OMG: Newsweek touts the afterlife as real

October 8, 2012 • 10:58 pm

Over at The Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan reprints a dreadful, dreadful piece written for Newsweek by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander: “Proof of heaven: a doctor’s experience with the afterlife.

Alexander got meningitis and was in a coma for seven days in a Lynchburg, Virginia, hospital.

Here’s what he experienced:

It took me months to come to terms with what happened to me. Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma, but—more importantly—the things that happened during that time. 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.

A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above, and I wondered if the winged beings were producing it. Again, thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise—that if the joy didn’t come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it. The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet. . .

It gets stranger still. For most of my journey, someone else was with me. A woman. She was young, and I remember what she looked like in complete detail. She had high cheekbones and deep-blue eyes. Golden brown tresses framed her lovely face. When first I saw her, we were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us—vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the woods and coming back up around us again.

And there were the usual comforting messages, identical to those that used to be imparted by mediums at seances:

Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real—was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.

The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:

“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

“You have nothing to fear.”

“There is nothing you can do wrong.”

And of course Alexander concludes:

What happened to me demands explanation.

The explanation: there is more to the universe than science and materialism:

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.

Give that man a Templeton Prize! My explanation: Alexander had a long dream, one conditioned by his religious upbringing (he describes himself “as a faithful Christian”).  Isn’t that more parsimonious?

Note that the title of the piece is “Proof of heaven.” Proof! And from a single long dream.

It’s bad enough that a man of science (if doctors deserve that monicker) buys the whole hog of religion from such an experience, but it’s worse that this is foisted on Americans in a best-selling magazine as “proof of heaven.” That’s how hungry we are for assurance that our death will not be the end.

And it embarrasses me, especially before my foreign colleagues.

h/t: Michael

151 thoughts on “OMG: Newsweek touts the afterlife as real

  1. Oh, if only I had the time to blog about all the citizens who embarrass me. That such people should be publishing respected periodicals is an affront, but it should not be a surprise. Never underestimate the ability of anyone to be stupid, including yourself. Never be surprised that an ape managed to say or do something effing stupid. Always be ready to point out the errors and laugh, loudly and often. Forest Gump had more integrity than most of the main stream media.

  2. One of the postgrad degrees I have is in hypnosis, which has given me a good understanding of states of consciousness which invite us into fantasies. This fellow has lost the ability to stand back from his perceptions and view them dispassionately. And its so sad when one of the more childlike ego states takes over from the adult, even a scientific adult.

    I’m embarrassed for the fellow and annoyed that he will feed into people’s hopes of an afterlife. Merde!!!!!

    1. Perhaps what is needed is for a bunch of people holding PhDs or MDs to form a petition in which they SWEAR they had a near-death experience, and clearly saw the flying spaghetti monster, bathed in a iridescent sheen while a chorus of harps were playing. A new take on the phrase, comfort food?

      Possible headline: “Proof of pasta: MANY doctors experience with the afterlife.”

  3. Not only was in a coma, by definition an abnormal brain state, he was ill with meningitis for heaven’s sake! And he really never considered the possibility that his brain was deceiving him!

    1. Good point: Is what he experienced:
      a) A supernatural tour of dimensions and realities that are unreachable to modern science, yet exist in parallel to us and can interface with the memory-laying parts of the mind; or
      b) The hallucinatory product of a fever-ravaged brain?

      Occam’s razor may apply here 🙂

    2. Whether its the brain or mind, he couldn’t contact his inner adult to view his perceptions. And as Jerry said, he was a committed Christian (one of the best trances on offer).

    3. In fairness, he does consider that possibility–he’s no dummy–and he discards it. He says, “According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.” And more.

      The piece is long and persuasive–to those who are open to such persuasions. A vivid dream shaped and informed by his unacknowledged yearning and lifelong indoctrination? Sure. But for so many the forever-blankness of death is too ghastly and inconceivable to be true.

      1. Really, current medical understanding of the brain and mind say there is absolutely no way a person can experience even a dim and limited consciousness during time in a coma?

        Citation, please.

        1. I can’t bring myself to slog through the whole tripe filled article. Does he consider the possibility that the entire dream occurred on his way *out* of coma? What is his evidence that it occurred during the coma? That it *felt* like the dream occurred yesterday?

          I suppose he thinks deja vu is evidence of time travel too?

      2. Of course, it’s entirely possible that he had this “extended” experience in a fraction of a second, as he was coming out of the coma.

        The rules about time don’t apply to dream states.

        1. He does make a point of calling the “odyssey” “long”, as if that helps make his case.

          Has he really never hit the snooze button and proceeded to have a dream lasting what seemed like hours before the alarm went off again, 9 min later?

          1. Scratch that. Jerry called it “long.” Alexander’s own term was “vast.”

            Point still stands.

            Also, he’s flogging a book he’s written about the “experience.” I think someone’s been seduced by Plutus.

