The Rediscovery Of Mind: Eben Alexander and Thomas Nagel

Are we living in a time where naturalism is actually on its last legs, despite it seeming to be the dominate paradigm in western academia?


Several years ago I heard the Nobel Prize winning neurologist Sir John Eccles lecture at a World Congress on Philosophy in Dusseldorf in Germany. Eccles had just written a book with Sir Karl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of science during the 20th century, called The Self and Its Brain.[1] The title is revealing. For Eccles and Popper, the self is not the same as the brain. The self, or what was traditionally called the soul, is a personal, immaterial, mental substance and the brain is a material organ that sits in our cranium. Eccles and Popper were defending what they called dualism-interactionism. There is an immaterial self which uses the brain as an instrument for thought as Eccles put it. He compared the relationship of the self to the brain to that of a pianist to his piano. The piano is an instrument that the pianist uses to play music. If the instrument is damaged – say out of tune or the strings are broken – then clearly the pianist, though he has the ability to play good music, won’t be able to produce music because the instrument that he uses to make music is damaged or incapacitated. Similarly, Eccles said that the self and the brain are related in that way. The brain is an instrument that the self uses to think. So it is not surprising that when the brain is damaged or confused or perhaps intoxicated or drugged that the self will not be able to use its instrument for clearly and properly thinking.

On this view of the self and the brain the fact that there are correlations between mental states or conscious states and brain states isn’t really surprising. If the self is using the brain as an instrument for thought then you would expect there to be correlations between mental states and brain states. When materialists show that there is a brain state that corresponds to, say, the mental state of seeing a yellow patch that is not really surprising. That hardly proves that materialists is true – that you are your brain; that the self is nothing but the brain. You would expect to see these correlations between the mind and the brain.

This past week or so a doctor – a neurosurgeon from Harvard Medical School – has issued a new book called “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience with the Afterlife” in which he relates a near-death experience while he was in a coma.[2] I think it sheds additional empirical insights on this relationship between the self and its brain. It was the cover story of Newsweek magazine; let me read you an excerpt from that story.[3] The man’s name is Eben Alexander and this is his testimony. He says,

As a neurosurgeon, I did not believe in the phenomenon of near-death experiences. I grew up in a scientific world . . . and became an academic neurosurgeon, teaching at Harvard Medical School and other universities. I understand what happens to the brain when people are near death, and I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death.

. . .

In the fall of 2008, however, after seven days in a coma during which the human part of my brain, the neocortex, was inactivated, I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.

. . .

Very early one morning four years ago, I awoke with an extremely intense headache. Within hours, my entire cortex—the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human—had shut down.[4] Doctors at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia, a hospital where I myself worked as a neurosurgeon, determined that I had somehow contracted a very rare bacterial meningitis that mostly attacks newborns. E. coli bacteria had penetrated my cerebrospinal fluid and were eating my brain.

When I entered the emergency room that morning, my chances of survival in anything beyond a vegetative state were already low. They soon sank to near nonexistent. For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline.

. . .

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.

But that dimension—in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states—is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world: a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.

I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history. But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.

All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.

If you are interested in reading about that odyssey, look at the Newsweek article or Eben Alexander’s book. But I wanted to give his concluding paragraphs. He says,

The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already. This view is scientific and spiritual in equal measure and will value what the greatest scientists of history themselves always valued above all: truth.

This new picture of reality will take a long time to put together. It won’t be finished in my time, or even, I suspect, my sons’ either. . . .

I’m still . . . a man of science every bit as much as I was before I had my experience. But on a deep level I’m very different from the person I was before, because I’ve caught a glimpse of this emerging picture of reality. And you can believe me when I tell you that it will be worth every bit of the work it will take us, and those who come after us, to get it right.[5]

When I read this testimony, my mind immediately went to a recent book that I had read by Thomas Nagel, the philosopher, called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.[6] Now, Nagel is not a theist, much less a Christian! He is an atheist. Indeed, he is something of an anti-theist. He says “I don’t want God to exist. I don’t want to live in that kind of a world.” He wants atheism to be true. And yet Nagel, just like Eben Alexander, is convinced that the materialist picture of reality is fundamentally flawed and that we cannot adequately take account of this world until we make room for mind and consciousness as equal partners in reality with the physical.

Let me just read you a couple of paragraphs from his book. He expresses doubts about whether the reality of such features of our world as consciousness, intentionality (that is, being about something), meaning, purpose, thought, and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level of only physical facts – facts, however sophisticated, of the kind revealed by the physical sciences. As a philosopher, he is convinced that physicalism or any kind of reality that would say there is no mind beyond the physical cannot account adequately for such features of the world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value. He goes on to say on page 35,

Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science. . . . If we take this problem seriously, and follow out its implications, it threatens to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture.

Then, near the end of the book, on page 128, he says,

I would be willing to bet that the . . . consensus [the present naturalistic, materialistic, physicalistic consensus] will come to seem laughable in a generation or two. Though, of course, it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid, the human will to believe is inexhaustible.

And that is the end of the book.

So it is so intriguing that a philosopher and a neuroscientist both have come to the conviction that this physicalistic, naturalistic view of the world which prevails in Western academic society is fundamentally flawed – fatally flawed – and will be done away with in the next generation. Wouldn’t that be amazing if we were living at a time where naturalism and physical reductionism is actually on its last legs despite its seeming to be the dominate paradigm in Western academia – that the next generation will see the unraveling of this naturalistic paradigm?

So I thought that was extremely interesting and provides real food for reflection.[7]

[1] John Eccles and Karl Popper, The Self and its Brain: An Argument for Interactionism (New York: Springer, 1977).

[2] Dr. Craig mistakenly attributes that title to Eben Alexander’s book. That title is actually the title of the magazine article he is going to reference. The actual book title is Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012).

[3] Eben Alexander, “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife,”, Newsweek, October 8, 2012. See (accessed September 17, 2013).

[4] 5:04

[5] 10:19

[6] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[7] Total Running Time: 14:18 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)