Monthly Archives: October 2012

Empiricism and Physicalist Monism – How To Do It

In a comment on a previous post Neil wonders if empiricism, defined as the use of the senses and reason, is a dualistic notion. It isn’t. The identification of sense and reason is merely a convention in discussions about empiricism. Humans have customarily come to talk in terms of reason and senses because they appear as distinct experiences to us, subjectively. But they are both physical experiences, according to the following.

You will think dualistically if you start with ‘perception’ and confine yourself to human ‘mental’ experiences without considering more science. But even so I think it’s worth emphasising that this dualistic nature that is being referred to here isn’t the same thing as the dualism of mind/body, Cartesian Dualism.

My route to physicalist monism is straight forward, and covered here, here, here. In summary it’s as listed below – and here I’ll start with perception in order to pick up Neil’s starting point. Now obviously this isn’t the actual detailed route we take personally, but I’ll get to that eventually. And nor are these distinct steps. This breakdown is used just to emphasise specific points.

1) We perceive, and wonder what our perceptions involve. I’d normally assume that all this is understood and go right to point 2.

2) We follow Descartes back to the Cogito and observe that I think therefore I am a thinking thing, at least. This need not be an absolute certainty. Certainties are not necessary.

3) If at this point we accept everything as being in the mind then we can reflect on what the mind observes, and go on from there.

4) This mind perspective, this pure Rationalism, can concoct any story it likes: panpsychism, solipsism, various combinations of the physical and supernatural – pretty much anything. And we have no means of checking which is true. Any imagined possibility is an actual possibility, according to the mind. At this point we could branch off anywhere, but I think that if we continue to analyse all the possibilities we can always get back to some form of solipsism – all Rationalisms lead to Solipsism. But even then we have no means of distinguishing some specific detail: are you a figment of my imagination, or am I a figment of yours, for example; or, if we are part of some grand consciousness, why do we disagree?

5) But, the mind observes one particular set of perceptions that are strikingly persuasive: the ‘physical’ world – using the particular term ‘physical’ from convention, because at this point there is no knowledge about what this actually means. It is only a persistent perception. Later, ‘physical’ becomes a mere label, but the perceptions are so persuasive we start to think the ‘physical’ is at least one aspect of reality. It appears we have various ‘senses’, in that these perceptions consistently come to us through what we perceive as various sensory modes. All this is still possibly only a mental perceptual phenomenon. There is no guarantee that these perceptions of the physical world relate to any actual physical world – it just feels that way, so much so that it feels more real and persistent than most if not all other mental phenomena.

6) Now, we seem to be stuck at (4), but (5) is very persuasive. It seems impossible for a human to switch off these ‘physical’ perceptions, or to mentally influence many of the physical experiences we perceive – I can imagine that I can make my car rise off the ground under mind control, but the physical perception is that this is not possible, no matter how much I try with my mind. All human attempts at telekinesis seem to fail. Now, it could be that there are some unknown limitations to our mental capacity to control our mental experiences, so that it may still be that the ‘physical’ is nothing more than a solipsist perception. But, instead of fighting this why not take the tentative step of accepting that there is something to this ‘physical’ reality. Will that help?

7) As it happens it does seem to help. The more seriously we take these physical perceptions the more consistent our overall perceptions become. It really does seem like there are other entities out there, just like me, that are reporting similar internal mental perceptions, of mind and of externally existing other entities and physical objects. They report that they observe me just as I observe them. Furthermore, as we cooperate, using science, we discover so much specific and extremely persistent detail about a whole external universe (external to our minds) that we can’t help but be persuaded that this is at least a very useful and satisfying interpretation of our perceptions. It is far more consistent than any of our Rationalisms; with the exception of the very unsatisfying solipsism. The significant point is that if we treat this perceived physical reality as if it is real and not just a mental phenomenon we seem to be able to make progress with it that we can’t if we assume it is a mental figment, because the latter leaves forever imagining details that we can only verify by imagining more stuff about the imagined physical reality. It’s as if the maintenance of the solipsist view takes more effort than just accepting the physical perceptions as being somewhat representative of a real physical world. There’s no need to assume our perceptions are perfect – and in fact if we ever do that we seem to get into more trouble: if we take seriously the perception of an inner voice instructing us to kill people, it seems to cause a lot of pain in the world. There are lots of good reasons to accept the physical world, in spite of the difficulties involved in accessing it reliably. At this point we can accept we have a rather erratic inner mental life that has a slightly misty window on some physical reality.

