Does emergence explain Near Death Experiences?

Gerald R. Baron
7 min readAug 25, 2023
Image: Dall-E

Near Death Experiences challenge the physicalist belief system, but is emergence a possible explanation that can preserve a form of physicalism?

Of the many and increasing mysteries of nature, two may be the biggest: how did life begin and how can we explain consciousness?

Many seem excited about a possible emerging answer to both: emergence. I’ve drawn attention in previous posts about the seemingly increasing number of references in popular scientific channels to emergence and complexity theory as the rather obvious answer to these mysteries. My concern is that these seldom attempt to explain how emergence works to resolve these great questions. As I’ll suggest in this post, neither do those who are at the cutting edge of this research.

My attention was drawn to an interesting article in the latest version of Theology and Science, a publication of the Graduate Theological Union’s Center for Theology and Natural Science. The article was by Jonathan Kopel, a seventh year MD and PhD student at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. It dealt with two favorite subjects: Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and emergentism. It was titled: “Near Death Experiences and Emergent Dualism”.

The argument for “emergent dualism”

His argument is that reductionism doesn’t work to explain consciousness and uses the reality of the vast number of reported Near Death Experiences as the primary reason. OK, I understand and accept that even if the “elminativists” and “promissory materialists” continue to argue physicalism holds. Then, he argues that emergentism is evident in life, specifically in cell structure, and most specifically in the bi-concave shape of the red blood cell. This shape is determined by the “mechanical properties of the membrane.” Not only the unique shape is determined mechanically, but also critical functions or “higher order characteristics” of the cell.

What gives the membrane these mechanical properties that result in the necessary and remarkable function of the red blood cell? It’s the molecular structure:

“…the hexagonal spectrin matrix and its tethering to the outer lipid bilayer which determines these biophysical properties.”

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Gerald R. Baron

Dawdling at the intersection of faith, science, philosophy and theology.