Sun December 2, 2012
Is 'Heaven is Real' Writer Dr. Eben Alexander Practicing Science?
Dr. Eben Alexander says there is a heaven. Dr. Eben Alexander says he's been there. Dr. Eben Alexander says he has scientific proof of both of those things. And Dr. Eben Alexander says he is that proof.
Alexander, his epiphany and his crusade aren't as well known as his original thesis, which was proclaimed on the cover of Newsweek in October.
Alexander is a neurosurgeon. He claims that while stricken with bacterial meningitis, he entered a coma and the disease effectively smote his ability to have conscious thought. "My brain was floating in pus" he told me. During this time, he had visions of startling clarity. He traveled to another realm on the wing of a butterfly and encountered an all-knowing, all-powerful divine spirit (here's Morgan Freeman narrating it). When Alexander awoke, he sought a scientific explanation for his vision. Finding none, he took it as proof of brain-free consciousness and ultimate proof of Heaven. Then he wrote a book. Then Newsweek excerpted it and declared on its cover (IN ALL CAPS) "Heaven is Real."
Criticism came shortly afterward, followed by the announcement that Newsweek's gamble on bold covers had failed, and the magazine would be scrapping its print edition.
But how serious is Alexander about his parable? How serious was Newsweek about its cover?
The answer to the first question is "very." The answer to the second isn't so clear.
Cheekiness bordering on debasement is standard for even the most respectable magazines' covers these days. There are breastfeeding mothers, Time Magazine calling the leader of North Korea "Lil Kim" and the infamous Muslim Rage edition. By those standards, "Heaven is Real," no matter how big the typeface is, is rather tame.
That does a disservice to the severity of Alexander's claims. He says he has scientific proof of Heaven. And he's a self-proclaimed man of science (and a certified neurosurgeon).
'I'm Nothing Special. I'm Just a Messenger'
Alexander's claim, if true, would redefine faith and science and possibly lead to him being painted on glass windows 1,000 years in the future. Here is a man of science, a man who is literally capable of repairing the human brain, saying that not only does God in Heaven exist, but that he met God...in Heaven. But what makes his claim different is the science he insists is behind it. If his claim was scientifically accurate, it would tear down the wall between faith and fact, between believing and knowing. Atheists would be relegated to the circle of non-Hell occupied by Flat Earthers.
Given that, Newsweek's proclamation, no matter how capitalized it was, seems understated. If they really wanted to play up Alexander's great awakening, they'd put him in robes on the cover. Would that be sacrilege? No more than Alexander's piece, perhaps, since it implies that any organized religion which requires a specific belief for salvation is wrong. Alexander was not a devout believer. "Before my coma I did not believe in God or Heaven," he said. But he got into Heaven. In his interview with me, Alexander stated this a bit more explicitly:
"Any part of religion that is separatist and exclusive and says, 'We're better than others, we know the way,' is wrong."
So does that mean one doesn't have to follow a certain belief, attain enlightenment, adhere to certain practices or believe that Christ is the son of God and whomever believes in him will have everlasting life?
"I would say that is not exactly what Jesus and that loving God want us to believe. A lot of the teachings of Jesus were corrupted later on," says Alexander.*
While some might see Alexander's experience as a reason to speak against Biblical literalism or religious extremism, Alexander sees it as a calling to redefine science, prove that consciousness exists outside of the body and that Heaven is real. That's what Alexander is doing now. He says he wants to put together a new picture of reality, using science and his experience in Heaven.
"This new picture of reality will take a long time to put together. It won’t be finished in my time, or even, I suspect, my sons’ either," Alexander writes. "In fact, reality is too vast, too complex, and too irreducibly mysterious for a full picture of it ever to be absolutely complete. But in essence, it will show the universe as evolving, multi-dimensional, and known down to its every last atom by a God who cares for us even more deeply and fiercely than any parent ever loved their child."
At one point in history, these might be considered the actions of a prophet. But it's not a title Alexander wants.
"Take this off of me. I'm nothing special. I'm just a messenger," said Alexander in our interview.
