Transcendental hypothesis

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This approach, also known as the 'survivalist hypothesis', strongly supports the view that a detachable soul leaves the body at the moment of the near-death experience and that this provides evidence of our survival after the death of the body (see, for, instance, Badham and Badham 1982; Rogo, 1982; Sabom 1982). This approach is mainly based on the experience as it appears to those who have had an NDE. As Paul Badham put it:

The hypothesis appears to be supported by the claims made by many resuscitated persons that at the moment their hearts stopped beating they found themselves outside their bodies looking down with interest on the attempts made by the medical teams to revive them. What makes these claims evidential is that their observations seem to be extraordinarily accurate, and to accord with what would have been seen if they genuinely were looking down from above.

Implicit in the survivalist hypothesis is a dichotomic way of thinking according to which soul and matter are two separate and incompatible entities. Before we move on with our discussion, it is relevant to observe how the term 'soul', or anima, has intentionally been avoided in contemporary debates and replaced by 'consciousness' or 'mind'. I find it rather a dismissive attitude because the concept of the human soul is not only fundamental in various religious traditions, but it also contains all the elements we need 'to define human uniqueness: mind, spirit, essence, immortal being, personhood, identity, selfhood' (McPhate, in Deane-Drummond and Scott 2006: 100).

Even this approach has its own limitations. The most remarkable one is that by losing sight of mind-body wholeness, the mind (or soul) is considered a disembodied entity, which is totally unrelated to the rest of the body. In order to overcome such a limitation, the Church of England Doctrine Commission has recently redefined the concept of the soul as follows:

It would not be possible to speak of salvation in terms of destiny of souls after death, if the soul were thought of as the detachable spiritual part of ourselves. If the essential human being is an embodied whole, our ultimate destiny must be resurrection and transformation of our entire being ... to speak thus is not to abandon talk of the soul, but to seek its redefinition.

(Church of England 1995)

Interestingly, this redefinition of the soul provides a more inclusive concept of what it means to be a human being as an 'embodied whole' and refers to the resurrection of a new form of embodiment, rather than a disembodied soul. Similarly, Keith Ward has observed that 'the idea of resurrection is the idea of a new embodiment which is so closely related to this one that it can be best spoken of as the "same body transformed", rather than as quite a new body' (Ward, in Lorimer 2004: 169). In his view, the doctrine of resurrection is popularly misunderstood because of three Catholic doctrines, namely, (1) that the soul is created by God at a specific point (which makes one think it is a thing); (2) that the soul is naturally immortal (which makes one think that it could just go on for ever without a body); and (3) that the body is resurrected (which makes one think that the very same body climbs out of the grave). He suggested that 'to get the orthodox view, one has to have some grasp of the idea that the soul is the Form of the body, and yet that it is a substantial Form, capable of (un-naturally) existing with just conscious contents' (ibid.: 169-70).

The value and the necessity of recovering a concept of the soul in the contemporary debate on consciousness has been emphasized by Paul Badham, who argued that:

The concept of the soul is a necessary ingredient of any faith, which wishes to affirm that we are more than physically determined creatures, and that we have the potentiality for moral and rational growth and for developing a spirituality, which can ultimately transcend our bodily death.

(Badham 2005b: 219)

Although, for Badham, the soul is clearly difficult to define, he also encourages a rational explanation of it, which he thinks possible (ibid.: 220). Although I fully support this view, I would like to suggest that the near-death experience is proof of something more immediate than our survival after death, something that is much more concerned with our here and now. My assumption here is mainly based on the fact that the survivalist hypothesis seems to be inadequate to explain the cases of those who did not experience a situation of temporary death as we have seen, for instance, in the ketamine study.4 Nevertheless, it can be argued that the fact the persons did not die on these occasions contradicts their accounts of dying and of leaving their bodies. How is it possible? The argument has been extensively treated in the work of Yasuo Yuasa (1925-2005), which will be discussed in length in the next chapter. As he confirmed during a personal discussion,5 as well as in some of his publications (Yuasa 1993), the idea that during an NDE an immaterial soul leaves the body and enters the Divine or Ultimate reality, represents a new contemporary form of dualism, which does not reject in toto the previously accepted reductionism that the mind is the brain (ibid.: 41). In order to overcome such a limitation, he attempts to inspire reconciliation between body and mind by offering a new reflection based on the unexplored spiritual potential within the body. Particularly interesting in this respect is his body scheme, which will be discussed in Chapter 7.

Others, such as Susan Blackmore, have criticized the survivalist hypothesis, assuming that the observations made during an NDE could be explained as a combination of 'information available at that time, prior knowledge, fantasy or dreams, and lucky guesses, and information from the remaining senses' (Blackmore 1996b: 480). Chris French (2005) has stated that these arguments have to be approached with care because they deal with memories of an event and not with a direct experience. In this sense, 'false' memories could play a central role, especially when these were reported in long-term retrospective studies. His argument is supported by results in experimental research, which have shown that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, including the testimony of anomalous experiences. An exception to his observation is represented by those interviewed immediately after the experience, such as after recovery from cardiac arrest (e.g. Parnia et al. 2001; Sartori 2005).

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