book reviews

Books about near-death experiences
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

Proof of Heaven
A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
Eben Alexander

I n November 2008, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander became violently ill with bacterial meningitis. While in a coma, he discovered that the universe is vastly larger and more complicated than he believed. He experienced visions of flying on a butterfly with a blue-eyed girl, receiving knowledge from shimmering floating beings, and experiencing God while in a state of being he calls "ultra-reality." All fascinating stuff.

This book has all the elements of a great psychological detective story. Foreshadowings of things revealed to the author are strategically placed early in the book. He says he was an avid skydiver in his youth, admiring the views of colorful sunsets while falling through the sky, and then while dead he sees himself flying among fluffy pink clouds. His sense of abandonment as an adopted child is resolved later in the story by spiritual beings who tell him he is loved and can do no wrong—which is almost exactly what his relatives, standing vigil at his bedside, happen to be whispering to him at the same moment. The reader can figure out about the blue-eyed girl in the first few pages. The only problem is that Dr Alexander claims not to recognize any of this.

Aside from the improbable visions, part of what makes this story incredible is the way it's related. The story uses a first-person omniscient point of view, as if he knows what all the other characters are thinking even while delirious, unconscious, or having a seizure. Just how close to God did this guy get? Maybe I shouldn't speak ill of the dead (or the formerly dead), but this seems to fatally undermine the story's credibility as non-fiction.

Others have commented on the fact that being in a coma from meningitis is obviously not the same as being dead. On this point, I would give Alexander the benefit of the doubt. But he not only makes no attempt to address the questions of scientifically literate readers, he more or less blows them off.

It was disappointing to see someone of Dr Alexander's stature relate all this with almost no skepticism or analysis. It's as if I got hit on the head while watching the Kentucky Derby, saw visions of sparkly unicorns going around in circles, and expected you to believe they were real. That doesn't mean what Dr Alexander saw was all a hallucination, but there's not much here that could seriously convince anyone that there's life after death. He says his life was profoundly changed by his experience, and insists the events in this book are real. Maybe they are, or maybe he's just trying to help his patients cope with their forthcoming inevitable death. But somehow, after putting down this short book, I couldn't help feeling I had just finished reading a novel.

nov 03, 2012

Science, the Self, and Survival After Death
Selected Writings of Ian Stevenson
E.W. Kelly, ed.

W e've all heard the stories about children in Asia who claim to be reincarnations of past family members. These stories are easy to dismiss, because reincarnation is a traditional belief in Asia and China. They could well be telling the parents what they want to hear. But when Western children make the same claim, it's harder to ignore. It's an important topic: if reincarnation is real, it would radically change our understanding of the universe. Ian Stevenson, a professor at the University of Virginia, devoted his career to finding out whether there's anything to it. This book is a collection of some of his writings.

Stevenson's work suffers from long-windedness, which is an occupational hazard for ethnographers. It also suffers from a lack of rigor. Stevenson was a cautious and thorough observer, but he was unable to go beyond that stage. There are only a handful of anecdotes here. All of them are from Asia, and they're interesting to read, but we need anecdotes from cultures not already steeped in reincarnation, and we need hard statistical analysis and a plausible theory before any value can be assigned to this stuff.

It's no good to say, as Stevenson did, that materialism is wrong. The world is made of material objects, and it is the obligation of those positing more to explain how non-material things like consciousness and disembodied souls, if they exist, can retain their identity, exist independently of material objects, and interact with them.

I was hoping for some theory in this book. But Stevenson was temperamentally unsuited to this task. His main contribution was to lay the groundwork for others.

nov 28, 2013

Return to Life:
Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives
J.B. Tucker

M ore impressive is this nontechnical book by Jim B. Tucker. Some of Ian Stevenson's Asian case histories are included here, but there are also several American stories. These children talk about things they did in their previous life when they were "big," and, according to Dr Tucker, sometimes give astonishingly accurate and detailed accounts of life before birth. If true, they could be a clue that consciousness may be much more than we currently imagine.

The stories are tantalizing, but not conclusive. One kid had nightmares about being shot down over Iwo Jima during World War II. Many details, including the name of the pilot who was shot down, how he died, and the name of his ship, were all subsequently confirmed. Did that kid really remember a past life? It's impossible to say.

Another three-year-old insisted that he was Sidney Coe Howard and that he had written the screenplay for Gone With the Wind. He knew Howard's birthday, the name of his daughter, and that he had owned a tractor (which is what killed the real Sidney Coe Howard), but little else. Another kid would cry himself to sleep with homesickness for his past life of smoking cigars, lounging around his Hollywood swimming pool, and dancing with dames. His most salient past-life memory was of getting socked in the mouth by Marilyn Monroe's bodyguard.

The last two chapters are full of hand-waving about quantum mechanics. Tucker says that mind created the world. This idea is not as new as he seems to think, and adding QM doesn't save it. Most readers will probably skip this section. This is basically a human interest book about cute kids saying the darndest things. That's what makes it worth reading.

dec 07, 2013