Sam Harris on the Brink of Having an (Intellectual) NDE?

Previously, I posted my take on this whole Sam Harris vs. Dr. Eben Alexander controversy. Since then Sam Harris has received flak from people who are informed on the science of NDE (present company included). I think that some of that criticisms hit a nerve which prompted Harris to write a follow up post on his blog. See Science on the Brink of Death.

In his latest post Sam Harris called Skeptiko a “parapsychology podcast” (which is not entirely true) and Alex Tsakiris as “irritating and unscrupulous host” (I’ll just let Alex respond to that) without even having the courtesy of linking to the content that Harris was reacting to. Yeah, how transparent of you, Sam! What’s the matter? You don’t like your readers to easily see your email exchange with Alex

Anyway, as I’ve said in my posts in various discussion threads, it would be too tempting for Sam Harris to turn down a debate with Dr. Eben Alexander, especially now that Alexander has become a best-selling author. So it’s now looking like a Harris v. Alexander might eventually happen.

Jeesh, I do make it sound like a Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao fight. But Harris is no Pacquiao. He’s more like Mayweather in this analogy since he’s the one doing all the thrash talking. LOL. Popcorn please!

However, compared to Harris’s original post, his follow up post at least has more substance and more interesting. First, he gives us a clue that he has read the book “Irreducible Mind” which he quoted in the opening of his post. (Maybe that’s one reason why Sam Harris is open to the mystery of consciousness and not a staunch materialist, or so he says.) Second, he referred to the classic NDE case of Pam Reynolds. Third, Harris has finally read Dr. Alexander’s book. And fourth, he narrated a seemingly *psi* experience he had in a dream with Tibetan Vajrayana Master Dilgo Kyentse Rinpoche. If you haven’t read it yet I recommend reading Harris’s post in its entirety first and then come back here when you’re done.

At first I was planning to write my own rebuttal to Harris’s post. But after reading some reactions on the Skeptiko forum and Bernardo Kastrup’s excellent rebuttal I’ve decided to just piece together some of the more eloquent critiques which point to Harris’s own *lazy and tendentious* thinking.

I’ll start with Steve Volk’s (author of Fringe-ology) post on the Skeptiko forum.

“I like Sam. I am disappointed in this latest post, however, if only because he doesn’t acknowledge or deal with the parts of Reynold’s account that are harder to explain. She remembered dialogue from a period when her ears were plugged with a device emitting incredibly loud clicks that would seem to have rendered hearing impossible. My own position, Linda, is that there is enough mystery still surrounding the NDE that we should call it just that: a mystery. I think Reynolds’ case is evidence of that.”

Another Skeptiko forum member took issues with Sam’s characterization of Dr. Sabom in Pam Reynold’s case.

Harris in his blog on the Pam Reynolds case:

“The case also wasn’t published until several years after it occurred, and its author, Dr. Michael Sabom, is a born-again Christian who had been working for decades to substantiate the otherworldly significance of the NDE.”

This is really sleazy and cheap. If you read Sabom’s books, whether it’s the extremely rigorous 1982 Recollections of Death, or his 1998 Light & Death where he “comes out of the closet” about his religious beliefs, his approach to the study of NDEs throughout is extremely prudent and scientific.

Here’s Sabom himself in Light & Death after he’s spent a chapter detailing the Pam Reynolds case:

“(D)uring ‘standstill’, Pam’s brain was found ‘dead’ by all three clinical tests – her electroencephalogram was silent, her brain-stem response was absent, and no blood flowed through her brain. Interestingly, while in this state, she encountered the ‘deepest’ near-death experience of all Atlanta Study participants. (…)

With this information, can we now scientifically assert that Pam was dead or alive during her near-death experience? Unfortunately, no. Even if all medical tests certify her death, we would still have to wait to see if life was restored. Since she did live, then by definition she was never dead.” (pages 49-50)

Now myself I would argue Sabom’s logical conclusion, but does this sound like a man trying desperately at all costs to “substantiate the otherworldly significance of the NDE”?

