Sam Harris takes down the heaven-experiencing neurosurgeon

A few days ago I wrote about neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who went into a meningitis-produced coma for a week and came out believing he had seen Jesus and experienced heaven. It was palpable nonsense, but I hadn’t the requisite neuroscientific knowledge to debunk the physiological arguments Alexander used to show that dreamlike activity, or even neuronal activity, couldn’t have caused his visions.

In a devastating takedown of Alexander’s arguments, “This must be heaven,” Sam Harris has done so. Harris uses his own experience studying neuroscience, consults experts in the field, reprises a dreadful interview Alexander had with the odious “Skeptico” program (wouldn’t you know that Alex Tsakiris would grab the surgeon as soon as he was able?), and shows that many of Alexander’s “visions” correspond exactly to those of DMT users:

Alexander believes that his E. coli-addled brain could not have produced his visions because they were too “intense,” too “hyper-real,” too “beautiful,” too “interactive,” and too drenched in significance for even a healthy brain to conjure. He also appears to think that despite their timeless quality, his visions could not have arisen in the minutes or hours during which his cortex (which surely never went off) switched back on. He clearly knows nothing about what people with working brains experience under the influence of psychedelics. Nor does he know that visions of the sort that McKenna describes, although they may seem to last for ages, require only a brief span of biological time. Unlike LSD and other long-acting psychedelics, DMT alters consciousness for merely a few minutes. Alexander would have had more than enough time to experience a visionary ecstasy as he was coming out of his coma (whether his cortex was rebooting or not).

Does Alexander know that DMT already exists in the brain as a neurotransmitter? Did his brain experience a surge of DMT release during his coma? This is pure speculation, of course, but it is a far more credible hypothesis than that his cortex “shut down,” freeing his soul to travel to another dimension. As one of his correspondents has already informed him, similar experiences can be had with ketamine, which is a surgical anesthetic that is occasionally used to protect a traumatized brain. Did Alexander by any chance receive ketamine while in the hospital? Would he even think it relevant if he had? His assertion that psychedelic compounds like DMT and ketamine “do not explain the kind of clarity, the rich interactivity, the layer upon layer of understanding” he experienced is perhaps the most amazing thing he has said since he returned from heaven. Such compounds are universally understood to do the job. And most scientists believe that the reliable effects of psychedelics indicate that the brain is at the very least involvedin the production of visionary states of the sort Alexander is talking about.

But even if it wasn’t ketamine or DMT, the notion that Alexander saw a real heaven while still alive remains far less parsimonious than the notion that he experienced brain activity of a sort that we don’t yet understand. After all, such “near death” experiences are common: I wrote about one experienced by four-year-old (!) Colton Burpo, who, with the help of a ghostwriter and his parents, turned it into the bestseller Heaven is for Real.

Alexander, too, has a book to flog: Proof of Heaven, not even out yet but aleady #1 on Kindle in the categories “Religion,” “Medicine,” and (I shudder to say this) “Science.” Alexander will make millions by bilking the gullible public.  I’m sure he thinks he saw heaven, and the public is so hungry to hear that their deaths aren’t the end that they’ll enrich Alexander far beyond his (heaven-envisioning) dreams.

This is the way to get rich in America: have a medical emergency in which you see visions that correspond to the Christian mythology.

Oh, and by the way, The Awl notes that Alexander’s vision doesn’t correspond with Burpo’s. If there is a heaven, and people actually visit it in these near-death experiences, then their accounts should be consistent. They’re not: they’re all over the map.  To me, that shows more than anything that these tales are either the products of an out-of-control brain or confabulations.  Either way, they’re bunk. It’s galling, but not surprising, that you can get rich catering to the fantasies of a gullible public.

h/t: musicalbeef

*****

Just to instantiate that gullibility, here’s a comment that someone named “Ninique”, apparently a hair stylist and make-up artist who writes a blog named Monique, tried to post. I’m putting it here, but needless to say she won’t be posting further:

Ninique commented on OMG: Newsweek touts the afterlife as real

He did not grow up with religion, LIAR! Hey Atheist, why are you hating on the truth? Where you getting your un-divine inspiration from, a doubt demon? You guys attack the faithful at any chance you get. Why is his article “dreadful?” Huh? Just cause you disagree? Well gee, that’s mighty immature of you. Dreadful it is not, even if you may not believe it. As a matter of fact, I find that it could fill even the doubtful with the tiniest ounce of hope. That in itself, is precious. Your bleek [sic] outlook on the spirit is dreaful and it bores me to death. Your spirit within you craves more and you go out of your way to deny it the truth. I pity you. Hell, maybe I’ll pray for you!

