Wednesday, March 4, 2015

#1306: Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander III is a American neurosurgeon and the author of the best-selling Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, in which he describes his 2008 near-death experience and asserts that science can and will determine that heaven really does exist. You can probably already imagine the quality of the evidence he presents for that claim.

Alexander’s book asserts that his out of body and near death experience (NDE) while in a meningitis-induced coma in 2008 proves that consciousness is independent of the brain, that death is an illusion, and that an eternity of perfect splendor awaits us beyond the grave, complete with angels, clouds, and departed relatives, as well as butterflies and a beautiful girl in a peasant dress who turns out to have been his departed sister (Alexander realizes that when writing up the book). But how is this account different from standard NDE experiences, which certainly do not even suggest the existence of an afterlife? Well, the difference (really, the whole difference) is that Alexander is a neurosurgeon, so therefore his motivated reasoning somehow constitutes evidence. Indeed, on the basis of his experience, Alexander happily claims that the current understanding of the mind “now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it, and 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.” In other words, Alexander demands that all of science be revised to accommodate treating his vivid hallucination as reality (since the existing natural explanations of his experiences are … too boring?). Interestingly, and tellingly, none of the experiences conflicted with anything he believed before or yielded any new insights into the afterlife beyond the ones Alexander was convinced of before the experience. Remarkable, isn’t it?

Of course, critics were quick to find rather obvious holes in Alexander’s account. Esquire magazine found discrepancies; in particular that “Alexander writes that he slipped into the coma as a result of severe bacterial meningitis and had no higher brain activity, while a doctor who cared for him says the coma was medically induced and the patient was conscious, though hallucinating.” Esquire’s article also investigated Alexander’s medical background, finding that prior to the book, he had been terminated or suspended from multiple hospital positions, and been the subject of several malpractice lawsuits, including at least two involving the alteration of medical records to cover up a medical error (also here). In other words …. Alexander was not pleased with the article.

Despite being bunk, Alexander’s book achieved enormous popularity in certain segments of the population. Of course, scientists had a pretty easy time debunking the claims. Sam Harris appropriately described it as “alarmingly unscientific,” pointing out that “everything – absolutely everything – in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was ‘shut down,’ […]. The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate – it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science.” Even in “cases where the brain is alleged to have shut down, its activity must return if the subject is to survive and describe the experience. In such cases, there is generally no way to establish that the NDE occurred while the brain was offline.” Oliver Sacks points out that Alexander’s account is “is more than unscientific – it is antiscientific.” In particular, his experiences have a perfectly natural explanation (having occurred as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function). Alexander rules out this natural explanation in favor of a supernatural one … by fiat. Alexander’s response to his critics was to appeal to special pleading.

Diagnosis: Severe crackpot and pseudo-scientist with appalling lack of knowledge of how science works or about the field (neuroscience) he writes about when that science conflicts with quasi-religious fluff he really, really wants to be true.

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