Heaven and Miracles and Newsweek

So Newsweek has a cover story called “”Proof of Heaven: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife.”  It’s a pretty standard near-death experience story, with a couple of twists: it’s told by a neurosurgeon, and it took place during a coma during which his brain supposedly wasn’t functioning:

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.

And here’s the kind of experience the doctor had:

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.

All pretty standard-issue stuff for near-death experience (NDE) stories.  What’s annoying is that a major magazine is calling this “proof” without quotation marks, without a question mark, without any sort of rebuttal.  (The story is an excerpt from a book by a mainstream publisher, Simon & Schuster.) Where are the alternative hypotheses?  Where is the objective analysis?

For a rebuttal, you have to go elsewhere, like the Huffington Post, of all places, where the physicist Victor Stenger says:

[The neurosurgeon] writes, “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.”

This is nothing more than the classic argument from ignorance, which forms the basis of almost all ostensibly scientific arguments for the existence of the supernatural. The argument from ignorance is a less polite but more descriptive name for the God-of-the-gaps argument. This argument often appears in dialogues on the existence of God or anything supernatural. Basically, it says: “I can’t see how this [observed phenomenon] can be explained naturally; therefore it must be supernatural.”

The flaw in the argument should be obvious. Just because someone–or even all of science–currently cannot provide a natural explanation for something, it does not follow that a natural explanation does not exist or will never be found. Indeed, the history of science is nothing more than the story of humanity filling in the gaps in its knowledge about the world of our senses. In the case of NDEs, plausible natural explanations do exist.

Another description I’ve heard for this approach is the argument from personal incredulity.  It is, of course, strongest when it’s your experience; your brain knows what it knows, no matter what the scientists say.  But (of course) your brain doesn’t necessarily know what it knows.  I’ve just finished a book called Subliminal by the theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow, which surveys the research currently taking place that shows just how mistaken our conscious brain can be when it comes to understanding behavior and experience.  The more science progresses in this field, the shakier some of our most basic ideas about how we act and perceive and know appear to be.  As Mlodinow puts it, “the brain is a decent scientist but an outstanding lawyer.”  That is, the objective truth seeker in us generally loses out to the impassioned advocate for what we want to believe.  If you’ve had a life-changing experience, you want to believe in the truth of that experience; you don’t want to be told that it’s the random firings of neurons as you came out of a coma, or fragmentary memories that your brain has somehow turned into a coherent narrative, or any of the other dreary, trivial explanations that the scientist is going to offer.

One of the things I like most about Christianity is that it turns human history into a story, because I love stories.  How much more interesting the Christian world of sin, sacrifice, and redemption is than the Darwinian world of purposeless, mindless change and adaptation and extinction.  But not all stories are true; in fact, nearly all of them aren’t.  We shouldn’t believe them just because we want to.  And we need to understand that our brains aren’t always the best judges of what is true; for that, we can’t do without science. This neurosurgeon, and Newsweek, have left the science behind.

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6 thoughts on “Heaven and Miracles and Newsweek

  1. Well. After reading both the Newsweek article and the Stenger “rebuttal” of it, I’d have to say I find both pieces of writing wanting for rigor. Dr. Alexander’s piece is interesting and provocative, but, to be sure, not “proof” of anything except that he had an extraordinary personal experience. Was his experience a glimpse of an objectively real extra-dimensional existence? It seemed so to him. You call it “pretty standard-issue stuff for near-death experience (NDE) stories,” which it is. But you can’t discount the possibility that the reason it’s standard issue is because many people have glimpsed the same otherworldly view, and it’s actually real. (It could also be because that’s the sort of image that the brain circuitry produces under certain stressful conditions.)

    Bottom line, I don’t know any way the rest of us can know if it was real or not, nor is it clear to me how–even theoretically–one could scientifically study his particular case, unless there turned out to be EEG recordings or something that could shed light, perhaps by recording a burst of brain activity at some crucial point. Even that wouldn’t really prove anything. So we’re left with the evidence of his subjective experience, which I would say is not without value, but also not a smoking gun. One wishes he had asked those questions about alternative explanations. Maybe he does, in his book.

    So Stenger asked the questions for him. And if you wonder if Stenger has a dog in this race, it’s instructive to look at the titles of some of *his* books: “God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist” and “God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion” — neither of which fills me with confidence about his objectivity on the question. He dismisses Alexander’s account as “the classic argument from ignorance,” and goes on about the “God of the gaps” view, but I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of Alexander’s account at all. In fact, I don’t find Stenger’s argument at all more objective than Alexander’s. Stenger has a clear axe to grind, and Newsweek and Alexander give him an easy target by claiming “proof of Heaven” when what Alexander has is powerful experiential evidence (powerful to him) that cannot easily be tested.

    You’re right; it’s not proof of Heaven–any more than science shows that God does not exist. Both claims go way beyond the bounds of science.

    What to do? Maybe SF has something interesting to say on the subject. Oh wait–it does. Connie Willis’s novel “Passages.”

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    • Hmm, re Stenger’s “dog in the race” and “ax to grind”: I don’t see it. I haven’t read his books, but I don’t see the problem with his piece. We have an article entitled “Proof of Heaven,” and Stenger points out that it’s no such thing, and that it falls into a class of phenomena that have been pretty well studied, without yielding any “proof” of anything supernatural. Even if science doesn’t currently have an explanation for the specific details of what happened, it’s still not “proof of heaven,” as you point out. The fact that it’s being sold as such does a disservice to science and, for all I know, to God.

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      • Stenger’s dog is pretty well marked from the titles of his books. To the degree that he points out that the original piece is not “proof,” I agree that he’s correct. But his analysis is an equally standard retread of arguments that don’t particularly address the case. I don’t see much science in either article, though both authors are scientists. It’s entirely possible that both of their titles were written by their publishers, of course. But the authors must have signed off on them.

        Generally speaking, I’m annoyed, as you are , by influential mass media publishing pieces like this without any critical thinking. Generally speaking, I’m equally annoyed by scientists who publish their philosophical and theological conclusions as though they carried the weight of science.

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  2. Pingback: The usual suspects weigh in on heaven and miracles and Newsweek | richard bowker

  3. Dr. Alexander does examine, and reject, numerous possible alternative explanations for his out of body experience based upon his highly qualified medical background. He comes to his conclusions not as a result of previous convictions, not out of need to persuade, and in spite of scientific skepticism. In contrast Stenger has an obvious axe to grind in furthering the arguments of his prior published works. Often we may discern the earnestness of the individuals that are in disagreement from their motives in pursuing their position. In this case it should be clear to any unbiased observer that Dr. Alexander offers his explanation based on a rational conclusion stemming from the medical documentation, and his personal experience in a truly extraordinary event. We should all thank him for stepping out and sharing his odyssey. While a leap of faith is still required, we come closer to the realization that there is a God, and a meaningful purpose for our existence.

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