Atheism, Eben Alexander and a Neurosurgeon’s Experience of…Something.
I want to write about this article, I guess you should probably read it. I thought I’d gotten it all out on Facebook, but no, Eben Alexander is actually STILL making me mad, and I don’t know, I guess I’ve got more nattering to do. I have some things to say, first about atheism, the second about why this article pisses me off so much. (Spoiler Alert: It’s NOT because I hate religion and think religious experience is a load of malarkey.)
The Null Set
Before I get going, though, I want to reiterate what I wish everyone understood about atheism, and that is that it is a null set – it is a set, in other words, made up of everything that lacks a particular characteristic, and as such, it is an eclectic and randomly filled-out set. You can be an atheist libertarian or an atheist socialist, you can be an atheist Buddhist, an atheist pagan, you can be an atheist materialist, an atheist spiritist, whatever. All that matters is that you share the characteristic of “not believing in a theist God” (which is actually a complicated and widely-variegated belief in and of itself), and you’re an atheist. What that means is that we don’t actually have to answer to each other; the fact that Richard Dawkins and I are both atheists is not a relevant connection between us. It is inaccurate to draw conclusions about what I believe based on what Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or Ricky Gervais says – as much as they sometimes ACT like there is an atheist club, there isn’t one. We haven’t got a doctrine, there’s no pope of atheism or anything, we’re all completely unrelated to each other.
Compare this too, for instance, Catholicism (which I’m only picking on because it’s got such a specific doctrine and a comparatively centralized organizational structure) – if someone tells you that they’re Catholic, you can, in theory, make some broad conclusions about the sorts of things that they believe in. There is a specific definition for Catholic that includes a particular set of beliefs, so if you identify as Catholic but don’t believe that transubstantiation is a real thing, it’s actually on you to say that, otherwise it’s perfectly reasonable for the rest of us to assume that you do.
All of which is to say that I’m going to go on a bit here, but I want everyone to keep in mind that my atheism is unique to me; other atheists might believe it, they might not, who can say? Even when I talk about “Atheism” like it’s a thing (which I plan on trying to avoid doing, but I might slip up, who knows), I really just mean, “Atheism … the way I see it.” I can’t speak to a broad category of essentially unrelated people who are only group for convenience in one set because of a particular characteristic that we lack in common, so I’m not going to. Maybe one day my own brand of Mystic Zen Buddhist Materialist Atheism will catch on, and I will be the pope of the Cult of Braak and things will change (OH HOW THINGS WILL CHANGE WHEN THAT HAPPENS!), but for right now I’m just a guy with a blog.
There are some things I can speak to broadly, though, and one of those things is Science, and how it works. When we talk about science, we’re really talking about two things: one is the job of science, like if your job is to be a chemist or something, and invent a variety of chemicals every day at work, it’s fair to call you a scientist; the other is the system of organized curiosity about the natural world that is Science – the process of finding things out – and so if you are a “believer” in that system, then I’m going to also call you a scientist, but for the sake of argument I’ll call you a Scientist, and use capital letters to distinguish all that.
There are some key issues here, and the very first one is why I put “believer” in quotes; this is because Science is not a set of beliefs about the natural world, Science is a confidence in the methodology for finding those beliefs. That methodology is not spectacularly complicated, I think you can boil it down to: “ideas are tested by experiment,” with maybe a caveat of “the explanation with the fewer added parts is probably the right one.”
You can see, I’m sure, why this causes confusion. The thing of it is, you can’t “prove Science wrong” by showing, say, that the world is flat. If every Scientist in the world believes that the Earth is round, and then you sail off the edge of it one day in a boat, you haven’t proved Science wrong, you’ve proved it right – because Science isn’t the belief that the Earth is round, Science is the belief that you find things out by testing them. Sail off the edge of the world, and you confirm the methodology. We’re supposed to find out that our specific beliefs are wrong, the whole point of the methodology is to do exactly that: to cause us to engage in a constant, sometimes gradual, sometimes cataclysmic, re-evaluation of our beliefs about the natural world. Science, in other words, is supposed to tell us not when we’re right, but when we’re wrong.