8) Taking the real world seriously, and appreciating our fallible access to it, and the fallibility of our mental capacities, we develop science in order to overcome some of these inadequacies. We come then to perceive the results of Evolution. If we continue to take all this science seriously Evolution tells us that our ancestors did not have brains and did not have minds. Evolution demonstrates a very clear link between brain and mind, where the capacity of mental phenomena seems to match physical characteristics of the brain quite consistently. Then, we also have Neuroscience. This shows us even more specifically the link between physical changes to the brain and corresponding mental changes. It also shows us that there is no sensory faculty in the brain whereby it can sense itself in a way that corresponds to touch or pain. The brain cannot ‘feel’ itself in the same way as it can ‘feel’ one’s finger touching one’s nose. We cannot detect our own brain physically, we cannot feel its processes in action. All of science, but Evolution and Neuroscience specifically, leads us to think that the brain and its mental faculties are an evolutionary development, and that the specific lack of internal sensory perception of one’s own brain makes it feel like the mind is separate. Add to this all we know about infant development and it appears also that the mind seems to awaken at some point in our individual young lives. For all these reasons dualism seems to be the natural first perceptual experience; but all the science then explains why this is, and why this is an illusion. We are physical beings, individually, and as an evolved species, long before we have a brain that starts to think.

9) The thinking faculty seems to be an add-on, an upgrade. All the mental phenomena (1) to (4) can now be explained in terms of the physical universe. We even have a reasonable understanding of concepts like the second law of thermodynamics as well as all the other physics and chemistry that explain how such complex physical systems can become chemical, biological, organ, organism. As contingent as all this is upon our accepting the physical experiences it all fits together very well. Currently we seem to have some difficulty sewing up some loose ends. We haven’t yet been able to come up with a detailed theory of how we connect the subjective conscious experience to the physical neurons upon which we think it is based. But the simple and consistent hypothesis is that there is such a connection, particularly since there is no evidence of the alternative: a separate mind.

10) The pure Rationalism now seems misplaced. At the very least this should give Rationalists a far greater problem than any Rationalist argument does for science, for physicalism. It is often said that there are no true outright solipsists. Even the most strident Rationalists don’t live by their own philosophy: they still eat drink and sleep. Or, those that don’t soon find they succumb to the very physical world they deny, and die. All experiences that supposedly transcend the physical world are only ever transitory, and the mental experiences reported can still be explained as physical events in the brain. Or at least that’s how it appears to those of us that embrace the physical world. As much as it is philosophically unsound, the comment by Dr Johnson, “I refute it thus!”, is sufficiently persuasive that the pedantry of any counter Rationalist philosophy is not the least bit convincing. Once you go down this route there’s actually a lot of philosophy that then seems to be nothing but fatuous nonsense.

Of course some of the more pragmatic of our fellow humans don’t bother with this arduous route to an empirical epistemology and physical monist ontology. They don’t need Descartes to tell them that they think and so exist, they just accept the physical world as the primary one and assume the mental world is a behavioural artefact of the brain. And they treat many of the more bizarre philosophies, such as the theologies, as utter tripe. There’s a lot to be said for this pragmatic approach. Of course others do think there are separate realms, because that’s what it feels like. Without some form of investigation it just becomes a shouting match.

