Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Is Heaven For Real?


File:Paradiso Canto 31.jpg

Heaven - heven, himinn, Himmel, hemel, Mitt Romney's guestroom.

Heaven's the heart of any religion. The source of good, the House of God, the achievement of nirvana, the inevitable future for those that attest to the correct set of laws, beliefs, and moral codes. The transcendental, cosmological, and metaphysical issues with heaven seem irrelevant to believers, as are all things based on faith. Believers need not reference Gödel to arrogantly condemn the quest for the knowledge of such things as futile at best. Any attempt at discrediting a belief in something such as heaven is first met with inscrutable defense, then invalidated by the held understanding that unlike all other postulations, deductions, or theories, matters of faith are beyond scientific inquiry. In contrast, if there ever comes a shred of evidence seemingly in support of such a fanciful conjecture, regardless of the speculative nature, improbability, or hyperbolic interpretation of the evidence, those that pledge allegiance to the belief hold onto the arisal of such information as indisputable fact with a certainty that would make Heisenberg blush. What would you expect, they do believe science is out to get them.

The religious opposition to science is very understandable, however. There is a very distinct difference between science and religion. Matters of science are based on facts, evidence, scrutiny by peers, often extremely rigorous testing, constant disproval and revisal, and ultimately with the acceptance that "we don't know yet, but that's okay until we have more information." In high contrast, matters of religion are based on faith. Faith that what we know now is what we will always know and nothing can either prove or disprove what we believe. One can easily see the problem of rationally debating an individual with this mindset, and the ostentatious arrogance that often accompanies such beliefs. Science is an incredibly humbling field. Your best friends are your greatest critics and the chance of your theory becoming fact is about as likely as finding the Higg's Boson when a Mark McGwire (pharmaceutically-enhanced) swing hits a 100mph fastball.
In the past, and even in the present, religious phenomonen have often been undermined by scientific discovery. This isn't purposeful, but if you believe in something without evidence, eventually evidence will contradict what you believe. That is not at the fault of scientific inquiry, but rather the factual basis and authenticity of what it is you herald as true. We mustn't merely reject religion as always in perpetual disagreement with science, however. Religion has served its purpose, and failed, as scientific theory.

I briefly digress to emphasize this. Don't hold on to the notion that you DO NOT have to provide proof for what you believe in, why you treat people a certain way, why you act this way or that way. Why not? Is that total and complete detest of reason somehow a favorable attribute? DO NOT feel bad because you accept something with evidence, proof, or reason. You should not be the one who is ashamed. Those that hold a belief system merely because it was passed on to them by their parents, or culture, without any justification or evidence-those are the ones who should be ashamed. There a lot of assholes out there. Selfish, resource hoarding, malignant human beings like Ayn Rand have existed do exist today. You can argue with someone who that you disagree with if they hold an opposing ideology based on findings, personal philosophy, and examples. You CAN NOT reason with someone who simply believes something because that's what they're told and they've never thought to question how it may affect their life or the lives of the people chastized and ostracized by what they believe. I can deal with an asshole, but not an idiot.

For example: Before the 19th century, nearly all cases of dissociative identity disorder and schizophrenia were believed to be demonic possession. In the 18th century, before the pioneering of adequate facilities and humane treatment of mentally ill by Pinel, atrocious things were done to patients to facilitate the removal of so-called "demons." Even into the 1960s prefrontal lobotomies were being performed (although that had to do with the infancy of neuroscience, which was very well held back by the advocacy of religious theory in medicine).

Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, is still rampant in the U.S. Believers proclaiming the love of Christ with meaningless syllables sounds more like a Bob Dylan song than a prayer. Nonetheless, neuroscience thought giving it a look would be fun and uncovered the underlying mechanisms in many regions of the brain, such as the decrease of activity in the prefrontal cortex, caudate nucleus, and temporal lobe. The experience and brain activity interestingly mirrored that of some of the patients Michael Pensinger worked with in the 80s regarding temporal lobe epilepsy and religious experience.

