Saturday, October 13, 2012

Through the Portal of Death and Beyond?

Did academic neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander get a quick demo of life beyond the grave?

In a blog post entitled Newsweek-panders to the deluded again we find atheist PZ Myers foaming at the mouth over a reported case of Near Death Experience. What may have particularly annoyed PZ in this case is that the person who is using his NDE to make claims about a heavenly realm is academic neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, a lecturer at Harvard’s medical school. Now, you don’t get much more academic establishment than that and yet here is Alexander leading us “astray” with his scientific authority – or at least PZ Myers thinks so!

One might expect that of all people Alexander would at least have a modicum of neuro-psychological theory, and therefore something to say about the functioning of the brain (or lack of it) near death. So instead of giving us a first person account of the truly incredible why isn’t Alexander explaining his NDE in third person neuro-psychological terms, terms that PZ is predisposed to prefer? Instead Alexander stresses the reality of his experience and this clearly riles Myers.

But first let me concede this: From the perspective of Myers and myself Alexander’s affirmation of a world beyond the grave is hardly logically binding; it is certainly evidence relevant to the question of life after death, but it is not strong evidence, no stronger than the evidence we get about alien abductions. From a third person perspective there are likely to be a thousand and one explanations that can concocted and which are consistent with this perspective, but which make no recourse to life after death, starting, for example, with the explanation that conceivably the whole story is bogus (although some checking with sources might at least quickly eliminate that one from the inquiry)

Myers himself attempts to explain Alexander’s account in terms of confabulation:

These were stories that he built later, as he was coming to grips with that past trauma, and they were a means of coping with a huge painful gap in his memory. We know that this is what our brains do; it fills gaps in our knowledge with imaginary events to maintain continuity, a process called confabulation.

Here Myers requires the highly intelligent and critical Alexander to sit on a huge empty hole in his experience as it slowly gets filled in over a period of time and yet be unaware that it’s happening; is Alexander likely to be any less intellectually aware of this possibility than Myers? Rather than positing that Alexander had no experience while he was under, (As Myers suggests) more likely, I feel,  is that Alexander had some initial fragmentary experiences thrown up, perhaps, by a sensory deprived brain (not unlike Charles Bonnet syndrome). These fragments were then given some kind of continuity through further confabulation. Perhaps....

But in any case there is, I feel, something unsatisfactory about these attempts to explain away Alexander’s experience: Why hasn’t Alexander thought of this kind of thing himself? In fact, it is likely he has thought of it, but may be his first person “epiphany” was far more compelling and coherent than any explanation coming from third party observers like Myers or myself. As the saying goes: The man with an experience is never at the mercy of man with an argument! . Science depends on a dialogue that brings theoretical narratives and experience into a contention that seeks ultimate synthesis but allows neither theory nor experience complete dominance.  Therefore I'm prepared to at least give Alexander the credence of a doubt.

The big gripe I have with people like Myers is that one gets the impression they are unable to entertain a measure of self-doubt in their explanations. They live in the service of a particular, exclusive and ulterior ontological outlook, an outlook that is so thoroughgoing as to exclude even a small degree of reasonable doubt. Whilst an explanation of Alexander’s narrative in terms of confabulation built on fragmentary experience may be the best shot explanation from third parties such as myself there seems to be no accompanying leeway in Myers epistemology which allows him to simultaneously host alternative explanations; anyone who so much as courts a contradiction of Myers' ulterior metaphysical ontology is regarded by him as a mental cripple.

How PZ Myers habitually sees those who are less than enthusiastic about his ulterior ontology. (Dr Eben Alexander is pictured on the  right)

EbenAlexander's neurosurgeon mates are queuing up to operate on PZ Myers' brain. 

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