Those that do like to check out other possibilities tend not to come by our physicalist persuasion by this route either. It’s very much a post hoc rationalisation of what we pick up along the way. But then all philosophy and science is. We do hear the Rationalist arguments, and superficially they sound as though there might be something to them. I cannot refute solipsism. But nor can any Rationalist refute physicalism. They can only offer alternative possibilities. The distinction is that empiricism and the consequential physical monism are very pragmatic and produce a lot of results. Take a Rationalist living in any century prior to the 19th and sit him beside a Rationalist in the 21st, and ask them to compare their lives and thoughts. You’ll find their Rationalist thoughts have barely changed, but their view of the physical world will be utterly different, to the extent that our older Rationalist may well be convinced that he is experiencing a lot of magic no matter how it is explained (Rationalism can cause its own blind persistence).

In this analysis, where uncertainty rules, physicalist monism is the tentative conclusion, and mental phenomena, rather than representing some dualistic alternative, are just part of this physical world. Senses and reason are not really a dualism, they are both different aspects of a human physical experience. All mental phenomena, including reason, are physical processes: processes that result in behavioural experiences that because of the apparent physical sensory disconnect seem to be something additional.

One problem for many Rationalists, particularly the theists, is that they are looking for certainties. But whether they take their particular Rationalism as being reality, or the physical world as an additional reality, there are no certainties anywhere. Claims to certainty are bogus and are easily shown to be so. Asserting some particular point does not make it so. No amount of logical argument will be convincing because it will always rely on asserted premises, and so are easily countered by some counter assertion. All logical arguments are contingent; they are conditionals. If the premises are true then …

And this is where many Rationalists are quite disingenuous in their approach. They want certainty and some even claim they have it, in their own view of reality. But whether they claim it or not, whether they embrace uncertainty or fear it, they will be very quick to point out the uncertainties of science and quite abysmally assert (with some certainty) that the empiricist science proponent is the one claiming certainty. They demand a greater certainty from science than they do of their ideas, glossing over the vague and nebulous nature of their own. But read any modern book written by a scientist. I can’t think of one I’ve read that has been written since the 1990’s that hasn’t had to counter this objectionable misrepresentation and state very clearly, usually in the introduction and with reminders throughout, the very specific uncertainties, limitations, and openness of science.

The good news is that the science of the physical world embraces uncertainty – to the point now that it looks like uncertainty is the greatest certainty we have. Though of course we have no way of being certain, even about that. There is no sign of dualism. There is no sign of any of the Rationalisms providing a fruitful route to knowledge. As uncertain as this empiricism and physicalist monism is, as contingent as it is, it’s the best show in town. And science is the best way of dealing with it, for the purpose of acquiring knowledge.

Ways of Knowing – There’s Only One, That We Know Of

That there are ‘other ways of knowing’ seems to be doing the rounds again, often along with the charge of ‘scientism’. A specific charge made against many scientists is that they are wrong in claiming that science is the only way of knowing. History and Art are often offered as contrasting ways of knowing, but without any real explanation as to why we should think they are different in kind, rather than the one way of knowing approached in different ways for different purposes.

It’s also curious that the ones making bold claims for other ways of knowing often also assert that scientists claim science knows everything, and at the same time also claim, very specifically, that science will never be able to ‘know’ certain things. It’s hard to fathom out how some minds work.

I feel the correct view, and one I’ve seen many scientists portray, including Dawkins and Coyne as examples (they are often picked out as culprits of scientism), is that humans have only one way of knowing (a single epistemology of varying reliability) and that is modern empiricism: the view that we have only the senses and reason, where reason is a process of the physical brain, and the senses are physical systems that are part of the physical world that interact with other parts of it. Science then is merely a subset of all variations on the use of empiricism, a subset developed by humans as a means of compensating for the natural limitations and fallibilities of the senses and reason. Science is merely a more rigorous approach to our one way of knowing.