The most recent, heartwarming story of ridiculous religious validation was the experience and subsequent release of a New York Times bestseller based on the story of Colton Burpo. His father, ironically, is a pastor. Colton had a burst appendix, ended up having life-saving surgery, and had a near death experience. Among some of his visions were meetings with his miscarried sister he had never known about and the great grandfather he had never met. Despite the fact that he was 4 at the time and the book was released many years later, followers of Christianity accepted this as absolute proof that there is a heaven out there, somewhere. In another dimension, universe, or quite possibly separate "spiritual world" to hard Cartesian dualists, there lies a place in which you are judged and either sent to a life of eternal joy or pain.

I wrote the following paper for a Limits of Consciousness class briefly discussing Heaven Is For Real and possible less-than-otherwordly explanations of near death experiences. Faith is science of the gaps which are becoming less and less every day.

First, since the paper is a little lengthy for a blog, I want to outline my problems with the story of Todd and Colton Burpo.

1. Christians don't like to hear this, but there have been plenty of scandals in their religion, even from its official birth in 325 A.D. The Burpos made a shit-ton of money off of this project. If you think that a pastor is above reproach just because he's an ordained speaker on behalf of The Big Man, take into consideration: Tony Alamo was involved in kiddie porn, Joe Barron saw Megan's Law as a dare, Ted Haggard traded bread and wine for meth and escorts, and the Pope has more money than an oil sheik with connections to the CIA.

2. Validation of faith. The Burpos sat on this story for years. Why? Did Jesus not call on his followers to "Go and make disciples of all nations?" When the flower pot is broken and only you and your kid are at home, do you automatically believe his elaborate story of how the Archangel Michael came and knocked it over?

Inaccuracy of testimony:
1. Colton Burpo was 4-years-old. That should be enough, but I know you won't believe it is. Sparling et al. conducted a wonderful study on how uncertainty and requestioning easily thwarts the accuracy of a child's testimony ( Also, how wording of questions are highly influential in the testimony of children has been discussed. (

2. What we know is eyewtiness testimony just isn't very reliable. Variables such as reconstructive memory, stress, cognitive dissonance, interviewer leading, etc. make it a highly suspect form of evidence. The Innocence Project has exonerated hundreds of people, many of whom were proven guilty by the help of eyewitness testimony.

Content of Near Death Experience:

1. As with religion, although there are similarities between experiences, the content, the deities or spirits seen, the description of persons met, etc., are highly subjective based on the culture of the person who experienced the NDE. Christians see God or Jesus and relatives, Hindus see the Yamdoots, etc.

2. There are physiologic explanations for NDEs. Cortical chaos in the stress of death could cause sporadic firing of the brain in the visiual cortex which often produces rings or circular anomalies in the visual field, chemicals such as agmatine or DMT that may be released in situations close to death, and even the release of endorphins and encephalins that are released from the limbic system in times of stress could all play a part, without the need for some sort of higher entity intervening in the process of death.

3. Not everyone who almost dies, or clinically dies, experiences an NDE. In the U.S. a 30-month study of 1,595 patients admitted to a cardiac care unit discovered only 10% of those who had cardiac arrest experienced an NDE. If this was a transcendental experience involving leaving the physical world for a more spiritual destination, why does it only occur to certain people?

Here is a more throrough, but still very brief discussion of NDEs and the religious experience:

"A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally there's no discernible difference. Life and Death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?" – Dr. Manhattan in Alan Moore’s The Watchmen

