Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dr. Alexander and the Afterlife No. 1

A Brain Surgeon's Near Death Experience

TOPICS:  Eben Alexander - heaven - afterlife - life after death - near death experience - cortex - neocortex

Two months ago, a neurosurgeon named Dr. Eben Alexander published a book entitled Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (New York: Simon and Schuster, October 2012). It moves the debate over the reality of near death experiences onto an entirely new level. In that volume he described a long and vivid near death experience which occurred while he was in a coma for seven days, suffering from an attack of bacterial meningitis in which E. coli bacteria invaded the cerebrospinal fluid which surrounds the brain. The entire surface of his brain was bathed in liquid turned thick with pus, as the bacteria in the fluid attacked the grey matter of his brain and prevented those brain cells from functioning at all.

In fact, the bacterial attack shut down his entire neocortex. This is the grey matter which forms the outermost layer of the brains of mammals. In human beings, it carries out our higher thought functions: the organization of our sensory perceptions, the process of sending out motor commands to our bodies, our spatial reasoning, and all our conscious thought and language. The cortex is even involved in our emotional lives, because we do not feel fear until our brains receive an appropriate sensory stimulation. That is, we have to see, hear, smell, taste, or feel something which is first interpreted in the neocortex in such a way as to become a trigger for that fear.

The physicians treating him were able to verify, in a variety of ways, that his neocortex had shut down, and Dr. Alexander was himself able to sort through the notes and reports of all the observers after he recovered, and demonstrate that the portions of his brain that supported higher thought functions had stopped operating.

Evidence of this type had never been available before -- that is, near death experiences from someone where all of that particular part of the person's brain had been totally closed down -- first, because this sort of infection is extraordinarily rare. And people whose brains are infected in that fashion, if the infection lasts for as many days as Dr. Alexander's did, usually end up dying. Those few who did not die, had survived only in a permanent vegetative state. The doctor could find no examples in the medical literature of anyone else who had gone through what he went through, and come through the illness able to tell the tale.

Those who wish to deny the reality of near death experiences usually argue that people who have lost consciousness at some levels (because, let us say, their hearts have stopped beating for a while) nevertheless have portions of their brains that are continuing to function. Their claim is that these so-called near death experiences are taking place in the parts of these people's brains that are still working. There is no evidence, these skeptics argue, that human thoughts can exist all by themselves, without any part of the human brain involved.

So what makes Dr. Alexander's book so impressive and ground breaking is that he was able to demonstrate, on the basis of his knowledge of both brain function and brain diseases, that there was no part of his brain which was still functioning well enough during that period, to have supported the vivid and detailed thoughts, feelings, images, and sounds which he experienced. He wrote an article for Newsweek in October of 2012 entitled "Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife," in which he summed up his reasoning as follows:
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.
Now a skeptic could argue that the fact that Dr. Alexander did not die, but recovered after seven days in that coma, showed that some minimal function must still have been present in his cortex. If the brain cells in the cortex had genuinely been literally and completely dead, he could not have come back to consciousness. But in counter-argument to this, it must be noted that elaborate tests and observations were continuously made of what his brain was and was not capable of doing through the whole length of that period, and his brain cells simply were not functioning at a level which could have supported, within their neural circuitry, all of those lengthy and rich experiences.

It is obvious that unless human consciousness can continue to think, reason, and experience even when it is totally separated from the human brain and body, there can be no immortal soul, no life after death. What Dr. Alexander's experience demonstrated was that human consciousness can in fact still function even when it is not attached to a physical brain or body. To use old fashioned language, Dr. Alexander was able to show that his "soul" or "spirit" (his conscious thought processes) had separated from his body during this period, and that his spirit was undergoing those adventures without any supporting underlay of changing electrical charges and biochemical changes taking place in his brain cells.


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

See also the group of articles which Glenn F. Chesnut is putting together on the Hindsfoot Foundation site at, HEAVENLY VOICES, NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES, AND THE AFTERLIFE.

