Sam Harris tries, and fails, to critique Eben Alexander’s ‘Heaven Is Real’ piece.


This is what happens when you rail on about that which you know exactly zilch.

Sam Harris, with the usual tone of condescension we’ve come to expect, mocks Dr. Eben Alexander’s Newsweek piece Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, and then ends up looking like an ass — a big one.

Sam writes:

“But 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. “

It’s not that Sam, in the above, makes a stupid point (although that’s exacty what it is) but rather that he prematurely — and dim-wittedly — made incendiary pronouncements against Dr. Alexander without even having read the book. That’s just downright lazy, incompetent and telling of how much of a knee-jerk his reaction was, making him (Sam) seem not in the least bit way over his thick little head.

Dr. Alexander, in his book, and as confirmed by Sam’s fellow skeptic who’s read the book — and who has, I would presume, every incentive to agree with Sam (being a skeptic and all) — goes in precise detail how he gets to his conclusions on the nature of consciousness.

So Dr. Alexander’s “reasoning” would only seem “lazy and tendentious” to those who are too “lazy and tendentious” to actually read them before critiquing it.

Sam also downplays — no, actually, he blatantly attempts to discredit — Dr. Alexander’s qualifications by saying:

“Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them.”

[in other words “Oh noes! An after-life can’t be true! Noes!”]

Which was absolutely juvenile of Sam. Does he seriously believe Dr. Alexander, a practicing neurosurgeon and professor at Harvard Medical school (for 20 plus years), merely “cuts brains” while precluding any study of them? Dr. Alexander’s CV is easily accessible online, and the fact that it’s close to 5-pages-long immediately tells us who, between him and Sam, is blowing the smoke.

(Besides, is Sam really attempting to give us the impression that his index card-sized CV trumps the arm-length one of Eben? Hahahahaha! )

This is the problem with Sam and his ilk — they are just as fundamentalist as the religious fundamentalists they devote their attention to railing against. If it goes against the naturalist orthodoxy, it must be false, and those who argue otherwise are being irrational.

Bullshit, I say.

We have every reason to believe, unlike what people like Sam would have us believe, that mind cannot be reduced to brain — the hard problems of consciousness like intentionality and qualia make it such that it cannot in principle be done. So it really isn’t a huge leap (a leap it is, but not a huge one) to go from there to believing mind can survive the brain’s death.

To say nothing of how nauseatingly ignorant people like Sam are of the data we have on NDE experiences. He obviously hasn’t looked at the data and probably even thinks doing so would be beneath him. The fact that each is eerily similar should’ve already told us something.

What’s unique about Eben’s experience, however, is that, unlike the others, and despite Sam Harris’s playground tactic of implying otherwise, he’s actually aware of the workings of the brain, and, again, despite Sam Harris’s tonal affectations of incredulity, is therefore also qualified to give us his opinions — whether or not they are right — on why the materialist account of consciousness is untenable.

Alex Tsakiris from emailed Sam about a possible debate with Eben, to which Sam replied:

“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 to which Eben responded (and thusly proceeded to kick Sam’s behind — actually, ass):

Of course, it was premature for him to speak out based on the Newsweek article — he needs to at least read the book if he wants to avoid making embarrassing statements that he later regrets. Isolated preservation of cortical regions might have explained some elements of my experience, but certainly not the overall odyssey of rich experiential tapestry. The severity of my meningitis and its refractoriness to therapy for a week should have eliminated all but the most rudimentary of conscious experiences: peripheral white blood cell [WBC] count over 27,000 per mm3, 31 percent bands with toxic granulations, CSF WBC count over 4,300 per mm3, CSF glucose down to 1.0 mg/dl (normally 60-80, may drop down to ~ 20 in severe meningitis), CSF protein 1,340 mg/dl, diffuse meningeal involvement and widespread blurring of the gray-white junction, diffuse edema, with associated brain abnormalities revealed on my enhanced CT scan, and neurological exams showing severe alterations in cortical function (from posturing to no response to noxious stimuli, florid papilledema, and dysfunction of extraocular motility [no doll’s eyes, pupils fixed], indicative of brainstem damage). Going from symptom onset to coma within 3 hours is a very dire prognostic sign, conferring 90% mortality at the very beginning, which only worsened over the week. No physician who knows anything about meningitis will just “blow off” the fact that I was deathly ill in every sense of the word, and that my neocortex was absolutely hammered. Anyone who simply concludes that “since I did so well I could not have been that sick” is begging the question, and knows nothing whatsoever about severe bacterial meningitis.

