Sam Harris: proud and prejudiced?
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
|Illustration from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Source: Wikipedia.|
Sam Harris is at it again. Not content to have carried out what I see as a cheap 'drive-by shooting' of a neurosurgeon in his previous blog post, which I commented on here, he is now taking his act to a whole new level. Have a look here. Below, I intend to deconstruct Harris' argument, showing it for the display of intellectual blindness and misleading prejudice that I believe it is.
Here is the first segment that caught my attention. Harris is referring to Near-Death Experiences (NDEs):
Unfortunately, these experiences vary across cultures, and no single feature is common to them all. One would think that if a nonphysical domain were truly being explored, some universal characteristics would stand out. Hindus and Christians would not substantially disagree—and one certainly wouldn’t expect the after-death state of South Indians to diverge from that of North Indians, as has been reported.Here Harris is committing what I call the 'conclusion-by-inability-to-think-of-alternatives fallacy.' He is projecting onto all conceivable realities a particular aspect of one known reality; namely, the apparent objectivity of phenomena in ordinary consensus reality. But it is fallacious to infer, without further reasoning, this same characteristic for all conceivable realities. I extensively discussed this in an NDE article I wrote earlier, which I encourage you to read and which I make integral part of this commentary. Moreover, as I also discussed in my NDE article, there are indeed many commonalities across NDEs, regardless of the cultural background of the experiencer. This is elaborated upon in the very book Harris quotes from.
Harris' thinking seems to be the following: 'Since the phenomenology of NDEs is such that I can eliminate all other theoretical possibilities that I can think of, then NDEs are delusions and confabulations, despite all evidence to the contrary.' Well, this thinking doesn't say much about NDEs; though it says a lot about Harris' ability to devise theoretical alternatives.
He goes on:
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.This is ridiculous. Harris is suggesting that a patient, after minutes of cardiac arrest and no blood flow, may still have sufficient, and sufficiently coherent, brain activity to confabulate unfathomable journeys into other realms; complex, coherent, peak experiences that change people for life and which they consider the most significant they've ever had. If the brain can do that with a few firing neurons hidden somewhere, what the heck do we need a fully-functional brain for? This is akin to claiming that if you damage every component of a car, except for, say, the spark plugs, the car can drive even faster than when everything is working in perfect order!
Harris has to decide whether he thinks human conscious life needs the brain or not. If he thinks it does, he must be self-consistent and acknowledge the obvious fact that a few neurons firing somewhere deep inside the brain, even if they are there, cannot possibly explain peak experiences like NDEs. After all, we seem to 'need' measurable neocortical activity even to dream of the clenching of a hand, as this study shows; let alone to dream of lifetimes in parallel universes. And if Harris doesn't think the brain is needed, then he has to bite the bullet and acknowledge the obvious implications. Harris cannot have if both ways: 'The brain is everything! Oh, wait... but in these cases we hardly need a brain at all.'
Unfortunately, Harris is not alone in this tendentious dance of contradiction in modern neuroscience, as I discussed before here.
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.This is not a rumor; it is a public fact that Harris refused to debate, when he was given the chance to do so, the man he had earlier taken the initiative to attack in an intellectual drive-by shooting. The record of his refusal is publicly available online in this page. And the email exchange that leads him now to characterise podcast host Alex Tsakiris as 'irritating and unscrupulous' is also publicly available online here, so you can judge for yourself.
Now a pearl:
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?Here Harris seems to be casually taking for granted that memories are encoded as physical traces in the brain, just like files stored in a flash card. Yet, decades and decades of research have failed to find these physical traces. Modest recent progress in that direction is self-contradictory, as a cursory comparison of this and this article shows. The fact that brain damage can impair memory only establishes that one can physically impair access to information, but doesn't establish at all where this information comes from. I discussed some of my thoughts on memory in an earlier article and in a related discussion thread of this blog. I could write pages on this, but someone else already summarised the key points cogently. So I invite you to read chapter 7 of biologist Rupert Sheldrake's book Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery.
Memory formation is a mystery, as Harris must know. We don't know enough about it to use it either to dismiss or substantiate accounts of NDEs. Harris' argument is, thus, illegitimate. Moreover, that he so casually passes theoretical speculation for established scientific fact seems, to me at least, suspiciously tendentious.
Now, let's see what is perhaps the very 'best' part of Harris' comments. Pay attention to this:
If the brain merely serves to limit human experience and understanding, one would expect most forms of brain damage to unmask extraordinary scientific, artistic, and spiritual insights—and, provided that a person’s language centers could be spared, the graver the injury the better. A few hammer blows or a well-placed bullet should render a person of even the shallowest intellect a spiritual genius. Is this the world we are living in?Yes, it is! Harris seems to ignore the vast literature on so-called 'acquired savant' cases. For a cogent overview, see this article from the Wisconsin Medical Society. It shows countless cases of people who developed genius-level skills in arts, maths, and many other areas of intellectual activity as a consequence of bullet wounds to the head, stroke, concussion, and even the progression of dementia. Nearly every conceivable source of brain injury can potentially trigger a savant. (Update: Popular Science magazine recently did a great feature on acquired savant syndrome).
