Two years ago, I published an essay on the problems with both near-death experiences (NDE) and the criticisms of it. I used the book Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander (who recently penned a new book with all the same pitfalls, The Map of Heaven) as emblematic of these problems. The problems with NDE and its critics are themselves emblematic – of problems with science and proof in general. As I move into writing more and more about science and culture, I thought I’d republish the essay (in slightly modified/update form) here as a good touchstone for some of my thoughts. For another exploration of this topic, see my conversation with Skeptiko host and science skeptic, Alex Tsakiris, posted late last year.
Is Proof Heaven?
The story is one you’ve heard before: a man slips into a coma and nearly dies. While his body fails, he somehow experiences lights, colors, and landscapes, all while disconnected from his body. Messages are imparted, deep feelings are felt, and then the man is sucked back into the material world. His whole perspective has changed, and he’s ready to talk about it.
The difference in the bestselling book, Proof of Heaven, is that the author and experiencer, Eben Alexander, is a neurosurgeon. Alexander’s near-death experience (NDE) was triggered by a rare form of E. Coli infection/meningitis — but the real weight of the book rests on his education and experiences as a doctor, which are meant to give him a more informed perspective on the whole ordeal, which featured women floating on butterfly wings, clouds, psychic intervention, and more. His credentials are meant to serve as a bridge between these fantastic features and their facticity. After all, Alexander and his supporters ask, who could be better qualified to talk about an NDE than a practicing neurosurgeon? To this end, Alexander counters many of the standard arguments against the reality of NDE content, using his understanding of the brain to skewer them one by one.
Neither his credentials nor his account prove Heaven, however. Instead, the book and its subsequent critical fall-out point to deep cultural concerns, less about Heaven and more about proof.
A cursory look at online and print reviews of the book reveal what you might expect: depending on whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, Alexander’s credentials mean that he does know better than most about brain states and can trust his experiences, or that he should know better and distrust them. I share some of his critics’ concerns, if not their vitriolic and dismissive feelings.
The ad hominem attacks constitute the lowest form of critique regarding Alexander. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth a look, and anyone interested in Alexander’s case specifically, rather than NDEs in general should take them into account. As the recent revelation by The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven co-author Alex Malarkey shows, some people just flat-out lie about having an NDE to make money. But even if Alexander is a hoaxster (he’s probably not), the NDE experience is so widespread that unless you’re interested in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach to the phenomenon, it’s not going to take you very far.
As for more scientific concerns, Alexander includes an appendix in the book which addresses common scientific questions when it comes to NDEs. But questions remain. Unanswered questions for me, which I have not yet seen raised by others, include ones about possible psychotropic substances in the E. Coli bacteria themselves, as well as the possible involvement of Acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme whose activity is studied in schizophrenic patients, and whose function is amplified by other types of meningitis. Another question — and it’s a big one — comes from more than one of Alexander’s critics (though most vocally from famed atheist Sam Harris), who wonder if Alexander’s cerebral cortex was actually shut down. Alexander asserts again and again that it was; his critics say it wasn’t.
If it was shut down, then Alexander believes he has the right to claim the D of NDE, because according to mainstream medical models, human beings must have brain function to live. This won’t ever work for skeptics, because they’ve created an un-winnable and nearly tautological argument that goes like this: a shut-down cerebral cortex equals death. How do we know Alexander’s cerebral cortex wasn’t shut down? Because he didn’t die. Finality serves as the marker of death for many skeptics, so there was no “after” in Alexander’s afterlife: he merely entered into a weird sort of hypnogagia.
Such questions of science and definition, however tedious answering them may seem, are demanded by Alexander’s title, which claims “proof.” His entire account of his NDE is aimed at communicating to others that the afterlife is real, that it is composed of beings who love and care about us. It’s a vividly written account to match the lucidity of Alexander’s NDE state, and through it, he reasons that since when he nearly died he saw a beautiful woman on a floating butterfly wing who said he could do no wrong in life, that everyone will encounter a similar experience when they die. In other words, he tries to create a general scientific principle out of his observation.
We’re bound to bang our heads against the wall if we follow the path that Alexander or his critics have laid out for us. The lines are drawn and no one is going to switch sides, not only because Alexander hasn’t proved anything, but because the whole enterprise of foregrounding “proof” is misguided. Not only when exploring NDEs, but also in use of certain kinds of medicine, parapsychological phenomenon, and more. When it comes to non-materialistic and/or individualized phenomena, seeking proof above all else blinds us to the extraordinary and profound nature of subjectivity.
There may be overlapping (though not universal) themes — in NDEs, for example, “walk toward the light” and “everything is love” — in all non-materialistic phenomena, but they always intersect with and are informed by the unique matrix of the individual’s personality and social circumstances. One person may see a ghost, whereas another person in the same room may see nothing. Acupuncture may heal one person’s back pain and leave another’s unhealed. For the latter example, skeptics might be happy to cart out placebo, but they don’t have any real understanding of how placebo works, and it, too, affects different individuals differently.
Not only are the experiences individualized, but many of them exist within mind states (i.e., the content and contours of our thinking and feeling world, as opposed to physical brain states). Alexander can tell us all about the clouds and colors of the afterlife, but he can’t make us see them, because they intersected with his mind alone.
In other words, for certain experiences, reproducibility (and by extension, falsifiability), a bedrock of materialistic science, seems to go out the window.