I invite the skeptical doctors to show me a case remotely similar to mine. My physicians, and their consultants at UVA, Bowman Gray-Wake Forest, Duke, Harvard, Stanford and beyond were astonished that I recovered.

In an effort to explain the “ultra-reality” of the experience, I examined this hypothesis: Was it possible that networks of inhibitory neurons might have been predominantly affected, allowing for unusually high levels of activity among the excitatory neuronal networks to generate the apparent “ultra-reality” of my experience? One would expect meningitis to preferentially disturb the superficial cortex, possibly leaving deeper layers partially functional. The computing unit of the neocortex is the six-layered “functional column,” each with a lateral diameter of 0.2–0.3 mm. There is significant interwiring laterally to immediately adjacent columns in response to modulatory control signals that originate largely from subcortical regions (the thalamus, basal ganglia, and brainstem). Each functional column has a component at the surface (layers 1–3), so that meningitis effectively disrupts the function of each column just by damaging the surface layers of the cortex. The anatomical distribution of inhibitory and excitatory cells, which have a fairly balanced distribution within the six layers, does not support this hypothesis. Diffuse meningitis over the brain’s surface effectively disables the entire neocortex due to this columnar architecture. Full-thickness destruction is unnecessary for total functional disruption. Given the prolonged course of my poor neurological function (seven days) and the severity of my infection, it is unlikely that even deeper layers of the cortex were still functioning in more than isolated pockets of small networks.

The thalamus, basal ganglia, and brainstem are deeper brain structures (“subcortical regions”) that some colleagues postulated might have contributed to the processing of such hyperreal experiences. In fact, all agreed that none of those structures could play any such role without having at least some regions of the neocortex still functional. All agreed in the end that such subcortical structures alone could not have handled the intense neural calculations required for such a richly interactive experiential tapestry.

There are 9 hypotheses discussed in an appendix of my book that I derived based on conversations with colleagues. None of them explained the hyper-reality in any brain-based fashion.

In other words, spank you very much, Sam — spank you very much!


Posted on October 18, 2012, in funny, philosophy, science, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. More baseless claims from Sam’s materialistic presuppositions. But I can’t really blame Sam, since he does not have free will and obviously can’t be held responsible for his banal behavior.

  2. Woo Woo vs science. Harris wins this one I’m afraid.

  3. Comment moderation. The first sign of intellectual cowardice. You *must* be religious I bet.

    • You’re full of shit, Chris. The point I was making was no different from that of Alex Tsakiris, who is, like you, a skeptical atheist.

      This isn’t about religion vs science, it’s about actually reading that which you are trying to critique to avoid looking like an ignorant twat.

      I suggest you refrain from doing a Sam and actually read the post above.

    • Funny you should say comment moderation is a sign of intellectual cowardice given that Sam Harris, who seems to be your idol, disallows any form of commenting on his blog.

  4. First, juxtaposing lengths of resumes is not automatically a meaningful comparison.
    Second, I respectfully ask that you point me in the direction of the hard data for NDE’s that you reference. Without hard data, we have NO reason to believe that the mind exists outside of the brain. It does not matter how many stats Dr. Alexander can present to illustrate how close to death his brain was; his brain was not dead. If I am incorrect, I would appreciate if you could highlight for me where he explicitly states that his brain was dead… this means his conscious AND his unconscious brain. If you have read the likes of Pinker, Mlodinow, Bor, Hood, Eagleman etc, you are aware that there is a lot going on in the unconscious brain, and this is a detail not to be overlooked. In the passage you have highlighted, Alexander states that the severity of his meningitis SHOULD have eliminated all but the most rudimentary of conscious experiences. Should is not proof.
    For me this issue is not about religion, it is about abuse of science and using psuedoscience to manipulate people. Can you, or has he, provided PROOF that he was in fact a party to this rich tapestry of experiences when his entire brain was dead?

