a brief visit to the red light district
Logical positivist Alfred Jules Ayer was renowned both as a fierce debater and an audacious womanizer. As his stepdaughter Gully Wells told his biographer Ben Rogers, shortly after his seventy-seventh birthday party, Ayer cleverly conjoined these competitive qualities in an unexpectedly philanthropic encounter with a besotted raper wannabe:
It was at another party, given a little later in the year by the highly fashionable clothes designer, Fernando Sanchez, that he had a widely reported encounter. Ayer had always had an ability to pick up unlikely people and at yet another party had befriended Sanchez. Ayer was now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez’s West 57th Street apartment, chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: ‘Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.’ Ayer stood his ground: ‘And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent men in our held; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.’ Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.In the following year, a no less competitive confrontation with a more formidable adversity left Ayer bested in a far less festive setting. In the articles reproduced and glossed below, he recounts and analyzes a near-death experience, which pitted him against a bright and painful red light that governed the universe, and the guardians of space and time. Some time later Jonathan Miller commented to Dee Wells, Ayer’s final and antepenultimate wife: “Freddie is in spectacularly good form!” To which she replied: “He’s so much nicer since he died.” A character-building opportunity of this sort would improve almost all of us.
A.J. Ayer post mortem, London, 5 October 1988, photo by Steve Pyke
Retribution struck me on Sunday, May 30. I had gone out to lunch, had a great deal to eat and drink, and chattered incessantly. That evening I had a relapse. I could eat almost none of the food which a friend had brought to cook in my house.
On the next day, which was a bank holiday, I had a long-standing engagement to lunch at the Savoy with a friend who was very eager for me to meet her son. I would have put them off if I could, but my friend lives in Exeter and I had no idea how to reach her in London. So I took a taxi to the Savoy and just managed to stagger into the lobby. I could eat hardly any of the delicious grilled sole that I ordered but forced myself to keep up my end of the conversation. I left early and took a taxi home.
That evening I felt still worse. Once more I could eat almost none of the dinner another friend had brought me. Indeed, she was so alarmed by my weakness that she stayed overnight. When I was no better the next morning, she telephoned to my general practitioner and to my elder son, Julian.
The doctor did little more than promise to try to get in touch with the specialist, but Julian, who is unobtrusively very efficient, immediately rang for an ambulance. The ambulance came quickly with two strong attendants, and yet another friend, who had called opportunely to pick up a key, accompanied it and me to University College Hospital.
I remember very little of what happened from then on. I was taken to a room in the private wing, which had been reserved for me by the specialist, who had a consulting room on the same floor. After being X-rayed and subjected to a number of tests, which proved beyond question that I was suffering gravely from pneumonia, I was moved into intensive care in the main wing of the hospital.
Fortunately for me, the young doctor who was primarily responsible for me had been an undergraduate at New College, Oxford, while I was a Fellow. This made him extremely anxious to see that I recovered; almost too much so, in fact, for he was so much in awe of me that he forbade me to be disturbed at night, even when the experienced sister and nurse believed it to be necessary.
Under his care and theirs I made such good progress that I expected to be moved out of intensive care and back into the private wing within a week. My disappointment was my own fault. I did not attempt to eat the hospital food. My family and friends supplied all the food I needed. I am particularly fond of smoked salmon, and one evening I carelessly tossed a slice of it into my throat. It went down the wrong way and almost immediately the graph recording my heartbeats plummeted.
The ward sister rushed to the rescue, but she was unable to prevent my heart from stopping. She and the doctor subsequently told me that I died in this sense for four minutes, and I have had no reason to disbelieve them.
The doctor alarmed my son Nicholas, who had flown from New York to be by my bedside, by saying that it was not probable that I should recover, and moreover, that if I did recover physically it was not probable that my mental powers would be restored. The nurses were more optimistic, and Nicholas sensibly chose to believe them.
I have no recollection of anything that was done to me at that time. Friends have told me that I was festooned with tubes, but I have never learned how many of them there were or, with one exception, what purposes they served. I do not remember having a tube inserted in my throat to bring up the quantity of phlegm which had lodged in my lungs. I was not even aware of my numerous visitors, so many of them, in fact, that the sister had to set a quota. I know that the doctors and nurses were surprised by the speed of my recovery and that when I started speaking, the specialist expressed astonishment that anyone with so little oxygen in his lungs should be so lucid.
