Science on the Brink of Death

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One cannot travel far in spiritual circles without meeting people who are fascinated by the “near-death experience” (NDE). The phenomenon has been described as follows:

Frequently recurring features include feelings of peace and joy; a sense of being out of one’s body and watching events going on around one’s body and, occasionally, at some distant physical location; a cessation of pain; seeing a dark tunnel or void; seeing an unusually bright light, sometimes experienced as a “Being of Light” that radiates love and may speak or otherwise communicate with the person; encountering other beings, often deceased persons whom the experiencer recognizes; experiencing a revival of memories or even a full life review, sometimes accompanied by feelings of judgment; seeing some “other realm,” often of great beauty; sensing a barrier or border beyond which the person cannot go; and returning to the body, often reluctantly.

(E.F. Kelly et al., Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007, p. 372)

Such accounts have led many people to believe that consciousness must be independent of the brain. Unfortunately, these experiences vary across cultures, and no single feature is common to them all. One would think that if a nonphysical domain were truly being explored, some universal characteristics would stand out. Hindus and Christians would not substantially disagree—and one certainly wouldn’t expect the after-death state of South Indians to diverge from that of North Indians, as has been reported.⁠ It should also trouble NDE enthusiasts that only 10−20 percent of people who approach clinical death recall having any experience at all.⁠

However, the deepest problem with drawing sweeping conclusions from the NDE is that those who have had one and subsequently talked about it did not actually die. In fact, many appear to have been in no real danger of dying. And those who have reported leaving their bodies during a true medical emergency—after cardiac arrest, for instance—did not suffer the complete loss of brain activity. Even in cases where the brain is alleged to have shut down, its activity must return if the subject is to survive and describe the experience. In such cases, there is generally no way to establish that the NDE occurred while the brain was offline.

Many students of the NDE claim that certain people have left their bodies and perceived the commotion surrounding their near death—the efforts of hospital staff to resuscitate them, details of surgery, the behavior of family members, etc. Certain subjects even say that they have learned facts while traveling beyond their bodies that would otherwise have been impossible to know—for instance, a secret told by a dead relative, the truth of which was later confirmed. Of course, reports of this kind seem especially vulnerable to self-deception, if not conscious fraud. There is another problem, however: Even if true, such phenomena might suggest only that the human mind possesses powers of extrasensory perception (e.g. clairvoyance or telepathy). This would be a very important discovery, but it wouldn’t demonstrate the survival of death. Why? Because unless we could know that a subject’s brain was not functioning when these impressions were formed, the involvement of the brain must be presumed.⁠

Written By: Sam Harris
continue to source article at samharris.org

39 COMMENTS

  1. Sam Harris nicely points out some elements of the NDE that I’ve been arguing for years with believers.  I’m no neurologist, but I’ve always wondered how these people could be sure their experiences occurred when their brains had flatlined (if, in fact, they did) and not just before complete loss of consciousness or just after revival.  In other words, what criteria can be used to differentiate these experiences from hallucinations caused by lack of oxygen, medications, pain, and plain old panic?  NDE proponents always claim that the similarities of experience shared by all who report them argue strongly for the non-corporeal consciousness, but it seems to me to argue more strongly for the similarities in the way all human brains function.  For instance, the experience of passing out from lack of oxygen is often reported to be a feeling of entering a narrow tunnel as vision decreases from the periphery to the center.  Drug-induced hallucinations often feature a sensation of floating, of moving through a tunnel, seeing bright lights and geometric or tunnel-like shapes.  

    That differences of experience are distinctly related to religious beliefs is especially telling.  We all filter our experiences through a veil of cultural beliefs.  Describing surroundings, surgical or medical procedures, and actions of medical personnel and family doesn’t seem too remarkable to me in this day and age where nearly everyone has seen emergency medical procedures and reenactments on TV.  As a nurse, I know that the procedures, actions, and even the words of EMS personnel, doctors and nurses are dictated by ACLS and other protocols, and so are not likely to be particularly unique.  

    In essence, there is nothing that I’ve ever heard about NDEs that strikes me as inexplicable or indicative of anything other than hallucination and imagination.

