A rebuttal to the articles: Heaven is Real: A Doctor’s Experience with the Afterlife and A Neuroscientists Describes His Near-Death Visit to Another Realm.
Dr. Eben Alexander’s article can be summarily dismissed with one sentence in the words of the late, great, (kind of a jerk but…) inarguably intelligent, and erudite Christopher Hitchens: “that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” And there you have it. However, considering the nature of my disagreement with Dr. Alexander, I suppose I should put forth an actual case for why I believe his experience does not constitute evidence (let alone proof) for life after death.
There are many possible explanations for what Dr. Alexander went through. Perhaps he really did experience an event in which his disembodied consciousness was whisked away to heaven on the wings of a magical butterfly with a hot brunette in tow. Or perhaps his neocortex was not fully shut down at the point when he thinks he had the NDE? Perhaps the experience occurred in the moments before his neocortex shut down or as he was coming to? If he was unconscious, quasi-conscious, or in a state of altered-consciousness, he would either have no sense of time or a distorted sense of time. How would he know exactly when the NDE occurred in relation to when his neocortex shut down? Perhaps there are gaps, misperceptions, or faulty assumptions in our understanding of the event itself? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps! I could perhaps several paragraphs on this matter but really, who knows? I don’t. Yes, that’s right. I don’t know; I admit that.
I can’t prove him wrong. I can’t prove him wrong in the same way you couldn’t prove me wrong if I claimed there is a magic, invisible garden gnome living in my backyard who likes to fart in my gardenias, tie my hose in knots, and throw my newspaper in the neighbor’s bushes. I could point to my wilted flowers, knotted hose, and misplaced newspapers as evidence. Then I could write an article entitled “Garden Gnomes Are Real: An Artist’s Experience With A Magical Pain in the Petunias”. I wonder how many people would take me seriously?
Probably not many. Why? Why is Dr. Alexander’s claim any more credible than mine? Because his claim “seems” more plausible? Because he’s a doctor and I’m some nobody artist? I don’t care if you’re the pope of the universe; if you say, and I quote: “I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death,” you better have some strong evidence to back that claim up. As it stands, all he has given us are words and the assumption that his neocortex was fully shut down when he thinks he had the experience. I don’t find that even remotely compelling, especially not when NDEs are known to be explainable by simple brain-chemistry and have even been replicated in controlled lab settings, fighter pilot testing, and with drugs.
Let me make myself clear: It’s not the NDE I contest. NDEs do occur but they are a natural brain phenomenon brought on by extreme stress and lack of oxygen to the brain. What I contest is the notion that what went on in Dr. Alexander’s head constitutes proof of heaven. Even if the event really did happen as he claims, that’s still not proof! The very best that can be said with true certainty is that we do not understand the full implications of what happened. The very worst that can be said? Wishful thinking, cognitive dissonance, and rejection of the scientific method run amok. The event should certainly be studied, absolutely, nolo contendere! Though I doubt scientists would find any evidence of supernatural occurrences or actual proof of heaven. Why do I doubt?
I doubt because thousands of years of study into souls and heaven and ghosts and afterlives have yielded nothing. We know nothing about the soul. We believe, we feel, we have faith! But we don’t know. We don’t even know if it really exists. Even if we do ever manage to find actual evidence for the soul, it probably wouldn’t be what we hoped for- an entity that retains our personality and memories. If history has taught us anything, events we perceive as supernatural tend to have naturalistic (and ultimately disappointing) explanations. (Wait…. You mean our crops failed because there are no gods on Mount Olympus to appease and we are thus at the mercy of an indifferent climate system that doesn’t give a crap whether or not we starve to death? Bummer.)
After thousands of years, one might think we’d have something concrete, that we would know something for certain about the soul. We do not. The fact is, no one has posited any falsifiable, testable, predictive hypotheses for such things as souls, ghosts, mind-body duality, heaven and so on. Why not? This quandary is such a huge part of humanity, why do we still know nothing about the soul or anything else classified as supernatural? This leads into perhaps the biggest conundrum of all concerning this matter: Even if souls and ghosts and heavens really do exist, science may not be capable of detecting, studying, or even commenting on them. We may never be able to prove claims of mind-brain duality or heaven or other such things.
Why might science be incapable of delving into supernatural matters? Because science operates within very strict parameters and it has very strict criteria. If an idea is not testable, predictive, and falsifiable, science cannot work with it.
It is entirely possible (and if you ask me, extremely likely) that souls and heaven and whatnot (if they really exist) may lie inextricably within the realm of faith and personal, subjective experience. We may simply have to resign ourselves to the likelihood that we will never have actual evidence. Merely saying “I experienced an NDE when my neocortex was shut down” does not constitute evidence of an afterlife, let alone proof, not even close. Evidence must be detectable in some way by objective, outside observers. Dr. Alexander’s experience is not accessible to the rest of the world; only his words are.
What would constitute proof of an afterlife? How about an actual afterlife that we can test, falsify, and base predictive models on? How about something that is as undeniable as the fact that the Earth is an oblate spheroid revolving around the Sun. Or failing that, how about something I can see with my own two eyes or experience for myself and share with others? Until this happens or until these claims are legitimately proven…. ya know, like, with actual proof, I simply cannot take people who say they’ve experienced heaven or ghosts or souls or disembodied consciousnesses or whatever else at their word. I simply cannot. There are too many other possible naturalistic explanations. And again, as history shows, naturalistic explanations have a strong tendency to pave over phenomena that were once thought to be supernatural.
Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” There is something extraordinary about being whisked away to heaven on the wings of a butterfly and experiencing a god’s love. There is nothing extraordinary about claiming as much.