“I was a speck on a beautiful butterfly wing; millions of other butterflies around us. We were flying through blooming flowers, blossoms on trees, and they were all coming out as we flew through them. There were waterfalls, pools of water, indescribable colors, and above there were these arcs of silver and gold light and beautiful hymns coming down from them. Indescribably gorgeous hymns. I later came to call them angels, those arcs of light in the sky. ”
This is how Dr Eben Alexander, a respected neurosurgeon and the author of the famous book – Proof of Heaven – described his near-death experience. Although I don’t doubt he had such an experience, his critics have found many inconsistencies in his story, which I’ll discuss in a minute.
The one thing we know for sure he didn’t come up with is the title itself. In an interview with a journalist from the Esquire magazin, he set forth that the catchy title of the book was generated at a publisher meeting he didn’t even attend. He added: When they first came to me with that title I didn’t like it at all. It is laughable and the highest form of folly, of hubris to think that anyone could ever prove heaven. I knew that proof in a scientific sense was ridiculous.
In spite of his initial reluctance, he seems to have become comfortable in the role of a modern prophet who tours around the world giving people false hopes. Not surprisingly, he is especially popular among Christians, and although he was a skeptic, after his NDE, he has become a believer himself.
What gives him more credibility is especially this initial skepticism, even though he envied religious people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided, as he says. It seems he wanted to believe so much, that a single unexplainable vision was enough to trigger his faith. But he’s not alone: many experiencers claim to find God or Jesus at the brink of death.
The two other factors that make him a credible source is that he is a neurosurgeon, and that according to him, the visions appeared when his brain completely shut down. But if that was true, he wouldn’t have come back at all, because a brain death is irreversible. Besides, how could he have memories of his experience, if his mind stopped functioning 100% at the time?
What he went through was not brain death, but a simple coma, and we know that people in coma retain consciousness. But there are further discrepancies in his story about his true physical state. He writes that he spent seven days in a coma caused by a rare case of bacterial meningitis. There is no indication in the book that it was his doctor, and not his disease, that induced his coma, or that the physicians in the ICU maintained it in the days that followed through the use of anesthetics.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m all for near-death experiences, and I think everybody should have one. I also don’t debate that people truly have them, even though they tend to sensationalize some details like Eben. Most accounts are honest and lack any kind of hidden agenda.
However, I do have a problem with near-death experiences, when people set it out as the evidence of the afterlife. It’s true that it comes closest as proof, but it’s not compelling evidence, and can’t be seen as the ultimate proof. After close investigation done by dozens of researchers, it turns out that what we have is nothing more than anecdotal evidence.
If we wanted to prove the existence of life after death based on these individual stories, it would be like convicting a murderer based on the testimony of eyewitnesses alone. And let’s not forget that these witnesses are highly motivated to believe in the survival of consciousness, after all, their life depends on it.
The other main proponent of this agenda is Raymond Moody. In fact, he was the one who coined the term near-death experience, and he is perhaps the most well-known researcher in this field. He interviewed 150 survivors and published his book titled Life After Life which sold millions of copies worldwide. Here’s an interesting conversation from the documentary based on the book. The reporter begins:
“There’s a skeptical part of me too, and I wonder sometimes whether or not this might just be peoples’ hallucinations that they’re going through, or just a natural shutting down process when the brain is dying.” Moody responds:
“I used to wander about that myself. What has turned me around on that issue is that so often these patients are able to gather very correct descriptions of what was going on during rescucitation, from a point of view they couldn’t have had from that perspective of that physical body lying on the table.
For instance, my friend Kim, who works in a medical university out West, was telling me that she was involved in rescucitating a young patient named Maria. And Maria had been believed dead but was successfully revived. When she came back to consciousness, my friend Kim happened to be standing there by her bedside.
And Maria grabbed on to Kim and said that during the rescucitation, when she was out of her body, she drifted outside of the hospital entirely, and saw an old shoe on a ledge on a window outside an upper floor of the hospital. And Kim was actually able to go there and to verify that the shoe was there exactly as the patient had specified.”
