Sam Harris versus Eben Alexander: Clash of neuroscience

Dr. Eben Alexander has written a book called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, about his near death experience that resulted from a severe case of bacterial meningitis.

Newsweek magazine recently published a cover story titled Heaven is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, about Dr. Alexander and his book.

I was vaguely aware of the news. However, I’ve been busy with the current virtual book tour for my own recently published paranormal-thriller titled Secondhand Sight, and so I hadn’t really had time to read stop and read it.

If interested, you can follow my tour at The Virtual Book Tour Cafe. I’ll be sure to tell a couple of my best personal ghost stories along the way to keep things interesting.

I only mention ghost stories because I believe that near death experiences are real phenomena due to a number of my own personal experiences with ghosts. By simple extrapolation, I believe that ghost encounters could be considered as nothing more than After Death Experiences.

Granted, some of them are more interesting than others.

But then I noticed a very intelligent Facebook friend had offered his opinion on this subject, posting that atheist author Sam Harris had completely “demolished” Alexander’s account, at least from a scientific perspective.

Curiosity naturally got the best of me. My friend’s strongly stated opinion made me wonder what exactly Harris had said about Alexander’s NDE. I’ve read several books by Harris, most recently Free Will, so I am familiar with the author’s work.

Because my friend is a world-class scientist in his own right and has earned international respect himself, I took time to read the article by Harris.

Very interesting, as they used to say on Laugh-In. Like Peter Sellers, the show may be gone, but it will never be forgotten. And Sam Harris has apparently awarded the “Flying Fickle Finger of Fate” to some potential evidence of the supernatural.

The prominent atheist writer couldn’t be more wrong to suggest that science has demonstrated the near death experience to be nothing more than a hallucination, nothing but a chemical reaction in the dying brain.

For the record yes, there are gradations of wrong.

Harris offers at least three specific objections to Alexander’s account of his NDE. They are:

  1. Alexander admits to being a Christian.
  2. He wrote a book about his NDE and stands to profit from the effort.
  3. Science has limitations that prevent confirmation of the specific details Alexander recounted from his experience.

To which one might be tempted to respond: big deal; ditto; valid point.

Harris clearly demonstrates his own strong bias against the Christian religion with his first concern–hardly surprising, given his Letter to a Christian Nation. Bias does lead one to prejudiced opinions when interpreting evidence.

However, that sword cuts both ways. Alexander’s bias toward Christianity is more than offset by the bias of Harris against it.

While making his next objection, Harris observed that Proof of Heaven seems “destined to become an instant bestseller.”

So what? Why is that a problem? Jealous?

Why should Harris begrudge Dr. Alexander success with his book? If anyone in this conversation should be jealous, it should be me, not Sam Harris. His first book, The End of Faith, spent 33 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Is he worried Proof of Heaven spell the end of The End of Faith and his popularity? Personally, I don’t see it coming. Atheists will always have icons of their own.

But finally, Harris, or perhaps I should say his mentor Dr. Cohen, made a relevant point.

Science does indeed have its limitations. The reality of this world cannot be confined in a test tube, or clearly understood from examinations under a microscope.

Before going further, in the spirit of full disclosure–I am not a neurologist. Nor do I play one on TV.

As I mentioned earlier, I am an author, with a novel that I’d like everyone to buy. Actually, I have several books for sale.

Feel free to buy one of my books, if you’ll pardon the pun.

I apologize for belaboring this point of salesmanship, but it seems silly to think one of the primary criticisms coming from another writer was that Alexander stood to profit from writing his book.

Ask yourself this question–who would write a book that they didn’t want people to buy? What would be the point?

So I say to Dr. Eben Alexander–best of luck with your book. I plan to become a best-selling author myself–sooner, rather than later.

First, Harris lambasts Alexander for writing the book. Then he excoriates Newsweek for giving Alexander some great publicity, sniffing about the harm done to science by a scientist. This all happens while Harris laments that as much as he would like to “ignore the unfolding travesty, it would be derelict” of him to do so.

Why is that, Sam? I was successfully ignoring this story until you wrote your scathing critique of Alexander that caught my friend’s attention.

