The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Surviving Death on Larry King Live

published March 2010
Obscurantism and obfuscation on national television
magazine cover

Have you ever died and come back to life? Me neither. No one has. But plenty of people say that they have, and their experiences were the subject of an episode of Larry King Live last December on which I appeared as the token skeptic among a tableful of believers, including CNN’s medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, New Age author Deepak Chopra, a football referee who “died” on the playing field, and an 11-year-old boy named James Leininger who believes he is the reincarnation of a World War II fighter pilot.

Dr. Gupta started us off by recalling that when he was in medical school the residents were taught to mark the time of death to the minute, when death can often take anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours to occur, depending on the conditions. As Gupta noted, people who have fallen into frozen lakes and “died” were not quite dead, and their core body temperatures dropped so rapidly that their vital tissues were preserved long enough for subsequent resuscitation. In other words, people who have near-death experiences (NDEs) are not actually dead!

The same definitional problem arose when guest host Jeff Probst (of Survivor fame, fittingly) introduced the football referee: “A man died on a football field seven years ago and came back to life.” Gupta added that he “was dead for two minutes and 40 seconds.” When I was asked for an explanation, I said: “He wasn’t dead! You started this hour off with Sanjay Gupta explaining we can’t say somebody’s dead at one given moment at a particular time on the clock. That’s not how it works. It takes two, three, five, 10 minutes to go through a dying process. The ref wasn’t dead. He was in a near-death state.” In fact, moments after collapsing, the ref had his heart restarted by an automated external defibrillator. There was nothing miraculous to explain.

Fuzzy language is pervasive in such discussions, and no one uses it better than Dr. Chopra, as in this explanation for NDEs: “There are traditions that say the in-body experience is a socially induced collective hallucination. We do not exist in the body. The body exists in us. We do not exist in the world. The world exists in us.” Here is Deepak on death:

Birth and death are spacetime events in the continuum of life. So the opposite of life is not death. The opposite of death is birth. And the opposite of birth is death. And life is the continuum of birth and death, which goes on and on.

When I asked what had happened to little James Leininger’s soul if his body is now occupied by the soul of a World War II fighter pilot, Chopra offered this jewel of Deepakese: “Imagine that you’re looking at an ocean and you see lots of waves today. And tomorrow you see a fewer number of waves…. What you call a person actually is a pattern of behavior of a universal consciousness.” Indicating our host, he continued,

There is no such thing as Jeff, because what we call Jeff is a constantly transforming consciousness that appears as a certain personality, a certain mind, a certain ego, a certain body. But, you know, we had a different Jeff when you were a teenager. We had a different Jeff when you were a baby. Which one of you is the real Jeff?

Jeff looked as confused as I felt. When Gupta was asked how a physician deals with such apparent medical miracles, he fell into the fallacy of the argument from ignorance:

When I was researching this for a long time, I thought I was going to explain it all away physiologically. But things that I heard and validated and subsequently believed convinced me that there were things that I could not explain. There were things that were happening at that moment, that near-death experience moment, that simply could not be explained with existing scientific knowledge.

So what? The fact that we cannot fully explain a mystery with natural means does not mean it requires a supernatural explanation. It just means that we don’t know everything. Such uncertainty is at the very heart of science and is what makes it such a challenging enterprise.

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24 Comments to “Surviving Death on Larry King Live”

  1. Nick Johnson Says:

    It’s funny how Deepak and Gupta weren’t even defending their position in the interview. They were more or less, defending their book sales. They could care less if they were concerned about the truth, they wouldn’t have written the books they wrote.

  2. Fred H Says:

    You gotta love Deepak. I wonder if he ever gets confused by his own “logic”. I mean the words sound real pretty when strung together in his manner, but when taken as a whole thought or concept they don’t make any sense.