Well, Alexander describes himself as “a faithful Christian,” and his article is dreadful not because we don’t believe it (though I don’t), but because there are other and more plausible explanations for Alexander’s “experience.” See Harris’s piece and Steve Novella’s takedown of Alexander mentioned in the comments below.

Ninique, you believe this tripe simply because it does fill you with the tiniest ounce of hope, even though it’s not true. For the same reason, people buy lottery tickets because of their “tiniest hope” that it will make them rich.  Sadly, it’s more likely that one will win the lottery than go to heaven.

As always, what we want to be true doesn’t often coincide with what is true.

________

UPDATE: Another one!  The will to believe is strong!

notoneofyou commented on OMG: Newsweek touts the afterlife as real

You people are so smug and intellectually superior. Thats [sic] what makes you so reviled in society. I can understad [sic] why you don’t believe something you can’t see. But your nasty remarks about people who believe in something beyond this life (and there have been many of us in the history of earth) go beyond having a difference of opinion. Religion has given comfort and grace to many more people than you know because all you want to see are the fanatics that use religion for power. I guess it makes you feel vindicated. BTW…the man in the article is a neurosurgeon. I figure he knows a little bit about the workings of the brain. Have you ever considered the possibility that in spite of your belief in your own superiority, you might just be wrong?

Not much to say about this person except he/she obviously hasn’t considered that possibility at all.

 

87 Comments

  1. E.A. Blair
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure that I am not alone in having experienced intense dreams which left strong impressions of having been actual experiences. There have been times, usually during periods of intense personal stress, in which I experienced what I call nested dreams, in which, in the dream, I awake to find the lower-level dream world lingering in the apparent reality of the upper-level dream. Experiences like that were sometimes enough to make me wonder whether I was really finally awake or still dreaming. This must be what Poe meant when he spoke of “a dream within a dream”.

    Having never been in an actual medical coma, I cannot personally vouch for anything Alexander may have experienced, but if coma visions are anything like intense dreaming, I find his account suspicious and self-serving at best.

    • Mark D.
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      Nested dreams REALLY fuck with your sense of reality. I have had exactly one, that I can remember. Massively simplified version:

      [In the dream] I had a pony. It died of some generic disease. After I “woke up” from that dream, my dog (identical to one I actually have) also died from disease.

      And then a finally woke up for real.

      …or did I?

      • Posted October 13, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Lao Tzu knows a butterfly who’d like to have a word with you….

        b&

        • guilherme21msa
          Posted October 13, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

          Actually, it was Chuang Tzu. He wrote a book called Chuang Tzu, I’m reading it, it’s awesome.

          • Posted October 14, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

            Sorry — you’re right. Lao Tzu’s butterfly is the one that emerged from the caterpillar’s armageddon of the cocoon.

            I’m sure if I were Chinese I’d have similar trouble keeping straight which John planted apple trees and which was a steel-drivin’ man….

            b&

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted October 13, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        I once had a dream in which I woke up to find a minivan parked in my living room. When I actually woke up, I was shocked to find that it wasn’t there.

    • Posted October 13, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      I often experience sleep paralysis, in which my eyes are slighty open, allowing me to see my bedroom. This makes me think I must be awake, yet I cannot move because of the paralysis usually concurrent with REM, which I am in.

      It is not pleasant.

      • Posted October 13, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        SO TRUE! I’ve experienced sleep paralysis twice that I can recall…once with the impression that a lion was sitting on top of me and THAT was why I couldn’t move, and the second…far more frightening…that some extradimensional alien THING that I could not describe was on top of me. Interestingly enough, though I couldn’t move my body, I could move my mouth…so I bit it! That “woke me up.” Of course, having actually STUDIED in medical school, I recognized these experiences for what they were, and never thought they were real…in the external sense.

  2. Greg
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    As a neuroscientist, I am ashamed of this man. It’s astonishing to me how someone can go through the training to be become a neurosurgeon without ever learning about the bewildering complexity of the brain’s connections and chemical transmission systems. However, it is entirely possible, even likely, that Eben Alexander never studied psychoactive substances or functional imaging methods.