  2. Also from the pen of Sam Harris:

    “Most scientists consider themselves physicalists; this means, among other things, that they believe that our mental and spiritual lives are wholly dependent upon the workings of our brains. On this account, when the brain dies, the stream of our being must come to an end. Once the lamps of neural activity have been extinguished, there will be nothing left to survive. Indeed, many scientists purvey this conviction as though it were itself a special sacrament, conferring intellectual integrity upon any man, woman, or child who is man enough to swallow it. But the truth is that we simply do not know what happens after death. While there is much to be said against a naive conception of a soul that is independent of the brain, the place of consciousness in the natural world is very much an open question. The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it.“ (End of Faith, p. 208)

    Oh and let’s not forget:
    “There may even be credible evidence for reincarnation”. ( P. 242)

    and

    “There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science.” (p. 41)

    What a quack.

  3. I like how he talked about the strange dream he had. I always hear the same thing from people, “You don’t believe in supernatural stuff because you’ve never had anything strange happen to you!”
     
    I’ve been through sleep paralysis twice. The first time it happened about a week or two after talking about sleep paralysis with some of my friends. Prior to that conversation I had never heard of it.
     
    I can’t tell people this story anymore because they’re always amazed that I rule out supernatural causes. It’s kind of annoying.

  4. If we read the next bit it begins to make more sense:

    “The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it. Inevitably, scientists treat consciousness as a mere attribute of certain large-brained animals. The problem, however, is that nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, declares it to be a bearer of that peculiar, interior dimension that each of us experiences as consciousness in his own case. Every paradigm that attempts to shed light upon the frontier between consciousness and unconsciousness, searching for the physical difference that makes the phenomenal one, relies upon subjective reports to signal that an experimental stimulus has been observed. The operational definition of consciousness, therefore, is reportability. But consciousness and reportability are not the same. Is a starfish conscious?”

  5. Just because there is uniformity of experience in NDE’s does not mean these experiences are paranormal related. Hallucinations themselves are also similar accross people who suffer them yet serious thinking people do not think they are induced by the paranormal. The brain is the most complex structure known to man who knows what it is capable of.

  6. Further to Grant’s point, Harris may simply have changed his mind. He’s not emphasised his uncertainty over the mind-body relationship for a long time, as far as I’ve noticed. Maybe his exact position on this issue’s equivalent of the Dawkins scale moved a little further from the 4.

  7. It would not surprise me, in fact, if Alexander were to claim that his memories are stored outside his brain—presumably somewhere between Lynchburg, Virginia, and heaven. Given that he is committed to proving the mind’s nonphysical basis, he holds a peculiar view of the brain’s operation:

    “[The brain] is a reducing valve or filter, shifting the larger, nonphysical consciousness that we possess in the nonphysical worlds down into a more limited capacity for the duration of our mortal lives.”

    It’s a bit spooky to think that the consciousness of the universe could be contained in a sort of celestial version of iCloud™

    It would explain a lot, though: I frequently feel like I’m an 8 Gigabyte model in a 64 GB world.

  8. I’m reminded of Richard Feynman’s story about the clock stopping at the same time his wife passed away. Rather than choose to believe something supernatural he was inclined to find the real reason. Turns out the clock was dodgy and it stopped when turned sideways. The room was dim at the time and the nurse had picked up the clock and tilted it to see and record the time of death. There’s something about that story that makes me love Feynman.

  9. Near Death Experience

    http://www.livescience.com/110

    People who report
    near-death experiences have elevated levels of carbon dioxide in their blood
    and may be suffering oxygen deprivations, according to a new study published in
    the medical journal Critical Care.

    The study, by
    Slovenian researchers, examined 52 heart attack patients in three large
    hospitals. Of those, 11 reported having near-death experiences (NDEs), such as
    movement toward a bright light, feelings of peace and joy, and profoundly
    spiritual moments during their heart attacks.
    Studies suggest that between 10 percent and 25 percent of heart attack
    survivors report NDEs.

    Exactly why has
    remained a mystery, but the new study provides a clue. The link between oxygen
    deprivation in the brain and near-death
    experience has been suggested
    for many years. British researcher Dr. Susan Blackmore, author of “Dying
    to Live: Near-Death Experiences” (Prometheus Books, 1993), notes that many NDEs (such as euphoria and the feeling of
    moving toward a white light) are in fact typical symptoms of oxygen
    deprivation.

