Email from Eben Alexander 08/12/2016 21:46
Dear David, et alia,
Thank you for inviting my thoughts on this most important effort.
In your own field, and in general, what do you consider to be the major limitations of science, as it is currently understood and practiced? How would you like to see these limitations addressed?
After more than 20 years spent as an academic neurosurgeon, my personal near-death experience (NDE) in a week-long coma due to overwhelming gram-negative bacterial meningitis in 2008, during which neocortical destruction led to a paradoxical enhancement of phenomenological experience, completely devastated my prior erroneous notions of materialist neuroscience suggesting that the physical brain might somehow create consciousness out of purely physical matter. Early on, I was forced back to first principles in my efforts to fathom what I had experienced. I would define these first principles as starting with: “the only thing any human being knows to exist is the inside of her/his own consciousness.”
As much as human brain/mind might be exceedingly clever at convincing us otherwise, we have never experienced any part of the “world out there” (which includes our brains and bodies, which are “out there” in the perceived world) directly – we have only experienced the internal construct, the model within mind, that we presume to be a fairly accurate representation of the reality “around us.” One cannot lose sight of this “supreme illusion,” as I often refer to it, if one is to arrive at a deeper understanding of the nature of consciousness, and of reality, itself.
The notion of the “collapse of the wave function,” that the conscious observing mind precipitates an emergent actuality out of the infinite cloud of possibilities in the subatomic world, applies to all of reality, not just to subatomic observations that are carefully constructed in a quantum mechanical experiment. The results of experiments in quantum physics thus serve as the “smoking gun” to indicate that all of reality is quantum, which is simply another way of saying that consciousness is fundamental in the universe: that all of the observable universe since before the Big Bang (and all of the rest of the Cosmos that exists anywhere/anywhen) emerges from consciousness itself.
The general notion among some physicists that the subatomic world is quantum and that the macroscopic (human sized, or generally anything larger than a buckyball) world is classic/Newtonian, and that there is some level at which one might apply the “Heisenberg cut” between the two, is a rough assumption/approximation that might be convenient for modeling, but is not part of the underlying reality. All of it is quantum, not classical. And this has tremendous implications all around, including our very notions of time flow and causality, spatial extent and tridimensionality, etc. To even begin to approach a deeper understanding of consciousness and the mind-body question (which is what every bit of this is about) will require significant reworkings of our notions of mass, energy, space, time and all of causality. Any true Theory of Everything must begin with a far more robust understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of consciousness ‘s interaction with the physical world (something Roger Penrose, Henry Stapp, Brian Josephson, William Tiller and other physicists would agree with, I suppose).
My emerging world view is one that thus sees all of phenomenological human experience (all of the contents of mind or consciousness “in the now,” and all memories of such a string of “nows,” for all sentient beings throughout the cosmos) as existing as a pure informational domain out of which all of reality, and all potential realities, are based. The entire physical universe is a projection from that phenomenological domain. The phenomenological mental experience is what truly exists, and it generates the physical world as its very strong “illusion” of reality. It is when we observe that illusory physical reality closely enough, through the subatomic assessments of quantum physics, that we detect the absolutely crucial role of consciousness in guiding the emergent actuality out of the cloud of possibilities.
This discussion is fundamentally all about the mind-body debate. Along the spectrum from complete physicalism, through various blends of dualistic interpretations, all the way over to ontological idealism, I feel that only the latter (ontological idealism) is defensible from the first principles mentioned above. Assuming there is but one truth, I believe that all of the dualistic positions relating mind and brain must be convenient half-way points for discussion, but none of them would be the final deep truth about mind and/or brain. The physicalist position has never gone anywhere (given the extreme depth of the “hard problem of consciousness,” or what might better be called “the impossible problem of consciousness” if one is approaching from the handicapped stance of pure physicalism). The evidence that the physical brain is not the producer of consciousness emerges from such common phenomena as terminal lucidity, acquired savant syndromes, numerous recent experiments assessing the great decrease in junctional region brain activity seen in the most extraordinary psychedelic drug trips (vide infra), and is suggested by the overwhelming evidence for non-local consciousness in the form of telepathy, precognition, presentiment, out of body experiences, remote viewing, near death and shared death experiences, death bed visions, after death communications, past-life memories in children indicative of reincarnation, etc.
The main impediment to scientific progress thus arises from what I view as the false assumption that the physical world is all that exists. My current beliefs align with those of William James in that the spiritual realm offers up “The More,” which I view as a top-down organizational principle that sets the stage for true evolution on a grand scale, that is evolution of information and understanding of the nature of the universe, aligned with a structure suggestive of meaning and purpose in our existence. In many ways, I see this grander evolution of consciousness as the reason the entire universe exists – this astonishing “self-awareness” of the universe for itself, manifest at the smallest level through the self-awareness of individual sapient beings, is tightly interwoven with the purpose of all evolving consciousness.
The scientific method applied to entities within the physical world thus contributes to our deeper understanding of the nature of reality in cases where we encounter inexplicable gaps in the causal chain. For example, several recent studies of the psychic actions of serotonin-2a-type psychedelic drugs, assessed through fMRI (and in some cases also by magnetoencephalography [MEG]) found that the most profound psychic experiences correlated with the greatest inactivation of key junctional regions within the brain (notably the thalamus, the medial prefrontal cortex [mPFC], and the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex [ACC & PCC, respectively]). Although surprising to materialist neuroscientists who postulated that the physical brain was the producer of consciousness, this finding is quite consistent with the more expanded view of the mind-brain relationship first suggested by the likes of William James, Frederick W.H. Myers, Henri Bergson and others around the dawn of the 20th century, and which completely aligns with views forced on me by my profound near-death experience in a case of extreme meningo-encephalitis. It is also one that would have greatly satisfied Dr. Wilder Penfield, one of the most renowned neurosurgeons of the 20th century, whose 1975 book The Mystery of the Mind, summarizing his decades of work electrically stimulating the brain in awake patients, clearly states that mind and free will are far too grand to be explained by the workings of the brain alone (see my 2nd Missouri Medicine pdf “The Last Word,” attached below for more). This grander view is known as filter theory: it views the brain as a reducing valve or filter (a “permissive” system) that limits primordial/universal consciousness down to the constricted version experienced most commonly by human beings as our “normal, waking consciousness,” as well as that encountered in dreams, under the influence of psychedelic drugs, and in certain other extreme physiological conditions (near-death), and all manner of “spiritually-transformative experiences” (or STEs).