    I hope that the scientific community will attack his upcoming book more forcefully than they did the previous installment in this dreadful genre, “Heaven is for Real”. This is a slam-dunk case of Occam’s Razor, and I hope there will be a deluge of articles criticizing Alexander’s claims as anti-scientific nonsense.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted October 12, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

      In my opinion, the “Heaven is For Real” phenomena was helped by churches buying up copies, keeping it on the bestseller list, and distributing it free to the “faithful” as ‘good news’ about the hereafter (“it’s a bestseller…lots of people believe it!!”.) After all, this promotes attendance at church, which equals funds for the clergy. Add on the “innocent child, in language an (unsophisticated) adult can follow”, and you have a perpetual motion machine in play. Alexander won’t get anything like that treatment. Consider that he is against a wall of opinion already built by people antagonistic to the “Heaven-Real” phenomena.

      He will be pummeled, IMO.

    • lamacher
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      It is a fact that many of my former colleagues in neurosurgery (I’m retired)are woo-infected. Eban was trained decades ago, when real neuroscience was in its infancy, and clearly he has studiously avoided learning any since. Technical expertise in surgical techniques does not qualify one as a scientist. Ben Carson, self-acknowledged as a ‘man with golden hands’, is a cfreationist. Egbom, who infects certain blogs at times, is an anti-intellectual of the first water. The fact that Eban is a neurosurgeon gives his notions no standing whatsoever.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      I think the real accusation is not that a neurosurgeon ought to know better.

      It’s that a neurosurgeon ought to know that he needs to do his research… and he needs to avoid doing this research under a subjective conviction that his own experience is so much more AMAZING than any of those experiences which scientists manage to ‘dismiss.’

      Shame on him.

  3. Daniel Murphy
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    See also Dr. Steven Novella’s response:

    http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/proof-of-heaven/

  4. Pablo
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    There’s no hope. This supernatural BS is too tempting for the average H. sapiens to resist. We need a speciation event to leave these idiots behind.

    • Mike Hart
      Posted October 12, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

      How about we just put them in the B ark with the phone cleaners?

      • Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:29 am | Permalink

        Let’s not make that mistake again. You can contract nasty things from dirty phones…

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:33 am | Permalink

        Then there really *is* no hope seeing as how we’re all descended from the inhabitants of the ‘B’ ark. :(

        Though it does explain an awful lot…

    • guilherme21msa
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      Wasn’t Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermensch supposed to be a speciation event?

  5. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I must have had a self-DMT-propelled dream last night. In this dream, I took my wife to the top floor of a San Francisco high-rise with which I was familiar. Upon going outside (naturally!) on the top of the building, we entered a realm of multiple gardens, waterfalls, exotic flowers, multitudes of people, and…off to the side, a landing strip for executive aircraft! The extent of the real estate on top of a building was very very impressive! “Is this landing strip really a good use of space, on the top of the building? The regular airport is pretty close!!”

    It was an intense and vivid dream. But I invariably awaken and cast even the most intense dreams aside as so much fun and mental exercise.

    I even had one where I was in a waiting room, entering heaven!! Can’t be!! I argued in a good -natured way with the woman at a desk, who seemed to be in charge of an animated room with lots of noise and cheery laughter: “There =cannot= be a heaven!! It’s simply not possible!”

    “Well, well,” she replied, with good nature and beaming smile, “There is a heaven, and you’ve arrived!!!”

    I’m shaking my head, but I like the excitement going around…

    Once again, I proffer my hypothesis: dreaming is an evolutionary adaption used by hunting creatures, to use the least amount of physical fuel, to create experiences to enhance their abilities to successfully hunt. Since hunting is no longer our main occupation, dreaming has shifted to add to our experiences in other activities….like my verbal duels with me ex-wife!!

  6. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    Since this journey to “heaven” was accomplished as a round trip, how were the billions of calcium ions, sodium ions, carried over to this realm and back, so that memories were both carried to this place, and carried back? He may wish to consult with Nobelist Dr. Eric Kandel about the physical nature of memory formation and retention, along with Dr. Gary Lynch and the folks at “101 Theory Drive” down at UC Irvine. How was phosphorylation accomplished, as part of the memory-forming episode, in this other universe, without physical phosphorus? How was the memory built in this supernatural realm, transported, then melded into the correct neurological locations within his physical, Earthbound brain?

