110 Journal of Near-D eath Studi es, 36(2), Winter 2017 © 2017 IAND S
DOI : 10.17514/JND S- 2 017- 36 - 2- p110 - 120.
Understanding Near- Death Experiences:
A Rejoinder to Mitchell- Yellin’s Response
Robert G. Mays, BSc, and Suzanne B. Mays, AA
Chapel Hill, NC
We wish to thank the Editor of this Journal, Janice Miner Holden,
and Benjamin Mitchell- Yellin for the opportunity to reply to his re-
sponse (Mitchell-Yellin, 2017) to our critique of Near- Death Experi-
ences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, which he coauthored
with John Martin Fischer in 2016. Mitchell- Yellin stated that our
critique missed its mark in a number of ways, and we are grateful
to clarify our points for him and for readers of this Journal and to
correct where we have misunderstood the book, misrepresented it, or
taken portions of it out of context.
First, we agree with Mitchell- Yellin (2017) regarding the thesis of
their book: that near- death experiences (NDEs) do not show that phys-
icalism should be abandoned in favor of “supernaturalism.” Although
we hold that evidence from NDEs strongly suggests the reality of a
nonmaterial mind and, therefore, the existence of nonphysical aspects
of reality, we agree that the question as to which view is correct is not
yet settled. Whichever theory of NDEs— physicalist or nonphysical—
prevails will ultimately be decided through the normal process of sci-
entic inquiry. We also agree with Mitchell- Yellin that in their book
he and Fischer showed genuine concern for near- death experiencers
(NDErs), especially in taking NDErs at their word that they really
had the experiences they reported.
Robert G. Mays, B Sc, is a retired senior software engineer, and Suzanne B. Mays,
AA , is a Certied Music Practitioner (through the Music for Healing and Transition
Program) who provides palliative care to hospitalized patients. They have studied
near- death phenomena together for more than 35 years (http://selfconsciousmind.com).
Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to Mr. Mays at 5622 Brisbane
Drive, Chapel Hill, NC 27514; e- mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
ROBERT G. MAYS, BSC, & SUZANNE B. MAYS, AA 111
Ad Hoc Explanations
Our main criticism of Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin’s book (2016) is that
it explains NDEs in terms of ad hoc hypotheses. “Ad hoc hypothesis”
is a term of art in scientic circles describing a hypothesis that is
added to a theory to save it from being falsied. Normally, an ad hoc
hypothesis is invoked to explain an anomaly that the existing the-
ory does not cover. Ordinarily the ad hoc hypothesis— or some other
hypothesis— prevails through empirical investigation and becomes an
extension of the overall theory.
The problem comes when ad hoc hypotheses about various physi-
cal, physiological, or psychological factors must be added to explain
the specic facts of an NDE. The authors chose four well- known NDE
cases— Pam Reynolds, the man with the dentures, Eben Alexander,
and Colton Burpo. For these four cases, the authors proposed three
ad hoc hypotheses to explain the anomalous aspects of the NDE: (a)
during anesthesia or during cardiac arrest, ambient sounds or other
nonvisual sensations can still be “recorded” in the brain and later
brought back to consciousness; (b) the fear of dying causes the NDEr to
imagine meeting deceased loved ones in order to receive comfort; and
(c) NDErs can unconsciously piece together imaginations and confabu-
lations after their NDEs and later embellish the account with further
information inadvertently provided by listeners during the retelling.
These hypotheses appear to t all four NDE cases, although we felt
the rst hypothesis is speculative relative to the current understand-
ing of neuroscience, and the third hypothesis may not hold up to scru-
tiny when the specic facts of each NDE are thoroughly examined.
The more serious problem comes when even a few additional NDE
cases are examined. In our critique, we selected four additional NDEs
taken from The Self Does Not Die by Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven, and
Rudolf Smit (2016). These cases involve purely visual veridical percep-
tions, veried as accurate by a credible third party, such that none
of the previous ad hoc hypotheses could be used to explain them. We
found, however, that nine additional hypotheses— many of which we
considered highly speculative— would likely be needed to explain the
facts of these additional NDEs in physicalist terms.
