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January 11, 2013

Two Books Worth Reading

I have recently read two books that shed considerable doubt on scientific assumptions that the supernatural does not exist. The first is by Kyriacos C. Markides, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality (2001). The book explores the beliefs and practices of Orthodox monasterial life as practiced by monks and hermits. In particular, he follows a remarkable larger-than-life priest named Maximos to the island of Cyprus and reports on his actions, his views, and his spiritual practice. Most important for this post, he reports on numerous phenomena that can only be called miracles.

I read this book in a reading group. One of our members knows the author and vouches for his integrity. After reading the book, I became convinced that scientific materialism could not possibly explain the events reported, and I very much doubt that the events were concocted, were dreams, or were otherwise fictitious. That said, I think the theology embraced by these monks, though sometimes qualified, too often seems to subtly denigrate those who care for and act in this world whether it is action for social justice or caring for children. I resist the suggestion that one has to be a monk to lead a fulfilling religious life though there is an impressive spiritual intimacy in monasterial life and, in fairness, the monks would not explicitly denigrate those who choose a life engaged in the world. I am reacting to a tone and a usually unspoken attitude.

Another book explicitly challenging scientific materialism currently sits atop the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012) by Eben Alexander. Although the book is somewhat repetitious, the story is riveting. Alexander, an academic neurosurgeon was struck by a sudden illness and was in a coma for seven days. He had previously thought that near death experiences felt real but were fantasies produced by the brain under severe stress.  His case was unique because the experience he had during his coma in his view could not have been produced by the brain because the part of the brain that produces thought and emotion was not functioning during his coma. His recovery from the illness was unprecedented. But his near death experience was even more impressive. Alexander richly details what he experienced and he has since learned that his experience is similar to those who also have had near death experiences. His experience has led him to the conviction that heaven and God are real. Proof of Heaven is a powerful book that will strengthen the faith of believers and might give second thoughts to those who think belief in the supernatural is simply nonsense.

Posted by Steve Shiffrin on January 11, 2013 at 11:50 AM | Permalink

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I have not read Dr. Alexander's book, but from what I have read and seen in video clips of interviews with him, his description of heaven sounds more New Age than Christian. He does not seem to have encountered Jesus or Mary, nor (as far as I know) speak of God in ways that incorporate the idea of Jesus as God incarnate. A number of stories say that before his experience, he was a "nominal Christian," but they don't say what he considers himself to be now. I presume if he had felt compelled to become a Catholic we'd have been told about it by now.

On the one hand, personal testimony from a neuroscientist might seem to many people to be much more credible than accounts of what happened two millennia ago. The New York Times reports "'Proof of Heaven' was not his idea for a title. He preferred 'An N of One,' a reference to medical trials in which there is only a single patient." I certainly can understand why they went with the publisher's title instead of the author's, but of course his experience, while fascinating, doesn't really prove anything. A number of his critics have pointed out that even if his brain was totally shut down during the time he *thinks* he had his experiences, his brain could have concocted an apparent memory of experiences as he was regaining brain function. Freud's famous description of the "guillotine dream" appears to be a case where a long dream was probably created in an instant but appeared to the dreamer to cover a long time:

*****
"The following dream of Maury's has become celebrated: He was ill in bed; his mother was sitting beside him. He
dreamed of the Reign of Terror during the Revolution. He witnessed some terrible scenes of murder, and finally he
himself was summoned before the Tribunal. There he saw Robespierre, Marat, Fouquier-Tinville, and all the sorry heroes of those terrible days; he had to give an account of himself, and after all manner of incidents which did not fix themselves in his memory, he was sentenced to death. Accompanied by an enormous crowd, he was led to the place of execution. He mounted the scaffold; the executioner tied him to the plank, it tipped over, and the knife of the guillotine fell. He felt his head severed from his trunk, and awakened in terrible anxiety, only to find that the head-board of the bed had fallen, and had actually struck the cervical vertebrae just where the knife of the guillotine would have fallen."
*****

But who knows?

Posted by: David Nickol | Jan 11, 2013 4:24:28 PM

Who knows is probably the best response to his story. What incidents like this show is how little we know about the brain and how materialism inadequately explains conciousness.

A doctor I know well once treated a patient for a chronic head ache. When she was put into an MRI, the image showed that her brain cavity was 2/3 fluid. In other words, she should've been a vegtable, but was a fully functioning adult with nothing but a learning disability.

The brain is a mysterious organ that we are only barely beginging to understand.

Posted by: CLS | Jan 14, 2013 11:51:38 AM

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