    Heart attacks
    occur when the supply of blood is blocked from the heart. The heart stops
    circulating blood, and as a result the brain is deprived
    of oxygen while carbon dioxide
    increases. Carbon dioxide is toxic in high concentrations, starting at about 1
    percent of the inhaled air (10,000 parts per million). For comparison, the gas
    occurs naturally in a concentration of about 0.039 percent of the atmosphere,
    though it varies according to altitude, season, and other factors.

    Not only are the
    symptoms of anoxia (oxygen deprivation) very similar to the symptoms of an NDE,
    but patients who had the highest concentrations of carbon dioxide in their
    blood reported significantly more NDEs than those with lower levels.

    In response to
    the stress of the heart attack, pain-killing endorphins are released, which can
    create elation and hallucinations.

    Several drugs
    have also been found to cause near-death or out-of-body
    experiences, including ketamine (a hallucinogen similar to PCP, used
    mainly as an anesthetic). Though many believe that near-death experiences
    provide evidence of life after death, the fact that they can be chemically
    induced suggests a natural—instead of supernatural—cause.

  10. “In other words, what criteria can be used to differentiate these experiences from hallucinations caused by lack of oxygen, medications, pain, and plain old panic?”

    There’s a physician called Dr. Sam Parnia, who has been conducting research into the near-death experiences of cardiac patients:

    At 18 hospitals in the U.S. and U.K., researchers have suspended pictures, face up, from the ceilings in emergency-care areas. The reason: to test whether patients brought back to life after cardiac arrest can recall seeing the images during an out-of-body experience.

    People who have these near-death experiences often describe leaving their bodies and watching themselves being resuscitated from above, but verifying such accounts is difficult. The images would be visible only to people who had done that.

    “We’ve added these images as objective markers,” says Sam Parnia, a critical-care physician and lead investigator of the study, which hopes to include 1,500 resuscitated patients. Dr. Parnia declined to say whether any have accurately described the images so far, but says he hopes to report preliminary results next year.

    The study, coordinated by Southampton University’s School of Medicine in England, is one of the latest and largest scientific efforts to understand the mystery of near-death experiences. . . .

    Dr. Parnia, currently an assistant professor of critical care at State University of New York, Stony Brook, says verifying out-of-body experiences with pictures on the ceiling is only a small part of his study. He is also hoping to better understand whether consciousness exists apart from the brain and what happens to it when the brain shuts down. In near-death experiences, people report vivid memories, feelings and thought processes even when there is no measurable brain activity.

    http://santitafarella.wordpres
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S

  11.  Here’s a bit from The Moral Landscape:

    “First, we should observe that a boundary between science and philosophy does not always exist. Einstein famously doubted Bohr’s view of quantum mechanics, and yet both physicists were armed with the same experimental findings and mathematical techniques. Was their disagreement a matter of “philosophy” or “physics”? We cannot always draw a line between scientific thinking and “mere” philosophy because all data must be interpreted against a background theory, and different theories come bundled with a fair amount of contextual reasoning. A dualist who believes in the existence of immaterial souls might say that the entire field of neuroscience is beholden to the philosophy of physicalism (the view that mental events should be understood as physical events), and he would be right. The assumption that the mind is the product of the brain is integral to almost everything neuroscientists do. Is physicalism a matter of “philosophy” or “neuroscience”? The answer may depend upon where one happens to be standing on a university campus. Even if we grant that only philosophers tend to think about “physicalism” per se, it remains a fact that any argument or experiment that put this philosophical assumption in doubt would be a landmark finding for neuroscience—likely the most important in its history. So while there are surely some philosophical views that make no contact with science, science is often a matter of philosophy in practice. It is probably worth recalling that the original name for the physical sciences was, in fact, “natural philosophy.””

    BTW Sam’s excellent talk on free will: bit.ly/Tz1p9M ; along with the Q&A: bit.ly/SDJHmH

  12. If our consciousness were independent of the brain, why would we lose consciousness when we are knocked hard on the head (i.e. when we are knocked UNCONSCIOUS)?

    Why would a general anaesthetic work?

    Why would people lose certain aspects of the consciousness when certain parts of their brain are damaged? 
    Is any further discussion even necessary?

