Poof of Heaven: Eben Alexander’s Truth Problem

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Esquire magazine has a long article (available online for $1.99 for non-subscribers) in the August issue by Luke Dittrich investigating the claims of Eben Alexander, a so-called “Harvard neurologist” whose book Proof of Heaven purporting to describe his “near death experience” has been on the best-seller lists for almost a year.  (I wrote about the Newsweek article that preceded the book last year.) Of course Dittrich was unable to verify or falsify the central claim, that Alexander actually went to heaven while he was in a coma during a bout of bacterial meningitis. However, Dittrich did uncover a number of awkward facts about Alexander’s career as a neurosurgeon, including a history of malpractice suits (five in ten years) that eventually deprived him of his license to practice neurosurgery and which suggested to Dittrich a possible motive for Alexander to write the book besides a reportorial one.

Over at Huffington Post, Paul Raeburn has written a blog that admirably summarizes Dittrich’s article:

Dittrich comes as close as one could, without access to Alexander’s private thoughts, to showing that the book was a cynical effort to provide a new career — as a prophet! — for a neurosurgeon whose career was being consumed by malpractice suits. He was, Esquire‘s editors write in the deck, “a neurosurgeon with a troubled history and a man in need of reinvention.”

One of Dittrich’s most damning revelations (so to speak) concerns the story of one of Alexander’s own doctors who says, in contradiction of Alexander’s claim that the  e. coli bacteria that caused his meningitis also caused his coma, that she chemically induced the coma because Alexander’s involuntary movements made it impossible to operate on him. This would give the lie to Alexander’s contention that his brain had ceased all activity and that he essentially died on the gurney. It would also suggest (though Dittrich doesn’t mention the drug used to induce the coma–one major shortcoming of the Esquire piece) a likely chemical source for Alexander’s ecstatic vision.

Of course, believers will continue to believe, and as evidence of that, you need only look at the comments section on Raeburn’s blog. Continue reading

Sabbath Musings: The Reality of God

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The following is based on a post I made three years ago at MUBI.com, of all places. I happened to be rereading old posts there this morning, and I wanted to put this one down here so I could think more about it. I was in conversation with someone who had asserted that believing in God can be compared to belief in the future, which, even though it doesn’t yet exist, we believe in anyway. I begged to differ with the aptness of the comparison.

I’d love to hear what others think about all this. Please leave a comment below if you’re so moved:

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Noam Chomsky: “It’s institutional structures that block change.”

Keystone XL demonstration, White House,8-23-20...

Keystone XL demonstration, White House,8-23-2011 Photo Credit: Josh Lopez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If yesterday’s post of Lawrence Lessig‘s TED talk on corruption gives you reason for optimism, you may want to check that after you read this from perennial thorn in the side of the powers that be Noam Chomsky, who writes of a peculiar distinction between the most “advanced” societies in the world today and those  least touched by technological “progress” as far as the threat of climate change goes:

So, at one extreme you have indigenous, tribal societies trying to stem the race to disaster.  At the other extreme, the richest, most powerful societies in world history, like the United States and Canada, are racing full-speed ahead to destroy the environment as quickly as possible.  Unlike Ecuador, and indigenous societies throughout the world, they want to extract every drop of hydrocarbons from the ground with all possible speed.

Both political parties, President Obama, the media, and the international press seem to be looking forward with great enthusiasm to what they call “a century of energy independence” for the United States.  Energy independence is an almost meaningless concept, but put that aside.  What they mean is: we’ll have a century in which to maximize the use of fossil fuels and contribute to destroying the world.

And that’s pretty much the case everywhere.  Admittedly, when it comes to alternative energy development, Europe is doing something.  Meanwhile, the United States, the richest and most powerful country in world history, is the only nation among perhaps 100 relevant ones that doesn’t have a national policy for restricting the use of fossil fuels, that doesn’t even have renewable energy targets.  It’s not because the population doesn’t want it.  Americans are pretty close to the international norm in their concern about global warming.  It’s institutional structures that block change.  Business interests don’t want it and they’re overwhelmingly powerful in determining policy, so you get a big gap between opinion and policy on lots of issues, including this one.

This seems to be a pretty important point, but it’s very difficult to know how seriously it’s being taken: The United States government does not have the species’ or the world’s best interests at heart. And it’s not just the Republicans, who are an easy target for American liberals,  that we have to blame. The fact is the Republicans are pretty much brain-dead and useless at this point. But are the Democrats really all that much better on this issue in particular? Continue reading

Loving Christianity Better Than Truth: The Craig-Price Debate

Craig Price

I’ve been watching and listening to numerous debates on YouTube between eminent atheists and Christian/theist apologists on subjects like “Does God Exist?”, “Does the Christian God Exist?”, “Did the Resurrection Happen?”, “What’s the Purpose of Life?” and so on. The debaters on the atheist side include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Carrier (whom I wrote about in my last post),  and on the theist side (among others)  Dinesh D’Souza, Rabbi David Wolpe and, most eminent of all, William Lane Craig.