Harris claims that he doesn’t believe “everyone who claims to have seen an angel, or left his body in a trance, or become one with the universe, is lying or mentally ill”–but he strongly implies it.

I don’t really blame Sam. At the end of the day, he doesn’t have much choice, unless he’s willing to come over from the dark side.

It isn’t difficult to follow his reasoning. Because of his personal bias against Christianity, Harris cannot fathom the possibility that Alexander could actually be trying to describe a real experience. Apparently, Sam believes no NDE could be real, because of his own past experiences ingesting hallucinogens and meditating to achieve an altered state of mind.

Harris implies that these methods could artificially create the same symptoms as an NDE. He proposes that ketamine, a chemical occurring naturally in the brain, is the key to understanding the near death experience.

However, that supposes the phenomena can be proved to be nothing more than a chemical reaction in the brain.

Harris began his critique of the Newsweek article with the classic opening lines typically found to begin just about any fairy tale: “Once upon a time…”

His article went quickly downhill from there. The low point came when Harris quoted neurologist Dr. Mark Cohen to say, “Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them.”

Seriously? A neurologist actually described the delicate skills of a neurosurgeon with language one might expect to be used in reference to a butcher?

Cohen’s surprisingly condescending remark reminded me of the old adage:

Those who can, do. Others criticize.

However, I come here not to praise Dr. Alexander, or bury him.

I have not even read his book. Nor did I dwell on his personal account found in Newsweek.

Likewise, I’ve got nothing personal against Dr. Cohen. I rather appreciated when he dropped another bomb, saying, “True, science cannot explain brain-free consciousness…”

What, you may ask, is brain-free consciousness? Why is that important?

It is important because it clearly demonstrates that ketamine can’t begin to explain everything happening to consciousness trapped in a dying brain.

Brain-free consciousness is a scientific way to describe an out-of-body experience, the phenomena where a person’s consciousness allegedly leaves their body for a short period of time, either through prayer and meditation, or in this case, the duress of near death.

Ignorant of Cohen’s term prior to reading Harris, I had coined the phrase “creating new memories” in my layman’s attempt to convey the same idea.

Simply by admitting that science can’t explain brain-free consciousness, Cohen has implicitly confirmed that he believes it actually does occur.

Many NDE accounts include compelling evidence of brain-free consciousness. Please allow me to share three quick examples: the cases of Pam Reynolds, Colton Burpo, and a lovely young woman named Michaela.

Colton Burpo nearly died from a ruptured appendix. Pam Reynolds suffered an aneurysm at the base of her brain. Michaela was horribly injured by a very serious automobile accident.

All three came very, very near death, thoroughly documented by solid medical evidence–about as close as one can get to death and still not die.

I will not dispute that in each of these NDE cases, the participant gave a Christian perspective of the afterlife. However, there also have been NDEs reported by Jews, Muslims and atheists, so the person’s religious beliefs do not dictate whether the experience occurs.

True, Colton Burpo’s father wrote Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.

However, to the best of my knowledge Pam Reynolds never wrote a book or tried to profit from her experience. In her interview for the program I Survived: Beyond and Back, Michaela never even revealed her last name.

So clearly, the motive for every one of these people to tell their stories was not born of a desire for publicity or profit. Yet all three made specific, verified claims of experiencing brain-free consciousness while hovering near the brink of death.

Why did I describe this phenomena as creating new memories? Colton Burpo awoke from his emergency appendectomy to tell his parents he met an older sister who had died in utero when he visited heaven. There was no reason the little boy would have ever known she existed.

Although her physical body was undergoing emergency surgery for a diffuse axonal injury to her brain, after she regained consciousness in her physical body, Michaela similarly managed to recall a very unlikely conversation between her parents and grandparents that took place in the hospital cafeteria, where she could not possibly have overheard them.

Nothing but anecdotes, the very skeptical atheists will say. More fairy tales.

These people are not really atheists, but antitheists.

Now consider the “gold” standard case, the NDE of Pam Reynolds.

Under carefully monitored medical conditions, heavily sedated, with her eyes taped shut and ears plugged, Pam saw and heard things that her physical body could not possibly have learned through her normal senses.

