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Proof of Heaven? Hold off on that QED.
December 29, 2013 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Dr. Eben Alexander's book Proof of Heaven has a complex backstory. One that's not very heavenly.
"From one point of view, the point of view that Fox & Friends and Newsweek and Oprah and Dr. Oz and Larry King and all of his other gentle interrogators have helped perpetuate, Dr. Eben Alexander is a living miracle, literally heaven sent, a man capable of finally bridging the chasm between the world of spirituality and the world of science. From this point of view, he is, let's not mince words, a prophet, because after all, what else do you call a man who comes bearing fresh revelations from God? This point of view has been massively profitable for Dr. Eben Alexander, has spawned not just a book sold in thirty-five countries around the globe but a whole cascade of ancillary products, including a forthcoming major motion picture from Universal.

But there is another point of view. And from this point of view, Dr. Eben Alexander looks less like a messenger from heaven and more like a true son of America, a country where men have always found ways to escape the rubble of their old lives through audacious acts of reinvention."
[Previously]
posted by Charity Garfein (54 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Read this earlier this week. The slippery back and forth over the skydiving story (not to mention the record doctoring!) makes him sound like every compulsive liar I've known motivated by narcissism. The part where another doctor admits neurosurgery wasn't the best choice for Alexander given his lack of sustained focus was...frightening. (I won't even touch how this guy seemingly managed to fail upwards over and over again--with this the latest chapter.)

Adopted into a family of Harvard Med superstardom, you wonder whether his is a story of what happens when you're pressured/steered (internally or externally) into a vocational role that just doesn't fit your temperament.
posted by blue suede stockings at 1:49 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Is this related to that horrible looking Heaven Is For Real book/movie? I kept expecting Kirk Cameron to pop up in the trailer.
posted by kmz at 1:49 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hatchet faced crazy eyes.
posted by The Whelk at 1:51 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is this related to that horrible looking Heaven Is For Real book/movie? I kept expecting Kirk Cameron to pop up in the trailer.

No. It has to do with this Newsweek cover story: Proof of Heaven: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife.
posted by Going To Maine at 2:00 PM on December 29, 2013


The American supermarket news magazines have been running "your religion is true and here is why" cover stories on a predictable schedule since at least the '80s. It's bullshit and it moves units.
posted by idiopath at 2:02 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


A few thoughts:

1) Is this Science and Religion Day on MetaFilter?

2) Something that seems to elude a lot of people who write about this kind of thing is that scientific disciplines and applied science disciplines are fairly different things, and people in the applied sciences do not necessarily have the same focus on rigorous thought, critical analysis, application of the scientific method, and theory. Many doctors, engineers, etc do have some or all of these things, but they are not required for success in those fields, relying instead on technique and application of already-developed concepts in specific situations.

There is a reason why, when you look at lists of "scientists who deny human-driven climate change," a little searching discovers that they are mostly engineers. Anyway, expecting a medical doctor to speak for science is not always the best course of action.

3) I found the sentence Alexander met her in college when she was dating his roommate, and now they have two sons. Confusing and distracting. I guess journalists are a sort of "applied grammarians."
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:05 PM on December 29, 2013 [20 favorites]


When the book came out, I was amazed at how much attention it was getting - some guy almost died, and then wrote about his near-death experience, and so....what? I don't much care about his murky past (or not so murky, whatever), but I care a lot about the credulousness with which his story was framed. There seemed to be a lot of "He's a scientist-type-guy who says he saw Heaven and so now we know Heaven is real!" and I just....yeah. As usual, I am confused by people.
posted by rtha at 2:13 PM on December 29, 2013 [14 favorites]


This sounds too much like an episode of Jim Henson's Dinosaurs to be taken seriously.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 2:18 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you need proof to justify your faith you're not doing proof or faith right.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:20 PM on December 29, 2013 [49 favorites]


"There seemed to be a lot of "He's a scientist-type-guy who says he saw Heaven and so now we know Heaven is real!"

