“Proof of Heaven?”


Marc Chagall, 1961

“Proof of Heaven?”

Epicurus, ancient atomist and empiricist that he was, taught that we human beings are composed of large numbers of atoms, each one too tiny to see.  So, he maintained, is everything else.  When such collections of atoms cease to hold their shape, we — the personal beings we are — vanish in the surrounding void.  Is that something to fear?

No no, on the contrary.  Nothing to fear here:

Where I am [he wrote]

death is not.

Where death is,

 I am not.

Feel better now?

The same point is made with less classical serenity by a fictional character quoted approvingly by Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks:

“Lest old age and sickness weaken me so much that I will fear death and induce me to seek the comforts of religion, I draw up my testament today, in the fullness of my faculties and of my mental stability.  I do not believe in a substantial and immortal soul.  I know that my personality is a mass of atoms whose dissolution entails total death.  I believe in universal determinism … .”

To underscore the point, Gramsci adds:

The will is thrown into the fire.

These rather grim ancient beliefs, that Death is The End, are cherished and upheld, as indisputable scientific fact, by the preponderance of received opinion in 2018, the present year.  If anyone thinks differently, she is likely to keep that wayward thought out of publication.

Jerry is away in Omaha, Nebraska and Sioux City, Iowa this weekend.  He’s giving talks he had committed to giving before I suffered my stress fracture, as well as one of the two talks (the written one) that I was slated to give.   So I am alone, in our three-stairway house, which must be negotiated with extreme care because my one assignment in these weeks is not to fall again.

Ordinarily, solitude is something I enjoy.  The mind gets a chance to stretch out and ask itself whatever questions lay back of the day’s demands, silently awaiting the mind’s unhurried attention.  But not this time.

My physical vulnerability entangles me in its own nervousness.  If the staircase creaks or an unexplained thud is heard outside, it creeps me out. On the kitchen counter, I see an undisciplined army of very tiny ants.  They are not marching toward some bit of food I could detect and wipe off the surface.  They just meander about aimlessly, giving me the shudders.  Did some unseen enemy send them?

Although I’m in the middle of several interesting books I’ve never read before, I noticed Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife on my shelf and decided to reread that slender paperback.  If, as some say, all fear is at bottom the fear of death, maybe this would help, till Jerry got back

It’s really quite a story!  The author is a very successful neurosurgeon who ’s taught at the Harvard Medical School, “authored or coauthored more than 150 chapters or papers for peer-reviewed medical journals and presented [his] findings at more than two hundred medical conferences around the world” — before moving to the Ultrasound Surgery Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia.

He does surgery on the brain.  Nowadays, patients who suffer heart death can be revived.  So it’s brain death is that’s presently considered to be real death.  As his story opens, Eben Alexander’s beliefs on the question of whether we survive real death are exactly like Epicurus’s:

We don’t.

Then he contracts bacterial meningitis, suddenly and without warning, from an extremely rare strain of E. coli bacteria.  It’s not affected by the antibiotics with which he’s immediately bombarded by medical colleagues.  The bacteria eat through his neocortex, which is the outer surface of the brain, where thoughts, dreams, hallucinations, experiences of any kind, are housed.  If he survives, which is not thought likely, only the primitive parts of his brain are expected to remain, the parts that cannot produce experience.  He lies in a coma for seven days, during which his chances for any degree of survival lessen day by day.

On the seventh day, Dr. Eben Alexander opens his eyes in a focused way, smiles a beautiful smile and says, to friends and family praying round him,

“All is well.”

Though it takes some months for him to recover the all the skills, normal emotions and fund of memories that belonged to life inside his physical brain and body, a colleague who attended him, infectious diseases specialist Scott Wade, writes in an Appendix that his “full recovery … is truly remarkable.”  In sum, no one knowledgeable in the field knows how he contracted this strain of the disease or how on earth he recovered from it.

The title of the book gives away the real plot: the author’s report of the voyage he (or his consciousness) took, without the participation of his brain, to a realm of hyper-real beauty, understanding and divine love.

The specific relevance of the author’s medical credentials and the warrant provided by attending colleagues — that his complete recovery did happen and is medically inexplicable — constitute evidence of the most powerful kind that we don’t die when the brain dies.

Unsurprisingly, he has been attacked, in an article in Esquire magazine.  To my knowledge, the individuals that the reporter claimed to be citing either deny that he contacted them or deny that he reported their remarks accurately.  It seems to me highly improbable that a man with a lifetime of top credentials in his field should suddenly morph into the fraud the writer of the Esquire article purports to have unmasked.  In any case, attacks like that are predictable when a particular model of reality, shared by educated people within a culture, is credibly challenged.

As a thought experiment, it would be interesting to consider what shifts would have to occur, within contemporary fields of inquiry, if the hypothesis of an after-life were to be adopted by people working in that field.  What would change in psychology, for example?  In sociology?  In fields like English literature?  In history?   For painters?  For architects and city planners?  For novelists?  For philosophers?

For me, what Eben Alexander’s account does is shift my attention from the possible fear of death back to my this-life preoccupations.  Let me try to explain what I mean.

Eben Alexander’s report of having visited a dazzlingly beautiful and divinely enlightening Realm of Rest — lying beyond the hardships we face while we are alive here below – suggests that we are supported, invisibly but securely, by Heaven.  It lies just out of sight, but it holds us up. Though we may not know it, we depend on Heaven.

My own sense is that this is true in part, but that it gets part of the picture backwards.

Heaven also depends on us.

This place where we are now, earth-bound and full of difficulties, is the more consequential place.  We are not at rest here.  The struggle between good and evil takes place here — within us and in the larger landscape.  Here we have traction.  It’s not all smooth.  What we choose makes a difference (as the kabbalists say) “in all the worlds.”

Accordingly, I decided to take some Windex, soap and Ajax, and scour the kitchen counter.  I cleaned the undersides of every object that sits on the kitchen counter.  The salt, the pepper, the container with the stuff I spray on vegetables when I scrub them.

They’ll probably be back.

It’s not the final battle.

 But, as of this writing,

I haven’t seen a tiny ant since!

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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