Harris also asks why spiritual insight isn't triggered as a result of brain damage. Well, it is! Let's forget the anecdotal evidence and focus on controlled studies. A 2010 study published in Neuron shows precisely a correlation between surgery-induced brain damage and spiritual insight. Moreover, most, if not all, techniques for the attainment of spiritual insight seem to operate by causing a reduction of brain activity—think of ordeals, hyper-ventilation, sensory deprivation, psychedelics, meditation, and even prayer—which is entirely consistent with the hypothesis that the brain limits conscious experience. I elaborated extensively on this before, in the article linked here.
Again, Harris seems to be, at best, confused and ignorant of the facts; or, at worse, wilfully biased in his appraisal of the available data. His quote above describes precisely the facts as we know them, even though he uses it rhetorically, as if it were all obviously untrue. The irony would be sweet if it weren't concerning as far as what it seems to say about Sam Harris. The only part of the quote that I think is false is Harris' statement that 'most forms of brain damage' should lead to new insights. We don't know whether this should be the case for 'most forms,' for we do not yet understand how the brain filters and limits conscious experience. All we can say is that, for at least some forms of brain damage, insights should be triggered. And that, as I argued, is empirical fact that Harris, as a neuroscientist, should be aware of.
As I said in a previous post, I used to have special respect for Sam Harris and what I perceived to be his unbiased attitude. I regret to admit that such special respect is gone now. Harris' last post, in my view, is disgraceful. It is intellectually weak and flawed, it ignores empirical fact, and embodies either a dangerous form of purposefully-misleading prejudice or an astonishing lack of ability to devise theoretical possibilities. In my view, given his latest writings, Harris is as blinded by fundamentalist beliefs as his fellow 'horsemen.' It is easy to make a sport of wiping the floor with soft targets like religious apologists and new-agers, but it is a whole other story to stand to proper intellectual scrutiny and empirical fact.
If Harris ever reads this article, here is a note for him: Yes, I am taking what I think is a fair shot at you. But if you like to debate this, in contrast to your refusal to debate Alexander, I am game. Take on a real debating opponent for a change, Sam.
Addendum 17 Nov 2012Harris wrote an addendum to his post, which you can find here. In it, he equates the 'filter hypothesis' to what is known as the 'transmission hypothesis,' according to which consciousness is a kind of radio signal received by the brain. He then proceeds to correctly point out the problem with the transmission hypothesis, which is that we are supposedly the signal, not the radio.
However, although the transmission hypothesis entails the filter hypothesis, the filter hypothesis does not necessarily entail the transmission hypothesis. As a matter of fact, the filter hypothesis doesn't even entail dualism! My own metaphysical position, for instance, is not dualist. Yet, the filter hypothesis holds well under my views, as I wrote about in this earlier article, which I encourage you to read. According to this article, the brain is the partial image of a process by means of which mind localizes itself, 'filtering' everything else out. Notice how this solves Harris' question: Instead of being an external 'signal' that is no longer being received, but which we still are, in my formulation mind folds in on itself in the form of a vortex, limiting its own breadth. We are mind, and yet mind self-limits. Under this formulation, to say that electrochemical processes in the brain are the cause of consciousness is as illogical as to say that lightning is the cause of atmospheric electrical discharge; or clots the cause of coagulation; or fire the cause of combustion. Fire is the partial image of the process of combustion as viewed from the outside and, as such, correlates very well with the process it depicts; just as electrochemical processes in the brain correlate very well with conscious states.
Currently, I am 2/3 of the way through writing a new book that will explain all this in details, and very specifically. That book will be my ultimate reply to Sam Harris. So please bear with me while I finish and publish it. It should be available at some point in 2013.
It is true that even I have used the radio metaphor when discussing the filter hypothesis. After all, the analogy is a very handy, metaphorical device to convey certain ideas. For instance, I once wrote a fairly elaborate explanation of the filter hypothesis under an implicit dualist metaphor. The article is available from here. But my use of the radio metaphor does not mean that I believe consciousness to be literally some kind of external signal being received by the brain. I don't. Assuming that would amount to taking the metaphor way beyond its intended scope.
Overall, Harris' understanding of the filter hypothesis seems to be based on an extremely casual and limited reading of it. Huxley wrote two paragraphs about it in The Doors of Perception. When Bergson wrote about it in Matter and Memory, his point was to discuss memory. Before Harris can pass judgment on the hypothesis, he needs to, at the very least, acquaint himself with a proper articulation of it. For instance, he should read my paper on it, and then my idealist formulation of it.