Novella on Alexander’s Proof of Heaven

It’s easy to be superstitious, to believe in mysterious forces beyond our ken that shape the reality we live in. Because there are mysterious forces beyond our ken, and they do shape the reality we live in. But the difference between superstition and actual knowledge is that with actual knowledge, there’s objective evidence that supports the belief. With superstition, it’s just what we want to believe, for whatever reason, bolstered by confirmation bias.

I’ve given up a fair amount of superstitious belief over the last several years, and it makes me kind of a Debbie Downer in discussions involving mystical belief, especially discussions with people I care about. So I mostly don’t discuss those things. Which is an easy course of action for me to adopt, since I’m an off-the-charts introvert whose go-to response in pretty much any social situation that carries a hint of potential conflict is a stony silence. (Or what appears from the outside to be stony. From my perspective, it’s just silence. I guess stones, if they could speak, might have the same complaint.)

Anyway, what I actually wanted to talk about was a recent noteworthy bit of wishful credulity by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander in Newsweek, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife. Alexander was in a coma for 7 days after contracting meningitis. After recovering, he came to believe that he’d experienced a cloud-like realm, a sense of universal love, and another being with whom he conversed, and that he had done so (this part is key) while his higher brain functions were clinically, demonstrably inactive.

Letting the air out of this story is (who else?) neuroscientist, noted skeptic, and man-crush Steven Novella: Proof of Heaven?

While his experience is certainly interesting, his entire premise is flimsily based on a single word in the above paragraph – “while.” He assumes that the experiences he remembers after waking from the coma occurred while his cortex was completely inactive. He does not even seem aware of the fact that he is making that assumption or that it is the central premise of his claim, as he does not address it in his article.

Of course his brain did not go instantly from completely inactive to normal or near normal waking consciousness. That transition must have taken at least hours, if not a day or more. During that time his neurological exam would not have changed significantly, if at all. The coma exam looks mainly at basic brainstem function and reflexes, and can only dimly examine cortical function (through response to pain) and cannot examine higher cortical functions at all. His recovery would have become apparent, then, when his brain recovered sufficiently for him to show signs of consciousness.

Alexander claims there is no scientific explanation for his experiences, but I just gave one. They occurred while his brain function was either on the way down or on the way back up, or both, not while there was little to no brain activity.

It’s not that the world isn’t mysterious. It is. It’s just that our desire to explain the things we don’t understand needs to be grounded in some sort of epistemological framework, one that takes into account things like the well-documented, easily reproducible fact that a human brain, deprived of oxygen or otherwise taken outside the relatively narrow constraints within which it likes to operate, quickly becomes an unreliable narrator.

20 Responses to “Novella on Alexander’s Proof of Heaven”

  1. shcb Says:

    Both men seem to be making the assumption that just because we can’t measure brain activity at a certain level there is no activity. A few years or decades ago there was a point at which we couldn’t measure activity that we can now, did it mean that activity wasn’t bouncing around playing cerebral hacky sack? Of course not, it just means we didn’t know it was having fun at the time.

    How does Novella (or Alexander for that matter) know the next level of consciousness even uses brain waves to function? In fact if the next level does exist whether you call it karma, heaven, The Force, whatever, it almost certainly doesn’t use brain waves since the primary premise of all those states is they exist where there is a lack of human life, where entities that were once recognizable as individuals in this dimension are still recognizable as a different form of the same individuals in the next, ghosts for example. So almost by default the next level won’t use something like brainwaves that require the systems of the host in this life to survive.

  2. jbc Says:

    Well, just a quick response because I think your comment kind of cries out for it:

    1) Both men (esp. Novella) are by training ridiculously more qualified than either you or me to offer a judgement about how good or bad the ability to detect brain activity is, and the likelihood that conventional (i.e., non-angelic, non-supernatural) processes are in fact at work in a brain that is determined by a state-of-the-art medical test to be inactive. And my (again, limited) understanding is that while we’re largely in the dark about the higher-order phenomena that result in things like cognition and memory and meaningful perception, at the low level of neurons activating or not, we’re pretty good at spotting activity and distinguishing it from its absence. So for both reasons, I think your questioning of their assumption is kind of on shaky ground.

