Daniel Barrett was near death once, but he didn’t have a near-death experience.
The following is an excerpt from One?, what the author calls his (Gödelian) quantum phenomenological history. The memoir is written in an aphoristic, at times lyrical, style that probes the limits and circularity of self-consciousness, the inherent uncertainty of memory and existence, and the sense in which Dan perceives his life to be necessarily incomplete, despite his intentions that it be otherwise. In this section, Dan reflects on his possible near death experience, doubts about the value of immortality, and incompleteness.
I almost died that night. Well, I think so anyway. I was hoping to, and started to. Started to try to. At the least I began to implement the final stage of my plan. Given my (lack of) beliefs of a certain type, the religious sort, I never expected to have a near death experience. But I did have one, if in fact I approached the END. I just don’t know if I really did. I mean, I wanted to, I drank beer and swallowed a bunch of extra strength painkillers (maybe gel caps) and I felt like shit. I was crying and yelling and wanting someone to help me. But I had hidden away—in a formerly (now horrifying) beautiful, secluded spot along a river—where no one could find me. I was going to die, as I had rehearsed—mentally, of course, because it is hard to physically rehearse dying, since it involves everything but the clothes, and the clothes in all likelihood wouldn’t prevent the rehearsal from standing in as the real thing—as I had prepared. It was all there. So if I really did come close to dying, then I must have had a near death experience, or an experience of near death, albeit not particularly spiritual. No white tunnel, no extended hand. But I am uncertain—near death or no near (far) death? Or merely a simulation? How would I know?
Death (and taxes). We are reminded almost daily about the certainty of death (and taxes). An American platitude (Suzyshoo would nevertheless have embraced this). If nothing else, this reflects the absurdly unrealistic nature of commonsense philosophizing.
[I’d be curious as to the existence of such a sentiment in other cultures.]
(People talk about taxes as if they were absolutely inevitable, which is of course a stretch of [my] imagination. They are not—people often do not pay taxes when they should (or at all). For most individuals, however, taxes are inevitable in that most of us have neither the guile nor the motivation to avoid them. In principle, as in practice, of course, they are evadable. The belief in the possibility of avoidance stems from the fact that some people have (it is believed) failed to pay taxes. It is ironic how we have linked death and taxes [god and government?]. What was that…god blessed this government? [Without god, there would be no US government—or death, for that matter.] Just writing about death and taxes strengthens their multitudinous synaptic connections, for me. That may not be a desirable outcome.)
[If taxes are a constituent of life, then they are a constituent of death.]
In contrast to taxes, death, it would appear, is absolutely inevitable. We can think of no exceptions (without resorting to mythology). All humans have some familiarity with history, and history largely consists of the dead. We have no experience of the lack of death, of immortality, or so we think. Yet, virtually all of the people of whom we are or were directly aware are not dead. We walk among them, see them on the television, read their stories, etc. We believe that they will die. The assumption of death’s certainty is an oddly comforting one, given our experiences and general knowledge of the world (being confronted with the prospect of living ad infinitum would be more difficult to cope with). A less certain one, if we were to actually consider that there are over six billion humans alive at this moment. Are we not making six billion assumptions? Mini hypotheses? Trillions more, if we broaden our thinking to include other species. Is our confidence mostly conceit? Are each of these mini hypotheses self-evident? This frog will die. So too that fly. And the poison ivy outside my window. She will die, that dictator of life. How can one know? All are potential exceptions, exemptions. A good Humean would say that we believe, but do not know, this, as a result of custom. There is no logical or necessary connection between cause and effect. The unmentioned compound conditional proposition is “if it is alive, then it will die.” Whatever lives must die [I am surely an exception]. Life causes death. The evidence is overwhelming. Beyond doubt. No, by custom only, my dear, yells David. Death is really probabilistic (of this I have no doubt), not certain, an illustration of the problem of induction. To believe it unquestionably (that death must come) is to postulate a “law of living matter” and treat it as immutable. Death will come, they scream! (Yes, faster with pills.)
[But is any law justifiably considered absolutely (self-)consistent and universal?]
Furthermore, if there is no death, then how can we understand “life?” From what may we differentiate it? Nonliving matter—that which is currently not living (although at one time it may have been). A stone. A bible. The close (and necessary) connection between life and death cuts to the very definition of life. If it can’t die, then how is it alive? If the immortal are not subject to death, then does it make sense to say that they are alive? Is god alive? Is god a jellyfish?
Perhaps this sentiment, that death is inevitable, stems in some way, partially, from our largely unspoken wish that it be so. Our very conception of life is based on its termination. Without death, what would life mean? We fear death, but are strangely comforted by its apparent inevitability. What would we do if we were to live forever? Work? Help others? Life would lose its very meaning, or at least its purpose. Maybe, except for the fact that life, (h)as an abstraction, has no purpose (more concretely, my life has no purpose). A tendency, yes. A tendency toward, well, creating more life. Eternal life—heaven, or hell?