My first recorded utterance, which convinced those who heard it that I had not lost my wits, was the exclamation: “You are all mad.” I am not sure how this should be interpreted. It is possible that I took my audience to be Christians and was telling them that I had not discovered anything “on the other side.” It is also possible that I took them to be skeptics and was implying that I had discovered something. I think the former is more probable, as in the latter case I should more properly have exclaimed, “We are all mad.” All the same, I cannot be sure.
The earliest remarks of which I have any cognizance, apart from my first exclamation, were made several hours after my return to life. They were addressed to a Frenchwoman with whom I had been friends for over 15 years. I woke to find her seated by my bedside and started talking to her in French as soon as I recognized her. My French is fluent and I spoke rapidly, approximately as follows: “Did you know that I was dead? The first time that I tried to cross the river I was frustrated, but my second attempt succeeded. It was most extraordinary. My thoughts became persons.”
The content of those remarks suggests that I have not wholly put my classical education behind me. In Greek mythology the souls of the dead, now only shadowly embodied, were obliged to cross the river Styx in order to reach Hades, after paying an obol to the ferryman, Charon.
I may also have been reminded of my favorite philosopher, David Hume, who, during his last illness, “a disorder of the bowels,” imagined that Charon, growing impatient, was calling him “a lazy loitering rogue.” With his usual politeness, Hume replied that he saw without regret his death approaching and that he was making no effort to postpone it. This is one of the rare occasions on which I have failed to follow Hume. Clearly I had made an effort to prolong my life.
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.
This experience could well have been delusive. This slight indication that it might have been veridical has been supplied by my French friend, or rather by her mother, who also underwent a heart arrest many years ago. When her daughter asked her what it had been like, she replied that all that she remembered was that she must stay close to the red light.
On the face of it, these experiences, on the assumption that the last one was veridical, are rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to consciousness.
Does it follow that there is a future life? Not necessarily. The trouble is that there are different criteria for being dead, which are indeed logically compatible but may not always be satisfied together.
In this instance, I am given to understand that the arrest of the heart does not entail, either logically or causally, the arrest of the brain. In view of the very strong evidence in favor of the dependence of thoughts upon the brain, the most probable hypothesis is that my brain continued to function although my heart had stopped.
If I had acquired good reason to believe in a future life, it would have applied not only to myself. Admittedly, the philosophical problem of justifying one’s confident belief in the existence and contents of other minds has not yet been satisfactorily solved. Even so, with the possible exception of Fichte—who proclaimed that the world was his idea but may not have meant it literally—no philosopher has acquiesced in solipsism. No philosopher has seriously asserted that of all the objects in the universe, he alone was conscious. Moreover it is commonly taken for granted, not only by philosophers, that the minds of others bear a sufficiently close analogy to one’s own. Consequently, if I had been vouchsafed a reasonable expectation of a future life, other human beings could expect one too.
Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that we could have future lives. What form could they take?
The easiest answer is that they would consist in the prolongation of our experiences, without any physical attachment. This is the theory that should appeal to radical empiricists. It is, indeed, consistent with the concept of personal identity which was adopted both by Hume and by William James, according to which one’s identity consists, not in the possession of an enduring soul, but in the sequence of one’s experiences, guaranteed by memory. They did not apply their theory to a future life, in which Hume at any rate disbelieved.
Or those who are attracted by this theory, as I am. For the main problem, which Hume admitted that he was unable to solve, is to discover the relation, or relations, which have to hold between experiences for them to belong to one and the same self.
William James thought that he had found the answers with his relations of the felt togetherness and continuity of our thoughts and sensations, coupled with memory, in order to unite experiences that are separated in time. But while memory is undoubtedly necessary, it can be shown that it is not wholly sufficient.
I myself carried out a thorough examination and development of the theory in my book The Origins of Pragmatism. I was reluctantly forced to conclude that I could not account for personal identity without falling back on the identity, through time, of one or more bodies that the person might successively occupy. Even then, I was unable to give a satisfactory account of the way in which a series of experiences is tied to a particular body at any given time.
The admission that personal identity through time requires the identity of a body is a surprising feature of Christianity. I call it surprising because it seems to me that Christians are apt to forget that the resurrection of the body is an element in their creed. The question of how bodily identity is sustained over intervals of time is not so difficult. The answer might consist in postulating a reunion of the same atoms, perhaps in there being no more than a strong physical resemblance, possibly fortified by a similarity of behavior.
