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Sam Harris vs. Dr. Eben Alexander on NDE

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.S. Dr. Eben Alexander was also featured in Season 2: Episode 1 of Through The Wormhole. You can watch it here.

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. :)

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Comments (24)

  1. Miguel Marcos wrote::

    I am instantly put off with the sensationalist title and headline, ‘Proof of Heaven’ and ‘Heaven is Real’.

    Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 3:22 am #
  2. John Leonard wrote::

    Right on the money. I really enjoyed the episode of “Into the Wormhole” at the end. I could not help but notice the image of Alexander’s brain in the CT scan he was viewing on his laptop had something that looked remarkably like a butterfly at 6:33. Excellent writing! I enjoyed reading your post.

    Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 3:48 am #
  3. c4chaos wrote::

    John,

    thanks!

    and yes, that butterfly on Alexander’s brain in the CT scan was very serendipitous. i hope it’s his actual brain scan and not staged by the Science Channel :)

    btw, i also enjoyed reading your take on this topic. so allow me to post a link to your blog post here for posterity :)

    http://www.southernprose.com/2012/10/16/sam-harris-versus-eben-alexander-clash-of-neuroscience/

    ~C

    Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 9:56 pm #
  4. c4chaos wrote::

    for those who are new to NDEs and/or those who are not up-to-date to current research, here’s a good technical read. I would post this on Sam Harris FB page but I’m already banned from there :)

    “Science exists to refute dogmas; nevertheless, dogmas may be introduced when undemonstrated scientific axioms lead us to reject facts incompatible with them. Several studies have proposed psychobiological interpretations of near-death experiences (NDEs), claiming that NDEs are a mere byproduct of brain functions gone awry; however, relevant facts incompatible with the ruling physicalist and reductionist stance have been often neglected. The awkward transcendent look of NDEs has deep epistemological implications, which call for: (a) keeping a rigorously neutral position, neither accepting nor refusing anything a priori; and (b) distinguishing facts from speculations and fallacies. Most available psychobiological interpretations remain so far speculations to be demonstrated, while brain disorders and/or drug administration in critical patients yield a well-known delirium in intensive care and anesthesia, the phenomenology of which is different from NDEs. Facts can be only true or false, never paranormal. In this sense, they cannot be refused a priori even when they appear implausible with respect to our current knowledge: any other stance implies the risk of turning knowledge into dogma and the adopted paradigm into a sort of theology.”

    http://www.frontiersin.org/Human_Neuroscience/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00209/full

    Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 11:35 am #
  5. c4chaos wrote::

    here’s what Dr. Eben Alexander said on his FB thread:

    “The skeptics’ response to the Newsweek article is totally misguided, because all of their points and so many more are handled in the book (I was my own worst skeptic as I originally tried to put it all together, helped very much by my son Eben Alexander IV, who was majoring in neuroscience at the time, and knew the myriad pitfalls of trying to harvest meaningful information from such bizarre memories). For months I was simply writing a neuroscientific report to explain the ultra-reality often described in NDEs, especially with severe bacterial meningitis which should have banished all but the most rudimentary of experiences from my brain. I was shocked how the dumbing down of my brain soaking in pus and approaching death actually enabled astonishing enrichment of consciousness! Any skeptics who want to discuss this with me need to start by reading “Irreducible Mind” (edited by Ed Kelly, Emily Kelly et alia, 2007) and “Consciousness Beyond Life” (Dr Pim van Lommel, 2010), “The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind” (Roger Penrose, Malcolm Longair, Abner Shimony, Nancy Cartwright, Stephen Hawking, 1997), and “The Conscious Mind” (David Chalmers, 1996). THEN be ready to discuss “The Hard Problem of Consciousness” (why reductive materialist science has absolutely no clue how consciousness emerges from the human brain) and the enigma of the interpretation of quantum mechanics, because those are the relevant stepping stones in the discussion of my evolving comprehension of my experience.”

    https://www.facebook.com/eben.i.alexander/activity/3775519235464?comment_id=3767878&offset=0&total_comments=15

    Sunday, October 21, 2012 at 11:52 pm #
  6. Sean Robsville wrote::

    The brain hasn’t evolved to present true reality to the mind, probably quite the opposite. Maybe it’s only when its ‘normal’ functions are disrupted (by DMT?) that we can see the truth: http://rational-buddhism.blogspot.com/2012/09/evolution-emptiness-and-delusions-of.html

    Monday, October 22, 2012 at 2:21 pm #
  7. c4chaos wrote::

    very timely.

