In 2008, the Harvard-trained neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander was stricken with bacterial meningitis and sank into a seven-day coma. He was astonished to awaken with phosphorescent memories of, as he describes it, nothing less than an extended Technicolor trip to Heaven. Puffy pink clouds, angelic beings on butterfly wings, ineffable life lessons, pitch-black orbs that nevertheless dazzle with light: the whole shebang.
Even more surprising to this neurosurgeon was evidence he gained later—evidence which he considers conclusive—that the brain regions associated with conscious experience were inactive for the duration of his coma, casualties of the bacteria eating his brain. Four years later, he’s written a book in which he argues from the circumstances surrounding his experience to the conclusion that, in his words, “we are more, much more, than our physical brains.” The physical facts about humans do not exhaust all the facts about humans. Dualism, as philosophers call it.
The skeptics have mobilized. Such a brazen affront to naturalistic dogma in science cannot go unanswered. Chief among the skeptics in this latest worldview skirmish is Sam Harris, most famous as the Sancho Panza of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” but also a neuroscientist in his own right, having recently earned a Ph.D. in the subject from UCLA.
Harris is something of a rare bird in this debate. He concedes: “Unlike many neuroscientists and philosophers, I remain agnostic on the question of how consciousness is related to the physical world.” Indeed, he’s willing to entertain the possibility that mind cannot be reduced to matter, confident that, in his words, “if consciousness were, in fact, irreducible—or even separable from the brain in a way that would give comfort to Saint Augustine—my worldview would not be overturned.”
Despite this concession, Harris makes a go of debunking Alexander’s argument for dualism. Harris’ strategy is as you might expect: challenge the truth of Alexander’s claim that he was essentially brain-dead while he had these experiences. Says Harris: “Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was ‘shut down’.”
And so begins the cross-examination: Were the measures Alexander points to—namely, “CT scans and neurological examinations”—sufficient to prove that his cerebral cortex was inactive during his entire coma? (No.) Couldn’t Alexander have had these experiences while awakening, and have been left with the mistaken impression, as with our dreams, that the brief experiences lasted for substantial periods of time? (Yes.) Might his experiences have been the hallucinogenic offspring of an overabundance of painkillers he received in the hospital? (Yes.)
Serious questions, to be sure. And they do cast grave doubts on the veridicality of Alexander’s experiences. But I hope that these two neuro-nerds might stop bickering long enough to hear this modest contribution from a philosopher.
Look around you, gentlemen: Your battle was over before it began. Given what Harris conceded at the start, Alexander’s dualist conclusion was already secured. Harris was mistaken in believing that absolutely everything in Alexander’s account—including his belief that we are more than our brains—requires that Alexander’s experiences actually occurred while he was brain-dead. That, in fact, is not necessary in order to reach Alexander’s conclusion. We can safely conclude, with Alexander, that consciousness is not reducible to brain activity so long as it’s merely possible that Alexander’s experiences occurred while brain-dead. And this Harris has already granted.
Let me explain. If A is one and the same as B—that is, if “A” and “B” are two names for one thing, like the names “Bono” and “Paul Hewson”—then it is absolutely impossible for A to exist when B does not. After all, if there is just one thing, how could it both exist and not exist at the same time? And so, the mere possibility of A without B guarantees that A is different from B. This principle is as uncontroversial as any in philosophy.
And recall from above that Sam Harris—Captain Skeptic in this operation to debunk Alexander—freely grants the possibility of consciousness without brain activity. He says he’s open-minded on the question. Well, sometimes open minds make for broken hearts. Harris’ concessions at the start were enough to lock in Alexander’s dualist conclusion.
But is Harris right to grant that possibility? Don’t take his word for it. Ask the question of yourself. When Alexander tells us in earnest that he visited Heaven while brain-dead, is he asking us to believe something merely improbable, or something absolutely impossible? Is Alexander’s story on the level of a claim to have ridden a flaming unicorn (merely improbable), or on the level of a claim to have ridden a flaming square-circle (absolutely impossible)? To me, the answer is obvious: Alexander’s story, though quite hard to believe, does not drop to the depths of absolute impossibility.
Each side of this debate should take care to understand just how light the burden is for those who defend dualism against the reductive projects of naturalism. The naturalists should take care, so that they don’t mistakenly forfeit their cause as Dr. Harris unwittingly has. And the supernaturalists should take care, so that they don’t mistakenly believe that Dr. Alexander’s incredible story needs to be true in order to support their cause. Mere possibility, in this case, is enough.
Tomas Bogardus will join the philosophy department of Pepperdine University in January.
Eben Alexander, “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With The Afterlife”
Tomas Bogardus, “Undefeated Dualism”
Sam Harris, “This Must Be Heaven”
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