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When the renowned atheist choked on a piece of salmon in 1988 in a British hospital, he went into cardiac arrest and technically died for four minutes.
As a leader of the dominant analytic school of philosophy, Ayer had been accused of “neutralizing” Western academic philosophers; encouraging them to focus on pure logic and avoid applying their big minds to the actual art of living. And dying.
But Ayer’s near-death experience changed all that. After he was resuscitated in hospital, Ayer wrote a piece in the Telegraph newspaper describing wondrous images he had while “dead” — of a beckoning red light and the collapse of space and time.
The atheist philosopher, known as “Freddie” to his friends, also quietly suggested his near-death experience (NDE) provided “rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to consciousness.”
Just as importantly, Ayer’s wife, Dee, told anyone who would listen, including journalists, that her husband had become much more pleasant company after his NDE.
As Dee quaintly put it: “Freddie has got so much nicer since he died.”
In a Western culture that greatly fears death and distracts itself from thinking about it with endless entertainments, it’s intriguing that scientific research into NDEs has expanded since Ayer enjoyed his profound out-of-body experience in 1988 (dying peacefully the following year at age 79).
The British and U.S. governments, for instance, are examining near-death studies in 1,500 heart attack patient-survivors at 25 hospitals.
Such groundbreaking exploration of near-death experiences is a long way from the arid and abstruse subjects that many university-based academics often end up studying.
Excitingly interdisciplinary research into NDEs and related phenomenon touches on the kind of crucial spiritual, scientific, psychological and philosophical questions humans have been asking for millennia.
One of the obvious questions it brings up is: Do near-death experiences offer evidence of human consciousness after death?
And: Do near-death, or related experiences of human mortality, turn people into better human beings, encouraging them to live more kindly?
The heart of Easter
These are existential questions that almost everyone — regardless of whether they belong to a faith tradition or not — could find value in exploring.
Questions of life and death form the heart of every great religion and every meaningful secular philosophy.
They are especially relevant as roughly two billion Christians around the world gather this weekend for Easter.
While practised in many different ways, Easter centres on a profound ritual in which followers are called upon to mystically enter the 2,000-year-old story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In many ways Christianity, and all great religions, are about coming to terms with death. And all religions teach, either literally or metaphorically, that death does not get the final word.
For instance, after committing to Christianity, which in its classic form contains the promise of “life everlasting,” many followers of Jesus often use the language of being “reborn” to describe their renewed vigour for life and others.
The quest to overcome humans’ fear of death also lies at the core of Judaism and Islam.
In somewhat different forms than Christianity, traditional schools of Islam and Judaism teach also about the immortality of the soul, and how essential it is to live a selfless life on this Earth.
Eastern religions tackle death in yet another way. Generally, Hinduism and Buddhism teach reincarnation. However, both call on followers to try to detach themselves from the endless cycle of death and rebirth by attaining Enlightenment and practising compassion.
Dealing with death by holding onto the possibility of existence after it is also not unique to organized religion. Popular culture and so-called “alternative” spirituality often develop the idea of the soul surviving the collapse of the body.
The immortality of the soul is a central theme of the wildly popular 3-D film, Avatar, in which the world-weary disabled hero, Jake Sully, must go through a death experience to be reborn.
An age-old conundrum
Even though rare, there are some brave figures in contemporary science, psychology and philosophy who are trying to respond to humans’ confusion and wonder about what happens after death.
It’s a conundrum that has been challenging humankind since ancient times — including the man many deem the greatest philosopher in Western history, Socrates.
After being condemned to death by Greek authorities in the fourth century BC, Socrates told them that death is not an evil thing, but on the contrary a good thing.
That said, Socrates did not presume to know what happened to humans after death. He was satisfied with being an agnostic about the afterlife.
As Socrates said, “Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change; a migration of the soul from this place to another.”
The story of Socrates’ lack of fear about death makes up the opening chapter of The Book of Dead Philosophers, by Simon Critchley, which explores what 190 famous philosophers thought about death and how they died.
Critchley argues compellingly that real philosophy, unlike that practised by Ayer until his near-death experience, should be “about learning how to die.” Paradoxically, that is the goal of living.
Our ultimate purpose, as Critchley puts it, should be “cultivating the appropriate attitude to death.”