            1. Remember, it took him “months to come to terms with what happened to me”. Undoubtedly, months in which he concocted the whole ridiculous tale. I won’t read the article either but he does use the past tense when talking about being employed as an MD. Mayhap, he’s seen how successful books about “real” experiences in heaven are and thought that might help supplement his vastly diminished income?

            2. Ah, well that at least partially explains it. Let me tell you what *I* experienced in my vision:

              Alexander to publisher: “here is my vision. can you publish it?”

              Publisher: “Sure. but it needs to be 2,000 words vaster. Novellas don’t sell.”

              Alexander: “Okay, I can do that.”

  4. I used to have an acquaintance who had the best response to that sort of nonsense. He’d listen intently, and appear to be impressed by all the details, and then at the end he’d say very sincerely “Where can I score some of that stuff?”

  5. I may be more inclined to believe Eben Alexander, if the woman who accompanied him was West African in origin. Instead of deep blue eyes, perhaps dark brown pools. Oh and instead of dark brown tresses a tight, cornrow weave would have sealed the deal for me. It would be even more believable if she spoke to him using the heavenly language of Ewe. Alas, this is not the heaven for me.

    1. Indeed. the doctor sure has a classic caucasian delusion about what people simply “must” look like in heaven. I happen to have a bible with a Jesus who looked just like that girl, golden hair, blue eyes and not a trace of Semitic ancestry about him.

        1. ah, but the Christian heaven is only concerned with the “bliss” of the god involved, nothing else.

  6. When i was a kid, about 5 years old, i suffered seizures, or epileptic attacks. In Spanish they are called “alferecia” and all i saw was white snow. Was i, perhaps, transported into the second or third heaven?

    1. At least you didn’t go out and subsequently raise an Army, as did Mohammed in the 7th century!!

      Well documented that he suffered seizures, and were the early source of “seeing” and “hearing”.

  7. OT, but I saw Jerry on TV over here in the UK yesterday evening – trying to help a comedian enlighten a bunch of young-earthers on a bus touring the US. Jerry’s contribution, of course, was impeccable (although brief!). The daffier of the posse seemed to be swayed somewhat by the evidence, but the hardliners were unmoved, one so much so that he even persuaded the youngest guy on the trip to harden his beliefs.

    I think that if they hadn’t been playing for the camera the production team could have mounted a much more imnpressive assault, but the reactions of the hardline creationist was quite disturbing. Did anyone else see this?

    1. I did… and I did too many facepalms while watching it. It was obvious that that Phil guy was implying to the others (especially the two girls) that “you are not a true Christian, and you are not a true Christian…because you are not like me!”. I also wanted a discussion between the Christians and the Muslim guy on “proofs” as to why they think their own religion is true…but somehow, they did not (or if there was, the BBC did not show it).

    2. I watched all 57 minutes over breakfast & almost choked on my muesli. Unfortunately the scientists are given short shrift. I would have loved to have seen more of the science. JAC standing next to a plastic ark & then next to a globe with all the threads of his argument consigned to the editing suite floor was disheartening.

      I get it though ~ the producers/editors wanted to highlight the personalities & the mindsets ~ it wasn’t an evidence “show”.

      It’s on YouTube of course: Conspiracy Road Trip: Creationism

    3. The Northern Irish guy was a frightening example of a grim faced true believer. I think Professor Tim White got through to a couple of them when he showed them the hominid skull collection.

  8. The phrases “These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections.” and “Again, thinking about it later,…” are excellent clues for what is going on too.

    Memories are not high-fidelity recordings, but are approximations that are recalculated and interpreted by the brain when trying to describe them. A person can have memories can are labelled in the brain to be 100% accurate and yet are still completely wrong or fabricated.

    Good examples of this and more are in the book The Invisible Gorilla, which I thoroughly recommend.

    Eye-witness accounts based on recollection without corroboration are essentially worthless when trying to establish the truth or facts. Memories are plastic things, not concrete, so attempting to recollect them can add imagined events and interpretations, making them unreliable. What is more, the brain’s internal clock gets messed up when laying down these memories of events, so these “events” that he experienced may have only been occurring in his brain in the few minutes it took to become fully conscious from his coma.

    From personal experience, I faint when I have a blood test done (the extraction, not the reading of the results). The last time this happened I tried to pay particular attention to the hallucination or fainting-dream I had, and the elapsed time. I could swear that I was unconscious for up to five minutes, but my wife assures me it was only about a second or two. So I had five minutes of experience laid down in my brain in only about two seconds of real time. I think this is how near death experiences could work too. During an NDE the brain has no function, so no memories could be laid down, yet people with NDEs report extensive “time” spent in their NDE hallucination. I expect this is the same thing; as the person comes out of it, a flood of experiences are laid down in a very short period of time.

