Sam Harris on Eben Alexander's bogus journey

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Tue, 01/22/2013 - 23:30

I've been seeing and hearing some talk about Eben Alexander's new book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. It's based on his "near death" experience, and claims to be proof of life after death and the existence of God -- a Christian God, very specifically. My first thought was that no one could possibly taking this seriously...but the press seems to be eating it up. It reminds me of the success of Beyond And Back in the 1970s.

Sam Harris does a good job of taking Alexander's claims apart into itty-bitty pieces, in a blog post titled "This Must Be Heaven"

Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science....In his Newsweek article, Alexander asserts that the cessation of cortical activity was “clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.” To his editors, this presumably sounded like neuroscience.

The problem, however, is that “CT scans and neurological examinations” can’t determine neuronal inactivity—in the cortex or anywhere else. And Alexander makes no reference to functional data that might have been acquired by fMRI, PET, or EEG—nor does he seem to realize that only this sort of evidence could support his case. Obviously, the man’s cortex is functioning now—he has, after all, written a book—so whatever structural damage appeared on CT could not have been “global.” (Otherwise, he would be claiming that his entire cortex was destroyed and then grew back.) Coma is not associated with the complete cessation of cortical activity, in any case. And to my knowledge, almost no one thinks that consciousness is purely a matter of cortical activity. Alexander’s unwarranted assumptions are proliferating rather quickly. Why doesn’t he know these things? He is, after all, a neurosurgeon who survived a coma and now claims to be upending the scientific worldview on the basis of the fact that his cortex was totally quiescent at the precise moment he was enjoying the best day of his life in the company of angels. Even if his entire cortex had truly shut down (again, an incredible claim), how can he know that his visions didn’t occur in the minutes and hours during which its functions returned?

Baltimore: leading the world into the Twenty-Teens

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Wed, 01/09/2013 - 18:08

"...the simple fact that (at least in Baltimore) everyone’s an artist." -- John Barry, "Staging Ground", Baltimore City Paper, Dec 26 2012

Sure, I live in the suburbs, not in the city proper. But culturally, I'm a Baltimorean, or a Baltimoron, going back several generations in all directions. My accent may be duller than my grandparents', flattened out by growing up around TV, but bits of East Baltimore are still evident in my speech. There are photos in the family album of my brother and me as kids sitting on the cannons at Fort McHenry. (I'm sure that's a crime but trust that the statute of limitations has passed.) I can't hear the National Anthem, even an instrumental version, without putting in a loud "O!", at least inside my head. (And if you don't like it, tough; Baltimore gave the nation that song after we saved the country from the British in 1814, so if we want to add a little flourish to it, I say it's our civic right.) And though I'm not much of a sports fan, deep in my heart I still believe that that Baltimore Orioles are morally superior to any other major league baseball team.

For most of my life, loving Baltimore has been more of a faith-based proposition than anything grounded in reality. There's no doubt that it's a city with problems. It remains one of the nation's most murderous cities (fifth highest murder rate by 2011 data), "The City That Bleeds". Deep racial segregation is still a matter of course. City schools are failing. The city government is noted for is ineffectiveness and corruption. The economy still hasn't recovered from the collapse of manufacturing jobs.

2012: my year in review by tweets/statuses

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Wed, 01/02/2013 - 19:07

For the past few years, I've made a habit of collecting the year's tweets/Facebook statuses into one post, as a way to look back over the year that was.

This one was certainly dramatic for me, featuring death, resurrection, heartbreak, international travel, minor medical drama...and a sudden pleasant surprise twist near the end of the year, that I don't really talk about here. We'll see where that one goes, don't want to jinx it. Anyway, here's what my 2012 was like. Hoping for a pleasant and serene 2013 for us all.

Happy Festivus!; on satire and parody religion

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Sun, 12/23/2012 - 15:51

As a Genuine and Authorized Discordian Pope (Hail Eris!), a paid-up SubGenius (Praise "Bob"! Eternal salvation or triple your money back!), and an early convert to Pastafarianism (Ramen!), you might guess that "satirical" and "parody" religion is something near and dear to my heart. I firmly believe the Discordian maxim that "The human race will begin solving its problems on the day that it ceases taking itself so seriously."