  3. Larry Sessions Says:

    Your last paragraph hits the mark. So many people check off the list of things they feel do not provide an explanation, and upon reaching the end without coming to a good answer, immediately assume that the answer is supernatural. We cannot completely deny the possibility of life after death, the presence of ghosts or angels, or the existance of God as a bearded old man on a cloud somewhere pulling our strings, because to do so would require us to be omniscient. That, by definition would make us God and… well, the problems there are obvious. The best we can do is insist on evidence and reason. Emotion and desire have their place, for sure, but they are dangerous unless tempered by clear and rational thinking. Thanks for all you do.

  4. Carl Says:

    As the Princess Bride taught us, there’s a big difference between “dead” and “mostly dead”.

  5. rkher531 Says:

    Deepak, Deepak. Take a respite.
    1. If In-body experience (what is is this?) is a socially induced collective hallucination then by definition the experience is not valid. The next statement “We do not exist in the body. The body exists in us. We do not exist in the world. The world exists in us” Are these statement to be discussed or fiat of Deepakese. One need further understanding. As it stands it is garbage. I think Deepak is regressing in philosophical time and denying all the issues that Philosophers have raised on this Dichotomy.

    Again Deepak isn’t Birth Life or we have Birth (Tabula Rasa? and hence not Alive?”), Life (Only Human have Life o consciousness?) and death. I think Deepak is getting into knots. If Death is in apposition to life then death is the END. That he cannot accept.

  6. Neighbour Says:

    I can’t wait. At least I won’t have to put up with a lot of deluded, ranting bible-punchers. Good grief! All that bowing and scraping and subservience, with no drugs, no booze, no fornication, no rock and roll, no intelligent debate and no motorcycles. I’ve also heard that you get a better class of hooligan in Hell. However, unfortunately it does not exist, that’s if you read the Bible. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Risen Christ, kind and gentle, meek and mild that it was deemed a good idea to torment the dead for trivial misdemeanours.

    I don’t really know why I’m wasting my time even writing this. I should really get out more, or at least do some household chores.

    I remain, Sir/Madam.


    PS: Good luck with the therapy.
    PPS: I hope you’re not doing all of this with ourtrageous irony. I would feel foolish if you were.

  7. Slingword Says:

    If we can’t get the easy issues correct, how can we get the tough ones right?

  8. Neighbour Says:

    One thing that has to be borne in mind regarding anything at all to do with the afterlife, return from the dead, near-death experience etc. is that there is no reliable evidence for any of it whatsoever.

    The only personal experience I have had with such ‘phenomena’ is successful CPR, performed during my time as a paramedic in London, during the observation of medical procedures in hospitals, and later during my twenty years in the London Fire Brigade. This is what is called ‘reality’ and ‘science.’ Gupta’s and Chopra’s nonsense isn’t science and it’s tragic that their opinions are given any credence by organisations who should know better.

    The motivation of the likes of Deeprak Chopra, along with all the other charlatans, liars and frauds who spout this nonsense is that there is a lot of money to be made out of it. Alternative motives, of course, include egomania, narciccism and plain good-old delusion.

    We live in the 21st century, replete with the most dazzling of scientific discoveries, but there will always exist those who thrive on crop-circles, reiki, astrology, ‘mediums’, and religion etc.

    I find it sickening that people such as Gupta and Chopra are taken seriously at all, especially when they are making fortunes out of the stupid, the gullible and the deluded.

    Hats off to the likes of Michael Shermer, who are, of course, going to be banging their collective heads against a lot of brick walls; there are too many people out there who choose to ignore silly things like science and reality. It’s refreshing to read his material, even though he is often preaching to the converted.

  9. Mark Says:

    Death is often defined as the “irreversible cessation” of signs of life, which I think is hedging the bets a little, since if caregivers succeed in reviving the patient, they weren’t dead at the time, but if they don’t, then they were! Lots of people have died in the sense that they were legally dead – it used to be considered that death had occurred when the heart stopped – but been revived. I wonder what will happen if medicine could develop to the point of being able to regenerate brain tissue?

  10. bits Says:

    Superstition and Religion are spacetime events in the continuum of “Woo Woo”.
    Deepak Chopra is dumb !

