The usual suspects weigh in on heaven and miracles and Newsweek

Here are my initial thoughts on the “Proof of Heaven” cover story.  Of course, all sorts of people are now commenting on the article. The deepest dive I’ve encountered is by Sam Harris.  But, one might argue, Sam Harris has a dog in this race — he wrote a book called The End of Faith!  True, but he’s also a neuroscientist.  And he’s also very sympathetic to “spiritual” experiences — he’s had them himself.  Further he’s agnostic on the relationship of consciousness to the physical world:

There are, of course, very good reasons to believe that it is an emergent property of brain activity, just as the rest of the human mind obviously is. But we know nothing about how such a miracle of emergence might occur. And if consciousness were, in fact, irreducible—or even separable from the brain in a way that would give comfort to Saint Augustine—my worldview would not be overturned. I know that we do not understand consciousness, and nothing that I think I know about the cosmos, or about the patent falsity of most religious beliefs, requires that I deny this. So, although I am an atheist who can be expected to be unforgiving of religious dogma, I am not reflexively hostile to claims of the sort Alexander has made. In principle, my mind is open. (It really is.)

He then proceeds to rip Dr. Alexander’s article to shreds as science.

Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science.

Harris wants to make sure he has the science right, so he corresponds with his PhD advisor, who (from all I can tell) doesn’t have a dog in the race.  The guy says:

As is obvious to you, this is truth by authority. Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them. “There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness …” True, science cannot explain brain-free consciousness. Of course, science cannot explain consciousness anyway. In this case, however, it would be parsimonious to reject the whole idea of consciousness in the absence of brain activity. Either his brain was active when he had these dreams, or they are a confabulation of whatever took place in his state of minimally conscious coma.

There are many reports of people remembering dream-like states while in medical coma. They lack consistency, of course, but there is nothing particularly unique in Dr. Alexander’s unfortunate episode.

Harris then goes on to make the case that Alexander’s vision was not something uniquely “hyper-real” and “crisp”:

His assertion that psychedelics 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 involved in the production of visionary states of the sort Alexander is talking about.

Harris concludes by saying this:

Let me suggest that, whether or not heaven exists, Alexander sounds precisely how a scientist should not sound when he doesn’t know what he is talking about. And his article is not the sort of thing that the editors of a once-important magazine should publish if they hope to reclaim some measure of respect for their battered brand.

Alexander’s claim to being a scientist is probably what is most irksome to me.  He is a smart guy who has obviously had to study science to learn how to cut brains.  But he doesn’t know (or choose to know) how science works.

Here is a post from an academic clinical neurologist at Yale Medical School:

Of course his brain did not go instantly from completely inactive to normal or near normal waking consciousness. That transition must have taken at least hours, if not a day or more. During that time his neurological exam would not have changed significantly, if at all. The coma exam looks mainly at basic brainstem function and reflexes, and can only dimly examine cortical function (through response to pain) and cannot examine higher cortical functions at all. His recovery would have become apparent, then, when his brain recovered sufficiently for him to show signs of consciousness….

Alexander, in my opinion, has failed to be true to the scientist he claims that he is. He did not step back from his powerful experience and ask dispassionate questions. Instead he concluded that his experience was  unique, that it is proof of heaven, and that it defies any possible scientific explanation. He then goes on to give a hand-waving quantum mechanics, the universe is all unity, explanation for the supernatural. This is a failure of scientific and critical thinking.

Addressing his one major unstated premise, that the experienced occurred while his cortex was inactive, demolishes his claims and his interpretation of his experience.

Jerry Coyne points out the mercenary aspect to all this:

 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.

(Not even available yet, Alexander’s book is already #1 in the science, medicine, and religion categories on Amazon.) This reminds me of Drew Gilpin Faust’s great book This Republic of Suffering, where she talks about the hunger for just this sort of book after the unimaginable losses America suffered during the Civil War.  But the popular books that fed that hunger were novels and theology (like My Dream of Heaven); they didn’t pretend to be science.  The yearning is always the same; the way we satisfy the yearning has changed.

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5 thoughts on “The usual suspects weigh in on heaven and miracles and Newsweek

  1. Setting aside Coyne’s cynicism, I’d agree with most of what you quote above. There are just two statements that, to me, go beyond a careful scientific analysis:

    “Either his brain was active when he had these dreams, or they are a confabulation of whatever took place in his state of minimally conscious coma.” That’s an assumption. It may well be true–it probably *is* true–but it’s an assumption based on the prejudices of the speaker. How could he possibly know? Truth by authority?

    “Addressing his one major unstated premise, that the experienced occurred while his cortex was inactive, demolishes his claims and his interpretation of his experience.” Well, that’s just nonsense. Certainly it *weakens* the claim. But demolishes? I don’t see it.

    BTW, I’m in no way arguing that this was a genuine “afterlife” experience. Maybe it was, maybe not. How would I know? But isn’t there a long and honored history of genuine scientific experts making pronouncements about things they don’t quite know, only to be shown up later by young hotshots who come at it from another angle?

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    • Re Coyne’s cynicism: If the author really is a “scientist,” he wouldn’t have written a popular book to begin with, and he wouldn’t have titled it (or allowed it to be titled) “Proof of Heaven.” And, of course, there is the recent mega-bestseller “Heaven is for Real” in the background–there is obviously a lot of money to be made here. I think a cynical hypothesis is worth entertaining.

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  2. A scientist can’t write a popular book? Hmm. But I’ll grant, based on this excerpt, that it would appear he left his scientific objectivity behind, if he had it to start with. He may indeed be what that other fellow characterized him as: not a scientist at all, but someone who is really good at cutting brains. Maybe he *thinks* he’s a scientist because he studied a lot of science to become a neurosurgeon. Maybe he is personally so persuaded of his story that he feels a genuine need to tell it.

    Or, as you hypothesize, maybe he’s just in it for the money. L. Ron Hubbard comes to mind.

    I don’t know anything about that other book. It escaped my apparently porous radar. But did you read the part in the Ken Miller book where he describes his surprise at discovering that the Intelligent Design lawyer was not just repping a point of view for the money, but actually really believed all of the easily disprovable “science” in it?

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    • You start by doing science. Then you get to write a popular book!

      Yes, I read that part of Miller’s book. Expect a Ken Miller post!

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  3. Pingback: Oliver Sacks, “Proof of Heaven”, and Newtown | richard bowker

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