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.

See also:

Comments

  1. I found the tone of almost the entire article by Mr. Harris to be blatantly condescending and patronising. I am repulsed by this 'Authoriteh (Queue Cartman voice-over) of Science' tone adopted by certain writers in the science fields. The general assumption underlaying this kind of arrogantly scathing commentary is that they really do expect to be seen as The Guardians Of All That Is Truth and Wisdom...End Of. Well NO...that is NOT the case...knowledge and understanding is an ever growing phenomena. And that being so, please....show some humility.

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    1. Carla, I sympathise and clearly see where your frustration comes from. There is a big point to it. Gr, B.

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  2. Great analysis Bernardo. As you say, if consciousness is simply a result of a physical brain, the onus is on the sceptics to prove how a malfunctioning brain can produce such a coherent experience. Watching materialists contorting their views of consciousness to fit into physical descriptions gets more and more ludicrous.

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    1. And the worst is that I think they are truly blind to it... I think they truly believe that their position is almost certainly correct in view of the data... it's scary.

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    2. It is a matter of postulates.
      Some scientist have this postulate: all is material (intended as energy-matter).
      But a postulate is only a postulate. A convention upon which (eventually ) all agree as true.
      And they CAN be changed if they prove to be inadequate.

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  3. I particularly liked your final point here. It seems okay for champions of scientism to take untestable assumptions as fact (for instance, Steven Novella repeatedly stating as if proven fact that everything Eben describes about his increased awareness is explained by disinhibition). But if Alexander concludes from his own experience that neural models don't work, that's just a sign the he must not be very intelligent.

    Two facts- Eben talks about using LSD in the bioethics forum interview. How large a dose, I have no idea. Sounds like he did it multiple times. Secondly, he says he spent three years investigating possible neurophysiological models before coming to the conclusion it was "real". He looked at all of those models of cortical disinhibition before he concluded his present position.

    Sam seems to overlook this, or not be aware of it, going by an 8 page book excerpt.

    It was the comments sections of the articles which were particularly nauseating. Many people falsely assumed that Eben was pushing Christianity for instance, due to his wording. People assumed that he hadn't tried to explain the experience via other models at all, like he was some sort of total idiot. Then you had the typical gross ignorance of NDEs- blaming it on medications, calling them dreams, standard hallucinations. They don't know that they don't know what they are talking about and cannot be bothered to find out.

    It saddens me that the truly interesting aspects of NDEs are left out, forgotten 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 only when it shows up on the cover of some magazine where the word "Heaven" and "God" instantaneously catapult everything written thereafter into the trash bin.

    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. Lloyd Rudy tells a story of a man describing the situation in a room he had never seen some 20 minutes after a well-monitered cardiac arrest, but the conversation still involves what the brain is doing while climbing in and out of unconsciousness. Sam Parnia's physician friend tells a similar story of veridical observatios long after cardiac arrest and it gives no weight to anything else.

    There is a clear and deliberate intentional ignorance going on, and it is not as one sided as Sam believes.

    Recently, it was scientifically verified that teens who text sexual messages to each other actually have more teen sex.

    Is that surprising? This did not need a scientific study to be considered true. Just because NDE anecdotes cannot be easily bottled, and are not very amenable to scientific studies does not make certain observations "stupid" to hold.

    The conversation is warped and poisoned by a religious crowd who insists that "heaven" is a material place somewhere, and the materialists who also insist that the only form of existence is material. The result is the materialist crowd dismissing everything interesting about NDEs simply by concluding that a place called "Heaven" cannot exist.

    It makes me physically nauseous.

    Sam, to his great credit, is one of the few in his camp who would understand why it makes me nauseous.

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    1. Thanks for the elaborate and lucid comment! I sympathise a lot with your feelings here. I will correct my article to reflect what you told me about Alexander's LSD experiences; I was not aware of that. Cheers, B.

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    2. "The conversation is warped and poisoned by a religious crowd who insists that "heaven" is a material place somewhere,"

      Actually no one seriously claims that "heaven" is a material place. In fact it is claimed to be just the opposite. A realm of "consciousness, if you like.

      best wishes

      LZT1

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  4. " 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?"

    This point seems to come up over and over again when skeptics discuss various mental phenomena, for example:

    People who gain savant skills as a result of brain damage.