And that’s another key point in the methodology, which is that nothing in Science is ever proved right, it’s only consistently failed to be proven wrong, and what that means is that the likelihood that a theory is true is directly proportional to how hard you try to refute it. You can’t know that it’s right, all you can do is fail – in every possible way you can think of – to be sure that it’s wrong, and if you don’t try every possible way that you can think of, then you don’t know anything. You’ve got to put the theory in the trash, because it’s garbage. No matter how much you like it, no matter how nice or simple it seems, no matter how happy it makes you: if you aren’t willing to tear it to shreds, then it’s garbage.
There’s one last little bit I want to go over before I really start getting into this, and it’s related to the null-set issue I brought up earlier: Science doesn’t care about personalities. No matter who you are, or where your from, the methodology is the same; you don’t get extra points because you’ve been around the block, or are a professional science-doer, or anything like that. If you’re Albert god-damn Einstein, and you believe some dumb thing that Madame Balavatsky told you about Atlantis, it doesn’t matter that you’re Albert Einstein. Your reputation doesn’t improve the theory, the theory just drags down your reputation. If you’re Stephen Hawking and you present your theory about Hawking Holes to the grand council of black hole scientists at Cambridge, and a six year old wanders in and points out a flaw in your methodology, then guess what? You’ve got a flaw in your methodology. Shape it up or go home, this is no place for shilly-shallying.
The Science of It
The point of this article in Newsweek, I have no doubt, is to trade on the authority of an established neurosurgeon and expert in brains in order to offer up compelling proof to religious skeptics (well, possibly the purpose is just for the sake of trolling, since that’s what Newsweek really does, see examples here, here, and here). The article is arranged in such away to establish his skeptical background first, because a story of the afterlife is more compelling to skeptics if it seems like the storyteller is a skeptic, too, and he wants to use the language of science to give credence to his experience. Here:
I know how pronouncements like mine sound to skeptics, so I will tell my story with the logic and language of the scientist I am.
All right, fair enough. Let’s look at the logic and the language that he uses.
As a neurosurgeon, I did not believe in the phenomenon of near-death experiences.
Wrong. Bad science. You don’t believe in the phenomenon of near-death experiences? How can it be a phenomenon if it doesn’t exist? Why don’t you believe in it if it does exist? Especially if you’re going to say this:
I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death.
Well, so then you DO believe in the phenomenon. You just believe there’s a “scientific explanation” for it. Sorry, hold on, let me put that in quotes.
Good scientific explanations
Wrong. Bad science. Explanations are good BECAUSE they’re scientific – they explain things precisely and accurately. Explanations that are imprecise or inaccurate aren’t explanations at all, they’re empty handwaving. You can explain any phenomenon with “God did it,” which is exactly as precise and accurate an explanation as “Jublewumber did it.” It’s just a fancy way of saying “no current explanation is available,” and if you’re going to preface your experience with “I thought there were good scientific explanations for this sort of thing,” only to say, “I have found a non-scientific explanation for this thing” then guess what? You don’t have an explanation.
But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.
Wrong. Bad science. Oh, the arrogance of the scientific man, always thinking that he knows better than those who understand the world through faith alone! This is a very good way to garner sympathy for people who are concerned that other people think they’re stupid, but it is still bad science: if you are a scientist, then you never know better than someone else, you don’t say, “I knew better than to believe them” – that makes it sound like they’ve presented a compelling argument and you’re choosing not to believe it. But why would you choose not to believe something if it seemed like it was true? HOW could you choose not to believe something if it seemed like it was true? The real thing to say is, “I know a lot of people believed these things, but I saw no evidence suggesting their beliefs were required to explain the phenomenon of the natural world.”
