By Jin-yeong Yi
“Please don’t think that when you die / You’ll spend eternity up high / When what you really ought to know / Is just how far your life will go”
—Atheist, “Piece of Time”
I desire an afterlife not so much because I fear death (I probably fear pain more than I fear extinction), but because I love life and would like more of it, especially if it can be lived with more freedom and more beauty.
Yesterday I finished reading Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon who contracted an extremely rare and extremely deadly form of bacterial meningitis and lived to tell the tale, after spending a week in a coma—and, supposedly, paradise.
Prior to reading the book, I’d read part of Dr. Sam Harris’s critique of it, and had thought that it would be an interesting exercise to compare my observations with his. I think Dr. Harris and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks make persuasive points, but since I’m not a neuroscientist, I think it will take me a long time—perhaps the rest of my life—to draw anything resembling a comprehensive conclusion regarding the nature of NDEs, and the dualism-monism debate as a whole. So for now I shall limit myself to imaginative speculation.
While I’m not convinced that Dr. Alexander’s account constitutes “proof of Heaven,” I found it to be remarkably well-written, engaging, instructive, and even awe-inspiring. Even if his experience took place entirely within his mind, it was nonetheless an amazing and unforgettable experience that would be entirely natural to cherish forever.
In his own critique of the book, Mark Martin wraps up by writing:
“What I can say is that Dr. Alexander’s heaven offers no comfort to me. A posthumous future where ‘You have nothing to fear’ and ‘There is nothing you can do wrong’ sounds like infinite boredom — inhuman and alienating in its contentment.”
After quoting a poem by Vladimir Nabokov, Mr. Martin continues:
“‘Proof of Heaven’ sullies the subtle, exquisite, personal and easily forgotten possessions of this sublunary world. Dr. Alexander’s pink fluffy clouds and divine orgasmatrons are a cosmic vulgarity. Thinking so, why would I commit the giant act of condescension required to imagine this vision good enough for others?”
What I got out of Mr. Martin’s critique was mainly further confirmation of the simple notion that we humans will never agree on what is good, what is beautiful, or what is desirable, whether in life or in death. That’s why I think the closest thing to a utopia we could have on Earth is a personal virtual reality simulation for each and every individual.
“I don’t think Hell exists,” says retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong. “I happen to believe in life after death, but I don’t think it’s got a thing to do with reward and punishment.”
It wouldn’t make much sense to me if it did. The notion that this life is some kind of moral test is quite preposterous to me, given the fact that 1) so many people are prevented from taking this “test” in the first place and 2) individuals cannot ultimately be held responsible for their actions, since they did not determine the genetic and environmental factors that account for much of their tendencies and choices from the cradle to the grave.
If there is a divine Being controlling this universe from the “outside” (wherever that is), I would imagine that He/She/It is more concerned with imparting experience rather than conducting some kind of cosmic eugenics program (i.e., separating the wheat from the chaff). It would certainly explain the scientific data better.
Remember the short-lived TV series Dead Like Me? I rather like the idea that there is a custom-made afterlife for each individual, specially tailored to his or her deepest desires and dreams that were not realized during life, and I can’t help but hope that that is precisely what we will find when it is time to depart this world.