Sam Harris' critique of Eben Alexander
Newsweek Magazine's cover article this week is Eben Alexander's report and analysis of his own Near-Death Experience. Alexander is a neurosurgeon and Professor at Harvard School of Medicine who underwent an unfathomable NDE while suffering from acute bacterial meningites, which reportedly shut down his neocortex. His description of his NDE is rich and nuanced, with many Christian undertones. One might wonder how seriously one can take an experience that seems to be so much coloured by cultural idiosyncrasies but, as I agued here, I do not see this as contradictory to the reality of NDEs. As a matter of fact, my intuition is that Alexander's story is authentic; it certainly matches well with my own metaphysical model of consciousness and of what should happen upon cessation of brain activity, as I elaborate on in my books and many of my articles. But well-known atheist activist Sam Harris seems to disagree, and it is his critique of Alexander's case that I want to comment on below.
I believe there to be a couple of faulty assumptions and unfair, implicit suggestions in Harris' critique. The most glaring one is reflected in this segment of his post:
His experience sounds so much like a DMT trip that we are not only in the right ballpark, we are talking about the stitching on the same ball.
Here the implicit suggestion is that, because of similarities between a psychedelic experience (DMT is an endogenous psychedelic) and Alexander's NDE, the latter was likely generated by brain chemistry and, therefore, had no reality to it. Underlying this suggestion is the completely unsubstantiated notion, or assumption, that no valid transcendent experience can be initiated by physical means like alterations of brain chemistry.
You see, it is a fact that there is such a physical entity as a brain, and that there are correlations between brain states and subjective conscious states. This is not in dispute by any serious commentator on NDEs. The question is: What is the relationship between physical brain states and subjective conscious states? This is what is in dispute. So Harris' assumption that a physical trigger cannot lead to a perfectly valid NDE seems to completely miss the point in contention. After all, most NDEs are initiated by physical events anyway. Yes, Alexander's NDE bears similarities with psychedelic trances, at least as far as descriptions go. But psychedelic experiences can, and probably are, entirely valid transcendent experiences not generated by the brain, as the latest research suggests. The comparison does not at all defeat the validity of Alexander's NDE.
The latest research indicates that psychedelics, just like hypoxia, hyperventilation, or brain injury, reduce brain activity. Harris is well-aware of this, for he even updated a much earlier post, where he discussed psychedelic experiences specifically, with a reference to this research. Here is the relevant passage of Harris' earlier post:
Unfortunately, Huxley was operating under the erroneous assumption that psychedelics decrease brain activity. However, modern techniques of neuroimaging have shown that these drugs tend to increase activity in many regions of the cortex (and in subcortical structures as well) [Note 1/24/12: a recent study on psilocybin actually lends some support to Huxley’s view.—SH]. (my italics)
I wrote more extensively about this psychedelic research here, in case you are interested.
As I also argued before, there is a broad and striking pattern correlating transcendent, non-local experiences with reduction or even cessation of brain activity: G-force induced loss of consciousness, psychedelics, hyper-ventilation practices, strangulation, ordeals, certain forms of meditation, brain damage, cardiac arrest, etc., all lead, yes, to similar transcendent experiences. This strongly suggests that the brain is a localisation mechanism for consciousness, restricting it in space-time, but without generating it. Reduction or cessation of the right aspects of brain activity should then lead to a de-clenching, a de-localisation of consciousness, which thus expands and gains access to aspects of reality otherwise unavailable to ordinary egoic states. Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) once described the process of death as "removing a tight shoe," which makes the point here rather evocatively. This, in my view, is precisely what happened to Alexander. The potential similarities of his experience with a psychedelic trance, which Harris is hurrying to point to, rather corroborate the reality of Alexander's NDE.
