191. Dr. Victor Stenger Slams Parapsychology, Calls Dr. Stanley Krippner Charlatan

Interview with Dr. Victor Stenger about his new book, God and the Folly of Faith, and the science of consciousness and near-death experience.

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with physicist, Atheist and author Dr. Victor Stenger  about his new book, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.  During the interview Stenger explains why he believes many parapsychologists, consciousness researchers and near-death experience researchers are charlatans:

Alex Tsakiris: As you mentioned, Stuart Hameroff is an anesthesiologist, so he may be crossing disciplines, but he’s also publishing with a Nobel Prize winner and some of the top people in the field.

But let’s move on from that a little bit because what I really wanted to get to with that is what is at stake for Atheism with this idea of consciousness being more than materialism? Mind being just the brain?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   All the Atheists I know, that is those who are scientists and really understand the scientific method, will say, “You show me the evidence for something beyond matter, then we’ll believe it.” So we’re open to that. It’s not so much that we have any particular stake other than the stake of determining the truth as best as we can.

And that’s the problem. These people are charlatans to be claiming that there’s evidence for a quantum aspect of the mind. That’s just not true. Maybe they’ll find one someday. We’re open to that. But they just do not have the data to support that and they don’t have the theory to support that. And that’s the thing that’s so upsetting about it because they’re able to get away with this because they’re talking to audiences who are not aware of the science, who really don’t know the science.

Alex Tsakiris:   You’re not saying Christof Koch is a charlatan? Or Stuart Hameroff is a charlatan? I assume, right? So who are the charlatans?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   I know that I know Stanley Krippner, I know some of the other people that are on the list of people you’ve interviewed in the past. I saw your list and I’ll tell you they’re not part of any mainstream that I know of.

Alex Tsakiris:   So do you think Stanley Krippner is a charlatan?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Absolutely.

Victor Stenger’s Website

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Today we welcome Dr. Victor Stenger to Skeptiko. Dr. Stenger is an adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado but that’s really a second academic career for him. He’s also Professor Emeritus in Physics and Astronomy for the University of Hawaii. He’s also a very successful author, having published 11 books including the 2007 New York Times Bestseller, God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, and his latest book, God and the Folly of Faith. Welcome to Skeptiko, Vic. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dr. Victor Stenger:   I’m glad to be here.

Alex Tsakiris:   Great. I’m looking forward to the discussion. Let’s give folks a little bit of a background on you. Quite an impressive academic career, well-respected in your field. Well published, known. But then you also have this parallel career as one of the founders, really, of this movement that’s come to be known as “New Atheism.” Take us through a little bit of that and in particular this interplay between your academic career and then how you got interested in the Atheist movement. And maybe along the way help people understand what a New Atheist is?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Okay. That’s quite a large order but let me get started and then don’t hesitate to interrupt me and ask for a clarifying point. Now, I spent my career working in the field of elementary particle physics. Was very much involved in many of the activity that led to the eventual acceptance of what is called the standard model. And then went more into astronomy and cosmology in the ‘80s. So my interest has always been basic understanding of the universe, the nature of matter, and what’s everything all about fundamentally.

So toward the end of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, I started reading popular literature where people were claiming that science supported a lot of ideas, first of all paranormal ideas. Ideals like ESP and quantum spirituality and so on. And so I started writing about that in the early ‘90s. I wrote a book called, Physics and Psychics. I wrote another book called, The Unconscious Quantum, which challenged the idea that there’s some quantum element to thinking.

Then I gradually moved more and more toward the religious thing because I found there was a lot of literature out there claiming scientific evidence for God. So I wrote a book, Has Science Found God? And then I wrote, God: the Failed Hypothesis, which was a very successful book. It made the New York Times Bestseller List in 2007. That’s kind of my main book, my biggest.