Considering that there are over 100 cases of paranormal phenom-
ena from NDEs documented in The Self Does Not Die, our contention
is that there would be an explosion of ad hoc hypotheses to cover even
a small portion of these cases. For example, we expect the authors
would need to add a further hypothesis to the fear of dying hypothesis
112 JOURNAL OF NEAR-DEATH STU DIES
to cover cases of NDErs seeing deceased loved ones in a subsequent
NDE, although the NDEr reported having lost the fear of death; in
these cases, the NDEr would still be presumed to subconsciously fear
death. When new, often speculative hypotheses must be repeatedly
devised and added to save a theory, the theory— even one as robust as
physicalism— must be called into question.
We applaud Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin (2016) for selecting four of
the more challenging NDE cases. We acknowledge that the explana-
tions they developed for these four cases by themselves support the
physicalist interpretation reasonably well. However, we contend that
in their argument, Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin fell prey to a common
error in research: theorizing on the basis of an insufciently small
sample. For when we considered even a few additional NDE cases,
we believe we showed that the multi- factor physicalist explanation be-
comes untenable and improbable, because it must rely on so many ad-
ditional ad hoc hypotheses.
Single Explanatory Theory
Mitchell- Yellin (2017) stated that “there is no good reason to insist
that all aspects of all NDEs be explained by a single factor, nor is
there good reason to insist that simpler explanations are more likely
true than complex ones” (p. 102). We suggest that the requirement
for a “single explanation” for NDEs is not a preference but is, rather,
a requirement of the empirical data. In our analysis of NDEs in our
critique and in this rejoinder, it is clear that NDEs occur in widely
various and complex circumstances, yet the experience itself is quite
consistent, with highly consistent elements and intensity of each ele-
ment. In an earlier paper (Mays & Mays, 2015), we argued that this
evidence from NDEs shows that a “single explanation” of NDEs is ac-
tually supported by the data. The elements and intensity of NDEs
occur with high consistency regardless of the specic antecedent cir-
cumstances— whether the NDEr was in a coma, was asleep, or was
meditating. So, the physicalist explanation of NDEs really needs to
account for the consistency of NDEs, in the elements of the NDEs
and their intensity across the broad spectrum of antecedent circum-
stances and events. In our critique, we suggested that the consistency
of NDEs across many different circumstances calls for some unifying
principle— a “common proximate cause.”
In their book, Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin (2016) gave the example
of house res to argue for complex explanations. House res can come
ROBERT G. MAYS, BSC, & SUZANNE B. MAYS, AA 113
about by any number of specic circumstances. However, all house
res have a “common proximate cause”— a sufciently high tempera-
ture, a supply of oxygen, and a source of combustible material. This
unifying principle is, in fact, the “single explanation” of all res.
In our critique and in our earlier paper, we stated that “the proxi-
mate cause could be a physiological condition that occurs in both near-
death and not- near- death circumstances, or it could be some nonphysi-
cal process. In either case, the explanation based on it would need
to account for NDEs occurring in a variety of conditions, including
ordinary conditions, [such as] sleep, meditation, or glancing at a sun-
rise, and would thus satisfy the requirement that it explain all NDEs”
(Mays & Mays, 2015, p.131).
In our critique, we cited a possible proximate cause with a physi-
ological origin that was proposed by Enrico Facco and Christian
Agrillo (2012). Although we think Facco and Agrillo’s proposed proxi-
mate cause— a yet- to- be- identied physiological agent that triggers a
common brain circuit in a particular brain region— is highly specula-
tive, we acknowledge that a single- factor physicalist explanation of all
NDEs is quite possible.
