So here's the thing. Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander wrote a best-selling book called Proof of Heaven, which made the cover of Newsweek. In the book he said that he had a profound NDE while comatose, and that the NDE constitutes empirical evidence of life after death. Sam Harris, an atheist philosopher who is open-minded on issues of psi and postmortem survival, criticized Alexander's claims and followed up with further criticism. Bernardo Kastrup, a philosopher and author who embraces Idealism (the idea that consciousness is everything), took on Harris's arguments in a blog post and then a second post. Michael Sudduth, a philosopher who is open to postmortem survival but thinks the current evidence and arguments for it are inadequate, criticized Kastrup for his opinion piece and defended Harris. Kastrup replied to Sudduth. Sudduth replied to Kastrup.
Yeah, it's a kerfuffle.
Though I'm a little reluctant to enter these roiled waters, I've decided to tug on my waders and give it a go. But since these arguments can persist forever without accomplishing much, I'm going to limit my comments to just a couple of issues, and to focus only on Kastrup and Sudduth.
First, I have to say that I think both of them make some good points. And what I want to do is highlight the single strongest point (in my opinion) that each of them makes.
I'll start with Kastrup. In his reply to Sudduth's initial post, Kastrup writes:
I ... argued that a chemical or physical trigger [such as the chemical DMT] does not necessarily invalidate the transcendent nature of [Alexander's] experience, since all NDEs are, ultimately, triggered by some physical event. What does Sudduth have to say about this? He writes: "Kastrup is correct, of course, that in at least one sense the similarity between Alexander’s NDE and DMT experiences doesn’t defeat the authenticity of the former as a valid transcendent experience." But this was my point. So Sudduth actually agrees with my point. What's his problem then? Well, he asserts that "Harris nowhere claims [that] Alexander’s NDE was produced by brain chemistry," so my point is a straw-man. What? With a blush of embarrassment, I leave it to you to judge it after you consider the following passage by Harris:
"Does Alexander know that DMT already exists in the brain as a neurotransmitter? Did his brain experience a surge of DMT release during his coma? This is pure speculation, of course, but it is a far more credible hypothesis than that his cortex 'shut down,' freeing his soul to travel to another dimension."
Can someone explain to me how is it that Harris is not suggesting here that DMT could explain Alexander's NDE on a purely chemical basis? I mean, how much clearer could this possibly be? Sudduth's grievance is that Harris does not outright state that the NDE was caused by chemicals; that Harris merely mentions the possibility that it was. Duh. So what? It would obviously have been ridiculous if Harris had asserted that he knew what caused Alexander's NDE. Raising the possibility of a chemical cause was as far as Harris could have gone to try to debunk Alexander.
In his reply, Sudduth defends his position, but I have to side with Kastrup here. It is, in my opinion, mere pettifoggery to suggest that Harris was not trying to discredit Alexander's NDE by suggesting that it could have been caused by a surge of DMT in the brain. True, Harris did not say definitively and unequivocally that this was the explanation, but he presented this hypothesis as "far more credible" than the postmortem-survival hypothesis.
Now, perhaps it is more credible in this case. It very well may be, as I'll discuss briefly below. But there is no point in pretending that Harris was doing something other than what he was very obviously doing.
That brings us to what I feel is Sudduth's strongest point, the issue of when exactly Alexander's NDE took place. In his initial post, he writes:
In Proof of Heaven, and in subsequent interviews and talks, Alexander ... argues, howbeit in a reserved manner, that his alleged veridical perceptions during his NDE provide evidence that his NDE occurred during his coma....
[H]e allegedly experienced communications from a person who tried, on particular occasions, psychically contacting him while he was in his coma, and he also saw faces that corresponded to actual people, five of whom were present at Alexander’s bedside shortly before he came out of his coma (Proof of Heaven, 108-10). If we regard these features of his experience as veridical perceptions, then, given the assumption of the time-anchor argument, it would seem that he had these perceptual experiences at specific points during his coma.