And then was New Atheism which discussed the whole New Atheist movement that had begun around 2006, first with Sam Harris’ bestseller, The End of Faith. That was in 2006 and 2007. My book came out and also Richard Dawkins’ book and a year later Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchins, of course, with God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Those four authors came to be known as the “Horsemen of the New Atheism.” So then I wrote a book called New Atheism about their ideas. I kind of included myself since I had also written a bestseller during that same period. So I listed myself as kind of the stable boy of the…

Alex Tsakiris:   Well, I think more than a stable boy. I think that’s fair to throw you into that lot. You certainly make a very convincing argument for standing up to fuzzy thinking, if you will. I like how you really push the point that we shouldn’t give religious folks an intellectual free pass in this discussion. Tell us a little bit about that and maybe why you felt that was necessary, to really stand up and say that. To what extent do we give folks a free pass just because they say, “This is my belief. This is my religion.”

Dr. Victor Stenger:   In fact, this is what I try to say was the major difference between the New Atheists and what might be called the Old Atheists. Believe me, I got a lot of flak from older Atheists, people who had been in the field of writing about Atheism longer than I was, and they felt kind of left out. I should have included them but most of these people were more accommodationist toward religion. They had the attitude that we had to go along with religion; after all, they are the majority. We have to try and get them on our side, especially in regard with things like the teaching of evolution in schools. We needed their support.

Scientists in particular, even though most scientists are Atheistic, only 7% of the National Academy of Sciences believes in a personal God. And certainly a majority of people who call themselves scientists also are nonbelievers. But for the most part almost all of them want to avoid getting into any conflict with religion because they’re worried about probably more than anything about support for science. They don’t want to lose public support for science which after all, requires a lot of tax money to proceed. And the Four Horsemen and I did ponder that. We saw the merits of that argument that you really want to try to get along as much as possible in society.

But the way I tried to explain it was that in the long run, what was important was to question the whole thinking process that’s involved with religion because this is what makes people believe in nonsense. The idea that there can be something outside of your senses for which there’s absolutely no evidence. It’s something that should not be just swept under the rug. We scientists should be willing to stand up and say, “Look, that’s just not scientific fact that you’re talking about. You’re claiming it is.” If people didn’t claim scientific support for these ideas, for things like ESP and God for that matter, then we wouldn’t have a complaint.

Alex Tsakiris:   I agree with you on many of those points. I disagree with you on a lot of them, too. The point I really want to focus on that I do agree with is that I don’t think it helps to let that kind of fuzzy thinking stand. I think standing up for just saying, “We have to use this kind of method, this kind of logic and reason to sort these things out,” I don’t know why we would want to accommodate people and give them a free pass. I don’t know how that serves any good.

I think it plays into this kind of schizophrenia that we have about science as a society where we only elect people that make these proclamations about their faith and yet at the same time, does anyone really believe that Obama is a Christian? I don’t think so. We have this kind of schizophrenia going on. I really applaud the efforts that you’ve made to bring that out front and throw it on the table and say, “Let’s hash this out with the best methods that we have.”

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Let me give you a very specific example, and that has to do with evolution. The scientific community, including the National Academy of Sciences and many other organizations, have all made statements to the effect that there’s no reason for people to fear evolution. That evolution does not challenge religious beliefs. And that’s wrong. And furthermore, most believers know it’s wrong. There was a Gallup poll that showed that only 16% of Americans believe in Darwinian evolution, which is the random mutation evolution. The rest either believe in Creationism as described in the Bible, the 6,000 Creationist theories, or those who are willing to accept evolution in terms of an old Earth that likely evolved over billions of years. They expect that but they still say it’s guided by God. That’s theistic evolution.

And if you look at the 16% number, that’s exactly the number of people who say they don’t belong to any religion. Now, of course, there could be overlap but it seems reasonable to suspect that most believers, if not all believers, either don’t believe in evolution at all or that’s about 40% believe it or not of Americans. A recent poll of 34 developed countries showed that only Turkey of these 34 developed countries has the lower belief in evolution than we do.

