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! 🙂

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