Wherefore Art Thou 'Proof?'

A man is infected by a rare strain of E. Coli and contracts meningitis. He slips into a coma and nearly dies. During this time, he has an experience of an expanding spinning white light. He meets a beautiful woman who acts as his guide on a journey on the wings of a large butterfly to a new dimension. It sounds like a typical near death experience (NDE) so far, right? Only, here's the rub: he says he wasn't near death with normal brain function, he was completely brain dead. And with a brain that was completely shut down, those were not hallucinations or dreams but proof of Heaven.

Dr. Eben Alexander's 2012 New York Times bestselling book Proof of Heaven asserts this very occurrence during Dr. Alexander's 2008 week-long, meningitis-induced coma. Of course, his story has met with criticism. I will, for the moment, ignore irrelevant criticism such as professional setbacks and story discrepancies that have come to surface in an Esquire article, the similarity of his experience to other scientifically NDEs or DMT experiences, or possible interpretational bias on the part of Dr. Alexander, as mentioned by blogger Amitai Shenhav. One friend even mentioned that just because it was Dr. Alexander's experience, that doesn't mean everyone will experience it. This, too, is irrelevant because the question is whether Heaven exists, not if everyone will experience it. I want to focus on criticism that deals with the crux of the argument -- whether Dr. Alexander's cerebral cortex was completely shut down or not.

According to Sam Harris, to prove a near-death experience of consciousness apart from the body, one could either show that the brain was inactive or dead or one could show that the patient acquired knowledge about the outside world that was only possible if the mind was separate from the body. Dr. Alexander's book rests on the first assumption, and it is exactly this assumption that is contested by Sam Harris and Mark Cohen as well as Oliver Sacks. First, they suggest that there is no proof that his brain was shut off. Secondly, they suggest that instead of occurring during the deep coma as Dr. Alexander suggests, his Heaven experience occurred during the final stages of his coma while "resurfacing," as the brain was returning to its full function, the same time most NDEs occur.

All of this greeted me when I turned on the TV to watch the news on a recent trip to a conference. I really, really wished Dr. Alexander had removed the word "proof" from the title of the book and just titled it "My Experience of Heaven." That would have eliminated much of the controversy so we could concentrate on the story because it actually is a compelling story. Usually you will run into trouble the moment you use the word "proof," as it's generally very difficult to prove anything, much less something as esoteric as Heaven (some people believe that it is not yet proven that smoking causes cancer). But more than removing the word "proof," I began to think about the nature of objectivity and proof.

I spoke with a friend about proving Heaven and he told me, it's true unless someone proves it isn't. A scientist friend said the opposite to me: it doesn't exist unless someone proves its existence. The strange thing is that neither fits mathematical philosophy, and the scientist should have known that. In mathematics, we are not biased one way or the other. In other words, if we don't know if a solution exists, you must actually prove its existence or prove its non-existence. You can publish an academic paper proving something exists or proving something doesn't exist, but the burden of proof lies on both sides. I wish people treated matters involving religion like that.

Secondly, the whole idea of objectivity, a dynamic idea that has changed throughout the years, is wrapped in subjectivity as Conner Habib beautifully explains. It's hard to divorce the two. Instead of trying to divorce them by claiming proof which invites dissent, I wish we could think more about the nature of reality, what is truth, what does Dr. Alexander's NDE say about him, or about any deeper meaning that could be gleaned from Dr. Alexander's experience.

Lastly, I began to wonder why proof is even important in this issue. I feel that when Dr. Alexander tries to use proof to show the existence of something, in some sense he is saying that only things that are scientifically proven are real, that truth lies only in propositional statements that can be proven. Yet the very realm he enters into (that of faith) deals with a level of Truth that is altogether something different than propositional statements that are either true or false.

For example, according to one interpretation of the Bible, the holy book of Dr. Alexander's religion, Jesus can be seen as being more concerned with living as if Heaven is now rather than waiting for Heaven to overtake us. More importantly, according to this interpretation, perhaps what is True is that it is more important to live as if Heaven is now, to constantly engage in the act of creating Heaven in all your life interactions, than to worry about proving the propositional veracity of Heaven in the future.

In general, claims of proof attract dissent. The controversy over Dr. Alexander's experience is an interesting debate, but the controversy mutes the story of Dr. Alexander's experience and our ability to ponder it. If it were up to me, in any future books, I would drop the word "proof." It's doesn't help, and it's not important.