So these people who say they believe in evolution, the moderate Christians, the Catholic Church, what they really believe in is what’s called theistic evolution. If you want to read about theistic evolution, read the bestselling book by Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institute of Health, The Language of God, where he shows why he believes in God and why it’s consistent with science. Of course, he’s very much a pro-evolutionist, an expert on DNA. He’s led the Human Genome Project, and yet he’ll give you a good explanation of what is theistic evolution.

In other words, God’s still behind it. God just happened to choose to do it this way. He threw the dice, in other words. He randomized the universe when he created it and let it just run but He was still there behind it, directing it to make sure that humans evolved. And that’s the difference. The difference is that in Darwinian evolution humanity is a pure accident. If you started off all over again, humans wouldn’t evolve. The world could still be filled with dinosaurs if there wasn’t the accidental asteroid that hit Earth 65 million years ago.

So the idea that humans are just the accidental production of a random process is totally incompatible, totally irreconcilable, with the standard religious belief that humans are special creations of God. That we are special; we’re destined for eternity and so on. That’s just so in violation of Darwinian evolution and yet people still take that as a possibility that God still created the whole thing to begin with. Well, that’s not evolution. That’s Intelligent Design.

Alex Tsakiris:   You know, that relates to another point that I think you made very convincingly and that’s this idea of exposing, if you will, the moderate Christian. And maybe you want to speak to that a little bit and how we can get into this accommodationist mode where we want to say, “Oh, gee, things really are the same.” I think maybe you just did that and what you’re saying is that when we really strip it down, no, there are some fundamental differences that we really have to deal with. And let’s deal with them.

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Yes. I have had a longstanding argument with Eugenie Scott, who’s the Director of the National Center for Science Education, which does wonderful work in promoting evolution and keeping it on the front burner so that people that don’t know about it understand it and make sure it’s taught in schools properly. But my argument about her is she’s constantly making the statement that evolution does not contradict religion. And it’s the same thing the National Academy of Science has said. I claim this is just wrong, people. There’s a big difference between God-guided evolution, theistic evolution, and what’s called Naturalist evolution where God didn’t play any role in it at all.

Alex Tsakiris:   Right. Well, you know, that’s great. We might not agree on much else the rest of this interview, but I certainly like the way that you approach these topics. I’d like to take that approach and move it forward as we talk about a couple of the topics from your book, God and the Folly of Faith.

So next I guess I’d like to talk about consciousness and your take on the current state of consciousness research. I’ve got to tell you, we’ve had the opportunity to interview some of the world’s leading neuroscientists and particularly consciousness researchers. People like Kristof Koh, Stuart Hameroff, folks that if you go to the consciousness conferences, these guys are front-and-center.

Some of the most prominent researchers, and they’re coming back and telling us, “Hey, wait a minute. This materialistic, very reductionistic idea we’ve had about consciousness probably isn’t going to hold up here, guys. And we have to start looking beyond a material explanation for consciousness.” What is your take on the state of that research?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   They have got it all—the people you mentioned are not at all representative of the neuroscience community. You mentioned Stuart Hameroff. He’s not even a neuroscientist. He’s a, as far as I know, he’s an anesthesiologist. He’s gotten off on this quantum thing with the microtubules in the brain that carry quantum coherent motions around it. They’re a fringe element of the consciousness community.

They have a lot of conferences and so on but if you look at the real neuroscience, you’ll find the people who write on neuroscience, the philosophers of mind, none of them take that seriously. And it shouldn’t be taken seriously because there’s absolutely no basis whatsoever for saying that there’s some quantum phenomena involved in the thinking process. It’s nonsense. Total nonsense.

Alex Tsakiris:   I think I’ve got to push you a little bit to back off from that. I mean, when you talk about Kristof Koh, he’s a Cal Tech professor. If you go through the roster of the consciousness conferences, which are the meeting place for researchers who are interested in this, you’re going to have a real divide. You’re going to have probably about a 50/50 percent of people who are going to side with folks like Hameroff.