    Yes, and shame on Newsweek for stating “Proof” on the cover without quotes. Newsweek used to be mildly respectable, but now it is more of a right-wing tabloid. Well… if that is what sells I guess, but I wouldn’t trust it any more.

    1. “Memories are not high-fidelity recordings, but are approximations that are recalculated and interpreted by the brain when trying to describe them. A person can have memories can are labelled in the brain to be 100% accurate and yet are still completely wrong or fabricated.”

      I’ve had this demonstrated to me, long before I read Invisible Gorilla (excellent book, btw). When I was young, I went to one party hosted by Terry, a cool guy who had a huge Union Jack flag as a bedspread. I didn’t see him again for about 15 years, till I met him on a bus and we reminisced. I said “Last time I saw you, you were wearing your Union Jack” (and I would have sworn this on oath). He looked at me oddly, but invited me to his wedding reception a few weeks later… where he had scores of old photos stapled to the wall, including one of *me* wearing the Union Jack. I know what my brain did – it remembered ‘Terry – Union Jack – wearing it’ and made up a memory from those elements. Very disconcerting, though.

      1. There was an experiment conducted in the US on false memories, where they convinced adults that, as children, they had talked to Bugs Bunny on a (real) childhood trip to Disneyworld.

        The really amusing thing is that the researchers had originally wanted to study false memories of alien abduction. But they got objections because, hypothetically, those could be true memories. They had to find some memory event less likely to occur/less believable than alien abduction. So what did they pick? Disney promoting Warder Bros. characters. 🙂

    2. Another very interesting book that discusses how the brain creates, molds, and distorts memories is “Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow. (I have no financial interest in this book in case you are wondering).

  9. Whoops – I wasn’t impugning Jerry’s appearance – I was referring to the fact that in the space of an hour and a half there was so much emotional padding.

  10. Must be a slow news week. Yet another reason we used to refer to the magazine as Newsweak! If dreams are proof, I’ve got a bunch of things that could be claimed to be real – although I know they couldn’t possibly be!

  11. Is this a dagger which I see before me,
    The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
    I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
    Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
    To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
    A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
    Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

        1. Bad luck to NAME it – hence the superstitious actors’ version: “The Scottish Play”. “Macbeth” is OK for rational people. Touch wood.

  12. Sounds like a fantastic dream; what I wouldn’t give to sleep as well as that.

    This guy has been reading his Divine Comedy – ‘Paradiso’; the female figure is Beatrice, strange mixture of the sexual and the mother-figure.

    You wouldn’t call this the parsimonious explanation, Jerry, if you’d actually waded through it.

    Now ‘Inferno’ is a bostin’ read, but I wouldn’t wish that nightmare on anyone.

  13. It is galling when a fellow of one’s ilk makes a right arse of themselves. But it shouldn’t embarrass YOU too much, Jerry, as you’re doing your bit to push back against this utter tripe.

    To be honest I thought it might be a piss-take with all that fluffy clouds tosh, but I guess the Newsweek editor took a different view.

  14. I once had proof that Halle Berry is madly in love with me. And that she casually wear a black leather costume to watch TV.

  15. Well, if believing he saw heaven will help him recover faster then the better for him but for a newspaper or magazine [Newsweek is not distributed here] to go and tell the public there is at least proof for heaven following a sick guy’s dream is irresponsible journalism at it’s best!

  16. It never ceases to amaze me how much credence is given to dreams. I look at all the religious writings and see these weird stories as nothing more than dreams. Calling someone a dreamer is uncomplimentary. Dream truths are not necessarily worth the vapour they’re written in. I just dreamt that up 🙂

    1. I have a new hypothesis (ahem! NOT a theory!) about dreams and dreaming. Note that your typical dog and cat also dream, striking out at prey, or writhing about during sleep. We’ve all seen people do it, of course (I’ve got half a dozen great stories).

      What are dreams? They evolved as low energy methods to practice hunting, and pursuit of mates. Remember the little cute owl, jumping and jumping to perfect his attack? He’s perfecting his hunting and increasing his odds of success, while using the smallest bit of fuel. If a bird of prey hovers too many times, and unsuccessfully dives and climbs too many times, it will weaken and starve. By practicing through dreaming, we conserve energy, while doing attacks, outwitting fast rabbits, escaping from lions and fearsome men we don’t know. And, we use it for practicing mating rituals..the good doctor, please note, was taking in all the details. Evolved methodology!! Many dreams have those chance meetings and conversations we cannot practice standing in a room by ourselves. The brain/mind has evolved to find low-energy methods of simulation, in order to be a more successful survivor and procreator.

      1. Pronouncing “Macbeth” is only bad luck when it is said in a theatre, I believe. Anyway, what is “bad luck” doing on this thread?

  17. Jerry could have stopped after the second sentence. The location, Lynchburg Virginia pretty much explains everything.

