In June 1988 atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer was recovering in hospital after a bout of pneumonia. Not wanting to eat hospital food, one of his lady friends had smuggled in some smoked salmon for him, and when he carelessly dropped some of this into his mouth it got stuck in his throat and he choked to death. Or at least his heart stopped for four minutes.
The medics successfully revived him, and on coming round he said, ‘You’re all mad!’ Ayer was not sure what he meant by this, but this atheist philosopher – the philosophical iconoclast who introduced logical positivism to Britain – had been on a four-minute journey to the other side. This philosopher had written the notorious Language Truth and Logic (the Never Mind the Bollocks of philosophy books) in 1936 where he argued that we can only understand the meaning of something if we understand how it can be verified – proved true or false by observation. This is the verification principle, the central tenet of logical positivism. Whatever can’t be verified empirically was worse than merely false. It was meaningless.
So according to Ayer, all pronouncements about ethics, beauty, religion, metaphysics and God were not wrong. They were simply gobbledegook. They may at times be gobbledegook that we like, but they are gobbledegook nonetheless. Yet now Ayer the arch sceptic had been brought back from the dead, and he had had a vision. This is what he saw.
After crossing a river (perhaps the river Styx of Greek mythology), Ayer described seeing a painfully bright red light which he felt was governing the universe. He also saw two ‘creatures’ that he took for ministers responsible for regulating space. These ministers, Ayer believed, had just carried out an inspection but had failed to notice that space was slightly ‘out of joint’, and that this meant that the laws of nature weren’t working properly.
Ayer assumed that this problem with space and the laws of nature was the reason for the painful red light. He felt it was his responsibility to put all this right and that if he did so, the red light would go out.
Ayer knew that physics since Einstein viewed space and time as one, and so he thought that by operating on time, the problem with space being out of whack could be fixed. He tried to communicate this to the ministers of space, but they couldn’t hear him or ignored him. Ayer then had the idea of walking to and fro and waving his wristwatch above his head. This, he reasoned, would direct their attention to the idea of time. However, this didn’t work and Ayer felt more and more frustrated.
And then he was brought back from the dead.
So what impact did this experience have on Ayer? Summing up his thoughts on his ‘death’, he wrote: ‘My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be.’[i]
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
What happened to Ayer was a Near Death Experience or NDE. These experiences frequently include floating above the hospital bed and watching medical staff working to save the life of the experiencer; passing down a tunnel towards a bright light; meeting dead relatives or religious figures; there may be intense spiritual feelings; finally, the experiencer returns to his or her body, often reluctantly, to carry on living. Many survivors report being transformed into better, more compassionate or more spiritual human beings by their experiences.[ii]
It’s not possible to know how common these experiences are on the point of death because, well, we can only know about them if the person returns to the land of the living. For those who remain dead we’ve no idea what they experienced, if anything. However, most research on patients who have come near to death suggests that less than half of them (perhaps much less than half of them) undergo a Near Death Experience.[iii] The majority of people who nearly die have no such experience.
Ayer’s description of what he saw is quite atypical, with its odd scientific themes of space-time and regulation of the universe. Perhaps this was influenced by the fact that Ayer had been reading Stephen Hawking’s bestseller A Brief History of Time in his hospital bed.
Many were surprised that the irascible old atheist had said that his experience had ‘slightly weakened’ his belief that there was no life after death. Even more surprising, one of the doctors claimed that Ayer had said to him, sheepishly, ‘I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my various books and opinions.’[iv] Perhaps some people of faith were hoping for a miraculous conversion with the notorious unbeliever finally seeing the light…
However, Ayer soon wrote a retraction of these words (despite him saying it was not a retraction – it clearly was) called ‘Postscript to a Postmortem’.[v] Here he wrote that his experience did not weaken his conviction that there was no afterlife. The experience just gave him, he said, a less inflexible attitude toward that belief. However, he stressed the best explanation for his odd experience was that his brain was still active during those minutes after his heart stopped.
And of course, there is a huge philosophical problem with the argument that NDEs are evidence for life after death. The problem is that Near Death Experiences are only evidence that people have Near Death Experiences. It’s a leap of faith from that to an afterlife. Furthermore, the experiencer was not really dead. If they had been really dead, they wouldn’t be able to tell us about their Near Death Experience. As far as we know NDEs only happen to the living.
In any case, Ayer supposedly became a better person after his ‘death’. His wife said ‘Freddie became so much nicer after he died… He was not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.’ He also began to appreciate scenery, saying while at his villa in France, ‘I suddenly stopped and looked out at the sea and thought, my God, how beautiful this is… for 26 years I had never really looked at it before.’[vi]
The detail about Ayer choking on a piece of contraband smoked salmon is a nice touch to the story, though there is some reason to doubt it. One of the doctors who revived Ayer examined his throat and found no trace of salmon and he suspects that this fishy detail was invented by Ayer to add a little colour to the story.[vii]
I can’t help thinking back to the time in the late 1980s when as a student I chaired a philosophical discussion with Anthony Flew, another notorious philosophical atheist who also supposedly found God in his last days. The debate was about life after death and the possibility (or not) of evidence for it. When the President of the student Christian Society demanded of Flew how he could be so sure there could be no life after death, he replied that of all the people who died when the Titanic sank, none of their names appeared on the list of survivors.
[i] A.J. Ayer ‘What I Saw When I Was Dead’ In Paul Edwards, Immortality (pp. 269-275), (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1997)
[ii] Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences (New York: Prometheus Books, 1993) p. 7
[iii] Ibid, pp.34-35
[iv] William Cash ‘Did Atheist Philosopher See God When He ‘Died’?’ National Post, 3 March 2001
[v] A.J. Ayer ‘Postscript to a Postmortem’, The Spectator 15 October 1988
[vi] Cash, 2001