Within hours, my entire cortex—the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human—had shut down.
This is certainly scientific language, but I’m not sure it counts as science. “thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human” the cortex controls all that – that’s what makes us human? Do animals not have cereberal cortices? (They do). Do human beings not need the other parts of the brain in order to be human? (We do.) What does it mean when you say something like that? It’s not precise, it’s not completely accurate, which means it’s not scientific – so, it’s kind of a good story, in the sense that skeptics are more susceptible to believing things that sound like science, but it’s not actually good science.
There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well.
Wrong. Bad science. Here, I will come up with several explanations right now: 1) the machine that was measuring your cortical activity malfunctioned. 2) The person whose job it was to read the machine wasn’t paying attention. 3) Once you woke up, the people who gave you the information about your cortex gave it to you incorrectly. 4) Medical science is wrong about what part the cortex plays in cognition. 5) Your inner journey and your comatose state were not coterminous, they only seemed that way.
Obviously, Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon and can be relied on to be an expert in his field; I am not saying that I know more about brain science than you do, Eben Alexander. What I am saying, in the same manner as the six-year-old at the black hole convention, is that these are reasonable questions that anyone might have asked, and they are the first things you should have eliminated, and they should be right in the forefront of the article. I should be able to look at the article and see, “Here’s how I eliminated machine error, here’s how I eliminated human error. Here’s EVERY POSSIBLE way that I could think of for this to have been a delusion, and here’s how I very carefully falsified each of those theories, thus leaving me with the however-improbable but ultimately inescapable conclusion that I reached.” In other words, I shouldn’t have to be the one thinking up questions; they should be answered before I start.
According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma.
Wrong. BAD SCIENCE. Medical understanding is descriptive, not prescriptive. Medical understanding CAN’T say that your experience was impossible, you experienced it, it is by definition possible. The fact of the experience is evidence of the experience (though not, it should be pointed out, evidence of the nature of the experience). If you were genuinely interested in approaching this scientifically, why wasn’t revising your own theories about the functions of the cereberal cortex the first thing that you did?
But what happened to me was, far from being delusional, as real or more real than any event in my life.
WRONG. BAD SCIENCE. It SEEMED real, but the SEEMINGNESS of reality – the sense that a thing genuinely happened – is a thing that your brain does. If you didn’t bring back God’s fucking shoe from the afterlife, then you don’t KNOW that it’s real. If no one saw your spirit leave your body, if no one went with you to the land beyond consciousness, there’s no corroboration. Now, I’m not saying that it WASN’T real. Maybe it was! It is possible, I guess, that it was real – I mean, it was certainly a real experience, but it’s also possible that the experience was exactly the thing that it seemed to be. The point here is that you don’t KNOW that it was real, you just know that you FEEL LIKE it was real – and if you are here to “use the language of logic and science” to explain your adventure, then you’d well better start using that language correctly.
Now, again, I don’t know what this cat’s experience was, and I’m not going to say that it was a real or a not-real experience. What I’m saying is that his argument for its reality is not even remotely compelling. I mean, the most straightforward explanation, I think, is this: his cortex was shut down by the bacteria. The bacteria started dying off. As his cortex started turning back on – in the time between the activity began and his eyes “popped open” – the cortex stimulated a variety of parts of his brain in an order that his consciousness wasn’t used to; as he regained awareness, he assembled them into an extremely vivid hallucinatory experience.
I mean, I don’t know; why is he assuming that his hallucinatory experience happened at the same time he was in a coma? Because it seemed to take seven days? When I was in college and broke and starving, I had a dream that I spend a whole week with ten thousand dollars in my bank account. That seemed like a week, but I am pretty sure it only took a couple minutes, between waking up in anxiety at six fifty-five, and being woken up by my alarm at seven. Without any external referent, it’s not very easy to tell how long things are happening when you’re dreaming. And, of course, cortical re-activation isn’t the same thing as dreaming – our brains don’t shut down at night – so there’s nothing unreasonable about this “journey” being wildly dissimilar, experientially, from a dream. Anyway, that was a good dream, I liked imagining I had ten thousand dollars in my bank account. Felt an enormous sense of relief, a confidence about my future, I even felt really good when I woke up. I mean, for a while, anyway, eventually the fact that I didn’t really have ten thousand dollars caught up with me, and I felt sad again.