Life’s agent of change
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple computers, is another contemporary figure who has come to believe that death is life’s greatest teacher.
“Death is very likely the single-best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new,” Jobs told Stanford University graduates after a tumour was discovered on his pancreas.
“No one wants to die,” Jobs said. “Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. … Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
The death-confronting stories of Jobs and scores of other major business leaders were recently recounted in articles based on the work of management consultant Grant Thornton, who surveyed 250 CEOs of companies with revenue of more than $50 million US.
Almost one in four of the CEOs told Thornton they had an experience where they thought they would die, including in plane, car crashes or as a result of a disease. Almost two-thirds of the CEOs said it changed their perspective on life, with most saying it made them more compassionate.
Three per cent of the CEOs acknowledged having a pure near-death experience, which is below the U.S. and Canadian average. However, another three per cent wouldn’t answer the question.
Ned Dougherty, a multimillionaire in the real estate and entertainment industry, wrote Fast Lane to heaven after twice going into cardiac arrest. During his NDE, he said he met deceased loved ones and was enveloped by the light of God. He was also suddenly cured of his alcoholism.
Even though NDEs are only one unusually dramatic way to explore the experience and nature of death, the wider medical community is finally starting to take concerted interest in them, in part because they’re becoming more common with advances in medical technology.
In addition to the study in 25 British and U.S. hospitals, some of the scientific and academic journals that have published on the subject of NDEs are the British Journal of Psychology, The Lancet and the Journal of Advanced Nursing.
As a former clinical psychologist at Vancouver General Hospital and currently a professor of psychology at Capilano University in North Vancouver, Leonard George has spent decades studying near-death experiences and other parapsychological phenomena.
Since he was a youngster in Ontario, George says he has himself had two “out-ofbody experiences,” which is the generic name for perceiving oneself outside one’s body, observing oneself.
Specializing in the history of psychology, George has come to admire one of the founders of modern-day psychology, the late Harvard University professor William James.
Even though it was not socially acceptable among many of his colleagues, James (1842-1910) devoted a great deal of energy to investigating paranormal activity such as telepathy and mediumship (now called “channelling”).
Even now, when questions about life after death have become even more ridiculed in academia, George wants to follow the courageous lead of James and look for empirical evidence wherever it might be found.
George holds to the attitude of Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), one of the West’s first scientists, who said:
“Let the mind be enlarged … to the grandeur of the mysteries, and not the mysteries contracted to the narrowness of the mind.”
What have the few scientists who have explored out-of-body experiences and related phenomenon so far discovered?
For starters, researchers have concluded roughly one out of 10 people has had an out-ofbody experience, including an NDE. Many people take years to report them for fear of being labelled mentally imbalanced.
Out-of-body experiences are not considered hallucinations, nor the product of “misfiring brains,” says George, author of Alternative Realities: The Paranormal, the Mystic and the Transcendent in Human Experience.
Most people experience NDEs as pleasant, even though that’s not always the case. Like Ayer, the philosopher, many reported feeling deeply transformed afterwards, more altruistic and connected to friends and loved ones.
Beyond that, George said, it’s so far been hard to determine for certain what NDEs prove about the actual nature of life. Or death.
Different theories abound. Like most research into parapsychological phenomenon such as telepathy, telekinesis and channelling, George said the conditions that are said to give rise to the phenomenon are extremely hard to control and replicate in a laboratory setting.
At the minimum, however, George agrees with those who believe out-of-body experiences point to the need for scientists and philosophers to conclude that the self, which some call the “soul,” is not a substance, not a material thing.
Instead, philosophically speaking, the self is more like a series of experiences through time. George said the self is shaped by that which the self chooses to most strongly identify.
Some of those realities with which the self identifies could be transient, George said, like being successful. Or they could be eternal, like being loving.
The American philosopher of religion, David Ray Griffin, pushes further than George in his groundbreaking book, Parapsychology, Philosophy and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration.
Griffin takes a sweeping look at the history of research into parapsychological phenomena, including that which might provide evidence for life after death.
He examines the past 150 years of research into such phenomenon as messages from mediums, visual apparitions of dead people, reincarnation and out-of-body experiences.
Griffin’s conclusion? Fakery is involved in many paranormal claims.