A prevalent fallacy is the assumption that a proof of an after-life would also be a proof of the existence of a deity. This is far from being the case. If, as I hold, there is no good reason to believe that a god either created or presides over this world, there is equally no good reason to believe that a god created or presides over the next world, on the unlikely supposition that such a thing exists. It is conceivable that one’s experiences in the next world, if there are any, will supply evidence of a god’s existence, but we have no right to presume on such evidence, when we have not had the relevant experiences.
It is worth remarking, in this connection, that the two important Cambridge philosophers in this century, J.M.E. McTaggart and C.D. Broad, who have believed, in McTaggart’s case that he would certainly survive his death, in Broad’s that there was about a 50 per cent probability that he would, were both of them atheists.
McTaggart derived his certainty from his metaphysics, which implied that what we confusedly perceive as material objects, in some cases housing minds, are really souls, eternally viewing one another with something of the order of love.
The less fanciful Broad was impressed by the findings of psychical research. He was certainly too intelligent to think that the superior performances of a few persons in the game of guessing unseen cards, which he painstakingly proved to be statistically significant, had any bearing upon the likelihood of a future life. He must therefore have been persuaded by the testimony of mediums. He was surely aware that most mediums have been shown to be frauds, but he was convinced that some have not been.
Not that this made him optimistic. He took the view that this world was very nasty and that there was a fair chance that the next world, if it existed, was even nastier. Consequently, he had no compelling desire to survive. He just thought that there was an even chance of his doing so. One of his better epigrams was that if one went by the reports of mediums, life in the next world was like a perpetual bump supper at a Welsh university.
If Broad was an atheist, my friend Dr. Alfred Ewing was not. Ewing, who considered Broad to be a better philosopher than Wittgenstein, was naif, unworldly even by academic standards, intellectually shrewd, unswervingly honest, and a devout Christian. Once, to tease him, I said: “Tell me, Alfred, what do you most look forward to in the next world?” He replied immediately: “God will tell me whether there are a priori propositions.” It is a wry comment on the strange character of our subject that this answer should be so funny.
My excuse for repeating this story is that such philosophical problems as the question whether the propositions of logic and pure mathematics are deductively analytic or factually synthetic, and, if they are analytic, whether they are true by convention, are not to be solved by acquiring more information.
What is needed is that we succeed in obtaining a clearer view of what the problems involve. One might hope to achieve this in a future life, but really we have no good reason to believe that our intellects will be any sharper in the next world, if there is one, than they are in this. A god, if one exists, might make them so, but this is not something that even the most enthusiastic deist can count on.
The only philosophical problem that our finding ourselves landed on a future life might clarify would be that of the relation between mind and body, if our future lives consisted, not in the resurrection of our bodies, but in the prolongation of the series of our present experiences. We should then be witnessing the triumph of dualism, though not the dualism which Descartes thought that he had established. If our lives consisted in an extended series of experiences, we should still have no good reason to regard ourselves as spiritual substances.
So there it is. 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. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god. I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press, and the South Place Ethical Society.
—28 August 1988, The Sunday Telegraph
I say “not primarily to retract” because one of my sentences was written so carelessly that it is literally false as it stands. In the final paragraph, I wrote, “My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death … will be the end of me.” They have not and never did weaken that conviction. What I should have said and would have said, had I not been anxious to appear undogmatic, is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief.
Previously my interest in the question was purely polemical. I wished to expose the defects in the positions of those who believed that they would survive. My experiences caused me to think that it was worth examining various possibilities of survival for their own sakes. I did not intend to imply that the result of my enquiry had been to increase the low probability of any one of them, even if it were granted that they had any probability at all.
My motive for writing the original article was twofold. I thought that my experiences had been sufficiently remarkable to be worth recording, and I wished to rebut the incoherent statement, which had been attributed to me, that I had discovered nothing ‘on the other side’. Evidently, my having discovered something on the other side was a precondition of my having completed the journey. It follows that if I had discovered nothing, I had not been there; I had no right to imply that there was a ‘there’ to go to. Conversely, if there was evidence that I had had some strange experiences, nothing followed about there being ‘another side’. In particular, it did not follow either that I had visited such a place, or that I had not. I said in my article that the most probable explanation of my experiences was that my brain had not ceased to function during the four minutes of my heart arrest. I have since been told, rightly or wrongly, that it would not have functioned on its own for any longer period without being damaged. I thought it so obvious that the persistence of my brain was the most probable explanation that I did not bother to stress it. I stress it now. No other hypothesis comes anywhere near to superseding it.
