Tag Archives: Atheism

What’s Up Doc? Heaven, Apparently

In this piece, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, Neurosurgeon Eban Alexander gives his account of a brain event that made him see the light. (h/t @SkepticViews)

This is the dumbest piece of God promotion I’ve seen for some time. I wouldn’t have this neuroscientist anywhere near my brain. He says how much he wants to believe, has a specific brain experience that matches reports of experiences by other people, and that’s it – job done, God exists.

1) Auditory hallucinations can be auto-generated in the brain without sound input through the ears, so it’s possible for someone with a brain to ‘hear voices’; and some people who ‘hear voices’ attribute them to God or Jesus. He should know this. Humans hallucinate.

2) The brain perceptions experienced (bright light, vast space, God, etc.), and the reality of the things supposedly conceived (heaven, God), are quite distinct. The experience of the perceptions is no guide to the reality of the thing perceived. That’s why we call them hallucinations. That near-death is a rare experience for a human brain (except for those with a one way ticket, but then they don’t come back to report), that it is difficult to say what we would expect to experience. Novel brain experiences are not a sufficient guide to reality.

3) People will have similar experiences because, duh, they have brains too. We should expect that experiences of near death will be similar, so the similarity of the reports should not be taken as mounting evidence for the thing claimed of the experience.

4) As others have pointed out in the article’s comment stream, similar experiences can be achieved by using drugs. And by stimulation of the brain in the lab or operating theatre. There is no reason to suppose that the perceptions contained during these experiences represent a reality, and plenty of evidence that they don’t.

5) On what grounds does Alexander suppose that his perceived experiences occurred in real-time while he was unconscious? He has no way of knowing, because he was unconscious! Only later, when his consciousness returns, is he able to report on his experiences. For all he knows his brain might be constructing a completely false memory, as if it had occurred, as part of the process of recovering consciousness. Perhaps this is what it’s like when a brain is ‘turned on’ again. Being a neuroscientist he should know of this and many other rational possibilities.

There’s a problem here that theologians, many philosophers, and it appears some scientists, have with the nature of the brain and its relation to our inner thoughts and experiences. Lurking behind views expressed by those like Alexander is a presupposition that the mind is distinct from the brain and that what we experience in the mind has some distinct reality. I call this the primacy of thought problem, where we suppose that the mind and our thoughts, through our Rationalism, is the primary source of knowledge. To some extent this is understandable, since as physical animals we have to wait until our brains achieve a certain degree of complexity and experience before they become self-aware enough to do any reasoned thinking. It’s then as if our ‘mind’ has been switched on, and then exists as something independent of the brain. Contributing to this feeling is the fact that our self-awareness, our introspection, can only go so deep. We cannot, for example, perceive the individual neurons firing away as we think. We only perceive the thoughts, not the cause of the thoughts. We have no physical sensation in the brain, like touch or pain, that tells us what is actually going on inside our heads as we think. So, we feel detached, as free-floating consciousness.

In the context of this post Alexander is in no position to say what caused his experience. All he ends up with is a perception of an experience – a brain experience.

What a dumb-ass. He was lost to religion before he started on his unconscious journey; he wanted it; he says as much. Confirmation bias?

Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma…

Is this guy really a neuroscientist? It’s difficult to say to what extent a brain is ‘inactive’ during a coma, or other states where external appearances imply unconsciousness. It’s not even fully understood to what extent there is a real barrier between consciousness and un-conscious activity.

What happened to me demands explanation.

There are plenty answers to choose from. You can go with the simple functioning of a brain under stress and bad health that is capable of inducing perceptual experiences that are not associated with any reality; or you can go for your God explanation, because you want to.

Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also-I now know-defined by love.

Of course this statement tells us more about Alexander’s understanding of ‘knowing’, his views on epistemology and what it is for an animal brain to ‘know’ something, his commitment to Rationalism.

The universe as I experienced it in my coma is – I have come to see with both shock and joy – the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.

It’s hard for this statement to be wrong, because of course it is a fatuous profundity – a deepity, as Dennett would say. Quite meaningless in that it could be taken to mean anything. A straight forward physical interpretations is that yes, the physical brain has physical behaviours that under some conditions give the impression of a spiritual experience while at the same time the very same brain is governed entirely by the natural laws of science as we discover them.

But that belief, that theory [of the brain], now lies broken at our feet.