One of the key features of science is the application of its developed methods (its methodologies) to build as consistent and reliable an understanding of the world that is thought to be ‘out there’ (outside our minds), and subsequently, thanks to evolution, neuroscience, psychology, a more reliable understanding of how human brains work in this very act of developing an epistemology.

History, art, religion are also variations on this one way of knowing, varying in the degree to which they require and are able to develop the same consistency of understanding, and varying in the extent to which they apply various methodologies (and here I include using free wheeling intuition as a methodology for sparking new ideas).

History tries to apply more of the thorough scientific methods where it can (e.g. dating artefacts), but has to rely heavily on inference from limited patterns of data seen in the collection of information it has available. The problem for history, and for many of the ‘soft’ sciences, is that it is difficult to draw solid conclusions, and many theories can be constructed to model the same data. For example, it’s easy for the social sciences to be lead astray to Never Never Land, as pointed out by Sokal and Bricmont in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. To be fair, it’s not all hot air (as Sokal and Bricmont point out in their book, they aren’t attacking the soft sciences generally, just the bullshit); the stuff being examined (human brains and human behaviour) is a really tough nut to crack.

Art has a far freer requirement for matching the senses and reason, in that it values imaginative representations of what we sense, or imagines things we cannot sense. Artists may talk of ‘truth’ and other such ideas, but in the context of art this really is more representative of the emotional content and the extent to which a piece might trigger emotions. The more spiritual artists may of course want to believe that this ‘truth’ has something of the sense of being real in the actual world that science discovers, but as with all spiritual imaginings there is never any evidence of such a connection. Any connection that does exist between artistic flights of fancy and the real world are likely to exist as physical states of the brain of the artist. Various transcendentalist ideas, and related ideas such as out of body experiences have never been shown to correspond to any reality other than the activity in the brains of those experiencing the phenomena.

Then we have religion. This is the wildest and least constrained of all applications of our ‘one way of knowing’ in that it is almost entirely Rationalist imagination at work. As with any pure Rationalism that doesn’t require consistency with sensed data, the religious can make up pretty much any damned story they like and claim it to be ‘true’. The use of faith is in direct opposition to science in this respect. Faith is the process by which the desired ‘truth’ comes first, and then any amount of rationalisation, as necessary, to account for all and every reasoned logical argument that refutes the religious case, and to account for any counter evidence or lack of evidence that might challenge the religious case. So certain is the application of faith in the hands of many theists they see it as total justification for the control of others.

All this of course is an epistemological problem – how can we be sure that what we know is ‘true’. I find much epistemology to be hopeless. The Justified True Belief model, along with its objections and counter models, are all stuck in a Rationalist mind set. It’s the Primacy of Thought problem that I’ve covered before. Ultimately, if you follow Rationalist thinking where it leads you can’t really escape Solipsism. It’s the only rational conclusion, and is in itself a dead end.

Thankfully our senses seem to be so persistently nagging at our inner mental lives that we feel sure that they represent something real, that there is a real physical world out there. The metaphysics, the detailed ontology of that world, is a separate debate. But whatever the ‘ultimate’ reality turns out to be there is never a shortage of adherents to the empiricism that we all live by. Even most religions don’t deny the senses and the existence of the natural world to any serious degree, and some rely on it, as a house of sin and as departure lounge to some other promised realm. For all that we are currently enclosed in our own heads, our own ‘minds’, we don’t generally limit ourselves to the dead end of pure Rationalism, but try balance our sense and reason experiences.

But really, we have nothing better than empiricism; and science is the best of our empiricism. So much so that as the human sciences improve and we discover more and more we can look on with incredulous scepticism at claims for ‘other ways of knowing’, such as sensus divinitatis of Alvin Plantinga. Without evidence to the contrary we can only put this mysticism of other ways of knowing down to mistaken beliefs, fantasy, faith. That the religious ‘value’ their beliefs is not in question. That the religious believe in the content of their beliefs is not in question. What is in question is the actual content of those beliefs.