It was even worse than that. His target audience reviles academics--it was the fact that a doctor guy (and the "guy" instead of "gal" part matters) from Medical Authority Central Casting was telling a certain segment of society what they wanted to hear. Doctors don't develop a God complex in isolation--they deal with people desperate to buy what they're selling every day. It's why Dr. Oz is always sure to wear scrubs, for chrissakes, to visit daytime TV stage sets.
posted by blue suede stockings at 2:30 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


...a little searching discovers that they are mostly engineers.

This is my sad face.
posted by mondo dentro at 2:40 PM on December 29, 2013


>If you need proof to justify your faith you're not doing proof or faith right.

This

Sadly, can only fav. once :(
posted by twidget at 2:41 PM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've been to heaven, or maybe it was a Long John Silver's. Whatever, give me a book deal.
posted by angerbot at 2:46 PM on December 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


I guess if you're a neurosurgeon your dreams and fevered hallucinations count as scientific observations. Good to know.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:47 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've been to heaven, but I've never been to me.
posted by The Whelk at 2:48 PM on December 29, 2013 [14 favorites]


The Cosmic Muffin has cleared the following for release:

:....and then they put me into the matter transporter and sent me to Mars. Unfortunately the phase interlock generator wasn't properly calibrated, so I ended up in that time warp I was telling you about. When I got to Mars, it was still September, but it was in 1971, not 2011. That's where--well, when, I suppose--I first met Obama. On Mars. Yeah. That's what I'm trying tell you.

"Oh, and by the way, I am a scientist, specializing in rocket surgery. Show me your cerebellum and I'll show you your future."
posted by mule98J at 2:55 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've never been to heaven, but I've been to Oklahoma.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:55 PM on December 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


So, then, how bad is hell?
posted by eriko at 2:59 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Carlos Castaneda for the Fox crowd, only without that Indian sorcerer guy. It can be a lucrative career, especially if you don't have to disappear into the desert for weeks at a time.
posted by sneebler at 3:21 PM on December 29, 2013


[W]hat else do you call a man who comes bearing fresh revelations from God?

David Koresh or crazy. Take your pick.

I've often thought of starting my own religion or co-opting an existing one to suit and serve my needs, but I can't get myself to sell my soul.
posted by cjorgensen at 3:22 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've been to heaven, but I've never been to me.

I've been to ME. The Fall colours are just lovely. Heavenly, in fact.
posted by billiebee at 3:25 PM on December 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


Is this related to that horrible looking Heaven Is For Real book/movie? I kept expecting Kirk Cameron to pop up in the trailer.

That looks like the worst thing ever.
posted by Artw at 3:31 PM on December 29, 2013


Meh. Hogwash.

He enters a new realm, one of infinite depth and infinite blackness. And at the center of it all, a light.

Yes, of course, white boy, because good things are light and bad things are dark and of course a little dark after the last rest isn't good for us. Your heaven is always filled with the same stupid metaphors for good and evil that have plagued our culture for the last three centuries.

He knows. He knows...everything.

Oh, bullshit. Genesis 3: "They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’"

Oh, I dunno, God, if you know everything, you tell me.

This is the dumbest heaven ever. God's a bunch of light and knows everything everywhere all-the-time. It's not even that creative.

WHERE ARE THE DRAGONS
posted by Baby_Balrog at 4:00 PM on December 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


Just another bog standard grifter/conman playing on that very American desire to be sold their religion. He's no elron.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:04 PM on December 29, 2013


Interestingly enough, I just recently read this Wired article about consciousness after what is normally considered death (although it doesn't attempt to make a connection to eternal life after death).
posted by Simon Barclay at 4:22 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


The most alarming thing is that there are so many goddamn fools ready to take it all, hook, line, and sinker. This is not a public fit to decide things for itself.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:24 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


The most alarming thing is that there are so many goddamn fools ready to take it all, hook, line, and sinker.

