There seems something intrinsically unfair about critiquing a piece like “Proof of Heaven,” i.e., one whose prima facie posits a raison d’être far beyond aesthetic and rhetorical glory, information or persuasion. In this particular case, it’s proving the existence of an afterlife, beginning to rectify the schism between science and spirituality and serving as the jumping of point/de facto answer to “The Hard Problem of Consciousness” by those typical literary values it purposefully renounces.
Ubiquitous are Dr. Eben Alexander’s laments at the failings of our terrestrial tongue to describe what he has seen, so is it any wonder that the majority of “Heaven”s pages are given over to a kind of mid-grade travelogue of sorts?
But it is where Alexander has traveled, and what he brings back to us, that makes “Heaven” important. Alexander readily admits that, barring a few major discrepancies, his near death experience (NDE) is similar to legion other sojourns; there is the warm blackness, the heavenly light, the saturating presence of a higher, all-powerful consciousness and the discovery that the unconditional love it brings forms the fabric of the multiverse. In short, NDE descriptions all contain enough similarities to be considered something more than coincidental and, in this regard, Alexander’s vignettes of beyond – and their inability to transport us fully there – are rather inconsequential.
It is in two major differences that the supposed importance of “Heaven” lays, one distinctly spiritual, the other scientific. The physical irregularity is perhaps the most interesting thing about Alexander’s NDE: Rapidly falling beneath the savage assault of an exceedingly rare bacterial meningitis infection, Alexander lapses into a seven-day coma with exceptional speed, his neocortex, for all intents and purposes, incapacitated. The neocortex is the seat of higher brain function; evolutionarily fresh, it is basically the part of the brain which makes one human.
With his neocortex disabled, the most common – and commonly accepted – explanations for NDEs, that they are hallucinations pieced together by brains under extreme duress, is basically non-applicable. This leads Alexander to one conclusion: that the consciousness is not created by the brain, but merely expressed through it, even limited by it; in one of the book’s star rhetorical turns, he describes the brain’s stifling as akin to the sun blocking the light of the stars.
This newly freed consciousness is particularly autonomic in Alexander’s case due to the other main discrepancy in his near death experiences. While traveling through the three realms that constitute “Heaven”s afterlife, Alexander is amnestic to his life on earth; this differs greatly from most other NDEs, wherein the spirit is not only aware of its past life, but experiences its transcendent one through various aspects of its material, common examples being the presence of deceased loved ones, angels and other archetypes of organized religion.
While this bit of extraordinary is cut a touch with a twist near the end, it does serve to present heaven in a way lacking, for all intents and purposes, any purposeful Judeo/Christian structures. While self-identified as Episcopalian, this is with the caveat that he is also “a step above a “C&Eer,” and this, in combination with his amnesia, allows Alexander to describe heaven in a refreshingly non-specific way. This is particularly comforting considering that, if Alexander is right, and the consciousness is independent and the afterlife real, the idea of one being denied some kind of “admittance” to it on the basis of an incorrect belief seems rather dubious.
That impossible wall could be blamed for the lack of vibrancy in Alexander’s afterlife; there are clouds and darkness and love and evil, but aside from a few wonderful passages (he describes answers to questions he asks in the afterlife as “vast conceptual edifices, staggering structures of living thought, as intricate as cities”) most of the wonder comes from one’s acceptance, or skepticism, of Alexander’s recounting.
Outside of such existential concerns are passages relating to religious philosophy – in particular, the existence of evil as a prerequisite for free will – and, most interestingly, to physics, including some aspects, e.g., string theory, the theory of parallel universes, spooky motion, that are just as esoteric and nonplusing as any religious/spiritual/ethical dogma.
Purporting to be proof of the independent existence of consciousness, much less heaven, seems here to be delusion of grandeur; perhaps this is due to Alexander’s inability to surmount the wall, but it is doubtful “Proof of Heaven” alone will reverse a staunch skeptic. A true skeptic, however, will take the startling aspects of Alexander’s experience, as well as his intelligence, and the philosophical and physical (literally, as in, in regards to physics) notes he strikes into consideration, and truly ruminate on the intersection of science, spirituality, quantum and classical mechanics, cosmology and consciousness. If enough intelligent people are podded into doing so, then it would be impossible to call “Heaven” a failure.