    • First, it was Sam who was trying to discredit someone of whom he knew close to zero. And when someone else highlights the guy’s CV in an attempt to show he isn’t as ignorant as Sam wants us to think, you say “oh, that’s not a meaningful comparison! Oh noes! it isn’t! noes!”. Right.

      Secondly, I’m sorry, we don’t need “hard data” — presumably by that you mean “empirical data” — to show that mind isn’t reducible to brain. Are you not familiar with what’s considered the hard problem of consciousness — mental states like intentionality and qualia? Because, they show that we cannot in principle reduce mind to brain. Now, that obviously doesn’t mean we go to some theme park when we die, but to posture scientistically and say “Oh Without hard data, we have NO reason to believe that the mind exists outside of the brain!”, either merely reveals your metaphysical commitment to scientism, or your ignorance of our epistemic position on these matters.

      Thirdly, when I wrote the above post, Eben’s book was only availabe to a few people. The point, however, is not that Eben is right and Sam is wrong, that heaven is real and the skeptics are wrong, that religion trumps science and so on, but rather it’s that Sam is railing on about that which he knew zero of, which also happens to be Alex’s point.

      If Sam wants to criticize someone’s work on the particular issue, he should have at least waited for the book or familiarized himself on the data we have on NDE’s. None of which he’s done (at least for his first critique)

      • If indeed your main point is that Harris’ initial response was in haste because he had not read the book, it sounds more as though you are holding a grudge rather than evaluating a situation. He read the same article that everyone else read when the book was still not available. He further listened to a 1-hr interview that he links to in that piece (just like he links to the article) and encourages anyone else who may be reading his piece to do so. And he did in fact read the book when it was available, and posted again when he had more information. Nothing in that process should be described as lazy. I easily grant you, when you posted this original post, he had not yet read the book. But if the book was not out, how can he be lambasted (by you) for not reading the book? I think he critiqued the information that was available to him rather poignantly. He explains at length that his objections do not stem from this point going “against the naturalist orthodoxy”, as you state. His problem is absence of proof.

        Further, to say this topic is something that he knows zero about is not correct.

        I can and would speak further to this, but I have a hard time believing that you could possibly change your opinion, because I believe your opinion is based more on emotion than logic. I would imagine you are losing interest on this topic, but can you provide me direct quotes that you feel best demonstrate his laziness? Can you tell me specifically what you believe is wrong with Harris’ assertion that unless Alexander can provide proof that his experiences occurred at a point in time when his brain was dead, that his entire account is somewhat pointless? If those experiences occurred at any other point in time, they are no more noteworthy than a dream. I do not understand why you feel this does not qualify as a valid and important point (despite being raised after only reading the article, mind you).

        Less importantly (since this was never your original intent), I am aware of qualia and intentionality; I just happen to agree with Daniel Dennett, that while consciousness seems so mysterious to us now, with time, it will be as explainable as anything else we have discovered. The developments they have made in unraveling what seems to be our illusion of a self in the last two decades is astounding. It feels a bit grand to me to impose such a level of importance on ourselves as a species considering everything we do know about the universe (which is still close to nothing). I am, however, always open to other ideas in the presence of sound data, which is why I requested direction to the data on NDE’s you continue to reference. Does this data extend beyond the fact that we currently don’t know for sure, so anything is a possibility?

        And I don’t care if Harris’ resume is 20-pages and Alexander’s is one sentence… it still would not only be a weak comparison, but not matter to this argument. I actually do not even doubt Alexander’s qualifications, but that does not change the fact that he has not provided proof of the timing of his experiences.

        I apologize for the lengthy response if you are indeed losing interest… but there are so many things about this that interest me.

    • “Can you, or has he, provided PROOF that he was in fact a party to this rich tapestry of experiences when his entire brain was dead?”
      How would you suppose he go about doing that exactly apart from what he has done, telling people about the experience in context of the severity of the illness that he had. The fact is that he is a professor and neuro surgeon at Harvard who, prior to this event was as skeptical as you of this kind of thing. I’m afraid thats the nearest you’ll get to proof my friend without being there yourself.

      Unless of course this is an elaborate hoax to sell books. Personally judging by his credibility I doubt that a lot.

  5. @Murphy,

    My response is here

    Sorry it took a while.

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