Will The Real Dr. Eben Alexander Please Stand Up?

Near-Death-Experience IllustrationLuke Dittrich has written a long essay for Esquire in which he posits that “Before his bestselling book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife made Dr. Eben Alexander rich and famous as a “man of science” who’d experienced the afterlife, he was something else: a neurosurgeon with a troubled history and a man in need of reinvention”:

On December 18, 2012, the set of Fox & Friends was both festive and somber. Festive because it was the Christmas season. The three hosts, two men in dark suits flanking a woman in a blue dress, sat on a mustard-colored couch in front of a cheery seasonal backdrop: a lit-up tree, silver-painted twigs, mounds of tinsel, blue and red swatches of fabric, and, here and there, multicolored towers of blown glass with tapering points that made them look surprisingly like minarets. Somber because a terrible thing had happened just four days earlier, in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. All three hosts looked sad, but the woman, Gretchen Carlson, looked the saddest.

The shot of the three hosts occupied most of the right three quarters of the screen. A guest was joining them by satellite from another location, and a shot of his head and shoulders occupied most of the rest of the screen. This was his third appearance on the program in the last few months. He wore a dark blazer and a button-down shirt with blue stripes. He was middle-aged and handsome in an old-fashioned way, with tanned skin and thick hair parted on the right. The banner below the video feeds read, HOPE IS NOT LOST: NEUROSURGEON SAYS HEAVEN IS REAL.

“Dr. Alexander,” Carlson said, “if people don’t know your story, you, you were ill, you were in a coma, you left this earth for a week, you were in heaven, and then you wrote about your experiences there, and you were told that you were supposed to come back to the earth.”

She paused. She looked into the camera and then looked up toward the studio ceiling and rocked slightly forward.

“As people are grappling with the horrible nature of this tragedy,” she said, her voice cracking, her lower lip trembling, “will these children forget, when they are in heaven, what happened to them?”

It was, let’s be clear, an unusual question. One imagines the host of a national news program would feel comfortable posing this question to only a very few guests. A priest? A bishop? The pope? But let’s be clear about something else: Dr. Eben Alexander was presented as more qualified to answer this question than all of them. His authority on heaven hadn’t come from prayer or contemplation or a vote taken at some conclave. He had been there. And although a lot of people might make similar claims concerning visits to heaven and the receipt of personal revelations from God and be roundly dismissed, Dr. Alexander was different. He was, as the Fox News Web site declared, a “renowned neurosurgeon.” A man of science at the summit of the secular world. And when he answered the unusual question, he did so without hesitation, without hedging, and with the same fluency and authority he might exhibit when comforting a patient about an upcoming operation.

“Well, they will know what happened,” Alexander said, and a hint of sadness swirled in his own eyes for a moment. “But they will not feel the pain.” His voice was southern and smooth, soft and warm. The shots of the studio and of the satellite feed faded away, and a heartbreaking tableau faded in, a grid of photographs. Fourteen children, each just six or seven years old, each smiling, each now, the viewer knew, dead. Alexander’s voice, soothing, heartfelt, poured on. “They will feel the love and cherishing of their being back there. And they will know that they have changed this world.”

Now the views of the studio and of Dr. Alexander faded back in, and the host to the left of Carlson, Brian Kilmeade, a compact and gruff guy with a sheaf of papers stacked on the table in front of him like a prosecuting attorney, asked a question. It was another unusual question and perhaps that’s why Kilmeade prefaced it with a reiteration of what made their guest uniquely qualified to answer it.

“So Dr. Alexander,” he said, “your book, your book—and you’re a neurosurgeon, you never believed in this until it happened to you, and you were brain-dead for a week, and your friends who work in your business say that there’s no way you could have possibly come back, there was no activity there. Where is the shooter?”…

[continues at Esquire]

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  • drokhole

    This isn’t a defense of Alexander (I don’t know what’s in the man’s heart of hearts), but Luke Dittrich’s own account has a pretty gross misrepresentation of the incident with the Dalai Lama. Far from admonishing Alexander (“waging his finger” at), or invoking the “extraordinary claims” mantra, the Dalai Lama is very supportive of Alexander (an impression you don’t at all get from the article). You can see it for yourself here (should be cued up at 44:25):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-inGigVypl4&feature=share&t=44m25s

    Here is a fuller transcript:

    “[44:25, DL gestures to EA] As for your own, as your explanation, on the basis of your own sort of experience, quite sort of, ah, amazing.
    —-
    [46:54 DL gestures to EA] Now for example, his own sort of experience: for him it’s something real. But those people who never sort of experienced that, still, his mind is a little bit sort of different. It’s possible like that. [translator] So when we touch upon the third category of phenomena which is really extremely hidden and obscure, then, for the time being, for the other people — there’s no real access, direct or inferential, so the only method that is left is to really rely on the testimony of the first-person experience of the person himself or herself.