    Memory is a physical construct. This has been known for decades.

    • Cremnomaniac
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      An interesting thought. I would deduce that much of the inherent belief in “soul” on the part of the religious, is a significant influence in interpretation of dreams, or cognitive events.

      Soul is the knower, the me within me, and as such my supernatural self must interact with my biological self.

      I don’t know if Alexander is a christian or other, but as a so-called scientist, I defy him to produce an explanation of how the supernatural interacts with the biological.
      He should know, dreams are not sufficient evidence.

      I just realized that I’d seen this on Morgan Freeman’s “Through the Wormhole”, months ago. Why is this just now coming up? I guess Newsweek is behind the 8-ball.

  7. Charles Sullivan
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    I may use this stuff in my critical thinking class. What makes it appropriate is that it has explanations from both sides.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 2:02 am | Permalink

      both sides of what?

    • John Scarborough
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      There is only one side with explanations.
      The other side is wishful thinking.

  8. Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Well, if money is involved, I saw heaven too! Or Hell or 56 virgins, or guardian angels. Heck, I can be bought – Newsweek, HuffPo!?

    Do I need to get an agent?

  9. Posted October 13, 2012 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    The trouble is the more general philosophical problem: people believe whatever their brain tells them. Even when we know from well-established science how much your brain is a damn liar and not to be trusted (and that’s why we do science). Thus, what to the outside view is really obviously a delusion, is to the inside view incontrovertible proof of [insert woo here]. Some amazingly smart people have fallen prey to this. It takes a remarkable rationalist to experience such delusions and accept how much more likely it is they’re delusions.

  10. Yellowbird
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The PlanetWatcher.

  11. Posted October 13, 2012 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    Heck!I had a dream I was in Heaven too.I was with a lady that vagely looked like moddona.Things got wet.

  12. Gordon
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    Some years ago my son died in his 20s. One way the brain seems to cope with such traumas is very vivid and deep dreams. Even after some months these were sufficiently vivid to stuff me up for several days. Many of these involved “visits” from my son and one can see how you might grasp on to this as proof of heaven especially as these events also provide some weird comfort. All part of letting go and I coped without a sky fairy. All those atheist. but supportive friends can did a fine job

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      My father died in 2004. Since that time, I have had dozens of dreams where he has “returned”, at various levels of dementia. My initial thoughts are always (1) Wow, I didn’t realize he was still alive, and I’ve been absent from his care for a long long time, and (2) how do I explain this to Social Security and his pension plan?? Once during the dream, I did recall that he had been cremated, but that irrationality didn’t seem to stop the flow of the dream and his interactions with me.

    • raven
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      A few nights ago I dreamed about two of my old cats, a not uncommon occurrence.

      One of them died 35 years ago.

      You get over losing them sort of, but you never forget them.

  13. teacupoftheapocalypse
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure what concerns me most about this story: The certainty that the theists will latch onto it as further, incontrovertible proof of the existence of their god and heaven, or that we have a report from a trained neuroscientist who so clearly lacks scientific rigour.

    Alexander states that psychedelic compounds like DMT and ketamine “do not explain the kind of clarity, the rich interactivity, the layer upon layer of understanding” he experienced, but nowhere does he state that he had prior, personal experience of the effects of such drugs.

    If I am ever unlucky enough to suffer brain trauma, please, don’t let Alexander operate on me.

    • Pablo
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      Physicians, surgeons, nurses, and paramedics *are not* scientists. Alexander is a neurosurgeon, not a trained neuroscientist. The problem is that most people don’t know the difference.

  14. Occam
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    As JAC writes, this takedown by Sam Harris is truly devastating. And brilliant.

    One micro-quibble, though. Harris writes “The article is the modern equivalent of a 14th-century woodcut depicting the work of alchemists, inquisitors, Crusaders, and fortune-tellers.”

    The main point is that, in the 14th century, people didn’t know better. We do, can, and must. Eben Alexander can and must know better. So does Newsweek.
    There’s no excuse for this bunch of malarkey.

    Another point is that even 14th-century inquisitors could be more, well, inquisitive, perceptive, and intellectually curious than Eben Alexander. Witness the example of Jacques Fournier, bishop of Pamiers, scourge of the Cathars (and in due course, promoted to the papacy as Benedict XII). A ruthless sleuth and ideologue; but the registers of his 578 interrogations and 98 dossiers reveal a more methodical, more scientific mindset than that of a contemporary neurosurgeon, post-meningitis.

