Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Comas, the afterlife, and absolute proof

Just yesterday, I was telling my Critical Thinking class to be cautious whenever an argument includes, in its conclusion, the word "only."  A set of premises that is followed up by, "... and the only possible conclusion that can be drawn from this is..." is,  in my opinion, automatically suspect.  Even given the truth of the premises, is that really the only possible conclusion?  There isn't any other explanation that adequately fits what is known?

All of this is germane to a story that has been making the rounds of Christian and atheist websites, and has even hit mainstream media, which makes a fascinating claim -- that a doctor's experience of visions during a coma proves the existence of an afterlife.  The fullest accounts are to be had in Newsweek and in an online version over at The Daily Beast -- the latter article, called "Proof of Heaven: A Doctor's Experience With the Afterlife," details the experiences of Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who contracted bacterial meningitis and was plunged into a coma that lasted seven days.  During those seven days, Alexander experienced a profound set of visions:
There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.
In that "larger dimension," Alexander experienced seeing flocks of "transparent, shimmering beings,"  felt a wind that was "like a divine breeze," and had a conversation with an angelic female being who, amongst other things, told him that he was loved and cherished, that he had nothing to fear, and that he could do nothing wrong.

From his experiences, Alexander says, there can only be one possible conclusion:
Today many believe that the living spiritual truths of religion have lost their power, and that science, not faith, is the road to truth. Before my experience I strongly suspected that this was the case myself.

But I now understand that such a view is far too simple. The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already. This view is scientific and spiritual in equal measure and will value what the greatest scientists of history themselves always valued above all: truth.
Okay, I will accept that this is one possible conclusion; but is it the only possible conclusion?

The commonalities between many Near-Death Experiences -- the tunnel of white light, the experience of being surrounded by love, the meetings with deceased friends and relatives -- might have as an explanation that there is an afterlife, where we are being eagerly awaited by those who loved us, and hosts of angels will sing at our arrival.  It might, of course, only be what some neurologists believe -- the common sensory experience of neural shutdown as our brains run out of oxygen.  It has been noted that many times NDEs are populated with experiences that follow the lines of what we expected to happen -- Christians, for example, tend to fill their NDEs with Christian imagery, Hindus with Hindu imagery, and so on.  This by itself makes me wonder.  (For the best exposition of the discrepancies and cultural dependency of NDEs I've come across, see this site.  It brings up a lot of questions that are hard to answer if you believe that NDEs are actually visions of an afterlife.)

Of course, my thoughts are also colored on this topic by the fact that a dear friend of mine, who is (like me) a devout atheist, spent not seven days but a full month in a deep coma following a botched surgery.  Alex has only just begun, after three years, to share with his friends what he experienced in that month during which he was effectively shut down, but the little has told me is mindboggling.  He had visions, he said, of whole other lives, spent years that somehow were collapsed into the space of less than a month.  He visited places he's never been, had relationships with people he's never met. 

Was all of this stuff that Alex experienced real?  I would never presume to answer this myself, having never experienced anything remotely similar; and I think that Alex himself is still struggling to settle on an answer in his own mind.  I think, however, that it is both premature and presumptuous to use the word only in any conclusion we draw from what we now know about NDEs, coma visions, and out-of-body experiences.  Could they be experiences of an afterlife, or at least a life beyond what we see?  It's possible.  Myself, I'd be thrilled at the prospect; I'm not fond of the idea of checking out, and if I knew that there was a happy world waiting for me filled with divine breezes and beautiful angelic women, no one would be happier than me.  Could these experiences be only byproducts of our dying brains, a byproduct of the flurry of electrical activity that occurs as our neurons run out of oxygen?  It's possible.  At the moment, I just don't see that there's enough evidence to decide either way.

Eben Alexander, whose memoir Proof of Heaven is soon to be released by Simon & Schuster, is absolutely convinced by what he saw and heard while he was in a coma.  For the rest of us, who have not shared his experiences, the fact of the matter is that we'll just have to wait until the end... and see what happens.


  1. Could you tell me in a little more detail what your friend said being in a coma was like?Paying extra attention details of time. I Find it so curious I would just die if you don't oblige.

    1. I'll let him tell you himself. Here's a link to his blog: