Proof of Heaven?

Dr. Eben Alexander is a Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon. He’d never been a religious nut. Then in 2008, aged 54, he suddenly had a strange and severe bacterial meningitis infection, putting him in a coma for a week. During which he visited an alternate reality, a full deluxe tour.

This was a 2012 Newsweek cover story, blazoned “Heaven is Real.” I wrote critically about it here. Then Alexander published a book titled Proof of Heaven.

I’ve read it, though not with any afterlife hopes. Instead I was curious why such a man believes his comatose hallucination was real.

He writes that as a neurosurgeon he was familiar with stories of near-death experiences. “But all of it . . . was pure fantasy.” He says he “did know that they were brain-based. All of consciousness is . . . the brain is the machine that produces consciousness in the first place.” He notes the brain is very temperamental. Reduce just slightly its oxygen feed “and the owner of that brain is going to experience an alteration of their reality. Or more precisely, their personal experience of reality.” Should a patient come back with memories, “those memories are going to be pretty unusual. With a brain affected by a deadly bacterial infection and mind-altering medications, (his emphasis) anything could happen.”

Except when it happened to him! That was in, contrast, “ultra-real.”

Attempting to justify this quite remarkable claim that his case differed from all those others he sensibly debunks, Alexander says that during the coma his own brain was not working at all.* Thus, he “was encountering the reality of a world of consciousness that existed (his emphasis) completely free of the limitations of [his] physical brain.”

There’s a problem here. Alexander relates, in great detail, his coma travels, with his tour guide an ineffably beautiful girl, amid millions of butterflies, giving him a look so deep it was beyond indescribable, and on and on. And his memory of it all was recorded where? In the brain he says was out of commission?

You can’t have it both ways. If this trip was in some other reality outside the consciousness in his brain, then that consciousness could not tell us about it. If instead his brain was, on some level, functioning during the coma, it’s far more plausible that what he experienced was (like in all those other cases) just something weird happening in his brain due to the very abnormal coma conditions. It’s to avoid this logic that Alexander posits his experience as entirely outside brain functioning. Yet how can anything be experienced at all, except via the brain?

What, indeed, does it mean to experience something? Who, or what, does the experiencing? This gets back to what consciousness, and the self, are. Descartes suggested they (a “soul”) could somehow exist separate from the brain, but no serious scientist today accepts such “Cartesian dualism.” There’s no rational alternative to consciousness and self emerging out of brain functioning, though we don’t yet know exactly how. Otherwise the very idea of having an experience is incoherent. Alexander claims to have experienced something outside of brain functioning. Even if he somehow did — how would he (the “he” existing within his brain) know it?

And how could a brain in such a compromised state have recorded such a detailed memory as he relates? He himself writes, “The process of memory takes enormous brainpower.” We know how hard it is to remember dreams after waking — even with brains functioning normally.

Interestingly, Alexander says that for several days after his coma, he experienced “paranoid fantasies” that “were extremely intense, and even outright terrifying while happening.” He recognizes they were “something cooked up by my very beleaguered brain as it was trying to recover its bearings.” Yet he insists that was “very very dissimilar” from “the ultra-reality deep in coma.” He says coming out of it he spouted lots of crazy things to his family. But didn’t mention to them the “ultra-reality.” Very strange.

Here’s a clue. Alexander always knew he’d been adopted; his birth parents unwed high schoolers, who he’d assumed had parted ways. But in 2000 he learned they’d actually married and had other kids. And wanted no contact. Suddenly, he says, his view of himself totally changed to “someone cut off from my source.” And “an ocean of sadness opened up within me.” There followed alcohol abuse; a struggle for sobriety; dysfunction in his professional and family life; depression. With his last hope for some force in the universe beyond the scientific “swept away.”

His coma restored it. Though Alexander doesn’t actually say he saw God, God was somehow in the picture. And for all his rapturous description of it, only obliquely does he imply we go there after death. He mentions glimpsing frolicking people but there’s no indication they previously led earthly lives. Still, he writes of “the reality of realities, the incomprehensibly glorious truth of truths that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or ever will exist.” Which is: “You are loved and cherished. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.” Boiled down to one word: love.

Dreams are sometimes the brain’s way of chewing on deep anxieties. I am not a trained psychiatrist, but this looks like a person who, in the pit of his being, does have fears; does fear doing wrong; does fear a love deficit. In other words, a man who suffers from the human condition. Which his brain, even in coma, was struggling with.

Before the coma, he’d finally reconciled with his birth family. After it, he got a photo of his sister who’d died. He says he recognized his heavenly tour guide. Studies have shown that memories are not stable, but change every time we revisit them. And again, dreams are particularly hard to recall. When he saw the photo, his memory of his comatose hallucination could have been tweaked to match it.

Alexander’s brain had been rocked by extreme trauma. He just barely survived. Such a trauma might well have lasting effects. Like believing fantastical tales of Heaven. Whether or not his brain was functioning during his coma, it was out to lunch when he wrote the book.

So it’s piffle; but not harmless piffle. Rebellions against truth and reality are buckling our society’s foundations. Anything encouraging people to believe nonsense is pernicious.

Alexander quotes Einstein: “there are only two ways to live. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is.” I don’t believe in miracles, in the sense of contravening natural laws. Yet I’m very much in Einstein’s second camp. To me, all of existence — especially my own — is virtually miraculous. I can easily envision the alternative, a cosmos dark, empty, and bleak. Reality is such a gift that I don’t share Alexander’s ache for a better one.

* A neurosurgeon should know that with no brain functioning, he’d be dead. Actually, Alexander later clarifies that it was the “human” part of his brain knocked out, but the deeper parts, that regulate autonomic processes, still functioned.


3 Responses to “Proof of Heaven?”

  1. didiusjulianus Says:

    I follow your reasoning and it is fine from an atheistic point of view. I only see one part that a person of faith in the afterlife/other dimensional realm/etc is likely to have issue with:

    “If this trip was in some other reality outside the consciousness in his brain, then that consciousness could not tell us about it.”

    If the brain is tuning in our actual consciousness from a different dimensional realm, so to speak, there is no reason our consciousness could not experience whatever (fill in the blank). Then, if and when the physical body and brain is recovered and our consciousness returns to apparent residence in the brain, a person would be able to describe the experience. Unprovable and will not reconcile with an atheistic point of view but not incompatible with a view of reality that extends beyond what we can perceive and “know” as “fact’.

  2. HOTMAIL . Says:

    Back on Hornby and back on call. So far one call out already. Hopefully it well be quiet now. Otherwise the day was quiet. Did some shopping ran some errands. Hope to get more done tomorrow


    Sent from my iPad

  3. ryan71 Says:

    Well, if you understand your Bible correctly, this episode doesn’t happen. You don’t go to heaven when you die. If you did then you don’t need Christ to return. Secondly, nothing, nothing survives the grave. If you think your soul is immortal then you leaning heavily towards Gnosticism than Christianity/Judaism. For those “breath of life” argument people. If a doctor slaps a baby on its butt to get it to breathe when it is born, is the doctor God?
    Finally, if your read Revelations, Heaven comes down to Earth.
    That is the whole point of “faith”. If you don’t have faith in your belief then what are you doing? When you are dead you are dead. Heaven comes down to Earth, Christ raises the dead (at this point) makes a judgement and, well, you are allowed to live in the new Heaven or you are not.
    Sorry, this might offend a lot of people..but if you doubt what I’m saying ask your priest or pastor directly..see if they tap dance or avoid the questions.

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