The Enigma of Consciousness
A highly trained neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander spent seven days in a coma after contracting a rare illness. In this excerpt from his New York Times bestseller Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife, he discusses how this near-death experience transformed his worldview and shares his insights on the phenomenon of consciousness and its profound role in the universe.
All the objects in the physical universe are made up of atoms. Atoms, in turn, are made up of protons, electrons, and neutrons. These, in turn, are (as physicists discovered in the early years of the twentieth century) all particles. And particles are made up of…Well, quite frankly, physicists don’t really know. But one thing we do know about particles is that each one is connected to every other one in the universe. They are all, at the deepest level, interconnected.
Before my experience out beyond, I was generally aware of all these modern scientific ideas, but they were distant and remote. In the world I lived and moved in—the world of cars and houses and operating tables and patients who did well or not depending partially on whether I operated on them successfully—these facts of subatomic physics were rarefied and removed. They might be true, but they didn’t concern my daily reality.
But when I left my physical body behind, I experienced these facts directly. In fact, I feel confident in saying that, while I didn’t even know the term at the time, I was actually “doing science.” Science that relied on the truest and most sophisticated tool for scientific research that we possess: Consciousness itself.
The further I dug, the more convinced I became that my discovery wasn’t just interesting or dramatic. It was scientific. Depending on whom you talk to, consciousness is either the greatest mystery facing scientific enquiry, or a total nonproblem. What’s surprising is just how many more scientists think it’s the latter. For many—maybe most—scientists, consciousness isn’t really worth worrying about because it is just a by-product of physical processes. Many scientists go further, saying that not only is consciousness a secondary phenomenon, but that in addition, it’s not even real.
Many leaders in the neuroscience of consciousness and the philosophy of mind, however, would beg to differ. Over the last few decades, they have come to recognize the “hard problem of consciousness.” Although the idea had been coalescing for decades, it was David Chalmers who defined it in his brilliant 1996 book, The Conscious Mind. The hard problem concerns the very existence of conscious experience and can be distilled into these questions:
- How does consciousness arouse out of the functioning of the human brain?
- How is it related to the behavior that it accompanies?
- How does the perceived world relate to the real world?
The hard problem is so hard to resolve that some thinkers have said the answer lies outside of “science” altogether. But that it lies outside the bounds of current science in no way belittles the phenomenon of consciousness—in fact, it is a clue as to its unfathomably profound role in the universe…
To truly study the universe on a deep level, we must acknowledge the fundamental role of consciousness in painting reality. Experiments in quantum mechanics shocked those brilliant fathers of the field, many of whom turned to the mystical worldview seeking answers. They realized it was impossible to separate the experimenter from the experiment, and to explain reality without consciousness. What I discovered out beyond is the indescribable immensity and complexity of the universe, and that consciousness is the basis of all that exists. I was so totally connected to it that there was often no real differentiation between “me” and the world I was moving through.
If I had to summarize all this, I would say first, that the universe is much larger than it appears to be if we only look at its immediately visible parts (This isn’t much of a revolutionary insight actually, as conventional science acknowledges that 96 percent of the universe is made up of “dark matter and energy”…) Second: We—each of us—are intricately, irremovably connected to the larger universe. It is our true home, and thinking that this physical world is all that matters is like shutting oneself up in a small closet and imagining that there is nothing else out beyond it. And third: the crucial power of belief in facilitating “mind-over-matter.” I was often bemused as a medical student over the confounding power of the placebo effect—that medical studies had to overcome the 30 percent or so benefit that was attributed to a patient’s believing that he was receiving medicine that would help him, even if it was simply an inert substance. Instead of seeing the underlying power of belief, and how it influenced our health, the medical profession saw the glass as “half-empty”—that the placebo effect was an obstacle to the demonstration of a treatment…
The universe has no beginning or end, and God is entirely present within every particle of it. Much—in fact, most—of what people have had to say about God and the higher spiritual worlds has involved bringing them down to our level, rather than elevating our perceptions up to theirs. We taint, with our insufficient description, their truly awesome nature.
But though it never began and will never end, the universe does have punctuation marks, the purpose of which is to bring beings into existence and allow them to participate in the glory of God. The Big Bang that created our universe was one of these creative “punctuation marks.” Om’s view was from outside, encompassing all of Om’s Creation and beyond even my higher-dimensional field of view. Here, to see was to know. There was no distinction between experiencing something and my understanding it.