Eban Alexander has journeyed to heaven and returned to tell the tale. In addition to writing an upcoming book, he chose to publish his private revelation in the pages of Newsweek. He’s a neurosurgeon, so he’s credible, and we should believe his self-described logical and scientific account of what he experienced.
Except he doesn’t proceed with much of any logic or scientific methodology. His story isn’t falsifiable and it doesn’t account for other variables.
Nonetheless, he assures us that “the theory that the brain, and in particular the cortex, generates consciousness and that we live in a universe devoid of any kind of emotion” lies broken at our feet. “What happened to me destroyed it,” he proclaims.
We’re supposed to believe him because his cortex was simply off, not functioning, incapable of generating the consciousness necessary for the beautiful heavenly perceptions and sensations he experienced. Or so he alleges.
Sam Harris scratches his head:
Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science.
Unlike Harris, I’m not well-versed in scientific theory, and, even worse, I’m a church-going man of faith. And I find Alexander’s account dubious at best. He displays no doubt that his cortex had truly shut down and that his visions occurred at these precise moments. He’s shows not the least bit of suspicion concerning his interpretation of these experiences. He visited an objectively existing heaven: a place of unconditional love, unified sensations, wordless communication, lofty gazes, indescribable beings, and a young peasant girl riding on a butterfly. Good thing he was conscious!
Too bad he’s not more critical. Consciousness is unreliable as a sure access to reality. Alexander needs to read Paul Ricoeur, who, building on his reading of Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx, and approaching consciousness as primarily false consciousness, developed a type of hermeneutics aimed at interpreting expressions of religious meaning as illusions. What we take to be religious experiences may deep down be the result of drugs, digestion, bodily chemistry, neurosis, the dread of death, the desire for ultimate meaning, or something quite otherwise than these.
I know this prospect isn’t comforting like the good doctor’s beautifully-described heavenly creatures, but I’m not in the business of religious comforts. Religion shouldn’t be a numbing drug, a warm blanket, or a soft pillow. Religion done well is about relationships with others and with Otherness itself, and when are these ever peachy from start to finish? No, religion worth its salt is marked by broken hearts, fear and trembling, and the will to carry on. It may provide occasions of comfort, but these are not its primary fruit.
I believe in heaven, in an eternal community of love, but I draw little comfort from this belief. On those occasions that I contemplate heaven, it doesn’t envelop me in cozy sheets and covers; it kicks me out of bed, onto the hard floor, into the cold air and out into the dark night, reminding me how poorly I love, how undeserving I am to share in such a community.
The heaven envisioned by Eban Alexander made no moral demands upon him. He was told that he could do no wrong. He “returned” from that distant world with a purpose, but that purpose has nothing to do with loving with all his heart, caring for the poor, or tending the hurts of those who suffer. He’s on a prophetic mission to make sure we all get consciousness and this “emerging picture of reality” right. If we follow him, we’ll apparently arrive, some day, at a promised land beyond scattered science and religious myth. Spare me. This work sings of pride, not of faith or hope or love.