    Dr. Eben Alexander’s book was just published today. i downloaded it on Kindle.

    this interview was conducted a few weeks ago before Sam Harris and other so-called Atheists went into a hysterical attack against Alexander when excerpt of his book was published on Newsweek.

    http://www.skeptiko.com/eben-alexander-the-medical-mystery-of-near-death-experience/

    Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at 8:28 pm #
  8. aa. sh. wrote::

    IF we accept subjective experiences as proofs then Dr. alexander,s one is refuted by GOD,s revelation in the Quran……NO one can escape the imprints of his deeds on his soul , good and bad can NEVER be equal or else the cosmos itself would be in vain.
    shami

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 8:23 am #
  9. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    Sam Harris wrote on his blog that:

    “…Alexander’s account is so bad—his reasoning so lazy and tendentious—that it would be beneath notice if not for the fact that it currently disgraces the cover of a major newsmagazine.”

    however, the more i read Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, it is now clear to me that Sam Harris was the “lazy and tendentious” one for going on an all out knee-jerk reaction without having the details of Alexander’s medical case and how Alexander went through a painstaking process of attempting to find a neuroscientific explanation for his *rare* medical condition and *spontaneous* recovery. any budding neuroscientist (like Sam Harris) ought to be interested in Alexander’s fascinating medical case, NDE or no NDE.

    here’s another good critique of Sam Harris’ knee-jerk, lazy and tendentious overreaction to Dr. Alexander’s book excerpt on Newsweek.

    Sam Harris tries, and fails, to critique Eben Alexander’s ‘Heaven Is Real’ piece.
    http://theseventhapologist.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/sam-harris-tries-and-fails-to-critique-eben-alexanders-heaven-is-real-piece/

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 10:17 am #
  10. Keith C. wrote::

    Just because you’re a neurosurgeon or EVEN a neuroscientist the mind could deceive even you! I’m sure the first time an Oncology doctor has cancer he experienced things never before expected.

    Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 9:43 am #
  11. Keith C. wrote::

    How do you know it wasn’t Zeus or Mohammad talking to you “up there”? Don’t tell me this confirms chritianity in anyway shape or form….you’re really trying to cashout on this “dream” huh?

    Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 9:46 am #
  12. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    Keith,

    your statements have no substance. read the book. then let’s talk. until then, you are just embarrassing yourself for making baseless statements.

    ~C

    Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 10:43 am #
  13. c4chaos wrote::

    long-time NDE researcher Dr. Penny Sartori’s take on Dr. Eben Alexander’s NDE and Sam Harris ‘ critique…

    “In Dr Alexander’s case he was very close to death while in intensive care. In fact, in a discussion with Dr Alexander’s family, his doctors discussed stopping the antibiotics as it seemed unlikely that he would survive. From my 17 years experience of working as a nurse in intensive care this is something that would be discussed if it seemed futile to continue with them. This in itself highlights the severity of Dr Alexander’s condition.

    “The fact that Dr Alexander’s brain was severely dysfunctional yet he recalled a highly structured, lucid and heightened state of awareness during this time does not sit well with science’s current beliefs that consciousness is a mere by-product of the brain.