The Authors Did Not Call NDEs Hallucinations
Mitchell- Yellin (2017) pointed out— correctly— that we misinterpreted
his and Fischer’s (2016) original statements about NDEs, both (a) that
they stated that NDEs are hallucinations, and (b) that they stated
that all aspects of NDEs are inaccurate and “not corresponding to
rea l ity. ”
Indeed, Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin (2016) did not make these state-
ments directly, and we apologize for misrepresenting their statements
in our critique. Instead, the authors used an interesting construction
— an apophasis— to imply, not to state directly but nevertheless to in-
dicate, that elements of NDEs are inaccurate and therefore are no
different from, for example, hallucinations, illusions, dreams, or delu-
sions. Here, again, is their statement from the book:
We shall use the term “accurate” throughout the remainder of the
book to mean “truthful” or “corresponding to external reality.” An ac-
curate experience depicts reality as it really is. Not all real experiences
are accurate. Hallucinations, illusions, dreams, delusions— these may
all be real experiences. People really do have them. But they are not
accurate experiences. They do not correspond to reality. (Fischer &
Mitchell- Yellin, 2016, p. 35)
114 JOURNAL OF NEAR-DEATH STU DIES
Therefore, according to the authors, some elements of NDEs— such
as heavenly realms and spiritual beings— may be considered inaccu-
rate because, even though they are vivid and coherent perceptions and
are expressed by the NDEr with sincerity and conviction, they do not
correspond to external reality. Hallucinations, illusions, dreams, and
delusions are examples of experiences that are not accurate. Fischer
and Mitchell- Yellin (2016) did not say explicitly that these elements
of NDEs are hallucinations, illusions, dreams, or delusions; they just
implied— apophatically— that they are.
With a closer examination of the authors’ statement, we realize
that we incorrectly inferred that they were saying that NDEs or ele-
ments of NDEs are inaccurate, do not correspond to external reality,
and are therefore hallucinations. We apologize for our misstatement.
Mitchell- Yellin (2017) was understandably upset that we misinter-
preted his and Fischer’s (2016) actual, literal statements. We mistook
the apophatic implication to be their actual statement, and we regret
the er ror.
Using Physicalist Explanations
Still Tends to Pathologize
Unfortunately, we believe many other people will make this same in-
correct inference, including many NDErs. Employing an apophasis
still brings the pathologizing, dismissive concepts— hallucinations, il-
lusions, dreams, delusions— into the conversation, with the same pejo-
rative effect. We wish they had realized that their statement could eas-
ily be misinterpreted and had made their intention not to label NDEs
as hallucinations clearer.
Even so, the explanations Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin (2016) did use to
account for the elements of NDEs— terror management, implicit mem-
ories, confabulation, embellishment, false memories, conrmation bias
— have the same effect as using the terms hallucinations, illusions,
dreams, and delusions. We believe NDErs will feel that their experi-
ences have been dismissed and pathologized.
Take, for example, the following hypothetical statements to NDErs
from their physician, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist:
• I understand you believe you met and talked with your father’s
grandfather, but that doesn’t correspond with external reality. I’m
not saying you are delusional, just that, actually, you imagined
meeting and speaking with your great- grandfather because you
ROBERT G. MAYS, BSC, & SUZANNE B. MAYS, AA 115
are like most people and you are afraid— really terried— of
dying. You think your great- grandfather told you things that you
didn’t know before the operation, but you probably picked things
up from your father about him, or your father mentioned things
after the operation when you told him about meeting him. You
sort of mixed these things up and confabulated the memories to
ll in the gaps. You’re not delusional but you really didn’t meet
your great- grandfather: That would be impossible.
• You are saying that when you fell and hit your head, you felt
like you were out of your body and went to a beautiful place—
beautiful owers and trees, a meadow with a stream— and you
met lots of people who had died earlier. I’m not saying you were
hallucinating, but when a person has a head injury and loses
consciousness, all kinds of things can pass through your mind as
you are losing consciousness or when you are waking up. Usually
these are things that conform with your expectations. We all want
to believe that we will go to a heavenly place when we die. When
you hit your head, you had a vivid vision of what you expect or
hope for when you die. It wasn’t exactly a hallucination, just a
very vivid imagination. Of course, that place really doesn’t exist:
It’s not really real. It just reects what you believe will happen.
