Back to Sam Harris' Critique of Eben Alexander's NDE

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[Updated 26 December 2015]

A teacher of philosophy called Michael Sudduth has written a blog post criticizing what I say, in my book Brief Peeks Beyond, about Sam Harris' attack on Eben Alexander. Let me admit upfront that I had never heard of Michael Sudduth, have no idea who he is beyond what I found in a quick google search, and know nothing of his work. I will explain at the end of this essay why I nonetheless decided to comment on his criticism.

He starts his critique of my views rather colorfully, implicitly promising a knock-out punch at some later stage:
"It’s astonishingly evident to me that Kastrup’s thinking on this matter is not merely confused; it’s profoundly confused. ... Kastrup’s reasoning in both his blog and book is an astonishing display of misrepresentation and philosophical obfuscation."
Apparently I astonish him a lot. Undeterred, he uses 1142 words (!) to introduce his essay and disparage my position with pure rhetoric before he even begins the attempt to substantiate his allegations. It's a lot of gratuitous disparaging that doesn't seem motivated by eagerness to debate: when he posted his essay on Facebook, he tagged 34 people (!) with visibility in the media, but failed to tag me, the very target of his criticism. I found this rather curious.

After disparaging me repeatedly, one would expect that, by the time he actually began to justify his prolific allegations, a mortal blow would soon follow. I confess: I was somewhat curious. But the implicit promise of a knock-out punch never materialized. His post disappoints. He uses almost ten thousand words (!) in total to basically fail to even argue against—let alone defeat—the substance of any of my points; the true and unsurpassed feat of philosophical obfuscation in this whole story. But don't let the ten thousand words frighten you: I can summarize the essence of what he says about me in only 3 quick points:

  1. The DMT similarity argument. Harris originally stated that Alexander's NDE looked like a DMT trip. Harris overtly suggests that Alexander's experience could have been caused merely by chemicals in Alexander's brain, as opposed to having a transcendent nature. I then argued that a chemical or physical trigger does not necessarily invalidate the transcendent nature of the experience, since all NDEs are, ultimately, triggered by some physical event. What does Sudduth have to say about this? He writes: "Kastrup is correct, of course, that in at least one sense the similarity between Alexander’s NDE and DMT experiences doesn’t defeat the authenticity of the former as a valid transcendent experience." But this was my point. So Sudduth actually agrees with my point. What's his problem then? Well, he asserts that "Harris nowhere claims [that] Alexander’s NDE was produced by brain chemistry," so my point is a straw-man. What? With a blush of embarrassment, I leave it to you to judge it after you consider the following passage by Harris:
    "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."
    Can someone explain to me how is it that Harris is not suggesting here that DMT could explain Alexander's NDE on a purely chemical basis? I mean, how much clearer could this possibly be? Sudduth's grievance is that Harris does not outright state that the NDE was caused by chemicals; that Harris merely mentions the possibility that it was. Duh. So what? It would obviously have been ridiculous if Harris had asserted that he knew what caused Alexander's NDE. Raising the possibility of a chemical cause was as far as Harris could have gone to try to debunk Alexander. And I rebutted this by arguing that a chemical trigger—even if true—wouldn't invalidate the potentially transcendent nature of Alexander's experience anyway (this, even Sudduth agrees with). In other words, I granted to Harris the possibility of a chemical trigger and argued against the relevance of that possibility as far as Alexander's claims were concerned. I never assumed or implied that Harris did anything more than to raise a hypothesis, the force of my argument being directed precisely at the relevance of that hypothesis. I'd bet that all readers of my essay, except perhaps for Michael Sudduth, fully understood this. It's embarrassing to have to spell it out now.
    Either Sudduth is splitting hairs for the sake of inventing something to criticize and create polemic, or he is so myopically focused on the strict formal semantics of Harris' words that he fails to see the obvious thrust and intent of the text. Harris, my dear Michael, is not writing for analytic philosophy majors here; he's trying to debunk Alexander's story in the public's eye and he is perfectly aware of how the public will understand his words. That you fail to see this is so sweetly naive it makes me smile. Perhaps you've become too engrossed with linguistic games in your academic ivory tower and now lost touch with the real world. Or are your motivations of a different nature? (More on this later.) 
  2. The cortical inactivity argument. Harris originally claimed that Alexander didn't sufficiently demonstrate that his brain lacked enough activity to account for his NDE. In turn, I argued that appeals to residual brain activity in sub-cortical areas weren't enough to explain Alexander's NDE: the type of experience Alexander underwent normally correlates with neocortical activity, as opposed to residual activity in deeper parts of the brain. And it was precisely Alexander's neocortex that was devastated by the meningitis. What does Sudduth have to say about this? He writes: "we can concede that Kastrup is at least correct to say that whether there could have been residual brain activity misses the point." Well, once again that was precisely my point. How curious. So what's Sudduth's problem this time? He claims that Harris' grievance was that Alexander did not show that his neocortex was inactive; that Harris was not appealing to activity in sub-cortical regions. Yet Harris' own words, as quoted by Sudduth himself, indicate the opposite: "almost no one thinks that consciousness is purely a matter of cortical activity." Clearly, Harris is appealing to sub-cortical activity to suggest a materialist explanation for Alexander's NDE. Be it as it may, once again Sudduth admits that I was essentially correct. What is he trying to achieve with this?
  3. The "Failures of Proper Argumentation" critique. Sudduth writes paragraph after paragraph claiming that I failed to establish that Alexander's neocortex was incapable to generate his NDE. The only problem is that I never tried to construct an argument to establish that in the first place. After all, I have not seen the hard clinical data and, just like Sudduth, am not qualified to judge it. So who is "profoundly confused" here? I simply took seriously the assessment of the data by Alexander—a Harvard professor of neurology and practicing neurosurgeon—and explored its implications. Indeed, I believe Alexander is better qualified to judge this than Harris, who has no clinical experience and isn't a practicing neuroscientist. Harris seems much more interested in studying religion and politics than neuroscience. My argument, as I clearly state in the book, was against the notion that residual sub-cortical activity could have been sufficient to explain the NDE. Sudduth doesn't dispute this at all.