No, just at his feet, as he perceives it to be broken; as perceived by his broken brain that has had a perceptual experience that has left him with the impression that the imagined content of that experience is real.

When the castle of an old scientific theory begins to show fault lines…

The fault lines are as imagined as the content of his dreams.

… no one wants to pay attention at first … The looks of polite disbelief, especially among my medical friends, soon made me realize what a task I would have getting people to understand the enormity of what I had seen …

Oh dear. The plight of the unbelieved prophet. Everyone else is blind. Why can’t they see?

One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.

No fucking kidding!

I’m still a doctor, and still a man of science every bit as much as I was before I had my experience.

Well, I’d say not. Unless we take this to mean that he was already lost to science in his desire to believe.

I only hope he doesn’t turn into one of these evangelical doctors that you get from time to time. My mother is a believer in God of sorts, but she decided that enough was enough when at her local GP practice (an evangelical husband and wife team) her doctor suggested at the end of a consultation that they should hold hands and pray together for her recovery and well being. Preying on the sick by praying for them. But you can see this coming with Alexander.

Update: Sam Harris has chipped in:  This Must Be Heaven covers more detail, including comment by Mark Cohen. As well as going to town on Alexander, he also dishes it out to Newsweek. Harris is as eloquent as usual, so it really is worth a read. Pleas do.

It’s True!

Great Jesus & Mo cartoon again.

The best bit, and the most crucial bit that applies to all religious books is number 1:

1. This is true

This is the one and only necessary assumption in any religion to make it worthy of the name. It must declare its own truth. Of course (snigger :) (more smugness to come) we all know this is pure bollocks don’t we.

I get regular visits from Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are really nice people (at least to ones who visit me are). I think they like me and return often for the following reasons:

(a) I don’t slam the door in their faces;
(b) they haven’t converted me yet, so I suspect, like a lottery rollover, my cache goes up with each rejection;
(c) the religious are masochists (why else invent sin and then admit to bing up to the neck in it).

Anyway, I keep two things handy for when they call.

The first is a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. They always quote from it incorrectly and it’s an easy book to show them they’ve been misled. They do go through some other topics, such as DNA, irreducible complexity, but I usually wing it once we get past Darwin, because it would take too long to go through any book to convince them (“Let’s start with basic chemistry…”). I know, it’s wrong of me, but I argue from authority of knowing just a bit more about this stuff than they do. As much as I can make points against Behe’s arguments generally, if they brought him along as a guest doorstepper I might be screwed on the biology, because I’m not a biologist.

But I digress, again. The second, and most important thing I keep nearby is a piece of paper, oh and a pen – so that’s three things I keep near by, but you know what I mean.

And on that piece of paper I write words to this effect:

This paper contains the word of God as revealed to Ron Murphy. If you’re here while he’s writing this you too must bear witness to this miracle. Now, as your God I command you to ignore the Bible, Koran, gold tablets and any other bollocks you may have come across telling absolute crap about me. I can swear by the way. I am God after all. Though the atheists got it wrong, they got it wrong for the right reasons – they don’t believe any old crap in a document claiming to be the revealed truth. What sort of fucking argument is that?! Anyway, on this occasion it happens to be the truth. However, I’ll forgive you not believing it if you throw it in the bin. On one condition: you throw your crappy book in the bin too and start thinking for yourself.

No, I don’t really write all that, I just feel as though I want to. A sentence or two is usually enough to make the point.

But, miracle of miracles, their faith survives even this cutting blow. What the fuck can I do?

I thought perhaps I should show them the fabulous Morwenna Banks, from that brilliant series Absolutely.

This for me says everything about religious imaginative invention. It encapsulates millenia of theology as Little Girl rationalises uncertainties and contradictions in what pops into her head.

And her punch line:

It’s true! I know because I do!

And Little Girl here provides us with the best accommodationism I’ve ever come across: Genesis plus Evolution! It’s true!


And this is what you get when It’s true! is put into practice. Enjoy!

Stephen Law to debate William Lane Craig

Stephen Law is to debate William Lane Craig on “Does God Exist?”.

Some time ago Richard Carrier was lured into a debate with Muslim theists which was supposed to propose something like “We can prove God exists”, but at the last minute was changed to “We cannot prove God exists” (can’t remember the details). Carrier went from looking at an easy ride to being knocked out by a sucker punch because he played their game. His opener at the actual event should have been, “I concede we cannot prove God exists, so my opponents win the debate. Now, let’s get down to some interesting points about philosophy and science: this is why I don’t believe in God.”