Glenn F. Chesnut has another group of articles on the Hindsfoot Foundation site under the heading of COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS: . This includes articles on Richard Maurice Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (1901), a book which had a deep influence on Bill Wilson (the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), and on other allied topics, including Emmet Fox and New Thought, Albert Einstein on "cosmic religious feeling," and the debate between Einstein and theologian Paul Tillich (who taught with Reinhold Niebuhr and Harry Emerson Fosdick at Union Theological Seminary in New York City). Also material on Rudolf Otto and the idea of the holy in the study of comparative religions.

Dr. Alexander and the Afterlife No. 2

The Ghost in the Machine

TOPICS:  Dr. Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven - afterlife - near death experience - Descartes - the laws of nature are ideas - the Big Bang - ground of being - personal God or impersonal God - Glenn F. Chesnut, God and Spirituality

Many skeptics -- people who believe that they are scientifically-minded -- will still draw back, however, from accepting the reality of Dr. Alexander's out-of-body experience. They are haunted by a ghost, one which has been hovering in the background of western thought for over three centuries. It is a famous ghost, one which goes back to the time of the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650).   That philosopher believed that the human body worked like a machine and followed the deterministic laws of natural science.  But he argued that the human mind was immaterial and was therefore exempt from the laws of the material world.

Descartes was aware that this raised the question of how pure thoughts (which were immaterial) were able to influence the actions of material bodies (such as our arms and legs and so on).  So he came up with the rather quaint idea that the soul was able to move the body through the intermediary of the pineal gland, which he seemed to believe lived in both worlds, part spiritual and part material. In fact this does not solve anything at all, because the pineal gland does not live in both worlds, but is in fact just a collection of cells and hence a material object, like any other part of the material body.

The notion that our thoughts could control the motions of physical objects does appear to be an absurd idea, pictured in the way we frequently visualize the problem.  Sitting here at my desk, I could think as hard as I wished, but I would be unable to make the cup sitting beside my computer keyboard rise through the air and move into the kitchen and refill itself with another serving of coffee, and then come back again (moved by my thoughts alone) and obediently place itself at my right hand.

And so we are sent back to that image of the human brain as a piece of mechanical clockwork with gears and cogs meshing with one another, while a pale white ghost flits nervously through the spinning gear wheels, attempting futilely to make the machinery do something different from what we all know it will invariably be forced to do.  But since it is completely immaterial, when the poor ghost attempts to shove on one of the cogwheels, its hand simply passes right through the wheel.

Ideas (which are completely immaterial) cannot affect the course of physical bodies (which are material).  With all our modern knowledge, we all know that -- or think we do -- here at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Human thoughts as electrical charges and biochemical shifts

The world of western thought became so convinced that this was true, that it eventually developed the theory that thoughts and ideas were composed solely of electrical charges moving around in the human brain, and minute biochemical shifts taking place in the brain cells and elsewhere in the body. That is, thoughts were material things just like everything else that truly existed. The invention of the modern computer, which uses patterns of electrical charges on computer chips to represent numbers, words, mathematical relationships, and other ideas, seemed to have proved that this was so. If you take a hammer and break the computer chip into pieces, the computer will no longer be able to calculate anything at all. In like manner, human consciousness cannot exist apart from a functioning human brain and body. There can be no life after death.

Can immaterial thoughts affect material objects?

We seem to be presented with an irresolvable dilemma. Life after the death of the physical body would be possible only if thoughts and ideas (and human consciousness itself) were immaterial things. But a set of immaterial ideas could not affect the behavior of our physical bodies, which are material objects.

The fact that I can decide right this moment to reach out my right forefinger and touch my nose, seems to decide which side of the dilemma we have to come down on. My thoughts and ideas are in fact material things -- composed of patterns of electrons and chemicals in my physical brain cells -- or my finger could not be moved by my thoughts. And this means that life after death is impossible.