If I had to score the debates he’s been in, though I disagree with him about virtually every point he makes, I’d give by far most wins to the phenomenal Dr. Craig. As atheist and debate aficionado Mark Smith notes about Craig, “He usually wins his debates. However, he wins his debates usually due not so much to being a great debater (which he is), but rather from debating people who haven’t the slightest clue how to debate.” A non-Christian rooting for one of Craig’s atheist opponents and caring about the outcome will probably wind up feeling like a Red Sox fan did last season suffering another visit from the Yankees at Fenway. Continue reading

Why You Should Doubt the Historicity of Jesus

As Richard Carrier explains in this talk given at a skeptic’s conference at the University of Wisconsin at Madison last spring, most academics who are paid to think, write and teach about Jesus will tell you that, while it’s really impossible to know for certain if Jesus was a historical figure, even the most secular of scholars in the field agree with near certainty that he probably did exist in some form or other. The key word there, of course, is the weasel word “probably.” Carrier doesn’t say so here, but these scholars are also very impatient with the alternative idea that Jesus probably wasn’t historically “real,” even though the degree of difference in certainty between their position and Carrier’s (and my) position is virtually non-existent. What the “historicists” have that Carrier and I don’t have is numbers in the academy who agree with them. That’s all they have, and when you get right down to it, that isn’t much at all.

When people who believe in a historical origin for the Jesus story find out how shaky the theoretical ground really is under their feet, they sometimes turn the conversation to less discomforting terrain, stating, for example, that it actually doesn’t matter if Jesus was real at all in the way the Bible says he was or was just made up out of thin air. The point is the wisdom in the religion and the good (or evil) that it hath wrought–or more neutrally, the impact it had on the rest of history. I disagree that this evasion is a suitable response to the challenge posed by Carrier and other mythicists. Their challenge is not aimed at the content of the religion. It’s aimed at the methods of historical research and the question of whether Christian history should be treated as a special case from other types of history,  one where it is not permitted to get too close to the central questions about its origins.

If  you think whether or not Jesus existed in history is an interesting question,  you’ll probably find Carrier’s cogent presentation on reasons not to believe in it provocative, to say the least.  Let me know what you think in the comments below.

#Frankenstorm and the Way We Talk About Climate Change

Andrew Revkin, in his Dot Earth blog for the New York Times, has been writing a lot over the past few days about the relation of global warming/climate change to the ferocious late-season appearance of #Frankenstorm Sandy, which flooded lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, tore up the Jersey shore, killed some 40 people in the US and left more than 7 million on the East Coast with no power for several days (not to mention the overlooked damage it wrought in the Caribbean before smashing into Delaware on Sunday). Many of his readers (including climate activist Dan Miller) accuse Revkin (who is a science journalist and not a professional scientist) of taking too cautious a tack on climate change generally and on human responsibility for the increase of North Atlantic storm activity in particular. Continue reading

Mystic or Manic?: Religion on the Brain (or Your Brain on Religion)?

Last night I was having a twittersation with someone named Simon Albert, a nonconforming, conservative Ron Paul supporter who refuses to go along with the Romney Republicans, about something entirely unrelated (at least in obvious ways) to politics: the nature of cosmic reality and what human minds can know about it. It’s not easy to have conversations of such weight in so ephemeral a format, but, of course, that rarely stops “tweeple” from trying.

It began when Albert tweeted, “God is real. #jesus #atheism.” Clearly, Albert was trolling for an argument with an atheist and he put a great big juicy worm on his hook. I bit. Continue reading

Science v. Faith: Coyne on the Wrongness of Wright

Call me a sadist if you want, but I love watching a really dumb argument getting smashed to smithereens, maybe because I like blowing up dumb arguments myself.  Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution Is True) performs the devastation on Robert Wright’s spectacularly lame speculation about the effect of angry atheism  on the receptivity of non-scientists in America to evolution.

Wright’s speculation is based on this little snapshot of American attitudes about the origins of humans:

Wright is apparently stuck on the marked divergence in one year of  the top two lines, each reflecting differing degrees of belief in theistic involvement in the appearance of our species. Wright’s “hypothesis”:

Over the past two years, the portion of respondents who don’t believe in evolution has grown by six percentage points. Where did those people come from? The graph suggests they’re people who had previously believed in an evolution guided by God–a group whose size dropped by a corresponding six percentage points. It’s as if people who had previously seen evolution and religion as compatible were told by the new militant Darwinians, “No, you must choose: Which is it, evolution or religion?”–and pretty much all of them chose religion.

Before reading any further, take a moment to take Wright’s argument seriously.  Do you think he has a point?

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Miami “Zombie”: “Bath Salts” or Rabies….or What?

More information about Rudy Eugene, the man who was killed while “eating” three-quarters of the face of Ronald Poppo in Miami last week. His family and friends, while acknowledging he smoked marijuana, had mental health issues and had occasional run-ins with the law (what black man in America has not had those run-ins?), say he was trying to quit weed and was an avid student of the Bible. His mother says she thinks he may have been drugged and dropped off on the causeway where he committed the crime; his girlfriend reportedly blames a voodoo hex.

While police still seem to have settled on the hypothesis that Eugene’s bizarre behavior was the result of his taking the notorious drug du jour “bath salts,” they apparently have no evidence that he ever took any. His girlfriend has even said he wasn’t intetrested in drugs other than marijuana:

The man being depicted by the media as a “face eater” or a “monster” is not the man she knew, she said. He smoked marijuana often, though had recently said he wanted to quit, but he didn’t use stronger recreational drugs and even refused to take over-the-counter medication for simple ailments like headaches, she said. He was sweet and well-mannered, she said.

Of course, Eugene may have successfully hidden a secret drug habit from her, and that may prove to explain his behavior on the causeway. But unless the police are withholding privileged information until the toxicology reports on Eugene’s body come back in a few weeks, the bad drug hypothesis seems no stronger than the one I discussed here.

I only hope the Miami toxicologist intends to eliminate the possibility of rabies as well as “bath salts.”