Foolish, or desperate, or sad, or hopeful. The opening of the article is about Alexander talking on tv in the aftermath of an incident in which children died. It's surely understandable why a parent might want to believe what he said? I'm not talking about whether he's right or not, or whether he should have been given such a platform, obviously. Just that calling people who believe in this kind of thing "foolish" is rather simplistic and dismissive.
posted by billiebee at 4:41 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I also found really alarming that, before he stopped practicing, two times really close together he fused the wrong vertebrae on patients and then tried to cover it up. Seriously, that's some scary stuff. I don't blame doctors for making mistakes, but his career seems to be full of gross negligence and then attempting to cover it up fairly incompetently. The "brilliance" that he is repeatedly attributed in the Esquire article is not apparent in his actions long before this book was ever written.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:44 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


So when people with these post-death stories come back and start telling them, do we have any clinical evidence one way or the other whether their "memories" seem to be being recalled in the usual way, or does the telling activate parts of the brain associated with inventing stories? It seems to me I remember learning of some evidence that people aren't recollecting these experiences but confabulating them (likely without meaning to). Our brains have a well-documented tendency to invent stories and memories of sensory experience when there is missing information. Have there been any serious attempts to see if something like that might account for these experiences? Seems like it should be possible to clear up with the right tests, though it might be hard to work out the logistics in this case.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:45 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another data point in favor of the Salem Hypothesis, GenjiandProust?

Must be a special circle of Hell reserved for this fellow.

Heaven is for Real seems to be a completely separate operation. It'd be interesting for those ready to believe to try to reconcile the accounts.
posted by zittrain at 5:22 PM on December 29, 2013


Oh come on, baby_balrog. We need that passage to demonstrate God's sense of irony, which doesn't work as well if you're supposing it demonstrates a lack of omniscience (and, besides, is an utterly facile interpretation, that I know you know better about). I think readers should consider the wise words of the Dali Lama in this article, but with the careful note that God has been known to use the insincerely evangelical for His own ends (cf. the book of Jonah or the Steve Martin movie _Leap of Faith_).
posted by wobh at 5:45 PM on December 29, 2013


Christ what an asshole?
posted by Annika Cicada at 5:47 PM on December 29, 2013


saulgoodman: there are a few complicating factors here

one: as you ask, is the memory coming back in the usual way?

two: did the experience come in in the usual way?

I have memories of an acid trip. I talked to other people, they confirm that I "experienced" what I remember. Of course this lends no validity to the truth of the events themselves.

Near death, the pineal gland releases a powerful dissociate hallucinogen called DMT.
posted by idiopath at 5:52 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Click here for Dr. Eben Alexander's 5 Secrets of Heaven Your Pastor Doesn't Want You To Know!
Grief Counselors Hate Him!
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:04 PM on December 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Just don't look. It seems like one of these dudes pops up every few years. The people who want to believe his shtick will. He's obnoxious for sure, but in a few years he will be on the remainder table.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 6:09 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wait a minute... the guy with claims of proving the supernatural isn't fully credible?!
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:10 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


The really upsetting part is learning that Heaven has started cheaping out on the deathless incorruptible bodies, since riding on a butterfly clearly indicates that you're like an eighth of an inch high or so.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:16 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm still waiting for scientific proof there's such a thing as life before death. Let's get that sorted out first, then we can talk about whether or not there'll be an after-party.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:26 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Near death, the pineal gland releases a powerful dissociate hallucinogen called DMT.

It'd be kind of interesting to give this guy DMT and see what he says in w/r/t "heaven" Or I suppose perhaps someone else who doesn't have a book to sell.
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 7:04 PM on December 29, 2013


Ah man. I wondered, when my publication blurbed this guy's upcoming appearance in town, whether that was a good idea. Then I thought, "Eh, you're being uptight; this is kind of an interesting novelty, even if the ultimate truth of his accounts can't ever be verified. And hey, neurosurgeon!" Yeah, so much for that.
posted by limeonaire at 7:04 PM on December 29, 2013


One key part of science is repeated observation. He should do the near dying thing again. Just to be sure.
posted by srboisvert at 7:45 PM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


This whole thing is really troubling to me, for a couple reasons.

