On Wednesday evening, when Sir Terry Pratchett was yet again "Facing extinction" on the BBC, I chose to read a remarkable book we'd been lent by a medical student (via her mother), called Proof of Heaven. It's written by Dr Eben Alexander, an eminent American neurosurgeon. He inexplicably contracted the vanishingly rare e coli meningitis, which rendered his neocortex effectively "dead" and sent him into deep coma from which his colleagues expected him never to emerge. Clearly he did emerge and live to tell the tale, and his story is remarkable. As a neurosurgeon he knows what he is talking about when it comes to brain function and he has seen patients in all states of consciousness. He describes himself as having been a convinced scientific sceptic about all things spiritual. However what he experienced in his coma and what he describes with as much scientific objectivity as possible completely changed his mind.
I have certainly read accounts before of near death events (NDEs), which frankly I found anecdotal and somewhat fanciful. I have heard one person talking about experiencing heaven, to whom I was inclined to give some credence in the light of the impact it made on her life, though I suppose some people might describe her as "flakey". However, I basically held the sort of view that this man of science had before his coma: "I doubted their veracity, mainly because I had not experienced them at a deep level, and because they could not be readily explained by my simplistic scientific view of the world.
"Like many other scientific skeptics, I refused to even review the data relevant to the questions concerning these phenomena. I prejudged the data, and those providing it, because my limited perspective failed to provide the foggiest notion of how such things might actually happen. Those who assert that there is no evidence for phenomena of extended consciousness in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are wilfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts" (p.153).
Well, in his fairly unique sort of coma (with the entire neocortex not functioning) he experienced what he could only afterwards conclude was an experience of consciousness completely independent of the brain. What's more, this experience was extremely vivid and detailed, but has none of the naïveté and self-referential aspects of other NDE survivors' accounts whose comas have been less complete. He gives an astonishingly objective account of the experience, in terms which make sense to the modern mindset, for example about the huge number of dimensions and the ability to comprehend without words. It does of course present him with a problem when he tries to describe the indescribable in language! However having made it his first priority after his medically improbable recovery to note down his memories as fully as possible, he gave himself the data to provide a coherent account. He experiences three regions or states, the muddy darkness of "the Realm of the Earthworm's View", the green brilliance of "the Gateway" and the black but holy darkness of "the Core".
At one point, he concludes, "love is, without doubt, the basis of everything. Not some abstract, hard-to-fathom kind of love but the day-to-day kind that everyone knows - the kind of love we feel when we look at our spouse and our children, or even our animals. In its purest and most powerful form, this love is not jealous or selfish, but unconditional. This is the reality of realities, the incomprehensibly glorious truth of truths that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or that ever will exist, and no remotely accurate understanding of who and what we are can be achieved by anyone who does not know it, and embody it in all of their actions.
"Not much of a scientific insight? Well, I beg to differ. I'm back from that place, and nothing could convince me (otherwise than) that this is not only the single most important emotional truth in the universe, but also the single most important scientific truth as well....
"It is my belief that we are now facing a crucial time in our existence. We need to recover more of that larger knowledge while living here on earth, while our brains (including the left-side analytical parts) are fully functioning. Science - the science to which I've devoted so much of my life - doesn't contradict what I learned up there. But far, far too many people believe it does, because certain members of the scientific community, who are pledged to the materialist worldview, have insisted again and again that science and spirituality cannot coexist.
"They are mistaken...." (pp. 71-73).
I can't help being struck by the contrast of the different views of reality and, therefore, meaning presented by Eben Alexander and Terry Pratchett. Strangely Alexander's seems to me to invest the present with the greater significance - it is part of a greater reality. What you see is not all you get. And the certainty that "love, unconditional love, is the basis of everything" invests existence with an unparalleled luminosity.
At this point this week it is good to have a scientist's testimony that we do not all face extinction when our brains finally pack up, but that our souls, our essential selves, will survive. As St Paul said, "If in Christ we have hope for this life only, we are of all people to be pitied. But in fact...."
PS Dear BBC, How about giving some air time to Dr Alexander's hope, instead of the diet of gloom you seem so fond of? And before you dismiss the idea, do you dare read the book with an open mind, right to the end, where the final evidential proof comes? It's available on Amazon and Kindle.
PPS Eben Alexander's version of what he experienced will not please a lot of Christians or people of other faiths, as he is not propagating a party line. He is simply trying to describe his experience and understand it in his terms. I think it's worth reading because of who he is and the profound impact his experience made on him - and because it brings the possibility of hope nearer. For me, nonetheless, the final and best proof of life after death remains what we celebrate tonight and tomorrow. "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep."