Last week I quickly mentioned that the topic of near-death experience had made the cover of Newsweek. I didn't have much time to discuss it then (and I still don't, really) because…I'm writing about near-death experiences (for my book). But at the time, I quickly mentioned on my Twitter account a couple of things that concerned me about the case, and the big publicity it was getting:
- That the Newsweek piece was pitched as 'Proof of heaven/afterlife', but no real evidence was offered in the article.
- That Eben Alexander's experience actually didn't sound overly like a typical NDE…in fact, it sounded a whole lot more like a psychedelic experience via entheogens such as Salvia or DMT.
My latter point was quickly supported by a satirical article on Gawker which asked readers to try and pick whether phrases were from the Newsweek NDE feature, or from internet postings about drug experiences. The former point was, as could be predicted, picked apart by prominent atheists, including P.Z. Myers and Sam Harris.
Now firstly, I'm not as concerned as some that Newsweek ran the story - it's a human story, and fascinating in its own right, something that a lot of peope would want to read. Hardly an "archaeological artifact that is certain to embarrass us in the eyes of future generations", as Sam Harris would have it (whoah there with the hyperbole Sam!). All the same, I think Harris makes some good points in his critique, most notably:
Everything — absolutely everything — in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.”
Where I would urge caution though, and Sam Harris even quickly mentions this himself, is that we should probably be reserving judgement until the book itself is released (on October 23). Now, some blame should go to Newsweek's headlining department, because I expected some decent evidence to be put forward, when it wasn't. But there are elements to the case that weren't mentioned in the Newsweek article which will obviously be in the book, and which no doubt led Alexander to his conclusion that his 'NDE' was proof of an afterlife. Perhaps the most prominent of which was that the woman he interacted with during the experience was his birth sister whom he had never seen an image of before (Alexander was adopted out), and who had died just a few years previous to his illness. He mentions it in this clip:
Now, from his description of how this all played out, I'm sure skeptics could pull this piece of 'evidence' itself apart enough to show there are scenarios that explain how he saw his dead sister. But it does make clear that there are other interesting elements to the story that convinced Alexander to his way of thinking (and may convince others). So perhaps we should steady down with the criticisms for now.
Though I'm not sure Dr Alexander and his publishers would be overly concerned with more publicity at this stage - his book is currently (as I write) #2 on Amazon, and it's still a week away from official release. Ahem, Newsweek, I have a cool book out soon that you might like to mention…