Sunday, July 21, 2013

A. J. Ayer's Near-Death Experience

Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (A. J. Ayer to most of us, but "Freddie" to those who knew him) was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, remembered primarily for his defense of the (now discredited) verification principle associated with Logical Positivism. Ayer was also one of the century's premier defenders of atheism, regarding the statement "God exists" as meaningless (though also regarding the statement "God does not exist" as meaningless). He debated the Jesuit philosopher Frederick Copleston, with whom he eventually became close friends.

In 1988, while hospitalized for pneumonia, Ayer choked on a piece of fish, went into cardiac arrest, and was dead for four minutes. After being revived, he wrote about his experience in an article titled "What I Saw When I Was Dead":

. . . 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.

These ministers periodically inspected space and had recently carried out such an inspection. They had, however, failed to do their work properly, with the result that space, like a badly fitting jigsaw puzzle, was slightly out of joint.

A further consequence was that the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should. I felt that it was up to me to put things right. I also had the motive of finding a way to extinguish the painful light. I assumed that it was signaling that space was awry and that it would switch itself off when order was restored.

Unfortunately, I had no idea where the guardians of space had gone and feared that even if I found them I should not be able to communicate with them.

It then occurred to me that whereas, until the present century, physicists accepted the Newtonian severance of space and time, it had become customary, since the vindication of Einstein's general theory of relativity, to treat space-time as a single whole. Accordingly, I thought that I could cure space by operating upon time.

I was vaguely aware that the ministers who had been given charge of time were in my neighborhood and I proceeded to hail them. I was again frustrated. Either they did not hear me, or they chose to ignore me, or they did not understand me. 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. . . .

Ayer's story spread rapidly, and he ended up downplaying the impact the experience had on him. However, Dr. Jeremy George, who was attending Ayer the night of his temporary death, suggested that Ayer's Near-Death Experience affected him much more deeply than he later let on. Dr. George describes his exchange with Ayer:

Very discreetly, I asked him, as a philosopher, what was it like to have had a near-death experience? He suddenly looked rather sheepish. Then he said, "I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my various books and opinions."


  1. Bright lights seem to figure in many of these near-death incidents. I would love to read comments from reputable scientists (biochemists or neurologists, perhaps) about the possible causes of these phenomena. I would also like to see if Ayer's discussion with Dr. George went any further than dsclosed here. What, exactly, led Ayer to believe he'd seen a divine being -- as opposed to having a hallucinatory dream, say?

  2. You should look up the website Fr. Robert Spitzer is a very humble and knowledgeable scientist. I was hearing him on the radio and this is what lead me to look up Mr. Ayer.