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Conner Habib is definitely a polifacetic individual: An evolutionary biologist who studied under Lynn Margulis, yet rejects the current materialist paradigm predominant in modern Science; an intellectual interested in western philosophy, yet has the looks to be in the cover of GQ magazine; a popular performer in the gay adult entertainment industry, yet one who is involved in it by choice, and not because he’s trapped in one of the common stereotypes promulgated by our prudish society –dude likes to #%ck and be #%cked, is all.

On his blog, he has republished an essay in which he looks at Dr. Eben Alexander and his best-selling book Proof of Heaven with a critical eye, while at the same time also criticizing the atheist debunkers who have been at the forefront of the attacks against Alexander and his purported NDE. Approaching these controversial subjects from the radical center? That’s right up to The Grail’s alley!

Conner takes issue with both the simplistic narrative embraced by Dr. Alexander as an experiencer –he went through clinical death while suffering from meningitis and thus ‘went to Heaven’– and the materialist thinking which adamantly concludes his cerebral cortex couldn’t be shut down as he professes (it can’t be, therefore it isn’t); the same attitude that seriously hinders the scope of Science, by binding it to the naive illusion of dettached objectivity between observer and the observed phenomenon, and which negates any phenomenon that fails to meet the criteria of experimentation and replicability demanded by the scientific method.

We’re bound to bang our heads against the wall if we follow the path that Alexander or his critics have laid out for us. The lines are drawn and no one is going to switch sides, not only because Alexander hasn’t proved anything, but because the whole enterprise of foregrounding “proof” is misguided. Not only when exploring NDEs, but also in use of certain kinds of medicine, parapsychological phenomenon, and more. When it comes to non-materialistic and/or individualized phenomena, seeking proof above all else blinds us to the extraordinary and profound nature of subjectivity.

There may be overlapping (though not universal) themes — in NDEs, for example, “walk toward the light” and “everything is love” — in all non-materialistic phenomena, but they always intersect with and are informed by the unique matrix of the individual’s personality and social circumstances. One person may see a ghost, whereas another person in the same room may see nothing. Acupuncture may heal one person’s back pain and leave another’s unhealed. For the latter example, skeptics might be happy to cart out placebo, but they don’t have any real understanding of how placebo works, and it, too, affects different individuals differently.
Not only are the experiences individualized, but many of them exist within mind states (i.e., the content and contours of our thinking and feeling world, as opposed to physical brain states). Alexander can tell us all about the clouds and colors of the afterlife, but he can’t make us see them, because they intersected with his mind alone.

In other words, for certain experiences, reproducibility (and by extension, falsifiability), a bedrock of materialistic science, seems to go out the window

The idea that we can completely dettach ourselves from both our expectations and the world is akin to a religious belief, Conner writes.

For those who demand total objectivity, proof is Heaven, or God. It’s a distant principle which should be always appealed to, never questioned, and of which nothing is greater.

I find this observation useful for other ‘damned’ topics in the Fortean realm. Take UFO close encounters for example: By abscribing to a false sense of objectivity, both the true believers and the debunkers are forced into either accepting or flat-out rejecting the anecdotal evidence offered by the witnesses –it was either swamp gas, or a spaceship. They haven’t entertained the possibility that on every close encounter, there’s a deeply personal component of the experience meant for the witness alone and no-one else; at the same time, the phenomenon ‘morphs’ itself to the observer’s expectations, just like the NDE narrative comforms to the the religious beliefs and aspirations of the dying patient.

The solution? Incorporate Subjectivity back into the scientific method:

A science more like Goethe’s or Bohm’s (and less like Alexander’s or [Sam] Harris’s), i.e., a science that asks us to think about our thinking while we observe, would help create better language for moments like this. There’s always a tension between individual experience (subjectivity) and being able to convey things in shared language (via objectivity and proof), but we need to balance the scales better. If we include subjectivity in our scientific processes, we do just that. Then the kind of approach popular skepticism supports becomes an option or an aspect of our scientific approach, not the only approach that thou shalt not have any other approaches before. That way, we can (rightfully) criticize Alexander on his deceptive claim to proof with questions like the ones I and Harris pose above, but we can also marvel at the account.

Of course, here at the Grail we’ve been skeptic of Alexander’s highfaluting account about riding on top of a butterfly accompanied by his dead sister –even though the fact that he never met that person or even knew of his existence, is as fascinating as the fact that he managed to ‘miraculously’ recover from his E. Coli-induced meningitis to his doctors’ amazement– while at the same time taking issue with the Mind=Brain dogma of Materialism. Will we someday be able to finally move the discussion forward? God only knows*…

When Proof Is Heaven: Why Near-Death Experiencers and Their Critics Keep Getting Science Wrong

[Conner’s appearances on the Tangentially Speaking podcast are also highly recommended]

Further reading:

(*): Though getting Greg’s book is certainly a step in the right direction! [Amazon US / UK]