I have started reading Proof of Heaven by author Eben Alexander. The first thing that caught my attention about this book was how absurd the title is. The author paints an anecdotal recollection of subjective experience as proof. Yet, personal recollections are not proof of anything. They are based upon firsthand accounts, the validity of which cannot be adjudicated since they are prone to personal prejudice and short-sight. To draw an observation from a personal experience is to reach a conclusion bound by one’s own subjectivity and thus to undermine it by all sorts of human fallibility.
In Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander, a Harvard-educated neurosurgeon, describes how after falling victim to a meningitis-induced coma caused by an exceedingly rare illness, he journeyed out of this world into heaven. He claims that the infection completely shut down his brain functions that control logical thought, emotion, sensory perception, and language, in what caused him to have zero conscious operation. “My brain-free consciousness journeyed into another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed”, claims Alexander. He describes a magical place with “trees and fields, streams and waterfalls….people sang and danced in circles….flowers that blossomed and blossomed in the countryside around them.” and where he was riding along on the wing of a butterfly “past blossoming flowers and buds of trees”. The rest of the book is just a long-winding diatribe of ludicrous/delusional nonsense.
Alexander claims that he could not have been hallucinating since his brain was not even functional to create a hallucinatory experience. But, how can we be certain that his near-death experience did occur during his coma? It is quite possible indeed that when he was recovering from his coma, he experienced those hallucinatory effects. Who knows what sorts of anesthetics he received? Of course, Alexander wrote this book after his recovery, when his conscious faculties were fully functional, during which time, his brain could have confabulated his supposed memory gap with all sorts of contrived events. In psychiatry, confabulation is the tendency of the human brain to self-generate embellished, false memories in order to compensate for lost ones, without a conscious effort to deceive (Schnider, 2008). The patient truly and genuinely believes the distorted imaginations and is unaware of the outlandishness of their claims.
The human mind does not function like a tape recorder. It does not have to move forwards only when converting time into space. Memories change and are constantly embellished. You think you would remember a particular notable event that happened 10 years ago exactly as it were but most likely, you will have embellished false details and your version of events, if you were asked to recount them, would most likely be slightly different that the actual events that took place.
Another noteworthy notion about near death experience claimants like Alexander is that many such folk would have us believe that these experiences are supposedly supernatural (outside our natural realm), yet when they return back to the natural realm (this life), whatever they saw or experienced seems to be nothing out of the ordinary but rather commonplace banalties. All of their recollections are motivated by anthropocentric presumptions (gardens, trees, butterflies, etc). Alexander’s description of heaven did not, in fact, really impress me. It is not really that much of a place beyond the wildest of human imagination as he seems to purport it to be. Why would bushes be green? I hasten to think, why would there be plants at all? Plants are an earthly phenomenon. On Earth, plants are green because they contain chlorophyll to capture the sun’s energy so it gets passed on to herbivores and carnivores. I expect something that we have never heard of before. Or, even, groundbreaking prophetic insights into the workings of the universe. Knowledge that we don’t know. Something that would truly have people dumbfounded (something akin to a scenario for instance where a human from the future teleports thousands of years into the past, and have the peoples of the time look at an iphone or a laptop). There is nothing new, surprising, or useful that these people bring back into our “supposedly natural” realm, going by their terms.
Another thing that reflects the anthropocentric character of these stories is how linked, they are to specific cultural themes that the NDE claimants are conditioned into. A Buddhist would report meeting Buddha. A Christian, like Alexander, would report meeting Jesus and so on and so forth. If the after-life exists, ought it not be consistent? Is there a different afterlife for every person? Or is it more likely that these experiences are imagined and rather influenced by prevailing anthropocentric norms and local cultural notions that may differ from individual to individual.
When querying an occurrence or phenomenon, one’s disposition should be, primarily, to seek an explanation that is grounded upon reasoned thought and held to rigorous scrutiny in place of superstitious claims and leaps of logic that not only evade the intellectual responsibility for an explanation but defer one altogether. The human perception system is replete with all kinds of uncertainty and error – something that scientific thought filters out.
Schnider A. (2008). The Confabulating Mind. How the Brain Creates Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.