IN FACT, Sabom’s religious convictions in his 1998 book actually make him conclude as to the unlikeliness of NDErs’ accounts equaling real afterlife descriptions:

“(T)he teaching of Jesus in his parable of Lazarus remains without contradiction; to our knowledge, no one from these events returned from the grave with afterlife details. Accordingly, I conclude that modern-day descriptions of NDEs are not accounts of life after death.” (p. 198)

To use Harris’ own words, it is “excruciatingly obvious” that he has not read Sabom’s book and is content to characterize him with superficial knowledge of the book and its author.

For those of you SERIOUSLY interested in the Reynolds case, the Journal of Near Death Studies had a recent issue entirely devoted to it (Fall 2011), with a critique of the case by anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee and responses by Stuart Hameroff and Chris Carter.

Then Alex Tsakiris started a thread to address a number of points that Sam Harris apparently got wrong.

“same ol’ Sam… no references… no understanding of the NDE literature… more re-hashing of worn-out Skeptical arguements. I mean, he really needs to learn how to use Google:”

But so far, the most eloquent rebuttal to Sam Harris is a blog post by Bernardo Kastrup (author of three published books). Here’s Kastrup’s critique of Harris on “memory formations”:

“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….

“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.”

And here’s another one on “brain damage”:

“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 if his excellent rebuttals to Harris were not enough, Kastrup also challenged Harris to a debate! Oh, snap! Here’s what Kastrup posted on his FB page.

“PUBLIC CHALLENGE: I hereby challenge Sam Harris for a public debate on the mind-body problem, NDEs, mystical experiences, and non-ordinary states of consciousness. Naturally, I fully expect Harris to ignore this challenge, coming, as it does, from someone not nearly as famous as he is. Either way, the challenge stands.”

Well this just got more interesting! Maybe Harris will just ignore this challenge since Kastrup is not a neuroscientist or not (yet) a best-selling author. But didn’t Harris also say this about Dr. Eben Alexander’s credentials?

“When debating the validity of evidence and arguments, the point is never that one person’s credentials trump another’s. Credentials just offer a rough indication of what a person is likely to know—or should know. If Alexander were drawing reasonable scientific conclusions from his experience, he wouldn’t need to be a neuroscientist to be taken seriously; he could be a philosopher—or a coal miner. But he simply isn’t thinking like a scientist—and so not even a string of Nobel prizes would shield him from criticism.”

Bernardo Kastrup is not a neuroscientist or a neurosurgeon or a best-selling author like Sam Harris and Dr. Eben Alexander. Kastrup is more of a philosopher and a deep thinker who informs himself on topics like neuroscience, philosophy of mind, NDEs, and has taken an alternative view on the mind-body problem. But, IMHO, Kastrup is thinking more like a real scientist compared to Harris, at least on the topic of NDEs. Kastrup has not only drawn a reasonable and informed alternative view on NDE (which he hashed out in a series of blog posts) but even backs up his speculations with citations to studies on mainstream science journals and other scientific publications.

That said, I think Harris and Kastrup might at least have some similarities with their views on mysticism, philosophy, and the mystery of consciousness. Harris is no stranger to Buddhist and nondual philosophy. Kastrup is no stranger to Eastern and nondual philosophy either. But the two seem to have a chasm on their approach to the mystery of consciousness. So as much as I’d like to see a debate between Harris and Alexander, I’d also like to see a debate between Harris and Kastrup. Heck, if Sam Harris can take the time to debate Dinesh D’Souza surely (I hope) he’ll consider debating a more formidable thinker like Kastrup (unless of course, Harris’s policy is only to debate best-selling authors.)

And finally, Kastrup added this in the comment section of his blog post:

…he [Sam Harris] shows that he is not familiar with the subjects and evidence he is alluding to. What he wrote is what one would perhaps write after a brief and cursory reading of a new field. Disgraceful for someone with his media exposure and reputation.

Based on what I’ve seen Harris has written so far on NDEs, I concur with Kastrup’s above assessment.

In any case, it looks like Sam Harris has dug himself deeper into the NDE rabbit hole (same way he dug himself into a subject-matter he clearly knew nothing about. Remember the “Profiling” controvery? But I digress…)

Bottom line: The onus is now on Sam Harris to demonstrate how much he really knows and understands about the science of NDE. So far, I find his knowledge of NDE science not only lacking but also tendentious.