Descartes has few contemporary disciples. Not many philosophers of whatever persuasion believe that we are spiritual substances. Those who so far depart from present fashion as not to take a materialistic view of our identities are most likely to equate persons with the series of their experiences. There is no reason in principle why such a series should not continue beyond the point where the experiences are associated with a particular body. Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my article, nobody has yet succeeded in specifying the relations which would have to hold between the members of such a series for them to constitute a person. There is a more serious objection. Whatever these relations were, they would be contingent; they might not have obtained. But this allows for the possibility of there being experiences which do not belong to anybody; experiences which exist on their own. It is not obvious to me that this supposition is contradictory; but it might well be regarded as an irreparable defect in the theory.
If theories of this type are excluded, one might try to fall back on the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. But, notoriously, this too encounters a mass of difficulties. I shall mention only one or two of them. For instance, one may ask in what form our bodies will be returned to us. As they were when we died, or when we were in our prime? Would they still be vulnerable to pain and disease? What are the prospects for infants, cripples, schizophrenics, and amnesiacs? In what manner will they survive?
“Oh, how glorious and resplendent, fragile body, shalt thou be!” This body? Why should one give unnecessary hostages to fortune? Let it be granted that I must reappear as an embodied person, if I am to reappear at all. It does not follow that the body which is going to be mine must be the same body as the one that is mine now; it need not be even a replica of my present body. The most that is required is that it be generically the same; that is, a human body of some sort, let us say a standard male model not especially strong or beautiful, not diseased, but still subject to the ills that flesh is heir to. I am not sure whether one can allow oneself a choice with respect to age and sex. The preservation or renewal of one’s personal identity will be secured, in this picture, by a continuity of one’s mental states, with memory a necessary, but still not a sufficient, factor. I am assuming now that these mental states cannot exist on their own; hence, the need for a material body to sustain them.
I am far from claiming that such a scenario is plausible. Nevertheless it does have two merits. The first is that we are no longer required to make sense of the hypothesis that one’s body will be reconstructed some time after it has perished. The second is that it does not force us to postulate the existence of a future world. One can live again in a future state of the world that one lives in now. At this it becomes clear that the idea of the resurrection of the body had better be discarded. It is to be replaced by the idea of reincarnation. The two are not so very distinct. What gives the idea of reincarnation the advantage is that it clearly implies both that persons undergo a change of bodies and that they return to the same world that they inhabited before.
The idea of reincarnation is popular in the East. In the West it has been more generally ridiculed. Indeed, I myself have frequently made fun of it. Even now, I am not suggesting that it is or ever will be a reality. Not even that it could be. Our concept of a person is such that it is actually contradictory to suppose that once-dead persons return to earth after what may be a considerable lapse of time.
But our concepts are not sacrosanct. They can be modified if they cease to be well adapted to our experience. In the present instance, the change which would supply us with a motive for altering our concept of a person in such a way as to admit the possibility of reincarnation would not be very great. All that would be required is that there be good evidence that many persons are able to furnish information about previous lives of such a character and such an abundance that it would seem they could not possess the information unless they themselves had lived the lives in question.
This condition is indispensable. There is no sense in someone’s claiming to have been Antony, say, or Cleopatra, if he or she knows less about Antony or Cleopatra than a good Shakespearian scholar and much less than a competent ancient historian. Forgetfulness in this context is literally death.
I should remark that even if this condition were satisfied, our motive for changing our concept of a person would not be irresistible. Harmony could also be restored by our changing our concept of memory. We could introduce the ruling that it is possible to remember experiences that one never had; not just to remember them in the way that one remembers facts of one sort or another, but to remember these experiences in the way that one remembers one’s own.
Which of these decisions would lead us to the truth? This is a senseless question. In a case of this kind, there is, as Professor Quine would put it, no fact of the matter which we can seek to discover. There would indeed be a fact to which we should be trying to adjust our language; the fact that people did exhibit this surprising capacity. But what adjustment we made, whether we modified our concept of a person, or our concept of memory, or followed some other course. would be a matter for choice. The most that could be claimed for the idea of re-incarnation is that it would in these circumstances be an attractive option.