  13. I am a Respiratory and Lung Transplant Physician practising in Australia.  Over the years I have dealt with many, many patients with severe Type I and Type II respiratory failure, many requiring mechanical ventilation and some extra-corporeal membranous oxygenation (ECMO).

    Anecdotally (which I admit not is scientific at all and therefore do apologise) I would like to mention that I over the past thirty years in medicine I have treated hundreds of patients who are severely hypoxaemic and/hypercarbic, who do not loose consciousness and are NOT mechanically ventilated very rarely if ever report anything resembling a NDE.

    I suspect hypoxaemia and hypercarbia are not the (primary) causes of NDE.

    One of the issues I have NDE relates to the temporal course of the experience i.e. WHEN it happened in relation to cardio-respiratory arrest.One cannot determine if the ‘experience’ happen in the earlier stages of the illness when higher cortical/neuronal function was present, or in the recovery phase. 

    Near death experiences are HEAVILY influenced by the particular cultural and religious experiences of the individual. For example people who have been raised/lived in Westernised countries often (but not always) experiences that a Christian in nature. In the NDE case series from Kyoto, Japan, published in 1997 none of the patients had a ‘Christian experience’. The patients reported ‘clouds’ and a ‘depressed’ feeling. In the only case series from India the subjects reported meeting Thangutas who are the servants of the God of the Dead.

  14. It would not surprise me, in fact, if Alexander were to claim that his
    memories are stored outside his brain—presumably somewhere between
    Lynchburg, Virginia, and heaven. Given that he is committed to proving
    the mind’s nonphysical basis, he holds a peculiar view of the brain’s
    operation:

    Yes it is called the Akashic Records. Supposedly you could gain access to not only your thoughts, but anyone else’s.

    Thank you Sam for pointing out that 10-20% of people with “severe brain trauma” do not experience NDE.

    Also Sam, if your reading this: Thank you for the comment “The feeling of being the experiencer of your experience, rather than identical to the totality of experience, is an illusion.” Yes, I used to run in a spiritual circle – this view is common especially with the Ekhard Tolle./A Course of Miracles group. It never sat well with me.

  15.  It should also trouble NDE enthusiasts that only 10−20 percent of people who approach clinical death recall having any experience at all.⁠

    Is this the part you’re referring to?  I’m not sure that I can see where “severe brain trauma” is mentioned.  I’d be grateful if you’d point it out.  Also, he doesn’t say “do not experience NDE”.  Rather he speaks of “recalling …”  Presumably you can experience an NDE without recalling it.

  16. I was surprised to find out Sam Harris’ formal training is in science, because he is so skilled in philosophy. For a long time I mistook him for one Hitch’s breed.

    When asked about afterlife the Buddha was silent. Later, someone cornered him on it. Buddha responded, “where does a fire go when the fuel is exhausted?” The student argued that the comparison did not follow, and Buddha clarified that it did, that the mind springs from the body. When the body is gone, so is the mind.

    I was slumming around with an astral projection cult in Berkeley Ca. I learned their techniques. I left my body. It was amazing. Totally real. I began rethinking my fundamental assumptions about the Universe. So I set up an experiment. Able to trust one of the cult members I asked her to take note of her apartment as I would be astral projecting there. I left my body and saw her get up in the middle of the night and make tea, and I noted certain magazines on her coffee table. I was wrong. I repeated the experiment several times and never made a single accurate observation. Therefor, I didn’t leave my body and I just experienced something really amazing about the mind, that astral projection traditions are capable of teaching a person to access. The experience is real, but the claimed agency is mistaken. Not accepting their explanation and sharing the results of the experiment had me shunned out of the cult. I was an agent of Satan come to spread doubt and destroy their practice.

    There are lots of meditations that induce vivid hallucinations, and their meaning is explained in terms of the culture. For instance, Bull Baiting (locking eyes in a certain way that’s very tricky) causes the fusiform gyrus to go haywire and the subject sees faces on other people. It’s very real and very disturbing. The practice is used by Scientologists to woo and seduce their victims. Shaman use it, perhaps with a touch of DMT active plants, and this is supposed to reveal past lives, future lovers, or animal spirits. Learning this I offended the shaman. When I saw the vivid hallucinations I became curious rather than awed, and was once again rejected from a cult for not accepting the given agency. This time my curiosity was called a deception against the guru.The brain is freaking awesome. I love the details in the video on the article, that his vision had an origin. Such details are a recurrent theme in induced hallucinations from NDEs, hypnosis, alien abductions, and OBEs.

  17. Really? He’s finally moving towards scientific materialism? Well, it only took him 45 years.

    I also remember Harris’ Salon appearance , where he stated  “If we were living in a universe where consciousness survived death, or transcended the brain so that single neurons were conscious – or subatomic particles had an interior (subjective) dimension –  we would not expect to see it by our present techniques of neuro-imaging or cellular neuroscience.” 

    When he’s reminded by Salon that “Most evolutionary biologists would say consciousness is rooted in the brain. It will not survive death.” He responds “I just don’t know”. Blimey.
    Full article here

    http://www.salon.com/2006/07/0

    There was a really good display of his Buddhist convictions some years ago at the Salk Institute. He was asked by  Lawrence Krauss if he thinks reincarnation is true and Harris shrugged “Who knows?” Alluding to the case studies of past-life regressions by Ian Stevenson cited in The End of Faith, he explained “There are these spooky stories.” Wow, just wow. What was the reaction from the audience? They rightly laughed at Harris.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

  18. <bk>However, the deepest problem with drawing sweeping conclusions from the NDE is that those who have had one and subsequently talked about it did not actually die. In fact, many appear to have been in no real danger of dying. And those who have reported leaving their bodies during a true medical emergency—after cardiac arrest, for instance—did not suffer the complete loss of brain activity. Even in cases where the brain is alleged to have shut down, its activity must return if the subject is to survive and describe the experience. In such cases, there is generally no way to establish that the NDE occurred while the brain was offline.

    sums up everything you need to know. i’ve always argued this, that the common feelings people have exist during oxygen starvation rather than actual death and anyone who is in such a poorly state has no way of evaluating what’s going on or when.</bk>

  19.  Thanks. I’ll continue prattling on the subject.

    I think it is important to realize how convincing these experiences are, that those who have them are not being intellectually lazy when drawing their conclusions. People who see Jesus often ask themselves if they are schizophrenic. Their conclusion follows a false dichotomy: Either I’m crazy or I met Jesus/aliens/left my body. I am not insane, therefor such things really happen. In the right conditions, any brain will hallucinate.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H

    The above wikipedia article has good data on the kinds of stress factors that can induce it, though it is very incomplete. There should a reference to Charles Bonnet Syndrome

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C

    Again wiki is a disappointment. It should be noted that many who experience these hallucinations do not suffer severe visual impairment, as pointed out in this TED lecture:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

    I think it is important to realize the convincing nature of these hallucinations not only to better sympathize with mistaken assumptions, but to appreciate the brain and how perception works. At a certain point, all sense-data/qualia can be considered hallucination as it is generated by the brain. I suppose what preserves the meaning of the word is whether sense-data relates to external stimulus. Every moment our brains represent infinite amounts of data as finite experience. A lot of this data is filled in, implied, confabulated, and we would say hallucinated but sense data invented by the brain accurately correlates to the external world (though not caused by it). Investigation and experiments reveal anomalies that often reveal insight into evolution. A classic is the hallucination of movement and color change in frame-animation. A lot of stage magic preys upon this Serengeti vestige.

    Our beliefs also contribute to how our brain presents sense data. Here is a demo of suggestion induced tactile-hallucination, by some strippers and Darren Brown.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

    Our brain fills in the gaps to keep us from being eaten by tigers, using all available data, including cognitive-data like suspicions, ideology, or memory. The filling in of gaps can include complex subjects, such as entire people. In my own experience of bereavement hallucination, it did feel as if my brain was trying to reconcile the absence of a person from their familiar setting (like a particular chair). I think of NDEs and possibly other OBEs as sensory-deprivation hallucinations, once sense data ceases to come in from the usual sources.

