Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Proof Of Heaven"--revisited

It's been over a year since reading Eben Alexander's "Proof," so I decided to check back on the controversy. Unsurprisingly, there's now a Wikipedia entry on Alexander, and as customary with any Wikipedia examination of "edge" topics, there's the obligatory criticism analysis.  Often, Wikipedia "criticism" is a good thing, but usually, it's a mixed bag.  Sometimes the criticism exposes serious flaws in the subject's methodology or credibility; other times, it's criticism simply for the sake of criticism, and often, it's so wildly off-the-mark that the editors truncate it to death.  Nevertheless, wherever there's a Wikipedia article on metaphysics or the paranormal, there's a mandated rebuttal.

So how does the Eben Alexander story hold up to "criticism"?

To recap, as I noted in my first blog entries on Alexander, I found his "Proof" relatively unremarkable, at least in terms of NDE accounts.  It made no new claims, nor did it say anything that hasn't been said before, in dozens of volumes on the subject.  Indeed, Anita Moorjani's "Dying To Be Me" tells a very similar story to Alexander's, but it rates merely a footnote in Wikipedia.  What was remarkable about Alexander's book was the speed and vehemence of the attacks upon it.  Most were quite caustic.  It was obvious that Alexander was being attacked because, as a representative of the scientific establishment and mainstream, he had broken the Prime Directive:  He suggested that there might be more to our physical reality than meets the physical eye.... that consciousness can exist independent of the physical body, and that there exist realms that are outside our physical control.

So, to me, the question became less of, "Is Dr. Alexander telling the truth?", and more of, "Why is he being attacked for saying what many others have said, for centuries?"

The Wikipedia denunciation carries all the grace and nuance of a terrorist bombing.  "Neuroscientist Sam Harris" declares "Proof Of Heaven" as “alarmingly unscientific" and that Alexanders knows nothing about "relevant brain science."  Celebrated neurologist Oliver Sacks agrees:  Not only is Alexander "unscientific," he is "antiscientific."  Referenced is an Esquire article entitled "The Prophet" that states, variously, that

[Alexander is, in his view], a prophet, because after all, what else do you call a man who comes bearing fresh revelations from God? This point of view has been massively profitable for Dr. Eben Alexander, has spawned not just a book sold in thirty-five countries around the globe but a whole cascade of ancillary products, including a forthcoming major motion picture from Universal.

Juxtaposed with quotations from "Proof Of Heaven," we learn that Dr. Alexander was a very poor surgeon indeed; he is sued at least once for malpractice; he is publicly chastised by none other than the Dalai Lama himself (a religious figure that even humanists love); he's fired from at least one hospital for presumed incompetence; he botches two surgeries and alters the medical records to hide the fact.

The Esquire article is subsequently cited by Forbes ("Esquire Unearths 'Proof Of Heaven' Author's Credibility Problems") and other mainstream sites, as the charges bounce and echo through the 'Net.

My perspective on all of this is, again, less a matter of who's right and who's wrong, and more of a wonderment at the heavy establishment guns brought out to shoot down an NDE account that is, overall, unremarkable.  When important and powerful people strain to convince me not to peek at the man behind the curtain, I'm inclined to think that there's some sleight-of-hand involved.  Alexander's message, apparently, is quite dangerous to some important people, who will stop at nothing to shut him up.

So, then, what about Dr. Alexander, and his "Proof," in light of his critics?

My first observation is that Alexander's attackers seek, primarily, to discredit his story by attacking his position as a scientist.  "He's not a scientist," they're saying.  "Look--he's a fraud.  He's irrational.  He's looney."  This attack is not entirely convincing.  Granted, Dr. Alexander is a bad surgeon--I wouldn't want him operating on me.  But he's still a medical doctor.  He earned an advanced degree and must, to some extent, be versed in the magic words of science, and somewhat adept in the ritual of the scientific method.  Nowhere do the critics argue that Dr. Alexander lied about his credentials, because they can't.  As my grandmother once told me, "Get all the education that you can, because no one can take it away from you."  She was right.  So, to me, the critics are attempting to remove his credentials by proxy, which causes me to suspect their motives.

Which raises an interesting paradox.  We don't attack a near-death account of an auto mechanic by documenting his botched auto repairs.  We don't say that Anita Moorjani is lying about her NDE because she's a bad mother.  And the fact that scientists--who are, largely, devout materialists who disbelieve in the supernatural--are attacking him does not cause me to automatically doubt him.

Second, we have the material event of Dr. Alexander's NDE.  Did he, in fact, have an NDE? And is his account credible?

Here, his critics might have an opening, but if so, they have not bothered to exploit it.  Aside from the claim of an attending physician that Alexander's coma was medically induced and that he was not brain dead, we have no further documentation.  Dr. Alexander can easily answer this charge by releasing his medical records.  I think that he should.  He has claimed that he had no neurological activity for about a week.  This can be easily proved--or disproved.  Since the charge has been made, it should be addressed.

Is his account credible?  To a scientist, in a word, no.  Nor could it ever be.  But to anyone who has spent any time examining metaphysical writings, it is not only credible, it's unremarkable.  To NDE students, he had, by all accounts, an "ordinary" NDE.  There are thousands of others like Dr. Alexander's, easily findable, imminently readable, and, taken as a whole, quite credible.

As a side note, it's quite common for the best spokesmen for (lacking a better term) "the supernatural" to be the least qualified for the job.  A profound supernatural experience can happen to anyone, but more often than not, those whose accounts rise to public consciousness are often demonstrated to be, well, less-than-upright.  They are often the bad scientists.  They are the antisocial scoundrels, the criminally inclined, the professional failures.  While they may make some money selling a few books, often, their establishment careers are ruined.  Is this a function of the corrosive effect of the "supernatural'?  Are the spokesmen bad to begin with, or do they start out as upright, good establishment people who are cut down the moment they violate some unspoken law of our reality?  To me, this is most remarkable and fascinating aspect of Dr. Alexander's NDE account.

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