Yet Pam described the bone saw equipment used in her surgery wit uncanny detail. She accurately recounted an unusual conversation between her doctors–a conversation she could not have heard.

Her neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Spetzler, said about Pam’s experience, “”I don’t have an explanation for what happened [to Pam].  I don’t know how it’s possible to happen, considering the physiological condition the patient is in.  At the same time, I’ve seen so many things I can’t explain that I can’t be so arrogant as to be able to say there’s no way it could happen.”

What would Sam Harris say–lucky guess?

You see, one can’t really be magnanimous and suggest the NDE is only a pleasant hallucination–these people have to be lying. All of them.

Unless they are telling the truth.

But that is not the fatal blow to the logic of Sam Harris. It is his supposition that every near death experience is a pleasant one.

What could possibly explain the NDE of Matthew Botsford, an innocent bystander in a random shooting? Matthew claims he briefly died and visited Hell.

So does Howard Storm.

Ask yourself–why would every last one of these people lie? What do they have to gain?

They have not all written books.



  1. I didn’t really get the impression reading Harris’ blog that he totally dismissed creating new memories as a possibility: he simply rebuffed the traditional (spiritual) explanation of it. He admitted to being agnostic as to the possibility that consciousness could exist/arise outside of a brain. I myself do not believe all of these creating new memory experiences as you call it is explicable as mere coincidences. I do wonder if the human organism has the capability under extreme duress to tap into the sensory experiences of other brains. It seems unlikely; brain waves seem much too weak to be detected without the use of other equipment. However I think the main point that Harris was trying to make is that science advances when only natural causes of phenomena including NDE’s is considered. Whether it is true or not that there is a spiritual component, saying NDE’s are spiritual in nature only serves to stifle knowledge. After all, we’ve been doing that for millennia and have gained no particular insight.

  2. Steve Miller says:

    Why go on and on with Harris remarks about the book making money. It will, no issues there. The problem is trying to interpret (project) a potential and apparent hallucination as fact. That will stifle good science. Trying to assert a deep and profound experience as anything more then that, because Dr. Alexander has “credentials”, is snake oil sales 101. Now, if Eben Alexander wanted to write a science fiction book based on his experience. All bets off. But, people are going to see his writings (for good reason) as logical fact. Disregarding any effort to determine if his information is fact or flooded with wishful assumption. People like Harris are doing what the scientific community is suppose to do. That being, taking the information that is at hand, and making an honest effort and scientifically sound determination. It is not as simple as letting the guy tell his story and leave him alone. He is attempting to assert fact where we just do not know. Though the scientific community does have have equally, if not more, data pointing towards the contrary.

  3. excellent post! very well articulated. we’re very much on the same side of this discussion.

    unfortunately, Sam Harris declined to debate Dr. Alexander. which prompted me to write my blog post on this same topic. allow me to share the link:

    thanks and good luck with your books! 🙂


  4. Mr. Leonard, I think you misunderstood Sam Harris’s complaint that the book by Eben Alexander was “destined to become a best seller”. You attribute it to jealousy, but it seems pretty obvious to me that it was because Harris laments that the public is so lacking in skepticism of such claims as “proof of heaven”. I highly doubt that Harris minds another author selling lots of books even if that other author has opposing views to his. There’s no indication from anything he writes that Harris stoops to that level of jealous thinking.

    I also don’t see Harris implying that people who have claimed to have seen ghosts or had paranormal experiences are mentally ill. He clearly believes that these people are being sincere in many cases. He just doubts that they are experiencing something truly paranormal rather than caused by their own brains. If you read his writings, it’s clear that this is his take on the issue.

    So some of your criticisms of Harris are reasonable and valid, but not those two. I felt that those were misunderstandings on your part and an unfair portrayal of Harris’s position.

