A case study of the consciousness “culture wars”: Examining a polemical review of Netflix’s Surviving Death documentaryRead Now
In this article I want to look at one especially egregious example of public communication on the topic of consciousness, in the form of a critical “review” of the 2021 Netflix documentary series “Surviving Death”. If you haven’t read my brief introduction on how the concept of “culture wars” applies to consciousness I suggest you check it out as well.
The Surviving Death series is an attempt to popularise some of the complex data that supports the hypothesis that consciousness is fundamentally immaterial and persists without a physical body.
Over 6 episodes, Surviving Death investigates near-death-experiences, different forms of purported mediumistic communication (i.e. communications with deceased people) and studies of past life memories in children. The title of the review flags the polemical stance of the author: ‘Surviving Death’: Netflix’s New Series on the Afterlife Is Crackpot Nonsense (Schager 2021). After my own brief summary of the series I will analyse different statements from the reviewer to highlight how detrimental they are to proper understanding and communication.
The evidentiary value of the data presented in Surviving Death can be described as a mixed bag. Of the different data sets presented by far the most compelling, in my view, is that of the past life memories of children. The documentary describes three cases that have been studied by Dr Jim Tucker of the University of Virginia psychology department. Dr Tucker has been doing this kind of work for over 20 years. He picked up the mantle from his predecessor at the department, Dr Ian Stevenson who had initiated such research in 1960. Together with research associates they have analyzed and coded more than 2,000 cases of children who exhibited what seem to be spontaneous memories of past lives (Tucker 2013:136).
The three cases described in the final episode of the documentary series are merely examples of the other 2000 cases recorded by Tucker and associates. They are in my view impossible to explain from a materialistic perspective, unless we assume there to be fraud. In each case the child in question provides many remarkable details about their past life, such as the way they died, information about their parents and friends including names, and obscure idiosyncratic facts about their supposed past-life identity that they would have had no way of knowing. Tucker’s methodology to establish the accuracy of the claims includes a range of checks to ensure the kids had not been subjected to suggestion or been exposed to the information in other ways. Whatever you may ultimately think of these cases, I would argue that the only good faith conclusion is that at the very least they are highly suggestive of some kind of “paranormal” or as yet not understood data transfer. They certainly raise fascinating questions about consciousness and warrant careful interrogation.
By contrast, the four episodes dedicated to mediumistic experiences are much less evidential. Clearly, many of the people whose medium consultations are documented have received personally highly significant information. In some cases, this includes the sitter (the person visiting the medium) having previously mentally requested of the deceased they are wishing to contact, that the medium provide specific information that only the deceased could know. Sometimes they are given such information, and sometimes not. The documentary also includes sequences where the sitters realise after their initial excitement that all the information provided could have been googled. I actually appreciate the fact that such “unfavourable” cases are depicted as it adds transparency to the series and speaks to the complexity of a process involving expectations, loss and grief and possibly inter-dimensional interactions. But I also consider the evidentiary value of the cases presented to be limited and often explicable by suggestion.
The very first episode deals with near-death experiences (NDEs). The NDE at the centre of the episode was impressive, because the woman who had it drowned at a remote location far from medical help. She reportedly did not breath for approximately 30 minutes. Her survival thus seems miraculous, and it is tempting to attribute it to the transcendental experience she had while unconscious and possibly clinically dead. But in terms of evidential value the experience was limited, because the experiencer did not observe anything material that was subsequently verifiable. She did receive some information about a future tragedy in her life, but while no doubt significant to her personally there was enough variation between her vision and the way life played out to leave doubt in people’s minds about mere coincidences. There has been significant research into NDEs that do have substantial verifiable information (Rivas, Dirven & Smit 2016). And when one has a grounding in that research the account in Surviving Death is certainly highly plausible and emotionally compelling.
The point I am making is this. The documentary does not demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that we survive death. It is entirely legitimate to approach the cases it presents with caution. If Surviving Death was the only data we had at hand, I think we could well be left just as unsure about our post-mortem fate as we were before, albeit enriched by some interesting questions we could pursue.