    2) Your speculation about ghosts and the Force or whatever it is you’re talking about is a good example of the kind of thinking I’ve come to see as credulous and superstitious, even when couched (as you have here) in speculative language like “even if the next level does exist.” To even spend as much time as you do in your second paragraph talking about the putative characteristics of this hypothetical “next level of consciousness” is to buy into, at least on some level, a fantasy without any rational basis. That is, even though I realize you are saying “if this exists”, to my mind statements like that indicate a childlike willingness to accept that things like ghosts or heaven or karma are at least reasonable subjects for speculation and discussion, with at least a non-zero possibility of existing.

    My current view is that no, none of those things have a non-zero possibility of existing. They’re constructs of human imagination and wish-fulfillment. I can’t prove they don’t exist, because by their nature they get to be wisps of elusive non-dimensional “next level” incorporeal magicstuff. And that isn’t the same thing as me arguing that we know all there is to know, or that there aren’t more and greater mysteries than these lurking out there in the universe waiting to be discovered. There are. But if and when those mysteries are revealed to us, they won’t be ghosts, angels, the intensely colored cloud-filled heaven of Alexander’s oxygen-deprived hallucination, or anything else that a credulous human Believer happens to believe now based on an emotional attachment to woo. They’ll be something different, maybe something equally unlikely, but not any of those particular unlikely things.

  3. knarlyknight Says:

    And there we have it, two Poles and a Gulf larger than Alaska.

    I’ve nothing to add, except that JBC’s first point, in reference to “state of the art medical tests” characteristically seems to idolize authoritative scientists, which is fine except to the extent it lacks humility or the lessons learned from the brain activity of a dead salmon exposed to provocative images, or the fact that our esteemed scientists often fail to statistically correct MRI readings to account for dead salmon readings in their published research.

    Dead fish tell no Lies.

  4. shcb Says:

    It’s a good thing scientists through history haven’t had your mindset, we never would have made a single scientific or technological breakthrough if we decided that since we don’t understand it, it has no chance of existing.

  5. knarlyknight Says:

    I guess my point above would make more sense with this link:

  6. knarlyknight Says:

    shcb- JBC has a medley of beliefs about ideas, but on the other hand he has an over-arching deference to authoritative scientists which he tends to let shut down his own cognitive reasoning.

  7. knarlyknight Says:

    JBC – we all know shcb believes in fairy tales, e.g. he’s an AGW skeptic & 911 Truth denier.

  8. __j__ Says:

    @jcb, what mysterious forces beyond our ken, which do shape reality, do you speak of? Or, I guess, what secondary evidence do you see for such things, and what makes you believe they are beyond our capacity to understand…? (I will accept the digital equivalent of stony silence.)

    @shcb, your point about measurement is dead on. We don’t even know what to measure! They were detecting various forms of brain-activity with their equipment, but one of them says his *higher* brain functions (i.e. the sort of activity that according to some half-baked theory of his ‘counts’ as higher-level-brain-activity… which means ignoring all the *measured* brain activity they *did* see as mere non-higher-level-activity… sigh).

    Your second point, that in *any* sort of life-after-life worldview, where people that have been dead for thousands of years are hypothesized to still be somehow active, it is silly to assume that A) they have active brain-functions at any level, or even B) that they need have brain-functions at all. Pretty much the whole premise of any afterlife I’ve heard of is that physical bodies aren’t required… which makes measuring brain-functions of a physical body, especially one that is still alive, seem to be a pretty foolish way to experiment with this.