    I had a grand mother who experienced leaving her body after a stroke that affected the left half of her body. She looked down and saw herself surrounded by doctors, and half of her body turn black. Because she would not have had cognitive awareness of this detail, to her and others it was compelling evidence of a soul that leaves the body. As a nerd I believe her brain processed the data of the bilateral injury and represented it as experience, just as the brain always represents data as experience. She saw herself surrounded by doctors because she knew what that looked like. She may have even had a somewhat accurate vision, even if there were a different number of doctors, or if things were different colors from what she saw. What I think these shows is that on the way to being processed into experience, belief and understanding play a major role in how the brain generates reality, even right now.

    “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” -Philip K. Dick

    If you believe you are reading this on a stone tablet, you might pull it off, but if you submerged your screen in water, it might cease to be legible.

    Negative hallucinations are probably amongst the most common, fully convincing hallucinations. They are not likely to be noticed. The brain will tune out any stimulus that is constant enough, such as an alarm, nagging, industrial stench, or one’s clothing. To experience the rest of the world absent a particular stimulus requires modification of the rest of the data, hallucination. This is certainly tells us a lot about our evolution. If we could see air, we would be blind. Then there is the whole upside-down thing our brain does with vision (Erismann and Kohler), the flattening out of convex data, and the inability for our color sensors to generate the data we wind up seeing. Seeing is not like a camera obscura with light leaking in. That’s how our brain gets the data, but what we see is imagined.

    This gets into the Buddhist supposition, all is mind. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is commonly misunderstood as a supernatural lark, and for many Buddhists it is, but orthodox Tibetan Buddhism disallows all a priori assumptions, and their Book of the Dead is based on the death experience for people of that culture. As oxygen levels drop, a person begins experiencing the mythology they grew up with. In an attempt to die well, the Book of the Dead advises a person on how to navigate this reality generated by a suffocating brain. Tibetans see orgies, demons, devas, etc, not ancestors waiting for them on clouds at the end of a tunnel (as Western mythology suggests).

    I hope being an atheist makes the death trip super cool, because being raised in the West has me dread a lame reunion with dead pets.

    dictated but not read,
    Irving R. Pufferfish

  20. Neodarwinian
     Dr. Eben Alexander.

    Never heard of him, his book or cared to, until now.

    There was a recent discussion of him here.

    It should be noted, he is a neurosurgeon NOT a neuroscientist. 

    “What does the neuroscientist Colin Blakemore make of an American neurosurgeon’s account of the afterlife?”
    http://richarddawkins.net/news

  21. I remember reading a few years ago about a guy called Ian Mcormack from NZ, who was stung by box jellyfish and then had a NDE. Now get this  - he “died” an atheist and came back as a born again Christian! Story here:

    http://near-death.com/mccormac

    Incidentally, for all those Christians who like to hold up this story, the Bible staes unequivocally that people die ONCE and only once. Hebrews 9:27 – “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment”

    So if it is possible to die, come back to life and then die a second time, then the bible is in error.

    Try getting the fundies to see this though – you get some great semantic gymnastics from them when this business gets raised.

    SG

  22. You shamelessly misrepresent the Salon exchange there: placing part of Harris’s answer to a question before the question itself; pretending that his answer was simply “I just don’t know”, when it clearly was not.
    It’s almost as if you’ll use any excuse to pursue an obsessive, tedious, pathetic, ill-informed, anti-Harris vendetta, but, clearly unable to grasp any of Harris’s actual arguments, are happy to sloppily cut and paste together your own dumbed-down misrepresentations to sneer at.

  23. You’re abolutely right, so let’s ‘sloppily cut together’ all the bits on telepathy and human consciousness to get a proper grasp of Harris’ quackery:

    Salon: It sounds like you’re open-minded to the possibility of telepathy —things that we might classify as psychic. You’re saying it’s entirely possible that they might be true and science at some point will be able to prove them.

    Harris: Yeah, and there’s a lot of data out there that’s treated in most circles like intellectual pornography that attests to there being a real phenomenon here. I just don’t know. But I’ve had the kinds of experiences that everyone has had that seem to confirm telepathy or the fact that minds can influence other minds.

    Salon: Tell me about one of those experiences.

    Harris: Oh, just knowing who’s calling when that person hasn’t called you in years. The phone rings and you know who it is and it’s not your mother or your wife or someone who calls you every day. I’ve had many experiences like that. I know many people who’ve had even more bizarre experiences. But that does not rise to the level of scientific evidence. The only way to determine if it really exists is to look in a disinterested and sustained way at all of the evidence.

