Monday, October 15, 2007

Can atheists have near death experiences?

They can, apparently, and at least one, A. J. "Freddie" Ayer did .

A reader of The Spiritual Brain, David Rice III, noted that we discuss Ayer's experience, and generously permits me to reprint his own interpretation of Ayer's near death experience, from a Philosophy of Religion assignment:

Phil 613 - Problems in the Philosophy of Religion
Assignment #6

David Rice

Read A. J. Ayer's "What I saw when I was dead"; what, if anything, should Ayer have concluded from his experience?

The late A. J. Ayer reported that he was clinically dead for four minutes after choking on a piece of fish while suffering complications from pneumonia. Ayer, who was a devout atheist, recalled his experience with death to be "very vivid". He describes being encountered by a bright, red light that was painful to behold even when not looking at it directly. In addition, there were other beings in its presence. Two agents were "put in charge of space". Ayer then detects a defect in space itself and attempts to repair it and notify these "two creatures". However, his cries fall upon deaf ears. Ayer then recalls that Einstein gave us a theory of relativity that dictates that space and time are part of one continuum. Realizing this Ayer believes that if there is a problem with space there must be a connected problem with time and thus he attempts to find the defect with time so that it might be repaired. This would presumably restore space to its operational condition. Once again, the ministers of the red light who are supposedly in charge of this very important system do not hear Ayer's voice. They have either gone out to lunch or ignored Dr. Ayer completely. After further desperate attempts to grab the attention of these guards of time and space, Ayer's experience ends and he is brought back to life. All of this in four minutes. Ayer then comments on a similar account given by the mother of one of his friends. She too had confessed of seeing a great red light.

Ayer believes that although his heart had stopped functioning that his brain continued to provide mental experiences. To him this means that the light he was seeing was not real but was an epiphenomenon of brain activity. Further, Ayer says that since we have no real guarantee that we will have a future life that we should therefore not expect one. He also thinks that since one cannot have an identity without a body that one cannot therefore presume a discontinuity between the body and the mind (identity) once death occurs. Thus, if the body dies then the identity (or the continuity of our experiences) will cease as well. In other words, the continuity of experience must take place in the context of one or more bodies. That Ayer does not think that experience is tied to the enduring identity or soul rather than the body, which must be periodically replaced, is illustrative of his naturalistic assumptions.

Ayer seems to be arguing that the identity is coextensive with the body and that our lives consist of "an extended series of experiences". For him these experiences must take place in an embodied soul (if there is one), not a disembodied one. As a logical consequence of this, we should not be surprised that our identity and body really are united beyond the grave. He thinks that it is surprising that Christians are apt to forget that there is a bodily resurrection after death. However, Ayer does not seem to realize that Christianity also tells us that our identity is not coextensive with our bodies. We have souls and the soul resides in the body. Upon death, the soul or identity does not vanish. There can be identity without body. Once the soul is given its final home it will reside in a resurrected body. This body will not be a physical body as we currently understand it.

Ayer notes that simply showing the existence of an afterlife will not prove the existence of a deity. He is right. An afterlife alone will not provide sufficient grounds for such a belief. However, I think that Ayer's particular account, if in fact he was in contact with the afterlife, does provide some ground for belief in a God. In other words, the experience of some sort of afterlife will not prove the existence of God. The experience of a particular kind of afterlife would. Ayer I believed was warned.

The unapproachable red light that he experienced was I believe a vision of God's glory. The scripture speaks of God's pure brilliance and that looking into his face will destroy you. The ministers he witnessed might very well have been angels in God's presence. These angels follow God's commands, not the petitions of Ayer. That Ayer was not much interested in the red light is revealing. Instead of attempting to approach, understand or even glorify the light, he was too busy trying to fix what he considered deficiencies of the created order. He could not seem to get the ministers to listen to his proposals for correcting the glaring mistakes, which the creator somehow was incapable of preventing much less repairing. The angels ignored him and God gave him pains.

The question is whether Ayer really did experience the next world or if he simply experienced his own mental states in a time of temporary cardiac failure. It may be that he experienced a vision of sorts if not a direct encounter with the afterlife. His experience of frustration and despair, I believe, notifies us of something very important. God can use certain events and even visions to reach people. Whether we take heed is another matter.

Any other thoughts on what happened there?

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