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Dec. 18 2009 - 1:24 pm | 1,040 views | 2 recommendations | 4 comments

The Afterlife Comes to Larry King Live

On Thursday, December 17, I filmed an episode of Larry King Live, which did not feature Larry King and was not live. (The show will air sometime in the next two weeks.) No matter, it was a rockin’ good time with a room full of guests, which Larry’s show is wont to do. If PBS’s Charlie Rose and his hour-long one-on-one interview style on a minimalist set is on one end of the interview spectrum, and Jerry Springer’s circus side show is on the other end, Larry King hovers somewhere in the middle ground between salacity and solemnity.

Featured guests on this day included CNN’s medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta (author of Cheating Death: The Doctors and Medical Miracles that Are Saving Lives Against All Odds), the New Age quantum guru Dr. Deepak Chopra (author of Life After Death: The Burden of Proof), the social commentator cum Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza (who was touring for his new book Life After Death: The Evidence), a football referee who “died” on the playing field and saw the light, a reincarnation researcher who claims that birth marks and bizarre dream images represent reincarnated dead people, and a young boy who believes he is the reincarnation of a World War II fighter pilot. The guest host who artfully juggled all these show elements was Jeff Probst, the host of the television series Survivor. Everyone on the show except me was in the New York CNN studio. I sat alone in the Hollywood CNN studio set staring into a camera with a video feed streaming in about three seconds ahead of the audio feed in my earpiece, which made me feel like I was being channeled from some other plane of existence, which was fitting because the subject of the show was life after death.

Sanjay Gupta started us off with what turns out to be the first line of explanation for Near-Death Experiences (NDEs): the people who experience them are not actually dead! This is, in fact, why they’re called near-death experiences. Gupta recalled that when he was in medical school the residents were taught to mark the time of death to the minute, as if one moment someone is alive and in the next moment…dead. In reality, he explained, death can often take anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours to occur, depending on the conditions. As Gupta demonstrates in his book (and CNN specials based on the book), people who have fallen into near-freezing lakes and rivers and “died,” were actually not quite dead, and their core body temperatures were reduced so rapidly and dramatically that their vital brain and body tissues were preserved long enough for subsequent resuscitation. So what appears to be something as miraculous as the resurrection of an actual dead person back to life, in fact has a non-miraculous explanation in medical science having to do with the restoration of tissues at low temperatures.

So much of this debate turns on what is meant by “death.” People who believe in the afterlife in search of empirical evidence through NDEs, for example, will use such phrases as “he was dead and came back to life,” or “she died and saw what was on the other side,” or “after death he came back to describe what it was like.” When the football referee was introduced, for example, the voice over for the video clip of him collapsing on the field said he was “dead,” and that after he had “died” he was resuscitated, a conclusion reinforced by the guest host Probst, by Sanjay Gupta, and by the man himself who was alive and well in the New York studio. So when I was asked for a scientific explanation for this apparent miracle, I said we merely have to remember what Gupta said at the top of the show: the man was not really dead. In fact, as the rest of the story revealed, the man had his heart restarted right there on the field by a portable CPR machine available on the sidelines, and the entire event from collapse to revival was less than two minutes. There is in this example, as in so many others, nothing miraculous to explain because the man was not dead.

One final point that should be repeated like a mantra every time we encounter such mysteries: the fact that we cannot fully explain a mystery with natural means does not mean it requires a supernatural explanation. During the show Sanjay Gupta stated that when he was writing his book he took a rigorous scientific approach but in the end could not come up with 100 percent natural explanation for many of these medical mysteries (people who “cheated death”), and therefore there is room for spiritual and religious explanations for these phenomena. No it doesn’t. It just means that we cannot explain every mystery we encounter. That’s normal. No science can throw a comprehensive explanatory net over every mystery in the cosmos. The fact that we can “only” explain about 90 percent of all UFO sightings does not mean that the other 10 percent represent visitation by aliens; it just means that we can’t explain everything. The fact that we cannot explain every cancerous tumor that has gone into remission does not mean that miraculous supernatural forces are operating inside certain cells in a handful of people. It just means that modern medicine has yet to catch up with the wonders and mysteries of the human body.

Conclusion: just because we do not have a 100 percent complete natural explanation for experiences that people have near death, does not mean that we never will understand death or that there is life after death. It just means that we don’t know everything. That is the very nature of science.


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  1. collapse expand

    In my opinion, Mr Shermer was the only one on the show that seemed rational in his comments. Also, Deepak Chopra seemed so angry at Mr. Shermer, what’s going on there?

  2. collapse expand

    What’s your take on D’Souza’s argument/book?

    I heard him on a Catholic radio station and he seemed pretty smug about his book, which he said used skeptics’ own “facts” against them, but essentially came to the tenuous conclusion you address above: That in the absence of conclusive evidence, there must be supernatural forces at work.

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    About Me

    Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University. His latest book is The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics. His last book was Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and he is also the author of The Science of Good and Evil and of Why People Believe Weird Things. He received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991). He was a college professor for 20 years, and since his creation of Skeptic magazine he has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!).

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