OMG: Newsweek touts the afterlife as real

Over at The Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan reprints a dreadful, dreadful piece written for Newsweek by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander: “Proof of heaven: a doctor’s experience with the afterlife.

Alexander got meningitis and was in a coma for seven days in a Lynchburg, Virginia, hospital.

Here’s what he experienced:

It took me months to come to terms with what happened to me. Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma, but—more importantly—the things that happened during that time. Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky. . .

Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them.

Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms.

A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above, and I wondered if the winged beings were producing it. Again, thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise—that if the joy didn’t come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it. The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet. . .

It gets stranger still. For most of my journey, someone else was with me. A woman. She was young, and I remember what she looked like in complete detail. She had high cheekbones and deep-blue eyes. Golden brown tresses framed her lovely face. When first I saw her, we were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us—vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the woods and coming back up around us again.

And there were the usual comforting messages, identical to those that used to be imparted by mediums at seances:

Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real—was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.

The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:

“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

“You have nothing to fear.”

“There is nothing you can do wrong.”

And of course Alexander concludes:

What happened to me demands explanation.

The explanation: there is more to the universe than science and materialism:

Today many believe that the living spiritual truths of religion have lost their power, and that science, not faith, is the road to truth. Before my experience I strongly suspected that this was the case myself.

But I now understand that such a view is far too simple. The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already. This view is scientific and spiritual in equal measure and will value what the greatest scientists of history themselves always valued above all: truth.

Give that man a Templeton Prize! My explanation: Alexander had a long dream, one conditioned by his religious upbringing (he describes himself “as a faithful Christian”).  Isn’t that more parsimonious?

Note that the title of the piece is “Proof of heaven.” Proof! And from a single long dream.

It’s bad enough that a man of science (if doctors deserve that monicker) buys the whole hog of religion from such an experience, but it’s worse that this is foisted on Americans in a best-selling magazine as “proof of heaven.” That’s how hungry we are for assurance that our death will not be the end.

And it embarrasses me, especially before my foreign colleagues.

h/t: Michael

150 Comments

  1. DV
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Very vivid views of heaven makes me wonder what is the light source up there. Is it powered by nuclear fusion too?

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    … I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones … flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them … we were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us …

    You weren’t in a coma for a week in Lynchburg, dude. You passed out in Key West and came to during “Fantasy Fest.” Sounds like you nearly got run over by the float from La Te Da.

  3. Mike
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Why didn’t anyone ask him the obvious questions? I assume that heaven is a supernatural or metaphysical place where our super natural souls go. After all the doctor isn’t arguning that he physically went anywhere since his body was present in the hospital. Therefore why the mix of the natural and supernatural?

    Clouds? Clouds are some combination of water vapor and ice crystals. They appear white because of the way the molecules scatter light. Why are physical objects like water molecules and ice crystals present in heave?

    Blue sky? The sky appears blue again because of the way light is scattered by gas molecules in the atmosphere. And speaking of light, light is the range of electromagnetic radiation that can be detected by our eyes. What are eyes, electromagnetic radiation, and gas molecules doing in a metaphysical realm? Do molecules also have souls?

    Winged beings? Birds, flying mamals and airplanes have wings so that they can create lift in the atmosphere sufficient to balance or temporarily overcome the force of gravity. Gravity is a physical force of attraction between objects of mass and matter. Mass and gravity and atmosphere and areodynamics exist in heaven? If not then who would need wings?

    A sound, huge and booming? Sound is oscillating pressure waves that pass through solids, liquids or gases that are dectectable by our ears. Again, pressure waves, solids, liquids gases and ears physical things that exist in a physical world.

    If heaven has butterflies it better have dogs (sorry Jerry) or I’m not interested. Butterflies have souls?

    • truthspeaker
      Posted October 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      Reporters ask questions? They don’t do that anymore. Too aggressive. Someone gives you a press release and you print it verbatim. That’s what passes for journalism in the US today.

      • Don
        Posted October 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        The piece is no more than an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released book, something Newsweek and Daily Beast picked up ready-made and on the cheap, no doubt, since S&S is mainly looking for a buzz to promote sales.

  4. Jodi
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    This must be one of the worst hits taken by the public image of Harvard in a long time. I can’t even begin to fathom the depths of embarrassment his colleagues at that otherwise respectable institution must be experiencing.

  5. Launcher
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Will that story really make the cover of Newsweek? I’m am so not renewing my subscription.

  6. MadScientist
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Gee, if he’d even read some popular books he’d know that it was likely he was experiencing hallucinations as his brain came very close to switching off. Or maybe that wasn’t morphine they were pumping into him – maybe angel dust?

    • Posted October 9, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      All religious experience is just people’s own minds at work; to ascribe God’s intervention begs the question thereof.

  7. docbill1351
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Kink was on the couch asleep, twitching and making little “mrrrp, mrrrrp” noises and I thought to myself,

    “That Kink, he must be in heaven!”

  8. Rick
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Newsweek is not, and has never been, ‘America’s best selling magazine.’ It’s never even been close. So, I wouldn’t sweat it. Few people take it seriously.