    @jcb#2, your argument from authority is a big fail. Those guys have no authoritative credentials on studying the afterlife. From my perspective, with training in AI, they have no authoritative credentials whatsoever. You don’t ask a brain surgeon to put forth a coherent philosophy of mind, with a bullet-proof explanation of consciousness, and the blueprints for building such a thing from scratch… any more than you ask an airline maintenance mechanic to hash out the design the next 797 or F-36 (or whatever Boeing ends up calling them). Being able to repair brains does not mean understanding the theory of mind, any more than being able to repair aircraft means you understand aerospace theories.

    Quite frankly, one of the big mysteries in the world is HOW, in theory, brains work. (I don’t consider it beyond our ken though — someday we’ll figure it out — the question is when, not whether.) We have absolutely no clue how minds work today. If we did, then instead of typing away at other humans only, talking about elections and the medical industry and such, we would also be talking with hyperintelligent supercomputers (and probably electing them to be our presidents with any luck). Or, if you prefer the dystopian worldview, we could be fighting them with laser-rifles to try and keep them from building armies of Schwartnegger look-alikes to be sent back through time to destroy the mom of our rebel leader. Yeah.

    “I can’t prove they don’t exist, because by their nature they get to be wisps… But if and when those mysteries are revealed to us, they won’t be ghosts, angels, the intensely colored cloud-filled… hallucination, or anything else that a credulous human…”

    Umm, we cannot prove such things categorically don’t exist. Period, stop, end of transmission. The burden of proof is upon those that do claim such things, or, alternatively, the burden of faith. However, it’s wrong to say we can eliminate all existing theories, religious or otherwise, as being wrong. You have a *hunch* that they are wrong, but you cannot prove it one way or the other, given the nature of the subject.

    Any specific belief-system can be shown to have internal contradictions, which might disprove a particular religion/spirituality/whatever as being wrong logically, but it is quite possible (albeit rare in practice) to construct belief-systems without those flaws. That doesn’t make them correct! If they want to claim to be scientifically proven, they have to prove their claims scientifically… or wait until their predictions come true. Simply being not-scientifically-disproven is easy… but meaningless! That said, you cannot say that *all* manner of ghosts/angels/heavens/etc are uniformly ruled out. We simply don’t know that, and arguably, cannot ever provably know anything like that, by the nature of the topic.

  9. __j__ Says:

    @knarlyknight, your comments on this topic are a bit fishy! or should I say, salmon-y. (That was a pretty funny link.) But it makes the point that we have measurement problems, with pure and simply figuring out what our instrumentation is telling us, that a dead fish shows ‘activity’ unless you do your math very carefully. The most recent article on the same site is about yet another measurement difficulty — EEG readings differ, depending on whether the subject is laying on their back, or on their stomach. We are at a *very* early stage in the mind-sciences.

  10. shcb Says:

    It’s kind of nice having someone on my side for a change. One more small point. Science moves at a slow pace for the most part, every now and then an invention or discovery happens when a freak experiment leaves the scientist with spider like powered, but that isn’t usually the case. If heaven exists and we “discover” it, it will happen over such a long period of time we probably won’t even notice, and it won’t be heaven or a matter faith, it will be scientific “fact”

  11. jbc Says:

    Yeah, my point was just that speaking for myself (something one or more of you may have overlooked), I think the point where your last statement goes off the rails is right here: “If heaven exists and we “discover” it…”

    Because it doesn’t. And we won’t. And if all you have in support of the appropriateness of continuing farther with statements that begin with those seven words is the currently available crop of wishful thinking and childish self-deception that others (like Alexander) offer in support of it, then you owe it to yourself to grow up, and live in the real world, which is a world in which magical things don’t actually operate, and the human tendency to imbue random events with agency is seen for what it is: an adaptive trait acquired through a very long stretch of random events, and one that leaves one less aware, rather than more aware, of the mysteries of the world around us.