  15. J Fly Fisher
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    It seems obvious that Alexander was really at the local Scores but didn’t want his wife to find out.

  16. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    I find Ninique’s use of the word “hope” very telling. L

  17. Posted October 13, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks for shedding light on this, Drs.Coyne and Harris. I had no doubts that Alexander experienced some kind of dream-like hallucination, but it’s great to have this explanation. It’s obvious he wants to believe what he wants to believe, and likely he derives comfort from it.

    I must wonder if his medical crisis could have engendered some change in his brain or other biochemical system in his body, to cause him to now latch on so fiercely to the notion that his hallucination was actually a reality. After all, he *is* a neurosurgeon.

    With him now promoting his book, Oprah’s reader better exercise “Caveat emptor”, as this is not far removed from the debacle of another book “A Million Little Pieces”. I myself could make a fortune if I repackaged my own dreams as divine experience.

    • Posted October 13, 2012 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      typo… “Oprah’s readers”.

    • Posted October 13, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

      I think he’s mainly deriving comfort from thinking about what is likely to happen to his bank account.

  18. Posted October 13, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    “If I ever have an out of body experience, I’m going to have someone in to clean.” — Woody Allen

    • John Scarborough
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Another Woody quote –

      I don’t want to become immortal through my work…I want to achieve it through not dying.

  19. coozoe
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Well, if Ninique has been bored to death, we don’t need to read any more of that drivel.

  20. Posted October 13, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    (Sigh) that’s Skeptiko NOT Skeptico

  21. Posted October 13, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Late to the party again….

    Sam, if you should happen to read this, consider what it would mean for the laws of conservation should consciousness be anything other than an emergent property of the physical brain.

    We’re still a long ways from fully understanding the hardware and we’ve barely begun to understand the software — but we do know the broad outlines of both, and we’ve performed inventories most thorough. There’s nothing missing or unaccounted-for in the brains; all we lack is an understanding of how slot A connects to hole 2.

    Cheers,

    b&

  22. Heber
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Harris was right on with this question, as it is the key question Dr. Alexander has to answer:

    ” Even if his entire cortex had truly shut down (again, an incredible claim), how can he know that his visions didn’t occur in the minutes and hours during which its functions returned?”

    The answer is of course, he can’t know. And to me, this summarizes the entire argument.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Don’t give the human brain a low performance profile. This whole episode could have been generated in SECONDS. Remember, we have TRILLIONS of synapses, and most of them are used during executive, conscious functioning, in processing and -discarding- millions of pieces of incoming data. Who knows what kind of “hyperdrive” the brain goes into, when sensory deprivation is at its maximum? Perhaps many trillion synapses line up for a powerful generation of a story? And it may be parallel processing (we always imagine our brains doing linear processing, with a brick-upon-brick assemblage) that takes mere seconds. We all know the familiar “my entire life passed before my eyes” and how time seems to slow down during an extreme, live-or-die crisis. We know that adrenal-type hormones vividly cement memories, with much detail, because live-or-die crises can be useful if they can be recalled in a repeat crisis.

      In sum, most critics of this story give the brain short shrift for speed. And, for good reason: it is beyond normal capabilities to imagine the power and performance of dozens of TRILLIONS of interconnected switches.

      • lamacher
        Posted October 13, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        Indeed. That hoary old adage that we only use 10% of our brains was formulated by someone who did just that. Even ‘asleep’, the brain is working constantly, just at tasks of which we are unaware, and is capable of synthesizing remarkable scenarios, solving problems, and totally fooling someone like Eban Aldexander.

        • E.A. Blair
          Posted October 13, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          There is a kernel of truth in that adage, but it’s very misleading. For example, when we’re sitting, we’re not using the part of our brain that controls out legs; when we’re reading, we’re using yet another part of our brain; since different functions are housed in different parts, yes, there are portions of our brain that do not get used as given times, but that doesn’t mean that 10% controls everything we do and 90% lies fallow. No, it’s more like subroutines in a program – some get used when they’re needed, others wait for the proper call. I am sitting here typing; the parts of my brain that control language and my fingers are active; the parts that control the rest of my voluntary muscles are dormant.