But is this apparent dilemma a real one? The first step in exorcizing the image of the ghost in the machine is to realize that pure ideas can indeed shape the movements of physical bodies, and do so all the time.  This is the fundamental basis of modern science.  The laws of science are all cast in mathematical form as pure ideas.  When an apple detaches from a tree, it falls to the ground because the law of gravity (an idea) compels it to do so.  The law of gravity determines the course of a cannonball shot from a cannon, and the elliptical orbit of the earth about the sun.  Of course pure ideas can make physical objects move in specific paths!  It is sheer nonsense to try to argue otherwise.

According to present calculations, the physical universe in which we now live came into existence in an event called the Big Bang which took place around 13.7 billion years ago. It exploded into existence out of what I like to call the ground of being, a term I first ran across in the writings of the great twentieth-century philosophical theologian Paul Tillich. The physical universe came into being along with the fabric of space and time: neither existed before the Big Bang. Likewise, all the physical elements which we know (carbon, hydrogen, iron, sodium, silver, gold, uranium, etc.) came into existence in the period which came after the Big Bang.

What can we say about the state of the ground of being before this universe was created? There was no space or time. There were no material things or physical objects. The Laws of Thermodynamics could not have existed, at least in anything like the form used anywhere else in modern physics and chemistry. Because if the ground of being was affected by the law of entropy, it would long ago have run down and quit functioning at some point in infinite times past, and could not have created the Big Bang. For similar reasons, the ground of being seems to have an infinite supply of energy, or the equivalent thereof.

It was not only physical objects which were created by the Big Bang, and the universe's reservoirs of energy. The laws of nature were imposed on this universe by the ground of being, from the very beginning. But this means that the laws of nature -- or the fundamental ideas upon which they are built -- have to have already been in existence in some form or other in the ground of being. In fact, the Big Bang itself was shaped by that preexisting realm of ideas.

We observe thoughts and ideas -- for how else can we describe the laws of nature, since they are not physical objects? -- bringing a universe of physical objects into existence and then controlling and directing them. So can immaterial thoughts and ideas affect material objects? Of course they can. And going even further, can a collection of thoughts and ideas existence totally apart from the physical and material universe? Of course they can, because the ground of being is a totally immaterial realm.

God and the ground of being

Some people have referred to the ground of being as "God" throughout all of recorded human history. For some of them, this is a personal God. But in both East and West, many people have regarded the source of the physical universe as a totally impersonal ground. In Christian history, there have been numerous theologians like St. Augustine who have regarded God as completely personal. But there have also been other Christian theologians who have regarded it as a totally impersonal ground, like the very capable philosopher who wrote around 500 A.D. under the pseudonym of Denis (or Dionysius) the Areopagite, and the twentieth century Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich. St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century taught the idea of a God, which he referred to as the power of Being Itself, which was almost totally impersonal. Aquinas' God did not feel emotions like anger, for instance. Most of the biblical descriptions of God were merely symbolic for him, not literal.


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

See especially Chapter 21, "Self-Transcendence," pp. 412-413. Can be read online at

See also Chapter 6, "The Ground of Being." Can be read online at

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

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Dr. Alexander and the Afterlife No. 4

How can thought influence physical objects?

Quantum physics does not explain it per se

TOPICS:  Eben Alexander - heaven - afterlife - near death experience - cortex - quantum - Heisenberg uncertainty principle - electrons as waves and particles - Stuart Hameroff - Roger Penrose - Glenn F. Chesnut, God and Spirituality

Dr. Eben Alexander, in his book Proof of Heaven, attempted to show that human thought could directly shape physical reality by means of certain quantum effects which have been discovered by modern physicists. But invoking quantum physics is not necessary: see my blog on "The Ghost in the Machine: can thoughts control physical objects?" Quantum effects also do not genuinely produce that kind of result.

One quantum effect: the Heisenberg uncertainty principle

People who argue that way generally begin by citing the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. This equation states that the position and the momentum of a single tiny nuclear particle cannot both be simultaneously known is complete exactitude. Past a certain point, the more exactly the position of the particle is known, that more uncertainty there will be in our measurement of its momentum or energy. But first of all, the uncertainty is so tiny that it applies only to little subatomic particles. It does not affect (at any level we can measure) the gross events of our everyday world.