There's a very nice paper on joke religions by Laurel Narizny, who says of the difference between "satirical" and "parody" religion that "While adherents of satirical religions may be playful believers, adherents of parody religions are overwhelmingly likely to be playful atheists." (Being both a Pagan and an atheist, I find that I can have one foot in each camp -- though it does take some flexibility to stretch that far.) Narizny also notes that "religious humor is a form of 'deep play' that works to renegotiate ideas about tradition, space, identity, community, and the body, and uses paradox to further one’s progress toward enlightenment."

So in that context, I'd like to consider Festivus, a satirical or parody holiday celebrated on December 23rd.

happy Solstice; magic and change at (not) the end of time; speaking of change, new blue jeans

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Sat, 12/22/2012 - 20:08

Happy Solstice, all! Remember, axial tilt is the reason for the season.

As you may have noticed, the world neither ended nor underwent any great immediate transition on 2012-12-21. However, it still may be useful to take the Mayan calendar flipping as the opportunity for a sort of New Year's Resolution on a grand scale -- a New Era Resolution, if you will. I talked about this, and about related ideas on magic (in the ritual sense) and change at an event last weekend with Evolver Baltimore. Here's a video of my talk:

handy tips for the apocalypse

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Sat, 12/08/2012 - 17:31

Digging back through some old Zelda's Inferno exercises, I stumbled on this bit of doggerel. With December 21, 2012 coming up it seemed like a good time to share it. :-)

handy tips for the apocalypse:

if thoughts of destruction are dumbfounding
heed this advice to keep from floundering:

when the earth is hit by the asteroid
it won't matter if you're man or android

'cause when it hits it'll crush the planet
like a rotten pomegranate

Zelda's Inferno exercise: paper and chalk; climbing a chain link fence

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Sun, 11/25/2012 - 20:16

Zelda's Inferno exercise: one (or more!) of the following, from

- Write a poem using the prompt: "chain-link fence"
- Write a poem about a very small object.
- Write a three part poem using "metronome".
- Write a poem based on the concept or idea of a "Mobeus strip".
- Write a poem using, "paper and chalk".

I remember middle school art class
drawing on paper with chalk
rubbing the pigment into the paper
the texture of the thick manila paper, the powdery chalk
sent a nauseous chill down my nervous system
gut-deep and inexplicable response

"...they are really saving me"

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Wed, 11/14/2012 - 17:56

A bit of a rough week here inside my heart and head. The exact why doesn't matter; I'll just say damn you Facebook and your sudden relationship status updates about ex-girlfriends with whom one is still desperately in love. What's important is that there is a substantial part of my mind that wants to do nothing but sit on the floor with a bottle of whiskey and get comfortably numb. As always, I have chosen not to listen to that voice (well, not after the first hour or so), but I was not really excited about going to teach class last night, or about having a session with one of my regular shiatsu clients this morning. "Why," says that voice, "should I give of my self, my energy, to teach, to help heal? I'm hurting. I just want to stay here until the hurting stops. Fuck off, world, and leave me in my pain."

I bring this up because you may know this voice, or one like it. I think we all do.

Zelda's Inferno exercise: Cooking

Submitted by Tom Swiss on Sun, 11/11/2012 - 19:48

Zelda's Inferno exercise:

pick one: from

- Write a poem that starts at the end, moving backwards.
- Write a poem about things that are transparent.
- Write a poem using the following start: "What good is a day..."
- Write a poem about seasonings. For example, "Salt and Saffron".
- Write a poem that starts with a one word title, two words in the first line, three in the next, and continues by adding one word per line.


Pepper. And?
Turmeric. What else?
Let's see. Coriander? Ok.
Shake the bottles, a benediction
over vegetables waiting in the pan.

I don't really know what I'm doing
whether the result will prove to be edible.
I learned to cook like I learned to love:
with no teacher, making it up as I go along,
each attempt a fresh experiment and many of them flaming disasters.
When it works, I'm as confused as anyone as to what happened.