Dr. Victor Stenger:   I agree that there’s still a lot of discussion about the nature of consciousness but it’s not settled. And I’m not claiming that something might eventually be found where there’s some immaterial element involved, but that would be astounding. I mean, that the whole materialistic view of science on the nature of the universe was wrong and that there’s a duality. There’s something else besides matter out there.

But boy, to be able to show that we need to do more than just argue, make these theoretical arguments about quantum mechanics and so on, especially when they don’t even know what they’re talking about when they’re talking about quantum mechanics. I don’t care how expert they might be in the mind but what they say about quantum mechanics is—I can testify as a physicist, and believe me, there are any number of other physicists out there, Max Tegmark for one, who can point out in great mathematical detail why the assumptions these people make are wrong.

Alex Tsakiris:   I think there’s a lot of folks who have gone down that path. I mean, this is a very hot area of research. I don’t think these guys are off in the corner kind of doing their own thing without any scrutiny. I mean, they’re publishing and people are criticizing and/or supporting both the quantum physics aspect of it as well as some of the neurobiology aspect of it. As you mentioned, Stuart Hameroff is an anesthesiologist, so he may be crossing disciplines, but he’s publishing with a Nobel Prize winner and some of the top people in the field.

But let’s move on from that a little bit because what I really wanted to get with that is what is at stake—and you touched on it a little bit—what is at stake for Atheism with this idea of consciousness being more than materialism? More than the mind being just the brain?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   All the Atheists I know, that is those who are scientists and really understand the scientific method, will say, “You show me the evidence for something beyond matter, then we’ll believe it.” So we’re open to that. It’s not so much that we have any particular stake other than the stake of determining the truth as best as we can.

And that’s the problem. These people are charlatans to be claiming that there’s evidence for a quantum aspect of the mind. That’s just not true. Maybe they’ll find one someday. We’re open to that. But they just do not have the data to support that and they don’t have the theory to support that. And that’s the thing that’s so upsetting about it because they’re able to get away with this because they’re talking to audiences who are not aware of the science, who really don’t know the science.

Alex Tsakiris:   You’re not saying Christof Koch is a charlatan? Or Stuart Hameroff is a charlatan? I assume, right? So who are the charlatans?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   I know that I know Stanley Krippner, I know some of the other people that are on the list of people you’ve interviewed in the past. I saw your list and I’ll tell you they’re not part of any mainstream that I know of.

Alex Tsakiris:   So do you think Stanley Krippner is a charlatan?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Absolutely.

Alex Tsakiris:   Okay. Fair enough. Let’s approach this issue of consciousness from another angle. And that is from something you talk about in your book and certainly something we’ve talked a lot about on this show. So it’s probably going to be a real hotbed of discussion, and that’s near-death experience. We’ve looked at it from both proponents’ perspectives and skeptical perspectives.

You cover it a lot in your book. Here’s a case where we have, as we were just talking about, the neuroscientists coming at this question of mind = brain duality from one angle, and here we have these medical folks that are coming at it from another angle saying, “Hey, these people seem to be dying on my hospital bed and yet they’re coming back and they’re telling us these stories.” So what is your overall take on the near-death experience research?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   What you have again is it’s a matter of scientific evidence. I have suggested experiments that could be performed and some of them have been–although I was the first to suggest it I don’t claim that they’re following my lead–but they’re very simple experiments.

What you could do is put some random number or phrase up on a table over an operating table, on a counter up high above an operating table so when someone floats above, has this near-death experience where very often they imagine themselves floating above the operating table, then have them read this message and return with it and that would be evidence that indeed they did do something supernatural. And this has been tried at least a half a dozen times and it’s never worked. And similarly, every other claim that’s made is just an anecdote.

A patient has had this experience and makes all these claims and none of them are verifiable. In fact, you don’t even know that the person, that this happened during a period of possible brain death. Although the flat line that they talk about on an electroencephalogram is just picking up a signal from the outer part of the brain. The inner part of the brain could still be functioning. So there’s no evidence that any of them were in any kind of true death state when they had this experience. Or you don’t know that even when their brain was flat-lined that they were having that experience. There’s no way of knowing that the story that they come back with occurred during that period.

