Sam Harris Elaborates on Near-Death Experiences

Remember that awful cover Newsweek from back in October?

At the time, Sam Harris (a neuroscientist himself) ripped apart Dr. Eben Alexander, who wrote that embarrassing cover story.

Now, Harris has finished reading Alexander’s actual book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife… and it turns out the whole premise still makes no sense:

Having now read Alexander’s book, I can say that it is every bit as remarkable as his Newsweek cover article suggested it would be. Unfortunately, it is not remarkable in the way that its author believes…

… The impediment to taking Alexander’s claims seriously can be simply stated: There is absolutely no reason to believe that his cerebral cortex was inactive at the time he had his experience of the afterlife. The fact that Alexander thinks he has demonstrated otherwise — by continually emphasizing how sick he was, the infrequency of E. coli meningitis, and the ugliness of his initial CT scan — suggests a deliberate disregard of the most plausible interpretation of his experience.

You can read the full, damning critique here.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://home4goodmichigan.blogspot.com/ oambiousone

    This line summarizes Harris’s refutation:

    “Because unless we could know that a subject’s brain was not functioning
    when these impressions were formed, the involvement of the brain must be
    presumed.⁠”

    The Newsweek article was a letdown — a giant leap backwards! Thanks to Sam for lancing this intellectual boil. I felt better immediately.

  • ragarth

    I generally chalk these things up to post-hoc recreation. Human memory is a tricky thing, what we remember are not accurate representations of past events but rather a combination of those past events and our expectations of those past events. Filling in the memory gap with an expected experience (such as going to heaven) is perfectly reasonable, and possibly even expected, behavior of our minds.

    Its disturbing to realize just how fallible our memories are. For instance, those of us who were alive during 9/11: longitudinal studies have shown that these memories change over time, people who reported being someplace like a taxi during the event now are quite sure that they were in their living rooms watching TV. They can summon mental pictures of it, news broadcast, etc. They create entirely fictional narratives based upon the popular conception of what that day’s events *should* be like rather than what the people’s actual activities were. If its so easy to misremember something like 9/11, Challenger, or the Kennedy assassination, how easy is it to create fictional narratives for periods of time where no memory exists at all?

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    We receive a subscription to Newsweek as a gift from one of my relatives.  I was really disappointed when that “Heaven is real” article (and cover graphics) ran.  It was the type of poor journalism expected from an outlet like Fox News only reporting one side of a story.  It wouldn’t have taken a lot of effort to get a neuroscience explanation like that from Sam Harris.  Newsweek just wanted to sell copies by having that one-sided sensational story.  Some editor there must have let their own religious views bias their professional judgment.

    • Baal

       I am in the same boat.  I stopped even trying to read them once this cover came out.  Now I just trash them.  Tina Brown took over and started trying to use controversy to spin up interest.  Instead, it drove off marginal readers like myself.

  • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com/ MargueriteF

    Good critique. That Newsweek article was disappointing in its credulity.

  • SeekerLancer

    I’ve tried to explain exactly what Harris has said to people defending near death experiences and they just ignore me. At least now I guess I can just save time by sending them a link to Harris’ article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.gwinn Don Gwinn

    Don’t know if anyone remembers when everybody was suggesting elaborate ways to explain Dr. Alexander’s mistaken belief, despite his best intentions and good-faith efforts to get at the truth, and I pointed out that he could simply be lying?
    This is just a reminder.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    My mother recently read Dr. Alexander’s book, and suggested I read it too. I shared some of Harris’ criticisms with her. Throughout the discussion, she acknowledge some of the points as interesting. I was hopeful.

    Then she said, “I guess we’ll never really know, will we? There is no way to prove it, and there is no way to disprove it.”

    She then described me as trying to find reasons not to believe it, and though I had convinced myself, I hadn’t convinced her. So I asked about her reason for believing Alexander’s account. 
    “Because I believe in God and believe he sometimes gives us a glimpse of everything else, and because I have my own experience that god gave to me.”


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