Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dr. Alexander and the Afterlife No. 3

  Eben Alexander and Jean Piaget: Soul and
Body, and Mircea Eliade's Two Realms

TOPICS:  Dr. Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven - afterlife - life after death - near death experience - cortex - neocortex - Jean Piaget - developmental psychology - learning psychology - John H. Flavell - correspondence vs. interdependence - Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane - Glenn F. Chesnut, God and Spirituality

Based on Dr. Eben Alexander's near death experience it seems to be the case that, in ordinary everyday life, the human spirit or soul is an organized collection of thoughts and ideas (partly conscious and partly unconscious) which forms a kind of second layer on top of the underlying patterns of electrical charges and biochemical concentrations in the brain cells. So we are two-layer composite beings: a system of thoughts and ideas lying on top of a system of electrical charges and chemical changes, in such a way that the two layers somehow remain correlated.

Now there are philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and so on, who invoke Ockham's Razor at this point --  entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem -- "entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity." If an analysis of the pattern of electrical charges and chemical changes in the physical brain cells can completely account for the way in which human beings perceive external reality and make decisions about it, then there is no need to invent a separate sphere of thought which just hovers there as a kind of irrelevant ghost in the machine.

But Dr. Alexander's experience, along with that of innumerable other men and women who have had near death experiences, seems to show that our immaterial thoughts  and ideas can in some situations separate from the physical substratum and have experiences and adventures all on their own.
    One of the main reasons why modern skeptics refuse to belief that this could be possible, is because of their oversimplified understanding of multilayer systems. They assume falsely that there is only one way that two layers of reality can be related to one another.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

The modern thinker who best made sense of the different kinds of layered assemblages which we encounter in our scientific study of the universe, has not been as widely known as he should have been, because he is usually characterized as a "childhood learning psychologist." As a result, many philosophers and scientists assume that his work could not possibly be relevant to their own concerns, and so they never read him.

Jean Piaget was a quite brilliant Swiss developmental psychologist, but he was also one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century.  He took the fundamental ideas of the great formative western philosophers, ranging from Plato to Immanuel Kant -- their speculative theories about how the human mind learned about the world -- and spent his life doing experimental work with infants and small children, to see what actually happened in reality.  In the process, he wrote some sixty books, plus several hundred articles, describing his observations.

An exceptionally able American named John H. Flavell, who is currently Professor Emeritus of Developmental Psychology at Stanford University, used Piaget's work to totally shift the direction of developmental psychology in the United States.  The best systematic account of Piaget's discoveries which I have read is Flavell's The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget, which came out in 1963.   If I were in charge of a doctoral program in philosophy, I would require that all of the graduate students study that book and be able to pass a detailed exam on its ideas.

For literally thousands of years, philosophers had sat in their armchairs and speculated about how the human mind learns about the world, but until Piaget came along, no one ever carried out any detailed observations of infants and small children to see what actually happened.  It was rather like the ancient Greek philosophers arguing interminably about whether atoms did or did not exist, but never attempting to carry out any scientific experiments to see what was true.

Piaget on correspondence vs. interdependence

As part of his analysis of how infants and children learn about the world -- first at the purely operational level, without any ability to adequately verbalize or analyze their discoveries, but later with the ability to give carefully reasoned analyses of their observations about the world around them -- Piaget found it useful to distinguish between layers of analysis which were "interdependent with" other layers of analysis, and those which were "in correspondence with" other layers.

So he discovered, for example, that although the properties of space which children gradually discover are in correspondence with the principles of pure mathematics, one cannot derive the properties of space from elementary mathematical principles by a process of simple deduction.  Mathematics gives us tools for talking about space at a higher analytical level, but physical space as it actually exists (along with many of its basic characteristics) cannot be mechanically deduced from the foundational mathematical theorems and axioms themselves.

To draw a contrast, chemistry and physics are related by interdependence instead.  In principle at least, all of the findings of modern chemistry could be explained in terms of the physical laws governing the atoms and molecules which the chemist investigates, and could be deduced from the basic laws of physics.

