English philosopher Sir Alfred J. Ayer, regarded by some as the world's most formidable atheist, told of a "near-death" experience this year and had the British public wondering, for a while, whether an influential voice for unbelief had been quieted.
Ayer, who will turn 88 in three weeks, known mainly for his "Language, Truth and Logic," first published in 1936, wrote recently that he has weakened "slightly" on the question of an afterlife but not in his conviction that there is no God.Ayer, who had been hospitalized in London for pneumonia, choked on a piece of salmon and was told by his doctor that his heart stopped for about four minutes before he was revived.
In recent years, anecdotal accounts have been published telling of some people who briefly "died" in a hospital and later recalled "seeing" a light at the end of a long tunnel, or variations thereof, before they regained consciousness. While some analysts have taken the similarity of many experiences as clues to the existence of an afterlife, others have called such studies speculative.
In that context, the editor of the London Sunday Telegraph reported in a personal column that "Freddy" (Ayer) had been technically dead in the hospital and was happy to report that there was nothing there. But a brief letter then appeared claiming, to the contrary, that Ayer had had a remarkable experience in those moments.
Ayer then wrote an article, explaining "What I Saw When I Was Dead," for the Sunday Telegraph. National Review, a New York-based conservative magazine of commentary, published it in its Oct. 14 issue. Magazine Editor John O'Sullivan, an acquaintance of Ayer's, commended the article as a "wry" postscript to the experience of a man he described as "perhaps the most famous atheist living today."
The philosopher wrote, "The only memory that I have of an experience, closely encompassing my death, is very vivid. I was confronted by a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very painful even when I turned away from it. I was aware that this light was responsible for the government of the universe. Among its ministers were two creatures who had been put in charge of space."
Charged with seeing that space was kept in working order, the ministers had failed to do their work properly and space was like a "badly fitting jigsaw puzzle," he wrote.
In what sounds like a nightmare on the cosmic level, Ayer said he recalled feeling that he needed to put aright the suddenly chaotic laws of nature and simultaneously extinguish the painful red light that seemed to be "signaling that space was awry." Remembering that Einstein's general theory of relativity treats space and time as a whole, "I thought I could cure space by operating upon time."
Trying to make contact again with the ministers, Ayer said, "I then hit upon the expedient of walking up and down, waving my watch, in the hope of drawing their attention not to my watch itself but to the time which it measured. This elicited no response. I became more and more desperate, until the experience suddenly came to an end."
His "experience" could have been a delusion, Ayer said, but he knew of one woman who had had a heart arrest and had told her daughter that all she remembered was that she must stay close to the red light.