Two Views Of A Secret

In last night’s post we linked to a reminiscence about the late Patrick McGoohan. That essay, in turn, linked to another blog with a post about Mr. McGoohan, this time by a film writer by the name of Glenn Kenney. Mr. Kenny’s post is a good one, and if you were a McGoohan fan you should read it. But what raised my eyebrow was a comment left by one of Mr. Kenny’s readers.

Referring to the smoldering anger that always seemed to be just beneath the surface in Mr. McGoohan, Mr. Kenny concluded his essay with this remark:

One hopes McGoohan has found the peace that largely eluded him in life. Still, one has to admit, from the remove of the theater seat, or the sofa, his rage gives off a perversely warming glow indeed.

This elicited the following response from one David Koval:

Glenn: No one gets the peace in death that eluded them in life because there is no peace in death; there is nothing in death. There is only life and it’s hideous/sublime mixture of small shards of bliss and large chunks of suffering. I had a heart attack in 1982, at the age of 39. My heart stopped and I was clinically dead for at least five minutes, according to the doctors. I am here to report to you that there is nothing beyond this life. Nothing. The act of dying requires that you take on the properties of an appliance that has just been disconnected from its power source. The energy slowly drains from your body, your vision starts to tunnel, and it feels as if you are falling down into an endless hole, until there is no more light or sound. And then…nothing. That’s how Patrick McGoohan spent the last moments of his life and that’s how you will spend the last moments of your life, as well as everyone who reads this comment and everyone now living. So find your peace before this happens.

I suppose there is no equivalent, in a blog post’s comment-thread, of a “stunned silence”, but we must imagine that when not posting comments online, Mr. Koval has livened up a dinner-party or two. The commenter immediately below this bombshell had only this to say:

^^Best comment ever.

Mr. Koval may well be right, of course; in fact I think he almost certainly is. Others, however, have had very different near-death experiences, and have come back convinced that there is indeed something waiting for us on the “other side”. Perhaps what you get out of these events just depends on what you bring to them.

My own feeling has always been that near-death experiences tell us nothing whatosever about actually being dead (even in what I consider the extremely unlikely case that there is any fact of the matter at all about “what it’s like to be dead”), for the simple reason that if you are here to tell us about the experience in the first place, then you haven’t died.

As it happens, Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, took up this very question in a post of his own just a few days ago, called “Near-Death Experiences: Do They Prove Anything?“. In his post, which begins with the late Richard Neuhaus’s own account of a transformative near-death experience involving a vision of angels, Bill acknowledges the skeptical position I limned above — but, as a theist who no doubt believes in some sort of afterlife, he expresses his own skepticism about the skeptical view:

A consistent skepticism calls into question everything including the power of reason that the skeptic himself must employ. If he trusts his power to doubt as a power revelatory of something true (e.g. that near-death experiences are justifiably dismissable as transient mental aberrations), then he is not being consistently and radically skeptical. He is stuck with a dogmatic posit, namely, the conviction that his reason is utterly trustworthy.

Doubts about the ‘far side’ are not to be trusted since skeptics are too much alive, too much in the grip of the ego-illusion, too much in the grip of the conviction that this world of ordinary experience is all there is and can be. So if those who are near death are in no position to know what it is like to be dead — if there is something it is like to be dead — for the reason that they are not dead, then those who are full of the pride of life are equally in no position to know what it is like to be dead precisely because they are alive.

Now I would be the last to suggest that human reason is “utterly trustworthy”; indeed I have said often that it is naive to think it would be. (Readers may recall my raising this point in an earlier post on C.S. Lewis’s argument about the “cardinal difficulty of naturalism”.) But it is interesting to see Bill, the arch-reasoner, make such a reasoned use of an argument against the reliability of reason!

Bill is not trying to settle the matter, though. He concludes:

But on a topic like this nothing can be proven one way or another.

Is he right? He certainly may be. If the afterlife, as some believe it does, proceeds in some way that is utterly disconnected from the physical world, and is therefore beyond the reach of any epistemic tools we can ever possess, then we can never discover, or prove, anything about it. (And of course, because that state of affairs is indistinguishable from there being no afterlife at all, we obviously can’t prove it’s not there, either, even if there’s no reason whatsoever to suppose it is. You can’t prove that undetectable things don’t exist.) But if near-death experiences are indeed veridical glimpses of that farther shore, then the afterlife is in fact having a definite effect and influence on this mundane sphere below — and if that unseen world can actually cause such physical effects as verbal reports, blog posts, and so forth, then we ought to be able to touch it in other ways as well, perhaps even with our scientific instruments.

But this of course brings us back to the larger argument about dualism, and the interaction problem — and this post has probably gone on long enough already. You can read Bill’s post for yourself, here.

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