Near Death Experiences and State-Space Consistency

Tyler (and Ryan) ask, Should near death experiences change your life?  The answer is no.  The reason, however, may surprise you.  It’s not because NDEs are unimportant it’s because they are very important.

Recall that a rational choice-plan is time-consistent, you should not plan today to make choices for tomorrow when you know today that you will renege upon those choices tomorrow.  Eating cake today because you will diet tomorrow is not a rational choice if you will not in fact diet tomorrow.  Time-consistency does not require that you always follow through on today’s plans – new information arrives which may cause you to rationally change your plans – but it does require that you expect to follow through on today’s plans which means that if no new information arrives then you should follow through.

The same idea explains why if you are rational you should not change your life if you experience an NDE.  NDEs are not new information.  You know that you are mortal, right?  You know that you could die today.  You know that experiences like Ryan’s are not uncommon.  Thus, if you are rational you should not change your life if you experience an NDE.

Do I advise, therefore, that Ryan get on with his life as before?  No, not at all.  My advice is not for Ryan, it’s for everyone else; Choosing rationally requires that you choose today so that if you have an NDE you will not change your life. 

The fact that many people who have an NDE do change their lives is evidence that most people do not choose rationally.  Thus the ways in which people who have had NDEs change their lives is important information for the rest of us who want to choose rationally.

Do you recall the secret to happiness offered by Gilbert, the one you almost certainly will not accept?  It is to accept that your own anticipations of what you will do and feel if certain things occur is not as good a guide to what you will actually do and feel as are the actions and feelings of other people who actually have experienced those events.  Thus, if near death experiences tend to make people more giving, caring and less fearful of change then this is how you should act today.

Long-time readers will know that I take the idea of reflective equilibrium quite seriously.


How certain are you of your assumption that NDEs offer "no new information?"

I agree with the medical emergency near death experience (having had one at 33 years of age). In your 30's you see death as somehting likely to happen in a long time. I, at least, did not factor in the chance of it happening soon.

The result was a realignment of priorities. Not necessarily in the greatest of ways -- I became a bit of a workaholic which is the opposite of what is supposed to happen. :-)

Bah. Should pay better attention.

"Let's say I do know I...."

NDEs come in a variety of forms, but they tend to connotate not only a situation in which one may die, but a sort of bodily death, in which white light is usually attendent. The reader didn't have that experience, but one shouldn't exclude these sorts of experiences from a general analysis. Is there any information in these experiences?

Being in an incident that, had it gone differently, could have killed one, does not provide new information about one's ontological mortality, but it may provide new information about the likelihood of one experiencing sudden and arbitrary death. If I have never experienced some seemingly random phenomenon, I can, to a degree of statistical confidence, put an upper bound on the likelihood that I will experience it tomorrow, but if I have experienced it, even once, I can also put lower bound on that likelihood.

Doing so may move a possibility from the category of possibilities so unlikely as to not be worth responding to, and possibilities that are unlikely, but worth making some response to.

My philosophical question: can lack of vividness provide a rational reason for doing (not doing) something?

Given that much of what traps us into current behaviors and habits is the expectations of others in our lives, couldn't an NDE give us a bit of an excuse for changing that persona?

Think of it as moving to a new city where nobody knows you.

I think there's also something to be said here for the slow-motion NDE of getting older. Martin Amis once said that in life you're always either saying hi or saying by, and that the switchover comes in one's mid thirties. I am wondering whether those of you over 40 aren't conscious of death nearly all the time. I also wonder whether the chronic NDE of middle age has some kind of inoculating or sedative effect which is the opposite of the effect resulting from an acute NDE. Orwell's Coming Up for Air (1938) is an excellent text on all this; the hero is middle-aged, knows war is coming, had an NDE in the last war, and has another in the course of the narrative. None of it has as big an effect as 17 quid.

I will reiterate that Gilbert's secret of happiness may be sufficiently unlikely to be accepted that the fact that a person is willing to accept it suggests that they are abnormal enough that we have little basis for expecting the secret to work for them.

I think Cyrus is correct in his analysis.


Your comments point up the problem with economists. They seem to have only a limited understanding of the human experience.

Most of us non economists understand that most humans are not particularly rational (as defined by an economist). Most of us get some enjoyment from buying a lottery ticket. Most of us grow and or change after a NDA.

All incomprehensible in the economist model. But that is reality. Economists need to re-examine their models.

In my personal experience. I had a near death by drowning. I had what seemed like a long time fighting to escape before I started trying to breathing water. I had no spiritual experience. Most of the time I was under water I was struggling physically while mentally I was berating myself for getting into the situation.

What I learned was that the situation was not that scary. I know that drowning is something not so terrible to go through. Thinking about it is scary. When it is actually happening, you have other things to worry about.

I think that this was something valuable to learn

There is much confusion here between someone who has had a close brush with death, perhaps lost consciousness, and survived (an accident, major surgery, heart attack, etc.) and someone who has had a particular phenomenon called the "near-death experience" or NDE. The two are totally different. In the NDE, one typically experiences an ineffable world which, in most cases, dramatically alters the world view of the experiencer. For more information about NDEs and their aftereffects, I suggest you go to the website of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (, click on the "About NDEs" tab and then click on "Common Aftereffects" from the dror down menu. An even better explanation of NDE aftereffects is offered in an audio file of a presentation by Dr. Bruce Greyson of the University of Virginia Medical School at
(scroll down to the 2nd presentation.).

As someone who has had a typical close brush with death I think it is possible to rationally structure one's life to anticipate that. An NDE, which I have not had, is a very different animal, far more profound and life altering. We can all attempt to learn about NDEs and try to learn from those who have had this experience - what they fairly consistently report is the purpose of life, what happens to us when we die, etc. - which is the reason so many people are interested in this phenomenon.

I see NDE's the same light as MLC's (midlife crises). Sometimes it takes a crises to overcome the inertia of our lives (whether internal or external). Much good can come from both though you probably wouldn't ever intentionally have either. Interesting. (Well interesting enough for me to write a blog post about it.)

I was also amazed at the statistics found at one of the links (the U of V link I believe) where 1 in 20 people reports having an NDE.

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