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.

Heaven and Miracles and Newsweek

So Newsweek has a cover story called “”Proof of Heaven: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife.”  It’s a pretty standard near-death experience story, with a couple of twists: it’s told by a neurosurgeon, and it took place during a coma during which his brain supposedly wasn’t functioning:

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 journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

And here’s the kind of experience the doctor had:

Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them.

Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms.

A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above, and I wondered if the winged beings were producing it. Again, thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise—that if the joy didn’t come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it. The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet.

All pretty standard-issue stuff for near-death experience (NDE) stories.  What’s annoying is that a major magazine is calling this “proof” without quotation marks, without a question mark, without any sort of rebuttal.  (The story is an excerpt from a book by a mainstream publisher, Simon & Schuster.) Where are the alternative hypotheses?  Where is the objective analysis?

For a rebuttal, you have to go elsewhere, like the Huffington Post, of all places, where the physicist Victor Stenger says:

[The neurosurgeon] writes, “According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.”

This is nothing more than the classic argument from ignorance, which forms the basis of almost all ostensibly scientific arguments for the existence of the supernatural. The argument from ignorance is a less polite but more descriptive name for the God-of-the-gaps argument. This argument often appears in dialogues on the existence of God or anything supernatural. Basically, it says: “I can’t see how this [observed phenomenon] can be explained naturally; therefore it must be supernatural.”

The flaw in the argument should be obvious. Just because someone–or even all of science–currently cannot provide a natural explanation for something, it does not follow that a natural explanation does not exist or will never be found. Indeed, the history of science is nothing more than the story of humanity filling in the gaps in its knowledge about the world of our senses. In the case of NDEs, plausible natural explanations do exist.

Another description I’ve heard for this approach is the argument from personal incredulity.  It is, of course, strongest when it’s your experience; your brain knows what it knows, no matter what the scientists say.  But (of course) your brain doesn’t necessarily know what it knows.  I’ve just finished a book called Subliminal by the theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow, which surveys the research currently taking place that shows just how mistaken our conscious brain can be when it comes to understanding behavior and experience.  The more science progresses in this field, the shakier some of our most basic ideas about how we act and perceive and know appear to be.  As Mlodinow puts it, “the brain is a decent scientist but an outstanding lawyer.”  That is, the objective truth seeker in us generally loses out to the impassioned advocate for what we want to believe.  If you’ve had a life-changing experience, you want to believe in the truth of that experience; you don’t want to be told that it’s the random firings of neurons as you came out of a coma, or fragmentary memories that your brain has somehow turned into a coherent narrative, or any of the other dreary, trivial explanations that the scientist is going to offer.

One of the things I like most about Christianity is that it turns human history into a story, because I love stories.  How much more interesting the Christian world of sin, sacrifice, and redemption is than the Darwinian world of purposeless, mindless change and adaptation and extinction.  But not all stories are true; in fact, nearly all of them aren’t.  We shouldn’t believe them just because we want to.  And we need to understand that our brains aren’t always the best judges of what is true; for that, we can’t do without science. This neurosurgeon, and Newsweek, have left the science behind.

Forbidden Sanctuary: The pope gives a sermon about aliens, among other things

Readers of this annoying blog may have noticed that I have lots of problems with religion.  Readers of my fiction (especially Pontiff) may have noticed that I treat religion (and, in particular, people with strong religious faith) pretty sympathetically. What’s up with that?

Beats me.  It really is a mystery why some characters and plots and issues seem worth writing about, and others don’t (why, for example, I have no interest in writing the organically plotted novel I talked about here).

Anyway, here is a little snippet from Forbidden Sanctuary that addresses issues I still find interesting: the relationship between science and religion, the nature of morality, blah blah blah.  Pope Clement is giving a brief sermon to a small congregation in a drafty rural church before he goes off to meet with the alien leader–a meeting on which the future of the world depends (naturally).  He has been doing a lot of thinking….

***************

“We have heard it stated,” Clement said softly to the congregation, “that mankind’s knowledge has outstripped its religions. The Church fights losing battles against Galileo and Darwin, and people’s faith is shaken. Is the Church nothing more than a relic of ancient ignorance, vainly reinterpreting its doctrines in an attempt to reconcile them with modern facts?

“We would suggest that the opposite is true, that science is struggling fitfully toward truths our spiritual nature has always apprehended. And chief among these is the interdependence of all life, all matter. As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. Ask the ecologist, the physicist if that is not a scientific truth as well.

“Always our perspectives are widening, but the moral basis for our response to these perspectives has always been there. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Science makes the starving African our neighbor, and the homeless Indian, and the oppressed Cambodian, and we realize our actions affect them, they cannot be ignored. Now we have a new neighbor, and science struggles to understand why, and how. But the moral, the spiritual response to this knowledge already exists, and it is right. If we falter in our application of these spiritual truths, then truly religion’s claim to superiority is lost. This is a crucial time for mankind, not the least because these truths are being put to the test.

“That is why we ask for God’s blessing on our work, and your prayers. The truths will always be there, but men and women must always seek the strength to put them into practice. That strength can only exist with God’s help. Let us stand and profess our faith. I believe in one God…