The Incredulous Assertion of Heaven

How many times have we heard that old story, “I thought I’d died and went to heaven?” Well,  Newsweek and academic neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander wants you to think he has – literally. In a classic example of proof in spite of fact, Dr. Alexander is using an uncanny (but not uncommon) experience during his unfortunate brush with death as proof that heaven exists without actually offering any evidence at all. But that, of course, is subjective.

Alexander’s evidence that heaven exists consists of fervent hope, evocative imagery and self-praise. Alexander first tries to paint himself as an objective, skeptical observer writing,

“I grew up in a scientific world… I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys…

“Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief.”

Alexander attempts several times to gain the trust of his readers by touting his own prestige as a neurosurgeon, as if that gives him an edge in authenticating supernatural phenomena.

“I’ve spent decades as a neurosurgeon at some of the most prestigious medical institutions in our country.”

However, his only explanation for his “out of body” experience is mere subjective story telling.

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.

Um, yes there is Mr. Alexander. It’s called brain activity. Despite your claims to the contrary, you were not brain dead while in your coma. I doubt your doctors put electrodes in your brain to measure brain activity. Rather than risk further brain infection by introducing a foreign object into dome, they most likely attached EEG contacts to the outside of your scalp, which explains the lack of evidence when you were truly conscious and when you were not. The cortex does not “shut down,” except in death. And with the level of chemical activity experienced by your brain during this bacterial onslaught, your medical treatment and recovery, the fact that your brain relayed such vivid experiences is not unexplainable or unexpected.

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well.

Suddenly Mr. Alexander has an intimate understanding of the origin and nature of human consciousness? Questions on human consciousness – how it materializes, what parts of the brain enable it, and where it goes when we are unconscious – has puzzled scientists for centuries. But one guy gets knocked out, wakes up with a personal epiphany, and we are suddenly to believe he can explain what consciousness really is? I’ve solved engineering problems in my sleep; but let’s be realistic!

“Out-of-body” experiences are today’s Rubik’s Cube: tunnels of light, angels, darkness – the near-death experiences run the gamut in variation. We don’t understand the brain well enough to pinpoint why they happen, but there are some very interesting theories of consciousness. Rather than take the word of a doctor with great hopes, I think I’ll keep my skepticism in tact.

For more perspective, check out Sam Harris’ take on these heavenly shenanigans.