Death Be Not Proud
We think of our life stories as headed toward a concluding sentence, after which, if they were novels, we would see written: “The End.”
Not that everyone conceives this “end” the same way. Take Heidegger, the 20th-century German existentialist. He holds that we should think of ourselves as headed-toward-death from the get-go. By looking death in the eye, we fortify ourselves to become resolute and brave – getting way beyond conventional people who live by evasion and denial.
Sartre, the 20th-century French existentialist, thinks the very fact of death – along with the other contingencies in our bodies and the natural environment – combine to show that our purposes are unsupported. Not supported by God and not by nature. Rather, by nothing at all! To face this honestly and recognize that we make up our purposes and self-definitions is “authenticity.” To try to pretend otherwise is mauvaise foi, bad faith.
The various figures in post-modernism tend to view reality, whether natural or cultural, as a social construct. It’s still made up, but not by individuals. Rather by social groups, identified by their position on a scale of dominance and subordination. However, they too go to the dentist. And they can tell the difference between a dentist who knows his craft and one merely flexing his credentials. One day, a social constructivist I knew told me that he was dying of cancer. Tactfully, I did not ask if he thought death too was a social construct.
On the Anglo-American side of the channel and “the pond,” it’s typical to see life as ending when the senses and bodily functions shut down. One time I asked David Armstrong, a leading Australian materialist, whether he’d read my article, “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead.” He said he hadn’t (and presumably wouldn’t) because “Freddie” (A. J. Ayer) had evidently confused real oxygen deprivation with fantasized other-worldly visions and thereby “lost his cool.”
Need I go on? Speaking personally, for better or worse, I am encumbered by no such intellectual constraints. Like many people, I’ve had pre-cognitive dreams and waking visions, significant coincidences, some of which I think it reasonable to construe as signs of providential intervention. I’ve even argued to this effect in the final chapter of A Good Look at Evil.
That said, I would have thought that admission of such phenomena into the domain of scientific investigation would be a thing for the distant future. So far as I knew, any scientist who wanted to conduct that kind of inquiry would be risking his or her career.
I was mistaken. Apparently, the future is already here. The August 20th edition of Victor Zammit’s blog includes a video on methodic, scientific investigations of near-death experiences (NDE’s) that were conducted or are now being conducted in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the USA. In such cases, a patient, who has been deemed clinically dead and then revived, reports continuous conscious experience during that interval. If, as most moderns hold, the brain is what produces consciousness, that should be impossible.
Dr. Francois Lallier, a general practitioner in Reims, France, wrote a well-received medical thesis on such experiences de mort imminente, holding that they need to be “de-dramatized” and studied, rather than explained away. He found that NDE’s are reported by 5% of patients who survive clinical death in the US and by 4% of such survivors in France and Germany. These recollections have similar features: seeing a light that is very bright but not over-dazzling, seeing one’s body from the outside, meeting deceased relatives, losing the sense of time, feeling limitlessly loved, undergoing a life review in which one sees how one’s actions have affected others, and entering a domain of universal harmony and knowledge. Among the after-effects are the persistence of intense, full recollection of this experience and the loss of the fear of death.
Lallier found no correlation of NDE’s with psychiatric disturbances, hallucinogenic medication, epilepsy or neurological problems. Meanwhile, in 2001, Dutch cardiologist Pim Van Lommel had published a study of NDE’s in Lancet, the well-regarded medical journal. He found no correlation of these experiences with the duration of the cardiac arrest, the presence or absence of medications or the lack of oxygen. Van Lommel mentions a recent book containing accounts of 100 cases of NDE’s where the patient, at the time lying “dead” on the operating table, reported observations while out of the body that were veridical (corroborated by witnesses to the events observed). Steven Laurey of the Coma Science Group in Liege, Belgium, is currently undertaking a study of the brain effects in patients who have had NDE’s. As yet, he has not come to any conclusions but considers it a field ripe for scientific investigation.
What follows, for you or me? Certain beliefs collapse. We are not just dependent on our perishable brains. Rather, life goes on, with new levels of understanding. Life is not meaningless and we don’t fabricate its meaning. Such skills and talents as we have developed don’t reduce to mere devices for dominating other people. Our lives can be evaluated in terms of the degree of compassionate concern we have shown for other people. Turns out the golden rule is not reserved for Hallmark cards. It’s a serious measure of the worthiness of the life one has lived.
There’s one tendency I’ve noticed among the scientists, philosophers, and religionists who are willing to look at these studies. I call it upward reductionism. It’s the rush to suppose that — since everything is really Love — we can look forward to melting like little raindrops into the great Ocean of Oneness. Nothing is actually separate. Nothing is really individual. We are all … just … LOVE and more LOVE. Quantum entanglement is love in another guise. You are love. I am love. Blur, blur, blur.
I take that to reflect the very early stage, the woo woo stage, of the work ahead of us. What work is that? It will surely involve the revising, at least in part, of most of our present, modern-day scientific and cultural assumptions.
It promises to be