  5. jerry decaire says:

    Unless anyone here has evidence to the contrary-not ex post facto conjecture but real evidence-the current state of brain science says that you cannot be having any conscious experience when your brain (neocortex) doesn’t register on an EEG. This is exactly what happens to cardiac patients 10 seconds after their heart stops beating (cardiologist Pim Van Lommel, Neurologist Peter Fenwick). Again, if anyone knows better please post along with directing everyone to that information in a peer reviewed paper. I don’t need to hear for the millionth time, “But we know the brain continues to function otherwise they wouldn’t be having a conscious experience.” That is a non-evidential argument and one premised on retro-reasoning (ex post facto). And the rub is that more than just any conscious experience, but one that is more clear and lucid than any other. At a time when the brain ought to be disfunctional is when it’s most functional??? And how does all this materialist conjecture account for the veridical experiences corroborated by attending physicians, born blind from birth visual NDE’s (Let me guess, you’ll say synethesia), and reports of NDErs knowing people they shouldn’t have known? I’m not sure how brain chemicals explain any of that. And who better to listen to than a neurosurgeon who has studied in-depth brain science AND had an NDE? The manner in which this is so readily dismissed betrays an entrenched atheist and ontological reductionist worldview. This should at least raise eyebrows and make agnostics of atheists if not believers. Once again, if anyone has evidence that suggests the brain can create such lucid memories even at the time the patient has no EEG, please submit that here. If you can do that, then this is nipped in the bud-so to speak and you will have walked away with the Nobel Prize for having finally resolved one of science’s biggest enigmas.

  6. Randy Hensley says:

    Eben Alexander is a tool of the church, a fraud, propped up for no other reason to counter the presence of Sam Harris in the New Atheist successes.

    Exactly as William Lane Craig has been propped up to counter Richard Dawkins.

    That Alexander and Craig qualify only as pseudo-intellectuals doesn’t matter. They are convincing enough to appear in the same conversations as Harris and Dawkins. This is the strategy, get them in the conversation and make a lot of hay when Harris and Dawkins refuse to debate these hacks.

    Sounds easy to resolve right? Just debate them right? Wrong this is exactly the slippery slope they want to drag Harris and Dawkins into. Next thing you know every Tom, Dick, and Harry pseudo-scientist would be lined up to occupy the rest of their days with nonsense debates.

    Harris and Dawkins are doing exactly as they should. No one would argue with a mule, and Harris and Dawkins should ignore these tools.

  7. John Leonard says:

    I’m not familiar with Dr. Alexander, other than in the context of this article.

    Richard Dawkins is actually being smart to avoid a debate with William Lane Craig, who is obviously a very intelligent man. While not totally familiar with Craig’s body of work, I have watched him in action. Dawkins probably watched what happened to Christopher Hitchens in a face-to-face debate, where Craig acquitted himself quite well. Your characterization of the doctor as a “pseudo-intellectual” and a “hack” is quite illuminating, and very prejudicial.

    There’s only one reason to avoid this debate, particularly after throwing down the gauntlet of challenge with The God Delusion–fear of losing.

    Though Dawkins protests that it’s because he doesn’t want to elevate the status of Craig by condescending to debate him and loves to quote a dig from a friend in academia as looking good on Craig’s CV, but not his own, after appearing on television with Bill O’Reilly and Stephen Colbert, his claim defies credulity.

    Cowardice makes a lot more sense for his real reason to refuse a serious debate with William Lane Craig. Many of the arguments I’ve put forth in my work-in-progress titled Counterarguments for God , such as the implications of the cosmological arguments and the anthropic universe in terms of improving the relative probability that supernatural intelligence does exist, were mentioned by Craig.

    Perhaps that scared Dawkins into avoiding confrontation at any cost.

    Quite frankly, having heard his best arguments, I’m rather confident that despite my relative lack of debate experience, I could take down Dawkins. His arguments are neither logical, or particularly intelligent. Instead, they demonstrate that his mind is limited, and closed to certain possibilities.

    Also, he has a rather profound lack of understand of statistical probability.

  8. Questionable says:

    I just question Alexander’s motives when you go on his website.
    He has membership fees to his ( nonprofit) website from
    $150 to $50,000.
    Why would someone who has seen the afterlife desire to profit so
    much from that rare gift in this lifetime.
    Wouldn’t he want to share that gift (gratis) to the world.
    Here is the link to his fee schedule if you think I’m kidding.


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