Debate: Is Death Final?

May 14, 2014
Originally published on May 14, 2014 3:11 pm

Is there some form of existence after death, or is the notion a product of wishful thinking about our own mortality?

These questions have fascinated humans for millennia. Many approach the concept of an afterlife as a religious one, but in a recent Intelligence Squared U.S. debate, a physicist and three medical doctors put faith aside to debate life after death from a scientific perspective.

In an Oxford-style debate, they faced off two against two on the motion "Death Is Not Final," considering the concepts of an afterlife as well as near-death experiences. In these events, the team that sways the most people by the end of the debate is declared the winner.

Before the debate, the audience in New York's Kaufman Music Center voted 37 percent in favor of the motion and 31 percent against, with 32 percent undecided. After the debate, 42 percent agreed with the motion, while 46 percent were against, making the team arguing against the motion the winner of this particular debate.

Those debating:

FOR THE MOTION

Dr. Eben Alexander is an academic neurosurgeon. A near-death experience during a weeklong coma from a brain infection completely changed his understanding of how the brain works. He has spent the years since reconciling his spiritual experience with contemporary physics and cosmology. His book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, spent more than a year on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list and is contracted for publication in more than 40 countries. Alexander has taught at Harvard Medical School, has authored or co-authored over 150 chapters and papers in peer-reviewed academic journals, and has been a guest on The Dr. Oz Show, Oprah and many other national and international media programs.

Dr. Raymond A. Moody Jr. is a medical doctor and author of 12 books, including the 1975 book Life After Life, in which he coined the term "near-death experience." He is also the author of numerous articles in academic and professional literature. His research into the phenomenon of NDE had its start in the 1960s, and in the three decades since receiving his M.D. and Ph.D. in philosophy, he has lectured for audiences all over the world and has appeared on hundreds of television and radio programs. In addition, he trains hospice workers, clergy, psychologists, nurses, doctors and other medical professionals on matters of grief recovery and dying.

AGAINST THE MOTION

Sean Carroll is a physicist and author. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1993 and is now on the faculty at the California Institute of Technology. His research focuses on fundamental physics and cosmology, especially issues of dark matter, dark energy and the origin of the universe. Carroll is author of The Particle at the End of the Universe, From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time and Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity. He has written for Scientific American, New Scientist and The Wall Street Journal. He frequently consults for film and television and has been featured on television shows such as The Colbert Report, PBS's Nova, and Through the Wormhole.

Dr. Steven Novella is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the founder and current executive editor of Science-Based Medicine as well as the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society. Novella is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe and the author of NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, general science, scientific skepticism, the philosophy of science, critical thinking and the intersection of science with media and society.

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