“Did atheist philosopher see God when he ‘died’?” by William Cash
April 28, 2009
March 3, 2001
“I haven’t told this to anybody before,” said Dr. Jeremy George, senior consultant in the Department of Thoracic Medicine at London University’s Middlesex Hospital. On the table in front of him were the official hospital notes of “Sir Alfred Ayer, date of birth 29/10/10, of 51 York Street, London, W1.”
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.”