The cover headline on the October 15 issue of Newsweek is “Heaven is Real: A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife.” I have been a Newsweek subscriber for years and have always respected their take on the news, but this headline and article that accompanies it have caused me to revise my opinion of that publication as a reputable source of facts.
Apparently, author Dr. Eben Alexander’s status as a neurosurgeon allows him to state definitively that heaven is real and he has “proof”–he says he went there for seven days while his body was in a coma caused by a bacterial meningitis infection. He says in the article that he’s a Christian “more in name than in actual belief,” and that he would “tell my story with the logic and language of the scientist I am.” So, apparently, you can believe it more readily when he spins a fantastic tale of puffy pink clouds and winged beings and booming chants and voices inside his head saying reassuring things. He says his story must be real because “as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.” And yet, apparently that “minute medical observation” found only a cortex in which “all the neurons … were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them. … This is clear from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.”
So, the man was brain-dead and he had a vision. Just like thousands of people before him have reported having probably ever since human beings learned to speak. And yet, science has always dismissed such reports as mere hallucination, nothing to be taken seriously. Why should this doctor’s report be taken any more seriously, simply because he is a man of science?
What I wonder, too, is if this candy-colored happy place is, in fact, where we come from and where we’re headed, why is that information hidden from us so completely while we’re alive and fully conscious on this planet? The messages from “beyond” seem to come to us only through unreliable witnesses in unpredictable ways, and certainly not all the accounts match up. One wishes in vain for a rather more orderly and articulate universe waiting on the other side of the veil.
You can read the article to find out what visions Dr. Alexander saw and what voices he heard (it was all very positive and his heaven sounds like a great place, absolutely), but when it comes right down to it, he’s just another person with a story. He has no evidence. He has no proof. Whatever he says he saw or heard was perceived by and is real only to him and to no one else on the planet. And yet a respected news magazine dares to trumpet this unverified, unverifiable story on its cover as fact, just because the guy’s a doctor and not, say, a psychic or a child or a woman or someone with strong religious beliefs? Newsweek needs to give its readers credit for having better B.S. detectors than that.
Update, 24 October 2012: Daniel Engber offers an even more skeptical take on this article for Slate magazine called “Heaven Help Us.”