Secondly, although it is true that some scientists, when the uncertainty principle was first discovered, tried to explain it as an "observer effect." The moment a human observer tried to measure something as small as a nuclear particle, it was argued, the act of observing altered either the velocity or position of the tiny little particle. But it was shown fairly quickly that this was not so. The uncertainty arises from within the very nature of the mathematical equations describing this kind of wave, and the uncertainty will affect all the other relationships into which that particle enters, whether any human scientist is observing them or not.

The uncertainty principle shows us that physical reality is somewhat fuzzy and unfocused if we dive down to a deep enough level. But making something blurred and imprecise does not convey control to the thinker. In fact, it produces the reverse.

Another quantum effect: electrons as both waves and particles

An important situation in which human thought does have an effect on observed physical reality appears when we do certain kinds of experiments with electrons. Are electrons waves or particles? If we set up an experiment in which a beam of electrons is shot like little particles across a vacuum, they will behave like particles. An example would be the electron beam which produced the image on the viewing screen in the old-fashioned cathode ray tube used in twentieth-century television sets and computer monitors. An electromagnetic field was used to make the electron beam move back and forth across the screen and produce the image dot by dot.

If we take our stream of electrons, however, and fire them through a grid, like the precisely ordered ranks of atoms in a crystal, the electrons will act like waves which will set up wave patterns upon whatever we are using as a receiver. This is the way an electron microscope works. Fundamentally, it is no different from the way the kind of microscopes work that use visible light. But since the wavelength of electrons (when they act like waves) is much smaller than the wavelength of visible light, we can see physical objects that are much smaller.

Now here is the paradoxical thing about the wave-particle phenomenon. Scientists can fire electrons which will be diverted, early in their flight, into a path that treats them like particles, or into another path that treats them like waves, then sends them on to some kind of receiver. We can wait until they have already gone through the path which determined whether they would appear as particles or as waves, before deciding which kind of receiver we are going to use. If we choose a particle receiver, the electrons will appear as particles, and vice versa, a wave receiver will record electrons striking it as waves. A human decision further down the path seems to alter, not just what is going to happen in the future, but also seems to alter the past.

Now this is a strange and quite surprising experimental finding, but it does not provide any kind of explanation for how human thoughts and ideas (which are immaterial) could push electrons around in specific directions in the circuits of the human brain. If one brain cell is excited, the process by which it passes along an electrical charge to another specific brain cell (and no other), cannot be affected by the question of whether the human being is thinking of the electrons as waves or particles.

Another attempt to use quantum theory:
Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose

In 1996, another physician, Dr. Stuart Hameroff M.D., joined with Roger Penrose (Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford) in an attempt to use quantum physics as a device for allowing the human consciousness to remain in existence during near death experiences when the brain cells were no longer functioning. In  his theory, consciousness is derived from microtubules within brain cells (neurons) which are sites of quantum processing.

They proposed that human consciousness involved quantum wave functions which occurred in "in cytoskeletal microtubules and other structures within each of the brain's neurons. The particular characteristics of microtubules suitable for quantum effects include their crystal-like lattice structure, hollow inner core, organization of cell function and capacity for information processing."

But when we looked at Dr. Alexander's attempt to cite quantum effects to account for near death experiences, we saw that neither the Heisenberg uncertainty principle nor the way in which electrons can function as both waves and particles, can explain how immaterial human thoughts could alter the physical processes of the brain, or how human consciousness could continue to exist after the brain has become nonfunctional.

So Hameroff and Penrose's ideas are not helpful, with one exception.

They do force us to realize that the interaction between human thought systems and the electrochemical processes of the human brain take place at such a microscopic level that quantum effects will in fact be involved. How much difference is there between the electrochemical state of the brain when I think the bare thought that "near death experiences are real" as opposed to when I think the bare thought that "near death experiences are not real"? What size change does the presence or absence of the word "not" -- all by itself -- represent in the electrochemical state of the brain, and how big is that part of the brain?

