Dr. Eben Alexander's so-called afterlife

A doctor says he proves heaven's existence in his bestselling book. Is that a symptom of meningitis or megalomania?

Published November 26, 2012 4:00PM (EST)

In 2008, Dr. Eben Alexander contracted a rare form of bacterial meningitis that, according to his account, shut down his neocortex, the seat of human consciousness. The near-death odyssey that followed was, he writes, “perhaps one of the most convincing such cases in modern history.” At the end of it, he could declare, “I didn’t just believe in God; I knew God.” No mere intimation of immortality, Dr. Alexander’s memoir carries the audacious title "Proof of Heaven" and, at time of writing, it bestrides the New York Times best-seller lists like a Colossus. When he fell ill, he was a brain surgeon, but he has given that up to pursue something more worthy of his talents, namely to “break the back of the last efforts of reductive science to tell the world that the material realm is all there is.”

You may already be familiar with Dr. Alexander. His story made the cover of Newsweek in October. He has appeared on such TV shows as "Nightline" and "Good Morning America," and has been all over the print, online and televised media. Time and again he invites us to gasp at the full comprehension of his abilities, from the nurses cooing over “the most beautiful baby in the nursery” to his extraordinary return from the brink (“Everyone was surprised by the speed of my recovery — except for me”). He tells a story in the preface about a skydiving incident in which his reaction speed was so fast as to be actual evidence that our souls reside outside the body.

"Proof of Heaven" is billed as the authoritative voice of science speaking of the afterlife. But on meeting its author in the lounge of Le Parker Meridien — where a New York parade of eerily familiar faces floated by to the heavenly strains of Bach’s "Preludes and Fugues" — I didn’t want to talk too much about science. Why? Dr. Alexander explains: “I can tell you that most skeptics aren’t really skeptics at all. To be truly skeptical, one must actually examine something, and take it seriously.” Let us review this story’s scientific content.

Trust Me, I’m a Doctor

Careening through his publicity schedule like a juggernaut, Dr. Alexander gains much momentum from his status as a brain surgeon and his credentials as a scientist. “Remember who is talking to you right now” begins a typical exhortation from "Proof of Heaven." “I’m not a soft-headed sentimentalist.” When he communed with the godhead, he “was actually ‘doing science.’ Science that relied on the truest and most sophisticated tool for scientific research we possess: Consciousness itself.” When pressed as to how he can claim that his near-death experience was not a creation of a traumatized brain, he makes much of nine hypotheses presented in his book that purport to run the gamut of orthodox scientific explanations. Dipping blindly into the hypothesis bag, here is No. 7: "The thalamus, basal ganglia, and brainstem are deeper brain structures ('subcortical regions') that some colleagues postulated might have contributed to the processing of such hyperreal experiences. In fact, none of those structures could play any such role without having at least some regions of the neocortex still intact. All agreed in the end that such subcortical structure alone could not have handled the intense neural calculations required for such a richly interactive experiential tapestry."

The claim that his neocortex was totally kaput during his coma is the principal — in fact only — scientific hook on which he hangs "Proof of Heaven": “During my coma my brain wasn’t working improperly  — it wasn’t working at all.” If his brain was not functioning, the consciousness that rode the "butterfly through paradise" existed outside the body, and the door to immortality is wide open. So far, so logical. Only Dr. Alexander has already changed position on this issue. We probably have Sam Harris to thank for that. Harris, author of "The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation," responded to Dr. Alexander’s Newsweek piece by seeking the opinion of neuroscientist Mark Cohen, whose reply was unequivocal. According to Cohen, the neocortical inactivity described by Dr. Alexander is “brain death, a 100 percent lethal condition.” By the time I met Dr. Alexander and mentioned his inactive neocortex, his line had changed. He told me, “Well, the thing is I would not say completely inactive.”

Only, he did. It is in his book. But with me, Dr. Alexander essentially conceded Harris’s point, adding, “There’s no way that [the neocortex] gave me that incredibly rich odyssey that I remember.”

Remove the claim that he was thinking without a brain, and we’re left with the assertion that his vision was all too incredibly incredible to be the product of stodgy old gray matter alone. But this won’t take the wind out of the doctor’s sails. Intensity has been the core of the book’s argument from the start. The scientific terminology and Dr. Alexander’s years of medical school are about as relevant to his case as his customary bow tie. He is asking us to trust him and believe. Another of his hypotheses, No. 1: "A primitive brainstem program to ease terminal pain and suffering (“evolutionary argument” —possibly as a remnant of “feigned-death” strategies from lower mammal?). This did not explain the robust, richly interactive nature of the recollections."

