Feature

Book of the week: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander

When a scientist with Harvard credentials writes that he’s encountered the divine, everybody wants the details.

(Simon & Schuster, $22) 

When a scientist with Harvard credentials writes that he’s encountered the divine, everybody wants the details, said Daniel Engber in Slate.com. Eben Alexander was, he claims, just another neurosurgeon in the fall of 2008 when bacterial meningitis put him in a coma. Lying in a hospital—his entire cortex “shut down”—Alexander was whisked, he writes, to an otherworld of pink clouds, transparent angel-like beings, lots of butterflies, and for his guide, a young woman with “high cheekbones and deep- blue eyes.” Most of the particulars here are, of course, the stuff of “the most conventional evangelism.” But Alexander argues that his memories are proof that heaven is real, and in this instant best seller—as in the Newsweek cover story that preceded it— he’s brandishing some vague neuroscience as “a notary seal” for his claims.

Is this heaven, or wish fulfillment? His background in neurosurgery shouldn’t matter, said Colin Blakemore in The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). “Would we literally believe the contents of a scientist’s dream because he or she has a Ph.D.?” Alexander’s vision follows a pattern that goes back centuries: With a few exceptions, people who return from near-death experiences seem always to have visited heaven, not hell. But in either case, they are speaking about a memory, and 150 years of the science of perception have taught us that “memory is notoriously fallible, and is treacherously easily misled by expectation.” Alexander may have had doubts about his faith before his ecstatic encounter, but he was a practicing Christian. Most likely, he dreamed of the afterlife while unconscious or convinced himself he had. “Perhaps if Eben Alexander were a Muslim, there would have been the mythical 72 virgins” in his heaven rather than the blue-eyed stunner he describes.

The skeptics are “quite right” on those counts, said Wesley Smith in National Review.com. And given that Alexander wasn’t truly dead, his testimony wouldn’t offer any proof about life after death even if we could determine that he saw what he says he saw while in a coma state. Yet “too many people have experienced Pauline-style life-changing epiphanies over the centuries” for us to just assume they’re all “products of delusion.” The idea that the scientific method is the “only valid approach for obtaining knowledge” is the Achilles’ heel of materialistic thinking. I can’t buy into Alexander’s “saccharine” vision of the afterworld. Still, we should all be at least “open to the potential reality” of experienced truth. 

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