Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, “Proof of Heaven,” has received extraordinary attention: a Newsweek cover, a New York Times front-page story, and a No. 1 best-seller ranking. It presents the unusual spectacle of a “man of science” proclaiming, based on a single subjective mental event, that the afterlife is real. But his account pays no attention to the requirement in science that data must be objective, testable, and repeatable. A statement that satisfies none of those criteria is not proof, it’s not even evidence.
Multiple problems beset the use of near death experiences to “prove Heaven.” Among hundreds of reports, not one has brought back independently verifiable information “from the beyond.” And, since the people making these reports were not stone-cold dead, their claim to have visited a post-mortem world is a non sequitur. Why not just say they entered into a plane of existence within this life but normally imperceptible? In addition, there’s a forceful critique of Dr. Alexander’s claims by neuroscientist Sam Harris (www.samharris.org/blog/items/this-must-be-heaven), noting that drugs like DMT cause very similar experiences.
Even worse, some near-death experiences are decidedly not “warm and fuzzy.” In a volume titled “Death and Philosophy,” Chicago businessman Tem Horwitz describes a vast nothingness so overwhelming that he found it difficult to re-engage with the everyday world. After a near-fatal episode, the famed philosopher A. J. Ayer wrote an essay, “What I saw when I died” — but it didn’t persuade him to abandon his atheism. In fact, Alexander’s own vision, for all his rhapsodizing over a blue-eyed girl, butterflies, and the immediate presence of God’s love, seems surprisingly un-Christian — no mention of Jesus or apostles and saints, or even a reunion with lost family and friends (except for the girl, who turns out, conveniently but suspiciously, to be an unknown sister).
But assertions about the afterlife face a far more serious challenge, which has not been properly addressed in the public forum: two arguments from the days of Plato and Aristotle which constitute a conclusive “disproof of Heaven.” The first is the “Sorites Paradox,” also known as the “Problem of the Heap” (“sôros” is Classical Greek for “heap”); it was created in the Fourth Century B.C. by the obscure but ingenious philosopher Eubulides — and came roaring back to life in the late 20th century under the rubric of “vagueness.” The second is the “Euthyphro Dilemma,” from the early Platonic dialogue in which Socrates discusses the nature of morality with a fellow Athenian.
The “Heap Paradox” involves a simple but powerful principle: If you start with a pile of sand and take away one grain at a time, when does it stop being a pile? The principle is that there is no “crossover point” along a “slippery-slope” continuum where n grains is a pile but n-1 is not. Applied to sand piles, this may seem a sterile linguistic game, but applied to the issue of human souls and immortality, it has a devastating effect.
There is no more finely graded continuum than the “Great Chain of Being” posited by evolutionary biology, from 3.8 billion years ago to the present. So the Sorites Paradox Question is twofold. First, who was the first (to have a soul) whose parents didn’t? It should be intuitively obvious that there can be no valid point along that timeline. Second, referring to the crossover point between having and not having a soul (or between Heaven and Hell), how can an all-or-nothing dividing-line be fair? The reflexive answer would be that God is by nature just, and his decisions would be fair by definition.
But that’s where the Platonic argument comes in: Socrates asks (paraphrasing slightly), “Is that-which-is-right right because God says so, or does God say it’s right because it is right?” The Dilemma requires an awkward choice: Either “right” is whatever an arbitrary being declares (in which case it could be anything, including evil), or “right” is logically prior to divine declarations (and thus God is not the source of morality). Denominations that endorse an afterlife but also claim to accept evolution are thus swallowing a poison pill; in this area, science and religion really are incompatible.
This plain but relentless argument, unlikeAlexander’s unverifiable subjective report, is clear and open to public inspection, and its conclusion is stark and inescapable. There is no afterlife because it involves a biological absurdity and an ethical impossibility.