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.
Once upon a time, a neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander contracted a bad case of bacterial meningitis and fell into a coma. While immobile in his hospital bed, he experienced visions of such intense beauty that they changed everything—not just for him, but for all of us, and for science as a whole. According to Newsweek, Alexander’s experience proves that consciousness is independent of the brain, that death is an illusion, and that an eternity of perfect splendor awaits us beyond the grave—complete with the usual angels, clouds, and departed relatives, but also butterflies and beautiful girls in peasant dress. Our current understanding of the mind “now lies broken at our feet”—for, as the doctor writes, “What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large.”
The science journalist and author Jonah Lehrer seems to have driven his career off a cliff by, of all things, putting words into the mouth of Bob Dylan. He has resigned his post at The New Yorker and copies of his most recent bestseller have been recalled by his publisher.
I don’t know Lehrer personally, and I have only read one of his books in part and a few of his articles. However, I had seen enough to worry that he could get carried away by his talent for giving a journalistic polish to the research of others. There is no sin in being a science journalist—the world needs more of them—and Lehrer’s fall from grace is a genuine shame. But I know many scientists who felt that his commitment to the truth was tenuous. Recent revelations–about his manipulating and even inventing quotations, and telling elaborate lies to conceal his misbehavior–would appear to justify these fears.
Bruce Hood is currently the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the University of Bristol. He has been a research fellow at Cambridge University and University College London, a visiting scientist at MIT, and a faculty professor at Harvard. He has been awarded an Alfred Sloan Fellowship in neuroscience, the Young Investigator Award from the International Society of Infancy Researchers, the Robert Fantz Memorial Award and voted a Fellow by the Association for Psychological Science. He is the author of several books, including SuperSense: Why We Believe the Unbelievable. This year he was selected as the 2011 Royal Institution Christmas Lecturer—to give three lectures broadcast by the BBC—the most prestigious appointment for the public engagement of science in the UK. Bruce was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new book,The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity.
Richard J. Davidson is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, and Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Psychology and has published more than 275 scientific papers, many chapters and reviews, and edited 13 books. He is the author of the new book (with Sharon Begley) The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Richie (as he is known to his friends) has done more to bring the study of mental well-being into the 21st century than anyone I can think of. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work.
I have noticed that some readers continue to find my argument about the illusoriness of free will difficult to accept. Apart from religious believers who simply “know” that they have free will and that life would be meaningless without it, my most energetic critics seem to be fans of my friend Dan Dennett’s account of the subject, as laid out in his books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves and in his public talks. As I mention in Free Will, I don’t happen to agree with Dan’s approach, but rather than argue with him at length in a very short book, I decided to simply present my own view. I am hopeful that Dan and I will have a public discussion about these matters at some point in the future.
I briefly discussed the illusion of free will in both The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape. I have since received hundreds of questions and comments from readers and learned just where the sticking points were in my original arguments. I am happy to now offer my final thoughts on the subject in the form of a short book, Free Will, that can be read in a single sitting.
The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment—most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.
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