I recently had the privilege to discuss near death experiences with Monika Mandoki, a philosopher and author who specializes in philosophical issues surrounding near death experiences.
What are near-death experiences?
Monika: Firstly, there is no consensus on the definition of near-death experiences (NDEs). Having said that, near-death experiences can be described as unusual, realistic and vivid experiences that happen to people who are either physiologically or psychologically close to death. Physiologically, a person could be in cardiac arrest, be fatally injured or be in another life-threatening condition. Psychologically, a person may be close to death where this person believes that death is imminent. An example of this condition would be a mountain climber accidentally falling from great height into the depth below.
The unusual, realistic, and vivid experiences often include such features as separating from the body, observing the world and their own bodies from a vantage point outside the body, finding themselves in darkness, moving through a black void, seeing otherworldly beings or dead relatives, and entering another world.
Why are near-death experiences important?
Monika: These experiences are not just fascinating, but they are also life changing. After their experiences, many change jobs, adopt a new lifestyle, and some even get a divorce. They have a new perspective on life and death.
Initially, they may have mixed emotions. They may be thrilled, ecstatic, and humbled for having had the experience, but also angry, disappointed, and depressed for having had to return to this world. Long term, people report frequently losing the fear of death, believe in an afterlife, desire more knowledge, and have a greater appreciation of nature and other people. These life-changing experiences should not be ignored; they need to be studied.
How are near death experiences often conceptualized in public healthcare settings?
Monika: In general, most biomedical health professionals would label these experiences either as false, hallucinatory and imaginary, or as something true for the individual but not ontologically significant (significant in terms of what it means for human beings to exist). However, philosophically speaking, it has never been decided what reality truly entails. Philosophers owe it to people to find out whether their experiences are real.
I simply took up the challenge to find out what can be said about the reality of near death experiences. I do not take assumptions for granted, such as the idea that we are only materialistic beings who can be reduced to biological phenomena.
Did you have a specific philosophical approach to your investigation?
Monika: The usual approach for researchers is to gather empirical evidence to make a decision. However, as much as I respect this approach, I decided to look at the issue in a different manner. I assumed that it is possible that NDEs are real. Then, I asked the question, what would have to be true for near death experiences to be real?
Looking at reality this way, I examined the possibility of materialism (physicalism), mind-body dualism (there is a separate mind and a separate body in existence), and philosophical idealism (reality is mind-created and/or mind-dependent).
Initially, I was uncertain whether any of these theories were viable. Soon, I dismissed materialism entirely and I found that mind-body dualism does not work in any form because the theory is very difficult to make it workable.
However, I realized that philosophical idealism can work because, if everything is consciousness or mind, including the body, reality can be uniform. Hence, I developed a consciousness-only or mind-only reality where people switch from one mental reality to another when they die just like an image is changing in a kaleidoscope from one picture to another. Ultimately, I defended the reality of NDEs and the afterlife. I worked it out in my Ph.D. dissertation, Are Near-Death Experiences Veridical? A Philosophical Inquiry.
Do you think that near-death experiences are real?
Monika: I believe that a consciousness-only or mind-only reality works out better than any other types of philosophically-advanced theories because the uniformity of reality solves many difficult philosophical questions, such as the relationship of mind and body and the relationship of this world and the next. Therefore, its conclusion that consciousness or mind survives death and continues in an afterlife is the most convincing philosophical option.
How was your work received?
Monika: So far, it has been received very well. Firstly, I defended my dissertation successfully without having had to do any revision. Secondly, my dissertation in the past two years has been downloaded by close to 4000 individuals.
What is next for you?
Monika: I was so inspired by the number of downloads that I decided to write a book I will call Are Near-Death Experiences Real?, which will be more accessible for the general public. I am currently working on this project. I just hope that I can find an interested publisher for it.
Was this project worth creating?
Monika: Absolutely! I believe that my work can help not only philosophically-minded people and the general public, but also health professionals. If health professionals understand that near-death experiences and the afterlife are most likely real, they can take these experiences more seriously. As it stands now, they often treat people according to materialist theory, which means devaluing the significance of their experiences that results in psychological harms.
Health professionals ought to respect and acknowledge people’s life changing experiences. By adopting a non-materialistic philosophical perspective, new insights can be understood around these powerful experiences, which supports providers in gaining people’s trust and more effectively treating people’s concerns around near death experiences. These experiences are real, and benefit from deep listening from others.
Monika Judith Mandoki earned a Ph.D. in theory and criticism and a B.A. in philosophy from Western University, and a M.A. from Brock University in philosophy. She is both an academic and a fiction writer. Her writing is always focused on philosophical puzzles, be it in a complex philosophical environment or in people’s everyday lives and struggles. She teaches psychology, philosophy and writing at Fanshawe College and lives with her husband in London, Ontario, Canada. She can be contacted through her email: email@example.com.