    People who remember the procedures used to resuscitate them from a cardiac arrest.

    Certain, apparently normal individuals, whose brain is highly compressed as a result of hydrocephalus.

    In each case, skeptics try to explain these phenomena by claiming the full cortex is unnecessary - even though the large brain carries a large evolutionary price for our species.

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    1. Precisely. We are born almost premature, completely dependent on our parents for our very locomotion, for months and months (while gazelles are born already able to run), extremely vulnerable, _because_ we have such large heads that can't pass through the birth canal if were to be born a little more ready for life. Moreover, our large brains consume a full quarter of our energy/oxygen supply. And yet, it is astonishing how neuroscientists can so easily and casually claim that so little brain activity can accomplish so much. They don't even seem to grok the implications of their own line of thinking.

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  5. Bernardo, thanks for this great post! I was looking forward to your response to Sam Harris's remarks, and I'm glad I didn't have long to wait.

    Harris is such an odd bird. It's rare that someone who has such deep respect for psychedelics (gained through his own experiences both ecstatic and agonizing), is able to remain such a staunch materialist.

    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/drugs-and-the-meaning-of-life/

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    1. Thanks Bruce!
      Personally, I see psychedelics as facilitators, certainly not panacea. Some, like Terence McKenna, seemed to think that a sufficiently large dose of a tryptamine would turn anyone away from eliminative materialism. I think that is naive. Psychedelics are just a method, not a result. They may help open a few doors, but one still has to go through and make something out of the experience. By themselves, psychedelics, in my view, are as useless as a car without a driver. They facilitate one's journey through one's own mind... bit it is still one's mind we are talking about, whatever is in that mind.
      Cheers, B.

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    2. "Personally, I see psychedelics as facilitators, certainly not panacea."

      We're in complete agreement there, Bernardo!

      "Some, like Terence McKenna, seemed to think that a sufficiently large dose of a tryptamine would turn anyone away from eliminative materialism."

      I really enjoyed reading McKenna when I was just opening up to the power of psychedelics. But I agree that, at times, he tends to be overly worshipful of them.

      I quickly graduated from McKenna to Grof, because (for one thing) I see a greater humility there.

      I was making the point, though, that I think it's unusual to read a deeply appreciative and insightful article on psychedelics like the Harris piece I linked to--culminating in that wonderful William James passage--only to discover that its author is a committed materialist. Wouldn't you agree?

      "Psychedelics are just a method, not a result. They may help open a few doors. . ."

      Open doors, indeed! If I hadn't had my own psychedelic experiences, I doubt I would ever have taken seriously what NDErs have to say, and I'd probably still be a deeply depressed atheist. That is, assuming I were still alive, and I don't say that lightly.

      "[Psychedelics] facilitate one's journey through one's own mind... but it is still one's mind we are talking about, whatever is in that mind."

      But (as I think you would agree) that mind is so much larger than one might have thought absent the psychedelic (or other mystical) experience! Limitless, as I see it, and all-encompassing.

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    3. Hi Bruce,
      Yes, mind is indeed a universe potentially without limits... it's just we who put limits in our own minds.
      And I agree with what you say about the cognitive dissonance in Harris' appreciation of psychedelics and his current materialist stance. That said, Harris doesn't come across to me as as fundamentalist as the other Atheists. Maybe there's hope... :-)
      Just for clarity, I'm not against psychedelics; not at all; I could even say, much to the contrary, under certain circumstances. As any path, I think psychedelics have their pros and cons. I don't see them as panacea, but I also see the extraordinary value they can have opening doors. They should definitely be part of the tool-set of responsible, sincere seekers, I think. I just recoil a bit from any fundamentalist stance, and there is such a thing as psychedelic fundamentalism out there. :-)
      Cheers, Bernardo.

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  6. "there is such a thing as psychedelic fundamentalism out there."

    RIght. I think that's what we're both seeing in McKenna. Great to chat with you! I need to stop by more often. :o)







    Great to chat with you!

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    1. Bruce, just so I don't come across meaning something different... despite what I indeed perceive as his naive psychedelic fundamentalism, I love McKenna! He gave me... how to say this... 'permission' to investigate areas I wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole before, because he came across so rationally and reasonably when talking about transcendence. Regardless of whether any of his 'theories' are true (I bet they aren't), Terence has played a very positive role in the world, I think; certainly when it comes to me personally. Cheers, Bernardo.