    “Sam Harris has compared these experiences to DMT and I agree there are some similarities between NDEs and DMT experiences however, there are also differences. If you read Dr Rick Strassman’s book DMT: The Spirit Molecule he has documented the subjective reports from his group of experimenters – you can compare these to NDEs. DMT is produced endogenously so there may very well be some involvement of this during perception of a NDE. However, the current science believes that the brain physiology creates consciousness (and indeed NDEs) whereas it seems a much more plausible explanation that rather than creating the consciousness the brain mediates it. For Dr Alexander’s brain to create lucid consciousness would require a fully functioning brain but his clearly wasn’t (along with the brains of hundreds of thousands of other people who have reported a NDE). So how could a dysfunctional brain produce such a heightened state of consciousness? Dr Alexander, being a Harvard educated neurosurgeon has obviously questioned this premise. Coupled with having his own NDE he realises that his experience does not fit with what he had been taught in medical school (see the videolink to the Bioethics Forum).”

    via ~ 
    http://drpennysartori.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/dr-eben-alexanders-book-proof-of-heaven-soon-to-be-released/#comment-842

    Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 4:30 pm #
  14. visit site wrote::

    My first time when i see it, and i think its just a new way of getting more dr details..NO one can escape the imprints of his deeds on his soul , good and bad can NEVER be equal or else the cosmos itself would be in vain.

    Monday, November 5, 2012 at 7:39 am #
  15. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    i therefore conclude, Sam Harris is an intellectually dishonest person and a pseudo-skeptic on the topic of NDE. he now has ZERO credibility on matters of psi and NDE in my book.

    listen to this podcast episode for more context.

    thanks to @Alex Tsakiris for exposing Sam’s ignorance and arrogance on psi and NDE.

    “Alex Tsakiris: …I like when little nuggets of truth, like this, are revealed. Because if we just listen to Sam Harris’ public stance on Psi, on parapsychology, on Dean Radin, and Rupert Sheldrake, it’s all very open, very collaborative, very, ‘you go boys, let’s see what you got.’ But when you read this you see what he really thinks about Psi research. It’s in the “backwater” of science. That’s where is really is for Sam Harris.”

    http://www.skeptiko.com/sam-harris-on-parapsychology-the-backwater-of-science/

    Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 3:40 pm #
  16. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    just re-posting my post on the Skeptiko forum (re: Eben Alexander III v. Sam Harris) for posterity…

    i will reiterate my point: if it boils down to questioning Alexander’s *interpretation* of the *content* of his own NDE experience then no debate will resolve this. this will fall in the domain of epistemology and philosophy. and rightly, so. as far as I know there is no general agreement in philosophy (or neuroscience) that the hard problem of consciousness has already been solved. some hardcore materialists may claim that brain=mind, but this is speculation. (e.g. correlation does not equal causation). it’s an acceptable hypothesis. the problem is, some of them forget that it is a hypothesis! (even Sam Harris doesn’t go that route! Harris is not an uber reductionist. he still leaves room for the mystery of consciousness. and that’s the part that i like about Sam.)

    now, with regards to the medical case of Dr. Alexander, the issue there that needs to be debated is how can Alexander have an ultra-real experience during his coma and even have a clear memory of it when brain science tells us that this should not be possible (e.g. Alexander’s neocortex was “offline”. he claims that he have the medical record and brain scans to prove this). BUT my point is, it doesn’t matter what the content was! it could be a memory of another lifetime, or a life in other civilization, or even an extra-terrestrial abduction! the technical point it is this: how can a brain with an offline neocortex “generate” those ultra-real experience?

    Sam’s speculation is that it was possibly due to DMT dump. fine. ok. maybe. BUT, Alexander considered that hypothesis and even discussed it with other neuroscientists and he says that a DMT dump is very unlikely. considering just this one hypothesis, who between Harris and Alexander understand neuroscience better? that question can be answered in a debate or a discussion.

    alternatively, what is Sam’s hypothesis on how is it possible that Alexander could have an ultra-real experience and complete memory of his NDE? will Sam’s hypothesis stack up with Alexander’s 9-point hypothesis? will Sam’s hypothesis explain Alexander’s experience in neuroscientific terms? that is the area of debate that I would like to see.

    that said, i will conclude this post with a quote from my dharma grand daddy, Joshu Sasaki Roshi–the oldest living Zen Master.

