Sunday, October 14, 2012

The metaphysical equivalent of Nixon going to China

In today's online grazing I stumbled upon an account of a classic near-death experience that hit all of the salient points: a patient is suddenly stricken by a potentially fatal bout of meningitis; he is quickly rushed to the ER but rapidly loses consciousness. Within hours, his frontal cortex shuts down and he is placed on a ventilator. After several days, with no hope of recovery in sight, the physicians prepare to remove the patient from life support when he makes a miraculous recovery. Over the subsequent weeks of rehabilitation he assembles the narrative of his experience while comatose... writes a book about it and publishes it on

So what's so unusual about it all (as if we could be blasé to NDEs in the first place)? The account was written by a neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, and the account was published in "Newsweek" under the very NDEish title "Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife."

What makes Dr. Alexander's account significant is that, if true, his NDE memories were generated during a period when there is clear medical documentation of zero brain activity lasting several days. One of the main critical arguments against the late Pam Reynolds' NDE (experienced when the blood was drained from her body and she was placed in an artificial coma to repair an aneurysm) was that it didn't really occur when he had flatlined, but moments before; and that she confabulated the bulk of her account. It will be more difficult to make this charge in Dr. Alexander's case. And the doctrinaire materialists will have to argue with a credentialed neuroscientist who, presumably, knows what he's talking about when he says that he had "no brain activity."

But what interests me most about Dr. Alexander's account is that it will likely be a critical scientific observation of the out-of-body state. Dr. Alexander was a committed materialist prior to his NDE. So what he has to say about the near-death realm--and what he thinks it means--could be significant. If consciousness can function outside the body, it has to function "somewhere." This "somewhere," I believe, a "real" place, with its own physical laws. Who better to describe this realm than someone immersed in classical materialist beliefs and trained in the scientific method? Much like Nixon going to China, Dr. Alexander went to "heaven," and I predict that what he brings back will more than a few ping-pong players.

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