One fairly obvious response to the time-anchor argument would be to concede that Alexander had the veridical perceptual experiences (in his NDE) during his coma. This wouldn’t be extraordinary, and it certainly wouldn’t support the extrasomatic interpretation of his experience, unless there was good evidence that his cortex was shutdown at the time of the perceptions. As Harris noted, a significant number of coma patients have awareness during coma. Perhaps more significantly, there’s data that shows that even coma patients in a vegetative state can gradually transition into a state of minimal awareness, and then lapse back into a vegetative state (see Schnakers, Giacino, and Laureys). In the absence of functional data tracking patterns of brain activity, it’s difficult to see how Alexander can properly rule this out. Moreover, Alexander’s description of the human faces bubbling up out of a dark muck, and whose voices were unintelligible, wouldn’t be surprising as subjective features of a change in cortical activity shortly before regaining consciousness. While this would not explain the alleged communications with Susan Reintjes who was not physically present, if there’s any evidence for telepathic interactions between people, it’s drawn from persons whose cerebral cortex is actually functional.
Now let’s be clear here. I’m not suggesting that residual and changing cortical activity, generating moments of minimal awareness, actually explains the apparently veridical features of Alexander’s experience. I’m rather pointing out a consequence of Alexander’s lack of functional data: if he doesn’t have adequate evidence that his cerebral cortex was shutdown for the entire duration of his coma, establishing on the basis of time-anchors that he must have had the experiences during his coma doesn’t do much for the conclusion he wishes to establish.
I think Sudduth is right about this, and it's the biggest problem I've had with Alexander's story from the start. The strongest NDEs involve a veridical component that can be verified after the fact and can anchor the experience to events in the known world. Alexander's experience lacks this element. His vague impression of a psychic communication is too ambiguous to count for much, and his impressions of visitors at his bedside are not inconsistent with the limited perceptual capabilities of comatose patients. Alexander would probably argue that, because he remembers experiencing most of his otherworldly journey before these time-anchors occurred, it proves that his NDE must have taken place while he was deeply comatose. But we're not really justified in making that inference. His memory might be inaccurate, or the entire NDE might have occurred within just a few minutes during the period when he was recovering from the worst of his illness. As Sudduth points out, people who take psychogenic drugs often report elaborate, lengthy experiences that seem to go on for many hours, but which take place within just a few minutes of (what we might call) "Earth time."
I said this was the biggest problem I've had with Alexander's account. There are two other problems. One is that the experience really does seem like a drug trip. I've read accounts of DMT testing under controlled conditions by psychiatrist Rick Strassman, and the bizarre, hallucinatory narrative recounted by Alexander matches them very well. Though I've never taken hallucinogenic drugs myself, when I think of Alexander's book, the images that come to my mind are from the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine – imagery that was obviously inspired by LSD trips.
My other problem with Alexander's book is related but slightly different. His NDE is simply different in almost all respects from the standard NDE's that have been reported, documented, and tabulated for decades. I don't know of any other NDE where somebody reports flying around on the back of a giant butterfly, for instance. To me, one of the convincing features of NDEs is their relative consistency (taking into account cultural and personal differences). Alexander's NDE breaks the mold in so many ways that it is, at best, an outlier, and perhaps more plausibly, not a true NDE at all.
The fact is that Alexander's NDE is by no means the most convincing such case. It has been widely discussed because it is the first NDE, as far as I know, to be reported by a brain surgeon. Alexander's professional training and status provide his story with a certain intrinsic interest and perhaps make it more credible, to some people, than the account of (say) a plumber. But there are many other NDEs that boast more striking veridical details and which fit much more comfortably into established narrative patterns.
Many other issues have been raised in this discussion, but as I said, I'm not going to try to get into them all. As I've explained on other occasions (once in direct response to Michael Sudduth), I'm very skeptical of the super-psi idea, which Sudduth seems to find somewhat persuasive, or at least well worth considering. I'm also skeptical of Kastrup's philosophical idealism and the idea that reality can be explained in monistic terms – i.e., that everything can be reduced to a single thing. I suspect that reality, rather than being neat and simple and elegant, is actually something of a mess.
At the very least, this little dust-up has offered proof of a tenet of chaos theory: when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can indeed stir up a storm.