So when I observe that I cannot, just by thinking, make the coffee cup on my desk rise up into the air, there is a whole world of difference between that kind of effect, and the one that we are proposing when we posit that human thoughts can at certain points produce subtle changes in the electrochemical state of one or two tiny brain cells. It is at the level of quantum physics that the effects are being felt. And that means that some of what we call "ordinary common sense" may no longer apply. A baseball cannot turn into an ocean wave, but with things as tiny as electrons, different kinds of laws apply.


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

On Hameroff and Penrose, see Jahnabi Barooah, "Scientist Shows What Happens To 'Soul' After Death," Huffington Post, updated: 10/28/2012 at 10:37 pm.

Their major article is Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose, "Orchestrated Objective Reduction of Quantum Coherence in Brain Microtubules: The 'Orch OR' Model for Consciousness," Mathematics and Computers in Simulation 40 (1996) 453-480. May be read online at

Glenn F. Chesnut, God and Spirituality: Philosophical Essays, Hindsfoot Foundation Series on Spirituality and Theology (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2010), parts of which may be read online at , see espec. Chapter 20. "Why the Future Cannot Be Totally Predicted," which may be read online at

Dr. Alexander and the Afterlife No. 5

Goedel's proof, the deterministic paradox, human
thought forming a higher energy level operating in tandem
with the electrochemical system of the brain

TOPICS:  Eben Alexander - heaven - afterlife - life after death - Dr. Alexander near death experience - cortex - neocortex - Goedel's proof - the deterministic paradox - human consciousness forming a wavelike energy system

Goedel's proof and the Deterministic Paradox

Kurt Goedel (1906-1978), an Austrian who obtained his doctoral degree from the University of Vienna, was one of the most talented mathematicians of the twentieth century. His two incompleteness theorems were published in 1931, when he was only 25 years old. At the beginning of the Second World War era, he came to the United States, where he and Einstein both held positions at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, and became close friends.

Now for a variety of reasons -- some of them actually laid out quite early in the development of modern science by the philosopher Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) -- there is no way that science can give a complete and comprehensive account of the reasons and causes of all things. The idea that it could be done is an illusion, but as Kant showed, scientists have no choice but to strive as though it were in fact possible to explain everything.

But Goedel's proof showed that in any sufficiently complex mathematical and logical system, forcing the system to ask a self-reflective question about itself would produce a situation in which two different equally logical answers could be given, without the system being able to specify which one was true. Both were true, even though mutually contradictory.

This means that in any elaborate scientific explanation about why thus-and-so absolutely had to happen as a result of such-and-such, we can always ask the question: "Then why couldn't we do so-and-so instead, which would produce a very different result?" And suppose we then ask, "Is there anything in our explanation of the "necessary" course of events which tells us that we absolutely have to do such-and-such instead of so-and-so? Why can't we just change what we do in such a way as to produce a different result?" Goedel's proof will tell us that our scientific analysis allows us, at least in theory, to do either thing.

So striving toward the illusory ideal goal of being able to give scientific causes for all events creates what I call the Deterministic Paradox, which is that every time we discover how certain natural events are caused, this immediately gives us at least the potential of being able to change those results. The discovery, for example, made in 1881 that it was mosquitoes which carried yellow fever, allowed U.S. government doctors to employ a variety of mosquito control techniques while the Panama Canal was being dug, so as to massively reduce the number of deaths from that disease.

Immaterial human thoughts and ideas change the course of physical events at the macro level by allowing us to think creatively about new ways of doing things, utilizing one of the paradoxical aspects of Goedel's proof.

Human thoughts shaping and changing
the shifting patterns in our brains

Our thoughts and ideas are able to change the course of physical events at the micro level -- at the level of the minute electrical charges and biochemical changes in our brain cells -- because in many situations pure ideas are in fact able to change the movements of physical objects. A space station which circles the earth in an elliptical orbit is forced to travel that path by the laws of nature, which are pure ideas -- and ideas which existed before the physical elements were created. The big difference between the laws of nature and my human ideas is that I can change my human ideas.