          • Scott near Berkeley
            Posted October 13, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

            The brain is being energized by blood, flowing into it at a rate of one liter per minute. Consider a 55-gallon drum of blood, your brain fuel. You use this in less than four hours, just sitting there.

            • Posted October 13, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

              If you really want to blow your mind…your brain does everything that it does on an energy budget about the same as a typical laptop.

              b&

  23. Sastra
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Alexander believes that his E. coli-addled brain could not have produced his visions because they were too “intense,” too “hyper-real,” too “beautiful,” too “interactive,” and too drenched in significance for even a healthy brain to conjure.

    Ok. Let’s look at some of the intense, beautiful, amazing insights Alexander had while he was out of the brain which tethers him to the humdrum world — and was instead directly connected to a place of Higher Wisdom. Let us examine this great epiphany, this revealed knowledge which goes beyond anything of which we have earthly experience, which eclipses the erudition and scholarship of all our worldly education. What truths did he discover? What diamonds of brilliance will sparkle their light upon our current understanding and make us sit back, dazed, and wonder “how … how …. how could he have known this?”

    Alexander, like the Alexander of old, traveled far and brought back proof. It must be dealt with. It should not be ignored by scientists and scholars.

    Here we go:

    The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:

    “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

    “You have nothing to fear.”

    “There is nothing you can do wrong.”

    Oh. Okay.

    Let me say it: I am underwhelmed.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      I mean, it’s not new. I think my Mommy used to tell me stuff like that.

    • raven
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      This isn’t fundie-ism at all.

      “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
      Fundie-ism: Jesus loves us and hates you.

      “You have nothing to fear.”
      Fundie-ism: The vast majority of humans including most xians will go to hell and be tortured forever for not being us.

      “There is nothing you can do wrong.”
      Fundi-ism: Everything you do is wrong. You should all go to hell because some woman ate an apple 6,000 years ago.

      • Sastra
        Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        No, Christian fundamentalists (and Muslim and Jewish ones) will hate this article, and probably ascribe it to the Devil. Or the pagans.

        It looks to me like generic liberal Spirituality. It can be appropriated and embraced by many faiths. It’s not picky. Many paths, same truth. Everyone is right.

        Except the atheists. We are WRONG. How embarrassing.

  24. raven
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    troll:

    You people are so smug and intellectually superior.

    I don’t know about smug but we are intellectually superior to these trolls. That isn’t saying much though. So is my cat.

    Thats [sic] what makes you so reviled in society.

    By who?

    Who is reviled by our society are the fundies. Enough so that millions of people are leaving xianity every year. Not everyone wants to be a hate filled idiot.

    • raven
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Religion has given comfort and grace to many more people than you know…

      Religion has also slaughtered tens or hundreds of millions of people over differences of opinion. Because they have no way of anchoring their beliefs to anything real and provable.

      It happens every day somewhere in the world. The latest in the daily atrocities of the religions is an armed He man hero Taliban religionist shooting an unarmed school girl in Pakistan.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      By who?

      By the grammar pedants, that’s whom.
      :>

  25. msobel
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    It is a mystery why you all ignore the obvious solution. I have had vivid subjective experiences like this when I am sleeping, especially when a large short haired mainly white calico cat is sleeping against the top of my head.

    This experience is surely the work of Ceiling Cat.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      No, because he rode the butterfly. Had it been the work of Ceiling Cat, he would have brought that giant butterfly DOWN. With his teeth, maybe.

  26. Sastra
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    There’s one part of Harris’ otherwise excellent article that pissed me off:

    “Unlike many atheists, I don’t doubt the subjective phenomena themselves—that is, I don’t believe that everyone who claims to have seen an angel, or left his body in a trance, or become one with the universe, is lying or mentally ill.”

    God damn it to hell. I really wish Harris would stop doing this. I wish he would stop trying to curry favor with his audience by creating a great, big, stupid faction of straw-man atheists that he can position himself as being against, so he is in the fair-minded middle.

    Okay, Sam — who? Who are these “many atheists” you so constantly trot out who “believe that everyone who claims to have seen an angel, or left his body in a trance, or become one with the universe, is lying or mentally ill.” Can you name some names? Can you cite some actual leading atheists, or atheists people have heard of, or atheists who don’t simply anonymously scrawl random and disjointed angry little comments on UTube videos or twitter or other internet forums where the hoi polloi are known to congregate in great numbers — who seriously insist that the explanation for ALL mystical experiences is “lying or mentally ill?”

