This hasn’t been an extant fact on my blog, but I am an atheist. My parents are (and now pretty much were) Catholic, and I went to a couple of Catholic schools as a kid so I’m extremely familiar with the machinery of Christianity. My wife (who’s a deist) was raised as a free-thinker and we’ve had some quite lively healthy debate over the years. Her mother, however, is now a born-again Pentecostal (last time I checked).
Last Christmas Day, while decorating gingerbread men, we got into a bit of a verbal disagreement about the existence of God and she didn’t really have a leg to stand on. The first, and most viscerally relatable weapon in my arsenal was the Problem of Evil which I further parlayed into the contradictory positions of free will, omniscience, and sin. I was probably in poor form for an early Christmas morning, but I’ve recited these arguments to myself often when I try to re-evaluate my positions on God.
She never really answered my questions, which were answerable (if a bit pointed and more than a little rhetorical), they just force you to redefine the concepts of evil in ways I find dubious and unverifiable or admit that either God doesn’t know everything or we are machine-like automatons with no choice but our destiny.
In the course of that conversation she mentioned a neurosurgeon with a raft of degrees that had come to believe in God – or more directly the afterlife – after having a near death experience. How this was relevant, I don’t know, but I guess it was that there was a man of science (the sort of man I consider myself to be) that had a crisis and came to believe. At the time I dismissed the claim out of hand.
In the meantime, however, she sent me his book. It’s called “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander III, MD.
There are a few positive things I can say about this work. The first is that his writing style was clear and well thought out purely from an execution-of-a-story point of view. It’s apparent that he’s very smart from his training as a neurosurgeon and his obvious familiarity with medicine. I say this without having checked on his degrees or anything because on this stuff I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because if someone really has “proof of heaven” it doesn’t matter if he’s a genius or a vagrant. Proof is proof is proof.
There is no proof.
proof /pɹuːf/ n.
2. (uncountable) The degree of evidence which convinces the mind of any truth or fact, and produces belief; a test by facts or arguments which induce, or tend to induce, certainty of the judgment; conclusive evidence; demonstration.
The key words here being “evidence” and “certainty”. This book has only anecdotal evidence and thus conveys no certainty whatsoever.
In addition, I think that the author, Eben Alexander, frequently uses the appeal to authority logical fallacy to great effect. The first ten or twenty pages of the book are just filled with irrelevant details of his education and his unique insight into the human brain. I will grant that he knows a lot more about the brain than I do and he can rattle off the various possible causes for a grand mal seizure in a white man in his 50s a lot quicker than I can, but none of this makes any difference whatsoever for some sort of proof. I kept getting the feeling while reading his opening pages that he was including so much detail (like the names of the drugs he was on, the Latin derivation of cortex, the full name and apparent age of E. coli, the shifts of the nurses and staff, even the Einstein and Kierkegaard type quotes that start a few chapters) that he was including them with the sole intent of saying “Yes, I am smart. I’m a doctor!” and then using that authority to argue his other, totally unrelated claim.
Another facet of the book that I disliked was that it was tacitly and admittedly fiction. The protagonist is in a coma for most of the book so all of the detail he’s added about his family and his appearance during that time is entirely fictionalized (or, at best, hearsay) to weave the personal experiences he had while in this coma into the dramatic story going on in the real world. It’s extremely easy to forget this fact when he’s narrating the story as if he knows exactly what happened. He’s taken quite a bit of artistic license with the story that went on outside of his head and I would be totally fine with that if this book didn’t purport to be “proof” because he’s intentionally blurring the lines between what he knows is real, what he’s heard from others, and this mystical experience that he uses as the basis of this “proof.”
The rest of the book is either rather dry biography (sure, I’ll believe it) or part of this world that he experienced while his body was essentially brain dead. This world, which he gives several rather fanciful names as he progresses through it, is intended to be the “proof” but it reads like an acid trip and falls drastically short of what anyone in the rational world would call proof.
The kicker is that you can believe that every word of this book is true and it’s still not a proof (in the deductive reasoning, mathematical sense) in any way shape or form. I believe that he had a serious illness. I believe that the story he told about his family, his childhood, his adoption, and education is true. I also believe that he made a rare full recovery. I even have no reason not to believe that he hallucinated an entire episode that convinced him that there is an afterlife. For him, that proof must be especially strong because he was supposedly there and experienced it for himself.
Looking at it from the outside, however, there’s nothing here but an anecdote with one huge, enormous, glaringly obvious flaw. Dr. Alexander doesn’t have proof that there’s an afterlife because he isn’t dead. No amount of degrees, dramatic stories, or fantastical journeys through inner space will change the fact that he was most definitely alive the entire time. People who were “dead” for minutes before being brought back weren’t really dead. Why? Because you don’t come back from death, by definition (Christian theology aside).
So, what we have here is yet another book that attempts to build a proof on the foundation of personal experience and, unsurprisingly, it fails to convince.
The Real Lesson
This book has an accidentally scary part to it, I’ll admit. It had nothing to do with the immediate content, but with the trimmings of the book.
First, the praise listed is uniformly from religious folk (who, let’s just say have a horse in this race) or from MD PhD types that are also hawking this sort of book on their own.
Second, the first section after the end of the story (and an unnecessarily long acknowledgements section) is the “reading list” which is just a long list of other semi-related works that (surprise!) include all of the authors that wrote praise for this book. There’s a smattering of real work in there about death and grief and magic mushrooms (see last point), the Dalai Lama even gets a shout out, but at least 50% of them are just more of the same pseudo-science “astral travel” and Native American wisdom.
After that, there’s a statement from an MD that examined him that boils down to “Eben Alexander’s recovery is truly remarkable” which can’t be argued but low probability events happen all the time. For every Eben Alexander there are a few hundred others that, yep, kicked the bucket as expected.
Lastly, there’s a list of theories he considered when trying to debunk his own irrational experience. This is yet another place where he tries to strengthen his fallacious argument. He drags up a lot of facts that I assume are true (because it’s irrelevant) about the effects of hallucinogens, brain chemistry, brain structure, and whether the operational parts of his brain could handle the “ultra-reality” he experienced during his coma. It’s a real shocker that he comes up with various reasons each one can’t possibly explain it. It’s funny coming from a neurosurgeon that acknowledged in the beginning of the book that we can’t explain how the brain works. It’s the height of foolishness to debug a system you don’t understand and, when faced with something you can’t explain, insert divine intervention or miraculous events. Not to mention that some of the arguments rely on “well the parts of my brain that could make this seem so real weren’t working at the time” which is something that couldn’t possibly be ascertained. He admits that he has absolutely no sense of time while in this fantasy world and, as such, how does he know that it didn’t all occur a millisecond before he “woke up” when his brain was 99% of the way back to consciousness? The chapters where he’s in this fantasy are spliced with the story in the real world such that it seems like he spent days of real time there, but that’s totally unknowable and inadmissible in refuting the theory that it was just a hallucination.
In the end, there’s only one thing that I can take from this book. It’s a lesson that I’ve learned before and I’ll probably learn again: smart people can believe some pretty stupid things without any logical underpinning.