designed to further public understanding of science. As the host and producer of the organization's award-winning science show, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, Dr. Novella explores the latest scientific discoveries, the presentation of science in the mainstream media, and public understanding and attitudes toward science.

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Eben Alexander, M.D., (For the Motion) is a renowned academic neurosurgeon. A transcendental near-death experience (NDE) during a week-long coma from an inexplicable brain infection completely changed his understanding of how the brain worked. He has spent the years since his NDE reconciling his rich spiritual experience with contemporary physics and cosmology. His book about the experience, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (2012), has spent more than a year atop the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list and is contracted for publication in over forty countries. Alexander has taught at Harvard Medical School and has authored or co-authored over 150 chapters and papers in peer-reviewed academic journals. A pioneering scientist and thought leader in consciousness studies, he has been a guest on Dr. Oz, Oprah, and many other national and international media programs.

By This Expert

Raymond A. Moody, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., (For the Motion) is a medical doctor and the best-selling and award-winning author of twelve books, including Life After Life (1975) in which he coined the term near-death experience (NDE). In addition, he is the author of numerous articles in academic and professional literature. His research into the phenomenon of NDE had its start in the 1960s, and the New York Times has since hailed him as "the father of the near-death experience." In the three decades since receiving his M.D. and Ph.D. in philosophy, he has lectured for audiences all over the world and has appeared on hundreds of television and radio programs. In addition, he trains hospice workers, clergy, psychologists, nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals on matters of grief recovery and dying.

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Debate: Is Death Final?

01: Debate: Is Death Final?

Is the prospect of an existence after death “real” and provable by science, or a construct of wishful thinking about our own mortality?

92 min