Blog Archives

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

Image

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 Skeptiko.com 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!

Advertisements