    1. He is a neurosurgeon, after all. Regular ties would get all icky (not ichy) with grey matter and blood.

      1. This, and some other Doctor fails we’ve read about on this website makes me think I should start quizzing my doctors more on their world views.

  18. Dear Prof. Coyne,
    I saw you on BBC3 last night… you’re too nice to the crazy people. Evolution is logical and rather obvious. People who question it should not be treated as if their propositions are reasonable. Mr. Alexander’s proposition also does not merit serious consideration. Particularly because he doesn’t mention what medication he was on during his dreams. I was given morphine after a very bad car accident and had vivid dreams which included a flying horse- yet, horses still did not fly after the medicine wore off.

    1. Actually, this proves that Mohammed really did fly to Jerusalem & back from Mecca on Al-Burāq. It is your moral duty to alert the presses!

    2. But, should a flying horse ever show up, your ‘experience’ acquired by means of your dream, will equip you with “seasoned executive practice” to handle the situation effectively, and efficiently!!

  19. Jerry has posted in the past about an article I wrote regarding the neurology of near-death experiences, which for anyone interested can be found here:

    This story reminds me of the basic difference between an observation and an interpretation, something I learned the importance of in high school sophomore chemistry. We really need to start teaching critical thinking skills in kindergarten.

  20. Just because officials don’t know how many batches of steroids may have been contaminated with meningitis-causing fungus, doesn’t mean “big, puffy, pink-white ones” are going to carry you away.

    1. Indeed, there is an area of the brain which can be activated, that will consistently produce the ghoulish gray men with huge black eyes, performing a probing medical examination of you.

  21. I knew Eban years ago. He was a good neurosurgeon, contributed to the clinical literature quite bit. To bad to see him descend into woo this late in life. It shows once again the fact that huge numbers of medical doctors, clinical neuro’scientists’ or not, are not scientists at all, but trained technicians only. When medical schools set up and promote departments of woo-woo, what can one expect?

    1. Surgeons especially.

      I watched a lot of different types of surgeries some years back. It’s eye-hand coordination and fine-motor skills.

      And for orthopedic surgery, a Black and Decker jig saw.

      1. I completely agree with both of you. As a doctor myself, I can assure you that med school is not designed to churn out scientists. Furthermore, as an anesthesiologist, I deal with surgeons day in and day out. They are not “doing science”. But then again, neither am I.

    2. Mortality, and personal approximation of that mortality, will create an overwhelming priority for any mental device that will move one safely toward immortality.

      I say “overwhelming” as in, pushing aside all past knowledge. Men bark like dogs as guns are leveled at them for execution, others call for their mothers as death approaches. It is emotion, not reason.

  22. what a ludicrous fantasy. Golly, a pretty girl was with the doctor. Shades of the virgins promised by Allah? Again, nothing more than a rehash of popular tropes about heaven, told by someone who is desperate to be a special snowflake. I do love that bit “there is nothing you can do wrong”, which sure does open things up for the good doctor. God himself has given him a blank check to do what he pleases. How “impressive”.

    1. ‘Golly, a pretty girl was with the doctor.’

      A girl with deep-blue eyes and golden brown tresses. So, presumably, a *white* girl.

      Naturally Dr Alexander’s preview of his after-life mirrors his own internal biases. I wonder how the NDEs of non-whites differ.

      1. Well, they did tell “Negro” parishoners in the 19th century, that part of their reward in heaven was a white skin!!

  23. These delusions are so commercially compelling. Here is someone who makes his living from inter-subjective evidence-based knowledge and practice, yet, when confronted with a wholly subjective, dreamlike state, when his brain is scrambled — insists on magical beliefs being real — instead of even simple doubt.

    THEN a national magazine makes it front page news that some doc passed out, with scrambled brain is certain a beautiful woman, in the clouds telling him she loves him is, fact. Sweat jesus!

    Beautiful women always lie! EVERYONE knows THAT!

  24. “Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma, . . .”

    According to Eric Kandel, and other scientists studying specifically this issue, our current ability to detect and determine what level of consciousness a person in an apparent coma like state might be experiencing is quite limited and is prone to error. It is known that some people who are determined, accurately per properly executed diagnostic procedures, to be in a completely unconscious state, coma or vegetative state, were actually experiencing some level of consciousness. What is not known yet with any accuracy is how wide spread this is, or rather how inaccurate our diagnostic procedures really are. But we know enough to know that we don’t really understand what we are doing yet.

    At least one group of scientists working on this problem are confident that they will soon be able to identify a simple signature for consciousness that can be readily detected by even a relatively simple EEG to be able to identify these people.

    So, if even a non expert like me knows enough to know that Alexander’s very first premise, the base of his entire house of cards fantasy, is not accurate, why is a neurosurgeon like him not aware of it?

    If you haven’t yet, treat yourself to the Charlie Rose Brain Series for a good look at our current understanding of the human brain.