But based on Schager’s review you would think the documentary is a complete waste of time and everybody in it utterly deluded. It is the kind of review that causes me second-hand embarrassment for its lack of consideration and critical thought. But it is sadly reflective of the tone adopted by some critics of the consciousness-centric perspective, perhaps as a way to emphasise the unshakable certainty of their materialistic conviction.
I will go through a series of quotes from the review and highlight where most of them fail in terms of genuine intellectual engagement with the subject matter.
The review opens with the statement that the evidence in Surviving Death “is of a pseudo-scientific, anecdotal, and/or outright fanciful sort”.
The term “pseudo-scientific” is thrown around a lot by critics of studies exploring non-material consciousness. It is powerfully dismissive without having to identify what it is that makes the research being targeted “pseudo”. In this case, the only episode that is arguably making a claim to science is the past life research of Dr Jim Tucker and some of the medical doctors speaking in the NDE episode. Dismissing them as “pseudo-science” without actually engaging with the research underlying them is disingenuous and simply false. They are clearly using the scientific method.
The mediumship episodes on the other hand do not purport to be based on scientific evidence or even represent objective evidence at all. Using the term “anecdotal” to describe this data is appropriate. The implication, however, seems to be that anecdotal data has no evidentiary value. In fact, a body of “anecdotal data” of sufficient size can carry significant evidentiary value. This is not the case in this documentary, and as stated there are contradictions and inconsistencies even in the limited anecdotes provided. But this actually reflects very well the variety of experiences and beliefs people have in mediumship and as such is still valuable data.
Finally to describe any data as “outright fanciful” reflects clear prejudice and a generally unscientific mindset. Maybe the data is poor. Maybe it does not really qualify as evidence, because it is just a person’s interpretation of a subjective experience. But “fanciful” is a purely subjective evaluation. There were times when suggesting that the earth was round or what humans would some day take to the sky were deemed “fanciful” by some.
The review goes on:
“… if you believe that verifiable proof of ghosts, the spirit world, and reincarnation is found in a random episode of a Netflix docuseries, then do I have some prime Florida swampland to discuss with you.”
Like any other large media company, Netflix hosts both high quality and questionable documentaries. The worn out “joke” about Florida swampland comes across as an arrogant dismissal of the large amount of people who use documentaries for their personal education, and obviates the need for the writer to actually engage with the data.
That the writer may not actually have a good handle on the data is clear from the next quote.
“That individuals testify to having analogous NDEs is similar to the fact that elderly hospice patients often state that they see, and speak to, their deceased relatives. Alas, Surviving Death ignores any non-supernatural explanation for these phenomena—say, that cultural programming inspires like-minded deathbed visions, or that aged men and women whose minds are deteriorating, and who’ve lost everyone they cherish, might naturally retreat into comforting family-reunion fantasies.”
There are at least two key problems with this “counter-argument” against the anecdotal evidence for NDEs. Firstly, the analogy between NDEs and deathbed visions is poor, because the kind of theoretically possible explanation for deathbed visions that the author advances – old people retreating into fantasies as they die – does not apply to NDEs. In NDEs people universally report similar experiences regardless of age, gender or cultural background. And the author’s take on deathbed visions itself is flawed. The suggestion that deathbed visions are somehow caused by “cultural programming” is problematic in societies where the cultural programming is largely materialistic. The suggestion that they are the result of the deteriorating mind of the aged is disproven by the fact that children have them too. Then there are many deathbed visions that, just like some NDEs, include important veridical elements such as the dying person seeing spirits of people they did not know had died. Finally, it is also significant that experiencers generally only see people who are already dead, not their spouse or other living loved ones who one might expect would come to them in a fantasy.
“To the series, anyone who doesn’t accept these spiritual concepts and experiences is a “skeptic” driven by “hubris and arrogance.” It assumes a perspective in which the veracity of its claims is the norm, and those who view them with suspicion are close-minded cynics.”