So there just isn’t the data to back this up. You just have these personal experiences. Now, I readily admit that the people having the experience feel very profound about it. Very often it even changes their lives because they become totally convinced that there is an afterlife after all.

Alex Tsakiris:   Yeah, yeah, yeah, but neither one of us care very much about that or that data. What I do is come back and challenge you on some of that other data that you’re kind of throwing out there. One is the experiment that you’ve kind of outlined, this seeing images above the bed, this one that’s being done right now by Dr. Sam Parnia of course, and he’s been on the show and we’ve talked to him. I don’t think that’s the only experiment you could do, and I don’t think you’re suggesting it’s the only experiment you can do.

As a matter of fact, we’ve also had on Dr. Penny Sartori, who is a colleague of Sam Parnia. They’ve done an experiment related to that that has shown very significant results and I think is very convincing. What they do is when a patient recovers after a near-death experience they ask them to relate their resuscitation process. What was the process that they went through in being resuscitated? And then they compare that to a control group of people who didn’t have a near-death experience. So there’s another way to see whether there is really a component of knowing during that state of being dead that is verifiable. And they found very statistically significant results.

Let me just throw in one more piece and then I’ll let you respond to that. The other part of that, in terms of the EEG only measuring activity on the surface of the brain is something we’ve talked about and have interviewed one of the leading EEG researchers in the world. It just doesn’t hold up. There isn’t really any current medical explanation for how someone could have anything approaching this kind of experience and yet have a flat EEG. So if something like that is going on, it’s just highly, highly doubtful that it is and would totally overturn our understanding of how the brain works.

Dr. Victor Stenger:   That’s exactly the point I was making with you. We have no way of knowing that the experience that they had occurred during the flat-line. They have no way of knowing that.

Alex Tsakiris:   Well, we do in the Penny Sartori—let me just make sure we’re talking about the same thing. I’ll give you plenty of chance to talk but let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing. When Dr. Penny Sartori and Dr. Peter Fenwick did that research where they interviewed people and asked them about the resuscitation process, they did then by definition know that these people were—their brain was severely compromised and yet they were able to accurately say the particular procedures that went on in their resuscitation much more accurately than folks who didn’t have or claim to have that out-of-body experience.

That seems to me to be very compelling evidence that they were able to have some recollection when their brain was severely compromised. Do you understand where I’m going there? Also Jan Holden has also done similar research along those lines.

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Totally unconvincing. Totally unconvincing. They have no way of knowing that. They just have their own ideas about how the brain works. They don’t know enough about the brain to say that it was impossible for a person to have some knowledge of what was going on, some awareness of what was going on. After all, what’s happening to them right there on the operating table? They were having sensory input all the while that that was happening. I don’t see how they can say that it was impossible.

Alex Tsakiris:   Well, because they’re medical experts, Vic. It totally defies our medical understanding of how the brain works. I mean, take another guy like Pim Van Lommel. He’s a cardiologist for 20 years. He understands what happens to the brain, what happens with his patients, when they undergo resuscitation. He’ll tell you and anyone who has studied brain science will tell you that this is not consistent with what we’d expect people to be able to process or recall. So we’re really talking about something that is completely outside of our current understanding of how the brain works. Do you acknowledge that or no?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Well, they don’t understand it. They admit they don’t understand it. Good. Someday maybe they will.

Alex Tsakiris:   But currently we don’t understand it so currently we have to—I think we have to deal with what we have. We can’t project into the future and give us these promissory notes that someday we’ll understand it.