    1. Phrases like “medical impossibility” are the favorite tropes of believers everywhere. In churches all across the country people testify to their recovery from an advanced cancer as a “medical impossibility”. “The doctors said I’d never walk again, but here I am!”. As if doctors prognostic capabilities were any better than casino odds. And neuroscience, of all things! We’ve learned a lot in neuroscience, of course, but it’s still a pretty dismal science. Probably the only thing we know in neuroscience that is strong enough to support the label “medical impossibility” is that if you remove the brain and blend it in a blender, the person never recovers. I don’t know what is more offensive, buying one’s dream as reality and foisting it off on people as such, or the aggrandizement of one’s own field implied by the phrase “medical impossibility”.

      1. As Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

        I think a more fundamental problem is that many people want to be fooled. They never get to “I need to take care not to fool myself.” They desperately want to believe so they welcome being fooled, and get pissy when someone demonstrates good reason to believe that they are letting themselves be fooled.

        I might have to use your “brain in blender” analogy. That made me Laugh Out Loud.

      2. Here’s a religious impossibility: praying for the restoration of an amputated digit, nose, ear, or limb, and having that missing body part restored.

        I am certain there have been thousands of people praying astronomical numbers of times, yet not …


        …of a restoration, has ever been celebrated or documented.

  25. Uh, I thought one at least had to be dead before experiencing the afterlife. He appears to be alive. Does heaven do previews? How come nobody who’s going to hell ever sees these pre-hell premonitions? I guess it’s moot – heaven has been proven, and that’s that.

    1. That probably was hell. The Devil is a woman and lies all the time. Fooled him and Newsweek editors.

      Can you imagine the meeting where the high paid editors had to formally and logically approve this cover article.

      They are either deeply cynical or liars. Probably both.

      “OK, show of hands, how many believe this guy?”

      1. Or even worse:

        “OK, show of hands, how many believe this will sell at least 50% more than the last issue?”

        1. LMAO! Yeah, well I assume they have to, at least, pretend they believe it.

          “This is really dumb! This guy is psycho!”
          “He’s a surgeon, he should know!”
          “Well obviously he doesn’t. There is no such thing as Heaven.”
          (Collective gasp in the editorial review committee at Newsweek.) lol

          Why don’t we email them and ask for their rationale and the logic of the choice?!

  26. My take is that this derisive insistence that A’s piece is nonsense is actually harmful to science, not supportive of it. The “explanation” that it was a compelling dream, etc., is only a partial explanation. What remains to be considered is his experience and recollection of it as spiritual, and we haven’t done that at all in the respectful way that science usually approaches phenomena. For example, Jerry mentions it shows how “hungry we are for assurance that death will not be the end.” Okay, but what is at the root of such a need, what is the evolutionary nature of the terror of death, in what ways do life-extending vision support our surviving and thriving? Questions and experiences about death, purpose, and place in the bigger picture can have a spiritual reality and a materialist basis at the same time. My blog, Living as Meaning, is about how people can look to science for the spiritual/naturalistic responses to such issues that it offers.

    1. “what is the evolutionary nature of the terror of death”
      I’d have thought the answer to that one was fairly self explanatory.

      1. I was thinking that the fear of dying is more than an emotion that can help us get through a crisis. The fact of life itself, even in plants, is a resistance to death, in that all the organism’s mechanisms are built to function continuously, to adjust if possible to stresses, and in some cases even to shut down after reproduction (annual plants) because new life is seeded (the young woman in A’s dream?). A present-day human limitation (a result of theistic religions) is a failure to see the grand vision that science offers of the persistence of living things and the complex variations in how life “gets dead”–such a vision has spiritual qualities. By the way, I just saw A’s article discussed on CNN.

        1. “The fact of life itself, even in plants, is a resistance to death”
          Again, fairly obvious I’d have thought. It’s simply natural selection – any organism that doesn’t have an innate fear of death (for cognitive animals, let’s call it ‘robustness’ in organisms like plants) is less likely to make it to reproductive opportunities than organisms with that characteristic because organisms tend to encounter environments or other organisms that will cause death. There doesn’t need to be any kind of spiritual nature to it. Any notion of compulsion is one that is imparted by our agency-seeking brains, rather than actually being there (I contend – though I think Occam is on my side).

          1. “There doesn’t need to be any kind of spiritual nature to it” but there can be if non-theistic spirituality is defined as directed towards such issues as being alive, dying, and the nature of the cosmos and characterized by feelings of awe and appreciation. People should be encouraged to look to science’s descriptions of life with a non-theistic spiritual curiosity if they are so inclined, instead of being warned that science and spirituality have no points of connection at all. The obviousness of natural selection and its ramifications is not getting through to people in part, perhaps, because they may want to endow it with a certan simplistic grandeur that scientists are not too comfortable with. It is true, for instance, that agency-seeking language is difficult to avoid, but it can be minimized—“resistance” isn’t too bad on this score—metal resists breaking, healthy plants resist disease.