• I must admit, you had a very interesting experience during your
operation. There was a point where we thought there was a slight
problem with your heart rate, but we caught it and got you back
in a few seconds. You say that you felt you were up at the ceiling
and we were rushing around, that the nurse working near your
head dropped an instrument that rolled under the gurney and
said an unusual swear word. And then you heard me say, “Oh
please, get it together, Jackie!” Of course, all these things are ac-
curate, but there are explanations for everything you experienced.
Your awareness really wasn’t at the ceiling. I’m not saying it was
an illusion— it was just a projection of your right temporopari-
etal junction, after we brought you back, that gave you a sense of
being out of your body. Your eyes were taped shut, so you couldn’t
have seen Jackie drop the item and see it roll under the gurney,
nor hear what she said. Your brain was under anesthesia but
could still record the sound of something dropping and rolling and
her outburst. When you regained consciousness, you selectively
recalled those brain sensations and put them together in a coher-
ent narrative— a kind of confabulation with some lucky guesses.
You think you remember seeing and hearing those things, but
that’s just your mind trying to make sense of sensory fragments.
Also, I didn’t actually say “please get it together,” I just thought it,
but you probably heard my big sigh and made a good guess what
that was about. And even though you never met Jackie, you prob-
ably overheard me mention her name in the recovery room. So,
116 JOURNAL OF NEA R-DEATH STUDIES
we wouldn’t call your experience actually an illusion, but it could
not have happened the way you experienced it. That would be im-
possible. After you came to, you stitched together several sensory
inputs with some lucky guesses and some information from after
your operation to make sense of what happened.
We believe that the NDEr in each case would feel that their NDE
was being minimized, dismissed, and explained away by the medical
professional. Although the professional explicitly denied pathologizing
the NDE, the professional ended up doing just that.
Just to be clear, we are not saying that Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin
(2016) wrote any of these things in their book. We are merely produc-
ing hypothetical narratives that reect their explanations of NDEs.
Scientic Progress Does Not Imply
Physicalism Will Prevail
Throughout their book, Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin (2016) appealed to
the ultimate success of scientic progress to provide physical expla-
nations that, in the future, will fully explain NDEs. In our critique,
we quoted three places where they had made this appeal (Fischer
& Mitchell- Yellin, 2016, pp. 28, 66 & 101). In his response, (2017)
Mitchell- Yellin (2017) claried that
we were trying to show that there is no good argument in favor of
supernaturalism on the basis of NDEs. Part of this involved trying to
show— and this gets at the appeals to the progress of science— that
there are good reasons to think that there may, in the future, be good
physical explanations of the relevant phenomena. But again . . . this
point is not to claim that supernaturalism is false. It is to claim that
NDEs do not prove, or even provide good evidence for the claim, that
supernaturalism is true. (p. 106).
In their book, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin seem to have made an im-
plicit assumption, namely that scientic inquiry will result solely in
physicalist explanations of reality. Even though Mitchell- Yellin stated
in the above quote from his response that their point was not to claim
that “supernaturalism” is false, they did, in fact, hold that “supernatu-
ralism” is inherently false, in that it posits aspects of reality that do
not exist. Thus, they contend, scientic progress can manifest only
through physical explanations of phenomena.
