237. Dr. Patricia Churchland Sandbagged by Near-Death Experience Questions

Interview with neurophilosophy expert Dr. Patricia Churchland reveals a lack of understanding of near-death experience science.

churchland-bookJoin Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with University of California, San Diego philosophy professor Dr. Patricia Churchland.  During the interview Dr. Churchland seems flustered over questions about near-death experience science:

Alex Tsakiris:  Yeah, but I think we also have problems with the idea that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain thing? I interviewed Christof Koch from Cal Tech last year and he’s the guy who I sent people down this direction that we can no longer claim that consciousness is a product of the brain and we have to move towards this middle position where as he says, consciousness is ontologically distinct, but never really defining how consciousness begins, how consciousness ends, or exactly what the relationship is with the brain.

I think a lot of people are more comfortable with Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins’ okay, consciousness is an illusion than they are with this middle ground. I don’t really know how that answers the big questions of what the nature of consciousness is other than just to repeat that consciousness is something that the brain does. That doesn’t tell us much. How does it begin? When does it end? What’s necessary and sufficient to cause consciousness? These are all questions that are unanswered by what you’re saying.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Well, neuroscience hasn’t got all the answers yet.

Alex Tsakiris:  But that’s just passing the buck. We don’t have the answers. Those are fundamental questions. If we don’t have the answers then we don’t have a theory of what consciousness is, right?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   That’s what your view seems to be, all right.

Alex Tsakiris:  I’m just saying these are basic. When does consciousness begin? When does it end? What is necessary and sufficient to create consciousness? If we can’t answer those then what do we really have? What can we really say about consciousness?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Well, I guess we can’t say anything.

Alex Tsakiris:  Okay. I think we can say some things. Let me ask you this—I didn’t mean to throw you completely off. Do you want to get back to talking about your book?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   No, not really.

Alex Tsakiris:  Okay. What do you think about near-death experience? You write quite a bit about that in your book and what is your general take on near-death experience?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Well, I’m not sure that it really matters, does it? What does it matter for?

Alex Tsakiris:  I think a lot of folks look at near-death experience as highly suggestive of consciousness somehow, in some way we don’t understand, surviving biological death, which would certainly falsify that other idea that it’s so tied to the brain and that consciousness ends at death. I mean, that would falsify that, right?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Oh, I’m sorry. My dog just came in. No, no, don’t do that. No, no, no, no. Forgive me, I’m sorry. Okay. So yeah, okay, I guess I’ve never have actually had a near-death experience. Have you?

Alex Tsakiris:  No.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Oh, okay.

Alex Tsakiris:  But you write quite a bit about it in your book.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   So why do you want me to talk about it?

Alex Tsakiris:  Well, I guess one of the things I did want to ask you is in your book you ask the question, “Is there a neurobiological explanation for near-death experience?” Then you cite NDE researcher and a former guest on this show as answering that question with yes. You say that Dr. Pim Van Lommel believes the answer is yes. Is that your understanding of his research?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Well, I think there’s certainly quite a bit of evidence that at least some near-death experiences have a neurobiological basis. Of course, we can’t be sure about all of them. Maybe you had one that doesn’t have a neurobiological basis. I wouldn’t really know, would I?

Alex Tsakiris:  Well specifically, Dr. Churchland, you cite in your book that Dr. Pim Van Lommel holds that opinion. That’s clearly not the case. I mean, he’s written…

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Has he? Uh-huh (Yes).

Alex Tsakiris:  Right. Do you want me to read to you what he’s written? He’s written that “The study of patients with near-death experience (and this is from The Lancet paper that you’re citing) clearly shows us that…”

[Churchland hangs up]

Patricia Churchland’s Website

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Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and for this episode of Skeptiko I almost feel like I need to issue one of those warnings that they put on the front of shows that have content that might be inappropriate for some viewers. You know, I’m always surprised when people are squeamish over confrontation, conflict, or debate of any sort. I get that on one level. We don’t want to see people squirm and we want everyone to be nice to each other and all that. I get that.

But on another level, I want you to consider that in this interview with Dr. Patricia Churchland, who I’ve really been trying to contact for years. I have emails going back several years in which I tried to contact this woman. She is a well-respected academic, Oxford educated, also UCSD which is a prestigious university out here in California, highly regarded at conferences, gives speeches, and has blabbed about these ridiculous ideas about consciousness that she has.

She’s blabbed about it for years. How else would one confront her on the nonsense that she talks about? I mean, how do you that in a nice way? How do you do that in a non-confrontational way? I don’t know that you can. So it really surprised me, the extent to which she breaks down and squirms and just goes out in the outer limits of reality and believability in this interview. But I don’t really know how to approach these things any other way if you really want to get answers.

So with that said, here’s my interview with Dr. Patricia Churchland:

Alex Tsakiris:  Today we welcome Dr. Patricia Churchland to Skeptiko. Dr. Churchland is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego and at the very prestigious Salk Institute, both of which are just a few miles from where I sit which is kind of interesting. She’s also a very highly regarded academic and best known for her pioneering work in the field of neuro-philosophy, where she looks to interface between traditional philosophical questions and new developments in the science of neuroscience. She’s the author of several books including, Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain.

Dr. Churchland, welcome to Skeptiko. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:  Thanks, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Alex Tsakiris:  In addition to seeing some of your excellent YouTubes and other interviews that you’ve done out there, I did have a chance to dip into a couple of these books. Most recently I was trying to dig into Touching a Nerve. Tell us about that. Who’s it written for, first of all, and what’s the general thrust of it?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Well, it’s written for a very general audience. It was written and provoked, I think, by my realization as I taught undergraduates that many, many people have a kind of ambivalence about neuroscience. On one hand they find it fascinating. It teaches them something about themselves and sometimes teaches them things that are very surprising. On the other hand they think, ‘Oh gosh, I’m only my brain. Doesn’t that sort of freak you out?’ I think that’s a very natural reaction, especially if one has thoughts about an afterlife and so forth.

I really wanted to address that kind of ambivalence and I wanted to explain how things look from my perspective. Why it is or how it is, perhaps I should say, that I feel very comfortable with my brain and with knowing that my perceptions, my consciousness, my beliefs, my desires, they really are a function of the physical brain that resides within my head.

Alex Tsakiris:  Yeah, great. That’s really an interesting place to start, this idea that consciousness is an illusion of a biological robot.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Oh, I wouldn’t say it’s an illusion. It’s not an illusion at all.

Alex Tsakiris:  Well, this is the quote. That’s what Daniel Dennett said, right?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Yeah, but that’s not what I said.

Alex Tsakiris:  Okay, so it’s not an illusion. What is it? Are we biological robots like Richard Dawkins thinks?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   I don’t think Richard thinks that we’re biological robots. I think what does seem to be emerging from science is that consciousness, for example, is a property of the physical brain. That’s one of the many things actually that the physical brain does and it changes when we fall asleep. It changes when we drink alcohol. It changes when we’re tired or very hungry.

And it changes also as a result of changes in hormones. So if you think about your own puberty, for example, you will remember that as the levels of sex hormones and your pituitary changed and consequently as the levels of sex hormones in your brain changed, you began to think about things in a rather different way. You began to notice certain kinds of things, to pay attention, to be fixated by a certain kind of thing, and so forth.

We think that consciousness is a function of the physical brain. It’s a very fascinating function. It’s almost certainly not unique to humans but it is a very real property of the physical brain in just the way that eye movements or many other functions like memory, attention, problem-solving, reasoning, self-control, these are all things that are properties of the physical brain.

Alex Tsakiris:  Yeah, but aren’t we trying to split hairs and move away from the consciousness is an illusion thing without really jumping all the way to the other side where the physicists are taking us? They’re saying that consciousness is somehow fundamental. I mean, if we break down this debate on what is the nature of consciousness, we have these two camps that we’ve been talking about—or I guess talking around.