            1. Sure, if you define spirituality to be something that isn’t spirituality at all, then I’m a spiritual person. And if you define “broccoli” to mean “bacon”, then I love broccoli.

              1. “Spirituality” is a pretty broad term these days. It often excludes the supernatural. It usually includes non-material things like certain feelings and thoughts, which science prefers to treat materially but which have a compelling reality to humans. It seems to me that the work of many scientists has a spiritual dimension in its effort to reach to the core of something. Wikipedia has a nice intro on the term. What would your definition be?

  27. Oops! Almost forgot. In the same Daily Beast yesterday, report of Pete Townsend’s bio said he found god on a vibra bed, in a Holiday Inn in Illinois – so there!

    We in Illinois want to make this a mega turist marketing campaign.

    For our Brit friends –
    “7. He heard the voice of God on a vibrating bed in rural Illinois.

    While The Who was touring America for the first time, Townshend was on a mission to find the secret to existence. “Smoking grass” and listening to his favorite albums, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds, he yearned to “connect with a higher power.” On what he calls an “oversized vibrating bed” at a Holiday Inn in rural Illinois, he got his wish. In a “singular, momentous epiphany—a call to the heart,” he says, he “heard the voice of God.” The moment was one he had been longing for his whole life

    8. He is banned for life from Holiday Inns.

    “Happy Twenty-First Keith Moon” read the sign outside the Holiday Inn somewhere in Middle America. Inflating his age by a year (in reality turning 20 at the time), Moon was determined make his birthday a smash. On a drug- and alcohol-induced rampage, he drove a Lincoln Continental into the swimming pool, smeared birthday cake all over the walls, and knocked out his front teeth. When a fan approached to ask for a signature, he threw a lamp at him—cutting open the innocent devotee’s head. If it weren’t for an emergency dentist appointment, Moon would surely have been arrested. The Who, meanwhile, was banned from Holiday Inns for life.”

    1. OT, but funny, imo.

      The management of the Hilton, Anycity, UK, are flicking through the brochures for new tellies and double-glazing salesmen in anticipation of the arrival of the Motorhead entourage.

      My brother’s mate greets them in the bar.

      “Can I get you anything, gentlemen?”

      “Yes, please, an orange juice and a prune juice.”

      “Lemmy, would you be wanting any refreshment?”

      “No, thank you very much.”

      “Oh, is there anything else I can do for you?”

      “Yes, please, you wouldn’t happen to know of a good vegetarian restaurant nearby?”

      Motorhead – apostles of clean, healthy living, juridically sober as they turn the volume knob to 12.

      1. The point is that silly personal experiences and hyper-subjective temporary warm fuzzy feelings are held out as proof of magical and supernatural stuff.

        It’s very dumb but the media loves it — because it sells.

        1. Absolutely, I am.

          Can’t bear Motorhead’s toons but Lemmy did come up with the Spinal Tappish line, when sound-checking,

          “Is everything louder than everything else?”

          Now that’s funny, again, imo.

        2. I assume that was his reference. “Turn it up to 11” is such a common meme now that someone can say to turn it up to 12 and we all know what he’s referring to.

          My son has Guitar Hero III for his PS3 console, and at the intro when the game starts, there’s a shot of an amp whose engraved numbers go up to 11, but there’s a piece of tape with “12” just beyond the 11.

  28. a man of science (if doctors deserve that monicker)

    Given the recent debacle with Paul Broun, I think that doctors need to earn that monicker, they cannot assume it. (Although, to be fair, that probably applies to PhDs too…)

    1. It applies to everyone. It’s not a moniker you can earn and hang on the wall like a degree. No matter how many great papers you’ve published in whatever first rate journals, you can always turn your back on science later.

  29. The guy’s CV is actually seems quite impressive, and, of course, he is now all over the web. Eighty percent of his patients recommend him, but maybe the other 20% had NDE’s they didn’t enjoy. Anyway, it doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to realize the cash potential for a book about heaven, as one published about a kid having seen his dead realatives in the course of his NDE was on the NYT Best Seller List for a long time. Lynchburg, the community where Alexander practices and where he had his heavenly dream, is, of course, the home of Liberty University. But his experience apparently didn’t involve meeting his dead relatives, yet alone enjoying port in Portugal in the company of Anastasia, so I have to think didn’t really experience heaven.

    1. There’s a ton of padding in that CV. If he were applying for an actual doctor job out in the world, he would have left most of that shit out. His real resume is good. However, it seems to me that he inflated it with a lot of fancy sounding bullshit so that his inane rambling would be taken more seriously by regular folks. Listing things like “grand rounds” is ridiculous. Also, there is very little evidence that he’s done any actual science, at least not in the CV linked to.