    Give us specific examples or STFU.

    I was at an Atheist Alliance convention years back in DC where Sam claimed something similar — that most atheists have been dismissing mystical experiences as lies or illness and “denying” that they’re real experiences. Atheists think there is no value in meditation, for instance. Only Harris made 2 mistakes:

    1.) he named Daniel Dennett as one of the atheists who routinely did this and
    2.) Daniel Dennett was in the audience.

    Dennett corrected the misapprehension of his position.

    • Posted October 13, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      That bit annoyed me too.

      As I addressed to JoJo in that other thread, just because the experiences are of something unreal doesn’t mean that the experiences themselves aren’t real. Nor does it mean that those experiences can’t be profound and transformative.

      Damned few who’ve read Shakespeare have had their lives remain untouched by the experience. That doesn’t magically turn him into an historian — but neither does the fictional nature of his works in any way diminish their power.

      I don’t think there’s anybody who’d disagree with anything I wrote in that preceding paragraph, and I’d be amazed to find anybody who’d object to similarly characterizing the types of experiences Sam describes — though, of course, the audiences are much smaller than Shakespeare’s and there may be less agreement on the aesthetic merits.

      Sam’s failure is in equating rejection of the realities described by these experiences with rejection of the fact that these experiences happen as described. And, as you note, it’s a damned annoying and offensive failure on his part, one that detracts from some truly excellent work that he does on this subject.

      b&

      • Posted October 14, 2012 at 12:49 am | Permalink

        “Damned few who’ve read Shakespeare have had their lives remain untouched by the experience.”

        Indeed. Many are put off him for life…

        /@

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      Well, doesn’t being in a weeks-long coma constitute being “mentally ill”?

  27. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Forgot to mention re the brain and performance, the so-called “idiot savants” that multiply numbers at an incredible rate, or know the weather on any particular date stretching back thirty years. These anomalies only -hint- at some of the undefined yet obvious performance possibilities of the human brain.

    My take: his brain built this story in under thirty seconds, pulling in memory pieces at an incredible rate, and orchestrated into a cogent story by a thousand musical-like conductors, each tied to one another in perfect coordination (unfettered by outside stimuli).

    That’s what his book should be about!!

    What is the rate at which human babies in gestation make neurons? 50,000 per minute!!

    The scale and performance is beyond human grasp.

  28. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Another good skeptical response: Colin Blakemore in The Telegraph

    The crucial question is not whether such astounding experiences should lead us to abandon materialist accounts of brain function, but whether materialist accounts can possibly explain them.

    What Dr Alexander and his PR people claim is that his description of the afterlife is more authentic because he is a neurosurgeon. But when there is no evidence except the word of the beholder, a scientist’s accounts are no more reliable than those of anyone else.

  29. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    A parallel occurs to me: if we should accept this NDE account from a neurosurgeon at face value, shouldn’t we also accept an account of fairies at the foot of the garden from the author of books about the most famous inductively-reasoning detective of all time?

    • Posted October 14, 2012 at 12:51 am | Permalink

      “What is the nature of these sprites, Holmes?”

      “Elementary, my dear Watson!”

      /@

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted October 14, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        +1!

  30. Posted October 13, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Lamberth’s a-relgious argument is that all relgious experience is just people’s own experience at work as Sam notes.Susan Blckmore in an e-mail to me years ago agreed.
    Nevertheless to allege supernatural intent behind the experiences, begs the question.

  31. lisa
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    I feel cheated. When I was in a coma for 3 months a few years ago, I didn’t get fluffy clouds, pretty lights or angels. I was in a construction site office in an uncomfortable chair with a faceless demon in army fatigues. And my experience was much more Dante-esque than most others I’ve read.

    But I will make the following assertions:

    1 These ‘visions’ are intensely individual and ‘designed’ or ‘dreamed’ or whatever to give the patient some kind of information concerning things beyond mankind’s current abilities and/or understanding. The information is then couched in a way that is consistent with what each person can relate to or understand.

    2 There is abundant evidence that these episodes are common

    3 Most science explain the ‘visions’ as the result of the medications being given to the patient or a deterioration of the brain, which could very likely be the case. But it is also possible that the brain needs these chemicals to perceive this particular type of data, much the way we use alternate light sources, x-rays or even something as trivial as corrective lenses to see things beyond a person’s unaided eye.