As another insightful Skeptiko forum member posted in the forum:

“This is wonderful stuff. As an “all PR is great PR” kind of guy, this will only serve to make more atheistic/materialistic/skeptical people aware of the evidence. I gladly encourage Sam Harris to become an official NDE skeptic, no matter how uninformed he might be.”

I couldn’t agree more.


P.S. NDE skeptics like Sam Harris often resort to “but they did not actually die” talking point. For Harris you haven’t really died “unless we could know that a subject’s brain was not functioning” and that you stayed dead. But anyone who has done some deep reading of the NDE scientific literature understands that based on clinical definition of death, some patients who had NDEs really died and would’ve stayed dead if not for the current advances in resuscitation technology.

Case in point: Here’s one of the prominent NDE researchers, Dr. Sam Parnia (who is currently doing a long-term study on NDEs called the AWARE Study).  In this talk Dr. Parnia clearly explained how clinical death is defined in the medical field. Surely medical doctors are in a better position to define clinical death, right? Maybe Sam Harris has a better definition of what clinical death is?

Dr Sam Parnia: Near Death Experiences During Cardiac Arrest from APRU on Vimeo.

 P.P.S. Oh, snap! Dr. Eben Alexander has just responded to Sam Harris.

“In October,a Newsweek article featured an excerpt from neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s new book, Proof of Heaven. Several skeptics wrote articles critical of Dr. Alexander’s Newsweek account, notably neuroscientist Sam Harris. Harris disputes that Alexander’s cortex was shut down which allowed the “hyper-real” experience of heaven Alexander reported. While the severity and duration of the meningitis infection, the resulting coma, an enhanced CT scan and neurological examinations all indicate global impairment of the neocortex which would not support consciousness, to Harris these constitute only secondary evidence and consciousness could still have been possible. For Harris, complete brain inactivity can be demonstrated only by brain imaging like fMRI and EEG. It should be noted that while he has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, Harris does not practice neuroscience and is not a clinician.”

Read more.

Looking forward to that debate, Sam! I’m gonna buy me a tub of popcorn! 🙂

Comments (11)

  1. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    Sam Harris just added footnote #2 in response to the brain as “reducing valve” theory.

    “(Added 11/16/12) The phrase “reducing valve” appears to come from Aldous Huxley in his Doors of Perception, but the idea that the brain is a filter (rather than the origin) of mind goes back at least as far as Henri Bergson and William James. Both Bergson and James suggested that the purpose of the brain might be to limit conscious experience to a range of perceptions and mental states compatible with survival in this world. When the barrier of the brain is breached—whether partially, through mystical experience, or fully, upon the death of the body—a wider range of conscious states and cosmic understandings become available. 

    However, as I said above, if the brain were merely a filter, damaging it should reliably increase cognition. Some readers objected to this, suggesting that the brain could be a filter that functions like a radio—a receiver of conscious states, rather than a mere barrier to them. At first glance, this would appear to account for the deleterious effects of neurological injury and disease: If one smashes a radio with a hammer, it no longer functions properly. 

    There is problem with this metaphor, however: Those who employ it forget that we are the music, not the radio. If the brain is truly a receiver of conscious states, it should be impossible to diminish a person’s experience of the cosmos by damaging his brain. He may seem unconscious from the outside—like a broken radio—but, subjectively speaking, the music plays on. 

    This is not how the mind works. Specific reductions in brain activity might benefit people in certain ways, but there is no reason to think that the pervasive destruction of the cortex can leave the mind unaffected (much less improved). For instance, medications that reduce anxiety generally work by increasing the effect of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, thereby diminishing neuronal activity in various parts of the brain. But the fact that dampening arousal in this way can make people feel better does not suggest that they would feel better still if they were drugged into a coma. Similarly, the psychedelic drug psilocybin seems to reduce activity in brain areas responsible self-representation. It would be unsurprising if this accounted for the experience of self-transcendence that is often associated with this drug. But this does not give us any reason to believe that turning off the brain entirely would yield increased awareness of spiritual realities. 

