Ever since Proof of Heaven, the narrative of a life-changing seven-day coma I underwent in 2008, was published two years ago, I have had a front-row seat (and often a seat on the stage itself) at the battle between those who believe in heaven, in a spiritual realm beyond this one, and those who, just as fiercely and adamantly, don’t believe.
This debate is most often couched as one between “religion” and “science,” but these terms really do it a profound disservice. For at its best, this debate is a battle of genuine ideas – a battle between people with passionate but different views, arguing about the greatest and deepest issues anyone could ask for. What is matter? What is consciousness? Are human “realities” like love, meaning, and beauty in fact realities, or are they just fantasies, destined to vanish, as our physical selves are?
This is a battle that has gone on for hundreds – indeed, thousands – of years, and it has had brilliant, profoundly worthy advocates on both sides. The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (99-55 BCE), an early proponent of atomism, the view that the world is made up of countless tiny, unbreakable objects that endlessly come together and fall apart, found the notion that a person should survive the dissolution of the physical body ridiculous. Meanwhile his near contemporary Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 BCE) believed that at death the soul could reach “a higher existence, immortal and uncreated.” Worthy advocates of each side of the argument can be found in every age. If, as the nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky suggested, the question of whether we survive death is the question, the single most important one there is, there have been no shortage of great minds that have responded to the challenge of answering it.
These days, however, this battle is increasingly becoming one not of ideas but ideologies: of people who “know” they are right, and are determined simply to out-argue, or to out-shout, their opponents.
This battle doesn’t just take place on televised debates or books or articles in magazines, however. It is happening, right now, inside each one of us.
It is at work in the mind of that widow we’ve all recognized in the nursing home. On good days, this woman knows her husband surely does still exist, even if she can no longer see or touch him physically. She knows that the man she loved so much for all those many years could not have simply vanished when his body died. In certain passing but powerful moments, she not just knows but feels his reality: both out there in a world beyond the physical, but also deep within herself as well.
But on other days – days like the particular gloomy, rainy afternoon we’re imagining – she doubts. For though she knows that the “religion” side of the debate says her husband truly does still live, she also knows what the “science” side has to say on the matter. Yes, she loved her husband. But love is an emotion, a subjective experience generated by the electrochemical processes within our brains, and the hormones and other chemicals that our brains trigger the release of within our bodies, dictating our moods, telling us whether to be happy or sad, joyous or desolate. Love is unreal, just as is that other ancient and woefully misled fabrication, the soul. The molecules of steel and chrome and aluminum and plastic in the chair she sits in; the carbon atoms that make up the paper of the photo she holds in her hand; the glass and wood of the frame that protects it. And, of course, the diamond on her engagement ring and the gold of which both it and her wedding ring are made: those are real. They’re real because they’re made of matter. But what they signify -- the perfect, whole, and everlasting bond of love between two immortal souls – is a fantasy. It’s simply not science.
The wonderful discoveries of science have wrought staggering and irrevocable changes upon our world, and on our understanding of that world, in the last three hundred years, and there is no reason to suspect that these discoveries are about to slow down. That’s why it’s so important to understand that beneath the “religion vs. science” debates that lead nowhere, there is another, deeper, and fantastically fruitful discussion going on. In this discussion, a new group of participants -- people who have undergone near death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and other experiences suggestive of the survival of consciousness – are increasingly being allowed to describe the experiences they’ve undergone. And a small but select group of scientists have decided to take them seriously: to ponder, with the combination of fierce intellectual rigor and vigorous, empirical open-mindedness that all good science demands, what they might mean. In this debate, we are allowed to stay open – as all true science must – to what kind of universe we really live in. When a person who has been clinically dead returns to life and describes traveling to other, larger worlds, we need to listen to what this person says and ask not whether what they say sounds silly to us (truly new discoveries just about always do), but whether there might just be some truth to it. We must overcome our innate tendency to deny and disbelieve, just as people in Europe had to in the great age of exploration, when travelers returned with tales of lands and peoples and ways of life entirely beyond the ken of those who had sent those explorers out to begin with.