This time let me make my position fully clear. I am not saying that these ostensible feats of memory have ever yet been abundantly performed, or indeed performed at all, or that they ever will be performed. I am saying only that there would be nothing in logic to prevent their being performed in such abundance as to give us a motive for licensing reincarnation; and a motive for admitting it as a possibility would also be a motive for admitting it as a fact.
The consequence of such an admission would be fairly radical, though not so radical as the standbys of science fiction such as brain transplants and teleportation. Less radical too than the speculations of mathematical physicists. These speculations titillate rather than alarm the reading public. Professor Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time is a best-seller. Perhaps the reading public has not clearly understood what his speculations imply. We are told, for example, that there may be a reversal in the direction of the arrow of time. This would provide for much stranger possibilities than that of a re-birth following one’s death. It would entail that in any given life a person’s death preceded his birth. That would indeed be a shock to common sense.
—15 October 1988, Spectator
We were discussing the incident of June, 1988, when the eminent 77-year-old British philosopher, arguably the most influential 20th century rationalist after Bertrand Russell, famously “died” in London University Hospital. His heart stopped for four minutes when he apparently choked on a slice of smoked salmon smuggled in by a former mistress.
Three months later, while recuperating at his house in the south of France, the atheist author of Language, Truth and Logic, whose more than 50-year career was devoted to ridiculing all metaphysical statements, especially all Christian doctrine, as nonsense, wrote a lengthy article for Britain’s The Sunday Telegraph, titled What I Saw When I Was Dead, about his bizarre visit to the other side and how, as a humanist philosopher, it had affected his view of death.
Ayer’s article, with his vivid memory of being pulled toward a red light, “exceedingly bright, and also very painful,” his encounters with the “ministers” of the universe, and his frustration as he tried to “cross the river”—which he presumed was the Styx—bears a very curious resemblance to similar reports of near-death experiences recalled by 63 survivors of cardiac arrest at Southampton General Hospital, and published last week in the science journal Resuscitation.
Dr. Peter Fenwick of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, a leading consultant who was involved in the findings, said the collected data is the first medical evidence that proves the mind can continue to exist after the body is clinically dead, and that a form of afterlife is now scientifically explainable. “Those who return all report that they have been changed,” he said. “Those who were religious found their faith renewed. Those who had no faith often acquired at least a belief in some form of afterlife”.
However, in his article Ayer concluded his experience had done nothing to weaken his belief that there is no God. In a second article, titled Postscript to a Postmortem, Ayer added a further denial that the experience had led him to alter his secularist view that “there is no life after death”.
Ayer, after all, had good reason to rebut any suggestion he had changed his atheist convictions. From the late 1940s, he had been employed by the BBC to take on such opponents as Hugh Montefiore, Bishop of Birmingham, and Jesuit priest Martin D’Arcy, a friend of Evelyn Waugh, and to broadcast his vigorously humanist views. But did intellectual pride induce Freddie—as he was known to many—to compromise his version of the truth of what really happened during the four minutes of his clinical death?
Last year, after I wrote a play for the Edinburgh Festival about Ayer’s near death experience, I received a letter from Dr. Jeremy George, who had been senior registrar in charge of Ayer while he was in hospital. He told me he had some new information he thought I might find “very interesting.”
Dr. George was the duty doctor when Ayer was first admitted on May 31, 1988, after falling seriously ill with pneumonia after a lunch at the Savoy. By a strange coincidence, Dr. George had been a student at New College, Oxford in the 1970s when Ayer was at the college as Wykeham Professor of Logic.
Although he was not taught by Ayer, Dr. George had met him. When the young doctor saw this “crumpled heap in a corner of the private wing,” he immediately recognized him as Britain’s most celebrated living philosopher.
“He was very pleased that somebody knew who he was” said Dr. George, “He looked very blue. His oxygen level was virtually incompatible with life.”
Dr. George gave Ayer emergency oxygen and put him immediately in the intensive care unit, where his condition improved. “He would not have survived the day. I was amazed how lucid he became. I think he made a joke in Latin.”
During Ayer’s week in intensive care, the nurses turned a blind eye to his private supply of smoked salmon in the unit fridge provided by an old lover who left him for Graham Greene in the early 1950s but remained a close friend. Indeed, the hospital staff had to put a ban on the number of his female visitors, among them his latest girlfriend, a married Canadian woman with whom he was planning an adulterous weekend in Paris the moment he was discharged.
