Sam Harris and Eben Alexander “Proof of Heaven” Part 1

The long awaited publication of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s NDE book is quickly approaching. With it is perhaps the fiercest maelstrom of criticism and rage ever unleashed towards a near death experiencer we’ve ever seen, and some of it for good reason. After reading a couple of hundred comments from Facebook, Twitter, and various news sites that mirrored Dr. Alexander’s controversial Newsweek cover story, I have a good idea of what is enraging people.

Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and non-theist, wrote very eloquently about what troubles him, so I will provide my commentary by addressing the many good points he makes in his blog article– many of which I agree with.

My first objection is with the title of the magazine and the book. Here I will focus on Dr. Alexander and the book only, because what he actually believes is more important than how he is portrayed. Thanks to his interview on Skeptiko, we know that this absurd book title, “Proof of Heaven” was not originially chosen by Alexander himself as the working title, and is clearly a profit driven title pushed by Simon and Schuster  to appeal to an audience of Christians.

Although I do not in any way approve of this title, it must be pointed out that the crowd who opposes the idea of survival of consciousness and prides itself on scientific integrity are guilty of exactly the same propaganda, using various equally ridiculous and contentious titles such as this one- “Peace of Mind: Near Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations”,  which appeared in Scientific American. Even materialist atheist commenters noticed that, despite the provocative title, not one new piece of information concerning NDEs was presented. It was merely a summary of prior research that leads to no definitive conclusions.

How would Sam Harris or any reasonable neuroscientist feel if Scientific American published a piece entitled, “New research definitively solves the hard problem of consciousness”, and then gives nothing at all but neural correlates of consciousness? He would surely consider it an abomination of intellectual integrity, a childish joke, a sales pitch, a scam, totally unworthy of a serious forum.

Skeptic Ben Radford wrote an article entitled, “Near Death Experiences Explained” for Discovery News in which nothing new was presented and the same untestable cocktail of contradicting arguments were used to “explain” nothing but the fact that people can imagine potential explanations. When questioned in the comments section, Radford admitted that he did not come up with the title himself, that it was set in place by his publisher.

But the worst offender is clearly the paper by Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt. The first part of the title is, “There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences:”. The article goes on to completely ignore everything intriguing about NDEs that might be paranormal. When pressed about the disingenuous title in a an interview, Caroline Watt stated,

“We initially submitted it with a much more moderate title, which was, “Can neuroscience explain NDEs?” with a question mark at the end of it. Because it ended up being directed to this category in TiCS, this Science & Society type of article, which is meant to be provocative, the editor requested that we change the title to something which is much more bold and deliberately making a statement that would provoke a reaction. It ended up with that changed title, which in fact I didn’t know about until I saw the published paper.”

Alex Tsakiris (Interviewer): Is it suitable in terms of representing your position? It’s quite a statement. It doesn’t represent you.

Dr. Caroline Watt: Yes. It’s a bold statement, which is suitable in the context of that class of article, which is something to provoke debate. However, I believe it’s an overstatement. It’s too soon to say there’s nothing paranormal, because we don’t have all of the evidence in yet.

I agree that “Proof of Heaven” is a horrendous title, and it embarrasses me. The title directly counters Eben Alexander’s stated mission to demonstrate to his academic colleagues and to the world at large that consciousness survives death, and to unite science (in the broad sense) with spirituality. By using the word “Heaven”, he immediately paints himself as someone who accepts Christian theological doctrine, even though from everything he actually says in his interviews, there is virtually nothing in his experience that aligns with any standard form of Christian doctrine.  Sam Harris bites right into the plastic lure in his opening paragraph:

“Once upon a time, a neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander contracted a bad case of bacterial meningitis and fell into a coma. While immobile in his hospital bed, he experienced visions of such intense beauty that they changed everything—not just for him, but for all of us, and for science as a whole. According to Newsweek, Alexander’s experience proves that consciousness is independent of the brain, that death is an illusion, and that an eternity of perfect splendor awaits us beyond the grave—complete with the usual angels, clouds, and departed relatives, but also butterflies and beautiful girls in peasant dress.”