W e t h i n k t h i s v i e w p oi n t i s f u n d a m e n t a l l y i nc o r r e c t . S c i e nt i c i n q u i r y
— at least inquiry that is unimpeded by physicalist bias and dogma—
ROBERT G. MAYS, BSC, & SUZANNE B. MAYS, AA 117
can yield a conclusion regarding which theory of NDEs is most valid,
whether that theory is purely physical or is nonphysical. Such a theory
would account for data including consistency of content across NDEs
independent of antecedent circumstances and cases of purely visual
veridical perceptions of physical phenomena that the NDEr could not
have perceived physically and could not have inferred from available
Therefore, we believe what is likely to happen is that the normal
process of scientic inquiry— most likely in neuroscience— will sort
out which theory is correct, based on each theory’s explanatory power.
If the nonphysical NDE theory has validity, it will result in an expan-
sion of physicalist theory to include aspects of reality that are now
considered supernatural, becoming an extended naturalist theory, one
acknowledging of transmaterial realities.
We believe that NDEs do provide good evidence for transmaterial as-
pects of reality that are considered by many people to be supernatural
— that NDErs’ experiences are, for the most part, accurate descrip-
tions of these aspects of reality. However, we afrm that the case is
far from settled and that everyone should keep an open mind about
In their book, Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin (2016) were concerned
primarily in showing that NDEs do not provide proof of, or even cred-
ible evidence for, the reality of an afterlife. Their argument was pri-
marily that there are perfectly adequate physical explanations for
NDEs and that, therefore, one should not abandon physicalism as the
commonsense starting point in one’s explanations of things. Our criti-
cism is that the authors have failed to provide adequate physical ex-
planations of a wider selection of NDEs— and appeals to promissory
materialism are unconvincing— so it is appropriate to explore the phe-
nomenon of NDEs more deeply.
Conrmation Bias and Apophasis Redux
In our critique, we pointed out that Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin (2016)
relied on an article in Esquire magazine by Luke Dittrich (2013) to
make a nal point in their book: that it is important to inquire criti-
cally about NDEs, especially in the context when extraordinary claims
are being made. To us, this selection appeared to be the result of the
authors’ own conrmation bias.
In our critique, we tried to show that Dittrich’s article seriously
distorted the facts about the circumstances of Eben Alexander’s NDE
118 JOURNAL OF NEA R-DEATH STUDIES
and, in fact, was grossly misleading in every respect. Thus, it seemed
to us that the authors’ selection of and focus on the Dittrich article was
a prime example of uncritically seeking out information that accords
with one’s existing beliefs— conrmation bias— and that their selec-
tion represented a triple irony.
First, the primary target of the authors’ chapter 12 on conrmation
bias was Eben Alexander and his book The Map of Heaven, which they
characterized as “one long exercise in conrmation bias” (Fischer &
Mitchell- Yellin, 2016, p. 152). Second, the authors’ aim in bringing up
the Dittrich article was to encourage readers to “inquire critically,”
which it seemed to us that the authors themselves failed to do by their
very selection of the article. And nally, the authors focused on the
phrase “when extraordinary claims are being made,” which, in our
opinion, is the most damnable of Dittrich’s distortions, because of
the clever way Dittrich manipulated the quotation to indicate the ex-
act opposite of the Dalai Lama’s actual meaning. The Dalai Lama did
not say “when a man makes extraordinary claims,” but because the
authors uncritically accepted Dittrich’s account, they repeated the
In the following statement and accompanying footnote, Fischer and
Mitchell- Yellin (2016) also employed another apophasis to infer— but
not state directly— their apparent assessment of Eben Alexander’s
character and the account of this NDE:
Our aim is not to call Alexander’s character into question and thereby
discredit his account of his near- death experience. (Footnote) There
do, however, appear to be legitimate questions about Alexander’s
credibility due to the facts about his past, as uncovered in the report-
ing of Dittrich (2014). (Fischer & Mitchell- Yellin, 2016, p. 178)
Mitchell- Yellin (2017, p. 107) reiterated that his and Fischer’s (2016)
aim was not to discredit Alexander. Given that we pointed out in our
critique that they had relied on Dittrich’s (2014) distorted and mis-
leading account of Alexander, we would have hoped for some expres-
sion of regret that, in effect, they had done just that.