In fact, Sudduth doesn't dispute—let alone defeat—the real substance of any of my arguments. So why this mismatch between what is alleged in the beginning of his post and what one actually finds when one reads it through? It's a lot of fit & fury amounting to nearly nothing at the end. A lot of noisy but empty posturing.

You see, the essence of Sudduth's post is the assertion that Sam Harris never meant to imply what I claim that he implied. As such, my arguments, correct as they may be, are straw-men; or so says Sudduth. "Harris is not proposing any alternative materialistic explanation of Alexander’s experience." (Oh, really?) And neither does Harris "assume, for instance, that a physical trigger cannot lead to a perfectly valid NDE." (Oh, he doesn't?) It's my own delusions that turned Harris into a debunker of transcendence; or so Sudduth's story goes. Leaving aside the obvious naiveté of this position, the problem, of course, is that it ends up completely deflating the main thrust of Harris' very critique of Alexander. Sudduth's "defense" of Harris, if correct, would render Harris' arguments ineffective in rebutting the transcendent nature of Alexander's NDE. In trying to help Harris have it both ways, Sudduth ends up leaving no way for Harris. His 'semantic deconstruction' unintentionally helps further Eben Alexander's claims. With a groupie like this, Harris needs no critics.

Sudduth is so focused on hair-splitting the philosophical minutiae that he seems to completely lose sight of the big picture. To say that debunking the transcendent nature of Alexander's NDE was not Harris' intent seems extraordinarily ingenuous to me, if not outright stupid. But is mere naiveté the explanation here? Or are there other possible motivations for Sudduth's charade? What motivated all the unsubstantiated disparaging in his post? I can only speculate.

In my view, it is entirely legitimate that a new author attempts to raise his visibility by attacking more visible peers, as long as the attack is honestly argued and fairly substantiated. Sudduth's noisy, derogatory allegations in the purely rhetorical opening of his post are neither: they find no justification or substantiation in the body of his text. They seem to me to be aimed squarely at generating polemic and attracting attention. They catch the interest of the casual reader who parses the highly polemicized initial paragraphs but has no appetite for ~10K tortuous words.

The reason I decided to offer this reply was the messages a few of my regular readers sent me immediately after Sudduth posted a link to his essay on Facebook. They'd noticed that he didn't tag me and wanted both to warn me and ask for a prompt rebuttal. I do not consider Sudduth's hair-splitting essay, in and of itself, deserving of any reaction. Therefore, I will limit my comments on this matter to this post. I do not know Michael Sudduth and have no interest in changing this. He's proven to my own satisfaction that interacting with him isn't productive. With this reply, I know I am already giving him some of the attention he seems to crave, but I have no intention to reward attention-seeking behavior any further. Sam Harris does not need an unsolicited interpreter of his meaning or intent, no matter how frantically willing this interpreter may be. Sam can articulate his meaning and intent himself, without a Sancho Panza. Therefore, I remain perfectly willing to continue this debate with Sam, if he chooses to do so.

Copyright © 2015 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.

Comments

  1. Just a quick note: unlike Michael Sudduth, I haven't disabled comments in my post. However, I won't engage in debates on this topic here. I've already spent sufficient time on it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sam Harris does not need an unsolicited interpreter of his meaning or intent, no matter how frantically willing this interpreter may be. Sam can articulate his meaning and intent himself, without a Sancho Panza. => I agree with you.

