There is a new convert to the belief that consciousness is not produced by or dependent on the brain. He is Eben Alexander, M.D., a distinguished neurosurgeon who spent much of his career on the Harvard medical faculty and who has authored 150 publications and delivered over 200 papers. (1) And what prompted this conversion? It was Dr. Alexander's near-death-experience in 2008 at age 54 while in a seven-day coma when he battled the rarest of illnesses – bacterial meningitis caused by E. coli. (2)
During his coma, the neo-cortex of Dr. Alexander's brain, which "is responsible for memory, language, emotion, visual and auditory awareness, and logic," shut down completely, making conscious experience, he says, impossible. Nevertheless, inexplicably, he began a spiritual journey that took him to three destinations. The first was a dark, Jello-O like, red-brown "muck," a mud pool with a rhythmic, pounding sound, that he calls "the Realm of the Earthworm's Eye." The second, which he calls the "Gateway," featured a bright light, captivating music and song, and an angel guide, a beautiful woman with high cheekbones, blue eyes, and golden-brown hair. Here, with his companion, he found himself in clouds flying over trees, fields, streams, waterfalls, and people. (3) The third, which he calls the "Core," was the culmination of his journey. In the Core, which he describes as "an orb-like ball of light," he encountered God, the all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing Creator, who gave him this message:
- God loves him and all others unconditionally;
- Evil is necessary on earth because without it human free will and human growth are impossible; (4) and
- Love will triumph over evil.
Remarkably, after his visit to the spiritual world, Dr. Alexander's "triple intravenous antibiotics" defeated the E. coli and, slowly but surely, he awoke from the coma, rediscovered his earthly self, which had been absent during his journey, and eventually resumed his professional practice. But he was now a changed person with an urgent mission: to share his journey with others - lay people, medical professionals, and scientists - to teach four lessons. They are that God loves all of us unconditionally, we are "spiritual beings currently inhabiting our evolutionarily developed mortal brains and bodies," we "get closer" to our genuine spiritual selves "by manifesting love and compassion" on earth, and the materialistic worldview embraced by many scientists is "mistaken." Scientists, he hoped, would learn, as he did on his journey, that: "The physical side of the universe is as a speck of dust compared to the invisible and spiritual part." (p. 82)
Although Dr. Alexander is convinced that his spiritual journey could not have been a hallucination (5), there are, as you would expect, plenty of skeptics, neurosurgeons among them. He invites skeptics near and far to do what he failed to do before his transformative journey, that is, to keep an open mind and to investigate the voluminous and ever-growing body of research on near-death and out-of-body experience. Only time will tell if skeptics will accept his invitation and, if they do, whether their doubts will fade. (6)
- Eben Alexander, M.D., Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012, p. 20. Future references to this book are by page number.
- When the antibiotics which Dr. Alexander received didn't seem to have an impact, his condition deteriorated to a point that his doctors saw only two possible outcomes – death or survival in a persistent vegetative state.
- Along the way, the angel guide, whom he calls "the Girl on the Butterfly Wing," revealed to him that he is loved unconditionally and that after his visit to the spiritual world, he would return to the earthly one.
- Philosophers will point out that there are at least two fundamental problems with this claim. The first is that it is not clear how an all-powerful God can bestow power on humans via free will and still remain all-powerful. The second is that, assuming free will exists, it helps to explain moral evil, that is, suffering caused by humans (e.g., murder, rape, burglary, identity theft, etc.) but not natural evil, that is, suffering caused by nature (e.g., hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc.). The latter suffering remains God's doing and seems incompatible with the unconditional love which Alexander attributes to God.
- Alexander examines and dismisses a series of traditional neurological hypotheses to explain his experience while in a coma. See pp. 140-146 and Appendix B, pp. 185-188.
- A testimony to the importance of Alexander's case comes from Raymond A. Moody, Jr.,
M.D., Ph.D., whose Life After Life in 1975 brought NDEs to public attention. Moody writes: "Dr. Eben Alexander's near-death experience is the most astounding I have heard in more than four decades of studying this phenomenon. (He) is living proof of an afterlife."
© 2012 Tom Shipka