In retrospect, we realize that Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin (2016) used
a carefully worded statement— in effect an apophasis— saying essen-
tially “NDE perceptions do not correspond to reality, not to mention
that hallucinations are perceptions that do not correspond to real-
ROBERT G. MAYS, BSC, & SUZANNE B. MAYS, AA 119
ity.” To us their inference is inescapable— that NDEs are no different
from hallucinations. Unfortunately, we took their inference as a direct
state ment, that NDEs are hallucinations. We completely understand
Mitchell- Yellin’s (2017) upset and frustration at our error. We sincerely
regret having stated that the authors called NDEs hallucinations in
their book. Just to be clear about this, they did not.
On the other hand, we believe the explanations the authors did use
to account for the elements of NDEs— terror management, implicit
memories, confabulation, embellishment, false memories, conrmation
bias— have the same dismissive and pathologizing effect on NDErs as
using the terms hallucinations, illusions, dreams, and delusions.
We believe we showed that the authors’ multi- factor physicalist ex-
planations of NDEs are untenable and improbable, because they must
rely on so many additional, speculative ad hoc hypotheses, to explain
even a few additional NDE cases beyond the four that the authors
originally selected, particularly cases of veridical perceptions outside
the NDEr’s physical line of sight or capacity for inference.
We suggested that the requirement for a “single explanation” for
all NDEs is a requirement of the empirical data, to account for the
consistency of NDEs across the broad spectrum of antecedent circum-
stances. We proposed that both physical and nonphysical “single fac-
tor” theories of NDEs are possible. We asserted that the normal pro-
cess of scientic inquiry— most likely in neuroscience— will sort out
which theory is correct, based on each theory’s explanatory power. If
the nonphysical NDE theory proves valid, it will result in an expan-
sion of physicalist theory to include aspects of reality that are now
considered supernatural, becoming an extended naturalist theory, one
acknowledging of transmaterial realities.
Finally, we pointed out that Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin’s (2016)
selection of the critical article on Eben Alexander by Luke Dittrich
(2013)— which was grossly misleading and distorted— was an unfor-
tunate, regrettable choice with which to conclude their book, given
that their aim was not to discredit Alexander or any other NDEr.
Dittrich, L. (2013, August). The prophet: An investigation into Eben Alexander,
author of the blockbuster Proof of Heaven. Esquire, 160(1), 88–95, 125–127.
Retrieved from http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/interviews/a23248/the-
Facco, E., & Agrillo, C. (2012). Near- death- like experiences without life-
120 JOURNA L OF NEAR-DEATH STUDIE S
threatening conditions or brain disorders: A hypothesis from a case report.
Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 490. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00490.
Fischer, J. M. (2017). Understanding Near-Death Experiences: A response to
Mays and Mays’s review. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 36(2), 100–109.
Fischer, J. M., & Mitchell- Yellin, B. (2016). Near- death experiences: Understand-
ing visions of the afterlife. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Mays, R. G., & Mays, S. B. (2015). Explaining near- death experiences: Physi-
cal or non- physical causation? Journal of Near- Death Studies, 33(3), 125–149.
doi:10.17514/JNDS- 2015- 33- 3- p125- 149.
Mays, R. G., & Mays, S. B. (2017). Near- death experiences: A critique of the
Fischer and Mitchell- Yellin physicalist interpretation. Journal of Near- Death
Studies, 36(2), 69– 99. doi:10.17514/JNDS- 2017- 36- 2- p69-99.
Mitchell- Yellin, B. (2017). Understanding Near- Death Experiences: A response
to Mays and Mays’s review. Journal of Near- Death Studies, 36(2), 100–109.
doi:10.17514/JNDS- 2017- 36- 2- p100- 109.
Rivas, T., Dirven, A., & Smit, R. H. (2016). The self does not die: Veried para-
normal phenomena from near- death experiences. Durham, NC: International
Association for Near- Death Studies.