Last week Newsweek published an excerpt of Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, “Proof of Heaven“, as its cover story. I’m already familiar with Dr. Eben Alexander’s NDE (Near-Death Experience) case because I’ve listened to his interview on Skeptiko last year. However, I don’t know the exact details of his case and the “proof” that he offers since I haven’t read his book yet (it’s not yet published as of this writing). Also, I’m not a big fan of the title of his book. “Proof of Heaven” sounds very unscientific to me, preposterous even, and I know that it would instantly trigger a backlash from the scientific and skeptical communities. (Maybe that was the purpose of the publisher anyway!) Nevertheless, I tried to stay open-minded on what he has to say since his credentials are impressive and he seemed sincere on sharing his experience and his purpose of writing his book.
Enter, Sam Harris.
In just a few days of the Newsweek’s cover story, Sam posted on his blog a scathing condemnation of Newsweek and a scientific rebuttal to Dr. Alexander’s claims. Initially, I agreed with Harris’ critique. Long before Harris has heard of Dr. Alexander’s case, I too already suspected that Dr. Alexander’s NDE case was probably due to a DMT dump in his brain because his account of his NDE is very similar to people’s account of DMT trips. I’ve taken that position precisely because I didn’t know the details of Dr. Alexanders’ case. I have some nagging questions that I want to ask Dr. Alexander myself. For example, to my knowledge, his NDE was not *veridical*. His account was purely a subjective recollection of events that purportedly happened during his coma. I understand that he has all the medical records and testimonies of his doctors, friends, and family. But I still don’t know what solid of proof he has which made him arrive at his scientific conclusions. For me, the strongest cases of NDE are the veridical cases because those cases can be empirically verified with other people and even checked with timestamps in medical instrumentations (see the classic Pam Reynold’s case for an example of a veridical NDE). That said, I’m still interested to hear what Dr. Alexander has to say, especially after I’ve read his 9-point Hypotheses (see #4 for those who favor the DMT hypothesis.) So when I read Sam Harris’ critique, my knee-jerk reaction was: “Great! I’d like to see a debate between Sam Harris and Dr. Eben Alexander so they could hash out the details and slice and dice Alexander’s NDE case!”
Apparently, Alex Tsakiris of Skeptiko was thinking along the same lines and was actually working in the background to make a debate between Harris and Alexander a reality. But alas, Sam Harris backed down from the debate! Huh?! Why?! What happened to the fearless debater whom I admired in the past?! I thought that Harris would welcome the opportunity to debate Dr. Alexander. He has debated lesser intellectuals! And besides, it’s Harris who drew first blood when he practically insulted Dr. Alexander with his blog post. And when he was challenged to a debate, all Harris can say is this:
“Unfortunately, I’m too busy to consider it. I’m up against a book deadline — and really couldn’t afford the time I spent on that blog post, but I couldn’t seem to resist… The truth is, there’s nothing to debate either. He can’t reasonably claim that the relevant parts of his brain (not just the cortex) were “completely shut down.” It’s just not a factual statement. And yet, everything in his account hinges on his making that claim. And even if I granted that his brain had been shut down — it’s not shut down now. And there is absolutely no way for him to establish (or even to subjectively know) that he didn’t have his experience as his brain was coming back online. End of debate, as far as I’m concerned.”
Really?! Sam had the time to write that blog post (which I assume took him more than an hour) and he even consulted his thesis adviser, but he can’t spare an hour of his time to get the details of Dr. Alexander’s case? Gimme a break, Sam!
Here’s the thing. I understand that this thing cannot be settled in a debate anyway. However, I’m willing to put my bet on Dr. Alexander that he understands what he’s talking about better than Sam Harris. I’ve seen Dr. Alexander’s credentials and it’s longer than my arm! Don’t get me wrong, just because Dr. Alexander has the credentials doesn’t mean that his conclusion is right. This is not an argument from authority. This is an argument from credibility. In my opinion, Sam has *forfeited* his credibility by not facing Dr. Alexander in a debate. What Sam did was a *speculative drive-by shooting* without knowing the medical facts of Dr. Alexander’s medical case. And then he just proclaimed that that is “the end of the debate”? How convenient! That’s an argument from proclamation. That’s not very scientific of Sam. That’s speculative bias at best, and intellectual dishonesty at worst!
Here’s my other point: I’m not saying that Dr. Alexander’s interpretation and conclusion are absolutely right. But if Alexander is wrong then let it be proven by and among his peers (neuroscientists, neurologists, neurosurgeons, etc.) If Alexander has a blindspot on his research and methodology then let it be exposed in public in the spirit of open scientific debate and discussion. Dr. Alexander might eventually be “proven” wrong. But at the very least, what I’m hoping for is that, we’ll have a better scientific understanding of the very *rare* phenomenon that happened to him. To my understanding that’s the main reason why Dr. Alexander wrote that book in the first place: To have a real scientific discussion of NDE and his medical case. Unfortunately, not only did Harris displayed lack of intellectual honesty, it also came across that his mind is already made up! This is in contradiction to what Harris wrote on his blog, in the same article (emphasis mine):
“And, unlike many neuroscientists and philosophers, I remain agnostic on the question of how consciousness is related to the physical world. There are, of course, very good reasons to believe that it is an emergent property of brain activity, just as the rest of the human mind obviously is. But we know nothing about how such a miracle of emergence might occur. And if consciousness were, in fact, irreducible—or even separable from the brain in a way that would give comfort to Saint Augustine—my worldview would not be overturned. I know that we do not understand consciousness, and nothing that I think I know about the cosmos, or about the patent falsity of most religious beliefs, requires that I deny this. So, although I am an atheist who can be expected to be unforgiving of religious dogma, I am not reflexively hostile to claims of the sort Alexander has made. In principle, my mind is open. (It really is.)“
So, yes, Sam. By backing down from the debate you just contradicted your own principle. End of discussion.
Bottom line: This is an EPIC Sam Harris FAIL! This is a new low for Sam. I thought that the “Profiling” fiasco was already low. But this one sets a new record! Maybe being schooled by security expert Bruce Schneier was already too much for Sam. That’s why he’s not able take another schooling by a very credible neurosurgeon. I’m just speculating here, of course!
I hope Sam Harris reconsiders. I’d like to see him display his principle of open-mindedness–the thing that I admired about him when it comes to the mystery of consciousness. Until then, for me, Sam Harris’ credibility as a neuroscientist and a critical thinker is now down to zero.
P.P.S. I’ve had another lively and passionate EPIC THREAD on this topic on my Facebook page. It seems to happen whenever I bring up the the topic of NDEs. Go figure.