Human Exceptionalism

Near-Death Experience & Human Exceptionalism

 A neurosurgeon claims to have had a near death experience and is now convinced we go on after death. Prior to almost dying from meningitis, Dr. Eben Alexander was what might be called a closet Christian, believing but not taking it very seriously. Then, he completely checked out for a week, leading to an extraordinary (he says) vision. From, “Heaven is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife,” published in Newsweek:

In the fall of 2008, however, after seven days in a coma during which the human part of my brain, the neocortex, was inactivated, I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death…For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline.

That should have meant nothingness, or at least utter unawareness. But Alexander claims he experienced a profound vision:

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

But that dimension—in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states—is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world: a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.

Materialists will say there is no proof, and they are quite right. Some might say that even if this actually transpired, it does not prove life after death since Alexander wasn’t dead. Quite right again. Some might sniff that such visions are an evolved coping mechanism, although how near death visions would interact with natural selection isn’t clear. Some also assert that if something can’t be proved using the scientific method–if it isn’t falsifiable and repeatable–it doesn’t exist, or at least, isn’t worth taking seriously. 

There I disagree. Materialistic myopia is the Achilles heel of thinking that the scientific method is the only valid approach for obtaining human knowledge, because sole reliance on the measurable may occasionally prevent us from “seeing” flashes of reality revealed in unpredictable ways. To put it another way, too many people have experienced Pauline-style life-changing epiphanies over the centuries to just assume they are all products of delusion.

We certainly shouldn’t take Alexander’s story at face value–charlatans have been known to use such stories for personal gain–but I think we should be open to the potential reality of noetic truths. (Alexander’s vision was way too saccharine for my taste. When the being tells him we can do “nothing wrong,”I just rolled my eyes. What: Oprah values rule in the hereafter? Please.)

But the validity of Alexander’s insights isn’t the point. Episodes such as this show, I think, that we have other ways of discerning than what our five senses reveal to us. Moreover, if these visions and other “supernatural” phenomena are real, they are not really supernatural at all, but part of the total experience of life that we don’t yet understand.

Occasionally, some of us find there is more in heaven and earth than dreamt of in our philosophy, and we are changed. Mystery is part of the uniqueness of human life, one expression of our exceptionality.


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