    I don’t expect that argument to convince others, which is a big part of why (as I said up top) it’s an argument I seldom make IRL. I don’t expect it to convince any of you here. I don’t say it because I think it’s going to convince you. I say it because it’s true.

  12. enkidu Says:

    Holy Jesus on a fried cheese sandwich toast!

    I thought most of the whole ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ phenomena was found to be anoxia, brain chemistry changes, anomalous electric changes (it is pretty dramatic to sustain a life threatening injury, esp to the brain itself). Having a hallucination doesn’t mean it is anything more than a hallucination. I have a personal interest in ‘entheogens’ not for their spiritual value per se, but for their ability to give insight and uniqueness to how the human animal interfaces with the real. I don’t ascribe any great or profound truths to these experience other than to learn from them as a means of gaining perspective on the human condition (mine, ymmv =)

    So far we haven’t been able to get ‘lucky’ enough to have someone in a really good fMRI scanner when they have one of these episodes (tho i wouldn’t put it past the Chinese to be doing that kind of creepy stuff to prisoners, or maybe our CIA)

    Pareidolia with a healthy helping of anthropocentrism.

    I had a couple good chuckles at the comments in this thread. Knarly manages to slip in a 9/11 reference (zing!) and shcb thinks we should be tasking NASA with exploring that great undiscovered country. To soar beyond death’s fences…

    Really ‘discovering’ heaven? Which one? There are some few thousands of religions across the history of human evolution (oooops, sorry, the earth is only 6000 years old, right) and many have stories of an after-life. Which one do we blast off to first? Which is the one with all the virgins again? That one sounds nice.

    One of my favorite authors is Ian M. Banks. His ‘Culture’ novels are superb, with his latest being “Surface Detail” which describes a virtual afterlife where hi rez sims of various beings endure a virtual hell or afterlife tuned to their species.
    from amazon “It begins in the realm of the Real, where matter still matters.
    It begins with a murder. And it will not end until the Culture has gone to war with death itself.”
    Perhaps not the best introduction to the series (not that there is any real order or sequence to the Culture novels).

  13. knarlyknight Says:

    There’s no heaven? Well, if you say so. Actually, I’m with you on that one, but that’s due to my lack of faith and is not a matter of science. Science cannot prove there is no heaven. Fortunately, scientist do not have to prove that and fortunately the balance of probabilities against such a fairy tale is overwhelming. Just sayin.

    And another thing…
    If a rational explanation exists for WTC 1, 2 and 7 collapses at virtual & freefall speeds, directly through the remaining massive stationary structures, and we discover it, then JBC will be vindicated in his dismissal of the 1,700 Architects and Engineers for 911 Truth who are trying to dispel misinformation with scientific facts and forensic evidence.

  14. shcb Says:

    I think you guys are missing my point which is that I agree there probably (notice I said probably) isn’t a place called heaven in the sense my very religious daughter (who just had a little girl a couple days age, mom and child are doing fine thank you) considers heaven. We probably won’t find the “god” in her belief system either, not an all powerful, all knowing, able to change a person’s destiny if they just pray really, really hard God. But I think we will eventually find a state or dimension or something that will contain entities that will explain many of the phenomenon that people use to justify religion. Now that won’t stop religion because people need to believe in things that don’t exist, but it will explain some of the justifications now, angels, ghosts ESP(N) for instance.

    To believe there is no religious heaven as is preached in sermons every week is probably not unreasonable, but to believe there is no possibility of heaven, ghosts, paranormal activity etc when we simply can’t explain certain things is as much a belief process as my daughter firmly believing her newborn child being healthy was the purposeful will of a higher being that had the power to somehow give her 6 toes on one foot if it wished, and only my daughter’s prayers kept that from happening.

    Pure atheism is just as much a belief process as pure Christianity. That was pretty much what J was saying above.

