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.