It is a habit of the doctor’s to abbreviate his sentences, dropping articles and the like, whenever he waxes scientific. This is how cerebral empiricists talk shop. (“Tricorder readings show planet unusually like 20th-century Earth. Dilithium crystal energy detected. Investigation imperative.”) The idiom aside, neuroscientific hypothesis No. 1 gets the boot solely on the basis of Dr. Alexander’s conviction that his recollections are inexplicably robust. He describes nothing in "Proof of Heaven" that makes his vision of the afterlife qualitatively superior to a vivid dream or hallucination — no special complexity to the story he tells. He travels through three distinct planes of the afterlife: First, the “worm’s-eye view,” a realm of “pulsing, pounding darkness,” where “grotesque animal faces bubbled out of the muck.” From there, he moves to a more congenial world of lush countryside nestled beneath “puffy, pink-white” clouds and here rides the aforementioned giant butterfly. Last, comes the Core, a place of velvety blackness where he meets God and is granted the ultimate truth: “Love is, without a doubt, the basis of everything.” “Not much of a scientific insight?” he writes, genuflecting at the altar of modesty. “Well, I beg to differ.”

Notably absent from the nine hypotheses are the words “false memory” and “confabulation,” and this is telling. Even were we to concede that the brain is incapable of producing such experiences (and I don’t think we should), it is surely able to create the memory of them, which is all Dr. Alexander possesses. He has the conviction that an amazing thing happened, not the thing itself. That is as far as one need go to refute "Proof of Heaven" as a work of science. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon. But science isn’t the end of the story.

A Spirit of Health or Goblin Damn’d

It can be reasonably argued that because "Proof of Heaven" is personal testimony, the burden of scientific proof is unreasonably heavy for Dr. Alexander: Just because he can’t produce a map of his undiscovered country doesn’t mean he hasn’t been there. There is something to this, but it leads to the many non-scientific inadequacies of the book, failings that ought to offend the inquiring skeptic. The author isn’t engaging in science, as we’ve seen; nor is he an honest broker in matters of religion or philosophy. There, too, questions may be asked in an exacting, reasoned manner, despite being outside the bounds of experimental verification.

The following comparison might seem unfair, but let us put "Proof of Heaven" next to another meditation on man’s mortality: "Hamlet." What makes "Hamlet" relevant is that it deals with a man presented with a window into the afterlife, in this case the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The apparition brings news of how old Hamlet died, and it plants a drive for vengeance in the heart of his son. But the ghost does more than that, too. The theatergoers gathered at the Globe in 1601 were Protestant, and fresh in their minds were memories of a bloody religious conflict that tore apart England during the Reformation. To these people, the ghost had something more disturbing to reveal than murder: it claims to be “confined to fast in fires, / Until the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.” Hamlet’s ghost is talking about purgatory, a place that exists only in Catholic metaphysics. All bad Protestants go to Hell; Catholics suffer for a bit if their sins are venial and then they are home free. Shakespeare put a vision in front of his audience that suggested they were all heading for damnation by being Protestant.

Numerous modern explanations have been offered for Hamlet’s dilatory approach to the matter of avenging his father, from Ernest Jones’s "Hamlet and Oedipus" to T. S. Eliot’s judgment that the play was a failure. But Hamlet’s dithering makes sense in its historical context. He doesn’t ask, as we would, whether the apparition is a creation of a confused mind. His is a prescientific world, inclined to classify hallucinations as visions. Still, for all the ghost’s resemblance to his dead father, the intellectual prince doesn’t take it at face value. He has to wonder whether this is “A spirit of health or goblin damn’d.” Are the Catholics correct? Or is this a Protestant universe in which he is being tempted by a demon sent to encourage murder and heresy?

No one could question that Elizabethan England was a place that took religion at least as seriously as Dr. Alexander says we should. But as "Hamlet" shows, that doesn’t mean Shakespeare and his contemporaries were simply credulous about the afterlife, swallowing whatever they were told on the basis of an impressive special effect, such as a dead man strolling round the parapets. Contrast this to the debate concerning "Proof of Heaven," which focuses entirely on whether Dr. Alexander’s experience really occurred outside the body. If you believe it did, then, judging from discussions in such places as Skeptico.com (banner: “science at the tipping point”), all his other claims hold true as well. But why should they? If he survived a while outside the body, how does that confirm our immortality? Perhaps God reveals himself at the end of life like a Bond villain, pours you a glass of ambrosia, explains his dastardly plan and then snuffs out your soul like a candle. Is it not conceivable that Dr. Alexander met Satan? After all, the Father of Lies is normally attributed with the ability to show mortals great wonders, and the apple of knowledge didn’t come from God. Where is the doubting Hamlet in Dr. Alexander?