Much of Harris criticism rests on an old materialist argument against NDEs: It cannot be shown that all of Alexander's brain functions were off, so it is conceivable that there was enough brain function left to confabulate an unfathomable dream. This is as promissory as it is unfalsifiable, for there might indeed always be a neuron firing somewhere. But that's not the point, is it? The point is whether the kind of brain function that ordinarily always correlates to the experience of complex dreams can be realistically expected to have been present in Alexander's case. If chaotic, impaired, residual cortical function could explain the confabulation of a complex and coherent trip to "heaven," then such residual cortical function would probably suffice ordinarily too, wouldn't it? Harris argument is analogous to claiming that a car should still drive normally when everything in it is broken except for the spark plugs. And to claim that a bacteria-infested neocortex, at the level verified in Alexander's case, retains enough coherent function to do this seems to stretch credulity under the materialist notion that experience is coherent brain activity. To dismiss Alexander's experience on the basis of warped speculation about residual neocortical function amounts to dismissing extremely interesting, anomalous data. Something extraordinary has happened, and true skeptics should take a critical look at it while retaining a healthy dose of skepticism towards the standard explanations too; that's how science historically has moved forward.
Studies on the neuronal correlates of consciousness (for instance, see this) have shown that neocortical activity correlates with the kind of experiences described by Alexander. Thus, to claim rather speculatively that such experiences could happen with a highly malfunctioning neocortex seems to entail a rather biased and contradictory interpretation of the evidence and to raise a deeper question: If Alexander could confabulate that kind of sharp, coherent, complex, ultra-realistic dream with a severely debilitated neocortex, what the heck do we need a healthy neocortex for? Even when we dream of something as trivial as the clenching of a hand, we see clear correlations with neocortical activity; so how come we can supposedly confabulate entire alternative realities, rich in landscapes, entities, and significance, with a highly impaired neocortex? Materialism cannot have it both ways, as I wrote before here; either you need the brain or you don't.
The more unfortunate aspect of Harris' criticism, which I personally believe is beneath him, is a subtle attempt to discredit Alexander's capacity to judge whether his NDE could be explained by traditional neuroscience. This is embedded in a quote Harris adds to his post; a quote from his UCLA thesis advisor. Here is the relevant part:
Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them.
Now pause for a moment and read this quote again. The notion here is that Alexander, a practicing neurosurgeon and Professor at Harvard Medical School (here is his resume), does not understand what part of the brain does what while he is hacking at people's brains every day. He supposedly does not understand what parts of the brain are correlated to confabulation, dreams, feelings, etc., yet he has a license to slice your brain if you so need. Maybe neurosurgeons are not doing research at the leading-edge of functional mapping, but Alexander is most certainly well qualified to understand what parts of the brain should correlate to what kinds of experience. It is ludicrous to suggest otherwise.
The bottom-line is this: Alexander not only has the scientific credentials required to interpret his experience properly, he also has the unique perspective of having had the experience himself, something Harris didn't. It is Alexander that is in the best position to judge the situation, both from an empirical and from an academic background perspective.
I will grant to Harris that the Newsweek article is written in a rather sensationalist tone, and with rather loose language. Personally, I also do not like that. But it is an article meant for lay people, not scientists or philosophers. Alexander is trying to reach people, which I do think is applaudable. In the process of doing so, he will inevitably have to sacrifice the more conservative and cautious tone that is usual in science.
I will go even further: Scientism activists (among which I do not count Harris, but do count some of his collaborators, like Richard Dawkins) casually take the liberty to throw all scientific caution to the wind when peddling the notion that consciousness ends at death, even though there is exactly zero direct evidence for that, and even though there are other coherent ontological approaches that seem to fit the data better and which do not entail the end of consciousness at death (as I myself attempted to do in a recent Paranthropology paper). Their activism flies in the face of philosophy, passing speculation and hypotheses for fact, and aims directly at influencing lay people. In this context, I find it perfectly legitimate that Alexander is attempting to do the exact same thing, just from another perspective. If anything, his attempt can help reduce the imbalance currently reigning in the more educated segments of society.
Addendum 16 November 2012: A follow-up to this article is now available here.