As sentient beings, even the more rational of us have a difficult time imagining the expiration of our subjective experience. From the emergence of our conscious long-term memories until we grow old in age, we are in a constant state of perception and experience. Death walks among us daily, whether it is the squirrel you hit with your Buick, the flower wilting in your vase, or the skin cells you shed as you scrub yourself with a washcloth in the shower. However, with the exception of our furry friend in the first example, most of us don’t think twice about the loss of these. We don’t neglect scientific inquiry to invent a special place in another dimension that skin cells go to depending on whether they were benign or malignant. In the Book of Genesis, the fruit that Eve ingested was not condemned to inevitable death, nor was it allocated a place in heaven if its seeds eventually grew another tree that bore more fruit. However, the mass majority of our country believes that humans, specifically, survive death at some conscious level. The implications of this notion are telling of the state of both our views on consciousness and dedication to scientific honesty. Ultimately, despite religious connation, belief in an “afterlife” directly correlates to one’s belief in what consciousness is, its function, and its basis in the brain, quantum “weirdness,” or another dimension.
Belief in afterlife is most commonly accompanied by the judgment of an omnipotent, reportedly benevolent deity or “life force” that determines whether your afterlife is destined to be spent roasting marshmallows, cloud surfing, as an eagle soaring in the sky, or as a termite in a state of perpetual toiling.  This tells us a few things about the public belief of consciousness (whether they’ve seriously considered the implications of their beliefs or not). First, free will is imperative for judgement and therefore must be a reality.  Determinism would undoubtedly leave the idea of judgment wanting. Interestingly enough though, the concept of compatibilism actually contradicts the biblical concept of predestination. An issue even with compatibilism is that we aren't all cast equal lots in the world; many of our victims of circumstance that could potentially lead to criminal activity or even disbelief if you're born in a primarly Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist country.  However, in Luke14:27, the Gospel author states, “And anyone who does not bear his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” This is a catch-all of sorts for any problem or plight one is thrust into. Despite whatever seemingly unfair situation you’ve been plagued by, it is merely, “your cross to bear.” Second, it means that dualism must be a reality. There exists either a spiritual world or dimension undetectable by our current technological prowess or understanding of physics. Finally, biological evolution is baseless. If life were merely a testing ground for human belief,  adaptive mutations and natural selection would be unnecessary, especially when considering the end of days is predetermined.Sure, it could have somehow been added by an omnipotent being at the universe's creation for some divine purpose unbeknownst to us, but about 40% of America believes that all of the species were created in their current state at the birth of the world.
So what corroborating evidence is their outside of religious texts for the fantastic belief in the human survival of death? If nothing else from this class has been bludgeoned into my head, it is that any seemingly conclusive evidence of theories of self and consciousness are fleeting and unanimous agreement inside the community discussing this evidence would be easier to come by at the next GOP primary debate. So what could either substantiate or refute such an idea with as much scientific, philosophical, and spiritual significance? As Carl Sagan brilliantly asserted, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Using Christianity as an example solely because I am most familiarized with the text, despite God’s opposition of the human acquisition of knowledge of the Universe from the first Book of the Bible, followers of Christianity have used near death experiences (NDEs) as indisputable evidence of an afterlife (Burpo, Heaven is For Real).  The recent book by Pastor Todd Burpo, Heaven Is For Real, chronicles the apparent astral adventures of his 4-year-old son, Colton. Colton had a ruptured appendix that went undetected for some time and required emergency surgery. During the surgery, Colton purportedly arrived in heaven, was in contact with his great grandfather whom he had never met, and also his miscarried sister he had never heard of.  After the book was published in 2010, it quickly rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Many people who I’ve spoken with take the word of a pastor as uncontestable and truly believe this story is true. However, obvious skepticism arises when taking into consideration the monetary benefits of authoring such a book and how easily it is to evoke inaccuracies in children’s stories by an interviewer (Sparling et al. 2011). Not that evangelists have been involved in scandals before.
            In the end, there are three ways of interpreting such a book. The first involves the acceptance that all of what Colton and Todd is inherently true. There is a heaven, your relatives go there when they die, Colton visited this place, and it is all outlined in a book for $5.00 on your Kindle. The second is that everything in the book is false. Todd Burpo convinced Colton that he had a profound experience, the memories were constructed, and the Burpo family rides off into the sunset in a platinum chariot full of fan mail. The third, and most likely, is that something happened during Colton’s surgery. Some phenomenon in the neurochemical environment created grandiose visions in the experience of Colton Burpo, his meeting with his lost relatives was either suggested  by his parents or he unconsciously acquired information about his sister and grandfather, these experiences shouldn’t be all that uncommon , and they are, in all likelihood, subjective.
