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Religion teaches men how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. – Galileo (1616)

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This is the second in an occasional series on “deep science,” a rational way of reconciling scientific method with the human need to find meaning and purpose. Read part one: Finding Meaning In A Meaningless World

Doctor Eben Alexander went to heaven and came back. And he wants to tell you about it. Alexander’s best-selling book, Proof of Heaven, describes the doctor’s experiences during a hospital stay, during which time he was almost entirely unconscious. Alexander had magnificent visions of a beautiful world that he assumed was heaven, with angel-like beings and a ride on the back of something like a huge butterfly.

Alexander states: “A story – a true story – can heal as much as medicine can.” The problem is that Alexander’s story, or at least his interpretation of it, isn’t true. A key part of his story is that he claims he was temporarily brain-dead during his entire time in the hospital, a condition induced by a bad case of meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining around the brain. Alexander claims that his experiences during temporary brain death constitute proof that consciousness survives the body. This is his key point in his book.

Esquire magazine ran a detailed article by Luke Dittrich on Alexander and his book. The article included a dialogue with Alexander and his associates, including the doctor who treated him for meningitis in the hospital. Alexander’s doctor states that Alexander was in a chemically-induced coma during almost his entire stay in the hospital – a coma induced by the doctor because Alexander couldn’t be physically restrained, in order to even assess his vital signs, without drugs. So Alexander wasn’t brain dead, even temporarily. Rather, he was in a chemically-induced coma. These are major issues with Alexander’s story and they undermine his trustworthiness pretty seriously. The Esquire article includes a number of other anecdotes showing Alexander’s tendency toward “audacious reinvention.”

My point in bringing up this story is that for all we know, despite our healthy skepticism about audacious claims, Alexander could have been in heaven and consciousness could survive the body’s death. So even though I find both of these possibilities very unlikely, I can’t completely rule them out. When a person makes these kinds of assertions, which contradict the current scientific worldview so significantly, reliability and honesty are very important. We also need some means for corroboration, rather than simply accepting such assertions on faith.

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Rather than simply denying the validity of claims like Alexander’s, as many “hard-nosed” types would, we should be able to establish a reliable first-person science that relies on third-person corroboration. This is, among other things, what deep science is about. Again, since this is a key point: deep science will not simply throw out first-person testimonials and evidence as hopelessly subjective. Rather, it will seek ways to build a reliable first-person science in addition to the conventional third-person science.

How Do We Build A Reliable First-Person Science?

Many thinkers have offered means for reconciling science and religion. Ian Barbour’s book, When Science Meets Religion, offers many examples and also a taxonomy of different approaches to reconciliation.

tambookStephen Jay Gould, the late Harvard paleontologist and science popularizer, offered one solution that relied on giving religion to religion and science to science. He called this solution “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” or NOMA. Under Gould’s NOMA approach, religion and science each constitute their own magisterium, a large realm of human activity. These magisteria don’t overlap, so each enjoys its own tools and techniques for assessing truth claims.

I think we can do better than to simply posit a fractured culture and psyche, domains that find it hard to even communicate with each other, let alone respect each other, as Gould does. What follows is my attempt to sketch a better solution.

Counter-intuitively, it is possible to demonstrate how science and spirituality are substantially overlapping human activities. I start with the essential Cartesian insight: the only thing we know with certainty is the reality of our own experience. Descartes stated “I think, therefore I am.” (cogito ergo sum in the Latin). This actually goes a bit too far.

Rather, what we know directly, the only thing we know directly, is that there is experience here now – by “experience” I mean literally anything happening in our consciousness. Our existence as human beings is in fact defined solely by our experience in each moment. Our experience is synonymous with our being because there is nothing more in each moment than the contents of our consciousness. Everything else separate from our direct experience is inferred from the contents of our consciousness.

There Is Experience Here Now

It seems, then, that a more careful statement of Descartes’ “cogito” is “there is experience here now.” This seems to be all we know with certainty. We may argue that a second key feature that we know directly and with certainty is the flow of time, which is how we can describe the succession of experiential moments that occurs in each of us, now, now, now. A third candidate for direct certainty is the feeling of free will, of being active agents in our own lives, but that’s a topic for a later column.

We can, with these insights, conceive of our universe of experience as a single domain rather than a fractured domain of different “magisteria.” In practical terms, this simply means that everything we know about the universe is actually “in our heads,” that is, in our single domain of experience. Note that I wrote that everything we “know” is in our heads – not that there is nothing outside of our heads. There is very likely a real world independent of our experience of it, but we also know, particularly with many insights from modern psychology and neuroscience, that what we think of as the “real world” is entirely fabricated in our heads. That is, we don’t know reality directly. External reality is mediated by our rather limited senses and a movie of the world is created for each of us by the impressive movie-making equipment we call our body and brain.

Life As A Movie

This single domain of our experience is non-spatial. Instead, our experience is given to us, all at once, in each moment on the virtual “movie screen” of our inner awareness. It is only as we process this experience through our evolutionarily-constructed minds, that a world of three spatial dimensions and one time dimension is constructed. What we think of as the world out there is only known indirectly through this constructed world. We can, however, test the validity of our constructed world in various ways and this is what science is all about.

Again, we infer, based on our ongoing experience, the independent reality of the world that is presented to us. But we can never know with certainty that the “real world” out there does contain three dimensions of space and one of time, as it seems to, based on our common experience.

Conceiving of our entire existence as a single domain of experience is very helpful in thinking about the union of science and spirituality. A commonly held position in this perennial debate is that science is the process by which we try to figure out how the world works, using the scientific method of hypothesis, experimentation and refinement. Spirituality, it is thought, is a different endeavor that tries to explore topics such as the soul, God, morality and meaning. Science is descriptive and religion is prescriptive, it is thought.

But if we start with the realization that our entire existence, for each of us, is a single and unified domain of experience in each moment, then we realize also that science and spirituality are just different ways of examining that same single domain of experience. Science, in this formulation, attempts to determine the regularities of the real world that we infer is “out there.” But that world “out there” is just, for each of us, one part (albeit a large part) of the single domain of our experience, which also includes the world “in here,” our thoughts and feelings. Through inter-subjective confirmation – a fancy way of saying “by communicating with other people” – of facets of our individual experience, we construct together a mutually agreed world “out there.” This is what we call reality.

Let me sum up my points so far in order to avoid confusion.

  1. All we know with certainty is the existence of our experience in each moment.
  2. Literally everything other than our experience in each moment is inferred, including the entire external world.
  3. Even though we cannot know the external world directly, we can make many reasonable inferences about its nature
  4. Because science and spirituality are attempting to probe the nature of our universe and ourselves, and because both the world “out there” and our own inner worlds are for each of us a single and unified domain of experience, we can see that science and spirituality are part of the same set of inquiries.

This is the second in an occasional series on “deep science,” a rational way of reconciling scientific method with the human need to find meaning and purpose. Read part one: Finding Meaning In A Meaningless World

My next installment will look at how we can take these insights further in building a reliable first-person science that is a key component of the broader “deep science” I’m fleshing out on our way to an integrated view of the world.


Tam Hunt is a philosopher and lawyer based in Santa Barbara, CA, and Hilo, HI, and a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara.

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