“Heaven is Real!”

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Newsweek and The Daily Beast embarrassed themselves this week with a florid, if not downright lurid, cover story:

It’s by a neurosurgeon claiming that his own visionary experience, had while in a coma, is “proof” that heaven exists. If you haven’t read it, please do and then come back.

I’ve read it twice, each time with growing awe. It’s not the wispy, sort of new-agey angels that inspire incredulity. It’s …

* Is it really possible that a self-claimed brain scientist is unaware that when you’re in a coma your cortical activity does not completely shut down, as he repeatedly asserts? There’s a lot we still don’t understand about coma states, but we do know there is both measurable brain activity and other ill-understood effects (e.g. people coming out of comas have noted hearing the actual conversations going on around them). You know what? If your cortical activity really does shut down for seven days, you don’t come back and write a book about it; you die.

* Was he given ketamine? We aren’t told. But I understand ketamine is commonly given to people in comas — and what do you know, it can produce hallucinations just like the visions he describes.

* He seems to believe he was “in heaven” the entire seven days of the coma based on the “timeless” quality of the vision. But how could he know how long the actual visionary experience took? People taking ketamine, ayahuasca, and similar hallucinogens often report “timelessness,” even though the experience takes only minutes. And haven’t we all woken up from dreams that subjectively seemed to last forever, when objectively they probably lasted only 90 seconds?

* Does he really believe that constantly repeating I’m a scientist and I understand the brain! is a substitute for showing us data — for instance, a list of medications he was given, or EEG traces made during the coma? Again and again, he offers only that hoary old fallacy, argument from authority.

* Is it really possible that Newsweek staffers believe it? Or are they in their offices snickering about how the rubes will buy anything?

* Finally, is it really possible that millions of believers out there are not only falling for this, but thinking it’s an effective argument for their cause?

I’ll give the author this: He probably did have the visions he describes. Plenty of other visionaries, consumers of hallucinogens, brain-disease sufferers, people with high fevers, and vivid dreamers have reported similar things. (That is, Westerners have reported them. Visions of people from other cultures are often very different.)

But he offers not one shred of anything any sane person would consider “proof.” In fact, he offers dozens of flaming-red flags that anybody with a shred of sense should see waving right in front of their eyes. From almost its first paragraph, this article raises question after question — or ought to raise them. If you can read that article without seriously questioning its claims and its credibility, I’ve got a nice bridge in Brooklyn I’d be happy to sell you.

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2 Responses to ““Heaven is Real!””

  1. justasqpeg Says:

    More likely- he just really really wants to believe and this experience gave him the justification he was looking for.

    Unfortunately, he is now using his completely subjective experience as a false claim for “objective” proof. He is fooling people, probably without really intending to lie to them. But unless he clearly states that this is what he saw inside his own head, and it may have nothing to do with external reality, he IS lying.

    I once “heard a UFO”, too- with 2 other witnesses. Does that mean earth is definitely being visited from beyond the Solar System?

  2. squarepeggeen Says:

    Some folks have said that the experience was so overwhelming to him (understandably so) that the book and article are attempts to give it some logical justification in his own mind. His cultural framework is Christian, so he builds a Christian edifice around whatever strange experience he had.

    But you’re right: he IS lying. If he’s the scientist he claims to be, then he understands requirements for evidence. He knows logic — or should. Telling himself a comforting story is one thing; abandoning all his training to drag others into pseudoscience is another. That’s the thing that really hacks me off. Tell your story if you must, but don’t go around claiming it’s “scientific.”

    And as for Newsweek … I’ve seen some cynical attempts to make a buck, but this is one that P.T. Barnum would be proud of.

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