We have only one way of knowing, as far as we can tell. Claims to ‘other ways of knowing’ amount to red herrings, which are no more than variations on our one way of knowing, or are claims to something else for which no one has ever provided any evidence.

So when scientists make statements such as ‘science is the only way of knowing’ they are really expressing their understanding that it is the best of our one way of knowing. Scientism is simply a pejorative label used by those that don’t get this. The charge of scientism is often made as an objection to a false perception that scientists believe they can acquire certain knowledge.

No one (least of all scientists) is claiming science has access to all knowledge, or expecting that it should have it. But I do think that we cannot say that some things are beyond science, which is quite a different point. This is because a claim that something is beyond science is already a claim to the knowledge that it is beyond science, so is in itself a specific claim to knowledge. We cannot know what we cannot know, for to know what we cannot know is to know something of what we cannot know. I can’t even claim that I am certain in thinking this, because it too would be a claim to knowledge that I can’t be certain of.

The contingency of human knowledge seems inescapable, and it seems to be contingent on how we come by it. So far there is only the one way that seems remotely reliable: comparing sense and experience, empiricism, performed as rigorously as we fallible humans are capable of, through science.

The Dangers of Praxis – Acting ‘As If’

Richard Wiseman has put up a post on a youtube video on The Power of Acting ‘As If’ (the video is here).

This seems to be the basis upon which various forms of Rationalism succeed in being so convincing to their proponents. By acting ‘as if’ what you think is true, is actually true, you can start to behave is if it is actually true (and eventually believe it is actually true). Even if there is no basis in reality, other than the reality that is one’s own imagination.

Praxis – the religious behaviour of performing rituals and acting as if your spiritual beliefs are actually representing a reality. It can make the beliefs seem even more true; so much so that to the proponent they ‘become’ true.

Though Richard presents some positive uses of praxis, as a means of overcoming procrastination, for example, it seems to be a dangerous tool if used indiscriminately. It seems to lie behind the success of political propaganda and prejudice. Act as if other people are different, and to you their difference becomes real. And if the supposed differences are a threat to you, then those other people become the embodiment of a real threat. In the 1930’s how did a nation come to believe that a particular religious sect, the Jews, where the embodiment of evil and the cause of the nation’s problems? How do similar beliefs sustain themselves across populations today? To what extent does acting out a belief make it seem true, even if the evidence is counter to it?

We can see the benefit to the individual in using ‘as if’ to overcome procrastination. This seems to be a benign method of changing one reality into another: he who was once a procrastinator overcomes that fault (assuming he considered it a fault) and changes, in time, into a different person in this respect.

We can see a benefit to humans generally if they act ‘as if’ we are all part of the one human race, if we all owe each other love and kindness. We can see the benefit of acting ‘as if’ our love and empathy is more powerful than our fear and hatred of others. But there is a danger in being naive about this. We have to be on our guard. We are not naturally wholly loving and empathetic. We each have other animal instincts within us; and some of us have stronger detrimental selfish intuitions than do others. We have to guard against some of our own animal instincts, and we have to avoid being too naive in seeing only good in others as we act ‘as if’ we are all good.

The effectiveness is true in the less benign cases, in that the person does indeed change into another: the unbeliever can become a true believer. The person changes. But the reality of what they come to believe does not. We can make our personalities, change because they are fluid. There is a wide range of social behaviour that human animals are capable of. But we cannot change the laws of nature we discover, into ones we would prefer. Our false beliefs in reality come unstuck by evidence, or the lack of it: eugenics, geocentrism, astrology. Whatever our social group of culture comes to believe is not in itself an indication of the reality underlying that belief. Empirical evidence is what really determines what is real – at lasts as far as humans are capable of doing empiricism well.

