Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

There have been so many books lately proffering "proof of heaven" one could almost call it a fad. Seems like everyone and his brother has had a near death experience that gave them a short sojourn in paradise. And a book contract.

Am I being cynical? I suppose so. I do wonder though why no one ever has a near death experience of the other place. A book called Hell Is For Real. Who's going to buy that?

The latest contender is different. Dr. Eben Alexander came to the heavenly feast with credentials as a neurosurgeon. His book, Proof of Heaven, describes (say reviews) his out-of-body experiences during a period when his neo-cortex was apparently shut down during a life-threatening medical emergency. He was met on the other side by a beautiful blue-eyed woman who took him for a ride on butterflies. He saw a shining orb he understood to be a loving God.

I don't doubt Dr. Alexander's sincerity, but I would take issue with what seems to be his central "proof," according to the press: There is no way science can explain his experience.

There are lots of things that science can't (yet) explain, but that doesn't mean Dr. Alexander's soul went to heaven. Science can't explain much about the brain, not least what happens in crisis mode. I would let Ockham's Razor attribute the beautiful blue-eyed woman and butterflies to Dr. Alexander's brain before I'd invoke the journey of an immaterial soul to an afterlife and back -- and on to the best-seller list, a Newsweek cover, and an Oprah special.

And while I'm on the subject, let me mention a novel I just read by my friend Michael Wilt, The Holy Family. The protagonist of Wilt's story doesn't experience proof of heaven. Rather, he makes a journey in the opposite direction, from devout Catholic to cautious atheist. It's a gentle journey, without rancor or rebuke. At the heart of the story is a tragedy that might send a less courageous person running for the comfort of Dr. Alexander's book, but Wilt's protagonist and his spouse find consolation for their loss in the miracle of life itself.

I could wish for Michael bestsellerdom and an Oprah special, but I have the feeling that his novel is too full of doubt and searching and pain and tenderness -- all of the things that define the human adventure in the absence of True Belief. No ultimate answers, no "proof" of everlasting life, only the ties of human love that in this best of all available worlds bind us to one another.