Sam Harris Tackles Newsweek’s ‘Heaven Is Real’ Cover Story

Sam Harris (a neuroscientist himself) just ripped apart Dr. Eben Alexander, who wrote the embarrassing cover story for the latest issue of Newsweek:

Here’s the gist of Harris’ argument:

… there is nothing to be said against Alexander’s experience. It sounds perfectly sublime. And such ecstasies do tell us something about how good a human mind can feel. The problem is that the conclusions Alexander has drawn from his experience — he continually reminds us, as a scientist — are based on some very obvious errors in reasoning and gaps in his understanding.

Let me suggest that, whether or not heaven exists, Alexander sounds precisely how a scientist should not sound when he doesn’t know what he is talking about. And his article is not the sort of thing that the editors of a once-important magazine should publish if they hope to reclaim some measure of respect for their battered brand.

You can read my own take on the story here.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • TychaBrahe

    The one thing that a doctor should understand is that the brain is not a 100% reliable tool.  The brain is a biochemical device, and can be affected by changes in its chemistry.  That’s why drugs, from LSD and marijuana to lithium and Prozac, do their thing.

    Connie Willis has a fascinating book called Passage about a psychologist and a neurologist teaming up to study near-death experiences.  It’s a great read.

    • machintelligence

      This reminds me of the report by Paul Krassner in Realist Magazine in the 1960′s.

       Here’s Krassner describing LSD: “Last week I took my third acid trip. This time I saw God. Otherwise, it was nothing.”

  • http://goddoent.blogspot.com/ James A. Lindsay

    Yes, “ripped apart” is vastly more accurate an assessment of what Harris did than is tackles. Is it just me, or does it feel that Sam has taken on some of Hitchens’s firmness since the death of that great? His piece is an absolute evisceration. (I liked yours too, Hemant, don’t get me wrong! I particularly liked the title to yours.)

  • Pseudonym

    Sam Harris, to be fair, is the world’s foremost expert on scientists talking  when they don’t know what they’re talking about.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    While I am not a big Sam Harris fan, I completely agree with him on this.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    Experience =/= reality.
    The sooner people realize this, the better.

  • C Peterson

    I think the most important point- which is not really made by Harris- is that Alexander is a neurosurgeon, not a neuroscientist. They are very different things. Alexander’s story makes it absolutely clear to anybody trained as a scientist that he most certainly is not one himself.

    • Reginald Selkirk

       This point is made pretty  clearly in Harris’ quote from Mark Cohen:

      Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them.

      • C Peterson

        No, that really isn’t the point. It isn’t as simple as not being a specialist in brain function. The issue is that he’s not a competent scientist at all, which is evident in the entirety of his story, not just the references to brain function.

  • Sailor

     I find it alarming to read the letters in most of the main-stream places this issue has been raised, including the UK. The number of supporters  Dr Eban’s has would indicate that we are a society lacking in knowledge of basic scientific methodology, and naive to the point of stupidity. Dr Eban has a book coming out and he is promoting it, and because of this article it will probably be a best seller. If any real researcher was that motivated his results would immediately come under scrutiny. But when Dr Eban says “I am a neurosurgeon so it must be true” way too many people seem to be convinced.
    I hope Sam Harris and Hemant Mehta go a small step towards illuminating this nonsense.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    From Steve Novella, who also has a background in neuroscience: Proof of Heaven?

  • Amakudari

    a once-important magazine

    Hey, it’s still a strong #2 in the lucrative dentist waiting room market, just behind the illustrious Time. Of course, what do you expect from a rag that sold for $1? (Not an individual issue, the whole company.)

  • Guest

    I normally oppose violence against living things and even non-living things. 

    I make an exception for rabid materialist atheists.

    They have no souls after all…

    • Darth Vader

      Yes! Let your anger flow embrace your rage! Soon you will be on the dark side of the force!

    • Baal

       Repeat after me, there is only one real and objective world.   My perceptions of it are flawed but by rigorous application of the scientific method, I can understand it and do interesting things.  These include making planes fly and the internet.

      Really, if this type of statement is what sets your blood rage a boil, you need to get out more.  Save the violence for folks who like and run dog fights or who advocate for war and discrimination – they are the ones making life worse for everyone.

  • Guest

    So the only things that exist are those that we can detect with our senses; but we can’t trust our senses because our brains lie to us in making us think we experienced something that we really did not. 

    If our brains are liars, how are we supposed to trust our brains to tell us when our brains are lying to us?  And what is this “us” that is separate from the brain?

    • Deven Kale

       That’s exactly what the scientific method is for. No single brain can be trusted to give fully accurate information, since everybody is prone to missing things, seeing things that aren’t actually there, finding patterns that don’t really exist, etc. But no two brains do these things in the same way, so the more people we have looking at these things the more likely we are to get an accurate picture of them.

      Every new hypothesis must be submitted for peer review, in order to determine if the experiment is repeatable by others in the field and has no obvious flaws. If it passes, then it’s published in a journal for everybody to see. This way, if someone wants to attempt to disprove the hypothesis, then they know exactly what steps to take to reproduce the experiment. If enough scientists do the same experiment and get the same results, then that hypothesis is eventually upgraded to a theory.

      So as you can see, it’s not just “somebody got this result so it’s true.” It’s multiple, sometimes dozens or even hundreds, of experts getting the same result over and over again that makes a theory. When you have that many experts getting the same results, the chances that every single one of their brains lied to them in the exact same way is so improbable as to not worth any serious consideration. The best part about it though is that if you still doubt you can always take the time to learn the field and do the experiment yourself.

    • Deven Kale

       Oh, and there is no evidence for an “us” that is separate from the brain. What you’re talking about is substance dualism, and there is exactly zero evidence for it. There is actually much evidence in support of substance monism (that our brains are everything), such as the fact that our brains make decisions (like to move our arms) up to 7 seconds before we’re aware of it.


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