Fri | Apr 28, 2017

Above us only sky?

Published:Sunday | October 19, 2014 | 10:00 AM

Daniel Thwaites, Columnist

The UK's Telegraph reports that: "Scientists at the University of Southampton have spent four years examining more than 2,000 people who suffered cardiac arrests at 15 hospitals in the UK, US, and Austria. "And they found that nearly 40 per cent of people who survived described some kind of 'awareness' during the time when they were clinically dead before their hearts were restarted."

Many survivors claimed to have experienced feeling great calm at the end, while others reported feeling uncomfortable. Could that be a foretaste of either zooming upstairs or heading down into the basement? That's one question.

But the issue of 'awareness' after death reminded me of an interesting column published last month in this newspaper by Dr Garth Rattray, who wrote of his certainty that the body is a mere suitcase for a more elemental nature, and that he is confident, based on out-of-body experiences, about the post-mortem persistence of the spirit. His words:

"I ... don't agree with those who speak of 'hope' of an eternal life. 'Hope' is a weak and unsure word. I know that the true essence of who we are transcends our physical bodies and continues after our earthly vessels can no longer house our spiritual bodies."

I'm not speaking of Dr Rattray here, whose roving intelligence is admirable, but I pause to note a curiosity of mine. So many of us seem unable to fill up the time we have meaningfully that it's a curious greed that makes us want even more.

Rampant drug abuse

Look at rampant drug abuse aimed chiefly at reducing or even eliminating consciousness. Then there are the pointless distractions used to fill up the hours. Video games, social media, and other such mental chewing gum definitely serve as meaningless distraction for many people. How much human misery has been relieved by television as an antidote to boredom? We don't know what to do with the time we have, but want more.

Anyway, regarding Dr Rattray's certainty, I do not think it warranted by the evidence. However vivid his out-of-body experiences, they're more economically explained as illusions, hallucinations, and dreams. I myself know that if I have stew peas after 10 o'clock at night, round about 3 a.m. I see visions of the Coming Kingdom. Similarly, the experiences of the cardiac-arrest patients in the British study are more likely the paroxysms of oxygen-starved brains in the process of shutting down.

Notice that even if we are truly capable of out-of-body experiences, it really says little about whether we are destined for 'eternal life'. Take it a step further. Even if we have some kind of additional life or reincarnation, or move to some other plane of existence, the notion of 'eternal life' is particularly difficult. Eternity must be a very, very long time indeed, and I have difficulty wrapping my mind around the idea of a few thousand years, far less millions and billions.

Mind you, the idea that there may be some sort of afterlife has been around for a long time. It hasn't always been comforting, at least not for many people who had to deal with its practical effects.

Consider the ancient Pharaohs who would pack away food, animals, slaves and whatever else they determined were requirements for their second round. I imagine it must have been quite unpleasant to hear, as a young and healthy slave, that you were to be put to the sword because your master needs you to carry his litter in the great awakening sometime in the future.

In a less violent vein, early Christians acquired the belief that there was an afterlife. However, they tended to be rather vague about what it would entail. As the idea was developed, there were formulations that differed quite starkly. In some, it was the resurrection of the body that we could look forward to. The somewhat obvious impediment to this view is that the body of those who had passed away could be seen decaying.

Another view was that the spirit would persist beyond death. However, this view allowed for a wide divergence of opinion about details. For instance, some had a picture of the soul that lacked any individuality, meaning that your essence would live beyond your physical body, but that you would have none of the characteristic features that make you who you are.

There's a hint of this idea in Jesus's response to the Sadducees when they asked him which husband the wife of seven brothers would be with after the resurrection. But if you won't know your brothers, sisters, parents, or friends, the attractiveness of the afterlife diminishes quite significantly, I think. A more comforting picture, of course, is that you would persist in at least some of your individual splendour beyond the grave.

Note that the idea that there is a God, or gods, is quite separate and separable from whether we persist after the collapse of our bodies. We tend to run the two ideas together and hinge our expectations of an afterlife on God's existence. But there may be no God or gods, and yet we may survive. Various forms of Buddhism believe this. Alternatively, there may be a God or gods and yet we may not survive physical death. Early Judaism seems to have had this belief.

I make another observation. One accusation often levelled against those who ascribe to immortality of the human soul is that it is a belief developed to assuage our fear of nothingness. However, it's not obvious to me that the belief in our immortality is any less terrifying than the belief in our mortality. Both prospects may fill one with happiness or with dread depending, I suspect, on personality.

Dr Rattray is surely right in observing that 'hope' is a somewhat weaker word than 'know'. But I think it's all we have. So I suspect we will all just have to wait to find out if, as John Lennon asked us to imagine, above us there's only sky.

Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to