I'm impressed with myself. (And not for the first time, nor the last.)
Noted religious skeptic and neuroscientist Sam Harris has much the same reaction as I did, albeit more fully and cogently stated, to Eben Alexander's ridiculous claim that while in a coma, when his cortex supposedly was "completely shut down," he had an experience of heaven that must have been separate from brain activity.
Hence, a soul travel of some sort to God's realm. Here's what I said about the guy's story three days ago, in response to a comment on this post.
Rain, I'm not much impressed with near death experiences, especially where the person having one experiences things that fit with their religious beliefs. Gosh, what a coincidence. Out of all the many religious beliefs existing among humans, it turns out that this Christian believer finds out that the one he accepts is true.
If he'd realized that Buddhism was correct, or Hinduism, rather than Christianity, I'd be more inclined to accept that his tale was something more than his own brain speaking to him. Note that he apparently came back with zero information about our physical reality that wasn't already known to him. Another sign that he didn't really have a genuine out of body experience.
He wants to claim that his brain was completely shut down, but how can he know this? CT scans don't show the functioning of the brain, to my understanding. And even fMRI scans aren't sophisticated enough to show what really is going on in every corner of the brain. The guy has gotten a book and publicity out of his experience. Good for him. That's how I feel about the Newsweek story.
Today, being a subscriber to Harris' email alerts, I learned about his own informed response to the Newsweek cover story. (I cancelled my subscription to Newsweek several months ago; this newest crap from the magazine makes me glad I did so.)
I encourage you to read Harris' "This Must Be Heaven." He's open-minded about what might lie beneath the mystery of consciousness, including the possibility that consciousness has a non-physical foundation. So am I.
But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And Alexander doesn't offer up any.
This current tale of almost-dying and going to heaven really is no different from countless others. All it proves is that the brain is capable of conjuring up some marvelous fanatasies, something anybody who dreams or has imbibed a psychedelic has experienced.
It'd be nice if heaven was real.
But it's blasphemous, really, to assert that such-and-such is true about God when someone doesn't have any proof. If I were God -- and who can say that I'm not? -- I'd be pissed at people who spout off about my nature and realm when they don't know what they're talking about.
Below are some excerpts from Sam Harris' piece. He makes a lot of sense.
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.
...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.
Perhaps he has saved a more persuasive account for his book—though now that I’ve listened to an hour-long interview with him online, I very much doubt it. In his Newsweek article, Alexander asserts that the cessation of cortical activity was “clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.” To his editors, this presumably sounded like neuroscience.
The problem, however, is that “CT scans and neurological examinations” can’t determine neuronal inactivity—in the cortex or anywhere else. And Alexander makes no reference to functional data that might have been acquired by fMRI, PET, or EEG—nor does he seem to realize that only this sort of evidence could support his case.
Obviously, the man’s cortex is functioning now—he has, after all, written a book—so whatever structural damage appeared on CT could not have been “global.” (Otherwise, he would be claiming that his entire cortex was destroyed and then grew back.) Coma is not associated with the complete cessation of cortical activity, in any case. And to my knowledge, almost no one thinks that consciousness is purely a matter of cortical activity. Alexander’s unwarranted assumptions are proliferating rather quickly.
Why doesn’t he know these things? He is, after all, a neurosurgeon who survived a coma and now claims to be upending the scientific worldview on the basis of the fact that his cortex was totally quiescent at the precise moment he was enjoying the best day of his life in the company of angels. Even if his entire cortex had truly shut down (again, an incredible claim), how can he know that his visions didn’t occur in the minutes and hours during which its functions returned?
...Everything that Alexander describes here and in his Newsweek article, including the parts I have left out, has been reported by DMT users. The similarity is uncanny.
...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.
...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.