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    2. Thanks for the clarification, Bernardo. It's good to hear you express your enthusiasm for McKenna, because he (along with Grof, Weil, and others) played a similar role in my life, though perhaps in a different way.

      Before the early 90's, my primary tool for growth had been therapy. I spent much of my time encouraging myself to reconnect with, and fully experience, the pain and trauma of my childhood, in the hopes that I could finally break free of it.

      But people like McKenna brought balance to my life, teaching me that I needed to open myself up to ecstasy, too. That was a revelation!

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  7. Bernardo, I really appreciate you writing this. I read Harris' piece yesterday and woke up this morning still thinking about it. I admit to having a soft spot for Harris, despite his militant atheism, and this piece felt way over the top.

    What most struck me was the level of scorn combined with a) a lack of information about the details of Alexander's expertise, NDE, and subsequent thought process, b) a lack of in-depth familiarity with NDE research, and c) his own faith assumptions regarding the brain. (I know he says he's open about the nature of consciousness--and I believe him--but he clearly sees things so weighted in the materialist direction that we are obliged to regard even the faint hope of one neuron firing as sufficient explanation of Alexander's NDE.)

    In light of a, b, and c, the appropriate tone was not scorn but open-ended interest. OK, yes, some of Alexander's sentences made me wince, too, but what is important is what he experienced and what implications it may have.

    I too thought the argument that such experiences can be chemically induced so we can write them off was fallacious. Yet even though I believe chemically induced transcendental experiences can disclose reality, they still seem different than NDEs--perhaps different members of the same family. For instance, I would never have mistaken McKenna's experience for an NDE.

    I think part of what is going on in the skeptical backlash to Alexander's story is that he's basically a traitor. He's one of their own who has switched sides. That has to evoke some insecurity on their part, which would then naturally amp up the invective.

    Thank you again for your response to Harris' piece. I hope it gets some exposure.

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    1. Thanks Robert! It's always a... well, gotta say it, honor to see you commenting here. I think the sort of emotional backlash we're witnessing against Alexander is not only that he is perceived as a traitor, but that his case is very strong and is getting a lot of visibility. It's a natural human tendency to close ranks around a certain position once you adopt it, and scientism is no different. There will be much discomfort in the road to the next ontological paradigm, I predict.

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  8. I entirely agree with everything you say here Bernardo. Excellent.

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  9. Hello Bernard.

    I agree with what you write, but what do you think about the objection that the Alexander's brain originated those experiences before or after coma? This objection would avoid the problem of a dysfunctional brain can generate such complex experiences. However, there are other cases where temporary markers to know that the near-death experience occurred when the brain was critical, but in the case of Alexander no such temporal markers, so that might be an acceptable objection.

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    1. The "when did it happen?" objection, in my view, is a somewhat desperate one. It's not necessarily invalid, but it's contrived and forced. I find it a stretch to imagine that a just-recovering brain, which has just begun to emerge from extensive damage, can confabulate not only such a highly complex, coherent, crisp, and ultra-real hallucination, but do so in the space of a few minutes or hours. Moreover, it has to happen in such a way that it creates the illusion of having happened in the past. Finally, Alexander is in the best position to judge when he thinks it happened. If you choose not to believe a phenomenological report because subjective experience cannot be trusted (e.g. Alexander's brain confabulated the time of the experience), then you have to dismiss all research on consciousness and cannot trust anybody's reported experience, even your own, because it could all be confabulated.

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    2. I thought Penny Sartori's comments about the "When did it happen?" question were helpful. She is a nurse and an NDE researcher in the UK. She said this in the comment section on her blog:

      "I have nursed thousands of people as they are regaining consciousness and the patients are usually delirious for many hours even days. The majority of these patients cannot recall anything or only have a vague recollection of events as they were regaining consciousness. In my hospital research I documented cases of patients who had clearly been hallucinating and these experiences were very different to the NDEs that I documented. Things that the patients reported were mostly attributable to the background noise, staff conversation and staff conversation that was going on as they were regaining consciousness. There was a distinct difference between the experiences reported by patients as they were regaining consciousness and those who reported a NDE."

      http://drpennysartori.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/dr-eben-alexanders-book-proof-of-heaven-soon-to-be-released/#comments

      I think her actual observations of people regaining consciousness are very valuable in the face of generous speculations of what conceivably could happen.

