The keynote speaker for the first evening of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS -- see the previous posting) was Eben Alexander III, M.D. He's a hot ticket these days: his book about his NDE (or if you prefer, "alleged" NDE), titled Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the Afterlife, has reportedly sold two million copies.
In our time, that means he has been discovered by interviewers, cameras, and microphones. No one becomes a celebrity by writing a book, but when they are anointed by the media, it's off to the races.
Most people who write about the paranormal gain a certain following, but I don't know of anyone who has risen from obscurity to fame so quickly in the NDE studies field. Part of the reason is that he worked and taught at prestigious institutions, including Duke University Medical Center and the Harvard Medical School. He was a conventional philosophical materialist for most of his life.
Until a few years ago, it's unlikely anyone would have described him as the least bit eccentric. Alexander still looks Ivy League -- blazered, bow-tied, paid-up member of the Brooks Brotherhood. Readers who would never admit to reading a book by a psychic, or perhaps even an NDE experiencer, can feel reasonably comfortable with Proof of Heaven because of the author's CV.
In 2008 he caught a very rare and deadly form of meningitis and was in a coma for a week. A Harvard surgeon gets the best possible care from his colleagues, but -- according to Alexander -- they held out very little hope for him. His family was told his chances of survival were about 2 percent.
It is at this point that the most heated controversy about NDEs always arises: a near-death experience is not death, right? While some NDErs have returned after having no recordable vital signs, it's only logical to concede that if you are alive in the same body, you didn't actually die. Alexander was undoubtedly hooked up to the latest medical equipment that artificially kept him breathing and supplied his brain with oxygen. But if I understood him correctly when he spoke that evening -- I haven't read Proof of Heaven -- he is convinced the neurons in his brain were not conversing with each other. For his consciousness, it was game over.
I will not try to convey what the man described about his time in the other world. It would be putting words into his mouth that should come from him. You can read his book (I'll get around to it one of these days) and I reckon you can access interviews with him on YouTube.
But I'll say a little about the way he did his best to let us in on the experience he had undergone. I'm interested in other people's personal style, having none of my own.
I was prepared to ... not dislike him, not disbelieve him, but ... find Eben Alexander irritating. What's this metaphysical rock star business? I had entered the large auditorium where he was to speak early and claimed a seat in the audience space near the stage, the better to take his measure. Then I left, spent half an hour yakking with other attendees in the lobby, and returned. By now the auditorium was standing room only. A rite was about to take place. It reminded me of when I was a tadpole and went to hear Timothy Leary in 1967 at UCLA, glorying in my fellowship with the other devotees hanging on each inspired word.
What's the big deal? I'm just suspicious of cult figures. They may start out as apostles of some insight, then they start believing the blurbs on the covers of their books and their publishers' publicity machines. They turn bloated with their own supposed wisdom. Eventually the mask drops and clatters on the ground. Anybody remember Fritz Perls?
That's what was in my mind in re Eben Alexander. Prejudiced? Who, me? Certainly. Prejudice is good. Life would be so much duller without it. Besides, it's always fully justified.
Once Alexander began speaking, it took me about two minutes to warm to him. He has the gift for connecting with an audience. It has something to do with the accent of the Upper South -- he was raised in Tennessee or North Carolina or someplace like that -- and it's one of the most pleasing forms of American pronunciation. Besides that, the territory of his origin seems to be the last refuge of the almost lost art of oratory.
His delivery was polished, but I don't mean he sounded insincere. He just knew how to make dramatic effects: variations in tone and volume, pauses to let certain statements sink in. All his training as a doctor and neurosurgeon almost surely left no time for acting lessons, even assuming he ever had any interest in them. He's just a natural. He even saved a "big moment" for the closing (although I have to confess I saw the revelation coming earlier).
Did I believe him? Yes, at the time. Now? Probably. If I'd never heard a description of an NDE before, I might have been more skeptical. But although he was more articulate than some experiencers, his story included a fair number of elements in common with others.
The objection that he didn't actually "die," and that his consciousness during his long coma was only a response to an extreme brain state, cannot be proved or disproved. As he pointed out several times, psychology hasn't the faintest idea how consciousness comes into being. Nor do we know what death is.
However real and transcendent Alexander's venture into a different mode of consciousness may have seemed to him, we can't tell from the outside its ontological status. He may have basked in the company of God and angels; or simply perceived a specialized, fantastical illusion squeezed into the normal illusion we inhabit in our waking hours. Maybe we have to be content with asking, along with Edgar Allan Poe:
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?