The title of this debate pretty neutral, but I’d recommend a similar tactic with WLC: that SL doesn’t get into playing WLC’s game, or even necessarily trying to rebut his points. He should simply present his own case, pretty much ignore WLC, and just dismiss his argument totally with fundamental philosophy.

One of WLC’s moves is to concentrate on the ‘failure’ of science to disprove God’s existence, as though atheists think that possible or necessary.

The key points for me are as follows…

We humans have found ourselves to be thinking beings, and this awareness appears to have been sprung upon us some few thousand years ago, at least as far back as we can tell from philosophical and religious writings and artifacts. And with the hindsight of evolution this thinking capacity appears to be a recent acquisition, and we’re not as good at it as WLC likes to think he is, particularly with regard to the metaphysics of things outside our common experience.

The only tools we find provide knowledge consistent over wide areas of our understanding of reality are all tools of science. And science can demonstrate many instances where introspective thinking and the invention of fanciful theistic explanations of events are woefully incorrect and often incoherent. Whatever we think reality might be our only route to it is through science. That someone believes there is a God has no bearing whatsoever on the actual existence of a God, no matter how inventive their logic, because there logic will always come back to the dependence on the presupposition that there is a God – to do the revealing, to inspire or command the authoring of religious texts.

If there’s any proving to be done, or any evidence required, the responsibility is entirely on the theist to provide it. Everything we do come to know about this universe shouts out at us that there is some causal universe that conforms to various patterns, which we understand as the laws of physics. If theists like WLC want to take a pop the limitations of science, then he has to accept that these very limitations apply to him too – he cannot demonstrate a superior capacity to know stuff.

These laws are so pervasive, so in-your-face, every moment of every day conforms to them – except, supposedly, with respect to God, astrology, ESP and a few other unsubstantiated ideas. These latter beliefs are the exceptions – but where is the evidence to support them?

Because they are the exceptions the null hypothesis is that everything conforms to the laws of physics, just as we find, evidentially, empirically. Even our own existence, according to evolution, conforms to these laws; and what’s more, shows us that our predecessors were empirical sensory animals. Our cognitive abilities appear to lie on the same continuum that our physical attributes do, from our evolutionary past. Our particular self-aware introspective cognition is such a late addition we should be very wary of supposing it to be the pinnacle of creation, the precise and acute tool that WLC thinks his mind is, rather than a fallible tool, a temporary blip in an evolutionary history of one particular species. Our intellect appears to be just one more product of evolution, with a primary purpose of helping us survive. There’s no reason to believe that it has any greater capacity than that, no particular reason that it should give us access to some metaphysical supernatural – except to the extent that this very limited intellect mistakenly thinks we can.

These other ideas, these metaphysical speculations, constitute the alternative hypotheses. They have never been demonstrated, with either rationally sound argument or substantial evidence. They remain unsupportable, though irrationally believed to be true. The null hypothesis, that everything conforms to whatever our understanding of physics is, or comes to be, remains intact.

WLC can dress up his arguments all he likes. He can complain that atheists cannot disprove God as long as he likes to hear his own voice profess it – but that’s irrelevant. He misses the point of science entirely. He doesn’t get that science shows us the limitations of our brains to reason about the inaccessible without supporting evidence; and in doing so overestimates his own capacity to know things he claims are true. WLC is just pissing against the wind – and his followers haven’t noticed this because they are too busy admiring his rhetorical big dick.

I do hope (against the odds) that SL doesn’t get bogged down in his favourite ‘problem of evil’ argument. It’s unlikely to survive the irrationality of WLC. Though the problem of evil as dealt with by SL’s ‘God of Eth’ may be convincing to rational minds, it won’t make a dent on the minds of believers if they don’t want it to.

SL should stick to basic philosophy and our current understanding of science. He should call WLC out on the presuppositions that underpin WLC’s otherwise persuasive rhetoric (persuasive to the gullible at least). SL should be thorough in his philsophy and should not try to debate theology. He should just ignore any temptation to try to win the debate and be content with letting his rational arguments land on a few theistic yet open ears.

Fingers crossed.

Update: coincidentally appropriate Jesus and Mo cartoon. WLC thinks he knows more than he can, as do many theists. But to be fair, I’m not a professional philosopher either, so who am I to judge WLC, or my own philosophical capabilities. We have to remain sceptical about our own ability to know stuff – not something WLC seems to suffer from.