Remember not long ago that story of Dr. Eben Alexander who claimed in a cover story for Newsweek that he had a near-death experience and took a one-way trip to Neverland on the wings of a magical butterfly all while the heavenly angels sang from above as he was powered through the air by his own fart puffs that smelled like transcendent cinnamon and took the forms of perfect pink bubbles that sparkled with the glowing light of pixie dust sprinkled by Jesus himself? Yes, that guy. Well, thankfully Newsweek is weeks away from its final issue which will thankfully be sprinkled by your fat uncle’s piss as it lies on the floor beside his whitetrash toilet in the months and years ahead. And that scientist who claims he saw Heaven just got himself torn a new asshole torn by none other than renowned philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris. The following is an excerpt from Harris’s brilliant takedown of Alexander’s irresponsible claims:
“Everything — absolutely everything — in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was ‘shut down,’ ‘inactivated,’ ‘completely shut down,’ ‘totally offline,’ and ‘stunned to complete inactivity.’ The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science. Perhaps he has saved a more persuasive account for his book—though now that I’ve listened to an hour-long interview with him online, I very much doubt it. In his’ ‘Newsweek’ article, Alexander asserts that the cessation of cortical activity was ‘clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.’ To his editors, this presumably sounded like neuroscience.
The problem, however, is that ‘CT scans and neurological examinations’ can’t determine neuronal inactivity—in the cortex or anywhere else. And Alexander makes no reference to functional data that might have been acquired by fMRI, PET, or EEG—nor does he seem to realize that only this sort of evidence could support his case. Obviously, the man’s cortex is functioning now—he has, after all, written a book—so whatever structural damage appeared on CT could not have been ‘global.’ (Otherwise, he would be claiming that his entire cortex was destroyed and then grew back.) Coma is not associated with the complete cessation of cortical activity, in any case. And to my knowledge, almost no one thinks that consciousness is purely a matter of cortical activity. Alexander’s unwarranted assumptions are proliferating rather quickly. Why doesn’t he know these things? He is, after all, a neurosurgeon who survived a coma and now claims to be upending the scientific worldview on the basis of the fact that his cortex was totally quiescent at the precise moment he was enjoying the best day of his life in the company of angels. Even if his entire cortex had truly shut down (again, an incredible claim), how can he know that his visions didn’t occur in the minutes and hours during which its functions returned?
I confess that I found Alexander’s account so alarmingly unscientific that I began to worry that something had gone wrong with my own brain. So I sought the opinion of Mark Cohen, a pioneer in the field of neuroimaging who holds appointments in the Departments of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Science, Neurology, Psychology, Radiological Science, and Bioengineering at UCLA. (He was also my thesis advisor.) Here is part of what he had to say: This poetic interpretation of his experience is not supported by evidence of any kind. As you correctly point out, coma does not equate to ‘inactivation of the cerebral cortex’ or ‘higher-order brain functions totally offline’ or “neurons of [my] cortex stunned into complete inactivity’. These describe brain death, a one hundred percent lethal condition. There are many excellent scholarly articles that discuss the definitions of coma. (For example: 1 & 2). As is obvious to you, this is truth by authority. Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them.”
You can read Sam’s entire takedown of Eben Alexander in full by visiting SamHarris.org. And worth noting is Sam Harris — unlike many of his contemporary neuroscientists, philosphers, and atheists — is deeply interested in subjective spiritual experiences, and has in fact studied them for decades. Sam writes: “I don’t doubt the subjective phenomena themselves—that is, I don’t believe that everyone who claims to have seen an angel, or left his body in a trance, or become one with the universe, is lying or mentally ill. Indeed, I have had similar experiences myself in meditation, in lucid dreams (even while meditating in a lucid dream), and through the use of various psychedelics (in times gone by). I know that astonishing changes in the contents of consciousness are possible and can be psychologically transformative.” What Sam is arguing is that Eben Alexander cannot be taken seriously in the scientific community if he continues to claim his subjective experience as objective science. Any attempt of Alexander to do so is an insult to the scientific community.