Dr. Victor Stenger:   That’s why it’s unconvincing, because they can’t demonstrate any scientific fact, any observable fact that they can show falsifies the hypothesis of a purely material brain. That’s what they have to do. It’s a very tough task. I agree. To claim that we have some aspect to existence that goes beyond the purely material is an extraordinary claim. Only the most extraordinary evidence could falsify that claim and this is so far from that, just hearing these guys’ opinions. I don’t understand it so it must be supernatural. That is a silly God-in-the-gaps argument that should not even be discussed because it’s not science. It’s speculation.

Alex Tsakiris:  I’ve got to say I wonder if you’re really being fair and dispassionate with regard to really looking at this data. You know, when I was reading your book one of the quotes that just jumped out at me was from Susan Blackmore, a near-death experience skeptic and someone we’ve had on the show a couple of times. The quote from your book is that Susan, having reviewed all the NDE evidence, concluded that none of it holds up to scientific scrutiny.

And this to me kind of harkens back to the first part of our discussion we’re having where we really have to have clear thinking and dispassionately cut through all the bull. I mean, I had Blackmore on the show in 2010 and here is what she told me about her near-death experience research:

“I gave all of this stuff up so many years ago. If you’re a researcher in the field, it behooves you to read as much as you can about the best work. Otherwise you can’t be a researcher in the field. I’m not a researcher in the field. I have not been for a long time. “

So why would we rely on Susan Blackmore, who gets quoted again and again and again by NDE skeptics, as opposed to someone like Dr. Jan Holden, who is the editor, along with Bruce Greyson, of the Handbook of Near-death Experiences, has looked at 65 peer-reviewed near-death experience studies from labs all over the world. Why would we prefer Blackmore over Jan Holden?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   I refer to Jan Holden in the book. Didn’t you see that?

Alex Tsakiris:   I said prefer, not refer. You refer to her but you refer to…

Dr. Victor Stenger:   There hasn’t been the evidence. You talk about the experts. What about Kenneth Ring? I mean, you’re not giving a fair representation of what’s in my book on this subject. I go through that. I go through it in great detail, these reports. I mention that Handbook and refer to it in any number of places.

Alex Tsakiris:   No, Vic, I’m not saying that you don’t mention the Handbook. But you don’t mention Jan Holden’s work in a favorable light. You say it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. That’s what you say.

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Well…

Alex Tsakiris:   I mean, Jan Holden concludes that NDEs are real and highly suggestive that consciousness survives death. That’s Jan Holden’s position after having reviewed all the science and you disagree with that. That’s okay. I’m just saying I don’t see that I’m misrepresenting your position but correct me. I’m open to that.

Dr. Victor Stenger:   I don’t recall…I recall quoting her someplace where she says that we still are not convinced. I’ll have to find it for you. If you give me some time maybe I can find it.

Alex Tsakiris:   I’ve had Jan Holden on the show, interviewed her at length. She’s quite clearly convinced that near-death experience research is suggestive of consciousness surviving death.

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Let me get back to the basic point and that is that if someone had a near-death experience where they really did go into another realm of some sort, they should return with some information that they couldn’t possibly have known, not experienced while they were on the operating table. And their senses were still operating. You can’t use that as an example. Something that they couldn’t possibly have known and yet no one has. So I don’t understand how they can claim anything except they would like to believe in it. They would be very famous, of course, if they could show that there was a world beyond matter. But where have they done that? I don’t think they’ve done that.

Alex Tsakiris:   This is when we get into a debate, I guess, about the data and what is the data and how we should look at the data. I guess I’ll just focus in on one other specific because in your book you talk about Dr. Jeff Long, someone else who we’ve had on this end who wrote a book, very popular and a New York Times bestselling book about evidence of near-death experience. He firmly concluded that it’s highly suggestive that consciousness survives death. And your criticism of Long was that hey, these are all anecdotes. He’s just collecting these stories, if you will.

And what I thought again, this is kind of a specific debate that we could really have some substance to and that’s that Jeff Long counters that claim. And he gets that argument against him a lot and he says, “Look, these kinds of medical surveys that I did are really the bedrock of medicine. That’s the first line that we do in finding out what’s going on. So don’t criticize that these are surveys.” And moreover he says, ”Don’t criticize that they’re online surveys. I can show you (and he does on his website) a bunch of peer-reviewed articles that suggest that an online survey is no less reliable than a medical survey you might fill out in your doctor’s office.”

