Poof of Heaven: Eben Alexander’s Truth Problem


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.

7 thoughts on “Poof of Heaven: Eben Alexander’s Truth Problem

  1. Why don’t you present both sides of the Eban Alexander story. Regarding the story itself it appears that from the outset Dittrich had it out to “expose” Alexander. Here is a post at the DNE Research by Robert May who takes Dittrich to task over his Esquire article. Here is an excerpt:

    Great journalism or journalistic malpractice?
    To Esquire’s Editor in Chief David Granger, Luke Dittrich’s story is great journalism.
    To me the Dittrich article is shoddy and irresponsible journalism—shoddy because of Luke Dittrich’s and his Esquire editors’ evident failures:
    failure to consider alternate explanations (rainbow), failure to check with the cited witnesses (Phyllis and Betty Alexander), failure to verify information with additional witnesses (Holley Alexander, Michael Sullivan and others),
    failure to check with medical experts (on the likely cause of coma),
    failure to check again on crucial testimony of the sole cited witness (Laura Potter), failure to read the book carefully (Dr. Wade’s statement Page 11
    about Alexander’s coma), failure to verify conclusions via other witnesses (Holley Alexander and Sylvia White),
    failure to exercise care in asserting erroneous facts (use of drugs was not mentioned in the book), failure to
    exercise care in quoting and interpreting recorded remarks (Dalai Lama), and failure to exercise common sense
    in interpreting the meaning of statements (Dalai Lama).
    And Dittrich’s article was irresponsible because of the impact—the real harm—the resulting distortions have
    caused. I am sure Luke Dittrich and his editors felt completely justified, based on what they felt was a solid case
    against Eben Alexander. They probably also considered the negative effect that Dittrich’s article and its conclusions
    would have on Alexander and others, and similarly felt justified. In their minds, Eben Alexander is a complete fraud
    and deserves to be exposed as such.

    link here: http://selfconsciousmind.com/Esquire%20article%20on%20Eben%20Alexander%20distorts%20the%20facts.pdf

    Your post does not delve into Eban Alexander’s professional problems. I’d like to know more.

    • Two problems with your comment: 1: The author of the critique you cite is not the eminent British scientist Robert May but the completely biased Robert G. Mays. And why is Mays biased? Because 2.: he runs a website promoting “research” on Near Death Experience–NDE, not DNE as you have it.

      Neither of these errors of yours disqualifies your comment from consideration, but it’s only fair to correct the errors for those readers of these comments who don’t have the time or inclination to look further into the matter for themselves. The point is, Mays is clearly inclined to believe in Eben Alexander’s story because he clearly believes in NDEs. It is, therefore, prudent to take his critique with that grain of salt.

  2. One very strange thing, did Dr. Alexander give himself this very severe meningitis so he could then put his fraudulent second career into motion? Or did he, upon recovering, then formulate this story in order to transition to another career as a writer? As far as I or anyone else knows, Dr. Alexanders malpractice claims were paid by his insurance, and for someone as accomplished and with as an impressive a resume as his, there can be little doubt there were numerous opportunities for him to continue a medicine career which either gave up neurosurgery in lieu of a different specialty, or gave up surgery altogether to pursue academic or administrative careers in medicine. For those of you who aren’t aware, neurosurgery has a very high incidence of malpractice claims due to it being a very high risk type of surgery. Lastly all of you who are so quick to cast aspersions upon Dr. Alexanders motives and credibility based upon a perceived need for him to earn a living somehow, should first try to come to terms with your own inability to conceive of things beyond your own five senses, and then google Dr. Alexanders curriculum vitae. The notion that he would have gone hungry for lack of earning opportunities is not only laughable, but quite absurd.

    • Alexander must understand something about the workings of the brain. He must therefore have understood that his brain did not “die.” It was alive and working, just as it is during dream states. The point being, there is a better explanation for what he says he saw while in his coma than that he flew to heaven. Speaking of laughable and absurd.

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