  11. bits Says:

    And btw, those on facebook, join me

  12. Loughlin Tatem Says:

    The thing is: I want my dead mother to be alive and looking out for me. I want to know what is happening to my children, my property, my work after I am gone. I want to hear the conversations of my friends and family and perhaps in some way join those conversations after I am dead. In other words I want to be here after I am gone, after all its all I’ve ever known.There are millions like me out here.But we only want those things because we’re still here.

  13. billgeorge Says:

    I would hazard to claim that Deepak doesn’t believe in his own new age tripe – its only a career.

    The real miracle here is perhaps the 11 yr old gets through this better than previous child actors.

  14. Kenneth Polit Says:

    Crap. Crap. Crap. Dead is dead. If one has been revived, one was never dead. Chopra and Gupta are snake oil salesmen.

  15. USARonin Says:

    deadatsm aside, a great many atheists seem to have a religious fervor for juvenile, maliciousness against people of faith. -Sophist highschoolers posing as thinking adults maybe?

  16. Bitsy Freeman Says:

    I actually had a near-death experience many years ago and the experience was rather compelling. It was so compelling that I joined the Catholic Church and was devout for many years. Thankfully, now I’ve snapped out of it, with the help of Michael Shermer and the writings of several other prominent skeptics. I realize now that all the wishing, hoping, praying, and dreaming won’t make a creative deity real and I need to get back to having a real life, before it’s over with and I’ve never really lived or appreciated the world as it actually is.
    You see, when you give credit to magic and supernatural causes, somehow you don’t ever really appreciate the wonder and diversity and majesty of what really is. At the levels of molecules, cells, living systems, and astronomical systems, there is great diversity and cause for wonder. While I was worshipping god, I never looked and wondered at all of those things, because I just assumed it was all under control.

  17. southwesternbelle Says:

    I come from a VERY fundie with charismatic background. (My whole family!) Reading Dr. Shermer’s books helped me claw my way out. So, thanks, Dr. Shermer.

    Years ago, when I was a kid, there was a Pentecostal church near our house. Their minister died, and they believed that God would resurrect him, so they kept him at the church for a number of days, until the funeral home director insisted that he be buried asap.

    So, a pack of Pentecostals, claiming in Jesus name, speaking in tongues included, could not raise the dead. And, if they can’t, nobody can!

  18. Donna Gore Says:

    This train of thought actually started years ago when I was thinking about hell. I thought, “How can someone burn in hell if they left their flesh and bones behind in a coffin and went to the afterlife in the form of ‘pure spirit’?” Exactly what is burning, and how? (Maybe the spirit is made of flammable gas??????)
    More recently, this occurred to me regarding OBEs in the operating room, where people claim they floated up to the ceiling and watched/heard their own surgery:
    I see things because my eyes receive light signals which are translated into impulses and sent to my brain, which then interprets them. I hear things because my ears receive sound waves, which are also sent to my brain for interpretation.
    If I leave my body, and float up to the ceiling as a DISEMBODIED spirit, I have no eyes, no ears, and no brain. How then do I hear and see?

  19. Believer Dude Says:

    ROFLMAO… I believe we have souls & life after death. On reincarnation mark me down as a skeptical believer… On Deepak well this guy is the James Randi of the New Age Movement. Ask him a question & he gets very evasive on the answers.

    Folks I DO NOT believe in “supernatural” I believe everything is Natural and I believe there is MUCH we simply DO NOT understand. Just because we do not understand HOW something works does not mean that something does not exist. Nor does it mean it can’t be explained.

    To Donna’s Statement As we do not understand what a “soul” is or how it functions we can’t state as fact that it can’t be possible. Everyone who claims to have had an OBE has stated there is a link to their body. Maybe the function of that link is to keep the body “alive”. It also functions as a “USB Cable” So your not sensing as we would view it Sight & sound is registered & transmitted to the brain for processing into something the brain can comprehend.

    SWBelle, I find it interesting that ALOT of Atheists seem to have your background. As for raising the dead. First there has to be a soul If you took a strong magnet to your hard drive what are the chances you will get your computer up & running? None right? If “death” is the process of transfering data from one host to another & the old Hard drive is destroyed thy can pray for years & nothing will happen. This does not mean Data transfers are impossible or supernatural.