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  10. "A few days ago I wrote about neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who went into a meningitis-produced coma for a week and came out believing he had seen Jesus and experienced heaven. "- Jerry Coyne, in his blog.

    Am I missing something? I've listened to Eben Alexander for a long time, and he never mentioned meeting Jesus. Why is Jerry Coyne making this up in his first paragraph?

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/sam-harris-takes-down-the-heaven-experiencing-neurosurgeon/

    I wrote a longer analysis of Sam Harris's critique here: http://thesurvivalindex.wordpress.com/

    I plan to discuss the rest of it when I have time.

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    1. Great post!

      http://thesurvivalindex.wordpress.com/

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    2. Jerry Coyne doesn't care about facts. He cares about getting people riled up enough to go and spread his word.

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  11. Bernardo,

    First I would ;lke to welcome Bruce Siegel to this site's comments section. Bruce, did you find you way here on your own? We have cooresponde3d on other sites and it is good to see you here at Bernardo's.

    I will make several brief comments regarding topic and disappointment of Sam Harris who in "The End of Faith", written before he received his PhD in Neuroscience at UCLA wrote about his spiritual affinity toward Eastern Tradition, quoting a beautiful passage that I believe was written in the Advaidic Hindu Tradition and Buddhist Psychology of Consciousness. In essence he quoted a passage written in the Eastern Wisdom Tradition that in essence and I paraphrase because I cannot find the book in my overstacked, cluttered library at home,Harris posits;

    "By paying close attention to moment-to-moment conscious experience, Harris suggests, it is possible to make our sense of "self" vanish and thereby uncover a new state of personal well-being. Moreover, Harris argues that such states of mind should be subjected to formal scientific investigation, without incorporating the myth and superstition that often accompanies meditation in the religious context. "There is clearly no greater obstacle to a truly empirical approach to spiritual experience than our current beliefs about God", he writes.[17]p. 214.

    Despite his anti-religious sentiments, Sam Harris also claims that there is "nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have."[12]

    His position is very close, if not identitical to the Dali Lama, B Allen Wallace at MIT and Bernardo's position that inner subjective experience can be studied empirically and that meditation is a viable source for studying Consciousness and altered states of subtrate Consciosness that may be foundational to how the Universal Consciousness manifests "subjectively" through well known and ancient techniques.

    Harris was derided by some materialist skeptiks for being "a Buddhist" which of course to the uninformed, imagination deprived debunkers is antithecal to Harris's anti-religious stance. It isn't. It showed me that Harris was a much deeper thinker, experiencer and open to empirical states of Consciousness from which "enfolded self-aware subjective Consciousness arises".

    I didn't bother to read Time Magazine's article on Alexander's NDE and I am somewhat disappointed in Harris's dismissal of Alexander's experience and Alexander's training as a practicing neurosurgeon, "a cutter" is not only demeaning but discounting Alexander's knowledge base regarding neuro-anatomy is absurd.


    Others say this better;

    "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." Aristotle

    "Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed." Einstein


    At any given moment, life is completely senseless. But viewed over a period, it seems to reveal itself as an organism existing in time, having a purpose, trending in a certain direction.

    --Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

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    1. Hi Rick! Thanks for the warm welcome. It's good to see you here, too.

      To answer your question, Bernardo and I know each other from the Skeptiko forum. And considering our common interests (you and I), it doesn't surprise me in the least to see that you too have found your way here. :o)

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    2. Rick, just had a thought... Alexander may, unconsciously, be playing the role of adding the final straw to achieve the critical mass necessary to trigger a cultural debate the likes of which we haven't seen since the Enlightenment... He is inadvertently pushing many hot buttons with his writing style, which may be exactly what is needed to unleash the energies necessary. But then again, I am probably being too optimistic. ;-)

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    3. Bernardo, I don't know if I've ever gone so far as to think of Alexander as the final straw, but I have to admit that I've had similar hopes ever since I heard his inspiring interview on Skeptiko. (My favorite Skeptiko interview, by far.)

