A Philosopher's Blog

Proving Heaven

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2012
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I have always included a section on the afterlife in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As bit of grim humor, I tell my students that this is one philosophical problem that has a definite answer—unfortunately getting that answer requires dying.

Not surprisingly, students often point to examples of experiences in which people are technically dead, but are restored to life. People who survive these encounters with death often speak of strange experiences that they sometimes take as evidence for the afterlife.

One of the best publicized examples of this is the case of Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon. After being put into a coma by bacterial meningitis, he had a death and revival experience which he has extensively publicized. He has also written up his experience as a book, the aptly named Proof of Heaven.

While Dr. Alexander’s case was given extensive media coverage because he is a Harvard neurosurgeon, his case is otherwise not significantly different from other such cases and can be assessed as they have been assessed. Naturally, it is worth noting that his medical training does give him credibility as an expert on neurosurgery. However, as an observer of the afterlife he would seem to be no more (or less) of an expert than anyone else. That is, his expertise in neurosurgery would not seem to apply to metaphysical experiences of the sort alleged to have occurred.

One stock criticism of the near-death experience is that a person who is revived is not properly dead. After all, they are revived shortly after death rather than resurrected or raised from the dead. As such, there is the rather legitimate question of whether or not they are even dead in a manner that would allow them to experience an afterlife, should it exist. They might just be “mostly dead” rather than “properly dead” and hence any experiences they have would not be experiences of the afterlife.

A second stock criticism is that the person who reports on near death experiences is not experiencing an afterlife, but is in a state of dreaming or hallucination that is mistaken for the afterlife on the basis that they were “mostly dead.” Critics routinely point to the similarities between near death experiences and drug experiences and the case of Dr. Alexander is no exception. It certainly makes sense that a dying brain would experience dream or drug like experiences that have no connection to the afterlife.

The cutting edge of these criticisms is to be found in Occam’s razor: the experiences can be explained adequately without postulating a metaphysical afterlife. As such, the explanation that the experiences are occurring within a dying (but still living) brain is the better explanation.

Aside from Dr. Alexander’s fame, there seems to be no real difference between his experiences and those reported by many other people before him.  Given that these cases do not provide proof of heaven, then neither does his case.

Naturally, I would like to believe in the sort of wonderful afterlife claimed by Dr. Alexander. However, wishful thinking is not proof.

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9 Responses

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  1. inrockfordnow said, on November 7, 2012 at 7:21 pm


    Alexander argues that his neocortex was switched off, and that conscious experiences such as he describes were impossible during his coma. This, so he claims, makes his case relevantly different from the ones before.

    Also, some who agree that this does not provide proof of Heaven still think it disproves materialism.

    It’s all hogwash of course. But the “stock criticism” you describe doesn’t seem to work here due to his claims about the neocortex.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 7, 2012 at 9:56 pm

      I did consider his claim about the shut down, but he does not seem to have adequate evidence that this was the case. The fact that he came back without serious brain damage would seem to indicate some living activity remained.

      Now, if he can show that all possible physically based mental operations had ceased, then his claim of post death experience would have more credence as evidence of a mind that could experience a non physical aspect of reality.

  2. Lina said, on November 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Hey, interesting topic here. I had this idea, a hypothesis about how life after death could exist. According to these people who claim they had some experience during their being near death, it sounds like they were in some sort of a dream state. Now how could this be if their cortex or whatever part of their brain is off?

    My guess is that maybe they have this experience just before the moment they wake up. It could be similar to what we experience when we sleep. For instance, when we snooze our alarm, there are times when we have a dream which we think at that dreaming moment that lasts very long but when the alarm goes then we realize it was just for a few minutes.

    Thinking on this perspective, there actually could be a way that life after death exists, depending on what frame of reference we look, depending on the observer.
    What if that man in comma never woke up? What would happen in his ‘dream’ (or heaven)? Maybe he would think that this heaven is lasting forever while in our waken reference he’s just a minute from complete death. To be on a positive side, maybe there’s a chance that this person always will be in this ‘dream’ and his mind (or soul) will never reach that point of knowing about its own death. So then technically forever heaven might exits.

    Of course it’s just a mind experiment. I would appreciate your comments and views 🙂

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 18, 2012 at 1:41 pm

      Good points. The evidence seems to be that the brain is not completely devoid of activity when people are “dead” in this manner.

      Interesting idea that a person could dream a long (subjective) time in “heaven” while objectively little time passes. Of course, they’d not seem to be well and truly dead.

      • Lina said, on November 18, 2012 at 4:53 pm

        Thanks for a comment, it’s nice to see a feedback from a philosopher. Hopefully, there are more ideas about life after death than just that we die and then nothing happens or that we go straight to heaven.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 18, 2012 at 8:20 pm

          There are lots of theories: reincarnation of various sorts, existing as ghosts, and so on. Spinoza had the view that we persist in the eternal existence of God.

          • Lina said, on November 19, 2012 at 2:41 pm

            Yeah, but those 2 lastly mentioned theories don’t have many logical arguments. For instance, in case of reincarnation you don’t remember who you were in your previous life or even that you have lived before so it’s basically the same as no life after death cos you reborn as different person.

            I didn’t know about Spinoza ideas, I’ll have to check them out, thanks for mentioning it.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2012 at 6:19 pm

              Plato, in the Meno lays out probably the best philosophical argument for reincarnation.

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