When I heard this, I asked myself: Really? The best evidence for the afterlife is a goddamn shoe? It turns out that just like me and the reporter, others were skeptical too. Two NDE researches were determined to investigate the famous story in 1994. They examined each of the details of the report and found the case much less impressive than it has been made out to be.
First of all, just like in any other case, this is an anecdotal story, but what’s even worse, reported only 7 years after it happened. The whole case depends on the claim that the shoe couldn’t have been seen otherwise, except from an out-of-body perspective. The investigators therefore decided to put a test shoe on the same ledge, and concluded that it was highly visible both from inside and outside.
It turns out that many people could have easily spotted the shoe, even patients lying in their beds. It wouldn’t be surprising then if they commented on this strange fact, and Maria could have easily overheard such a conversation. It’s not a stretch then to imagine that she willingly or subconsciously incorporated it into her near-death narrative, perhaps surprising even herself.
It seems to me that all nde experts suffer from the so-called confirmation bias. They are only looking for evidence for their pre-existing beliefs, and gloss over facts that would disprove their theories. And these facts are glaringly obvious if you look at them from an unbiased perspective. Besides the already mentioned anecdotal evidence and the confirmation bias, there are four more factors to consider.
The first, is that while near-death experiences are made out to be the proof of afterlife, not everybody has one after clinical death. In fact, only 10-20% of people who have come close to death report an nde. Would that mean that since the majority don’t experience anything, there’s no afterlife at all? Not necessarily, but it certainly suggests that we can’t use subjective experiences for proof of heaven.
The second telling fact is that you don’t have to clinically die to have an nde. It’s enough if you only strongly believe that your imminent death is coming up in the next moment. If you haven’t even died, how could you know what’s after death? Rather, this phenomenon suggests a psychological instead of a biological nature of near-death experiences. What most skeptics, including me, believe is that it’s the brain’s natural defense system against unbearable psychological terror.
Another weird occurence is when people report seeing living persons or even mythological creatures in their near-death experiences. The common legend is that your dead loved ones will greet you on the other side, but it turns out that it’s not always the case.
The so-called survivalists, in other words those who defend the notion of the afterlife, try to explain this away by saying that the subject must have made a mistake, or that it’s just a misinterpretation or has some symbolical meaning. It’s quite obvious that they apply a double standard: when a feature is clearly hallucinatory or illogical, they don’t want us to take it at face value, but when a well-fitting element occurs, they urge us to interpret it as a literal glimpse of the afterlife.
And last but not least, let’s take the fact that all features of near-death experiences can be explained by biological, chemical or psychological factors, without having to rely on paranormal explanations. Besides the already mentioned natural stress defense mechanism, I will mention here just a few of these.
One logical explanation science suggests is temporal lobe epilepsy, which is documented to lead to hallucinatory and even mystical experiences. The other biological factor can be the natural release of DMT at the time of death, which is known to be the most potent psychoactive substance, causing visions, dissociation and altered states of consciousness.
The other chemically based cause for near-death experiences is a drug known as ketamine. It was a widely used anesthetic in hospitals, before it was phased out for causing extreme dissociative states. What patients described after waking up was chillingly similar to the reports given by near-death survivors.
If the same experience can be induced by a drug, then why should we accept one but not the other as the evidence for afterlife? However, this doesn’t take away from the healing effects of these experiences per se. Nowadays, private hospitals have started offering ketamine therapies for effectively healing chronic depression.
In spite of this, survivalists desperately want to give us hope, because most of us desperately need it. The most common book titles include affirmations like proof of heaven, the self does not die, evidence of the afterlife, consciousness beyond life, surviving death, glimpses of eternity and so on.
Before you get lost in the details and in the comfort that these beautiful stories offer, I want you to be conscious of the sobering truth: there’s no definitive proof of afterlife. So, the best thing you can do is to live as if there was no afterlife, and then you won’t be disappointed. Don’t waste this lifetime, make the most out of it, because it’s the only one you can be certain in.
If you want to know more about death from a spiritual but down to earth perspective, you should read my book: The Power of Death. Click on the link below, and get it now! I’m deadly serious.