In the early evening of June 6, Ayer later wrote, he “carelessly tossed” a slice of salmon down this throat. Choking as it went the wrong way down, he was clinically dead for four minutes. The hospital notes state: “cardiac arrest with bradycardia, and asystole, but was resuscitated”.
Having been alerted by the nurse, who administered emergency procedures, Dr. George looked down Freddie’s throat. “I found a lot of secretions and sputum but the smoked salmon was a red herring. There wasn’t any that I could see. But I suppose it made a better story”.
In order to ascertain whether Ayer had suffered any brain damage, Professor Spiro, the senior consultant, and Dr. George then had to subject Ayer to a general knowledge quiz to test his brain.
“I think we asked him who the prime minister was, and what day was it,” said Dr. George. “The answers quickly shut us up. They were all correct. He blew us out of the water. There was absolutely no brain damage. He was very lucid. I think he wanted to be asked more questions, such as the name the players of the winning football team of the First Division. We had no idea if he was making them up or not, we just assumed he got them right.”
That same day, having finished his rounds, Dr. George returned to Ayer’s bedside. “I came back to talk to him. 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.’
“He clearly said ‘Divine Being,’” said Dr. George. “He was confiding in me, and I think he was slightly embarrassed because it was unsettling for him as an atheist. He spoke in a very confidential manner. I think he felt he had come face to face with God, or his maker, or what one might say was God.
“Later, when I read his article, I was surprised to see he had left out all mention of it. I was simply amused. I wasn’t very familiar with his philosophy at the time of the incident, so the significance wasn’t immediately obvious. I didn’t realize he was a logical positivist.”
“I am amazed,” said his widow Dee Wells, after I related the extraordinary confession Dr. George had passed on to me.
Their son, Nick Ayer, who had been with his father in hospital throughout his illness, and had slept in Ayer’s private room, was also silent for a second when I told him the story, and then added: “It doesn’t sound like a joke. It sounds extraordinary. He certainly never mentioned anything like that to me. I don’t know what to make of it. When he first came round after he was ‘dead’ he said nothing of any of this. Nothing at all.”
Nick said that he had long felt there was something possibly suspect about his father’s version of his near death experience. “All this stuff about crossing the River Styx—it just sounds too good to be true. There was three months between his time in hospital and when he decided to write the article in France. He never mentioned any of that business once. And I was with him all the time. I always thought it sounded more like a dream.”
According to Freddie’s article, his first recorded words after he came round in hospital were to exclaim to the audience gathered around his bed: “You are all mad.” But again, Nick Ayer has no recollection of ever hearing any mention of this until the piece appeared three months later.
So can Ayer’s memory or his own words really be trusted? Freddie always claimed he devoted his life to the pursuit of Truth. But as Dee Wells was quick to point out when I visited her at York Street, where she has continued to live since Freddie’s death, the truth could rapidly become meaningless for Freddie when it happened to suit him—with women, for example.
Certainly it does seem very odd that Ayer, in either of his two detailed articles, did not so much as mention his conversation with Dr. George about having to rewrite all his books and works; if only—in his usual fashion—to dispose of it with his usual logical clarity.
According to Freddie, and his newspaper piece, the first conversation he remembered having was with his ex-lover Beatrice Tourot, who was sitting on his bed. They spoke in French, with Ayer saying: “Did you know that I was dead? It was most extraordinary, my thoughts became persons.”
Freddie was discharged from hospital on July 3, 1988. He died a year later, having remarried Dee Wells (who had been his second wife and then became his fourth). Despite declaring himself a “born-again atheist,” his friends and family noticed that Freddie—like the 63 patients interviewed for last week’s report—certainly seemed to change.
“Freddie became so much nicer after he died,” said Dee. “He was not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” Ayer also told the writer Edward St. Aubyn in France that he had had “a kind of resurrection” and for the first time in his life, he had begun to notice scenery. In France, on a mountain near his villa, he said, “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.”
What is also undeniably true—and has never been reported on—is that at the end of his life, Freddie spent more and more time with his former BBC debating opponent, the Jesuit priest and philosopher Frederick Copleston, who was at Freddie’s funeral at Golders Green crematorium.
“They got closer and closer and, in the end, he was Freddie’s closest friend,” said Dee. “It was quite extraordinary. As he got older, Freddie realized more and more that philosophy was just chasing its own tail.”
—3 March 2001, National Post