    4 Whatever the cause, these experiences are real (but it is really tacky to use them to generate wealth.)

    5 Though my experience was very different from the published accounts I’ve heard or read, it was very, very real. Being the non-evangelic type, I have not felt compelled to share it with anyone, mostly because almost no one would believe me. And due to the personal and individual nature of these episodes, if you want to know about them, go get your own!

    • Sastra
      Posted October 13, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

      Of course your vision was a real experience. The question is whether your interpretation of your real experience is correct. And you are not necessarily the best person to judge that.

      These ‘visions’ are intensely individual and ‘designed’ or ‘dreamed’ or whatever to give the patient some kind of information concerning things beyond mankind’s current abilities and/or understanding. The information is then couched in a way that is consistent with what each person can relate to or understand.

      I see. Can you give us some of this information concerning things beyond mankind’s current abilities and/or understanding? You can couch it in a way that is consistent with what we who read this website can relate to our understand. Is it as astonishing and earth-shattering and ground-breaking as “You are loved forever?”

      By telling us to “go get” or have our own such experience, you’re indicating to us that you don’t quite grasp the problem. If we had such experiences ourselves, we should still doubt interpretations which draw sweeping conclusions about how the cosmos works (as opposed to how our mind works.)It would not make any difference. And it SHOULDN’T make any difference.

      We don’t doubt your sincerity. We doubt your competence in this area. AND we’d doubt our own, too. Again, the person who has an experience is not necessarily the best person to interpret what the experience ‘really’ was.

  32. Kevin
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    This is the way to get rich in America: have a medical emergency in which you see visions that correspond to the Christian mythology [sic].

    Well, that and founding “Playboy”, or chasing ambulances, or printing money. I am sure there are many other ways within the law.

  33. HaggisForBrains
    Posted October 14, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    I wrote about one experienced by four-year-old (!) Colton Burpo, who, with the help of a ghostwriter and his parents, turned it into the bestseller Heaven is for Real.

    I’m sorry, I just don’t believe in ghostwriters. There’s almost certainly a perfectly reasonable neurological explanation for them.

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted October 14, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      +1!

    • Occam
      Posted October 14, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      :)

    • Posted October 14, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Oh, yeah?

      Well, how do you explain Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, then?

      b&

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted October 14, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        I can’t even explain his election.

  34. Lambert Wenner
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Millions of people of all faiths and others without faith have experienced delusions within and out of comas. True believers are especially vulnerable to apparitions that seem to support their convictions (usually acquired as a child).

    Shame on Newsweek for printing such notions with the implication they are real without also printing some learned opinions about the validity of such assumptions. One can imagine true believers standing in line to buy the book.

    Bert Wenner, PhD

  35. vmarq
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Would be interesting to know if any study has ever been done with people from other parts of the world who’ve had these kinds of experiences. I’m guessing a Hindu’s journey, for example, would include way trippier elements…

  36. Schenck
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I totally read Ninique’s “doubt demon” as doubt lemon, what a wonderful fruit that would be, even if it makes us pucker at it’s sourness.
    In fact it reminds me of the Fountain of Doubt from the webcartoon Oglaf:
    http://oglaf.com/fountain-of-doubt/ (which is on of the few Not-NSFW comics there)

  37. Ranzabar
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    If reality is a construct of the brain, then it stands to reason that the brain is fully capable of constructing an interactive and convincing experience on a persistent level. That Dr. Alexander believes he experienced a more vivid reality than what we normally do is a subjective personal interpretation.
    It’s well known that waking dreams are often vivid, but not necessarily lucid. It would be arrogant to conclude unequivocally that Dr. Alexander experienced nothing but a exceptional dream, but lacking conclusive evidence supported in a well vetted scientific mechanism to the contrary, and if we simply must posit an explanation, it’s reasonable to conclude that it was, self-constructed. It would be cool it were otherwise though.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Coyne points out the mercenary aspect to all this:  I’m sure he thinks he saw heaven, and the public is so hungry […]

  2. […] Sam Harris takes down the heaven-experiencing neurosurgeon […]

  3. […] has been thoroughly discredited; every account of “heaven” gets laughed off the world stage (also if you want to pay a bit of money, I hear the Esquire piece about that guy is really […]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30,614 other followers

%d bloggers like this: