Released in late 2012, Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven garnered an enormous amount of attention, including making the cover of Newsweek, being discussed on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and picking up a cover endorsement from the doyen of near-death experience (NDE) research Raymond Moody which declares that ‘Dr Eben Alexander’s near-death experience is the most astounding I have heard in more than four decades of studying this phenomenon...’ As a result of all the exposure it has now sold millions of copies, as indicated by the cover announcement ‘The New York Times bestseller’. While that attention has waned, the questions surrounding the author and his remarkable story have grown.
As Alexander, a neurosurgeon, tells it, in November 2008 he fell prey to a devastating strain of E. coli bacterial meningitis that left him in a coma for seven days, his cortex completely shut down. Against all medical prognostications he survived this massive assault on his brain that by rights should have led to death or a vegetative state, but he came back with a bizarre description of where he had been during the time his body lay helpless in an intensive care unit. While the doctors were battling to save his life against what seemed hopeless odds, and his family were preparing themselves for what they believed was the inevitable, Alexander himself was, he says, undertaking a hyper-real journey into the afterlife.
First there was what he terms ‘the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View’, a place of darkness that he describes in a chapter appropriately titled ‘Underworld’. Then he was transported to what he calls ‘The Gateway’, filled with light, beautiful sounds, and with wonderful butterflies flitting around. Riding on one of the butterflies (scale being meaningless in this place) was a beautiful young woman who gave him a message of hope. Finally there was ‘The Core’, where Alexander understood that God (or ‘Om’, a word he uses interchangeably but which does not have the same associations as the term God), the omniscient creator, is real, and that we are loved unconditionally. He learns lessons which, he says, will take a lifetime to unpack and digest, and presumably promote in subsequent books. With a brief side-trip back to the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View he wakes up just as his doctors are debating whether to switch off his life support. The prime lessons he learned may not have been original, but for him they were profound: that everything in the universe is connected, and the force that binds is Love. After his return he saw a photograph of a deceased sister he had never met (he was adopted) and recognised her as the person who had ridden a butterfly.
The first thing to say is that this is not a technical book written for the specialist community of NDE researchers. Nor does it engage with the NDE literature, despite a six-page reading list. It is a popular, not an academic volume, and it is doubtful it would have sold as well if it had been. That is fine as long as it is rigorous enough to sustain the claims made in it, but its degree of rigour is where the issues start. The book has been hugely controversial, polarising readers into opposing camps. The detractors are spearheaded by Luke Dittrich in a 2013 Esquire feature called ‘The Prophet’. Dittrich takes issue with a number of details in the book, and also attacks Alexander on a professional level. The implications of the article’s biographical exposé are that Alexander lacks sufficient focus and attention to detail to be a first-rate doctor, is prone to interpersonal problems with his superiors, and the theme emerges of him altering the historical record in his surgical practice to conform to the narrative he wants to promote: he did it during a number of malpractice suits according to Dittrich, and the implication is that he is doing the same with this book. Dittrich paints a picture of a troubled professional life, Alexander having failed to live up to his adoptive father’s standards (his father was also a neurosurgeon). His natural father was a high achiever too, and Alexander implies in the book that he has suffered from self-esteem problems.
While Dittrich’s lengthy critique was disputed by Alexander, the subtext of the controversy being whether or not Alexander could be trusted, it is important because we have to rely on Alexander’s account of his ‘journey into the afterlife’ with no independent verification, and Dittrich argues that Alexander is unreliable. The book’s success, Dittrich continues, pulled Alexander out of a financial hole caused by long periods of unemployment resulting from work problems. On the other hand, Alexander’s contention is that despite travails stemming from his personal history (he does mention a struggle with alcohol, though not the malpractice issues) he is still a fine surgeon and a truthful witness. Trying to square both sides simply raises uncertainty about the veracity of what Alexander has said and what his motives may have been for saying it. He seems happy to sacrifice precision for dramatic licence, but his willingness to do so leaves open the issue of where that licence ends and strict accuracy begins. It is one of those books, marketed as nonfiction, which raises doubts as to the amount of fiction it might contain.
The debate seems to have got hung up on minor elements, such as whether Alexander had a tube down his throat which would have prevented him shouting out ‘God help me!’, as he said he did, or whether there could have been a rainbow as he regained consciousness – he and his family say there was, his detractors counter that meteorological records indicate there could not have been. Of course, if he can embroider the small things, he can do so with bigger things, but such aspects are of less importance than the key issue of whether the condition of Alexander’s brain during coma precluded the claimed experience. One significant discrepancy is Dittrich’s discovery that Alexander’s coma was not caused by the infection, rather it was medically induced, which is not how Alexander depicts the course of events, and is frankly less dramatic. According to one of the doctors Dittrich spoke to, Alexander’s brain was active throughout his ordeal; he was ‘conscious but delirious’. That doesn’t seem to square with a medically-induced coma either, but whichever is the case, conscious or unconscious, this is a long way from a complete lack of cortical activity.
In an appendix Alexander lists several alternatives that might still explain his NDE, but dismisses them all as they founder on him having had a completely inert cortex, and any activity in the lower brain regions would not have been sufficient, considering its richness. But coma is a long way from a case like Pam Reynolds’, say, where the blood was drained from her head and her brain activity could be carefully monitored. Alexander cannot reasonably aver that all brain function had ceased on the basis of occasional scans. It seems odd that he uses his scientific credentials to buttress his contention that he visited heaven, yet as a scientist he does not adopt the parsimonious explanation that he was hallucinating but assumes that what he encountered possessed an external reality. He has jumped to the conclusion that he was vouchsafed a vision of heaven for no other reason than it felt profound to him, but it is conjecture that his ‘trip’ coincided with a lack of cortical activity. Even if his cortex did shut down completely, and that has not been demonstrated beyond doubt, his trip could have been an hallucination occurring after the resumption of activity, possibly over a short period of time.
Part of the problem is that Alexander stresses that words cannot do justice to what happened to him, which goes beyond language to a state in which to see is to know directly and without mediation. The corollary is that his readers will not be convinced by what he says unless they are predisposed already to accept that he visited heaven and met his sister (he recounts the irony of trying to convince colleagues who reacted in much the way he used to when his patients tried to tell him of similar experiences they had undergone). To his critics’ argument that after such a severe trauma there is no guarantee that Alexander could produce a reliable record afterwards, his response is that while he is attempting to render in words something beyond language, such memories, which are not reliant on the brain, do not fade as conventional memory traces would; but this is speculation, without independent corroboration. Psychical research has struggled since its inception for ways to isolate communications alleged to originate in the afterlife from other explanations, and demands a far higher level of evidence than can be found here. Alexander may be right when he says he went to heaven, but to maintain he has proof is incorrect. If this were submitted to a peer-reviewed journal it would be sent back saying that the data were insufficient to validate the conclusions. Taking these caveats into consideration, the book’s title is a loaded one.
Even if his account is taken to be broadly accurate, it is still a leap to the existence of God/Om and of heaven. There is nothing here that contradicts standard Christian theology. More to the point, there is nothing that contradicts Alexander’s own religious persuasion, and this reinforcement of existing beliefs will be a bonus for many of his followers. One wonders how its reception would have been affected if Om had informed him that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger. Yet despite the book’s trajectory feeling convenient, it is possible that Alexander has been maligned by critics, and that his journey happened in the way he said it happened, and supplies evidence for an afterlife (whether or not one wants to go further and characterise that as heaven presided over by a supreme being). Alternatively it may be that he is a cynical charlatan with a money-making scheme to compensate for the loss of a medical career. Or he may be honest but misguided, fantasising that his NDE – an atypical one as he concedes – has more meaning that it actually warrants, and happy to ignore small discrepancies in search of the big picture.
His recovery from such an illness may have been miraculous (in either a loosely metaphorical or strictly theological manner), but whatever occurred during his time in the intensive care unit, there is nothing in his book that provides a definitive answer. A reasonable conclusion is that Alexander has spun a little into a lot, and pushed his conclusions far past the point warranted by the evidence. There is an assurance that makes the book superficially convincing, but its reluctance to acknowledge counter-arguments, and its omissions, generate doubt. That may be why, although Universal Pictures quickly picked up the film rights to the book, nothing has been heard of a screen adaptation since. Alexander comes over as superficially sincere, but there are too many questions raised to take what he says at face value, let alone as proof of heaven.