    At one point a flea was the smallest form of life, there was nothing smaller because that was as small as a man could see. Then technology invented the microscope and we found there were single cell creatures in pond scum and that was the smallest particle, the cell, nothing is smaller, then the atom, then subatomic particles. At some point it would seem reasonable that we will discover particles (for lack of a better word) that aren’t particles (wasn’t that one of Tesla’s theories?). When we find that force (again for a lack of a better word) why is it so unrealistic that there is an organization of those un-particle particles that have formed into something that can function in unison as the atoms and cells function in our bodies?

  15. knarlyknight Says:

    shcb, I didn’t realize you smoked weed.

  16. enkidu Says:

    congrats on the new grandkid shcb!
    I have a decade or maybe two before the grandkids start showing up.
    Can’t wait!

    We are like children playing with seashells at the shores of the ocean of knowledge. But science has given us a more consistent, provable, logical explanation for existence rather than the typical spirits and boojums, sky faeries and cosmic awe. We certainly don’t know everything, but we know a whole heck of a lot more than we did not so long ago (a blink of an eye in a evolutionary or cosmic timeframe). Good times.

    Serendipitously, while searching out the Banks blurb I discovered he has a new novel out! Jackpot! I’ve been way too busy of late to keep up with culture (not The Culture). Too many programming books to read much of anything fun right now. A new Culture novel will be welcome relief.

  17. knarlyknight Says:

    Interesting how Solipsism mirrors some of the argument here about what science can prove or cannot prove, i.e. the question of what do we really know taken to an absurd extent.

    Solipsism “is the only epistemological position that, by its own postulate, is both irrefutable and yet indefensible in the same manner.”

  18. knarlyknight Says:

    Again, a link:

  19. sheepdove Says:

    The book is a book of monsters. Aaron led the people in following the golden bull it shows. After the people was free of Moses they followed Aaron’s god. Then later on they worshiped David who could be considered the son of Satan. Psalm 2 shows that the god of David adopted him as his son. He was not the god of Jesus though. Psalm 82 shows A’-saph showing his god standing in the congregation of the mighty. That god was David. In verse 6 of Psalm 82 David calls the warriors gods and in verse 8 he tells them “Arise, O God, judge the earth:” or in other words to rise up and kill the enemy. Psalm 86 shows a prayer of A’-saph that’s made out as a prayer of David falsely. A’-saph is praying to David. Thus when the 3 wise men came to see Herod and said where is he who is born King of the Jews Herod went crazy and sought to kill all of the babies. These unwise men made him think that they were talking of someone born of David who Herod recognized as God. Thus Jesus became the son of God. David’s god was Satan according to Jesus for he followed man’s doctrines as did all Jews. The Jews has David’s seed going up Mary’s dress when she was batheing in their bible. He was the opposite of David. It was not Jesus that called hisself the King of the Jews though. The Jews did. They called him the son of David all of the time. He said he wasn’t David’s son though and twhen they made out David as god he said David had a god he prayed to. He said David was a murderer and a liar and so they made out that he was talking about Abraham being the murderer and liar. Jesus asked why they didn’t follow the laws that Moses gave them. That showed that they didn’t follow his god as did the killing of his disciples by the church. Then the Romans came along and wrote the New Testament to lead people away from Jesus and to their god. A killer like that of David’s. They refused to give up killing. The god of Moses at the end didn’t allow killing and neither did the god of Jesus. So the deceiver, the church, led the people away from the god of Jesus. Thus religious devils kill. And the church blesses those who kills. Jesus was a vegetarian Peter showed when he said he never ate meat before the death of Jesus. Jesus showed he wanted things of man,in other words to eat meat and called him Satan proveing that he was the one who betrayed him and not Judas. Judas stole the body of Jesus and so they said tell the people that the disciples stole the body. So they hung Judas for doing so and put the betrayal off on him and not Peter who lived with them after betraying him while the others deciples ran from the Romans. The Romans said let’s call it gospel and so it was. Every lie in the bible. Hey Mary is that angel inside or outside the sepulchre? Or is 2 angels outside or indide? Did any disciples see him really before you as you said once? Mary had too many versins of her meeting the angel, angels told. And In the first book of Matthew Jesus took the disciples away from fishing. It was in precedeing books he filled the nets with fish but not in the first. He said his meat was bread. We was told bread was to be eaten as his flesh and not meat proveing he was a vegetarian. He had the disciples gathering grains all the time and not killing animals or catching fish. He only supposedly had one catch a fish to take a coin from it’s mouth with which to pay a tribute. Something he would never of done because only his god was his master to him and not those who ruled countries. Not those of the church either. In one book he was naked eating fish because he was a Roman poseing as Jesus with a face that the disciple did’nt recognize. A Roman face just like the so-called angel or angels had. This risen Jesus was for the purpose of ferreting out the disciples and for leading the Jews to their doctrines. He was naked because Jesus shroud was stolen with the body of Jesus and so he couldn’t wear it as Jesus would had done. The Jews has never followed the god of Jesus and neither have the christians so whether or not heaven is real is irrevelant. Nobody can get there anyway. They all follow the doctrines of man and thus are cursed to eternal Hell by Jesus. In other words since in older writeing the earth is Hell they are cursed to rot in the grave forever. Thus when they do they will finally do something useful. They will provide nutrients for the plants.

