Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Near Death Experience

Perhaps you've heard the story of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who was in a coma for a week due to an attack of meningitis. Widely published, Dr. Alexander teaches at the University of Virginia Medical School and has been on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. The story of his Near Death Experience appeared in Newsweek magazine recently and it's a fascinating account, fraught with difficulties both for materialists and also, perhaps, for some religious believers.

Here's an excerpt of what he writes:
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...

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."
What happened to me demands explanation.
What to make of this? First, some materialists, i.e. those who believe that physical matter is all there is, are scoffing at the report, claiming that Dr. Alexander simply dreamt the tale, but if he was in a genuine coma then he didn't dream it. Dreams are impossible in a coma.

Second, if he's accurately recounting what happened to him then materialism is clearly false.

But there's a problem here for some religious people as well. Alexander says in the article that:
Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief. I didn’t begrudge those who wanted to believe that Jesus was more than simply a good man who had suffered at the hands of the world. I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.
Many Christians believe that a nominal believer like Alexander does not go to heaven when he dies, but, again, if Alexander is correct then it would appear that that may not be the case.

He closes with this:
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.
I admit that when I've read stories of NDEs in the past I was skeptical of their reliability, but when a man who's only a nominal believer, a neurosurgeon who works with brains everyday and has no religious axe to grind, relates such a narrative, it has a lot more credibility, at least for me.