Esquire magazine has a long article (available online for $1.99 for non-subscribers) in the August issue by Luke Dittrich investigating the claims of Eben Alexander, a so-called “Harvard neurologist” whose book Proof of Heaven purporting to describe his “near death experience” has been on the best-seller lists for almost a year. (I wrote about the Newsweek article that preceded the book last year.) Of course Dittrich was unable to verify or falsify the central claim, that Alexander actually went to heaven while he was in a coma during a bout of bacterial meningitis. However, Dittrich did uncover a number of awkward facts about Alexander’s career as a neurosurgeon, including a history of malpractice suits (five in ten years) that eventually deprived him of his license to practice neurosurgery and which suggested to Dittrich a possible motive for Alexander to write the book besides a reportorial one.
Over at Huffington Post, Paul Raeburn has written a blog that admirably summarizes Dittrich’s article:
Dittrich comes as close as one could, without access to Alexander’s private thoughts, to showing that the book was a cynical effort to provide a new career — as a prophet! — for a neurosurgeon whose career was being consumed by malpractice suits. He was, Esquire‘s editors write in the deck, “a neurosurgeon with a troubled history and a man in need of reinvention.”
One of Dittrich’s most damning revelations (so to speak) concerns the story of one of Alexander’s own doctors who says, in contradiction of Alexander’s claim that the e. coli bacteria that caused his meningitis also caused his coma, that she chemically induced the coma because Alexander’s involuntary movements made it impossible to operate on him. This would give the lie to Alexander’s contention that his brain had ceased all activity and that he essentially died on the gurney. It would also suggest (though Dittrich doesn’t mention the drug used to induce the coma–one major shortcoming of the Esquire piece) a likely chemical source for Alexander’s ecstatic vision.
Of course, believers will continue to believe, and as evidence of that, you need only look at the comments section on Raeburn’s blog. For example, this comment from one jillenglish:
It’s a good read. I believe all things are possible and I’ve experienced things others could never understand, not just because they are hard to believe but because if you aren’t an open minded person to have a smidge of “possible” in a world where we do not know,or have any proof of anything past our own consciousness level, easier to nay say. That is to be expected. But it is for me, quite a plausible book. If you are well read I this area, it’s one worth reading.
Does it matter if Alexander’s story isn’t totally true in all its facts if you want to believe the central argument, that there is a heaven? Does it matter if the facts that aren’t true make it less likely the central argument holds up? I asked jillenglish this:
What do you say to the fact that Alexander got some key facts wrong (such as how his coma was caused and whether or not his brain was active during it)? Does that make the story less plausible, or is plausibility independent of fact?
She (I presume) replied:
I understand your point, I do.
However it is this kind of thinking that leads to only more facts, only the tangible, only the complete linear explainable.
So it is not as if I could “explain” it well enough in your terms to answer this because I operate from a different place of possibility – and this is because I too have experienced unbelievable..things that cannot be explained in a concrete way.
I could tell you and debate it with anyone who has not had this benefit to be able to know what I know in my personal experience and it wouldn’t matter. For me, an we have an incredible existence that we can’t outline always in science and I am glad we can’t. For me to pick apart someone else’s experience with only what we “know” and dismiss it if it doesn’t “fit” into a previously framed understanding – I think we lose the ability to expand our consciousness. Once it opens, it becomes so un necessary to fight about facts as they are not the essence of what happens in another dimension.
I am sure you think I’m nuts, but I don’t worry about that. If only you could know what I have seen..perhaps someday, you will. Peace
For the record, I don’t think jillenglish is nuts, based on her mostly coherent (if slightly loosey-goosey) reply. But I did have some more questions for her, and a different perspective for her ponder if she’s able:
The question is, does Alexander confirm your belief because he actually “experienced” heaven as he claimed he did, or is it just confirmation bias at work with you? And does it matter? I’m guessing you would say it doesn’t matter. You believe what you believe, and part of that belief is that Alexander’s book fits with your worldview so it’s “true” enough, even if it could factually be shown to be based on several falsehoods.Those falsehoods are forgivable or beside the point because the larger truth (for you) is that they support your belief in something inaccessible through fact or reason.
From my perspective, Alexander is making claims he purports to be true and Dittrich has given me reason to doubt Alexander’s story. I don’t doubt his vision, just as I don’t doubt people had dreams they describe having. But I doubt his vision was the result of a brain that was completely dead, as he claimed. Based on the little neuroscience I’ve read, this makes it very likely that Alexander’s “vision” was actually like a dream. Based on my knowledge of my own dreams (as well as my own cosmic “visions”), I have to doubt Alexander got all the details exactly as they occurred when the vision was “happening.” I think his interpretations were post-coma, and that he wa[s], therefore, creating parts of his vision while awake as he tried to re-create it in his memory. That’s how brains work, as far as I know.
The space I had to reply was limited, so I wasn’t able to drive home my main problem with Alexander’s story and book: They are sold as “proof of heaven” but that’s plainly false advertising. Proof is, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact … something that induces certainty or establishes validity … evidence operating to determine the finding or judgment of a tribunal.” If you’re predisposed to believe him, your mind is probably so open you don’t have the power to close it on poor, weak, invalid or plainly false arguments, and, therefore, reason is of little use to you. But for the rest of us, I think we do need to be able to discern how the strength or validity of an argument depends upon the truth of the evidence that goes into the making of it.
In Alexander’s case, he based an argument that he died and went to heaven on the false premise that he died–he did not–and there could be no other explanation for his experience–there was. Two strikes and a pop fly out.
- The ‘Proof of Heaven’ Author Has Now Been Thoroughly Debunked by Science (theatlanticwire.com)
- Say It All Together Now: The ‘Proof of Heaven’ Author Made Everything Up (patheos.com)
- Claims from ‘Proof of Heaven’ Questioned (patheos.com)
- Did the Famed Neurosurgeon Who Claims He Saw God and Visited Heaven Lie? Article Exposes Alleged Inconsistencies (theblaze.com)
- Proof of Heaven? (aangirfan.blogspot.com)
- Is “Proof of Heaven” provable? – Articles (wilmingtonfavs.com)