    1. Same here. I usually have to run to get up a certain momentum and then I jump and take off. Sometimes I just levitate. At other times it doesn’t work at first and I have to try again. Gravity seems to come and go in that dimension.

      1. The trick is jumping and tucking your knees. That usually buys you a few minutes, particularly if you were moving quickly beforehand.

        1. Yes, I’ve found that. One can sort of drift along gently just above the ground.

          Gosh, we’ve both experienced the same thing – that proves it must be true!

  30. Even William James would not call this “proof”.

    Is it the doctor or Newsweek that appended the word “proof” to this article? And were they drinking high-proof alcohol?

  31. I just don’t get why anyone would take this kind of stuff seriously.

    His brain was malfunctioning.

    He did not die.

    Even if his brain shut down for some time, there is NO reason to think that these memories happened during the time that his brain was shut down, instead of pieced together later.

    It’s like saying that when I had an old PC that was malfunctioning and displaying almost-random garbage on the screen, that this is proof that my PC was in a state where it could sense a reality in a different plane of existence. I mean, why would anyone even begin to think this?

    1. Deep seated desire. Fear of death made acute and intolerable by actually nearly dying. Accolades of lots of people (friends, family, Newsweek readers).

      The latter should never be underestimated. The religious throngs are hungry for someone to counter the scientific worldview that threatens their beliefs. You can go from being someone toiling away in obscurity to a celebrity instantly. On an even smaller scale, it’s hard being a non-believer in many places. Sometimes it can seem easier just to join them. Rather than seeing that look of concern on people’s face when you talk to them, concern that you’re one of those scary atheists, you can see smiles and happy acceptance. That kind of reinforcement can really amplify any tendency for self-delusion.

  32. Drat!! That’s almost exactly what happens to me when I have to take cortisone. Why have I never realized that I am having visions of the afterlife? Possibly because I am not a scientifically trained person but just a down-to-earth skeptic.

  33. It really is quite a coup on Simon & Schuster’s part, to score a “Newsweek” cover exactly two weeks before the release of the book.

      1. S&S is owned by the CBS Company. After years of steady losses, Newsweek merged two years ago with the Daily Beast. They’re owned in part by IAC (InterActiveCorp(, whose CEO is Barry Diller.

  34. One should always be cautious when conflating experience with explanation. Especially internal subjective experience.

    Sounds like his imagination ran away with him.

  35. Very vivid views of heaven makes me wonder what is the light source up there. Is it powered by nuclear fusion too?

  36. … I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones … flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them … we were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us …

    You weren’t in a coma for a week in Lynchburg, dude. You passed out in Key West and came to during “Fantasy Fest.” Sounds like you nearly got run over by the float from La Te Da.

  37. Why didn’t anyone ask him the obvious questions? I assume that heaven is a supernatural or metaphysical place where our super natural souls go. After all the doctor isn’t arguning that he physically went anywhere since his body was present in the hospital. Therefore why the mix of the natural and supernatural?

    Clouds? Clouds are some combination of water vapor and ice crystals. They appear white because of the way the molecules scatter light. Why are physical objects like water molecules and ice crystals present in heave?

    Blue sky? The sky appears blue again because of the way light is scattered by gas molecules in the atmosphere. And speaking of light, light is the range of electromagnetic radiation that can be detected by our eyes. What are eyes, electromagnetic radiation, and gas molecules doing in a metaphysical realm? Do molecules also have souls?

    Winged beings? Birds, flying mamals and airplanes have wings so that they can create lift in the atmosphere sufficient to balance or temporarily overcome the force of gravity. Gravity is a physical force of attraction between objects of mass and matter. Mass and gravity and atmosphere and areodynamics exist in heaven? If not then who would need wings?

    A sound, huge and booming? Sound is oscillating pressure waves that pass through solids, liquids or gases that are dectectable by our ears. Again, pressure waves, solids, liquids gases and ears physical things that exist in a physical world.

    If heaven has butterflies it better have dogs (sorry Jerry) or I’m not interested. Butterflies have souls?

    1. Reporters ask questions? They don’t do that anymore. Too aggressive. Someone gives you a press release and you print it verbatim. That’s what passes for journalism in the US today.

      1. The piece is no more than an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released book, something Newsweek and Daily Beast picked up ready-made and on the cheap, no doubt, since S&S is mainly looking for a buzz to promote sales.

  38. This must be one of the worst hits taken by the public image of Harvard in a long time. I can’t even begin to fathom the depths of embarrassment his colleagues at that otherwise respectable institution must be experiencing.

  39. Gee, if he’d even read some popular books he’d know that it was likely he was experiencing hallucinations as his brain came very close to switching off. Or maybe that wasn’t morphine they were pumping into him – maybe angel dust?

  40. Kink was on the couch asleep, twitching and making little “mrrrp, mrrrrp” noises and I thought to myself,

    “That Kink, he must be in heaven!”