One is this very materialistic view like I think you started out but then I don’t know if you really were holding to that—that consciousness is purely a result of an epiphenomena of the brain…

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   No, it’s not an epiphenomenon. It is an actual phenomenon in the physical brain. It’s one of the things that the physical brain does in just the way that your brain stores memories. Some of those memories change over time as a result of changes in the physical brain. We know, for example, that people who have Alzheimer’s, because they have lost many neurons in their brains, no longer have the capacity to remember certain things. Memory is a real function of the physical brain and so is consciousness. It’s not an illusion; it’s the real deal.

Alex Tsakiris:  But what is it? I mean, I think we’re dancing around. You’re saying it’s immaterial or it is material or it’s immaterial. Don’t we need to nail it down a little bit more than that? You’re saying it’s an emergent property of the brain. Isn’t that kind of passing the buck a little bit?

Here’s the other possible explanation. Consciousness is somehow fundamental and the brain is somehow interacting with this consciousness which is a reality. Somehow in the field of consciousness it’s out there and brain is somehow interacting with it. But that’s not to confuse it with being purely a result of brain activity. I mean, that is a completely different theory, right?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   It’s a theory for which there is essentially no evidence. One of the problems with that approach is that we can’t understand why taking a drug, for example, should change your consciousness if consciousness is not part of the physical brain because we know that the drug changes the physical brain and that consciousness is somehow completely independent of that because it’s a fundamental feature of the universe.

Alex Tsakiris:  It doesn’t have to be completely independent. Obviously there’s some relationship, a close relationship…

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Ahh, okay. What always puzzled Descartes is if there is an independent non-physical soul, how does it interact with the physical brain? The problem with dualism is that nobody has ever been able to address that in a meaningful, testable way.

Alex Tsakiris:  Yeah, but I think we also have problems with the idea that it’s the emergent property of the brain thing that we’re moving to, right? I interviewed Christof Koch from Cal Tech last year and he’s the guy who I really think sent people down this direction that we can no longer claim that consciousness is a product of the brain and we have to move towards this middle position where as he says, consciousness is ontologically distinct, but never really defining how consciousness begins, how consciousness ends, or exactly what the relationship is with the brain.

I think a lot of people are more comfortable with Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins’ okay, consciousness is an illusion than they are with this middle ground. I don’t really know how that answers the big questions of what the nature of consciousness is other than just to repeat that consciousness is something that the brain does. That doesn’t tell us much. How does it begin? When does it end? What’s necessary and sufficient to cause consciousness? These are all questions that are unanswered by what you’re saying.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Well, neuroscience hasn’t got all the answers yet.

Alex Tsakiris:  But that’s just passing the buck. We don’t have the answers. Those are fundamental questions. If we don’t have the answers then we don’t have a theory of what consciousness is, right?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   That’s what your view seems to be, all right.

Alex Tsakiris:  I’m just saying these are basic. When does consciousness begin? When does it end? What is necessary and sufficient to create consciousness? If we can’t answer those then what do we really have? What can we really say about consciousness?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Well, I guess we can’t say anything.

Alex Tsakiris:  Okay. I think we can say some things. Let me ask you this—I didn’t mean to throw you completely off. Do you want to get back to talking about your book?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   No, not really.

Alex Tsakiris:  Okay. Let me ask you this, Dr. Churchland. Do you think consciousness can do work? Is that an important element to understanding what consciousness is? I mean the theory before is consciousness can’t really do anything. Have we come around? I think there’s research that suggests that maybe consciousness can be focused, can direct, and can affect neural plasticity and other things. What’s your feeling about that?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Well, you seem to think that it does work so why don’t we just go with that?

Alex Tsakiris:  So you agree. It does do work?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   I have no opinion on the matter.

Alex Tsakiris:  Okay. What do you think about near-death experience? You write quite a bit about that in your book and what is your general take on near-death experience?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Well, I’m not sure that it really matters, does it? What does it matter for?