Here, Sam Harris is rolling his eyes at the confidence Dr. Alexander has that his experience is going to be instrumental in overturning the status quo in neuroscience and philosophy. While I am deeply skeptical of materialism’s ability to ever give us any accurate picture of reality, I share the feeling that Alexander is overly optimistic.

Dr. Alexander calls the girl on the butterfly wing his “guardian angel”, purposely setting himself up by his word choice, as a Christian straw-man to those who only have a little four page book excerpt to go by. But in reality, he believes it was a sister he had never met who died earlier. This should probably disqualify her from being what most people in Christianity would consider an angel, but Alexander chooses the word, “angel” anyways. This all reminds me of the trouble Einstein dug for himself by constantly using the word “God” to describe the workings of what he saw as a dead, unconscious universe, in which there is no possibility of the survival of consciousness.  To this day, despite many pages of his own writings to the contrary, people mistakenly reference Einstein as a theist.

I have no idea whether Dr. Alexander would call himself a Christian. Perhaps he would, merely because he is part of a Christian community. But I can’t see what such a description could actually mean to him. What I do know from his interviews is that he believes in reincarnation, and states that he was surprised to learn in the NDE that all religions are “spokes to the hub”, and that unconditional love is the “coin” of that other realm- an uncannily consistent NDE message. He was also told that he could “do nothing wrong”.  These beliefs have as much to do with what most people call “Christianity”, as the Jewish deity, Jahweh, has to do with Einstein’s “God”. 

Then there is the problem with the word, “proof”. Alexander provides one primary (and possibly one other) piece of veridical evidence from his account, which is only verifiable to himself. He claims that the girl (the “guardian angel” who escorted him) was the sister he never met, and that he instantly recognized it was the same person when discovering a photo of her later. As someone open minded on NDEs, I am intrigued by this, but not powerfully convinced. Having watched video of Alexander tell the story, it is abundantly obvious that he is perfectly convinced it was the same person.

The fact that there are several other fascinating NDE accounts which contain similar veridical evidence is blocked from the discussion, dismissed instantly as anecdotes, or in the case of most of Sam Harris’ readership- never heard of before, even in passing.

Each case is treated as a one-off, not bolstered in credibility by other similar cases. Only when it shows up on the cover of some magazine where the word “Heaven” and “God” cloak it in the rotted straw of religion by the publishers almighty finger, do people take notice.

The fascinating case of Anita Moorjani with her amazing recovery and veridical elements don’t seem to exist to that crowd, or give any increased value to Eben’s NDE claims. David Bennett watching his future life review and knowing he would get a highly lethal form of cancer in advance, and survive it, seems to give no weight to Anita, Eben, or any other NDE. Gerald Woerlee can make some hand-waiving speculations about how Pam Reynolds recognized the surgical equipment , therefore Pam gives no weight to Eben, David or Anita, and so on and so on down a line that is ever growing. The famous cardiologist Lloyd Rudy tells a story of a man describing the scene in an operating room with astonishing detail some 20 minutes after a well-documented cardiac arrest, given up for dead, instruments still attached, but the conversation still involves what the brain is doing during those few seconds coming in and out of unconsciousness, as if none of these accounts exist.

The other piece of evidence which must constitute proof to Alexander is his insistence that his brain could not have possibly generated the rich, lucid and powerful experience during the coma. Now obviously, given the gap in our understanding of what a brain can do in such duress, people like Sam Harris are going to vehemently disagree with this, so once again, it is proof only for Eben Alexander and those who agree with him. Alexander guarantees us that our present neurological models are not going to explain the stunning richness and vibrancy of the experience (a richness and vibrancy he cannot share with the rest of us as evidence). Unfortunately, our current neuroscientific models can’t describe how consciousness is generated in a normal brain, let alone how it can be altered to such a state in an abnormal brain. One could take that knowledge gap as evidence in favor of either side of the argument, as any “theory of consciousness” which even remotely addresses the hard problem (why cells generate awareness of any kind)  is a “god of the gaps” theory, not *just* the ones that postulate survival of consciousness.

So the word “proof” raises hackles, because real proof should be proof to us all, and one person’s NDE account cannot provide that, no matter how real and true it might have been. So the title is horrible on many levels, and actually detracts from Alexander’s cause, regardless of how great the book might turn out to be.