Even whole societies may change, from a capitalist to a communist state, for example. But it is still the people that have changed their beliefs and their personalities. The realities that underlie their existence does not change. The communist ideal sounded like a good idea, but it required ideal citizens to pull it off. But the citizens could not escape their stronger natural behaviour – they could only change so far.

This praxis can be oppressive and self-affirming. Take Turkey, for example. Despite its otherwise democratic capitalist changes over the last few decades, there are subsumed beneath the surface extreme Islamic forces. Listen here. Though some supporters of AKP stress the pragmatism (but then Islam has never been opposed to commerce), other voices express the concerns about the direction Turkey is taking. They tell us about how the oppressive nature of Islam forces people to act ‘as if’ they are more Islamic than they are – closing store shutters ‘as if’ the owner is attending to his prayers, whether he is or not, or the attack on individuals who break rules of Ramadan, or the increased wearing of the head scarf by women, whether they want to or not. Praxis can hide true beliefs and can oppress.

Note that religious praxis can have subtle political effects. Read this from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Where are the comments on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey? Ignored? Well, an international faith foundation can hardly be expected to be too critical of faith can it. In practising his faith Blair is blind to the problems of faith: Is Faith Rational.

While it is true that if they are lucky enough (lucky for the rest of us that is) many religious people can become better people, toward themselves and others by believing in something for which there is no evidential support whatsoever, it is also true that many can end up interpreting their belief system in all sorts of unhealthy ways (unhealthy for them, perhaps, but certainly unhealthy for the rest of us). Praxis, acting ‘as if’, has its dangers. It’s a consensual change to one’s mental outlook; and it need not reflect any known reality but the pesudo-reality it constructs for itself.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. When we act ‘as if’ we belong to a well meaning loving democratic nation we should acknowledge that it is a struggle to maintain that outlook. Once we are locked in it does become easier. But as we look around the world we see many examples where seething fear and hatred is just below the superficial surface. Some nations are struggling to act ‘as if’ they are democratic. We in many Western states may feel we are doing better – we’ve had longer to act ‘as if’ we are democracies. But there are many natural human animal forces within us that could easily come out in different circumstances. We are evolved humans. The few hundred years that Western Europe has eased itself into democracy is too short a time for evolutionary changes to have made us naturally totally ‘good’ democratic people.

It would be foolish to take our current expressed nature, of secular libral democracies, for granted. While we can blame influencing systems like Islam for the state of affairs in many nations at the moment, they are dealing with a religious system that is no more brutal than other religions have been from time to time. It seems that the loving nature of Christianity has something going for it – even if the figure upon which it was based is either merely mortal or almost entirely fictional. As a system it is sort of going in the right direction, away from the viscous god of the Old Testament and of Islam. But Christianity, particularly in Roman Catholicism and some other churches, still has its fair share of hell and damnation.

The religious right in the USA are still a reprehensible force for the discrimination and persecution of those that don’t see things their Godly way. And that’s in what could have been the worlds first true fully democratic republic – the intentions of the founding fathers are about as humanistic as we’ve ever seen. As it is, religion, personal capitalist greed and military power have a far greater role than one might wish.

There’s a lot of acting ‘as if’ going on in the USA that isn’t quite in tune with reality. And that’s the case in other nations too – including here in the UK. It’s tough changing our cultural habits when we have these damned evolved innate biological devils on our shoulders.

Evolutionary biology tells us how we are. It caused both the good stuff in us and the bad. It’s no use wishing evolution were not true, or acting ‘as if’ it were not true, or ‘as if’ it’s responsible only for the ‘red in tooth and claw’ stuff, or acting ‘as if’ some imagined God is the source of our goodness.


Update: From WEIT: Oliver Sacks debunks near-death and out-of-body experiences, as well as religious “revelations”. Interesting post that includes some good sources.

Update: There’s a lot of acting ‘as if’ ISIS has ‘Nothing to do with Islam’ going on at the moment (2016).

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. 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), so 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 is perceived to exist as if it is 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, than it does about any actuality.

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.