            It appears there are ways to give validity to the statements of not only Colton Burpo, but also the many other people with NDEs without challenging consciousness arising from physical processes within the brain. Neither dualism nor a quantum view of consciousness is required to account for the experiences of those who have had apparent brushes with death.  In order for us to strictly maintain that NDEs do not occur in a conscious state void of corresponding brain activity, we must assume that the experience takes place prior to the cessation of brain activity. There appears to be no evidence contradicting this claim (Blackmore 2004).
            To understand what could be going on in the brain to create the experience, we must first consolidate some of the attributes of the typical NDE. Visions of tunnels in lights, entire life flashing before one’s eyes, visions of spiritual entities that are usually hereditary of one’s cultural upbringing, and occasionally more insidious visions of hell are all common themes in a typical NDE (Blackmore 2004). It should also be noted that the majority of those that have had these experiences reported increased belief in an afterlife, less fear of death, and a greater interest in spirituality and increased love and acceptance of others, which will be important later in the paper (Blackmore 2004). Out of body experiences do not readily accompany NDEs (Blackmore 2004) and their explanation and even propagation don’t share the same mystique of an NDE (Blackmore 2004).
In Dying to Live , Susan Blackmore introduces and provides information that supports her hypothesis that severe stress and fear, as well as anoxia in the brain, cause inhibition and uncontrolled neural firing which produce the mental states described by those experiencing a NDE (1993). First, she introduces the consistency argument. This argument underlines that NDEs around the world are often very similar in their nature. Next, these experiences are “just like hallucinations.” If this is the case, NDEs should be reproducible under conditions other than near-death.  
There are obvious ethical barriers to inducing near-death states and studying them emperically, but there are also limitations and obvious improbabilities of “being in the right place at the right time” to study NDEs on a large-scale in a hospital setting. So can we induce a hallucination that causes the same lasting change to one’s view on life, spirituality, and the treatment of others? The Harbor-UCLA medical center recently conducted a study on how the moderate use of hallucinogenic psilocybin affected the anxiety and fear of death of cancer patients. In this double-blind, placebo-controlled study, there were no clinically adverse side effects detected. The State-Trait Anxiety Inventory trait anxiety subscale showed significant improvement in anxiety among patients at 1 and 3 months (2011). Although we can demonstrate how a hallucinogen can reproduce a similar event resulting in similar psychological changes as someone who experiences an NDE, it doesn’t solve the problem of an adaptive advantage. Why would a strong hallucinatory experience near death be conducive to our survival or functioning?
Another interesting candidate in the induction of NDEs in susceptible individuals is the novel neurotransmitter agmatine. Ketamine has shown to be capable of inducing near-death experiences (Jansen 1996). We know that ketamine is an NMDA antagonist, so we would be led to reason that possibly an endogenous neurotransmitter that antagonizes NMDA receptors could be the culprit in the search for the propagator of NDEs. This supported by the finding that certain conditions that induce NDEs (hypoxia, low blood flow, hypoglycemic conditions, temporal lobe epilepsy, etc.) also cause excess extracellular levels of glutamate in the brain (Jansen 1996). Agmatine was shown to exert a neuroprotective effect against excess glutamate in cultured hippocampal neurons as well as in ischemic conditions (Gilad et al. 1996). Since most NDEs are associated with cardiac arrest, it is also important to notice agmatine’s favorable effects on vascular health (Huynh & Chin-Dusting 2006). Ultimately, if the brain releases an excess amount of agmatine to combat the possible excitotoxic effects of excess glutamate and damage to the cardiovascular system, its antagonization of the NMDA receptors could potentially produce an NDE in susceptible individuals. If this is the case, further research should delve deeper into the health of individuals who reported an NDE versus those who did not. Also, if agmatine is safe and neuroprotective, is there a human dose than we could administer to reproduce an NDE?
            One of the most frustrating, and in some ways rewarding aspects of studying consciousness is the constant reminder of what you don’t know and cannot prove. I am one to believe that we must not merely dismiss the Rupert Sheldrakes, Dean Radins, or even Todd Burpos of the world, but instead, scientifically examine their testimonies and findings. It sounds corny for me to align myself with Eagleman “Possibilianism,” but the humbling nature studying consciousness leaves me with few options. However, I believe that the possibility of an omnipotent, personal, deity judging subjects and designating an eternal homestead has had ample time to produce evidence. I don’t feel that NDEs are evidence of that stance, so as a reasonable individual I must conclude that no, Heaven Isn’t For Real.


Burpo, T. (2010). Heaven is for real. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Blackmore, S. (2004). Consciousness: An Introduction. (Second ed.)New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Blackmore, S. (1993). Dying to live. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.
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Jansen, K. L. R. (1996) Using ketamine to induce the near -death experience: mechanism of action and therapeutic potential. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness Issue 4, 1995 (Ed.s C. Ratsch; J. R. Baker); VWB, Berlin, pp55-81.

Sparling J, Wilder DA, Kondash J, Boyle M, Compton M. Effects of interviewer
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