Friday, December 12, 2014

Building A Foundation For An Integrated Approach To Science & Spirituality


Religion teaches men how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. – Galileo (1616)

This is the second in an occasional series on “deep science,” a rational way of reconciling scientific method with the human need to find meaning and purpose. Read part one: Finding Meaning In A Meaningless World

Doctor Eben Alexander went to heaven and came back. And he wants to tell you about it. Alexander’s best-selling book, Proof of Heaven, describes the doctor’s experiences during a hospital stay, during which time he was almost entirely unconscious. Alexander had magnificent visions of a beautiful world that he assumed was heaven, with angel-like beings and a ride on the back of something like a huge butterfly.

Alexander states: “A story – a true story – can heal as much as medicine can.” The problem is that Alexander’s story, or at least his interpretation of it, isn’t true. A key part of his story is that he claims he was temporarily brain-dead during his entire time in the hospital, a condition induced by a bad case of meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining around the brain. Alexander claims that his experiences during temporary brain death constitute proof that consciousness survives the body. This is his key point in his book.

Esquire magazine ran a detailed article by Luke Dittrich on Alexander and his book. The article included a dialogue with Alexander and his associates, including the doctor who treated him for meningitis in the hospital. Alexander’s doctor states that Alexander was in a chemically-induced coma during almost his entire stay in the hospital – a coma induced by the doctor because Alexander couldn’t be physically restrained, in order to even assess his vital signs, without drugs. So Alexander wasn’t brain dead, even temporarily. Rather, he was in a chemically-induced coma. These are major issues with Alexander’s story and they undermine his trustworthiness pretty seriously. The Esquire article includes a number of other anecdotes showing Alexander’s tendency toward “audacious reinvention.”

My point in bringing up this story is that for all we know, despite our healthy skepticism about audacious claims, Alexander could have been in heaven and consciousness could survive the body’s death. So even though I find both of these possibilities very unlikely, I can’t completely rule them out. When a person makes these kinds of assertions, which contradict the current scientific worldview so significantly, reliability and honesty are very important. We also need some means for corroboration, rather than simply accepting such assertions on faith.

Rather than simply denying the validity of claims like Alexander’s, as many “hard-nosed” types would, we should be able to establish a reliable first-person science that relies on third-person corroboration. This is, among other things, what deep science is about. Again, since this is a key point: deep science will not simply throw out first-person testimonials and evidence as hopelessly subjective. Rather, it will seek ways to build a reliable first-person science in addition to the conventional third-person science.

For the rest of the story:

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