What’s for afters?

Charles Cowling


Much attention has been accorded to Eben Alexander’s account of his recent near-death experience. While NDEs are two a penny, this NDE was experienced by a Harvard-educated neurosurgeon, no less. This lent Alexander’s NDE a clear edge in terms of credibility. It is easy enough to write off the NDEs of ordinary people as delusions.

The particular point of interest here is the current debate among neuroscientists about whether consciousness exists separately from the brain. A number hypothesise that it does, but none has managed to prove it.  Eben Alexander, man of science, claims he decidedly has: 

“I know that many of my peers hold as I myself did to the theory that the brain, and in particular the cortex, generates consciousness and that we live in a universe devoid of any kind of emotion, much less the unconditional love that I now know God and the universe have toward us. But that belief, that theory, now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it.”

In the Guardian, Peter Stanford acknowledges the human need to believe that death is not the negation of life: 

From the time the first Neanderthal sat next to the lump of dead protein that had been his or her mate and realised that something had to be done about the smell of rotting flesh, we have wanted there to be something more, something beyond death. When that body was put into a ditch, or pushed over a ledge into a ravine, the one left behind looked into the void and ached.

He concludes: ‘[Alexander’s] account contains just about heavenly cliché known to humankind.’ In a comment under the piece, hermionegingold avers: ‘i suspect, if it exists (which i doubt) it’s probably a lot like milton keynes.’ 

Blogger Pharyngula at Science Blogs quotes from Eben Alexander’s account of his heavenly journey:

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.

Each time I silently put one of these questions out, the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave. What was important about these blasts was that they didn’t simply silence my questions by overwhelming them. They answered them, but in a way that bypassed language.

The answers were:

“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing you can do wrong.”

 Pharyngula’s conclusion is: “Here’s a deep message for you: brain damage can persuade you of the truth of some real bullshit.”

 In the Daily Telegraph, Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience and Philosophy at the University of London, shares Pharyngula’s scepticism, but with more civility. He concludes his piece with the story of the nobleman who asked the Zen Master Hakuin:

“What happens to the enlightened man at death?”

“Why ask me?” said Hakuin.

“Because you’re a Zen master.”

“Yes, but not a dead one.” 

At the top of this post is a TED talk by GFG hero Peter Fenwick, who has a very open mind about continuing consciousness. Do listen to it if you have nine minutes and twenty-five seconds. You won’t find yourself wishing the time back as you lie dying, I promise. 


12 thoughts on “What’s for afters?

  1. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    Hey, if you ever have a burning desire to know about the finer points of afterlife belief in the earliest Hindu Vedic scriptures just shout!
    No, no-one ever does.
    Some people, I believe, have USEFUL skills! 😀

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Corking, Jenny. By gum, what an erudite place this blog has become since you graced us with your scholarship. Thank you!

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    Top booklist Jenny!

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    Ok, for anyone who is interested there follows a ‘starter pack’ on NDEs. I think I have included most of the standard texts. It all started in1975 with Raymond Moody’s ‘Life after Life’ but I have tended to use more recent texts which made greater use of scientific method. There are also a variety of different viewpoints here as to what is actually going on. I’ve included a couple of slightly more ‘off the wall’ things as well.

    Susan Blackmoor: Dying to Live 1993 Grafton. Argues for a purely physiological explanation of NDEs. A very well written and honest book.

    Peter Fenwick: The Truth in the Light 1995 BCA. Fenwick has written extensively on this subject but this is perhaps his definitive work dealing specifically with NDEs He has also written and spoken more recently on DBVs (Death Bed Visions or the experiences of those close to death and sometimes those around them. This is an area even more neglected by science than NDEs but like them is very common. Fenwick argues that these form a normal part of the dying process for many people and their families and that those who work with the dying should be trained to talk to families about them. Again, this is totally unrelated to the question of whether they are ‘true’.

