Proof of heaven? Methinks not.

A week or so ago, there was an article form Newsweek about Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who is hawking a book claiming proof of heaven in his near death experience. Today, a similar story showed up on ABC news, as they are promoting an interview with him on Nightline.

There are so many fallacies in this reporting it’s almost difficult to know where to begin, but I’ll try.

First: despite his own and media claims to the contrary, this man is a doctor, not a scientist. The two are very different skill sets, requiring very different kinds of reasoning. Medicine is essentially a trade. Admittedly a complicated one, but a trade nonetheless. It requires matching symptoms to likely diseases, or in his case to the proper surgical interventions. It requires tremendous knowledge, but nothing in the way of scientific thinking. A doctor can be perfectly successful at his or her trade without the slightest hint of a scientific mindset.

Second, his implication (and the media’s) is that, because he is a scientist (which he is not), his near death experience somehow should count as more real than someone else’s. Even if he were a scientist, and used to analyzing evidence and looking for the most parsimonious explanation, he is not immune from the hallucinations that a brain is well known to be capable of producing, nor from the process of confabulation, wherein the brain fills in memory gaps with fabricated events. Saying he is a scientist, ergo heaven is real, makes an argument from authority that has no merit.

Third, Dr. Alexander admits that he is a Christian. Is it really surprising that he should have a near death experience that conforms to what he likely expected a near death experience should be like? Find me a person raised completely outside the Christian worldview, who nonetheless has a near death experience with all the Christian trappings, and then perhaps we can find the experience more convincing.

Obviously the media can report on whatever fluff it wants, but what catches the attention about Dr. Alexander is the whole “Harvard-trained neuroscientist has proof of heaven” angle. Scientist? No. Proof of heaven? No. Harvard-trained? Irrelevant (recall that it was a “Harvard-trained scientist” who opened fire on her colleagues. All Harvard training gives you license to say is that you trained at Harvard).

Americans are in general scientifically illiterate, and thus as a group poor at understanding what constitutes good evidence for something. The breathless coverage of Dr. Alexander’s yarn is, ironically, evidence of that.

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17 comments

  1. Steve Caison · · Reply

    You seem so immersed in anger and jaded negativity in your attempt to educate all the unwashed as to the difference between science and medicine that you overlook a simple point. This man isn’t the first to report a similiar experience, it just so happens he’s a nuerosurgeon (who while even if not a scientist), is intimately familiar with the workings of the cortex, and therefore the author of an interesting account of live after death. His experience was HIS proof of heaven. Your contention that the Christian world he saw was based on his upbringing and that there is only one absolute way for God to talk to everyone is sheer unmitigated ignorance. God must talk to each of us in a language we understand to be understood. What makes people who have NOT had a similiar experience to that of the doctor so vehemently sure of their own destitute view of life? Putting all credentials aside, why would anyone listen to you who have not experienced anything, rather than listen to someone who HAS a first hand account? You are one of those folks who sees everything through closed jaundiced eyes. Your story strikes me as that of a guy who believes he already understands the whole universe from his desktop computer and has nothing new to learn.

    1. A scientist looks for the most parsimonious hypotheses to explain phenomena. I have no doubt that Dr. Alexander thinks he saw heaven, but this is hardly the most parsimonious hypothesis. Especially when it is already quite clear that the brain can create exactly the kinds of things he experienced, or believes he experienced. I don’t think it is jaundiced or laughable to conclude that there are simpler explanations for what he describes. He might take his vision as proof of heaven for himself, but it hardly constitutes proof for the rest of us. If he’d said he’d seen Lucy in the sky with diamonds, we wouldn’t have concluded that John Lennon was talking to him. Why, just because his description conforms to peoples Christian-centric view of heaven, can we conclude that God is talking to him? Anecdotes are not evidence. Scientists know this. An explanation consistent with data that uses the fewest assumptions is better than one with more. Scientists know this too. That is why the fact that he is claiming to be a scientist is clearly his attempt at an argument from authority, rather than a reflection of scientific thinking.

      1. Jordan Stanley · ·

        Where does it say this was anything but proof of heaven for him? If you don’t care to ponder his experience or be influenced, why write about it. Go write stories about hybrid cars and the rising price of gas. You’re better suited to that.

      2. Jordan Stanley · ·

        Don’t have the guts to post my comments I see… I think I’ll just unsubscribe

  2. Jordan Stanley · · Reply

    So many fallacies you don’t know where to begin?? You name three, and 1 and 2 are the same. All are silly, insignificant and inconsequential. Three is the point of view of a child. So many you don’t know where to begin? Laughable.

  3. Jordan Stanley · · Reply

    I know your type. You play word games that complicate and confuse an otherwise simple idea. The veracity of the man’s experience does not hinge on his scientific credentials. That he is a neurosurgeon who understands the workings of the brain simply gives the story more credibility. Stop acting like his story is flawed because he saw and touched God. Accept the notion that between ridiculous hypothesis and conclusive proof there are a hundred shades of grey and an evolved mind doesn’t look at those things and decide to ignore them because the whole story hasn’t been spelled out yet. Stop being a douche and act a little enlightened.