1) I have family members who are usually pretty reasonable and savvy, who have read this book and take great comfort from it. I'm not certain how they would feel if they read this article, whether it would change their minds about the validity of the "proof" presented. Since they're not wasting money on this guy's services (beyond the $3.95 or whatever the library charges for popular new book rental), it's not like they're really being harmed by believing his story. But I hate the idea of people I love being taken in by some huckster. On the other hand, I also hate the idea of bursting someone's bubble, if it's a harmless bubble.

2) Does the guy's super sketchy history invalidate his experience? Certainly it makes any story he tells much more suspect, but it doesn't automatically prove that he's a liar in this case. Maybe he really did ride butterflies with his dead sister and meet God and whatnot. I sort of like the potential irony in great cosmic truths being revealed only to people who are chronic liars, people who have destroyed their own credibility and will therefore never be believed even if they learn something really important. Cassandra's story is much more satisfying if she deserved it.

3) The book struck me as obviously false even before I read the article about the author's lack of trustworthiness. Even if we take it at face value that he experienced these things, there is no proof that they were "real" instead of hallucinations. Particularly knowing now that he was in a medically-induced coma, and not actually brain dead... I mean, ugh. His memories are no more proof of heaven than any psychedelic experience is proof of aliens or the malleability of space and time or whatever. Personally I tend to think he invented all these memories after the fact, when he realized he could make a huge pile of money off of this alleged experience. But even if he didn't invent the whole idea, even if he really believes he was in heaven, his story does not provide anything close to proof.
posted by vytae at 8:59 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Near death, the pineal gland releases a powerful dissociate hallucinogen called DMT.

DESCARTES WAS RIGHT!
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:32 PM on December 29, 2013


Even if we take it at face value that he experienced these things, there is no proof that they were "real" instead of hallucinations.

Well, setting aside the maxim "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", I'd like to know why an extracorporeal experience which did not pass through his physical senses would leave a memory in his physical brain. Y'know, just for a start.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:18 PM on December 29, 2013


"Heaven is real! That person is a scientist, and they say it's real! So there!"

"Here are ten people who are also scientists who say there is no evidence for the existence of an afterlife, and very good evidence that so-called 'near death' experiences have rational, repeatable, physiological causes. They also have very good reasons for why proving the existence of something that can't be seen until after you die is quite problematic."

"Pfft. What would scientists know about faith?"

But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’"

This made me laugh Coke Zero out my nose.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:24 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why Fox and Friends would have someone as blatantly anti-Christian on is a wonder to me. After all, the Bible plainly states that we do not go straight to heaven, but are resurrected at the end times. Only Pagans, with their Elysium Fields believe in a heaven that one immediately travels to straight after death. No Bible believing Christian believes that you actually go to heaven directly after death, right? Right?

Anyway, now that we're done listening to the crickets, this sounds like a generic NDE combined with hallucinations brought on by Bacterial Meningitis. However, this means that he is no longer practicing medicine. And honestly, I will happily take a huckster who believes his own line over a neurosurgeon with a rather high fail rate. So let him have his fun, the harm he is doing now is nothing to his previous career.
posted by Hactar at 11:32 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why is he wearing David Byrne's suit?
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:23 AM on December 30, 2013


I found it rather scary that a man performed complex operations on other humans, and managed to bungle them on several occasions. I found it even more scary that he then covered up his mistakes and lied - directly to the patient.

Some people may argue that these incidents are not relevant to his later "journey", but they are! It is impossible to discount them as they show aspects of his character - dishonesty.

And this dishonesty is clearly a pattern that continued in the book - with the "three words" and the weather etc.
posted by greenhornet at 1:29 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The most alarming thing is that there are so many goddamn fools ready to take it all, hook, line, and sinker.

Eh, I'm not prepared to call friends and family fools. I don't know anyone who's read this book but I certainly know lots of people who believe in the afterlife and while I don't share that, I do understand its attraction. Life is damn short and time moves awfully fast as you get older. I'm turning fifty in the coming new year which means that I've got thirty years left, maybe forty years if I eat right and keep jogging. That's not much time to play with and on a bad day I can get a little depressed about that fact.

