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Status anxiety

Dr Alexander’s afterlife

20 October 2012

9:00 AM

20 October 2012

9:00 AM

There was quite an important news story buried beneath all the post-match analysis from the party conferences. Apparently there really is life after death.

Perhaps the reason this ‘news’ didn’t receive more coverage is because it’s not based on any startling new evidence. Rather, the claim has been made by a man called Eben Alexander who had one of those near-death experiences that cannot be explained by science.

What’s startling about this particular experience is that Dr Eben Alexander III, to give him his full name, is a neurosurgeon. Not a scientist, exactly, but a man of science nevertheless. He describes himself as a Christian, but ‘more in name than actual belief’, and used to be sceptical about the out-of-body experiences related by those who’d returned from the undiscovered country. ‘I understand what happens to the brain when people are near death,’ he says.

That was until he fell into a coma in the autumn of 2008. He was suffering from viral meningitis and, judging from the CT scans and all the other neurological evidence, his cortex completely shut down for seven days. According to our current scientific understanding of how the brain works, he shouldn’t have experienced anything at all during this period, not even the most fleeting dream. Yet he embarked on an odyssey in which he flew above the clouds with an angel, heard organ music booming from the heavens and managed to communicate with other beings telepathically.

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Dr Alexander was so impressed by this experience that he’s written a book about it called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife which is being published next week. No doubt he will appear on Newsnight in due course where he’ll be pitted against some militant atheist like Dr Evan Harris or the Revd Giles Fraser.

The first thing to say about Dr Alexander’s book is that he is mistaken in believing that this episode constitutes ‘proof’ of God’s existence. The atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer, who had a similar experience in 1988 after choking on a piece of smoked salmon, called this a ‘prevalent fallacy’. ‘If, as I hold, there is no good reason to believe that a god either created or presides over this world, there is equally no good reason to believe that a god created or presides over the next world, on the unlikely supposition that such a thing exists,’ he wrote.

Ayer struck another note of scepticism, too. He pointed out that, as a philosopher, he’d found it very hard to make sense of the idea that a person’s identity could survive the death of his or her body. I too have often struggled with this notion. This isn’t quite the same thing as saying it’s impossible to separate consciousness from brain activity, i.e. rejecting Cartesian dualism. I’m prepared to entertain the possibility that there might be life after death — and I think accounts like Dr Alexander’s do pose problems for people who subscribe to a wholly materialist account of human consciousness. But it wouldn’t be life as we know it. Indeed, there would be no ‘we’ to experience life. Our personal identities would perish along with our bodies and, while it wouldn’t be the lights-out death that atheists generally believe in, it wouldn’t be much better.

It’s hard not to draw this conclusion from Dr Alexander’s book — at least, judging from the extract published in Newsweek last week. His description of the afterlife is almost comical in the crudity of its Christian iconography. ‘Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds,’ he writes. ‘Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky.’

But that’s not the reason it offers little comfort to those of us who suffer from thanatophobia. Even big, puffy, pink clouds would be preferable to extinction’s alp, to use Larkin’s phrase. Rather, it’s the passages in which Dr Alexander starts waxing lyrical about the inter-connectedness of all things that worry me. ‘It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming a part of it — without joining with it in some mysterious way.’

The good doctor seems to think this is a source of great joy — confirmation that ‘not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also — I now know — defined by love’. To my cynical ear, by contrast, it sounds like disintegration of the self. Confirmation, if any were needed, that while there may be life after death, our selves — our selfish, egocentric, thinking selves — will vanish into the ether.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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