My wife and I were discussing the recent death of a close friend. We wondered about the experience of crossing the threshold from life to death to eternal life. And of course our imaginations failed – because we can only imagine (as Kant pointed out) in terms of time and space. But time and space only have meaning in a material world. Whatever will be our first experience on the other side is hidden to the human mind. We may use human concepts like seeing God, or being cleansed in Purgatory, or meeting deceased loved ones – but these are just labels for concepts which, until they occur, have no meaning.
And then I remembered that one Blog contributor had suggested that we might look at near-death experiences. These are well documented, and would certainly suggest that we will understand life after death in human terms. There are many accounts but enough similarities between them to suggest that they describe an experience which is essentially true. Reports of a bright light and a tunnel – or something similar – through which one has to pass, a sense of connectedness, are typically reported. So are: life flashing before the eyes, feelings of peace and joy, and perceived encounters with mystical entities.
However, as you might expect, there are sceptics – mainly people of a scientific rather than a religious bent. They are quick to point out that such experiences can occur to people who are not in fact dying, and that the vision of the entrance to heaven is coincidentally in line with contemporary religious culture.
But of course there is a riposte. A J Ayer, the distinctively secular philosopher, reported such an experience, and there is some evidence that he said to his doctor, “I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my books and opinions.” (See the account in Wikipedia). Perhaps even more convincing was the recent account in Newsweek magazine by a brain surgeon of his near-death experiences, when he was seriously ill with bacterial meningitis. This was a ‘hardheaded’ scientist telling us how it is. And I agree that the evidence strongly supports these accounts by two people of substance. But I have to say that I think that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the supernatural.
My first reason for this is prima facie. I do not think that life after death is much the same as before – but with the addition of bright lights and angelic choirs. That sounds a mite too convenient for me. Second, there is a well sourced theory that the brain does not close down immediately – even at clinical death. One would expect its activity to continue if only for a few seconds on its way to a final stop. (However that does make me wonder about what goes on in the head of an aristocrat as it tumbles down from the guillotine.)
Thirdly, near-death experiences are more open to investigation than heretofore because cardiac resuscitation is more common. In a 2009 study of such patients, those who reported near-death experiences showed significantly higher blood carbon dioxide levels than those who did not. Why carbon dioxide should have such an effect does not appear to have yet been established, and requires further study. But the factors which we might expect to associate with the experiences, such such as sex, age, level of education, religious belief, fear of death, time to recovery or drugs given, showed no correlation, in this study.
So, though I do not doubt that some dying people have such an experience (and that would include people who actually do die and so cannot report) I believe that there is a natural explanation by way of abnormal brain activity causing this illusion. However you may have had, or may know people who have had, near-death experiences. So tell us about that, together with your views on the whole question. And if you have pictured what you will experience in the instance after death, share it with us. It will be interesting to know whether such accounts are similar or vary wildly.