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:
“YOU F*CKING WHAT? NO, IF YOU DEMAND THAT FROM US, WE DEMAND IT FROM YOU. YOU GIVE ME ONE SENTENCE, JUST ONE, THE FIRST SENTENCE, OF HOW SUPERNATURALISM GIVES RISE TO CONSCIOUSNESS.”
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:
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.