Alex Tsakiris:  I think a lot of folks look at near-death experience as highly suggestive of consciousness somehow, in some way we don’t understand, surviving biological death, which would certainly falsify that other idea that it’s so tied to the brain and that consciousness ends at death. I mean, that would falsify that, right?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Oh, I’m sorry. My dog just came in. No, no, don’t do that. No, no, no, no. Forgive me, I’m sorry. Okay. So yeah, okay, I guess I’ve never have actually had a near-death experience. Have you?

Alex Tsakiris:  No.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Oh, okay.

Alex Tsakiris:  But you write quite a bit about it in your book.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   So why do you want me to talk about it?

Alex Tsakiris:  Well, I guess one of the things I did want to ask you is in your book you ask the question, “Is there a neurobiological explanation for near-death experience?” Then you cite NDE researcher and a former guest on this show as answering that question with yes. You say that Dr. Pim Van Lommel believes the answer is yes. Is that your understanding of his research?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Well, I think there’s certainly quite a bit of evidence that at least some near-death experiences have a neurobiological basis. Of course, we can’t be sure about all of them. Maybe you had one that doesn’t have a neurobiological basis. I wouldn’t really know, would I?

Alex Tsakiris:  Well specifically, Dr. Churchland, you cite in your book that Dr. Pim Van Lommel holds that opinion. That’s clearly not the case. I mean, he’s written…

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Has he? Uh-huh (Yes).

Alex Tsakiris:  Right. Do you want me to read to you what he’s written? He’s written that “The study of patients with near-death experience (and this is from The Lancet paper that you’re citing) clearly shows us that…”

[Churchland hangs up]

So that’s it. She hung up on me. A first, really. Of all the interviews that I’ve done, that’s a first. I immediately got on email and I sent her this very short email:

“Wow. That’s a first. J Is that really how you want to end things? I think you’re going to look pretty bad.”

That’s all I said. I fully expected that that would be the end of it. I mean, come on, that was really testy. The tension was really thick. I thought I’d just never hear from her again. But to my surprise, she emailed me back a few minutes later. She writes:

“Sorry. Lost connection. I think my computer has a little problem. So sorry. Pat.”

So I immediately Skyped her again. Here’s that call:

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Hello?

Alex Tsakiris:  Are we back?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   I can hear you; can you hear me?

Alex Tsakiris:  You’re coming through loud and clear.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Oh, okay, great. Whoops. Sorry. My headset fell off. Yeah, okay, so what’s up?

Alex Tsakiris:  Well, let’s try and finish. I think it was getting a little bit testy there. Tell me what the rub is here. I’m telling you that you totally distorted Van Lommel’s thing. It’s right there in your book. I can give you the exact page. It’s on page 71. You say, “There’s a neurological explanation for NDEs. Is there?” And then you cite Pim Van Lommel as a NDE researcher who says there is. He clearly doesn’t; he says the exact opposite.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   [Silence]

Alex Tsakiris:  Hello?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Oh. Sorry. Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris:  So how do you explain that? Was it just a mistake or do you not know his research or…

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   It’s that a lot of people do see that. There are certain drugs and so forth that can cause out-of-body experiences or near-death experiences.

Alex Tsakiris:  But Dr. Churchland, I’m talking about what you wrote in your book on page 71. You say that this researcher, near-death experience researcher, claims that there’s a neurological-based explanation for NDEs. That’s not what he says. He says the opposite.

What other NDE researchers do you know who support what you’re saying? Do you know any who do?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   [Silence]

Alex Tsakiris:  Hello? Dr. Churchland? Are you there?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Oh. Sorry. Can you hear me?

Alex Tsakiris:  I hear you now. I didn’t hear anything before. There was just a long silence.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Oh. I don’t know what is going on. I don’t know whether it’s your computer or whether it’s my computer or whether you’re just messing with me or what’s going on here but this is not actually working out. I say things and you say you can’t hear me so I don’t really know what to say.

