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Near-Death Experiences: Putting a Darwinist’s Evidentiary Standards to the Test

Michael Egnor

Editor’s note: Dr. Egnor is professor and vice-chairman of neurosurgery at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Eben Alexander.jpgOver the decades, Darwinists have proven themselves to be famously gullible. Think of the fairy tales that have been spun about fossil fragments in various rocks (Nebraska Man, Piltdown man, and Archaeoraptor come to mind). Today as well the evidence for standard Darwinian narratives of life’s history remains startlingly sketchy and ambiguous.

Paleoanthropology, for example, is notorious for inventing stories of human origins from pathetically little in the way of physical remains. Evolutionary psychology is even worse, offering ludicrous speculations on the basis of no evidence at all.

Contrast this for a moment with Darwinists’ contemptuous dismissal of the life-changing experiences of millions of people. At Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne takes a swipe at the report of an out-of-body/near-death experience of formidably distinguished neurosurgeon Eben Alexander (photo at right), who was in a coma for a week due to meningitis. Widely published, Dr. Alexander teaches at the University of Virginia Medical School and has been on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. An excerpt from his forthcoming book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, was published in Newsweek. A week before publication it is the #2 bestseller on Amazon.
Dr. Alexander reports:

It took me months to come to terms with what happened to me. Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma, but — more importantly — the things that happened during that time. Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky…

Higher than the clouds — immeasurably higher — flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them.

Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms.

A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above, and I wondered if the winged beings were producing it. Again, thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise — that if the joy didn’t come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it. The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet…

It gets stranger still. For most of my journey, someone else was with me. A woman.
She was young, and I remember what she looked like in complete detail. She had high cheekbones and deep-blue eyes. Golden brown tresses framed her lovely face.

When first I saw her, we were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us — vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the woods and coming back up around us again…

Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real — was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.

The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:

“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

“You have nothing to fear.”

“There is nothing you can do wrong.”…

What happened to me demands explanation…

Today many believe that the living spiritual truths of religion have lost their power, and that science, not faith, is the road to truth. Before my experience I strongly suspected that this was the case myself.

But I now understand that such a view is far too simple. The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already. This view is scientific and spiritual in equal measure and will value what the greatest scientists of history themselves always valued above all: truth. [Emphasis added.]

Such reports are very common among people who are comatose or who have near-death experiences (NDE). I know of several reports by patients in my practice, and I have spoken to neurosurgeons who have had patients with experiences that can be confirmed.

Indeed, about 20 percent of NDE’s are corroborated, which means that there are independent ways of checking about the veracity of the experience. The patients knew of things that they could not have known except by extraordinary perception — such as describing details of surgery that they watched while their heart was stopped, etc. Additionally, many NDE’s have a vividness and a sense of intense reality that one does not generally encounter in dreams or hallucinations.

From a scientific standpoint, I think that we need to consider these personal reports as real evidence, of varying credibility.

Yet Coyne ridicules Dr. Alexander:

Give that man a Templeton Prize! My explanation: Alexander had a long dream, one conditioned by his religious upbringing (he describes himself “as a faithful Christian”). Isn’t that more parsimonious?

People in comas don’t have “dreams” as we understand them (if they’re dreaming, they’re sleeping, which is not coma). There is no simple medical explanation for such a rich complex experience, which occurred when the man’s brain function was so minimal that he was comatose, a state associated with neurological disability so profound that speaking or comprehending or even purposefully moving are impossible.
The most “parsimonious” explanation — the simplest scientific explanation — is that the experience was real. Tens of millions of people have had such experiences. That is tens of millions of more times than we have observed the origin of species, which is never. Coynes goes on:

Note that the title of the piece is “Proof of heaven.” Proof! And from a single long dream.
It’s bad enough that a man of science (if doctors deserve that monicker) buys the whole hog of religion from such an experience, but it’s worse that this is foisted on Americans in a best-selling magazine as “proof of heaven.” That’s how hungry we are for assurance that our death will not be the end.

Actually, doctors are men of science. In fact, we’re the ones who did better in college than guys like Coyne. That’s how we got into medical school. Two of my professors in med school were subsequently Nobel laureates — Eric Kandel and Richard Axel. Both are MD’s.

And it embarrasses me, especially before my foreign colleagues.

Note that Coyne dismisses this man’s report, and the reports of millions of other people, out of hand, because their intensely personal — often life-changing — experiences don’t fit Coyne’s tiny ideological mold. In fact Coyne insults the man, and claims that he “embarrasses” him in front of his foreign friends.

NDE’s are varied and complex things, and my take on them is that they most likely represent a spectrum of experiences — fraud, delusion, dreaming, drug effects and a real core of actual experiences of the afterlife. In a way, they’re like religion, broadly understood. Lots of chaff around a core of wheat.

I take them seriously and give the NDEer respect. Many of these people are clearly honest and are trying to tell about something astonishing that they experienced.

As to the veracity of the actual content of these reports, the issue is very complex. It is very hard to say scientific things about massively anecdotal non-reproducible unpredictable experiences of millions of people. The corroborated NDE’s do offer an option to do science, but they have not been carefully compiled and critically analyzed, to my knowledge.

For religious believers, there are also obvious theological issues raised. Are we, as Dr. Alexander seems to say, really forgiven for everything, even if we have not repented? I hope so (!), but that’s not Judeo-Christian teaching.

Materialists hate these accounts, because they (especially the corroborated ones) are very difficult to square with a materialist picture of reality. The materialist explanations, on the other hand, are generally baloney — vaguely gesturing to endorphins and the like. Another thing that materialists hate is that the public loves this stuff and believes it — it resonates in a way that abstract critiques of materialism fail to do.

The materialist reaction, in short, is unscientific and close-minded. NDE’s show fellows like Coyne at their sneering unscientific irrational worst. Somebody finds a crushed fragment of a fossil and it’s earth-shaking evidence. Tens of million of people have life-changing spiritual experiences and it’s all a big yawn.

Image credit: Eben Alexander, Simon & Schuster.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



dreamsEben AlexanderEric KandelhallucinationsJerry Coynematerialistsnear-death experiencesProof of HeavenRichard AxelTempleton Prize