We are right now in the process of entering a new age of exploration: one in which we will suffer shocks of disorientation every bit as great as those we suffered when the earth turned out not to be flat, when the sun turned out not to revolve around the earth, and when the mists of the Milky Way revealed themselves to be composed of billions of stars – suns like ours, some vastly larger and more powerful -- and that beyond our own galaxy lay other galaxies (more than the number of people alive on earth today!), each of them holding billions of suns of their own.
These new discoveries will be shocking, but they will also be profoundly comforting and healing. I know, because I have been to the edge of these new worlds, and returned. As a result, I know that love, beauty, and goodness are real, and that the soul is real as well. They are part of the actual geography of the cosmos within which we live and move. They are as real as rain, as real as the stick of butter on your dinner table, as real as wood, or stone, or plutonium, or the rings of Saturn, or sodium nitrate.
Nor are these worlds general, vague, or abstract. They are deeply, piercingly alive and intimate, and about as “theoretical” as a bucket of fried chicken, the glint off the hood of your friend’s new Trans-Am, or your first crush.
That’s why the descriptions of these worlds brought back by those who have seen them sound so crazy, so completely and thoroughly unacceptable to those still living in the old world. There are trees and flowers in these worlds. There are fields, and there are animals. There is water too – water in abundance. It flows in rivers and descends as rain. Mists rise from the pulsing surfaces of these waters, and fish glide beneath them. Not abstract, mathematical fish. Real ones. Every bit as real as any fish you’ve seen, and way, way more so. The objects one encounters in these worlds are similar to earthly objects, yet they’re not earthly objects. They are, to state it in a manner that falls profoundly short of the real experience but is accurate all the same, more than simply earthly. They are closer to the source, the true center of our spiritual/material cosmos. Closer, like the water higher up on a meandering river is closer to the springs from which it emerges.
The reality that binds all of these worlds together, is that most real, most un-abstract, most central thing there is: Love. Nothing is isolated in these worlds beyond our own. Nothing is alienated. Nothing is abandoned, and no one is allowed to despair. Everything is, as Martin Buber put it, a “you,” rather than an “it.” I know this sounds very hard to swallow. Again, newly discovered aspects of reality always are. “The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose,” remarked the celebrated twentieth-century geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, “but queerer than we can suppose.” When the reality of these worlds beyond is full established, when people come to understand beyond all argument that they are a genuine fact, everything in our own world will change. There will still be pollution. There will still be overpopulation. There will still be evil and dishonesty and selfishness and all the terrible things that flow from them. The world will, in short, remain what it is, and all the problems we face today will still be there.
But those problems will appear in a dramatically different light. And when, on a rainy afternoon a widow sits by a window in a nursing home gazing at the image of her departed husband, there will not be that terrible, hopeless fight within her between the voice that says “he still lives,” and the one that says “he is gone forever.” She will know, with a certainty that leaves all the shallow and vitriolic arguments of our current moment behind, that the true person, the spiritual being whose eyes she gazed into on that long-ago day, lives on.
“The existing scientific concepts,” wrote German physicist Werner Heisenberg, “cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite. Whenever we proceed from the known into the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word ‘understanding’.”
That’s exactly where we are right now. We are about to take another jump in our understanding of just how vast and profoundly strange a place the universe really is. But rather than making us feel small and insignificant in the face of this vastness and strangeness, this jump in understanding will make us feel hugely empowered and joyful. We will grasp that we are not accidental and insignificant blips in the universe, but the very heart and reason for its existence. All the arguing between “spiritual” people and “scientific” people will stop, and we will join together in mapping and understanding the true universe in ways not even dreamt of now.
It’s about time!
Dr. Eben Alexander, a renowned academic neurosurgeon, wrote the bestselling Proof of Heaven (2012) after a transcendental Near-Death Experience (NDE), in which he was driven to the brink of death and spent a week deep in coma from an inexplicable brain infection. His follow-up, The Map of Heaven, publishes next week.
Adapted from The Map of Heaven, by Eben Alexander M.D. with Ptolemy Tompkins. Copyright © 2014 by Eben Alexander LLC. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.