Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Return of the Ghost?

It's not the type of book that I normally would read, but I spent a few hours (that's all it takes) over the long Holiday weekend reading Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven. I was struck by the premise - a neurosurgeon with a materialistic view of consciousness and human existence, has a near death experience.

What does he think now?

The story is more striking because Dr. Alexander contracted a relatively rare form of a bacterial meningitis. His prognosis was poor from the onset and became virtually hopeless as he went into a coma and failed to respond to treatment. His subsequent recovery was extraordinary - apparently close to miraculous.

During his coma, he had a vivid NDE that both resembles and departs from what is typical for such events. Alexander, who had always dismissed NDEs as dreams or hallucinations, says the can't do it in his own case because he had lost higher brain functioning while comatose. In other words, his brain could not have produced his experience because it wasn't working.

I can' t really evaluate the scientific arguments. Alexander includes an appendix in which he explains, in quite summary form, why he rejected nine different hypotheses of a material cause for his experience. From what I have read - from Alexander and his critics - explaining what happened is somewhat problematic and turns on whether it is possible to know (based on the tests that we have) that his brain was really "off -line" and whether he might have experienced his NDE after he regained higher brain function.

Alexander's story does not mesh with any particular theological view. (There is apparently a Christian "rebuttal" of his story.) It is, in many respects, a bit hokey and does not quite amount to "proof of heaven." (Alexander did not want to call the book that, preferring the title "An N of 1," referring to the unique nature of his case.)

But it does tee up what brain scientists call the "hard question" - what produces consciousness. While we have managed to correlate brain activity with conscious experience, we haven't established what causes that correlation. Is the brain a source or a filter?

One of the things that I found intriguing - although I know precious little about it - is the implications of a quantum view of reality to consciousness. The standard view of consciousness as mechanistic seems a tad Newtonian to me. Alexander doesn't do more than wave at that, but he does suggest that consciousness is stranger and less linear and contained than we might suppose.

One of the fascinating things about Alexander's NDE is that, unlike most of these experiences, he did not know who he was while he was "up there" (he uses that phrase metaphorically). He did not remember his life. It would be a very different kind of "heaven" if those who inhabit it are dissassociated from who they were in life.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin

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