    “If anybody tells me that they’ve seen God, I’ll tell them that they’re an idiot.”

    go figure.

    http://forum.mind-energy.net/skeptiko-podcast/4421-192-dr-sam-harris-parapsychology-psi-backwater-science-podcast-27.html#post124994

    Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 4:12 pm #
  17. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    another point i want to bring up (which is the Elephant in the Room in Sam Harri’s blog post) is this: Sam Harris extensively quoted Terence McKenna’s DMT experience to debunk Dr. Alexander’s NDE.

    but anyone who is familiar with Terence McKenna knows that McKenna was antagonistic against scientific materialism and reductionism. McKenna had a whole different model of reality which is the anti-thesis of scientific materialism.

    in addition, Dr. Rick Strassman who conducted extensive experiments and research on DMT came away with a different view of reality–a reality which has more in common with Dr. Alexander’s view (e.g. religious overtones) than with Sam Harris’s model of reality.

    granted, McKenna and Strassman are no neuroscientists, but it’s very telling that their models of reality go against scientific materialism.

    my point: psychedelic experience challenges the assumptions of scientific materialism/reductionism (e.g. brain process = mind/consciousness). Bernardo Kastrup has a good blog post on very topic:

    Quote:
    “…a very interesting study recently done in the UK on the effects of psilocybin (the active ingredient of magic mushrooms) on the brain. The study caught my attention because preliminary reports suggested that the researchers observed only reductions in brain activity while subjects were having unfathomable psychedelic trips. This, of course, is counter-intuitive: If the hallucinations are not being caused by drug-induced brain activations, where does the trip come from?”
    ~ http://www.bernardokastrup.com/2012/01/disembodied-trippers.html

    Monday, November 12, 2012 at 5:51 pm #
  18. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    LOL. Sam Harris just called Skeptiko a “parapsychology podcast” and Alex Tsakiris as “irritating and unscrupulous host” without even having courtesy of a link back. oh, snap! :)

    like I said, it would be too tempting for Sam Harris not to debate Alexander. I will now stock up up on popcorn. this would be good…

    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/science-on-the-brink-of-death

    “However, the deepest problem with drawing sweeping conclusions from the NDE is that those who have had one and subsequently talked about it did not actually die. In fact, many appear to have been in no real danger of dying. 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. Even in cases where the brain is alleged to have shut down, its activity must return if the subject is to survive and describe the experience. In such cases, there is generally no way to establish that the NDE occurred while the brain was offline.

    “Many students of the NDE claim that certain people have left their bodies and perceived the commotion surrounding their near death—the efforts of hospital staff to resuscitate them, details of surgery, the behavior of family members, etc. Certain subjects even say that they have learned facts while traveling beyond their bodies that would otherwise have been impossible to know—for instance, a secret told by a dead relative, the truth of which was later confirmed. Of course, reports of this kind seem especially vulnerable to self-deception, if not conscious fraud. There is another problem, however: Even if true, such phenomena might suggest only that the human mind possesses powers of extrasensory perception (e.g. clairvoyance or telepathy). This would be a very important discovery, but it wouldn’t demonstrate the survival of death. Why? Because unless we could know that a subject’s brain was not functioning when these impressions were formed, the involvement of the brain must be presumed.

    “Having now read Alexander’s book, I can say that it is every bit as remarkable as his Newsweek cover article suggested it would be. Unfortunately, it is not remarkable in the way that its author believes. I find that my original criticism of Alexander’s thinking can stand without revision.[1] However, as he provides further “proof” of heaven in his book, there is more to say about the man’s mischief here on earth.* 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. I would be happy to have a public discussion with Alexander, should it ever seem worth doing.”

    Monday, November 12, 2012 at 10:26 pm #
  19. Eric D R wrote::

    Actually, Sam Harris has has since clarified that he’s willing to debate Eben Alexander, just not on Alex Tsakaris’s podcast. He doesn’t like Alex because he feels that Alex unfairly attacked and misrepresented him. And from my experience, I could see reason for this. I’ve already seen some indications of Alex cutting and editing things in ways that censor and misrepresent others. Personally, I wouldn’t take Alex’s posts of Harris’s email messages unquestioningly at face value.

    Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 1:20 am #
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  1. Anonymous on Wednesday, October 17, 2012 at 11:20 pm

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