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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Tripping a little more

A few more thoughts on Eben Alexander's near-death experience:

PZ Myers describes the story in a post called Newsweek panders to the deluded again, which isn't an inaccurate label (it is indeed a delusion to say that the experience of one questionably conscious neurosurgeon "proves" anything, much less the existence of an afterlife) but I think he misconstrues the experience a bit:
But here’s the real killer for me. People who go through these fantasies often tell of awe-inspiring insights that they receive and are quick to tell us how brilliant they were in Heaven. Alexander is no exception.
That would be the "noetic" part of mysticism, and if we could manage to induce Myers to have a mystical experience whether by drug trip, brain damage, or ESB (as Julia Sweeney put it "People who wore this helmet experienced a sense of transcendent understanding, an overwhelming peace and connectedness, and sometimes the presence of God. Or, of aliens"), he'd probably experience the same thing. He just hopefully wouldn't go on to present that knowledge as real evidence of anything, as Alexander has. If a person comes out of a mystical experience with, say, knowledge of how to build a perpetual motion machine, then there might be something to what they claim to have experienced. It wouldn't prove the rest of their story, but it would at least be interesting! But what generally happens is that the person feels strongly as though he or she has been confronted with the greatest underlying truths of the universe, and yet...couldn't tell you what they are. Or else gives you some rather banal messages like the ones Alexander mentioned:
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
"There is nothing you can do wrong."
I recall in one of Dan Savage's books-- Skipping Towards Gomorrah-- he described how a friend of his kept a wicker basket of New Agey phrases printed on laminated slips of paper by the front door for visitors. These were intended to be self-esteem enhancers, pulled randomly from the basket whenever needed in order to create a feeling of empowerment:
When my friend saw me picking through her little wicker basket of affirmations, she folded her arms across her chest, cocked her hip, and said "Go ahead, Dan, make fun of me." She was asking for it. So I pulled out an affirmation, said "I'm Adolf Hitler," and then I read Hitler's affirmation. "I'm a good person, and I want good things." 
"That's awful!" my friend said. 
"I'm Pol Pot: 'I strive to spread love and understanding.'" 
"I'm Richard Speck: 'I am respected and admired, and people want to be near me.'" 
"I'm Trent Lott: 'My inner beauty is like a bright light.'" 
By now, my sensitive friend was, yes, crying. I know, I know, I'm a terrible person. Which is precisely my point. The problem with setting out a basket of affirmations is that you're assuming each and every person who comes into your home or spa is a good person  who wants good things. With all the respect due a basket of laminated affirmations, I beg to differ. 
It sure sounds to me like Dr. Alexander encountered that wicker basket in "Heaven." Hmm...does everybody who goes on a similar trip? Is there nobody who catches a glimpse of the afterlife and is told "You've been a very bad person and have plenty to fear; step it up!" Ebenezer Scrooge-style? Yes, there are such cases. But I'm pretty sure they are vastly outweighed by the other variety.

There's another important thing about the specific messages Eben (no, I'm not going to make a joke about that) Alexander says he received-- they are themselves passive. They are the kind of messages it would be appropriate to give a person who is seeing a movie, especially a scary movie, for the first time ever. Don't worry. There's nothing to be afraid of. You can't do anything wrong here. You can't do anything wrong because you can't do anything-- the story is going to play out as it does regardless. The only time it's possible to not be able to do anything wrong is when nothing you do matters, which is when you're experiencing something that's not real. In the real world, there is plenty to fear. There are all kinds of things you can do wrong. And...there's no guarantee that you will be loved, much less forever.

So I can see why a person would cling to such an experience, much like a security blanket. I can't see why someone would wave that blanket around claiming that others must cling to it as well, especially why a supposed news magazine would declare that they should. Alexander, and Newsweek, should know better than that.

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