I can't seem myself being very accepting or resolute when my time comes. I'm going to be massively pissed-off that I won't have more time. There's no way that I'll have done all I want to do, seen all I want to see, read the books, watched the movies or spent enough time with my friends and family. Dying sucks and I can't find it in myself to criticize people who need to believe that there's something else waiting for them afterward.

That said, this guy and Newsweek are massive tools for making money by pandering to people's desperate hopes.
posted by octothorpe at 7:10 AM on December 30, 2013


Lying for money is easy, but you can't pick the easy profitable lies. People want to believe in an afterlife, and are patiently waiting, money in hand, for someone who will convince them it exists. Even people who don't really believe in an afterlife, will pay money to be fooled for a few moments at a time. Because they want to believe more than they want their money.
posted by idiopath at 9:40 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


GenjiandProust: "Something that seems to elude a lot of people who write about this kind of thing is that scientific disciplines and applied science disciplines are fairly different things, and people in the applied sciences do not necessarily have the same focus on rigorous thought, critical analysis, application of the scientific method, and theory. Many doctors, engineers, etc do have some or all of these things, but they are not required for success in those fields, relying instead on technique and application of already-developed concepts in specific situations. "

Doctors are not scientists. They are technicians.

Scientists propose hypotheses, and test them rigorously. Technicians compare a problem to a previously-solved set of problems, and apply the best-fit solution.

A scientist would set aside half his/her patients to receive saline injections instead of flu shots (and, in fact, that is exactly what flu researchers do).

A technician would give a flu shot to someone who worried about getting the flu.

Never, ever confuse your doctor (dentist, chiropracter, faith healer, or tea leaf reader) for a scientist, no matter how smart, well-educated, or good at their job they appear to you. You are the only skeptic in the room when they speak. And, while your car technician putting the wrong motor oil or transmission into your car is not good, your medical technician putting the wrong stuff into you is far worse.

(IME, engineers tend to straddle the two groupings a bit: they prefer to apply time-tested solutions, but they tend to look for chances to improve upon or reevaluate the "book advice". FWIW. But then, most of us don't hire engineers, so it's largely unimportant where they fall.)
posted by IAmBroom at 10:19 AM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


".....if it's a harmless bubble."

While I'm not what you might call an avid bubble buster, I feel that I ought to point out that religions are actually the opposite of harmless.
posted by mule98J at 12:14 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


"While I'm not what you might call an avid bubble buster, I feel that I ought to point out that religions are actually the opposite of harmless."

This kind of of evangelism is about as interesting, coherent, applicable to the mixed company of metafilter, and relevant to the topic of this thread as someone coming in with a one liner to let us know that what we really need is Jesus.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:28 AM on December 31, 2013


Ooookay, so my mom bought the book and after reading this thread, I read it. It feels like a short book (about 191 pages) is being padded out with his entire autobiography, which feels, ah, skimmed here and there in chunks. You get great detail about how he became ill and how everyone rushed to his bedside (interspersed with the "heaven" bits), some of his skimmed backstory that felt kinda vague even if I hadn't read this, and eventually his miraculous healing and his studying of NRE's and becoming convinced that this was real because technically his brain was totally offline/dead/whatever and yet he remembers things happening while he was out. That's pretty much his argument right there. He does kind of make a big deal about the science of it all, presumably because we're to assume he was an expert.

The most gripping writing in the thing to me was the story of how he was adopted and eventually found out that his biological parents actually got married and had three more kids...and STILL didn't want to get in contact with him when he tried because one of his siblings had died and I guess no one was in the mood. Seven years later he tries again and this time they're interested in getting to know him.

The actual "heaven" content of it is pretty ... indescribable, not that distinct, a general happy beautiful feeling sort of thing. Kinda boring actually. The one part of it that really grabs you is that the one person he sees in heaven (SPOILER) turns out to be his dead sister, who he never saw in a photograph until after his NDE.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:04 PM on January 19


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