      As a neuroscientist-turned-mystic (while still remaining respectful of the scientific approach), he has seemed to me to have the potential to be the first NDEr to bridge the divide. Maybe you're right that all the invective he's unleashed is a good sign. When the griddle is sizzling you know a good meal is in the works.

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    4. :-)
      He is unique in that not only has he had the experience (and what an experience!), he also has the scientific background to interpret it. This is an extremely rare and powerful combination.
      And I can't hide my enthusiasm for the fact that his experience fits so well in my own metaphysical system, 'Source' and all... ;-)

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    5. "He is unique in that not only has he had the experience (and what an experience!), he also has the scientific background to interpret it."

      Well, that's the same sort of balance I see in you.

      I'm re-reading parts of Dreamed-Up Reality and being reminded how virtually identical your worldview is to mine. And it prompts me to ask if you're familiar with some of my favorite authors.

      For example, do you know that Grof, too, talks about Source partitioning itself for the purpose of overcoming monotony and boredom? Have you read the Cosmic Game?

      And have you read Nanci Danison's NDE account in her book called Backwards? That, and Anita Moorjani's Dying to be Me, are my two favorite NDE books in recent years.

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    6. Hi Bruce. I know Grof, but haven't read his philosophy (I read about Holotropic Breathwork). Part of me sort-of-unconsciously stays away from other _interpretations_, and prefers to focus on raw and direct data only. I think the idea is not to allow myself to become influenced by what others make of the data; so to ensure my work is based on the source alone. I do it for myself, actually. I wan to know that I came to the conclusions I came not because I read it somewhere, but because the data convinced me that my interpretation fits it best. And then, when I read that others came to the same conclusions _independently_ of me, that gives me reassurance that I probably am on the right track. So right now, I'm very glad to learn from you that Grof and others are circumambulating the same notions! There will be a point, perhaps after I finish my fourth book, when I think a new phase will begin for me; a phase where I will start comparing my conclusions to everything I can put my hands on. Till then, the best way I can ensure the integrity and neutrality of what I do is to continue avoiding second-hand interpretations to the extent possible. Thanks, B.

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    7. "to ensure my work is based on the source alone."

      Bernardo, by "source," do you mean your own experiences in altered states of consciousness?

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    8. No, not only that (though that too). I mean phenomenological reports, empirical results reported in science papers, testimonials of experience, etc., but not someone's philosophical model about how to interpret all that (though reading some of the latter is inescapable; I just don't actively seek it out).

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    9. Thanks for clarifying that. Your answer makes perfect sense! And it's precisely in line with my own approach.

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  12. Bernardo, thank you for your latest very thoughtful comment on Alexander's NDE. I mostly agree with you but regarding the "time-marker"-question (above) and your answer to it my doubts remain: without having any neuro-scientific expertise myself I nevertheless can remember "my brain" having "created" - apparently in an instant - long and complicated dream-storys leading to an alarm-clock sound (or another noise) waking me up from deep sleep. However when I told such a dream-story to somebody or wrote it down it usually took me several minutes. Wouldn't it be possible that a "re-booting" cortex creates such experiences but obviously on a bigger and more impressive scale (given that it is a cortex "re-booting" and not just a brain switching from deep-sleep to wake-up)? This would even include the impression that the dream or experience happened hours or days ago. Also I remember having read in the works of C.G. Jung a speculation of his that what we actually dream are just "structures" or "patterns" (similar to the psychoid nature of an archetype) and that those dream-structures are "filled" with imaginery material only when we consciously remember or actualize them.

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    1. Hi Max,
      Your argument about the clock-related dream is sound only under the premise that it was your material brain alone that created such story within space-time. But that, in a certain way, begs the question: If the point in contention is whether an NDE could have occurred outside of space-time and independently of the brain, then that leaves the question open to whether your 'confabulated' story wasn't perhaps also out of space-time and not entirely due to your brain. Sleep is an altered state of consciousness, after all, just like what happens during an NDE. What happened to you may not have been so fundamentally different from an NDE.
      Personally, given that the brain operates through very slow electrochemical connections (much, much slower than a computer; just more parallel), I find it hard to imagine that visionary experiences that seem to defy time (like a life-time dream within two minutes) are created by mere neuronal firings.
      Regarding Jung, his point was that the archetypes are 'empty;' just story templates that each one of us fill in with the images and symbols that are meaningful to us. But Jung left often whether the process is a purely material process or not. Later in his life, Jung seemed to drift more explicitly toward Idealism, when he openly questioned, in Misterium Coniunctionis, whether matter and the unconscious mind weren't actually the same thing.
      Cheers, B.