So again, don’t we have to be fair in looking at the data and say, “Hey, Jeff Long’s complied all these surveys highly suggestive of near-death experience being a legitimate case of consciousness surviving a severely compromised brain.” What does it take to meet that standard that we need to look at this mind/body relationship or this mind/brain relationship differently?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Look, as I said in an email exchange to you, it’s really very simple. We’re making it too complicated. All he has is anecdotes. If he had one anecdote where a person returned with provable information that they could not have known within—that we could change our minds about that.

I found the section I’m talking about on page 233 of my book where it talks about Holden. She talks about these AVPs. How does she define that? “Apparently non-physical, verificial NDE perception, AVP. “ That’s something that you can verify, in other words. Verificial perceptions that apparently could not have been the result of interference from normal sensory processes.

So then in the Handbook she talks about the attempts to verify AVP, Chapter 9 in the Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, and here’s where I talk about the setup at the table. She notes that the ideal situation is difficult to achieve. The operating room staff often glimpsing the target information thus compromising the protocols. Once more, they have more important matters to do. So she can only report five studies that were conducted with proper controls. She concludes, “The bottom line of findings from these five studies is quite disappointing. No researcher has succeeded in capturing even one case of AVP.” That’s quoted, Jan Holden from her book.

And then later on she talks about receiving an email from Kenneth Ring. Now, Kenneth Ring is a researcher in NDE experiences, a long-term researcher, one of these people that incidentally would really love to of course discover a near-death experience. And here’s what Kenneth Ring said:

“There is so much anecdotal evidence that suggests experiences can at least sometimes perceive verificially during NDEs.”

But isn’t it true that all this time there hasn’t been a single case of a verificial perception recorded by an near-death experiencer under controlled conditions? I mean, 30 years later it’s still an old class as far as we know. Yes, excuses, excuses. I know. But really, wouldn’t you have expected more than a few such cases, at least by now? I mean, that’s in the Handbook. To me that’s convincing.

And until somebody comes up with again, a very simple result—namely just come back with some information that they couldn’t possibly have known, then that’s evidence. That’s evidence that would be worth considering and studying further and so on but right now that has not happened. And after 30 years I think we can really conclude that’s just something that’s going on in the brain and we should stop even wasting so much breath over it.

Alex Tsakiris:   I think you kind of contradicted yourself in that very last sentence but first of all, what Jan Holden I think is saying there and what a lot of NDE researchers have said is why are we pushing towards this Sam Parnia, let’s see if this images above the bed thing when the pilot studies we’ve done haven’t been successful. So I think you’re maybe misinterpreting what she’s saying overall about her impression of the near-death experience research because it’s very positive.

Again, I’ve had her on the show but I’ll be happy to follow-up with her after and make clear about that particular quote she’s making. But clearly she is a near-death experience proponent in that she believes that it’s highly suggestive that consciousness survives death.

And as far as Kenneth Ring, Kenneth Ring is also a proponent of near-death experience research. He’s not a skeptic. So I think to pick out his critique of some of the work that’s being done, I’m sure that’s legitimate and I’m sure that’s correctly quoted as you say. But it doesn’t represent his overall opinion of the research.

And then as to your last point, that’s all we can do, Vic. At the end of the day we can look to the best researchers and see what their conclusions are. And unlike the consciousness research that we were talking about, Hameroff and Koh, here there is virtually no near-death experience researcher who has looked into the field extensively, who has done the research,  and has concluded that near-death experience isn’t what we’re saying here.