But let us look at a third layer which lies underneath the chemistry-physics pair: the realm of logic and mathematics, which is in correspondence with, but is not interdependent with, the other two layers. This third layer is formed when one attempts to set up a series of logical statements and mathematical equations which are isomorphic to a particular experimental situation in physics or chemistry. But although one is trying hard to make this third layer isomorphic to the other two layers, one cannot derive the laws of physics or the research findings of the chemists from a study of pure mathematical logic alone. Mass, for example, can represented in mathematic equations which are completely logical, but the concept of mass is not itself a mathematical idea or logical rule.  Physics and chemistry therefore cannot be reduced to the study of logic and mathematics.

We can use Piaget's distinction to help make better sense of the mind-body problem.  Every time an immaterial thought in my mind changes, there will be a corresponding change in the minute electrical impulses and tiny biochemical balances in my brain cells and their interconnections.  But one cannot mechanically deduce higher human thought structures simply by detailing all the causal connections between the electrical and biochemical changes which occur as part of that process.

The Two Realms: the Sacred and the Profane

Mircea Eliade, the author of such famous works as The Sacred and the Profane, was a Romanian scholar in the history of religions. Brought up in the Eastern Orthodox church, he began broadening his knowledge of other religious traditions when he did his doctorate at the University of Bucharest on the world of Italian Renaissance philosophy from Marcilio Ficino to Giordano Bruno, with all of its Neo-platonic and Hermetic elements. He then spent four years in India studying Hindu philosophy and Yoga. In 1958 he was invited to become the chair of the History of Religions department at the University of Chicago. He was one of the most influential scholars of religion of the twentieth century and one of the world's foremost interpreters of religious myth and ritual.

Eliade explained how the religions of the world used sacred rituals, objects, and  places to commemorate the hierophanies in which the founders of that religion had crossed over into the realm of sacred time and space (as Dr. Alexander did during his near death experience). Other people later on could sometimes use these rituals or objects, or stand in these places, and use them as gateways or portals through which they too could pass, just a tiny bit, into that sacred realm.

So in an Eastern Orthodox church, for example, the painted image on a flat wooden panel of one of the saints with candles flickering in front of it is a hagia eikon, that is, a holy icon or sacred mirror reflection;  the worshiper praying in front of it is using it as a crossover point, where the sacred realm (as Mircea Eliade calls it) comes into contact with the profane realm (the ordinary, everyday world), and where in prayer the believer can enter into living contact with the divine realm.

This means that in addition to the three-dimensional physical world which the natural scientists talk about, there is a "fourth dimension" if we wish to speak that way, a realm of sacred time and sacred space.  Using Jean Piaget's terminology, we could say that this realm of sacred time and sacred space is in correspondence with the this-worldly realm -- sacred events take place in conjunction with this-worldly events in such a way that they are in certain respects isomorphic -- but we must also say that the sacred realm is not interdependent with the this-worldly realm in such a way that sacred events are reducible to this-worldly events, where the sacred events can be totally explained in terms of cause and effect within the this-worldly realm.

It was sacred space and sacred time into which Dr. Eben Alexander's consciousness traveled when he had his near death experience.


Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (New York: Simon and Schuster, October 2012).

Eben Alexander, "Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife," Newsweek (Oct. 15, 2012). Read online at 

John H. Flavell, The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget (Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand, 1963).

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959).

Glenn F. Chesnut, God and Spirituality: Philosophical Essays, Hindsfoot Foundation Series on Spirituality and Theology (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2010). Many chapters can be read online at 

God and Spirituality, Chapter 21, "Self-Transcendence," pp. 414 and 418. Can be read online at

God and Spirituality, Chapter 15. "A Personal God: Love and Energy," pp. 284-289. Can be read online at

See also God and Spirituality, Chapter 19. "The Nature of Grace," pp. 366-370. Can be read online at

For more on Mircea Eliade, see also God and Spirituality, Chapter 4. "The Realm of the Sacred," pp. 71-72. Can be read online at

Glenn F. Chesnut, blog on "Computers vs. human higher thought: the mind-body problem and Piaget on correspondence vs. interdependence," at

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