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    2. Thank you for answer, Bernardo. This makes sense for me, however I'll have to think it through more deeply, still being a bit confused.. ;-)
      Jung actually overthrew his life-long critical Kantian empiricism (as a writer/scientist) in his last years, diving into metaphysical speculation (something he always had explicitly wanted to avoid before, which makes this move even more interesting); but I fully agree that he was never a materialist and fully derided the 19. century style materialism tought in the unversities of his time.

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  13. If I can be so rude as to butt in on Bernardo's turf. :o)

    Remember, you not only have to account for the complex imagery, but for the fact that an NDE is usually described as the single most powerful, ecstatic, loving, and life-changing experience in a person's life, bar none.

    A re-booting cortex is, at best, not a fully-functioning cortex. Why should it be capable of producing an experience that's far more powerful than a healthy cortex can provide?

    "dream-structures are "filled" with imaginery material only when we consciously remember or actualize them."

    That's certainly counter-intuitive. I've woken up from countless intense dreams, and it certainly feels as though I'm instantly transported out of a very specific, visual, dream environment.

    I'm not saying that theory is impossible--things are often not what they seem--but it sure doesn't FEEL like what's happening.

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    1. Although I personally do have a great respect for the deep emotional impact of spiritual experiences and although I would be the first to welcome a paradigm change that overthrows materialism I fear that the discussion in this forum is starting to fall into the trap of a "petitio principii": materialism claiming that *all* conscious experience is ephemeral, epiphenomenal, "nothing but" (reductionism) or doesn't actually exist at all (eliminativism) cannot be countered by appealing to the evidence of the emotional, live-changing dimensions of an experience - strictly speaking. Materialism has to be countered in its very own field of "cold-blooded", "steely-eyed" rational argument. And there I see the very strength of Bernardo's work, the real value-added, the reason for my admiration.

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    2. I agree that Bernardo's strength is that he is both mystic and scientist. As I see it, though, the mystical approach is the more fundamental, because unlike science, which is essentially an intellectual path, mysticism embraces ALL of our being.

      Here's another way to say it: science is at a dead end unless it begins to take more seriously what you call "the deep emotional impact of spiritual experiences". That's Eben Alexander's message, I believe, which is why the die-hards are fighting it so ferociously. They're more comfortable living life within the confines of their intellect.

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    3. Max wrote:

      > Materialism has to be countered in its very own field of "cold-blooded", "steely-eyed"
      > rational argument.

      I concur unequivocally; 100%.

      In my own mind, though, when it comes to my own inner life and personal way to relate to nature, there is more playing than just that... ;-)

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  14. OK--I just read the Eben Alexander article in Newsweek. That's right--I hadn't even read it, because I wanted to savor the full experience for the first time when the book comes out in a couple of weeks.

    But I had to read it, because just prior, I re-read Harris's piece. And I needed to see if there was any justification at all for the hatchet job he does.

    Well, I don't see any.

    And I've just come to a conclusion: it's pointless to read skeptical articles that are as sarcastic and demeaning as Harris's. I may never take the time to read such a piece again.

    Why? Because all that arrogance tells me that feelings (anger, fear, or whatever) are not being openly expressed. And that means the writer is not being straight with me, and that he's probably not even being honest with himself.

    And if he's at the mercy of emotions that may well be (and probably are) clouding his judgement and distorting his perceptions, why should I take seriously what he has to say?

    By the way, I am surprised, stunned almost, by how beautifully Alexander writes. For a scientist to communicate his experience to us in words like these, is truly a gift:

    "She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for five seconds, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it so far. It was not a romantic look. It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these, beyond all the different compartments of love we have down here on earth. It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being much bigger than all of them."

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    1. I can't help popping in here to say thanks, Bruce, for this observation about the unrecognized emotions fueling attacks on NDEs and all things non-material. At the moment the target is Eben Alexander, but of course we could say "and...and...and..." [insert names].