Human thoughts as a higher energy level

I give another possible explanation of how this could work in Chapter 15, "A Personal God: Love and Energy," in my book on God and Spirituality. Human thoughts contain a kind of higher energy -- forces of attraction and repulsion and so on -- which are different from crude physical forces like gravity and electromagnetism, but just as real. We might say that the attractive force of human love, for example, is a higher harmonic octave of the sort of physical forces which cause an apple to fall to the earth when it breaks free from its branch in the tree. And human anger is a higher harmonic octave of the sort of physical forces which cause two positively charged protons to repel each other, or cause a fire to cast forth flames and burning embers as it consumes the log in a fireplace.

If human consciousness is thought of as a kind of complex wave form, creating a fluctuating field around it (which can extend for various distances), this could explain how human thoughts could produce subtle alterations in the activity of the human brain cells.

In this kind of physical model, the energy in the human thought system resonates with the energy in the brain cells in a fashion similar to the way that a note played on one violin will cause the string of another violin, lying on a table nearby, to vibrate at the same frequency. Or there can be different kinds of energy involved in the two resonating systems: take the case of an electric guitar, for example, where the impact of the guitarist's fingers causes a mechanical wave to be set up in the steel string. This mechanical wave form oscillates in the magnetic field created by a tiny permanent magnet in the guitar's pickup, a magnet which appears as a little metal button down near the bridge of the guitar. The magnet has wire coiled around it, so the oscillating magnetic field causes an electrical current to be created in the wire, where the current oscillates at the same frequency as the mechanical wave in the sounding guitar string. The electrical current is then put through an amplifier and sent to a loudspeaker.

Other kinds of resonating systems could be given as examples of the way that two complex processes, taking place in two different media, can nevertheless be dynamically interrelated. But the point is that, although the direct physical effects produced by changes in human consciousness are very subtle, they are totally real. And if we compare one system (human consciousness) with the other system (the pattern of electrical charges and chemical changes in the brain cells), the only system which could potentially exist all by itself (after the other system was destroyed), is human consciousness, which is capable of being self-directing and self-referential.


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

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Goedel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Vintage / Random House, 1979).

Glenn F. Chesnut, God and Spirituality: Philosophical Essays, Hindsfoot Foundation Series on Spirituality and Theology (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2010), parts of which may be read online at

In that book, see espec. Chapter 21. "Self-Transcendence," on the deterministic paradox and self-referential questions, may be read online at

Also see Chapter 20. "Why the Future Cannot Be Totally Predicted," which may be read online at

Also Chapter 15. "A Personal God: Love and Energy," available online at 

And Chapter 19. "The Nature of Grace," on the two planes of existence, apparent coincidence, synchronicity between two different processes, and so on. Read online at 

As well as Chapter 13. "Modern Personalist Philosophies of God," espec. the material on Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. May be read online at 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Computers vs. human higher thought

The mind-body problem and Piaget on

correspondence vs. interdependence

We can use Jean Piaget's distinction between correspondence and interdependence to help make better sense of the mind-body problem. My soul and my physical body (to use old-fashioned language) form a two-layer system. My conscious thoughts form a layer of reality which is in correspondence with, but is not interdependent with, its biochemical substrate.

That is every time a 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 all of our higher human thought structures simply by detailing all the causal connections between the electrical and biochemical changes which occur as part of that process.

Let me give a simple example to illustrate this point. Douglas Hofstadter, the computer scientist at Indiana University's Bloomington campus, has recently published a book called I Am a Strange Loop, in which he describes a simple computer setup for determining whether a given integer is a prime number. I am going to modify his story a little bit, but I want to give credit to him for posing the issue in this interesting fashion.