    Salon: You are a neuroscientist. Do you think there’s any chance that human consciousness can survive after death?

    Harris: I just don’t know. One thing I can tell you is that we don’t know what the actual relationship between consciousness and the physical world is. There are good reasons to be skeptical of the naive conception of a soul. We know that almost everything we take ourselves to be subjectively — all of our cognitive powers, our ability to understand language, our ability to acknowledge anything in our physical environment through our senses — this is mediated by the brain. So the idea that a brain can die and a soul that still speaks English and recognizes Granny is going to float away into the afterlife, that seems to be profoundly implausible. And yet we do not know what the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity ultimately is. For instance, we could be living in a universe where consciousness goes all the way down to the bedrock so that there is some interior subjective dimension to an electron. So I’m actually quite skeptical of our ever being able to resolve that question — what the real relationship between consciousness and matter ultimately is.

    Salon: That’s interesting. Most evolutionary biologists would say consciousness is rooted in the brain. It will not survive death. You are not willing to make that claim.

    Harris: I just don’t know. I’m trying to be honest about my gradations of certainty. I think consciousness poses a unique problem. If we were living in a universe where consciousness survived death, or transcended the brain so that single neurons were conscious — or subatomic particles had an interior dimension — we would not expect to see it by our present techniques of neuro-imaging or cellular neuroscience. And we would never expect to see it. And so we have a problem. There are profound philosophical and epistemological problems that anyone must confront who’s trying to reduce consciousness to the workings of the brain. This discourse is in its infancy, and who knows where it’s going to go?

  24. placing part of Harris’s answer to a question before the question itself; pretending that his answer was simply “I just don’t know”, when it clearly was not

    Skeelo, why don’t you just respond to James Martin’s charge?  Methinks your voluminous answer doth protesth too much.

  25.  Very good James, well done! Was that so hard? A few complete paragraphs, and in the correct order too!
    Now that you’ve accomplished this, why not explain your objections to what Harris has said? Or is cut and paste the limit of your abilities?

  26.  Perhaps you can explain to me what James Martin’s ‘charge’ actually is?

    It seems to me that, yet again, he’s simply illustrating, in a thoroughly dishonest way, his dislike of Harris, while laying bare his almost complete lack of comprehension of  just about everything Harris has ever said or written.

  27. Wow, I have hit a nerve. But you cannot be serious. Do you really need my help to understand why what Harris said to Salon what utter twaddle? I mean, you really think that Harris is making sense with his talk about telepathy and consciousness not being generated by the brain? Really?

  28.  I can assure you that you have hit no nerve, and you will no doubt be relieved to hear that I don’t anticipate requiring your help understanding anything, at all, anytime soon.

    I understand that you think what Sam Harris said in the Salon article was ‘twaddle’, but I suspect this is largely because you simply do not understand it. This is why I asked you to explain your objections to what Harris actually said.
    As you have, predictably, failed to explain what these objections are, I’m left with little option but to assume you are incapable of doing so; I don’t think you have anything more than the most superficial idea of what you’re cutting-and-pasting about.

  29.  I’m with you. For some reason my brain is seriously prone to “spiritual experiences” such as profound lucid dreams, astral projection, potential prophecies etc. I can only assume that it is part of what has led me down the path of skepticism, as I have spent a great deal of time investigating these experiences and carrying out my own amateur experiments with them. I have tried to send out psychic signals via dreams, and bring back some kind of information that I could not have known. So far, nothing to report. Like you, I have found many people are all to eager to discuss my experiences (one person jealously told me I was a natural astral traveler), but are usually disappointed to hear my interpretation of them. They have trouble believing that I can enjoy these experiences on a purely materialistic level, without the desire to attribute some higher meaning to them.

  30. Please remember that our Terms of Use require comments to remain on the topic of the OP. In this case, that means on the topic of the science of Near Death Experiences – NOT anything Sam Harris may or may not have written or said on other subjects at various times in the past.

    We have removed one comment which attempted to bring in a whole host of off-topic issues, and will continue to remove any further comments that do not directly address the topic of the OP.

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