I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large.
Wrong. Bad science. You’ve got this part out of order. You have to investigate it FIRST. Then you decide that it’s true.
One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.
What? People who already believed that what you were telling them was true were ready to believe that what you were telling them was true? Quelle fucking surprise.
In much the same way that, as a guy with a blog, I am not qualified to say very much about neurology, I am also not qualified to say very much about theology. So, take what I’m saying here (and also everywhere) with a grain of salt. Have your own experience with it, don’t let me tell you what to think, et cetera and so forth. But maybe, however briefly, entertain a couple of these notions.
There is, I think, a huge problem with predicating your notion of a divinely-created and divinely-ordered and a divinely-loved universe on the failure of scientific explanation.
FIRSTLY, what happens if science DOES come up with an explanation? A really good explanation, I mean – like maybe we find the “out-of-body-experience” button in the brain and can just hit it. Are you going to give up your notion of a divinely-loved universe? You aren’t going to want to, anyway; you’re going to have a vested interest in NOT finding out that explanation. You’re going to start doing something called “motivated reasoning”, which is when you sometimes – however subtly – start deforming your methodologies so that your facts fit your conclusions, and not the other way around. It’s a dangerous thing for a Scientist, to pin his sense of self on a theory, as opposed to a methodology. Again, I mean, the thing about the methodology is that you can’t prove it wrong, and the thing about theories is that they’re supposed to be proved wrong.
SECONDLY, other people have talked about the issue of the “God of the Crevices” before, and why it’s a kind of a diminishment to God; that is, if God lurks only in the places where Science can’t see, then every Science figures out something new, there’s a little bit less God to go around. Now, again, if this guy’s experience is TRUE – if it’s really the thing that it seems to him to be – then it doesn’t matter what I think about this; God is what God is, et cetera. But there appears to me to be a reluctance to accept the idea of an actual explanation for this, a certainty not only that there isn’t one but that there can’t be one, that maybe makes it seem like for Eben Alexander there have to be two mutually-exclusive worlds – the spiritual world and the scientific world. Oh, of course he says that they’re undivided, that the new theory of consciousness will include both, but that’s a little problematic, isn’t it? The spiritual world is a world of phenomena; the scientific world is a world of methodology. Why, exactly, SHOULD these worlds be separate? Why shouldn’t the spiritual world be subject to observational methodology and experiment, like every other phenomena? And if it was, wouldn’t that just make it scientific anyway?
THIRDLY, none of this is necessary. Let’s concede some Theist propositions here, for the sake of the argument. Let’s accept 1) that there’s a God, 2) that there’s a Heaven, 3) that people can experience this Heaven while in a coma. Does this proposition refute the material theory of human consciousness? Does it suggest that there’s a soul in the body, that travels forth from it? Or that there are emanations, moving through an imperceptible medium from a divine source, for which human consciousness acts as an antenna? No, it does not. None of those things are required if we presume the first three things.
Imagine an infinite, infinitely wise, infinitely powerful God. Imagine that this God is eternal, and therefore not just immortal, but not subject to time the way that we are – like…I don’t know, a frog, sitting on the bank of a river. You and I are leaves that float down the river, and so we perceive it as moving, and we perceive one piece of the river at a time. But the Godfrog sees the river as a single object, where he perceives all the points simultaneously.