I posed a theological question to the doctor, “What about those believers who have held it that God is meant to be unknowable, that we’re meant to have faith in him, but not knowledge?”

“I would say that’s very true," he said, "because what I saw, the chasm between our current science and the absolute infinite potential of the human brain and mind, especially if limited to a physicalist worldview, is not even remotely in the right place or a comparable place to be able to weigh in pro or con on that question, because that god is so far beyond our wildest imagination.”

I tried to pursue the issue further: “If you’re not meant to know God, because God asks us to have faith in him — as many theologians have argued — aren’t you blowing his cover?”

“No. I’m saying, for example, when the physics community comes out now, like they do every few decades, and say we’re close to a theory of everything. And people say, ‘Ooh, theory of everything. Where do God and heaven and the eternity of spirit and consciousness fit into your theory of everything.’ And they say, ‘Well, nowhere, because that’s an epiphenomenon and not really important,’ whereas in fact those are the only things that are really important.”

I am pretty sure physicists would be more likely to say something about untestable hypotheses, but Dr. Alexander is determined to cast mainstream scientists as villains. On the other hand, the long religious tradition that recoils from any claim that God is knowable, he wants on side. If he is talking about science, the doctor has met and buddied up to God no end (“I didn’t just believe in God; I knew God”). Approached from the religious angle, he talks of the Almighty as an unfathomable mystery. But either he knows God or he doesn’t. It can’t depend on his audience. Nor should the questioning stop the moment a subject is deemed outside of empirical inquiry.

The Big If

Occasionally, in reading and conversing with Dr. Alexander, I caught a glimmer of the motivation behind his new choice of career. When I asked about his decision to give up his work as a surgeon, he told me, “Obviously, I want to stay in patient care, but my focus is now much more on helping patients’ families in hospice and terminal situations to know that this is very real and to know that death is a transition, it is not the end.”

In "Proof of Heaven," he talks further on the palliative effects a story such as his provides those facing death. Speaking of the time before his coma, when still doubtful of his faith, he says, “I’d always believed that when you’re under the burden of a potentially fatal illness, softening the truth is fine. To prevent a terminal patient from trying to grab on to a little fantasy to help them deal with the possibility of death is like withholding painkilling medication.”

Put the matter like that, and it would indeed be heartless to deny such a comfort. Gentle skeptics may balk from a vocal condemnation of "Proof of Heaven" and similar works on grounds that the desperate and dispirited should not be denied their opiates. What I can say is that Dr. Alexander’s heaven offers no comfort to me. A posthumous future where “You have nothing to fear” and “There is nothing you can do wrong” sounds like infinite boredom — inhuman and alienating in its contentment. Vladimir Nabokov puts it best in "Pale Fire":

I’ll turn down eternity unless

The melancholy and the tenderness

Of mortal life; the passion and the pain;

The claret taillight of that dwindling plane

Off Hesperus; your gesture of dismay

On running out of cigarettes; the way

You smile at dogs; the trail of silver slime

Snails leave on flagstones; this good ink, this rhyme,

This index card, this slender rubber band

Which always forms, when dropped, an ampersand,

Are found in Heaven by the newlydead …

"Proof of Heaven" sullies the subtle, exquisite, personal and easily forgotten possessions of this sublunary world. Dr. Alexander’s pink fluffy clouds and divine orgasmatrons are a cosmic vulgarity. Thinking so, why would I commit the giant act of condescension required to imagine this vision good enough for others? There is a moral imperative to talk in our best voice, at the height of our articulacy and intelligence, regardless of our interlocutors or audience. Certainly, to those of us for whom death remains that distant peak perpetually in view, we should always offer only what we deem good enough for our own consumption. That would be a copy of "Pale Fire" in my case. There, Nabokov captures the inadequacy of all visions of the afterlife and still finds space for a delicate inkling of a continued existence beyond the grave, something dwelling in a mysterious and discrete magisterium:

It isn’t that we dream to wild a dream:

The trouble is we do not make it seem

Sufficiently unlikely.

By Mark Martin

Mark Martin lives in New York and is the Managing Editor at Verso Books

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Afterlife Illness Medical Oddities Meningitis Near-death Experiences Proof Of Heaven