Harris writes:

” …this issue of Newsweek is best viewed as an archaeological artifact that is certain to embarrass us in the eyes of future generations. Its existence surely says more about our time than the editors at the magazine meant to say—for the cover alone reveals the abasement and desperation of our journalism, the intellectual bankruptcy and resultant tenacity of faith-based religion, and our ubiquitous confusion about the nature of scientific authority. The article is the modern equivalent of a 14th-century woodcut depicting the work of alchemists, inquisitors, Crusaders, and fortune-tellers. I hope our descendants understand that at least some of us were blushing.”

I agree that this issue (and the debate surrounding it) will certainly embarrass people in the future, mostly because of how primitive and inaccurate our neurophysiological attempts to explain consciousness and NDEs probably are at the present. I say this whether or not consciousness actually is a fundamental property of nature, or whether it is entirely extinguished with the brain. If it is ever found out scientifically (some believe it already has been) that consciousness  is some fundamental element of existence independent of brains and nervous systems, the most embarrassing faction involved will be the materialist champions of science and reason who have done a brilliant job of blocking the progress of our understanding by clinging desperately to a bankrupt paradigm while ignoring various phenomena right in front of their faces which would overturn it. If I didn’t think this was a distinct possibility, I wouldn’t bother writing about NDEs.

Eben Alexander’s actual beliefs concerning consciousness and survival are more nuanced than has been portrayed in a four page excerpt. There are several interviews available for anyone to see for themselves, and I’ve listened to them all multiple times over the last year, before Sam Harris had probably even heard of Eben Alexander. You’ll see very little discussion of religion and almost no discussion of Christianity within them.

The article is primitive yes, but so are the models of Sam Harris’ colleagues who, in essence, deny the need to explain the phenomenon of consciousness altogether, apparently motivated by the heroic desire to solve a tough puzzle without admitting that some of the pieces are missing.

The cover does in fact reveal the “abasement and desperation of journalism”, and as I have shown, so do the other covers and titles which peddle untested opinions supporting materialism as if they were facts, written by people who openly admit they don’t even believe what they represented themselves saying.

I certainly agree with Harris’s complaint about the ubiquitous confusion on the nature of scientific authority concerning all sorts of issues, from evolution, to climate change to claims about golden tablets, holy underwear, and the age of the planet.

But we must keep in mind that the scientific method cannot even detect the existence of phenomenal consciousness, and therefore nobody should be expected to acquiesce to science to be the ultimate arbiter of its nature and limitations.

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4 responses to “Sam Harris and Eben Alexander “Proof of Heaven” Part 1

  1. “But we must keep in mind that the scientific method cannot even detect the existence of phenomenal consciousness” There was a time that the “the scientific method” could not detect germs. But staying focused on the methodology did in-fact and eventually, bring results.

  2. The “Hard problem of consciousness” is not analogous to something like the germ theory. We not only do not have a theory of how matter creates consciousness, we can’t even imagine what it would be like to have a theory of how matter creates consciousness. Better microscopes aren’t going to help.

  3. I like your take on NDE, you have a natural abilty to get at the nitty gritty. My postion is that I’m now certain that consciousness is not produced by the brain. I’m not pretending to have any influence in the field but I’ve studied these experiences for thirty plus years and I cannot understand how the sceptical crowd are still stuck in brain pathology as an explantion.
    In the same way that anyone with some expertise can spot a phoney, fake gold, imitation diamonds (not a brilliant analysis ) the appeal to oxygen deprivation and the whole caravan of silly explanations just makes me depressed.

    It so clearly is not any of those suspects and yet we have people like Steve Novella ( a pleasant guy) still prepared to sell his soul for the greater cause of materialism.

  4. Hi,
    I was recommended to your site from a person that said you might be wiling to read my book and give an honest review. I had been listening to the audio version of Proof of Heaven which led me to find you.

    My book is called: We Don’t Die – A Skeptic’s Discovery of Life After Death which won’t be available til January.

    I would LOVE your honest opinion as I speak of my journey, NDE’s and a whole lot more.

    If you would be willing, I’d gladly email it to you. I can be reached at sandra@sandrachamplain.com

    Thanks so much for all your generosity on this blog. I really do appreciate your words. -Sandra

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