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.
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:
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!
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.