Recently Newsweek published a fluff piece about neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s near death experience in which he claims to have visited heaven. I don’t know which confounds me more: that a (supposedly) reputable magazine should peddle such flagrantly religious propaganda as though it was serious, objective journalism, or that a medical professional conversant with the human brain can be so ignorant of its neurological flaws and biases.
Sam Harris and Steven Novella both exposed Alexander’s feel-good anecdotes for what they really are: post hoc rationalisations and selective memories coloured by his Christian beliefs. ‘Proof’ of heaven they certainly are not. Novella’s critique got a response from someone who thought that skeptics like him were targeting “topics or elements of human culture that are neither harmful nor unhealthy”. It’s a common gripe; skeptics are a bunch of curmudgeons and wet blankets who unnecessarily pick on people’s silly but harmless beliefs just to feel superior to the superstitious peasants. Novella replied with a blog post defending the skeptic’s interrogation of so-called ‘harmless’ beliefs, like Alexander’s belief in an afterlife. He writes:
The major unstated premise of this criticism [against skeptics] is that a claim or belief must have direct demonstrable harm in order to be harmful. A further unstated premise is that the belief itself is the only subject of concern. […]
What I think does matter is the intellectual process – how do people reason and come to the beliefs that they hold? A harmless but flawed belief is likely to be the result of a flawed thought process, and it is that thought process that I think is important. The same intellectual flaws are likely to lead to other false conclusions that do have immediate consequences.
Novella makes a good point; the actual false or flawed belief may be inconsequential, but the sloppy thinking that leads to forming such beliefs can just as easily result in beliefs that are harmful. Or if not strictly harmful, then conducive to ignorance. Referring to Alexander’s particular case, Novella writes:
The story that Alexander tells, coming with the authority of a Harvard neurosurgeon, promotes misconceptions about the nature of brain function and coma. I have to frequently deal with families of loved-ones who are in a coma, and I can attest to the fact that having significant misconceptions about brain function can be a significant impediment to making rational health care decisions in those difficult situations.
Further, it is extremely helpful in understanding the world in general to know something about how our brains construct the model of reality that we have in our heads, and how that construction can be altered, even in significant ways. That is the real lesson of Alexander’s experience, one that is missed if we instead grab for a pleasing fiction.
Generally speaking, skeptics like Steven Novella and Sam Harris are not simply being mean when they aim to burst people’s bubbles. The justification for debunking harmful beliefs may be obvious, but as Novella argues, debunking harmless ones is just as important, albeit for less direct reasons.