Eben Alexander's book, "Proof of Heaven," is a best-seller. But that doesn't prove that heaven and God are real.
Alexander has done a great job of cashing in on his claim that while in a coma, he had a vision of heaven that supposedly must have resulted from his consciousness being completely separate from his physical brain.
Today I got an email from someone who had finished reading "Proof of Heaven." In response to one of my posts, he said:
Of course neither you nor I (nor Sam Harris, as he allows in his quoted comments) can prove that heaven is or is not real or that there is or is not a God. In that regard, it seems, the believer and non-believer are even-steven in the burden-of-proof department. (I agree with you, however, that Alexander certainly didn't "prove" his case.)
Hmmmm. I don't understand the rationale for considering believers in God and non-believers in God to be "even-steven" in the burden-of-proof department. This seems to demonstrate a lack of understanding of how proof operates.
In everyday life, as in the scientific method, conclusions concerning whether something is true or false rest on a preponderance of evidence. Nothing is 100% certain (not even what I just said).
Yet almost always, there are good reasons to favor "true" or "false" in regard to something, rather than considering this is just a 50-50 coin toss.
Also, the burden of proof rests on the person claiming that X is true. Otherwise we'd be in a ridiculously impractical situation, having to consider claims that space aliens, Bigfoot, fairies, gnomes, angels, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and other unproven entities are just as real as rocks, dogs, starfish, baseballs, and other stuff that can be demonstrably shown to exist.
So the question is: are there good explanations for what Alexander says he experienced, other than his claim that his consciousness became completely separated from his body, and he was able to be in the presence of God?
In the April issue of Scientific American Michael Shermer says yes in his Skeptic column, "Why a Near-Death Experience Isn't Proof of Heaven." After discussing several reasonable naturalistic explanations for Alexander's visions/hallucinations, Shermer says:
The reason people turn to supernatural explanations is that the mind abhors a vacuum of explanation. Because we do not yet have a fully natural explanation for mind and consciousness, people turn to supernatural explanations to fill the void. But what is more likely: That Alexander's NDE was a real trip to heaven and all these other hallucinations are the product of neural activity only? Or that all such experiences are mediated by the brain but seem real to each experiencer? To me, this evidence is proof of hallucination, not heaven.
In an excerpt from a Larry King show, you can see Shermer explain why he doubts that Alexander's brain was completely inoperative. Alexander believes the mind can operate separately from the brain. Yet he has no proof of this.
In this other excerpt from the show, Alexander says he is absolutely certain that God exists. Well, that's what I'd expect from someone who has written a book which claims that heaven and God exist. Sales aren't going to be as strong with a "maybe..." or "I believe so."
Alexander has faith that his supposedly supernatural experience was true, a vision of a non-material realm that is objectively real, not a subjective projection of his human brain.
Well, he joins countless others who have made similar claims. One of the first spiritual books I read was "Autobiography of a Yogi" by Yogananda. It's filled with tales that are even more miraculous than Alexander's.
And possibly more believable, since they supposedly occurred in a more awake-and-aware state of consciousness than a coma. So why not believe that the visions of "heaven" described by Yogananda are also real?
Along with the myriads of other supernatural visions contained in innumerable other religious, spiritual, and mystical writings. Once "believe whatever I say" is accepted on blind faith, we've entered a realm where reality becomes almost completely subjective.
Read the comments on Shermer's Skeptic column. Most are quite thoughtful and persuasive. For example:
When I read this article in the LA Times, I went a'Googling on NDEs, and found that they are common around the world, and.. the experience of each person is to see what they expect to be, in their culture. Christians see one, Hindus another, Muslims another. Mohammed says he visited the 7 levels of Paradise in his NDE. The vast variety of experiences really indicates they are physiological, and unique to the person, and not any indication of any paradise, or even a life after death. There would need to be an enormous number of Heavens to suit all the beliefs about the hereafter.
...Why do we consider personal individual experience to prove or disprove life after death? I have a schizophrenic daughter who constantly hears auditory hallucination. The voices that she hears are real to her. The conversations with those voices are real to her. They of course are not heard by anyone else. Therefore, how can someone’s near death experience proof or disprove the existence of life after death?
...I have a friend who has localized brain damage from a tumor. We were out in a boat one day with one other person, and my friend said that she was having a visual hallucination. I asked if she felt ok about it and she said yes, that it was very pleasant (fortunately all of hers are so far; she gets a bit of euphoria rather than fear). What are you seeing? I asked, and she said, I am floating above you (looking down on the boat). I thought this was interesting, in that many of the visions I've seen or heard reported in the press by people 'near death' are about floating up and looking down on the hospital room.