Journey to the afterlife is a scientific dead end
OPINION:An American doctor's revelations about life after death do not stand up to scientific scrutiny
Among the gifts I received this festive season was a tongue-in-cheek present, a copy of the current number one New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander. What a revelation it turned out to be.
Dr Alexander suffered an extremely rare attack of E coli meningitis that left him in a deep coma for seven days during which time he had a near-death experience that transformed his life. I’ve also visited his websites and watched videos of him online.
I do not doubt his sincerity or good intentions but I cannot extend the same degree of respect to the contents of his book, which reads like a condensed version of The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis.
Dr Alexander claims that while in a coma he visited heaven, being guided through a gateway by a beautiful girl, both of them riding on the wings of a butterfly. While there he was in direct communication with God, whom he refers to as Om.
He was taught many things in heaven, including the nature of dark energy and dark matter, knowledge that would bring enormous progress to physics.
Unfortunately, on his return to Earth, this knowledge was “covered over”. He says, however, that with hard work on his part, a lot of this knowledge will be regained.
According to Dr Alexander the only teaching that really matters can be summed up in three points: you are loved and cherished; you have nothing to fear; and you can do no wrong.
He goes on to say: “Not much of a scientific insight? Well I beg to differ. I’m back from that place, and nothing could convince me that this is not only the single most important emotional truth in the universe, but also the most scientific truth as well.”
Argument from authority
Dr Alexander argues his case from a self-stated position of authority as a scientist and a neurosurgeon. Arguments from authority carry no weight in science, in direct contrast with religious perspectives, where authority is all.
It is true to say science currently has a very limited understanding of the nature of consciousness. However, this does not invite a retreat into supernatural “explanations”; rather it serves as a reason to work harder towards the goal of better understanding.
Carl Sagan famously said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Dr Alexander’s claims are truly extraordinary, while the evidence he offers is scientifically paltry.
The book constitutes a complete rejection of the principle of parsimony, which states that in choosing between rival hypotheses the one requiring the fewest assumptions should be selected. This principle has consistently served science well.
While we cannot precisely explain what precipitated Dr Alexander’s experience, the most parsimonious direction in which to proceed is to seek its causes in the physical make-up of the brain and in its physiological processes.
Many reported experiences have parallels with some of the details reported in the book. These include alien abduction reports, sleep paralysis (hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations) and reactions to drugs, such as ketamine, used in anaesthesia.
Dr Alexander rejects such hypotheses, claiming his neocortex was completely shut down. This is entirely debatable.
My primary concern with his book and my reason for commenting on it is that it will be very widely read and will add in no small way to the confusion the general public already endures with regard to science. This is not science and Dr Alexander’s approach to the subject, despite surface appearances, is not scientific.
He has vowed to devote his life to transmitting the message of his experience to the world and in particular to scientists and sceptics. I doubt he’ll make much progress with the latter two groups.
He and a colleague have set up a website – eternea.org, “the convergence of science and spirituality” – to help spread the word.
On it they state: “Upon close examination, the very root of humanity’s problems is flawed thinking and faulty perception about the nature of reality.”
The explanation for his experience may be staring him in the face.
Paul O’Donoghue is a clinical psychologist and founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society. email@example.com