    1. Jordan, you’re free to disagree with me here, and to articulate your reasoning, but not to insult.
      Also, I’m not sure what is so complicated or confusing about “anecdote does not equal evidence.”
      The implicit hook to the articles on Dr. Alexander is along the lines of “scientist discovers proof of heaven.” No, he hasn’t; he’s had an experience that he interprets as heaven, but it is not proof of (or even evidence of) anything. Why should his story about his NDE be considered any more proof of heaven than the story of someone who claims he was probed by aliens constitutes proof that we are being visited? The whole reason his story has made the popular press (besides him having a book to hawk) is that, since he is a neurosurgeon, his experience of heaven is somehow more credible and scientific than all the people who have NDEs whose experience goes unreported–as if, slam bang, because he is a science-y type person, heaven has been proven. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. If he were talking about his experience with alien abduction, his story would be in the Inquirer and not Newsweek and ABC News. The fact that his story is deemed newsworthy, despite the fact that it says nothing about anything other than one man’s cognitive experience, is testament to the likelihood that many people will take his story as evidence when it is nothing of the sort. Imagine Dr. Alexander was a Saudi Arabian neurosurgeon and his vision included 72 virgins awaiting him in Jannah. Would you give it as much credibility then? What about if his vision were of his future reincarnation as a howler monkey?

      1. Jordan Stanley · ·

        And if he were simply making it up it would not be proof either. So are you interceding here in order to protect us all from believing his story? You are more smug and self-important than I thought. Oh, and if the person were a scientist the story would be proven??? You reasoning is idiotic. If the person were a scientist, NOTHING, absolutely nothing would be different. He could still be lying and invalid on that point alone. Being a scientist does not validate the hypothesis. And your long list of hypotheticals including alien abduction DIDN’T HAPPEN. They are irrelevant. And talking about them only assures that we will not be talking about what matters here. Arguing with you is unfortunately a waste of time.

      2. I agree with you (remarkably). If he were a scientist, nothing would be different. His vision is not evidence of anything either way. This is nothing more than a human interest story, and I fail to see how it is any different and more newsworthy that someone having a vision of anything else, from the mundane to the absurd. The whole reason it is in the news is because the fact that he is science-y supposedly lends his story more credibility. It doesn’t.

        Do you consider his vision evidence of heaven? If so, please explain why that is so, but why the visions of a Native American on a spirit quest are not evidence of our oneness with the Great Spirit. Or why visions of alien abductions are not evidence of aliens among us. It seems to me that to be logically consistent, you have to accept all of these as equally probable (or improbable). But since I clearly lack an interest in the subject matter while you are an expert, your reply should be enlightening and logically beyond riposte. My interpretation of your comment above is that, if his vision did include 72 virgins in Jannah, that his story would not be credible. How can that be?

        And if you don’t care about what I write, then why are you reading this blog, and why does it inflame you so much?

      3. stanleymarketing@yahoo.com · ·

        Adding hypotheticals only obfuscates the story. What makes this story more credible than most is that the man’s brain functions all but ceased to exist. You would certainly have to agree that he’s better qualified to interpret the data than you are. And what he says is that what he experienced was not generated by his brain. Very simple. And you’re not qualified to contend any of the points making the argument which are 1) that all cognitive functions of the brain ceased (that’s irrefutable because the entire medical contingent signed off on that . 2) that he personally experienced what he described (irrefutable because he said this was his experience, not your or mine). 3) he said he couldn’t have experienced what he did knowing the data that existed ( again irrefutable because he is both an extremely well- qualified neurosurgeon AND he was the person who had the experience. ) that’s his whole story. Now you tell me where or how you or anyone else is qualified to refute a single point much less the entire argument. YOU AREN’T. The best anyone could do in a court if law would be to call a more qualified neurosurgeon expert. When your expert is Harvard trained and has a long and credible career, AND has as a similar experience with different results you will finally have the story that you’re now attempting to create.