When I was in high school, I won a minor prize at a science fair with a small computer which I built, using mechanical electromagnetic relays salvaged from old pinball machines. Each relay consisted of a steel lever which would be pulled down to close a circuit if an electrical impulse traveled through an electromagnet made of coiled wire. A mechanical catch then held the lever down, so that the current continued to flow through the wire attached to it, even after the original electrical impulse was no longer being applied. But there was a second electromagnet which would, if an electrical impulse passed through it, pull the catch back so that the lever would flip up, at which point the relay would no longer be sending current down a wire to the next relay. So the relay basically consisted of an on-off switch, which would transmit a continuous electrical current if one magnet was activated even momentarily, but would turn that current off again if the other magnet was activated even for just a second or so.

Although the computer I built was designed to solve a different kind of problem (it was designed to carry out the basic computations involved in solving syllogisms in elementary Aristotelian logic), it could easily have been rebuilt to solve Hofstadter's prime number problem. It could have been set up so that when a number like 19 was entered, it would first divide the number by 2 to see if there was remainder. And in this case, 19 divided by 2 would give us 9 plus a remainder. The computer would then work its way down stepwise from 9, dividing 19 next by 8, then 7, then 6, and so on, all the way down to 3, checking each time to see whether there was a remainder, or whether 19 was evenly divisible by one of those numbers. By salvaging a few more parts from old pinball machines, the computer could have been constructed so that a red light would start blinking the first time the number which was input was evenly divisible by some smaller number (indicating that the number was not a prime number) and that a bell would start ringing if the process carried through to completion with no even divisor being found (which meant that we had successfully found a prime number).

No matter what number we entered -- a prime number like 17, 19, or 23, or a non-prime number like 18, 20, 21, or 22 -- we could "explain" what happened by simply describing the way in which each electromagnetic relay was activated by its predecessor in the series, and then transmitted an impulse to its successor in the series. But would that in fact be a real explanation? No matter how the relays were connected to one another, one could "explain" which relays were triggered (or de-triggered) and how by this kind of explanation, but one would come nowhere near explaining what the idea of a prime number meant. The most important thing going on would be left totally unexplained by this kind of analysis.

The fundamental idea of what a prime number is, and the way we would have to structure our ideas and thought in order to determine whether a given number was a prime number, were in correspondence with but NOT interdependent with the clicking and clacking of the mechanical electromagnetic relays as they opened and closed.

Taken from Glenn F. Chesnut, God and Spirituality: Philosophical Essays, Hindsfoot Foundation Series on Spirituality and Theology (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2010), Chapter 21, "Self-Transcendence," pp. 418-420. The entire chapter can be read online at . For more on the book, and to read other chapters, see .

Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007).

For an excellent explanation of Jean Piaget's distinction between correspondence and interdependence, see John H. Flavell, The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget (Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand, 1963).

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Spirituality for Warriors

Lost Generation, Alcoholics Anonymous, Lackland Model, William E. Swegan (Sgt. Bill S.), Louis Jolyon West, Joseph J. Zuska

Alcoholics Anonymous was a child of the great wars of the twentieth century. Its founder Bill W. was a young artillery lieutenant in World War I when he had his first encounter with God, his religious experience in Winchester Cathedral.

If we look at the stories in the Big Book, we can see a whole series of men who had served in the United States military during that war: Bill Van Horn ("A Ward of the Probate Court") served on five fronts from Alsace to the North Sea. William Ruddell ("A Business Man's Recovery") lied about his age to join the Army, and stayed on in Europe drinking after the war was over. Pat Cooper, in his story "Lone Endeavor," talked about his drinking when he was serving in France. Fred, the Jewish man who wrote "New Vision for a Sculptor," enlisted in the Army to fight in World War I, because he wanted to help bring freedom to the persecuted Jews of Europe. Horace R. "Popsy" Maher served in France, and Harold Sears ("Smile With Me, At Me") enlisted in the Navy, where he became a radio operator. The author of "Ace Full-Seven-Eleven" was drafted into the Army and began his career as a crooked gambler once he was there.

People from other countries served as well: Jim Scott ("The News Hawk") was an Australian who served in a Canadian regiment during World War I, and the author of "His Conscience" also served in the Canadian Army.