It may be that humans of the future will overcome death—perhaps we are simply not yet sufficiently evolved. Perhaps humans are not at the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder, as we so arrogantly prefer to believe. Take the Turritopsis nutricula, the apparently immortal jellyfish. It has actually achieved transdifferentiation (a version of immortality). We, humans, aware of our limitations, are oddly obsessed with the reverse, transmogrification. The immortal come mortal. Transmogrification is truly impossible for humans, given that we are “always already” embodied (alive, but soon dead). Humans think, Turritopsis nutricula act. Trivial people.
Does this jellyfish simulate death, or immortality? My ingestion of pills and alcohol—a simulation of death, or near-death? If a simulation of death, then also of life?
Perhaps I wanted only to simulate death? Or near-death [can one simulate an almost something?] Would that be a near-simulation? A pseudo-simulation?
In contrast, can one be certain of a simulation? Have I simulated certainty (death?)? Yes dear, that certainly was a simulation. [I heard her whisper.]
So as I began to feel less groggy, I asked the nurse, the doctor, and the nurse’s aid Did I Almost Die? From their confused expressions I realized that I had stumped them. Truly. What Kind of Blue-Truck-Driving Whacko Asks If He Almost Died After Ingesting a Pile of Pills in Order to Die? Or perhaps they were instead thinking What Kind of a Whacko Would Hope to Suicide Himself While Driving a Parked Blue Truck? One of the two, for sure. By that time I was really really sick. Retching left and right and in the middle. Damn I stunk and so did my bed.
If I didn’t almost die (not almost didn’t die), then there was no near-death experience (nde) of any sort, and I can’t use the lack of a religious-spiritual experience (nde) as counterevidence while arguing with someone about the nature [vs. nurture] of near death experiences. All I can say is that if I didn’t have an nde, it may have been because I didn’t get close enough to death. So next time I’ll try harder. Or, perhaps, I am immortal and cannot have a near death experience. How will I know? The very moment that I could learn the truth may be the very moment that my belief is disproved. If I die, I’ll never know it. Is this belief—that I am immortal—subject to a Popperian falsification? I can’t falsify it. Not dying is insufficient for this purpose (the skeptic would say “just wait until tomorrow”). If I were to die, I wouldn’t experience it, and wouldn’t know any better. My immortality can be falsified for other people, but not for myself. Others could falsify it for themselves, but not for me. My contention that I am immortal cannot be disproved, for me. (Immortality would absolutely dispel the possibility of an nde for me. Since I cannot prove immortality, I cannot disprove my contention that I did experience near death.)
Death may be the ultimate Gödelian paradox.
I may be unclear about that, but I know that my stomach hurt like hell and therefore I was sick—I should add that Luddy told me that it is easy to confuse hunger with nausea, so I may not have been sick at all, only hungry, and my stomach convulsions and expectorations the effects of an angry organ demanding nourishment. Why didn’t I respond when I had the opportunity? He was there. A sick man lying in the bed beside me. Did I know he was there? How could I have known? Because he was. Need I say more?
The doctor refused to tell me I was sick, or was unable to conclude it with sufficient certainty so as to feel comfortable passing it along. None of the other people would tell me I was sick, either. Finally, and very reluctantly, my psychiatrist confided this super-secret secret to me. I guess it was one of those need-to-know things, and apparently a need emerged. Whose need was greater, mine or hers? Was it more important for her that I know, or more critical for me? Social relations are complex and difficult to disentangle. Who feels what and why? Did I feel it because she did? Or the reverse? Causal connections, social contagion, memetic transmission, mirror neurons. The continuous interplay between actions, intentions [actual and those “read into us” by other people], expectations, and emotions undermine our ability to clarify the causal pathways and correctly understand how the interaction unfolds. What was first, what was second? The boundaries between the self and other are as fuzzy as the sensations within. Hunger or nausea?
Others state they have seen a white light at the end of a tunnel during their near-death experiences [A.J. Ayer mentioned a red light, but blamed it on his brain—and he was an atheist, anyway.]. I wonder about the validity of those claims. People see what they want to see, what they expect to see [this is old news]. What conforms to their worldviews. Confirmation biases abound. The existence of the white light justifies their fundamental [trivial] beliefs. They invariably have heard descriptions offered by others of the white light, the hand that reaches down, etc. Mistake memory of other’s claims for their own experiences. This is a variant of what psychologists label source monitoring: people can recall bits of information, rumors, factoids, etc., but have lost the source of the information, the speaker, the circumstances of the exposure. In short, what is left to memory is the isolated claim. [Although we typically want to remember the source, there are times when we’d rather forget. Like if we learn an interesting fact from an opponent. Losing track of the source facilitates the possible embarrassment of affirming the opinions of an adversary.]
Again, did they experience near-death? We encounter the boundedness of our epistemological existence. How do they know? How do we know? How close to dying must we be to justifiably claim the nde? Without knowledge of the endpoint, we can’t determine how close we are/were.
—Photo Tony the Misfit/Flickr