Against Fairness

In favor of favoritism

Cotton Candy for the Masses

Another #1 bestseller about the afterlife reveals our psychological sweet tooth

Karl Marx famously called religion the “opiate of the masses,” but the new best seller by Dr. Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven, is more like cotton-candy than anything adults might use to anesthetize their pains. The childish Shirley Temple beverage that Dr. Alexander offers up is so treacle sweet, it’s hard to understand its appeal. But then we have Sigmund Freud and William James to help us make sense of things.

Dr. Alexander is a neurosurgeon, who experienced a case of bacterial meningitis in 2008 that left him in a coma for a week. According to his book, his neocortex was utterly compromised by the E. coli, and basically shut down. While his neocortex was off, he experienced a mystical voyage – floating through puffy clouds and gentle breezes of gnostic insight, and careening through vibrating luminous explosions. He also rode on butterfly wings, and exchanged telepathic comforts with a high-cheek-boned beauty, who assured him: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.” Oh, and he also hung out for awhile with a brilliant mystical orb in a “giant cosmic womb.”

Sounds great, really. I had a similarly beautiful trip on LSD at a Grateful Dead show in the 1980s. But there are some problems with Alexander’s story. First, his brain science is flawed. Alexander claims that he couldn’t be consciously imagining all this or dreaming it because his neocortex was shut down and “everybody knows” there’s no consciousness beneath the cortex. It must have been my soul leaving my body and really going to heaven because “According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.”

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The logic here is very fallacious and neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Jaak Panksepp have shown that consciousness in some form goes all the way down through the limbic system and into the brain stem itself. There are even human beings who are born, sadly, without a neocortex – and while they are cognitively impaired, they are very much conscious (with rich emotional lives). Moreover, every night when we all go to sleep, significant parts of the neocortex shut down and the limbic system and reptile brain take over. So, even normal dream life is comprised of high subcortical activity (e.g., amygdala, hippocampus, etc.) and low cortical activity. In short, the basic premise of Alexander’s argument doesn’t make sense, but since he has an MD after his name people are willing to accept his dubious claims as authoritative.

The real problem with Proof of Heaven, however, is that it sells us a juvenile fantasy – a sugary pap. And we relax all our critical thinking skills because we yearn desperately to believe it. Everyone, even the most hardened skeptic, wants to hear someone say “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.” Freud pointed out that all human beings conduct their juvenile lives according to the Pleasure Principle – an ego-driven selfish pattern of hedonism. But then we grow up. We become socialized. We slowly transform our pursuits from pleasure to the Reality Principle because we get a “reality check,” informing us that we’re not the center of the universe and life is tinged with suffering, disappointment, mixed emotions, and the constraining desires of other people. But the inner-child and his taste for perfect bliss and cotton-candy remains buried deep in the psyche and he loves to reawaken whenever uterine bliss, butterfly rides and magical orbs are on offer. Immortality is the ultimate cotton-candy and we’ll probably never lose a taste for it. But that yearning doesn’t prove heaven exists, and it doesn’t prove Dr. Alexander went on holiday there.

The cynical way to read Dr. Alexander is that he figured out a genius way to get rich, but I suspect he’s actually sincere. He comes from a Christian background, and he probably believes what he’s saying. William James, however, pointed out how easy it is to over-interpret our strange experiences. I don’t doubt that Alexander had a mystical experience – such strange, oceanic sensations of oneness with all things are more common than you’d think. But the feature that Alexander is so excited by – the detailed specificity of his odyssey – is exactly the thing that raises skeptical worries. Having some kind of pure awareness of the “absolute” (whatever that is) is possible, but this same ineffable absolute is supposed to be beyond the words, concepts, and even images of language and ordinary consciousness. Alexander’s odyssey, on the contrary, has the story-like detail of a George Lucas or Disney film. This, together with his own Christian background, leads me to suspect that his strange experience is a highly “constructed” dream – woven together subconsciously both during and after his coma. This interpretation is made more credible by the fact that we all do some form of this constructing as we move each morning from dream sleep to waking life.

Now which is more reasonable to believe: Dr. Alexander had a really cool dream and wrote a book about it, or Dr. Alexander travelled to heaven and brought back the souvenirs to prove it?

 

Stephen T. Asma, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences at Columbia College Chicago.

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