Alex Tsakiris:  No, please respond. I hear you fine now. I don’t have any problem.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   [Silence]

Alex Tsakiris:  Do you want to write me an email response, maybe, to that question? I can do that.

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   [Silence]

[End of Interview]

Okay, so now surely this is the end of this, right? I mean, it’s just a charade at this point. If you listen at the very end you can hear her putting her coffee mug or whatever down on the table. You can hear the background noise and she’s not talking into the microphone and claiming that there are these technical difficulties. So surely it’s over now, right? Nope. Back to the email.

A few minutes later she writes, “Tried calling you. No answer. Maybe the problem is on your end.”

So I immediately emailed her back. “No problem. Do you want to finish the interview?”

So I called her for a third time. Here goes:

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Hello?

Alex Tsakiris:  Do you want me to try you on a landline?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Um, actually my husband’s on the landline so that’s not going to work. No, there’s something—there’s just something not working here. I just don’t know quite what it is. So I…

Alex Tsakiris:  It seems to be working fine now. Why don’t you go ahead and give it a try now with whatever you want to say?

Dr. Patricia Churchland:   Yeah, okay. So. Uh…

[End of Interview]

And that was the end of it. I did send her another email asking her how she would like to proceed but I never heard back from her.

Of course, I’d like to again thank Dr. Patricia Churchland for appearing on Skeptiko, for agreeing to do the interview, and for pushing through all the technical problems we had.

I’m sure it was a mistake on her part. These kinds of people don’t normally engage in any kind of debate for any kind of real, substantial back-and-forth on these issues. I do have to say that in my email I told her exactly where I was coming from. I pointed to other interviews I’ve done. I think I pointed to the Christof Koch interview and the Stuart Hameroff interview.

Initially, when I contacted her years ago, she responded and said, “I don’t really believe in Stuart Hameroff’s ideas and therefore I don’t want to talk about it.” I copied that original email when I followed up so it’s not like she didn’t know where I was coming from. She just didn’t focus on it. Otherwise I think she would have been better prepared.

Then again, I don’t know how she could have prepared herself better because her ideas are ridiculous. And her performance—I don’t know. I’m going to be really interested to hear what you all have to say. It was stunning to me. It was laughable. In fact, I think you heard he laugh a couple of times. Here’s a woman—I can hear the background noise and yet she’s suggesting that there’s some kind of malfunction in the equipment and that’s the reason why she can’t respond to my questions.

I just offer up one question and it’s a recurring question on Skeptiko and that is: What’s going on here? How have we devolved into a scientific and academic system that props up such nonsense?

Again, the really scary thing about Dr. Churchland is that her opinion is the status quo majority opinion. It’s nonsensical; it’s indefensible, but it’s the majority opinion. And don’t question it.

So again, the question is a fresh look at what’s going on here. How can this be? What’s wrong with the system? This isn’t an isolated situation. This is systemic. This isn’t about philosophy or neuro-philosophy, whatever that means. This is about science. This about the culture war debate over who we are, what we are, what we came from. That’s what this is about and that’s why this silliness is put forth in the way that it is. Institutional science is more afraid of whatever else might come out of the data than they are of these old, tired, worn-out, nonsensical ideas.

There, I’ve answered the question. But I still hope you’ll answer it, as well. Of course, the place to do that is at the Skeptiko website at www.skeptiko.com. There you can leave a comment right there in the show notes. Jump on over to the forum and join the conversation there or connect with me via Facebook or email.

I have a number of interesting ideas for shows coming up. I don’t have any shows in the hopper. I’ve cleaned up my backlog from the holidays so I’m ready to move on to some new topics. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going to go so I’m going to have to dig through some of those many great suggestions that you’ve sent and see if I can find something there or see if something else pops up.

I do hope you’ll stay with me for all of that. I greatly, greatly appreciate your support of the show and your willingness to share the show with other like-minded people.

That’s going to do it for this episode. Do take care and bye for now.