Imagine that God sees the universe this way, and therefore God sees not just the moment in time in which you and I exist, but he also sees the moment that he created the Universe simultaneously And – well, this is grossly simplified, but just go with me on this – imagine that God can tinker with the essential principles at the creation of the universe and immediately see their consequences in the smallest detail, all at once, and because his mind is infinite this is an easy thing for him to understand. Well, if God wanted to give human beings the ability to have a vision of Heaven, there’d be no need to create souls and periodically yank them out of our bodies in order to do it, or to send radio waves from the Heaviside Layer or whatever in order to do it. He could just go back and design all of history to ensure that when Eben Alexander was in a coma induced by bacterial meningitis, he’d have a particularly vivid hallucination of heaven. No souls required, no out-of-body journeys.
See this is me being charitable, because I believe in thinking things through: what I am saying is that even IF my argument about how Eben Alexander has got a case of the bad sciences is true, it actually doesn’t refute the validity of the experience. God, if there is such a thing and if that thing is what people seem to think it is, is capable of working his will through the material world in a way that is essentially unobservable, because God is able to design the universe retroactively to make it such that his will was always essentially inevitable.
The question, then, is: who cares if there’s a scientific explanation? Or, I guess more importantly, why does it matter to Eben Alexander that science CAN’T explain what happened to him?
The Aesthetics of It
This is probably just a personal gripe on my part, but I am hugely disappointed in Eben Alexander’s account of his experience, because it’s boring. Now, obviously, in defense of people who have visions of heaven, it’s hard for me to imagine doing anything for eternity without it getting a little boring (I think a really good conception of the difference between Heaven and Hell is that if you imagine both of them are the same place, and if you’ve moved beyond earthly concerns, and are therefore no longer encumbered by time, eternity is an eternal state of joyous being; if you are still preoccupied with earthly concerns, though, and therefore still suffer the subjective experience of time, then eternity is deadly boring and unpleasant). But seriously: fluffy pink clouds? Heavenly choirs? Guardian angels? Bleh. You know, we didn’t send a poet in the Contact sphere because Ellie Arroway was basically the only person that we had; surely God – noted omnipotent entity – could have found someone who had both the necessary neuroscientific credentials AND a bit more of an imagination than the one that he found. He couldn’t give Oliver Sacks an NDE, or something?
Because if this IS what the universe looks like, then God is pretty spectacularly unimaginative, and if it’s not – if the universe is vast and complex and interesting, and this is just the best that Eben Alexander could perceive it – then Eben Alexander is spectacularly unimaginative. Seriously, they just found a planet that’s twice the size of earth and made of diamonds. There’s a kind of ocean-going worm that vomits up its own intestinal track to scare away predators. There’s a grove of inter-connected aspens in Utah that are actually one, gigantic organism covering a half a square kilometer. The material world gets all this crazy shit, and what does heaven get? Fluffy pink clouds. Bleh.
More than that, though, it always makes me suspicious when a person has an experience like this and they find out heaven is really the sort of the thing that they’d always been told that heaven was going to be like, because it’s just one more way that the experience could have been corroborative. If, for example, everyone who had an out-of-body experience saw, oh, let’s say, the Dark Side of the Moon, where there was a palace made of basalt and a bunch of flying cuttlefish that all spoke Greek – if everyone, regardless of their culture, their history, of whether or not they’d ever even heard of or seen a cuttlefish came back from their NDE and described that…if they used Greek words and everything…well, that’d suggest pretty strongly that everyone was going to the same place, wouldn’t it?
And so, even though God probably COULD arrange it so that everyone who saw heaven had a pretty clear, specific vision of heaven that they could corroborate with someone else, somehow it all still happens that everyone sees something kind of like heaven, that is kind of like what other people have seen.
