Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven is a personal account of a medical doctor who came within an ace of a documented brain death yet made a full recovery. That person was Alexander himself. While in the coma Dr. Alexander had a near death experience of startling reality and duration in which he had no awareness of his previous identity; not his name, his profession nor his memory. He instead voyaged without any apparent self-consciousness through three distinct “worlds”: “the rough, ugly Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View, the idyllic Gateway, and the awesome heavenly Core”.
Upon regaining consciousness, Dr. Alexander on the advice of his son set down his recollections while they were still fresh in his mind and attempted to reconcile what he subjectively experienced with his training and career as a neurosurgeon, which included a stint as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and the publication of numerous scientific papers.
From reviewing his own medical records and interviewing the physicians attending him, Dr. Alexander came to the conclusion that his experiences could not adequately be explained by the standard models of brain function. Although convinced of the reality of what he experienced while in the coma, Dr. Alexander could only indicate the lines of inquiry that might be pursued to explain his experience in the physical sense, since it could not be adequately modeled by the mechanisms currently known.
The main problem he had to deal with was the inverse relationship between the depth of his disease and the richness of his experience. The ‘deader’ you were, it seemed, the more complex and information rich the near death experience became. It was the reverse of what you would expect if the experiences were conjured up by a dying brain.
That led him to posit that the human brain might be a filter, and not the exclusive source of available knowledge. It’s ability to exclude information or at least to process it in a form compatible to common experience may be at least as important as any processing functions it may perform. We experience “the world” as much by exclusion as admittance.
The deader the brain the more it would let through. And in his hopeless state Alexander was bombarded by information of some kind which his brain was unable to bar.
The question is whether it is “real” information — a representation of objective reality. Alexander argued that we are only now beginning to understand how “entangled” individual objects in the universe are; how they are literally part of a larger system. To understand the information content of a particle of any size you had to understand the influences acting upon it. Everything we examine is impinged upon by “real information”.
Could it be the same for human consciousness, he suggested? The images the eye admits — or filters — into our brain are not entirely internally created — the sum of total of information in our heads is not what the eye and brain can computationally generate, but what it can see. It acts upon an input.
I read Alexander’s book while working on a mash-up: an application that “uses and combines data, presentation or functionality from two or more sources to create new services”. The parallels between his model and that simple app were at once obvious.
The characteristic of the mash-up is that its internal database is largely a cache. It captures and stores what is required as the need arises. If someone, for example, logs in using his Facebook account; you make a call to Facebook to retrieve — with the users permission — his details at that moment. If he enters his zip code in response to a dialog box, the application, makes a call to another service to gather up the data associated with that zip code that is relevant to the application.
The mashup was in a word, a system very similar to what Dr. Eben Alexander posited. His model of consciousness essentially requires the existence of non-local components. You are probably using such a system already. In your smartphone, tablet or Chromebook, some of the data lives on the device itself. But probably not much. Most of the data will live on a web drive, or in an email server, or on the cloud. It will be elsewhere. Where exactly it physically resides, you might not even know. If you lost your smartphone most of your data would still be available, provided you remembered your email passwords, or your S3 access account details, for example.
The question Dr. Alexander was posing, though he didn’t cast it in my terms (he being a neurosurgeon and not a developer) was whether human beings were part of a distributed system, which we call for convenience “God”. We would still have an identify, an IP if you will, but we would also have connectivity. But connectivity to what? The God Alexander experienced was a very comforting one:
that there is not one universe but many— in fact, more than I could conceive— but that love lay at the center of them all. Evil was present in all the other universes as well, but only in the tiniest trace amounts. Evil was necessary because without it free will was impossible, and without free will there could be no growth— no forward movement, no chance for us to become what God longed for us to be. Horrible and all-powerful as evil sometimes seemed to be in a world like ours, in the larger picture love was overwhelmingly dominant, and it would ultimately be triumphant.
That did not mean the connectivity had to be real, even if a mechanism for explaining how it could work were identified. But neither was it necessarily false. It was in fact an empirical question. A valid empirical question. Is there in fact non-local information in the universe? Or is everyone stand-alone?
Alexander’s model is very appealing on aesthetic grounds. For the more we learn about the physical universe, the more of its subtlety and sophistication has emerged. God — or whatever you want to call it — could have created the universe as a series of standalone computing units with no network connections. But if God were half as intelligent as Vint Cerf he would not. He would wire up a network, or create something greater in concept than a network.
The one question that bothered Alexander — which he left unanswered till the last — was whether admittance to the network necessarily meant the obliteratation of the meager little things that make us individuals. Whether the price of the upgrade was the elimination of local memory. He was especially bothered by the absence in his near death experience of any human presence he could recognize in retrospect, from “life”. His sole human companion through the realms was a women he did not recognize.
That recognition came only later when Alexander received the photo of a deceased biological sister that he had long been seeking. Alexander was adopted and had never seen his biological sister, who had died some years before. In the process of reconnecting with his biological relatives he received the photo. It was of the woman in his near death experience.
I closed Dr. Alexander’s book with the realization that all he was really asking for was for the reader to keep an open mind on the subject of what life was: to consider the possibility that our lives are not as limited as we suppose. He knew the answer for himself, as a result of his experiences. However, each of us was likely to have to come to his own conclusion.
I’ve written elsewhere that one of the main reasons why humanity looks beyond itself is not primarily to dream of a next life, but recover the one that it has. For if humanity does not have this life in full measure why should it seek another? To discover, as we must if we are true explorers, the extent of our connections is to feel both more and less afraid; and perhaps to reject despair; at least the despair of futility. Shakespeare said it already, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” How much more?
More perhaps than the banal universe depicted in popular culture. More than is laid out in “Julia’s” sad life. More at any rate than is allowed for by our so-called betters, who would be noting in such an ultimate scheme of things. Exactly how much more? That’s what we’re here in “life” to find out. In Alexander’s experience there are no limits.
(I’ve just regained access to my account. I will try and work with the PJ people to return things to a working normalcy. I would recommend to most that you get an accomodation email number and nail down your username. I just want to say, like Bill Clinton, that “I share your pain” and I am quite used to it, sad to say. But it comes with being in the software game.
I had a few changes to the post which I’ve wanted to incorporate but have only been able to do now. My apologies and do be patient.)