As we know, the secular world pays little attention to scientific research on psi and survival of death. But every so often someone stirs the pot, and then all its confusions and anxieties rise to the surface. We saw it last year with Daryl Bem's precognition experiments. Now it's Eben Alexander's turn, with the Newsweek article trailing Proof of Heaven, his book on his near-death experience that's about to be published.
It's being treated as a big deal because Alexander is not just anbody, he's a neurosurgeon. The kind of person who knows that near-death visions are hallucinations. But he's had one himself, it was a zinger, and now he knows better. He's converted. These things do really happen, he recognises, and he's had to rearrange all his ideas and prejudices.
You can see why sceptics have so much trouble with this. A scientist is supposed to be above this sort of thing, not tamely to give in to it. The main line of defence is that the experience didn't happen during the period of coma, but as the patient was starting to recover. Less seriously, Alexander is just "making up fairy tales to comfort himself after a serious shock".
There are also those who reassure themselves that these experiences are just an expression of humanity's deep-seated "longing for heaven" - as described in its culture and literature through the ages - which in my view is about as anti-scientific as you can get.
A couple of things occurred to me. One is about Alexander's experience, and the way he's presenting it; the other is about the coverage.
I'll be interested to see the detail in his book. I hope and expect that it will engage with the very considerable NDE research, and with the critical comment. But I didn't get much sense of that from the article. There Alexander acknowledges that he's far from being the first person to have had this sort of experience, however he believes he's the first to have done so while their cortex was completely shut down. But surely that was the case also with Pam Reynolds, and we know what sceptics thought of that.
He also thinks he's the first to have had such an experience "while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma." Perhaps so. But it's not the kind of detail that will change sceptics' views. They will continue to insist that the experience must occurred as he was coming out of coma.
This looks to me like another case of a scientist suddenly becoming convinced about psi, often from some personal encounter or experience, and imagining that his status will brush away all resistance. Stand aside, parapsychologists - this is a job for a real scientist! But William Crookes was astonished to find that his reputation counted for nothing when it came to his psychic researches. I got the same sense of hubris from psychologist Gary Schwartz, whose work with mediums was trumpeted with great fanfare, as if nothing of the kind had ever been done before, but changed nothing.
The way Alexander's experience is being presented is very much in that mould. I'm sure it wasn't his idea to title the book - and the article - 'Proof of Heaven'; that has the smell of publishers and editors, who want to provoke. But it is provoking to sceptics, who will double down on him; scientists and medical professionals just don't talk like that. It doesn't help that the experience itself is so - from the sceptic's point of view - Disneyesque: fluffy clouds and meadows, riding on a butterfly's wing accompanied by a fairy. It invites derision.
I'm sure Alexander anticipated that and perhaps there's an argument for going for the maximum publicity. It's good to try to get people thinking and talking about these things. I'm impressed with the amount of coverage his article has been getting, and struck by how little many people appear to know about the NDE phenomenon. The way people are talking, you'd almost think that the last thirty years of near-death research had never happened, and that the phenomenon was completely unknown. But of course, to secularists, it always is new. It's like Memento. It comes to their attention very rarely, and every time it does they have to learn about it all over again.
I was startled to read in a piece by John Harlow in the Sunday Times that "the two most stinging attacks" on Alexander came from two neuroscientists, Colin Blakemore and Peter Fenwick. Well Blakemore, OK, no surprise. But Peter Fenwick? The near-death researcher and author Peter Fenwick? Perhaps Fenwick might have reservations, but I found it hard to imagine that he would have rushed to express them, let alone that they would be "stinging".
Of course he didn't. Harlow's source, it turns out, was Blakemore's earlier Daily Telegraph piece in which he briefly quotes Fenwick talking, in general terms, about the fallibilities of memory:
[He] acknowledges that there are deep problems in interpreting first-person memories of experiences that are supposed to have happened when the brain was out of action. Since the lucky survivor can only tell you about them after the event, how can we be sure that these things were perceived and felt at the time that their brains were messed up, rather than being invented afterwards?
That sort of consideration is part and parcel of a scientific approach to the NDE phenomenon. It's exactly the kind of thing that any scientific researcher is bound to consider. But taken out of context it looks like a criticism. You would never suppose from Harlow's piece that Fenwick is a leading NDE researcher who takes the phenomenon seriously. The point that needed to be made - and which of course Harlow missed - is that Alexander is not the first person who is knowledgeable about neuroscience to consider the NDE inexplicable in conventional terms, and without the benefit of having had a subjective experience.
Not everyone respected the taboo. After reading Alexander's article Telegraph writer Jenny McCartney took herself off to YouTube and listened to a lecture by Fenwick. Her piece, titled "Let's not be shy about the afterlife", points out that children are buzzing with questions about death, so why not adults?
I have no idea why such phenomena might happen, or indeed whether they might have a physical or psychological explanation. The fact is, however, that many people are aware of them, but are almost embarrassed to discuss them in case they are dismissed as crazy: they speak of them privately, to friends. We are taught that such things belong to the slippery, shameful realm of unreason. Yet while superstition is a deep, dark bog, science has sometimes assumed a rather blinkered resistance to lines of inquiry that might conceivably collide with spirituality: Dr Fenwick is in a minority. We are still in the dark about death, and it's the biggest thing that happens to us. Why, unlike our children, are we not brave enough to ask it many more questions?
That seems to me exactly right.