There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.
But that dimension—in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states—is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world: a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.
Two questions arise. Were Dr. Eben Alexander's experiences while in the coma state veridical? This question must be asked since the mere having of an experience is no guarantee of the reality of its object. The second question is whether the experiences, veridical or not, occurred wholly independently of brain functioning. The two questions are connected. If it could be shown that the experiences were generated by a minimally (mal)functioning brain, then then this would be a reason to doubt the veridicality of the experiences. (Analogy: if I know that my unusual experiences are the result of the ingesting of LSD-25, then I have reason to doubt the veridicality of the experiences.) The author deals with these connected worries in the following passage:
All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.
Although I reject materialism about the mind and consider it reasonable to believe that conscious experiences do not require a physical substratum, and that it is possible to have such experiences in a disembodied state, I don't think the the author has proven that the possibility was actual in his case. For how does he know that his cortex was "simply off"? Failure to detect the functioning of the cortex does not entail that the cortex was not functioning. It might have been functioning below the detectability of the instruments and might have been generating the experiences all along.
A second concern of mine is this. How does Dr Alexander know that his wonderful experiences didn't suddenly arise just as the cortex was coming back into action just before his eyes popped open? So even if his cortex was for a long time completely nonfunctional, the experience he remembers could have been simply a dream that arose while the cortex was coming back 'on line.'
My point is not the the doctor has not given us evidence that mental functioning occurs in the absence of brain activity; I believe he has. My point is that the evidence is not compelling.
Our predicament in this life is such that we cannot prove such things as that God exists, that life has meaning, that the will is free, that morality is not an illusion, and that we survive our bodily deaths. But we cannot prove the opposites either. It is reasonable to maintain each of these views. Many arguments and considerations can be adduced. Among the evidence is a wide range of religious, mystical and paranormsl experiences including near-death and out-of-body experiences. The cumulative case is impressive but not conclusive. It rationalizes, but does not establish. Philosophers. of course, are ever in quest of 'knock-down' arguments. This is because you are no philosopher if you don't crave certainty. Ohne Gewissheit kann ich eben nicht leben! Husserl once exclaimed. But so far no 'knock-down' arguments have been found.
In the final analysis, lacking proof one way or the other, you must decide what you will believe and how you will live.
I would add that the 'living' is more important than the 'believing.' It is far better to live in a manner to deserve immortality than to hold beliefs and give arguments about the matter.