    And for that also you see, we must investigate. Through investigation we must get sure that person is truly reliable and his experience is something not just illusion of these things. Through then thorough investigation, that person is reliable, never telling lie – and in this particular case this is no reason to tell lie – therefore, [translator] so then one can take the testimony to be credible. [translator] So the point I’m trying to make is that with respect to science and its scope for discovering knowledge, we need to make a distinction about the fact that there might be certain types of phenomena which are beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.”

    Compare that to the way Dittrich framed it:

    “Now, for example,” the Dalai Lama says, “his sort of experience.”

    He points at Alexander.

    “For him, it’s something reality. Real. But those people who never sort of experienced that, still, his mind is a little bit sort of…” He taps his fingers against the side of his head. “Different!” he says, and laughs a belly laugh, his robes shaking. The audience laughs with him. Alexander smiles a tight smile.

    “For that also, we must investigate,” the Dalai Lama says. “Through investigation we must get sure that person is truly reliable.” He wags a finger in Alexander’s direction. When a man makes extraordinary claims, a “thorough investigation” is required, to ensure “that person reliable, never telling lie,” and has “no reason to lie.”

    Then he changes the subject, starts talking about a massive project to translate ancient Tibetan texts.”

    Again, what occurred is much different than Dittrich’s account, which, ironically, is what he criticizes Alexander for.

    • Rhoid Rager

      This is a good point. Thank you for clarifying it.

      I read all of Dittrich’s article, because I am intrigued by Alexander’s testimony. The article seemed to go to lengths, with a stitled writing style, to cast aspersions on Alexander’s motives in a cynical way–as though Alexander is merely switching careers like he switched hospitals previously. Dittrich seems to be motivated to be sceptical for the sake of being sceptical, which is to say, big hunters first require big prey. As for the webinars and sequel book and movie rights etc., he’s likely being egged on by his agent, relatives or whoever else.

      His credentials as a neurosurgeon don’t serve to fortify his story as much as his worldview prior to his encounter versus his worldview afterwards. That’s what I would be interested in knowing about. Was he a strict materialist? Did he dabble in religion? I don’t think having credentials in the material world grant anyone any special capacity to comment on their own perception of the immaterial. He claims most of the time, himself, that words don’t describe his experience. The implicit importance of his story seems to be more based on how his worldview has changed, rather than any explicit description of what he experienced. The media plays up the explicit part of butterflies, faces in muck, blackness and bright light because that’s what the American media do–appeal to the senses….sensationalize. The unspoken realm of inner depth might as well not exist if it can’t be articulated in words. Such sensation-based analytical vacuity is inherent in a two-dimensional society. People then think they are clever if they can reduce someone’s motives to financial gain. There is a lack of nuance in these allegations that also deny, by default, the motivational breadth of the accuser.

      • drokhole

        Wow, brilliant take! I couldn’t agree more all-around (also couldn’t put it nearly as well). Not only did Dittrich’s retelling of the Dalai Lama talk take a page out of disingenuous/ham-fisted movie ads (like chopping up a review from “This movie was dumber than a box of rocks!” —to–> “This movie…rocks!”), but there was a kind of cold and calculated deceitfulness attributed to Alexander throughout the article (highlighted by his vacant, waxy stare in the pictures selected for the profile). From the way it was presented, you’d almost think that Alexander not only wanted to get sick, but gave himself bacterial meningitis to get out of a professional jam (“When Alexander got sick in late 2008, he hadn’t practiced surgery in a year and faced a $3 million malpractice lawsuit. He now has a best-selling book and a movie deal.”). And, again, great catch in how – while taking an air of journalistic integrity and impartiality – financial, reputational, and ideological motivations (among others) can easily be said to cut both ways, yet they go largely unrecognized/unexamined from Dittrich’s end (as if Esquire weren’t trying to push magazine sales).

        Also with you when it ultimately comes to regarding his credentials and surface-level discussions on such matters (along with overall media superficiality). It’s hard for us to comprehend (much less conceptualize) things we have no experience of. Particularly the rarest of the rare, and/or those by nature ineffable. And seeking out such experiences is out of the question. I tend to also be considerably more interested in the shift in worldviews and priorities after such occurrences, even posted an article on here awhile back with a focus on that angle:

        Scientists Get a TASTE of the Transcendent
        http://disinfo.com/2013/09/scientists-get-a-taste-of-the-transcendent/

        • Rhoid Rager

          rock on, brother.

          i’ll give your other article a read now. Sorry i missed it before.

  • JournalisticIntegrity

    The Esquire story itself has been debunked. You’d think Disinformation would’ve done some research before republishing this story:

    http://www.skeptiko.com/220-esquire-proof-of-heaven-expose-debunked/

  • bobbiethejean

    I don’t believe Eben’s claims at all. They are absurd on their face for one thing and for another, one of the doctors working on him came right out and refuted several of his claims. Ya ask me, he’s in it for the $$$s.

    • Kevin Leonard

      An undeniable fact is that whether anyone believes him or not, the reality of the situation (or unreality of it) is completely unaffected.

      As one of my teachers says, “There is no room for belief in spirituality.”

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