• Carroll & Novella vs Alexander & Moody. Some terrible, terrible arguments

    I really enjoyed watching the debate that is the talk of the town just now. Eben Alexander, author of bestseller Proof of Heaven with team mate Ray Moody were arguing that death is not final, that there is an afterlife. Physicist Sean Carroll and neuroscientist Steve Novella did a fantastic job of making the other two look pedestrian, almost silly. In fact, they did most of the work themselves, those presenting the case for. At one time, it was just a case of recounting ghost stories, and the pair looked like they were just very gullible.

    But what really got me going was one of Eben Alexander’s points, when he started down the Hard Problem of Consciousness route. This was the argument he got most hyped up about:

    “No neuroscientist on Earth can give the first sentence to explain a mechanism by which the physical brain gives rise to consciousness….”

    Steve Novella answered this by saying there is loads of research going on and just because we don’t know the whole picture doesn’t mean that we won’t or cant, or that some other explanation is necessary. It’s not a black or white thing: we have some knowledge about certain aspects of consciousness. Which is all correct. To which Alexander replied smarmily:

    “Not one sentence. Give the first sentence of how you would trace from the physical brain… that it gives rise to consciousness. Just one…”

    But what Novella or Carroll should have said is this:


    Because, of course, just because naturalism doesn’t have the complete picture, and all of the answers to hand, it doesn’t mean that supernaturalism does. In fact, the soul of the gaps thesis has bugger all explanatory value. You are replacing one sort of mystery with a greater, massive mystery. There is no way to explain how the soul works, interacts, forms, what its ontology is or anything. I mean, anything. And yet he demands that from naturalists? Wow. Just wow. I almost shouted at my laptop, and I really think Sean or Steve missed an opportunity to have him on the rails at a time when Alexander thought he had a great point.

    There’s not really much else to add, since this was, along with some ghost stories, about the sum of the case for, or at least representative of the quality of their arguments. What made me sad was the amount of people who cheered at some terrible points that Alexander made, as if the confirmation (bias) or their beliefs bubbled over into ecstasy. “Ooh, ooh, he said something that validates my belief in utter woo! Clap clap!” Sad to hear.

    Alexander’s book itself, and his own account of proceedings, has come under some critical scrutiny. It doesn’t look like he was being very honest. See these links below for more detail:

    Esquire: The Doctor Whose Story Debunked Proof of Heaven

    Daily Mail: Was ‘Proof of Heaven’ author hallucinating? Critics take aim at Harvard-educated doctor’s claim he experienced the after life (wow, the Daily Mail being skeptical!!)

    Sam Harris: This Must Be Heaven (evisceration of the book by Sam Harris)

    Sean Carroll’s concise synopsis is here.

    Category: FeaturedNaturalismScienceSkepticismSoul


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    • One of the more interesting parts hits around the 55 minute mark, where Novella is talking about attempts to introduce controls into NDE experiences. The example he uses is that of cards facing the ceiling, so you could only see them if you were floating above your body.

      But isn’t the idea of people “looking down on their bodies”, which seems to be a common element of NDEs, pretty hard evidence against NDEs? As any theologian will tell you, Heaven is not, presumably, located spatiotemporally “above” the Earth. There’s no reason why dead souls shouldn’t be in a wall, or the basement, or any other arbitrary space. But in our culture we generally conceptualize people going “up” to Heaven and “down” to hell, and that cultural conditioning reveals itself in how people construct false memories of NDEs.

      • Hi Mike!

        I think this idea that souls can see without having the hardware to interpret photons of light is highly problematic. The soul theses is pretty ill thought-out.

    • Peter

      For obvious reasons, Alexander is a poor spokesman for this NDE phenomenon. Even so there are an increasing number of scientists and doctors studying this and trying to determine if it real or does it result from other conditions. Near-death studies The jury is still out. But even Novella admits that there is a lot of research going on but no one knows what consciousness really is. However, it’s interesting that Alexander mentions heaven because in her book The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences Dr Penny Sartori details cases of patients who return from a NDE actually losing their religious beliefs resulting in them becoming more spiritual. Personally I am agnostic concerning this phenomenon although I keep an open mind. I don’t have all the answers, nor does anyone else despite their credentials.

    • Void Walker

      “No neuroscientist on Earth can give the first sentence to explain a mechanism by which the physical brain gives rise to consciousness….”

      That bit got me too, John. God of the gaps by nature, this retort was the weakest point of the oppositions “arguments”. Because hey, if we do not currently know something it MUST be a magical mystery perpetuated by a deity, right? That is the height of logic!