      Why is Michael Sudduth so eager to be the Spokesman for Harris?

      My wild guess is, he is using this chance to promote his newly published book. Since Sam Harris is famous, therefore...

      Delete
  2. This is excellent, but the last eight words were especially delicious.

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  3. I heard of that Sudduth guy. Jime Sayaka did an interview with him on his Subversive Thinking blog about two years ago:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20140228030642/http://subversivethinking.blogspot.com/2014/01/interview-with-analytic-philosopher-of.html

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  4. Bernard, what do you think of this argument against a strategic of supervivencialism of Sudduth?

    http://michaelsudduth.com/whats-wrong-with-survival-literature/

    I and others argue that in the blog of Michael Prescott:

    http://michaelprescott.typepad.com/michael_prescotts_blog/2014/05/calling-all-minions.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm done reading Sudduth's hairsplitting, attention-seeking nonsense, sorry! :)

      Delete
    2. its so tru this guy can't make up his mind he is for and vs life after death

      Delete
  5. You have an answer:

    http://michaelsudduth.com/response-to-bernardo-kastrup/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bernardo, I know you're a bit frustrated with Sudduth's approach and style, but I'd love to see your reply to his reply. Meditate on it? :) You rock!

      Delete
    2. Patreeka, I understand you'd like this exchange to continue. But beyond approach and style, a discussion whose content is silly hair-splitting is just not meaningful. I have to be conscientious about how I spend my limited time and there are lots of more important and productive things to do. Sorry about it.

      Delete
  6. Bernardo - I've really enjoyed a few of your books (and later, interviews) over the years, and the spirit of simplicity, humility and lack of pretension in which you've delivered a bit of them both, especially to a "lay" audience (to which I belong) in these areas.

    For what it's worth - I think I've "de-friended" 5 or 6 people in 7 or 8 years on Facebook - an "ex" or 2 - a couple of bad business partners - maybe a stray nut here and there - and a year or two ago - one ignominious and infufferably annoying Michael Sudduth. By dint of the large swath of the FB userbase he "tags" every time he says something he deems important - I did see his attack on you a few weeks back (and if memory serves, a similar but spirited one prior) - and it amuses to no end how odious and transparently sanctimonious and self serving his approach has been to attract attention to his ideas. The funny thing is - and I haven't seen anyone else mention this - but if you look at his critique of you - the world salad of silliness that precedes the actual points of differentiation that makes up the post - he uses, almost verbatim - the exact words that Sam Harris himself uses - when "trolling" for confrontation with his intellectual adversaries. (Harris - who I happen to really enjoy reading and listening to - loves to use "profoundly confused" (rather than "merely confused" which almost always appears closeby) and is a huge fan of using "obfuscation" when shining a light on the shortcomings of his ideological enemies.)

    It almost feels like Sudduth is not only trying to tear a page out of Harris's confrontational playbook - if you read his attack on your ideas - and his "defense" of Sam's critique of Alexander (a critique I tend to agree with in large part) he actually appears to be generously borrowing Harris's writing style and choice of word combinations, as if using the same sort of hyperbolic certainty about the wrongheadedness of his cherry picked opponent is a fast track to the philosophers hall of fame :-) Anyway - I found the whole thing very amusing when I saw it on FB a week or two back (as many of the folks tagged brought Sudduth back on my social stream) and after reading Michael Prescott's thoughts this morning - happened upon your blog as well. I'm so glad you aren't taking the bait beyond the above - and while you've probably forgotten more than I'll ever know around these ideas - I can smell a self important and insufferable fraud from a mile away - and Sudduth, (and way before this) certainly has got a stench.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. It appears Sudduth has made a name for himself. :-)

      Delete
  7. The clown image is just to funny!

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  8. I would say that DMT from personal experience and Ayahuasca are not the same as an NDE experience although I have not experienced an NDE myself , from reading the accounts it seems more structured , meeting relatives,life reviews etc they also lack the geometric visions but share a tunnel experience.Also from accounts they seem more real or clear than an ultra real dmt trip.
    They obviously both share a strong spiritual aspect, my personal theory is that DMT is in-between death (nde state ) and a dreaming state
    I wonder if there is anyone out there who have experienced both nde and ayahuasca or dmt and can comment on the differences.

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  9. I'm a mathematician with some training in philosophy. I find all of Bernardo Kastrup's points right on the mark. The logic is impeccable. Your point about how Sudduth's effort to have it both ways left Harris with no way summarized the situation very well. Thanks for your efforts.
    Frank Hummer

    ReplyDelete

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