I mean, I don’t think you can point to one and that’s why we wind up with references like Susan Blackmore, who isn’t even in the field, because you really have to search to find any NDE skeptic that has any bona fides in terms of doing NDE research. Are you aware of any? I mean, we’ve got Jeff Long, we’ve got Pim Van Lommel, we’ve got all these folks, and none of them are skeptics…

Dr. Victor Stenger:   A bunch of believers is what you do who would desperately want to believe that there’s an afterlife and all of that. I mean, the Pope does, too. And just because the Pope believes in an afterlife and thinks he has all kinds of evidence for it, that doesn’t mean he does. And these people don’t, either. They just don’t. They have not made a case. And then maybe you can go—you say we should go to the experts in the field. Believe me, there are a lot of experts in all kinds of fields who believe stuff. Look at all the parapsychologists who believe in ESP. You say, “Oh, they’re experts. We should believe them.” Well, they have to convince the rest of the scientific community.

That’s the key in any discovery. Look, let’s talk about the Higgs Boson, for example, in my field. If you look at the way that experiment was done by two independent groups, the beauty of it, the money spent, the hours and hours and thousands of people involved. They came up with evidence that just didn’t just convince themselves but convinced the whole scientific community that there was a marvelous particle that had been predicted 50 years ago and was now found.

Where do you see anything comparable to that in this line of research? You have a bunch of people who you’re saying, “Oh, they’re experts. We should listen to those experts.” Well, I won’t listen to those experts. I’m not going to listen to what they say until they demonstrate to me as a scientist with 50 years of experience in research—they show me some data that convinces me then they can start talking to the rest of the community. When they convince the rest of the community then they have a real discovery that’s worth mentioning. Up until now they have not achieved that.

Alex Tsakiris:   But by those standards, Vic, how would we ever know? That’s the one thing that gets me about the NDE skeptics is there seems to be some kind of edge associated with it. You seem to be suggesting that these NDE researchers are coming at this work with some kind of bias. Is that what you’re suggesting? That they’re trying to sneak Christianity into the back door of science? That’s not my read of these people. Is that where you think they’re coming at?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   I don’t know. They just haven’t convinced the rest of the community. And until they do—I mean, you’re supposed to be a skeptic. You should be a skeptic of them, too, rather than defending them. They should have to convince you; they should have to convince James Randi; they should have to convince Paul Kurtz and all the other skeptics out there. When they do then they will have won their case. But until they do, until you convince the skeptics, the most skeptical, you can’t claim that you’ve made a major discovery.

Alex Tsakiris:   Well, they’ve convinced me but they obviously haven’t convinced you. So, Vic, tell us some more about what’s going on with you. Tell us about your website, what people can find there. And about anything else we need to know about this book, God and the Folly of Faith.

Dr. Victor Stenger:   My website has a lot of links to information about these books and reviews of the books. I think I have 11 books now. The website can give you that information. I don’t have to read off the address of the website—people can easily find it by just Googling my name, Victor J. Stenger, and they’ll easily find the website.

Alex Tsakiris:   Right, and we’ll link to it from this podcast. I also want to alert people there’s a number of interesting, fascinating YouTubes that have been produced to view, as well, so people can see as well as read about you. And you blog pretty often at Huffington Post, as well, right?

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Yes, I write blogs off and on for Huffington Post. In fact, I’m working on one right now where I talk about this evolution business. The different views of God-guided versus naturalistic evolution. I’m working on that right now.

I have another book that’s going to be out early next year called, God and the Atom, which goes back to the early atomists, democratists, and so on and works its way all the way up to the Higgs Boson to show how this notion of the world being made of matter and nothing else has been solidly confirmed by modern physics. And it goes back 2,500 years and I trace the whole history of that idea, through the Ancient Greeks through the Dark Ages, onto the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution and then all the way up through the current time with the latest confirmation of the state of model of particles and fields. So I hope people will take a look at that.

Alex Tsakiris:   Great, great. We’ll certainly look forward to that. And thanks again. It’s been great talking to you and kind of hashing some of this stuff out. Thanks for joining me today on Skeptiko.

Dr. Victor Stenger:   Sure. Good talking to you.