  41. Newsweek is not, and has never been, ‘America’s best selling magazine.’ It’s never even been close. So, I wouldn’t sweat it. Few people take it seriously.

  42. My bad. It is not a ‘best selling magazine.’ Sorry to misquote. It was recently bankrupt, and is not profitable.

  43. Let’s see- which is more likely? That in his coma, he nevertheless retained enough brain activity (I’ve already read another article touting this one that claims he had “no” brain activity- in which case, he would be dead) to have had a series of dreamlike visions (prompted by a brain chemistry response to stress and colored by his religious “programming”- note that Hindus who have NDEs never report seeing Jesus), OR- his “soul” was actually taken to a “Heaven”, experienced the celestial choir, and was fed a few generic platitudes. “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” Another thing to remember is that he had to have come OUT of the coma at some point (obviously): could all of this have not happened in the few minutes while he returned to consciousness, rather than being a “state” he was in while IN a coma? Experiments with lucid dreaming tend to show that “dream-time” is roughly the same as real time, although dreams have their own “tricks”, like theatrical effects, to make it seem as if more time has gone by (like the parts in old movies where months blow off of the calendar). When teenagers, my friends and I used to hyperventilate until we passed out for a “high”: in the few seconds where we “returned” from a “non-conscious” state to that of an aware one (albeit dazed, groggy, and confused), all kinds of fantastic visions would be experienced including monolithic structures resembling the fractal videos seen today; one often had the feeling that essential “truths” of the universe had been revealed (if we could just remember them!), etc., etc.

  44. What is it with nuerosurgeons? Ben Carson, Michael Egnor, and now this buffoon? Maybe it’s a fluke. I’m always a little bit embarassed when a physician publicly supports woo. But it doesn’t surprise me at all. Medical school by itslef does not produce scientists. The first two years are referred to as the “basic sciences” but we don’t actually DO any science (well…maybe a smidgen). So when a regular MD claims to be a “man of science” or somesuch busllshit, I cringe. Sure, I had to take some science classes and memorize a shit ton of crap but that does not qualify me as a “man of science”.

  45. I had an experience just like that.

    Except the person with me looked like Joe Pesci. And we were riding on a pizza box, not butterfly wings. Those beings weren’t shining, they wore trenchcoats, rode Vespas, and sang “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”

    On the other hand, I had an experience at the bedside of a dying friend that was totally incompatible with either of our beliefs. And scientists say the universe has ten dimensions – or eleven? – and time is an illusion, and maybe there’s an infinite number of universes.

    What do I know, really?

    Endless forms have been and are being evolved, I have no doubt. But the really big questions? I don’t know, I don’t think anyone else does either, and that’s ok.

  46. doesn’t take a coma or any almost-dead condition. From definitely dead no one has been back. evah.
    the “experience” is well-known to exist (my personal experience as well) and does not imply anything about an “after-life”.
    Let’s be honest: there is no life *after* this one. the (very) real consolation is that freedom from suffering is some “state” that -can- be reached into (during life), and the truth, as far as I’m concerned, boils down to the impossibility of ever witnessing one’s own death, as the end of consciousness would need a *later* (in time) snapshot in order to assess, that consciousness has come to an end.

  47. I know what Dr. Alexander is talking about. Same kind of experience, different details. I didn’t want to come back, either, but then I wasn’t “dying”. It wasn’t, as so many here would try to claim, a “dream”. I was sitting upright in a chair, very much awake, in the middle of a conversation, not on any drugs or alcohol, so I wasn’t hallucinating, either. I hadn’t even eaten anything for hours before it happened, so it wasn’t some “undigested bit of beef”. Never had any problems with low blood suger. It can’t be explained to those who haven’t experienced it. Words like “hyper-reality” are used because it IS “more real than real”. Time, or the sense of it, is not a part of the experience, so much can happen in just a few seconds of this “reality”. How does one explain THAT to people who are barely aware of their own mental processes?

    This didn’t keep me from becoming a scientist and doing bio/medical research. But I sure had a very different point of view about things than my colleagues. And I sure didn’t talk about it with them, although at times I think I should have. They might’ve been more willing to accept this than pre-19th century “scientists” who couldn’t accept the idea of rocks falling from the sky. Most people who call themselves scientists aren’t sincerely interested in the truth, only in what they’ve been told is the truth, and would be quite surprised what goes on, even in simple biological systems, when they aren’t looking. They’d rather throw away the outlying data points than ask the obvious question, just to maintain their pet theory – and that big, fat NSF grant.

    1. I sympathise with arguments from interior experience – it is surely wrong to exclude a whole range of phenomena from the reckoning because they are “subjective”. But I think evidence gained introspectively should be regarded as doubtful unless most people agree on the reality of the type of experience. The vast majority of people, it seems, have no such epiphany, and so – dramatic as it is for yourself – your experience remains inaccessible and nonevidential for me.

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