    Mark Fox: Religion, Spirituality and the Near Death Experience 2003 Routledge. This is a slightly different angle which deals less with anecdotes (although the ‘classic’ cases are included) and more with the implications of NDEs. In my opinion this is the definitive text for anyone interested in the subject. It is neutral in its conclusions.

    Sam Parnia: What Happens when we Die? 2005 Hay House. Dr Parnia is a cardic surgeon who has carried out several large scale studies of NDEs in the ICU of Swansea hospital and the last I heard was involved in a 10 year study accross the UK and the Netherlands.

    Gregory Shushan: Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations 2009 Continuum. This one is a bit off the wall, but fascinating. It is a study of 5 ancient cultures, including Egypt and Vedic India looking at account of death and what may (or may not) be NDEs recorded in them. For those who have an interest in such things (like me) its a must read…but it is probably not esential for getting a handle on the main debate. I also mention it ecause I get a mention in the acknowledgements, although sadly under my previous (married) name of Jennifer Smith 🙂

    So, for those with an interest in such things, enjoy! and for those who don’t…sorry for going on!

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    I’ll put up a list of titles tomorrow 🙂

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    To look at it from a different perspective, Vale, I am more concerned at the suggestion that the NDEs of ordinary people can be ‘written ff as delusions’. The fact that they cannot is one of the few things that all researchers into the field are agreed upon. Whatever is behind these experiences, there is enough consistency to make it clear that people are not delusional or making it up. The experience is real and well documented. That does not, of course, answer the question of what is causing it; a veridical expeience of what comes after death or a predictable function of a dying brain. Many suggestions have been put forward, most noteably by Prof.Susan Blackmoor, but none of them, as yet, has accounted for all of the available evidence. Whatever they are they are ‘real’ and certainly worthy of scientific investigation.

    Vale, I would also strongly recomment Prof. Peter Fenwick’s book. His strength is not, as you rightly point out, that his experience carries any more weight than anyone else’s, but that he knows so much about how the brain works. His major argument, as I recall, is that it may be possible for a dying brain to generate such experiences, but that it should be impossible for it to store it in the memory. He therefore, from an original position of completely denying the possibility of consciousness existing outside the brain, (I’ve seen the videos!) came to the conclusion that memory exists, at least in part, outside the physical brain.
    I also recommend the book by Dr. Mark Fox with whom I had the pleasure of studying at Lampeter and who has written, in my opinion at least, the most comprehensive book to date on the subject. Oh, and while I’m at it, I’ll drop into the mix the book of a very dear friend of mine, Dr. Gregory Sushan, on Near Death Experiences accross five ancient and isolated civilizations. Sorry that I’m at work at the moment, not by my bookshelves so I have none of the titles immediately to hand but I can easily get hold of them.

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling
      Kathryn Edwards

      Oh, do!

      Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Do read his book, Tony. There are researchers in other cultures who are doing this work, too.

    Zen ref delightful.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    Just watched the Peter Fenwick talk too. Fascinating that he is standing there as a scientist, yet is wholly comfortable with describing aspects of the dying process that have always been regarded as informal and anecdotal experiences – and somehow, as a result, less valid or less to be taken account of. It would be interesting to explore this – particularly to try to understand why these experiences are not universal. Are there particular conditions that make them more likely?

    By the way I felt bad about the ‘one hand clapping’ reference above. It sounded half hearted, when I was trying to be clever and bring in another Zen reference. But you all knew that didn’t you….?

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    Charmed by the suggestion that when a neuro-scientist gets a knock on the head his unconsciousness is somehow more valid. I’ve always thought insensibility a great leveller. An object lesson though in who gets heard isn’t it? Excellent weekend fare – listen out for the sound of one hand clapping.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Phoebe Hoare

    Very interesting Charles, thank you! Fenwick is very convincing most of the time. I wonder if humans will ever get to the bottom of life after death? Technology can get us to outer space and make robots perform surgery…can it ever make us look into life beyond death, if there is one?

    Charles Cowling

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>