  20. __j__ Says:

    shcb: “Pure atheism is just as much a belief process as pure Christianity.” Yes, and by pure, I would mean, insistently ideologically adamant that not just particular *specific* forms of heaven, such as the one enkidu mentions with all the virgins, but in fact any conceivable notion that might correspond to a *generic* sort of heaven-like thingamajig… claiming an impossibility-result for the latter is going too far.

    It is possible to disprove particular notional heavens, by pointing out internal logical contradictions in that particular theology. You can also, in some cases, point out physical evidence which contradicts portions of some particular theology (e.g. the 6000-year-age-of-the-planet problem)… but this is less powerful, because one can always fall back on the just-a-metaphor defense.

    Scientifically speaking, though, we cannot categorically disprove *all* the conceivable heaven-ish thingamajigs, even if we can disprove large categories of them, and many particular examples of heaven-concepts. To assert that there is no such thing as ‘heaven’, no matter what one *means* by that term, is overbroad/incorrect. Practical atheism can be defended — which differs from pure atheism, in that you say all heaven-notions I have looked into (or heard of being looked into) have been either internally inconsistent or historical-slash-scientifically inaccurate or both, hence I currently hold an atheistic stance on all life-after-life issues.

    shcb: “I think we will eventually find a state or dimension or something…” Maybe that will happen… and as you correctly point out Leeuwenhoek(sp) managed it once before… but I wouldn’t hold my breathe. Methinks more likely than finding some sort of parallel physical dimension to explain most of our various superstitions, we will find mental states in our minds that adequately explain why people see (or think they see or claim they see… insert any qualifiers you require here) things like ghosts/psychics/angels/youfoes/leprechauns/etc. They are not simply hallucinations in the usual sense, which have a well-known physical explanation (drug like LSD or severe hunger-n-fatigue). So what are they, precisely?

    Scientists aren’t helping us here — on the one hand we have Eben Alexander, who has a subjective experience and then claims it is ‘scientific proof’ that his particular religious theology is 100% correct and there is no scientific explanation, and on the other hand we have Steven Novella saying he is 0% correct and that the true explanation of the phenomenon is that his subjective experience was a time-compressed hallucination that happened just as he was returning to consciousness and only seemed to last a long time. In both cases, we have scientists putting forth a poorly-formed hypothesis, and then ending the discussion, without further refining of the form, without doing experiments to attempt to disprove their pet theory, and without getting us any closer to REALLY understanding either the nuts and bolts of consciousness, or for that matter, the why and how of religiousity.

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