      We would love to think, with Alexander, that his being a Harvard neurosurgeon will give him credibility enough to transform the paradigm. Now the materialists will have to listen!

      Multiply Sam Harris by all the furious skeptics. It is not only Harris but all of them who are, as you say, "at the mercy of emotions that may well be (and probably are) clouding judgement and distorting perceptions." All that unrecognized and unspent emotional fuel creates an horrendous weapon, aimed directly at Eben Alexander, the new scapegoat.

      Add to that the unspent emotional fuel of the media people and the listening public, many of whose belief systems he is calling into question, with predictable response.

      This man is facing almost insuperable challenges. He is 1 still processing his NDE, 2) while simultaneously being pumped to the skies with publicity, adulation, and abrupt fame with all its hangers-on; it's a situation that eats people alive. And not only that, but, as you point out, 3) he is in the cross-hairs of the critics' emotional weaponry, which will be equally murderous. And not least, 4) he has to manage his own ego's involvement in all the tumult and grandiose expectations not only as an NDEr but as one who is a physician, a neurosurgeon, at Harvard, and now a media star. He needs all the help and prayer any of us can send to come through this safely.

      Thanks for pointing toward this aspect of his present reality.

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    2. And thank *you*, Nancy, for your insights. I'll bet you took some heat yourself for your particular slant on NDE's, though from folks with a different agenda than Sam Harris and company. :o)

      As to my own comment, it strikes me that understanding NDE's takes more than just logic and intellect. It takes an open heart, because the power of the NDE has to do, most of all, with its feeling content.

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    3. LOL Plenty of heat in *that* kitchen!

      The power of the NDE really is its feeling content! All this fussing around with the science, while necessary in its own way, has nothing to do with the actual *experience*. My view, of course...except that in part that's what Eben is saying, that the actual NDE is entirely independent of however many lab results, chemical analyses, clinical trackings can be associated with it; they describe the situation but not the experience.

      Good discussion here. Appreciation to everyone.

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    4. As CChaos put it, what Harris did was a 'drive-by shooting'... :) See: http://www.c4chaos.com/2012/10/sam-harris-vs-dr-eben-alexander-on-nde/

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    5. Nancy, it's an honor to see you stopping by here. Thanks.

      Delete
  15. Bernardo said:
    Rick, just had a thought... Alexander may, unconsciously, be playing the role of adding the final straw to achieve the critical mass necessary to trigger a cultural debate the likes of which we haven't seen since the Enlightenment... He is inadvertently pushing many hot buttons with his writing style, which may be exactly what is needed to unleash the energies necessary. But then again, I am probably being too optimistic. ;-0

    Yes Bernardo, that would be a wonderful grandiose outcome similar former Scientific Revolutions initiated by Copernicus, Newton, Einstein.....Kastrup! :>)

    Bernardo, your Tickster shines!

    Your point was not about you but I think it could occur through some of your work :>) It was about the Eban Alexander experience and the mocking comment regarding his neurosurgeon background qualifies him to be a brain "cutter" and what would fools like Copernicus,Newton and his silly Alchemy, or post office employee and his "thought experiments", Einstein have the right to say something new or ever become paradigm changers in science challenging wat "everyone else in science already knew". Calling a surgeon of any kind a "cutter" is a common derogatory statement about surgeons and their generally "arrogant personalty, poor interpersonal skills with their patients, and tendency to be "unavailable to the patient and family" a few days after the surgery. This is a generalization of course. Neurosurgeons are considered the elite among all surgeons and I find Alexander's prose describing his experience extraordinarly clear and quite in line with other NDE accounts. To use "cutter" in a way that implies that he doesn't understand neurological correlates is ludicrous and condescending.



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    1. Rick, thanks. Still, *inflation alert*... I gotta be careful in view of what you're saying... :P hehehe.

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  16. "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."

    While I personally believe NDEs to be merely product of our brain in a time of stress I don't think there is anything close to a standard DMT trip to use as a comparison. I never tried it myself the description I heard range from "the world was melting around me" to "I felt at one with the universe".

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    1. I'd just say this: If you never had a transcendent experience yourself (psychedelic-induced or otherwise, for there are many techniques), nothing you read about it does it justice; and that includes what I wrote about it in 'Dreamed up Reality'. It is not like whatever you think it is like.