Well, other people from their culture have seen – and again, even if Eben Alexander (who was raised Christian and used to attend church, but EVEN ASSUME, for the argument, that he was a serious atheist since forever) was a Christian in name only, he’s certainly grown up in a culture that is suffused with Christian imagery. I mean, you go around, you ask anyone what heaven looks like, and they’ll tell you about harps and angels and clouds and so forth and where, exactly, does that come from? Why do we say THAT is what heaven is and not, for instance, a place where there are Valkyries who bring you mead and you feast all night and chop eat other to bits over and over again every day? We’d call that “Viking Heaven”, indicating that it is distinct from “Regular Heaven” – the place with the harps and the clouds – but no one who’s ever “been” to heaven has ever gone without foreknowledge of what they thought they would find; so how do we know that “Regular Heaven” is the regular one and not the deviation?
We don’t, of course, and the reason that we think of it that way is because Christianity enjoys a cultural privilege in America that is pervasive and almost invisible, and consequently it’s one place where there we could see strong corroboration for heavenly journeys, but we don’t.
All of this is NOT to say that I don’t believe that Eben Alexander hasn’t seen heaven. I mean, I don’t believe it, but that’s not what I’m trying to do here. I’m not trying to show why he’s wrong, I’m trying to raise reasonable doubt and why? Because a thing’s likelihood of being true is directly proportional to how hard you tried to refute it. Eben Alexander isn’t working very hard to refute it, so I guess I have to pick up some slack here. And the thing of it is, I’ll be honest, I want it to be true. You have to understand, I wasn’t “raised an atheist” in the sense that I was raised to believe that all religion was superstitious hokum that I should avoid forever. I was raised believing that I was supposed to look at all of them and then meant to pick the one that I’d practice. So from childhood on, I’d always assumed that all these religions could be true, and obviously I wanted them to be true. To imagine that there’s a universal entity that extends to me an infinite love and validation? Or that there’s a heavenly world filled with glory and joy for eternity? Or even that there’s an ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil, and if I play my cards right I could be an actual demon hunter?
Sign me the fuck up.
The problem is that I also believe it’s important to distinguish between what I think IS true, an what I WANT to be true. And while I might be indifferent to certain beliefs – it makes no difference to me whether or not the Chakresandar Limit is correct, for instance – I’ve got no choice but to order my moral and philosophical world around this basic understanding of the universe. I’m not agnostic, I’m definitely an atheist. I don’t believe that there is a God, I don’t believe that the universe has a narrative to it, I don’t believe that there is any essential good or evil in this world but thinking makes it so; I don’t think it’s morally responsible to be an agnostic in cases like this, because I think if you’re not going to believe that meaning and morality descend from a divine mandate, then you’ve got to assert that they come from somewhere else. So, yeah, I’m an atheist.
But I also believe in religious experience, I believe that it’s genuine experience, I believe in things like “spiritual well-being”, and I believe that religious practice and experience contributes to that. I genuinely believe that people have real, mystical experiences at the heart of their conversions, or their faiths, or what have you – I just believe that this is a physical, material phenomenon. I believe it’s good, I believe it’s real, I just don’t believe that it’s necessarily what it seems like. I really want to believe that, though. Not unlike Nietzsche, who on his deathbed wished that he’d been wrong (peculiarly, this fact is often cited by evangelicals as proof that he WAS wrong, which is a bit like saying that if I’m falling out of an airplane and, fifty feet from the ground, I start wishing I’d packed a parachute, then that’s the same thing as me believing that I’ve actually got a parachute), I don’t necessarily want my atheism to be the real explanation for the universe, because flights of warrior angels is actually cooler.
I’m stuck with trying to avoid confirmation bias, though, so I’m twice as skeptical of everything that confirms what I already believe, that tempts me with what I want to be true. I’ve got no choice to be as hard and cynical and skeptical with Eben Alexander’s experience as I can be, because I want him to be right, and I can’t be sure that he’s right unless I try very, very hard to prove him wrong.
So, I try to be a good Scientist. I don’t believe in God, but I believe that beliefs exist to be refuted, so I’m waiting for a compelling argument.
Eben Alexander’s doesn’t cut the mustard, though. Not by a long shot.