This is a misrepresentation of the series, which in fact includes plenty of instances where people ask questions and doubt the veracity of certain experiences. It is of course also ironic, but not uncommon for these kind of polemical commentaries, that the author is doing precisely what he is accusing the series of, i.e. assuming his perspective is the norm and viewing anyone who takes non-physical consciousness seriously as fanciful and gullible.
Now I would like to acknowledge that the author’s following questions are actually very pertinent:
“Where are the bitter, angry ghosts who want to vent to those they left behind? More pressing still, where are the spirits who, rather than telling their relatives pat sentiments about love and forgiveness, are eager to report back about what life after death is really like?”
These are actually important questions that also occupy some researchers who take non-physical consciousness seriously. Most cultures that accept the survival of consciousness are generally cautious about their interaction with non-physical consciousness, because they know that sometimes people on the other side are indeed bitter, angry, vengeful or mischievous. Addressing that issue would certainly have added more depth to the documentary. It is a key issue in understanding the relationship between our attitudes and mental state while we are physically alive, and our state once we have transitioned.
The preponderance of “pat sentiments about love and forgiveness” provided by non-physical consciousnesses is again something practicing mediums and researchers in the field comment on and explore. Probably the most straightforward explanation for this is that it is the kind of information people often want and ask for. I discuss this issue in a podcast interview with a medium who explained how she quit that role because she got bored with the repetitive questions most of her clients asked her. You can find that episode on Apple Podcast or Spotify. This is a question that would warrant research, but such research is only meaningful if we allow for the possibility that non-physical consciousness can communicate with us at all.
Finally, here is the critique of the episode in which childhood cases of past life memories are described.
“… in late passages about children who claim to be reincarnated souls, the show doesn’t cast a single sideways glance at the adults and kids making these assertions. Director Stern embellishes her action with spooky old photographs and expressionistic interludes—smeary faces behind glass, radiant sequences of blooming light and color—that visualize her interviewees’ accounts about the other side. Such cheesy aesthetics are in tune with the tone of this material, which is all-believing, all-the-time, but they do little to persuade one of this affair’s numerous outlandish contentions.”
By focusing on the director’s aesthetic choices the author simply side-steps the carefully data driven approach of the University of Virginia team who analyse claims of past life memories in children. They do in fact take careful sideways glances at the people making the claims and have a clearly described methodology, which makes fraud very unlikely. The children’s parents also feature prominently, and it is clear that past lives were not something they had an interest in before their kids started developing scary and confusing behaviours at a young age and they began looking for answers.
In summary, the sample commentary I have discussed is analytically poor and more polemic than review. It is perhaps at the more extreme end of hostile materialistic communication about the possibility of non-physical consciousness in the way it explicitly calls all those who believe or are open to non-materialist consciousness “crackpots”. But unfortunately the same underlying attitudes are also expressed by much more high-profile commentators such as Richard Dawkins or Susan Blackmore.
Obviously I strongly disagree with much of this review, but what I have sought to do in this article is to be really clear about why, and also acknowledge points that are actually valid. Such valid points would be much more valuable if they weren’t buried by hostility and ridicule against what is actually a very large group of fellow humans. If we really want to have a dialogue about fundamental issues of human existence, we have to start by recognising each other’s common humanity and try to understand why we have such different views. I am sure there are reasons for Schager’s hostility to this documentary and a consciousness-centric world view, just as there are good reasons why the majority of people in fact consider consciousness to be immaterial. Let’s start with understanding those so we can move on to the deeper questions about the nature of our being.
Rivas, Titus, Dirven, Anny & Smit, Rudolf. 2016. The self does not die: verified paranormal phenomena from near-death experiences. Durham, NC: IANDS Publishing
Schager, Nick. 2021. ‘Surviving Death’: Netflix’s New Series on the Afterlife Is Crackpot Nonsense. The Daily Beast 5 Jan 2021.
Tucker, Jim. 2013. Return to life: Extraordinary cases of children who remember past lives. Sydney: Macmillan Australia
Kim McCaul is an anthropologist with a long term interest in understanding consciousness and personal transformation.
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