When I told them I was going to interview Alexander, several people had the same reaction. "Too bad you can't get Christopher Hitchens for rebuttal" (though I'm not so sure I could've reached him even if he were alive). But the religious argument is less interesting to me than the scientific. The questions I had for Alexander regarding what his claims meant for religion—organized and not—were secondary to my big question:
Is this science?
"There is no way my brain could have come up with this very rich realm that it came up with," Alexander insists. "I tried to explain, based on every explanation that the skeptical neuroscientific crowd would come up with, but none of them worked."
Maybe he didn't try hard enough. That's what noted skeptic Sam Harris implies in what may go down as the defining critique of Alexander's claim. Harris contacted Dr. Mark Cohen at UCLA, whom Harris describes as "a pioneer in the field of neuroimaging who holds appointments in the Departments of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Science, Neurology, Psychology, Radiological Science, and Bioengineering."
True, science cannot explain brain-free consciousness...Of course, science cannot explain consciousness anyway. In this case, however, it would be parsimonious to reject the whole idea of consciousness in the absence of brain activity. Either his brain was active when he had these dreams, or they are a confabulation of whatever took place in his state of minimally conscious coma.
Cohen also takes issue with the level of scientific credibility foisted on Alexander.
"...(T)his is truth by authority," he tells Harris. "Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them."
Critiques of his expertise aside, Alexander has taken to studying brains and consciousness, but he's working with a conclusion in mind. That conclusion is that the answer will ultimately be found in the supernatural and spiritual. It seems that this approach to redefine science throws out the notions of how science should be practiced. Alexander is aiming to prove, not to test. He's not seeing if Heaven exists, he's proclaiming it does then finding evidence to support it.
Science doesn't explain everything, but scientists don't purport it does. Alexander seems to be intent on developing the elusive Theory of Everything with God as the main component. When I asked Alexander what would happen if a scientist could perfectly explain his experience without relying on the supernatural, Alexander said it couldn't happen. This seems like a warped scientific process—a method that could lead to evidence being thrown out or misinterpreted in service of the ultimate conclusion, which Alexander has already decided must include God. It sounded a bit like Spiritualism, in which scientists were willing to accept any manor of hoax qua miracle that served a final belief.
But Alexander doesn't see it that way. He sees his method as more open-minded than skeptics'. And he's working with other scientists to prove his experience wasn't a hallucination.
"It makes far more sense than backpedaling and saying 'It had to happen in his brain because I wont' believe anything else is possible,'" he says.
Alexander says scientists must study out of body experiences, postmortem spiritual contact and other phenomena.
"If you simply deny them, you're not on a pathway to truth. If you admit they exist and then start to work on how we can explain them and consciousness, then we're on the right path," he says.
Dr. Alexander's mistrust of current science isn't anything new. Science is a process that corrects itself and throws out what was once accepted but has been proven false. In our interview, Alexander nodded toward that, saying that science is still developing, and will soon move beyond a belief that protons, neutrons, quarks and photons are the most basic blocks of all matter. Also, he says other scientists will soon discover that he is right about consciousness.
"I think science, neuroscience, is going to have tremendous progress in the coming years," he says.
This, most people can believe. Neuroscience will make tremendous progress. As will computer science, medical science and probably even geology and plate tectonics. That's science. It evolves toward a greater understanding of the world around us. It's the Pleasure of Finding Things Out, as Richard Feynman put it. It's the joy of knowing. Religion can provide meaning and pleasure, too, a joy in believing.
Alexander says scientists shouldn't be so quick to dismiss faith and rely only on the tools at hand to explain the world. But scientists don't claim to have a final understanding of the world. They're still in the process of discovery. They're still building the tools. Alexander is in the process of discovery, too, but he says he has an understanding of the world. He takes issue with skeptics doubting his new religion, but he's the one who brought religion to science and attempted to mix the two, to use one to explain the other. Scientific proof of God doesn't exist, but neither does the scientific proof that God doesn't exist, since that would require knowledge that cannot be obtained. It's a place for philosophers, not scientists. Many scientists are happy to leave it at that. Then again, we haven't heard from any scientists who have met God lately.
*How does one get into Heaven? According to Alexander, you simply must be a good person. Because he only claims to have visited Heaven, his thoughts on Hell are not as clearly developed, and we didn't talk about it for very long. He says his understanding is that the wicked will have to atone.