Friday, October 12, 2012

Heaven and Science

My friend Rich Bowker posted an interesting examination of a Newsweek cover story entitled... well, let me quote Rich:

So Newsweek has a cover story called Proof of Heaven: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife. It’s a pretty standard near-death experience story, with a couple of twists: it’s told by a neurosurgeon, and it took place during a coma during which his brain supposedly wasn’t functioning:
There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.
--read Rich's whole post--
Rich goes on to cite a rebuttal in Huffington Post by physicist and vocal atheist Victor Stenger.

Because I cannot leave well enough alone, I decided to chime in. And here's the comment I left on Rich's blog:
After reading both the Newsweek article and the Stenger "rebuttal" of it, I'd have to say I find both pieces of writing wanting for rigor. Dr. Alexander's piece is interesting and provocative, but, to be sure, not "proof" of anything except that he had an extraordinary personal experience. Was his experience a glimpse of an objectively real extra-dimensional existence? It seemed so to him. You call it "pretty standard-issue stuff for near-death experience (NDE) stories," which it is. But you can't discount the possibility that the reason it's standard issue is because many people have glimpsed the same otherworldly view, and it's actually real. (It could also be because that's the sort of image that the brain circuitry produces under certain stressful conditions.)

Bottom line, I don't know any way the rest of us can know if it was real or not, nor is it clear to me how--even theoretically--one could scientifically study his particular case, unless there turned out to be EEG recordings or something that could shed light, perhaps by recording a burst of brain activity at some crucial point. Even that wouldn't really prove anything. So we're left with the evidence of his subjective experience, which I would say is not without value, but also not a smoking gun. One wishes he had asked those questions about alternative explanations. Maybe he does, in his book.

So Stenger asked the questions for him. And if you wonder if Stenger has a dog in this race*, it's instructive to look at the titles of some of his books: God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist and God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion -- neither of which fills me with confidence about his objectivity on the question. He dismisses Alexander's account as "the classic argument from ignorance," and goes on about the "God of the gaps" view, but I don't think that's a fair characterization of Alexander's account at all. In fact, I don't find Stenger's argument at all more objective than Alexander's. Stenger has a clear axe to grind, and Newsweek and Alexander give him an easy target by claiming "proof of Heaven" when what Alexander has is powerful experiential evidence (powerful to him) that cannot easily be tested.

You're right; it's not proof of Heaven--any more than science shows that God does not exist. Both claims go way beyond the bounds of science.

What to do? Maybe SF has something interesting to say on the subject. Oh wait--it does. Connie Willis's novel Passage.
*I seem to recall that Stenger was one of the authors I complained about in my own critique of the New Scientist's "God Issue" last Spring. I complained because he presented very little science, but did so in a most authoritative voice. And I have to say, the more I read and think on the subject, the more convinced I become that the scientists who speak most authoritatively on questions of philosophy and theology seem to be the ones who fail to recognize when they've stepped out of bounds of science.

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At 2:51 PM, Anonymous Rich said...

Because I can't leave well enough alone either, I went ahead and wrote another post, this one with more science, less philosophy.


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