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 lies.com 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.