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    2. I love your answer, Bernardo, and I'm gonna go even further, and re-phrase what you said in a way that's true for me (and I wonder if it's true for you too):

      Even if you've had a transcendent experience yourself, nothing you think you remember about it does it justice. Each time you re-enter that numinous space, you realize that you can only truly recall your last experience, when you're lucky enough to re-visit the same state of consciousness.

      Then it all comes flooding back: "Of course--that's what I've forgotten!"

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    3. This discussion, and my current re-reading of Dreamed Up Reality, reminds me of something one of my favorite authors, Christopher Bache, has written. In the beginning of his book, Dark Night, Early Dawn, he presents a wonderful analogy for the necessity of consulting non-ordinary states as we try to understand ourselves and our world. It begins on the last paragraph of page 4:

      http://books.google.com/books?id=cEL8eWF-vHgC&pg=PA4&lpg=PA4&dq=%22when+i+am+making+this+point+with+my+students,+i+sometimes+draw+an+analogy%22&source=bl&ots=9CR1Ftn_zc&sig=IutjeiB-q7Yi3cYwEZMMM6PT9ZQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=672BUI-LOcvwiQLx-YHgBg&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22when%20i%20am%20making%20this%20point%20with%20my%20students%2C%20i%20sometimes%20draw%20an%20analogy%22&f=false

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    4. Wow, that's a syncronicity... I assume you haven't yet watched my latest video, 'the rise of self-awareness'? I make the exact same analogy in it! Have a look two articles above this one. Very nice passage, by the way. :)

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  17. All your questions will be answered if you get Christ.
    "
    "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,..."

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    1. Hi Anonymous. Your comment is fine, since I am not anti-religion in any way. But I'd rather have more focused and specific discussions here; this isn't a forum for generic statements. I will moderate if generic statements persist without a more specific and clear link to the topic under debate.

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  18. It's ironic that DMT aficionados take DMT's similarity to NDEs as one of the most impressive and fascinating things about the drug. It's not that Dr. Alexander's experience was like a DMT flash, rather, the DMT flash is like an NDE!

    If Dr. Alexander experience was in fact caused by a DMT release in the brain, as indeed it might have been, it doesn't change the fact that the CONTENT of the experience, however generated, carries its own implications - about consciousness, meaning, death - and until the content can be explained away, we are simply in no real position to evaluate it critically. A person can take DMT and return absolutely confident about the same kind of conclusions that Dr. Alexander reaches. Should we be skeptical? Of course. But, should we assume that just because there is some crude causal explanation for why the experience was generated that the content of the experience itself was invalid? That seems silly. The content of the experience demands its own explanation, in specific and not merely general ways.

    Frankly, I think Harris is getting nervous that the materialist picture of the world he (kind of) endorses is beginning to unravel, even among scientists. I would say that naive materialism is all but dead as a serious scientific hypothesis.

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  19. While following the discussion on Eben Alexander's experience I found your site this morning. Thanks for the though provoking stuff. Your kind of open-minded analysis is exactly what I have been looking for from science. Real science. I'll bookmark your site.

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    1. Thank you Suzanne! I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it.

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  20. I totally agree with everything you've said here. Brilliant!

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  21. The thing with the DMT claims is that it is based on pure myth.

    The brain (or the pineal gland) does not produce DMT, and it is not found in the brains of cadavers.


    best wishes

    LZT1

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    1. Just to help put this in context for the others: Rick Strassman has never categorically stated that the pineal gland produces DMT, unlike what many claim. He only said that all the chemical precursors of DMT could be found in the pineal and, therefore, it was well-conceivable that the pineal could produce DMT.
      DMT is endogenous and found in the (living) human body. This does not prove that the brain makes DMT: it can conceivably be absorbed through diet.
      The jury is still out on whether the body/brain/pineal makes DMT or not.

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  22. So your assuming a supernatural explanation because we don't yet completely understand the brain. Sorry, this is just ridiculous. If you want to be honest, you should at least remove the claim that your rational from the top. I recommend...

    "Metaphysical Speculations: irrational and lacking skepticism."

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    1. Not sure where you saw anything 'supernatural.' There is nothing supernatural in claiming consciousness to be an ontological primitive. The rest of your comment is just content-less, childish whining. No wonder you post as anonymous.

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