The subjective, the individual, the irreproducible, are anathema to the skeptic’s (though not all scientists’) version of science. Subjectivity and anecdotes generally cloud our judgement of the truth, skeptics say. In his rebuke of the book, Amitai Shenhav advocates the values of distance and objectivity. We must, he explains, remove ourselves from our experiences to really understand them, which would be impossible for Alexander, who experienced an intense euphoria during his NDE. Setting aside the good feelings that researchers like Shenhav feel when they believe they’ve sufficiently distanced themselves from feeling, there’s another weird paradox here.
In the materialistic demand to somehow untangle ourselves from the world completely in order to understand it, we’re asked to borrow a popular theological narrative.
First, researchers are meant to believe there’s a way to create an experiment and not intervene or interact with it, and that they’re meant to do everything they can to preserve this principle.
Second, they should believe that thoughts, feelings, and impressions have nothing to do with the reality they’ve set up inside the experiment and that there are laws (controls, etc.) that they’ve also created that actually prohibit them from interfering with whatever takes place inside the experiment world. This is remarkably similar to the deist or TV-addicted version of God — an old man on a distant cloud with a billion billion TVs. He set the show in motion so he could watch, pretending things happen independent of him.
For those who demand total objectivity, proof is Heaven, or God. It’s a distant principle which should be always appealed to, never questioned, and of which nothing is greater.
Of course, it’s impossible to be objective. First, there’s a long and rich history of the very concept of objectivity and its evolution. This is constantly ignored by skeptics like Harris in favor of pretending objectivity has a fixed definition without history or context. Second, in the course of its conceptual development, we were warned against the dangers of our current form of objectivity (one that was supposed to be divorced from experience).
Philosophers and scientists like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as well as Leonardo da Vinci, Rudolf Steiner, David Bohm, and many others reminded us: because all our scientific knowledge comes from thinking and feeling, there’s no way to truly filter it out. Objectivity is a subjectively chosen gesture in someone’s thinking. More to the point, we shouldn’t seek (at least not always) to filter it out. Rather, if we seek to include it in our scientific understanding, we amplify the dialogue the “outer” sense world has with our “inner” thought world. We learn more deeply about the world this way, we don’t swap out one TV-watching God with another.
We don’t and shouldn’t fall for the lazy new age trap of explaining such pitfalls of science in much-babbled about but rarely understood terms of quantum entanglement, changing photons, waves vs particles, and so forth. Using specialized and complex physics to explain away critiques we don’t like or to wistfully fill in the gaps in our understanding is a fool’s game. What we need instead is to consider the inclusion of the subjective thought world in our scientific perspective; it’s a task taken up by some prominent and respected scientists, but not the majority. For now, the inner world, mind states, and subjective experience are generally dismissed as valueless (or worse) in experiments. Increasingly, they’re dismissed even as objects of study; we have cognitive science and neuroscience, but not thought science or imagination science.
We see just how mapless mind state territories are when Alexander struggles with descriptions of his NDE, constantly expressing how difficult it is to convey them. While some critics are cynical about this aspect of the book, I’m sympathetic. Alexander is trying to explain, using sense-bound detail, things he experienced without the aid of his senses. When someone says he/she “saw” something while unconscious, with what eyes? And heard with what ears? These experiences are not conjured up by sense organs and so elude the entire enterprise of empiricism, which is based on sensory input. And it isn’t just empiricism but most of our descriptive language that’s based on sense metaphors. So trying to describe non-sensual experiences with that language must be extremely frustrating. This is also why Alexander resorts to the truth of what he experienced. Truth is an inner quality, not determined by empirical fact (facticity, even according to materialists, often changes under scientific scrutiny), and so employing words like truth feels, well, more truthful.
A science more like Goethe’s or Bohm’s (and less like Alexander’s or Harris’s), i.e., a science that asks us to think about our thinking while we observe, would help create better language for moments like this. There’s always a tension between individual experience (subjectivity) and being able to convey things in shared language (via objectivity and proof), but we need to balance the scales better. If we include subjectivity in our scientific processes, we do just that. Then the kind of approach popular skepticism supports becomes an option or an aspect of our scientific approach, not the only approach that thou shalt not have any other approaches before. That way, we can (rightfully) criticize Alexander on his deceptive claim to proof with questions like the ones I and Harris pose above, but we can also marvel at the account.
We can ask: Why did Alexander encounter these particular images? What do they mean to us as well as to him? What is this feeling of truth he keeps referring to? How is it different than what is “real”? What makes his experiences distinct from other NDEs in content? What does it mean that human beings encounter these strange mind states when they have NDEs?
Questions like these allow us to meet Alexander as well as ourselves as human beings, and as deeply mysterious. They allow us to encounter NDEs and other non-materialistic phenomena as having meaningful content, because they relate to subjective concerns without dismissing subjectivity. Even if Alexander’s experience were caused by brain trauma (and I’m not convinced one way or the other), these questions would still be important because it wouldn’t be the material/external “proof” alone that mattered, because we would recognize content and form of experience as equal in value to proof. There are contours to our inner world, but if we dismiss their value, we will never understand them.
Alexander invites dismissal by claiming “proof” the way that he does. If I’ve been a little hard on Alexander, I understand, also, that he’s not entirely to blame in his need to display his proof. We live in a culture awash with proof, constantly telling us that to understand truth, we must ignore or exile the existence of free will, thought, and human-ness. But for all the good feelings of Alexander’s NDE, for all the wisdom and love it imparted, he still seeks to abandon the truth of his inner experience for the dramatic outline of proof, and so makes them oppositional. They don’t have to be opposed, merely balanced. It’s not that we can’t approach mind states with science, it’s just that our current version of science has not yet made itself worthy of the task.