    Bitsy can you provide scientific data that your assumptions are based on FACT not belief or “faith” that something does not exist? I’m sure you have some sort of pod that can cross dimensions in a single bound. Please take me to each & every one & PROVE that A. A “Creator” is absolutely impossible. & B. NOTHING living can ever be Created.

    Mark we will find out when the very first human clone is born.

    Neighbor there is evidence however the issue is your willingness to accept something that conflicts with your belief system. I do agree Gupta and Chopra are not worth even considering. However you look at life through your belief of how things SHOULD be & ignore reality.
    Reality is filled with Questions & unknowns,. If one does not seek answers then you go through life living in your own little fantasy world.

  20. Andy O Says:

    It is very interesting that the more intelligent people think Chopra’s pronunciations are crap, while the less intelligent people think they are filled with meaning. Though they can’t exactly say what that meaning is.

    What is this trying to tell us?

  21. TRICIA Says:

    Read my Atheist poem on google “PATRICIA ANN MALOUF” enjoy!

  22. Lokka Says:

    Anybody here who has done honest Vipassana meditation for more than – say 80 hours? If you ask “What crap is that?”, you do not qualify to talk about what you are talking about. How many of you have been ER physicians and seen first hand the unexplainable (and your Sup told you to shut up)? How many of you have been in palliative care providers? Any? And now, say you have a plumbing issue. Who do take the opinion of? The plumber of the electrician?

  23. Gary Says:

    Lokka,I would advise that you read some of Shermers work, specifically his book The Believing Brain, before getting on your high horse and denouncing every one else as dishonest meditation frauds, unlike yourself. In his book, Shermer cites study after study that completely deflate your self righteous meditation medical background ego trip. By the way, he is a Doctor and well published and respected author. I’m surprised that someone of such proclaimed expertise as you would make such a blatant error, that is, if your expertise is what you claim it to be.

  24. Rod Martin, Jr. Says:

    I can’t believe the sheer arrogance of Mr. Shermer’s biased and unscientific stance on this topic.

    He starts out,”Have you ever died and come back to life? Me neither. No one has.” Suddenly, Mr. Shermer is omniscient? I think even he would disagree with that idea. So, why is he acting as though he were omniscient?

    Skepticism is supposed to keep investigators from jumping to rash conclusions. Here, Shermer is doing quite the opposite. He seems to have a nasty habit of doing that — making unsupported statements and then treating them as fact. I seem to remember, from history, certain religious bigots condemning science before allowing a full investigation. Science was right in condemning such egotistical bias.

    The real problem is not science or religion, but ego. Here I’m not talking about the Western psychological view of ego, but the Buddhist view — that of the source of all selfishness and separation.

    Mr. Shermer has not had spiritual experiences, so he acts as though they don’t exist. Funny that he would bring up the Argumentum ad Ignoratum type logical fallacy. He uses them so well and so often.

    He has no evidence of spiritual things, so they don’t exist. So, he thinks! But young James Leininger could remember details about that prior life that were simply not otherwise available to a youngster barely out of infancy. Skeptics come up with alternative explanations, some quite clever, and some quite possibly true. But alternative theories do not disprove spiritual events. Mr. Shermer is about as scientific on this as was the pope who condemned Bruno to death by burning at the stake 413 years ago.

    The heart of spiritual studies could benefit greatly from science, so long as it remains unbiased. But how difficult this is depends on the ability of scientists to recognize bias when it’s standing right in front of them. On this, Mr. Shermer seems as blind as the beggar of whom Jesus and the disciples discussed regarding his reincarnation after past crimes that may have led to his blindness.

    Science could understand creation, if it were to give up its biggest bias — skepticism. But ego is too attached to something that facilitates discovery sometimes and facilitates blindness and ridicule at other times. It feeds the ego like no other tool, and this to the detriment of all humanity.

    …for a deeper discussion of religion _and_ science.