  9. Rick
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    My bad. It is not a ‘best selling magazine.’ Sorry to misquote. It was recently bankrupt, and is not profitable.

  10. jeffery
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Let’s see- which is more likely? That in his coma, he nevertheless retained enough brain activity (I’ve already read another article touting this one that claims he had “no” brain activity- in which case, he would be dead) to have had a series of dreamlike visions (prompted by a brain chemistry response to stress and colored by his religious “programming”- note that Hindus who have NDEs never report seeing Jesus), OR- his “soul” was actually taken to a “Heaven”, experienced the celestial choir, and was fed a few generic platitudes. “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” Another thing to remember is that he had to have come OUT of the coma at some point (obviously): could all of this have not happened in the few minutes while he returned to consciousness, rather than being a “state” he was in while IN a coma? Experiments with lucid dreaming tend to show that “dream-time” is roughly the same as real time, although dreams have their own “tricks”, like theatrical effects, to make it seem as if more time has gone by (like the parts in old movies where months blow off of the calendar). When teenagers, my friends and I used to hyperventilate until we passed out for a “high”: in the few seconds where we “returned” from a “non-conscious” state to that of an aware one (albeit dazed, groggy, and confused), all kinds of fantastic visions would be experienced including monolithic structures resembling the fractal videos seen today; one often had the feeling that essential “truths” of the universe had been revealed (if we could just remember them!), etc., etc.

  11. Midaztouch
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    What is it with nuerosurgeons? Ben Carson, Michael Egnor, and now this buffoon? Maybe it’s a fluke. I’m always a little bit embarassed when a physician publicly supports woo. But it doesn’t surprise me at all. Medical school by itslef does not produce scientists. The first two years are referred to as the “basic sciences” but we don’t actually DO any science (well…maybe a smidgen). So when a regular MD claims to be a “man of science” or somesuch busllshit, I cringe. Sure, I had to take some science classes and memorize a shit ton of crap but that does not qualify me as a “man of science”.

  12. Pat
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    I had an experience just like that.

    Except the person with me looked like Joe Pesci. And we were riding on a pizza box, not butterfly wings. Those beings weren’t shining, they wore trenchcoats, rode Vespas, and sang “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”

    On the other hand, I had an experience at the bedside of a dying friend that was totally incompatible with either of our beliefs. And scientists say the universe has ten dimensions – or eleven? – and time is an illusion, and maybe there’s an infinite number of universes.

    What do I know, really?

    Endless forms have been and are being evolved, I have no doubt. But the really big questions? I don’t know, I don’t think anyone else does either, and that’s ok.

    • DV
      Posted October 10, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      It has been answered. 42.

  13. adam domeracki
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    doesn’t take a coma or any almost-dead condition. From definitely dead no one has been back. evah.
    the “experience” is well-known to exist (my personal experience as well) and does not imply anything about an “after-life”.
    Let’s be honest: there is no life *after* this one. the (very) real consolation is that freedom from suffering is some “state” that -can- be reached into (during life), and the truth, as far as I’m concerned, boils down to the impossibility of ever witnessing one’s own death, as the end of consciousness would need a *later* (in time) snapshot in order to assess, that consciousness has come to an end.

  14. Jules
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I know what Dr. Alexander is talking about. Same kind of experience, different details. I didn’t want to come back, either, but then I wasn’t “dying”. It wasn’t, as so many here would try to claim, a “dream”. I was sitting upright in a chair, very much awake, in the middle of a conversation, not on any drugs or alcohol, so I wasn’t hallucinating, either. I hadn’t even eaten anything for hours before it happened, so it wasn’t some “undigested bit of beef”. Never had any problems with low blood suger. It can’t be explained to those who haven’t experienced it. Words like “hyper-reality” are used because it IS “more real than real”. Time, or the sense of it, is not a part of the experience, so much can happen in just a few seconds of this “reality”. How does one explain THAT to people who are barely aware of their own mental processes?

    This didn’t keep me from becoming a scientist and doing bio/medical research. But I sure had a very different point of view about things than my colleagues. And I sure didn’t talk about it with them, although at times I think I should have. They might’ve been more willing to accept this than pre-19th century “scientists” who couldn’t accept the idea of rocks falling from the sky. Most people who call themselves scientists aren’t sincerely interested in the truth, only in what they’ve been told is the truth, and would be quite surprised what goes on, even in simple biological systems, when they aren’t looking. They’d rather throw away the outlying data points than ask the obvious question, just to maintain their pet theory – and that big, fat NSF grant.

    • Lowen Gartner
      Posted October 31, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      It is risky to conflate experience with explanation.

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      I sympathise with arguments from interior experience – it is surely wrong to exclude a whole range of phenomena from the reckoning because they are “subjective”. But I think evidence gained introspectively should be regarded as doubtful unless most people agree on the reality of the type of experience. The vast majority of people, it seems, have no such epiphany, and so – dramatic as it is for yourself – your experience remains inaccessible and nonevidential for me.


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