Wednesday, October 10, 2012

It's "Proof" of Life After Death Because He's a Doctor?

A new book by a neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander is getting a lot of publicity from various news outlets (see, e.g., here). Dr. Alexander, a "faithful Christian, claims to have had a near death experience in which he remained conscious despite the fact that the cognitive part of his brain was severely impaired. What makes his experience supposedly newsworthy is that he is a neurosurgeon who previously did not believe in such near-death experiences.

But why should the fact that he's a doctor (neurosurgeon or otherwise) give his story more credence than the story of any other survivor, who reports such an experience? It shouldn't, according to this excellent article by Colin Blakemore in The Telegraph. Blakemore, like me, remains a skeptic. Why is it, he asks, that so many survivors who report near-death experiences recount stories that more or less precisely fit the expectations of the religions they (but not others) espouse? Why do so few report a trip to hell? Does each individual get the near-death experience he or she would choose, if given several alternatives? Dr. Alexander was accompanied by one stunningly beautiful woman. Perhaps if he were Islamic, he would have been accompanied by 72 virgins. Or, if he were Jewish, like me, perhaps he would have been hounded by his mother.

More importantly, as a matter of science, there is no reason to give extra credence to such a tale because it is told by a doctor, who previously was a skeptic. As Blakemore suggests, "when there is no evidence except the word of the beholder, a scientist’s accounts are no more reliable than those of anyone else. Would we literally believe the contents of a scientist’s dream because he or she has a PhD?"

By the way, you can read Dr. Alexander's biography at the site of an organization he co-founded and chairs called, Eternea: The Convergence of Science & Spirituality

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