But, even after subterfuge is weeded out, Griffin maintains evidence remains so heavily in favour of the paranormal that at least some of it must be true.
As William James wrote not long ago, it takes only one white crow to prove not all crows are black. If even one parapsychological example of existence beyond death is accurate, Griffin says, mainstream science, which views the universe as a complex machine, has to undergo a paradigm shift.
Setting aside the question of whether there is evidence for consciousness beyond the grave, is it psychologically beneficial to believe in life after bodily death?
It depends, says George.
It’s bad if belief in life after death leads to people “delaying action” about the things that need to be done in this life, George said.
Belief in an afterlife also becomes dangerous if leaders manipulate it to maintain the status quo, he said, by promising “an after-life payoff.”
Alternatively, George said it’s a good thing to be open to an afterlife. If humans only hold on to those things they know with absolute certainty, he said, it can lead to a “narrow, small life.”
In Parapsychology, Philosophy and Spirituality, Griffin goes further in exploring the desirability of either rejecting or holding to a belief in personal existence after death.
Griffin agrees with Leonard that belief in life after death can be an “opiate,” leading to passivity about the need for personal improvement or social change.
Griffin also joins those who argue it’s unethical to teach that the main reason to live a good life is in anticipation of being eternally rewarded or punished in heaven.
Griffin also dislikes the idea that certain institutions can behave as if they control “the keys to the kingdom;” that they alone are the arbiters of who will live for eternity.
“Such views, besides being morally repellent, have often added an inordinate fear of death to the already difficult task of living,” Griffin writes.
Setting aside such negative beliefs, Griffin goes on to cite positive psychological reasons for thinking the self can survive bodily death.
“The belief can help give people the courage to fight for freedom, social justice and ecologically sustainable policies,” Griffin writes; because people who believe in life after death are not subject to any earthly power.
The conviction that there is a continuing journey after biological death can also help “people develop a greater love for the universe,” Griffin says, “through the conviction that the great unfairness of the present life … is not the final word.”
As well, Griffin says the belief that we are on a spiritual “journey in which there will be sufficient travel time to reach our destination” can help humans think creatively about things we can do now to pursue utopian projects, including such dreams as a world without war.
A second birth
Even though followers of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religious traditions have different beliefs about surviving bodily death, they all tend to share at least one spiritual conviction:
That everyone needs to experience a “second birth.”
Even though Easter is a time for many Christians to emphasize how belief in Jesus’s death and resurrection includes the supernatural promise that one’s own soul will experience eternal life, some practicing Christians do not put a great emphasis on whether there is life beyond the grave.
Instead, like many Jews and some Muslims, they emphasize the importance of dying to their old “self.”
That means transcending everyday earthly concerns and being recreated with a more spiritual identity. Sometimes it’s called being “born again.”
Meanwhile, even though belief in literal reincarnation is widespread in Hinduism and Buddhism, some followers of those religions also put a more naturalistic emphasis on the need for humans to renounce their ego, their false “self,” so that they can experience authentic life.
The world’s non-religious philosophers are also increasingly feeling a necessity to find fresh ways to come to terms with death and immortality.
In his dense new book, Surviving Death, Princeton University philosopher Mark Johnson argues for a sophisticated non-supernatural understanding of life after death.
After criticizing many views about a supernatural heaven and hell, the Princeton thinker agrees with most religious teachers that a truly good people must undergo a death of the self, which will lead them to figure larger in the lives of others.
Through that transformation, Johnston believes, good people somehow survive death, as a side-effect of their actions.
Ever-evolving humans, Johnston writes, can “quite literally live on in the onward rush of humankind.”
A deep mystery
As reluctant as I am to disappoint readers, I have to admit the riddle of whether humans can experience consciousness after death will not be solved in this 2,500-word article.
Despite intriguing evidence, I cannot point to the kind of incontrovertible scientific data that would convince everyone of personal immortality.
In a similar way, Capilano University’s George has also concluded, after decades of researching evidence for personal consciousness after death, that he’s not yet able to conclude.
“It remains murky. It’s a very deep mystery. We may be stalled in that human position called humility.”
Like Socrates, however, George believes it’s more than okay to be curious and open-minded about what might happen after the body and brain cease to function.
“It might be the human lot to never know,” George said. “What’s important is that the quest keeps us going. It draws us forward into life.”