Fitz Mayo ("Our Southern Friend") attempted to enlist during World War I, but could not pass the physical, which made him feel like even more of a failure in life. He finally felt redeemed when the Army accepted him in World War II, but then, in tragic fashion, soon developed cancer and died.

After the First World War was over, Gertrude Stein famously said to Ernest Hemingway, "All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation." The various kinds of post-traumatic stress syndrome which they suffered left many of these veterans bitter, skeptical, and suspicious of any talk about God or the spiritual life, and it had also affected even men and women who had never been on the battlefield: the flappers of the Roaring Twenties rebelling against old-fashioned moral standards were also part of that Lost Generation, along with the cynical stock brokers and businessmen who ran the country into the Great Depression with their attitude of "live fast and take no thought for the morrow" -- who then began leaping from the windows of tall buildings when their financial bubbles collapsed and burst.

Bill Wilson was typical of this Lost Generation, this génération perdue. On pages 10-11 of the A.A. Big Book, he described the state of total spiritual despair into which he had fallen by November 1934, when Ebby came to visit him: 
With ministers, and the world's religions, I parted right there. When they talked of a God personal to me, who was love, superhuman strength and direction, I became irritated and my mind snapped shut against such a theory.
To Christ I conceded the certainty of a great man, not too closely followed by those who claimed Him. His moral teaching -- most excellent. For myself, I had adopted those parts which seemed convenient and not too difficult; the rest I disregarded.
The wars which had been fought, the burnings and chicanery that religious dispute had facilitated, made me sick. I honestly doubted whether, on balance, the religions of mankind had done any good.  Judging from what I had seen in Europe and since, the power of God in human affairs was negligible, the Brotherhood of Man a grim jest. If there was a Devil, he seemed the Boss Universal, and he certainly had me.
Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Steps were developed not only as a way to enable alcoholics to stop drinking, but also as a way to heal the spiritual malady which had left so many modern men and women, by the 1930's, lost in the same state of dark nihilism into which Bill W. had fallen: wandering "without hope and without God in the world." A.A. sat them down and told them, no more pretty pictures of the world or snake oil promises that saying a few religious phrases will magically solve all your problems. But what we will give you is a spiritual basis for hanging on to your sanity even when the bombs and shells are exploding all around you, or you are left standing on a street corner, crippled from your war injuries, haunted by fearsome memories, hungry, and jobless. It will be intelligible to people who have single-handedly steered small sail boats through the towering waves of Caribbean storms, or ridden a motorcycle from coast to coast, or ventured during the old days through the dry sands and rocky crags beyond the Euphrates river in search of ancient Roman ruins.

And in the years following the publication of the Big Book, one of the most successful A.A.-centered models which were developed for alcoholism treatment was originally founded as a purely military method devised at Lackland Air Force Base in 1953 by A.A. member William E. Swegan, an Air Force sergeant who was a Pearl Harbor survivor, who was working with famous psychiatrist Dr. Louis Jolyon West. This model was further developed in the mid-1960's at Long Beach Naval Station by psychiatrist Dr. Joseph J. Zuska and A.A. member Commander Dick Jewell, and subsequently proven to work just as well for civilians: former First Lady Betty Ford, Billy Carter (brother of former President Carter), and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin were among the famous people later treated at the Long Beach facility.

What was important about A.A.'s battlefield background? The fact that it was born among military people, meant that it was devised from the beginning to work even when people were shooting at us, and the whole world around us seemed to have collapsed into violence, insanity, hopelessness, and despair. We could be sick or wounded and at the point of death and it still worked.

Two A.A. meetings were spontaneously set up by A.A. members in New York City at Ground Zero immediately after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. That was where you went when the grief and horror threatened to overwhelm your spirit.

Yet you could go to regular A.A. meetings and see people smiling and laughing, and treating one another with incredible gentleness and compassion, in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- all that they had been through. It is a spirituality of love and service for the toughest of the tough and the bravest of the brave.