    If Alexander’s account is correct, strategically damaging the brain should be the most reliable method of personal empowerment and spiritual practice available to us. In almost every case, loss of brain should yield more mind. Surely there must be a way of enjoying the benefits of this brain-reduction therapy while maintaining an ability to function in the physical world. He’s the neurosurgeon: I wonder which regions of his brain Alexander would remove first.”

    Friday, November 16, 2012 at 7:04 pm #
  2. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    interesting stuff from NDE researcher PMH Atwater on Eben Alexander III’s book, “Proof of Heaven”

    “There is one factual error in the book on page 78, where he states that he was allowed to die harder, and travel deeper, than almost all other NDE subjects. Almost all? Well, not exactly true, but sort-of. Come to find out his editor insisted that this line be in the book, even though Eben did not agree and felt it was a stretch. Seems to be the way of publishing these days – when in doubt, exaggerate. There are several who evidenced medical conditions similar to Eben’s. The record holder I know about is Walter Russell. I carried some of his case in a number of my books. You can look it up if you wish on page 129 and 130 of The New Children and Near-Death Experiences. In a nutshell, Walter’s first near-death experience occurred when he was 7 years old. It prepared him for the financial disaster his family would soon suffer. Every seven years after that he had another one, each filling him with more knowledge and guidance, until, at age 49, he was suddenly enveloped within the fullness of cosmic consciousness and left “wholly mind,” dead or nearly dead to his family, his brain non-functional. For 39 days and nights he existed similarly to how Eben did. His family was on the verge of committing him to a hospital for the mentally ill and insane when he finally revived. Eben got his mind back, all his scientific work, his family memories, everything that made him who he was, as well as all the “new stuff” – a new understanding of reality, of spirit, of God. Water was not that lucky. He was incapable of language afterward, nor could he even hold a pencil or walk normally. It took him some time before the world inside his brain returned – along with so much more that eventually he was recognized as a genius specializing in chemistry, physics, and electromagnetics. He was the first to predict black holes, and had an ongoing correspondence with Albert Einstein. Read any of his books, especially The Secret of Light or the huge Universal One. All of his work, his theories, his books, and his scientific experiments came directly in content and power from that 39 days and nights “without a brain, hovering at the edge of death – wholly mind.” Link to or google him. He and his wife Lao Russell founded the University of Science and Philosophy. It exists today only via mail and Internet.”

    Friday, November 16, 2012 at 10:59 pm #
  3. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    when Sam Harris was interviewed by Steve Paulson on “To the Best of our Knowledge”, here’s what he said. so I’m wondering why he was so hostile and insulting to Dr. Alexander when Sam is really more like an *agnostic* on survival of consciousness beyond the brain/body. the bottom line is we simply do not know. the NDE phenomenon is another mysterious puzzle in the hard problem of consciousness. 


    Paulson: Now the really interesting thing about listening to atheists on consciousness is they’re actually all over the map. Sam Harris, who is a neuroscientist, he has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, he has a very different view. It’s entirely possible that there could be life after death. He is not willing to rule that out.

    Sam Harris: There are good reasons to be skeptical of the naive conception of a soul and so that the idea that the brain can die and a soul that still speaks English and recognizes Granny is going to float away into the afterlife, that seems to be profoundly implausible. And yet, we do not know what the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity ultimately is and… For instance, we could be living in a universe where consciousness goes all the way down to the bedrock so that there is some interior subjective dimension to an electron, say.

    Paulson: That’s interesting, though, because most evolutionary biologists, I mean I’m in particular thinking the, the secular ones would say, “Of course, consciousness can not survive the brain. It will not survive death.” You are not willing to make that claim.

    Harris: Yeah, I just don’t know. If we were living in a universe where consciousness survived death in some sense or just transcended the brain so that, you know, that single neurons were conscious. We would not expect to see it by our present techniques of neuroimaging or cellular neuroscience, and we would never expect to see it. There are profound philosophical and epistimoligical problems that, that anyone must confront who’s trying to reduce consciousness to the workings of the brain and this discourse is in its infancy, and who knows where it’s going to go?

    Friday, November 16, 2012 at 11:28 pm #
  4. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    Bernardo Kastrup just posted an addendum on his blog as a response to Sam Harris’s footnote on brain as “reducing valve” hypothesis. nice. why don’t you guys do a formal debate already! 🙂

    “Harris 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 notnecessarily 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 availablefrom here. But my use of the radio metaphor does not mean that I believe consciousness to be literallysome 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.”


    Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 9:07 am #
  5. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    great to see Dr. Alexander responding to his critics. for what it’s worth, I’m just glad to see the NDE debate going mainstream. so take your best shot Sam Harris! this rabbit hole goes deep…

    “Since telling my story here, I’ve been amazed and profoundly gratified at how powerfully it has resonated with people all over the world. But I’ve also weathered considerable criticism—in large part from people who are appalled that I, a brain surgeon, could possibly make the claim that I experienced what I did.
    “I can’t say I’m surprised. As a scientist, I know that the consensus of my tribe is that the self is created through the electrochemical activity of the brain. For most neurosurgeons, and most doctors generally, the body produces the mind, and when the body stops functioning, the mind stops, just like a picture projected on a screen does if the projector is unplugged.

    “So when I announced to the world that during my seven days of coma I not only remained fully conscious but journeyed to a stunning world of beauty and peace and unconditional love, I knew I was stirring up a very volatile pot. Critics have maintained that my near-death experience, like similar experiences others before me have claimed, was a brain-based delusion cobbled together by my synapses only after they had somehow recovered from the blistering weeklong attack.”

    Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 6:20 pm #
  6. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    in Sam Harris’s follow-up NDE article he wrote:

    “There are two paths toward establishing the scientific significance of the NDE: The first would be to show that a person’s brain was dead or otherwise inactive during the time he had an experience (whether veridical or not). The second would be to demonstrate that the subject had acquired knowledge about the world that could be explained only by the mind’s being independent of the brain (but again, it is hard to see how this can be convincingly done in the presence of brain activity).”

    i do agree with Harris’s two points (as i think most, if not all, NDE researchers would). i also think that it is almost impossible to prove these two points without going into the realms of philosophy of the mind, epistemology, phenomenology — in short, dealing with the “hard problem of consciousness.”

    what i don’t agree with is Harris’s *doublespeak*. he contends that he’s open-minded when it comes to the mystery of consciousness (note: Harris admitted this in a number of his writings), yet when presented with a cutting-edge science of NDE his knee-jerk reaction was to default to a brain-based materialistic paradigm of consciousness. he says that he’s familiar with the NDE literature, but so far he has only displayed a shallow knowledge of the field.

    take the second point for example: “to demonstrate that the subject had acquired knowledge about the world that could be explained only by the mind’s independent of the brain”. although it’s true that it would be almost impossible to prove this without the brain (since the person has to be alive to share the experience in the first place–a catch-22), there are cases wherein people who had NDEs had seemingly obtained knowledge that were not known (see the famous case of Walter Russell). based on the research of PMH Atwater, in a lot of NDE cases, people had increase in intelligence and that they had access to knowledge that they have otherwise would not have known. they also credit their NDE as a “source” of these knowledge. so based on this data, at the very least, the “paranormal” or psi (which the term I prefer) component cannot be easily dismissed using the current neuroscientific and materialistic paradigm. this is the reason why I remain agnostic and truly open-minded to this topic. NDE science is the cutting-edge of consciousness studies! and it should be treated as such by people like Harris who champion science, critical thinking, and open-mindedness on the mystery of consciousness.

    bottom line: NDE is a mystery. whether we’ll eventually find an answer to the “hard problem of consciousness” in the quantum realm, or whether we’ll eventually jettison the materialistic paradigm in favor of a more wholistic nondual panpsychism-like paradigm where there is no distinction between the natural world and the paranormal, or whatever; who the f**k really knows?

    IMHO, a true skeptic worth the label would go down the NDE rabbit hole, follow the data wherever it leads, and relish the mystery of consciousness for it won’t be a mystery if we already know the answer.

    speaking of PMH Atwater…

    this is a great interview with NDE researcher extraordinaire, PMH Atwater, at The Paracast. for those who are not into NDE research yet, PMH Atwater is a must-know figure in this cutting-edge field. you’re welcome!


    Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 11:13 am #
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    Sam Harris on the Brink of Having an (Intellectual) NDE?