        Sent from my iPhone

      4. I appreciate the argument. But I disagree with point 2 in particular. The brain’s well-established ability to confabulate after injury seems much more likely to me–i.e., that his brain generated this experience after the fact, to make up for missing or damaged memory. In addition, point 1 seems not so clear cut either. The brain can formulate visions and hallucinations in very short order. How can he exclude that he hallucinated either immediately before or immediately after his comatose state? Or even that there was cellular reorganization going on in his brian, and new synapse formation, even when the gross signs of cognitive processing were lost? Given these considerations, which is the more likely explanation: that he actually experienced heaven, or that he was hallucinating or experiencing confabulation? Hallucination and confabulation are not wild hypotheses–they are well known features of the brain. As Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” Dr. Alexander’s anecdote hardly seems to meet that criterion.
        Admittedly he’s in principle more credible than a hayseed in a cornfield claiming alien abduction. And you’re right, I’m not a neuroscientist, nor an expert in NDE. However, I’m also not a virologist. That doesn’t stop me from recognizing that when Peter Duesberg, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, says that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, he’s wrong, despite the fact that his credentials should carry considerable weight. Credentials don’t guarantee the accuracy of the statement. From my point of view as a scientist, he’s trying to persuade people of something based on evidence that is better explained much more prosaically. That Dr. Alexander had some sort of brain-driven event that accounted for his vision seems to explain his experience far more simply than the idea that he experienced heaven. I remain open to the possibility that he has accounted for these possibilities in some other way not described in the popular press but I doubt it.
        Further, your argument is that he is credible because he is a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon and thus knows the brain better than I do (I have no doubt that that is true). However, he claims to be a scientist. He is not, or at least not any longer. That claim seems clearly tailored to give him perceived credibility, but the fact that it is not true undermines that credibility. He might be an excellent surgeon, but he has not published a single peer-reviewed paper in over a decade (according to his own CV and a search of PubMed). It strikes me as very similar to Michael Behe claiming expertise on evolution despite publishing almost nothing in the literature. Behe is in principle a biochemist, and on the face of it should be more qualified than I (a cell biologist) to comment on biochemistry. But he isn’t. He (mis)uses his credentials to lend false weight to his arguments. Dr. Alexander’s book and media interviews strike me as very much in the same vein. Has he submitted a case report for publication? If his vision truly could not be accounted for by known physiology, it would be an eminently publishable finding. I suspect the reason he has not done so is that he’s well aware that he would get a very different reception from discerning scientists than from credulous media.
        So yes, I am not a neuroscientist. But scientific reasoning would suggest that his story does not constitute evidence for heaven.

      5. Jordan Stanley · ·

        So, your entire argument is that what he says could have been something else. Do you not think that even a reader of average to below average intelligence doesn’t bring that skepticism to the party? The point isn’t that what he said was “blue” could have been “green” or that he said Coke tastes better than Pepsi. The point is that this man knows more than most people about how the brain works and is more than a bit convinced that his experience WASN’T generated in his brain. Could HE be wrong and YOU be right? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet on you in that scenario.

      6. No, my argument is that it’s far more likely that what he says was something else, his credentials notwithstanding. I’ll take my own scientific judgment on HIV over Peter Duesberg’s, or on evolution over Michael Behe, or on general health wisdom over Mehmet Oz, all of whom are nominally more qualified than me and are no doubt “more than a bit convinced” that they are right. I’ll also take the absence of a line of actual neuroscientists behind him saying “ZOMG! He’s right! He must’ve experienced heaven!” as evidence that his account is not particularly convincing to those who do have expertise and are aware of all that the brain is capable of. Again, if his account is so convincing and so unexplainable by more prosaic ideas, why has he not submitted a case report for publication? Even if his vision has nothing to do with heaven, if he truly did have a vision of any sort that could not be accounted for in medical or scientific terms, that would certainly merit publication. Why is he trying to convince the lay public, rather than his peers?
        And, no, I don’t think most readers bring skepticism (or at least not much) to the party. Most readers of the article (in this country anyway) are already predisposed to believe in heaven, and to believe that people encounter it in NDEs. Heck, a majority of Americans believe in ghosts, and about a quarter say they have seen or felt one. That doesn’t sound like a good dose of healthy skepticism to me.
        Also, you reject my hypotheticals because they didn’t actually happen. The whole point of hypothetical scenarios is to test the logical consistency of one’s beliefs. I take it from your response that, if he had said that he had a vision of 72 virgins in Jannah, that you would reject that, yet you appear to accept that his actual account is true. If that is the case, then you need in principle to logically justify why it’s credible if the vision is of a Christian heaven but not if it’s a Muslim one (or a Hindu one, or an aboriginal one, or a flying spaghetti monster one for that matter).

      7. Jordan Stanley · ·

        Bizarre. How could other neurologists line up behind him if they haven’t experienced what he experienced? You’re like the UFO skeptic who’s certain there’s no other intelligent life in the universe. You’ll never see a UFO because you’ll have a full quiver’s worth of prefabricated a priori explanations why they can’t exist at the ready whenever you need one to explain away anything with the open-mindedness of Pope Innocent the 3rd.

  4. Jordan Stanley · · Reply

    Steve’s comment makes more sense than yours…

  5. Jordan Stanley · · Reply

    Dr. Alexander isn’t a Saudi Arabian neurosurgeon and his vision didn’t include 72 virgins awaiting him in Jannah. If he suddenly did that or started eating his own feces, he would lose credibility.

    The reason he DOES have some credibility is that none of your ridiculous hypotheticals apply.

    I don’t wish to be insulting, but you may be better suited to review food or travel packages for Expedia because you clearly have a lack of interest in this subject matter.

    At least if you were a food or travel editor you could say “what if he left the eggs out of the noodles, wouldn’t they be spaghetti?” and someone would care.

    Have the guts to print that .

    1. I’ll print anything that is relevant to the topic and isn’t personally offensive to me or to anyone else. Your arguments haven’t persuaded me that the central idea of my post (that Dr. Alexander’s experience is not evidence of anything) is incorrect, although if you have more compelling reasoning, I’m certainly open to it. Anyone else who stumbles across this blog can make up his or her own mind about the relative persuasiveness of the arguments presented. Censoring dissenting opinions is for petty tyrants.

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