Filter theory enlarges the theater of operation of human experience outside of the simplistic assumptions of the local here-and-now of physicalist science. Although some might complain that it merely “moves the goalposts” compared with the physicalist views (i.e., production model, or “brain-creates-consciousness”) it replaces, in actuality it greatly expands the explanatory potential not only for all manner of exotic human experiences, but also for a fundamental understanding of consciousness and the relationship of brain and mind as it pertains to “normal waking consciousness.” Some might see the price paid for this expanded world view, i.e. that the entire higher-ordered chain of causality outside of the physical realm now demands a new understanding, as too much to swallow, but I believe it will prove fruitful in reaching a deeper understanding of all of causality.
Another primary constituent of this evolving view of reality is that consciousness is fundamental, and that in fact better elucidation of the measurement paradox in quantum physics is essential in deriving any more meaningful version of the nature of reality. Specifically, I believe that experimental assessment as exemplified by Dean Radin’s work evaluating the role of long-term meditators influencing the double-slit experiment offers an interesting look at the notions of complementarity, and especially the potential for mind to influence physical matter in a limited but well-defined fashion.
A major problem results from our era of super-specialization, given the grand scale of conscious experience. Physics and neuroscience, as currently practiced, fail to encompass the full scale of the question of consciousness. Also, in this era of ‘publish or perish’ and during the reign of “p < 0.05” (allowing too many false positive studies by failing to be strict enough), not to mention the old boy’s network of the scientific publications business (i.e. that the “safest studies” to get published are those supporting the status quo or providing some “new” finding [supporting the old paradigm], as opposed to corroborating an old finding [“replicative studies”] or a negative attempt at demonstrating a new finding) — all these factors lead our current scientific literature (especially in biomedicine) into a “canoe rocking in stormy waters.”
We need longer term studies focused on bigger questions, properly performed without as much prejudice in interpreting the results — essentially, a more open mind, unrestricted by the limitations of the predominant (materialist) paradigm. Mainly, we should just do better what science has been claiming to do all along: pay attention to all of the empirical evidence, without rejecting that which does not support the reigning paradigm, with as open a mind as possible.
What new methodologies and ontology would you propose?
Personal experiences, or “anecdotes,” are absolutely crucial in understanding consciousness — one cannot limit oneself to double blind randomized controlled trials as the only avenue towards scientific knowledge. As Richard Feynman said during his Nobel Prize acceptance in 1965, “A very great deal more truth can become known than can be proven.” I believe rich insights as to the nature of reality can be revealed through meditation and going within. Our language can only help in conveying those more-earth-like experiences for which it is best suited (the deeper truths we can come to know through our own deep explorations into universal mind, but we are all capable of going within).
As a healer, I have also come to believe that spiritual wellness plays a crucial role for any true physical, mental, or emotional health. This can be more readily achieved by effective use of centering prayer, meditation, and generally “going within” to manifest the optimal outcome, in self and others.
What differences do you think an extended science would make to your field, and in general?
The only way out of our current confusion is to greatly enlarge our mind to all of the possibilities (including “the More” beyond the physical, observable universe), and to honor all of the empirical evidence.
I look forward to your final compilation!
With warm personal regards,
Eben Alexander, MD. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Through the Afterlife. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012
Eben Alexander, MD, Ptolemy Tompkins. The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion and Ordinary People are Proving the Afterlife. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014
File: Near-Death Experiences, The Mind-Body Debate, and the Nature of Reality
File: Near-Death Experiences – The Last Word
Email from Chris Thomson Thursday, December 8, 2016 8:41 PM
Thank you very much. This is excellent. You say nothing with which I disagree.
We will shortly begin to write the first draft of the report. It will then be sent to all contributors for comments.
Email from Joan Walton 13:10 09 December 2016
Yes I agree that Eben’s contribution is good, relevant and interesting. However most of what he writes is confirmatory of what many others have written or said – so is not really new in that sense (in saying that, I am in no way demeaning the significance of his writing, nor the power of what he has to say.)
However, the sentence that most interested me was this one: “Personal experiences, or “anecdotes,” are absolutely crucial in understanding consciousness” – and the paragraph that followed. It is methodology that most interests me atm, and which I am exploring in my thinking and writing. Whatever methodologies are used and developed need (I think we would all agree) to include first person experiences.
Eben talks about ‘anecdotes’ – and in conventional research, anecdotes are not seen as acceptable forms of evidence! But in qualitative research, certainly in educational research, there is increasing interest in narrative research and narrative inquiry – which Includes paying attention to the story of the individual. I think an understanding of narrative research could be developed to include the kind of inquiry we are interested in.
In addition, I do not think that individual stories are enough. Hence my interest in collaborative forms of enquiry, in which individuals share their accounts and experiences, and listen to the experiences of others. If done in the right context, with appropriate ‘ground rules’, common themes emerge; the process leads to a different form of knowing/knowledge. I have mentioned John Heron and co-operative inquiry before – I think the principles underpinning this approach to research, and developed for the context we are interested in, has potentially much to offer.
Look forward to speaking later.