I have started reading Proof of Heaven by author Eben Alexander, who throughout the book, plasters his credentials as an educated Harvard neurosurgeon, in what seems to me to be a ploy to attach to himself some platform of credibility. But, I was first astonished by the title itself. The author paints an anecdotal recollection of subjective experience as proof. But, 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 delusion. To draw an observation from a personal experience is to reach a conclusion bound by one’s own subjectivity and thus to inject it with all sorts of human fallibility and error.
In Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander 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 bore of ludicrous fantasies and 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 even know for sure 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 and imaginary fantasies. 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 his claims.
Alexander’s description of heaven did not really impress me. It is not really that much of a place beyond the wildest of human imagination as he seems to paint it to be. Why would bushes be green? In fact, 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. The descriptions in Alexander’s book are thus tainted by anthropocentric presumptions.
There is always a rational explanation and one should not take a sudden, irrational leap of logic in order to evade the intellectual responsibility for a reasonable explanation. The human perception system is fraught with all kinds of uncertainty and error – something that the logical discipline of science can filter out.
Schnider A. (2008). The Confabulating Mind. How the Brain Creates Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.