Sam Harris Piles on Near Death Experiences

Following up on his crushing rebuttal of Dr. Eben Alexander’s near death experience, Sam Harris continues to explore what science has to say about the matter.

…the deepest problem with drawing sweeping conclusions from the NDE is that those who have had one and subsequently talked about it did not actually die. In fact, many appear to have been in no real danger of dying. And those who have reported leaving their bodies during a true medical emergency—after cardiac arrest, for instance—did not suffer the complete loss of brain activity. Even in cases where the brain is alleged to have shut down, its activity must return if the subject is to survive and describe the experience. In such cases, there is generally no way to establish that the NDE occurred while the brain was offline.

Many students of the NDE claim that certain people have left their bodies and perceived the commotion surrounding their near death—the efforts of hospital staff to resuscitate them, details of surgery, the behavior of family members, etc. Certain subjects even say that they have learned facts while traveling beyond their bodies that would otherwise have been impossible to know—for instance, a secret told by a dead relative, the truth of which was later confirmed. Of course, reports of this kind seem especially vulnerable to self-deception, if not conscious fraud. There is another problem, however: Even if true, such phenomena might suggest only that the human mind possesses powers of extrasensory perception (e.g. clairvoyance or telepathy). This would be a very important discovery, but it wouldn’t demonstrate the survival of death. Why? Because unless we could know that a subject’s brain was not functioning when these impressions were formed, the involvement of the brain must be presumed.

He is not suggesting that humans have telepathic abilities. He is utilizing Occam’s Razor to derive a conclusion that would be more likely than the doctor’s. He goes on to address the doctor’s book:

Having now read Alexander’s book, I can say that it is every bit as remarkable as his Newsweek cover article suggested it would be. Unfortunately, it is not remarkable in the way that its author believes. I find that my original criticism of Alexander’s thinking can stand without revision.[1]However, as he provides further “proof” of heaven in his book, there is more to say about the man’s mischief here on earth.  There is also a rumor circulating online that, after attacking Alexander from the safety of my blog, I have refused to debate him in public. This is untrue. I merely declined the privilege of appearing with him on a parapsychology podcast, in the company of an irritating and unscrupulous host. I would be happy to have a public discussion with Alexander, should it ever seem worth doing.

As I wrote in my original article, the enthusiastic reception that Alexander is now enjoying suggests a general confusion about the nature of scientific authority. And much of the criticism I’ve received for dismissing his account has predictably focused on what appear to be the man’s impeccable scientific credentials. Certain readers feel that I have moved the goalposts: You see, even the testimony of a Harvard neurosurgeon isn’t good enough for a dogmatic, materialistic, fundamentalist atheist like Harris! And many people found the invidious distinction between a “neurosurgeon” and a “neuroscientist” (drawn in a comment by Mark Cohen in my last article) to be somewhat flabbergasting.

When debating the validity of evidence and arguments, the point is never that one person’s credentials trump another’s. Credentials just offer a rough indication of what a person is likely to know—or should know. If Alexander were drawing reasonable scientific conclusions from his experience, he wouldn’t need to be a neuroscientist to be taken seriously; he could be a philosopher—or a coal miner. But he simply isn’t thinking like a scientist—and so not even a string of Nobel prizes would shield him from criticism.

I think Harris gets to the core of why people can be rational 99% of the time but continue to hold onto supernatural ideas for things they cannot explain. We are all capable of “keeping two sets of books,” as Christopher Hitchens used to put say. Scientists are completely capable of thinking non-scientifically. Harris goes on to apply real scientific thinking to NDE:

There are two paths toward establishing the scientific significance of the NDE: The first would be to show that a person’s brain was dead or otherwise inactive during the time he had an experience (whether veridical or not). The second would be to demonstrate that the subject had acquired knowledge about the world that could be explained only by the mind’s being independent of the brain (but again, it is hard to see how this can be convincingly done in the presence of brain activity).

In his Newsweek article, Alexander sought to travel the first path. Hence, his entire account hinged on the assertion that his cortex was “completely shut down” while he was seeing angels in heaven. Unfortunately, the evidence he has offered in support of this claim—in the article, in asubsequent response to my criticism of it, in his book, and in multiple interviews—suggests that he doesn’t understand what would constitute compelling evidence of cortical inactivity. The proof he offers is either fallacious (CT scans do not detect brain activity) or irrelevant (it does not matter, even slightly, that his form of meningitis was “astronomically rare”)—and no combination of fallacy and irrelevancy adds up to sound science. The impediment to taking Alexander’s claims seriously can be simply stated: There is absolutely no reason to believe that his cerebral cortex was inactive at the time he had his experience of the afterlife. The fact that Alexander thinks he has demonstrated otherwise—by continually emphasizing how sick he was, the infrequency of E. coli meningitis, and the ugliness of his initial CT scan—suggests a deliberate disregard of the most plausible interpretation of his experience. It is far more likely that some of his cortex was functioning…

…The very fact that Alexander remembers his NDE suggests that the cortical and subcortical structures necessary for memory formation were active at the time. How else could he recall the experience?

And there you have the checkmate in the argument. One cannot claim to remember an even that occurred while your cortex was shut down unless you also claim memories are not stored in the brain; picture a cloud storage system that we telepathically connect to from our reality to heaven (or wherever these memories are stored).

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