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Interview With a Philosopher -- A Great Book on the Grand Finale

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Death gets a lot of bad press, when it gets any at all. But it may be much different, and incredibly more interesting, than we might think.

From the time I was a child, my mother told me of her father's last words, which she had heard at a young age, hours after he was injured in a farm accident. Right before making his departure from this world, he looked up at what seemed to be a point beyond the ceiling, across the room, and said, "It's beautiful."

Mona Simpson, the sister of Steve Jobs, famously described at his memorial service a similar moment when, with family around, he also seemed to look beyond them, and said, simply, "Wow." But then he said it again, two more times.

One of my favorite grad school professors at Yale once confided to me something that, he said, as an atheist, really bothered him. "Get enough really smart people in a room together, give them enough to drink, and eventually you'll hear stories that don't make sense in an atheistic, materialist universe." He looked perplexed. And he was right. It's interesting how many families tell stories like the one my mother told me, and Mona told the world, that just don't make sense on the current naturalistic view of the world that seems to dominate our universities and be assumed by our mavens of high culture.

Today, I have the treat of starting a conversation with the acclaimed Canadian journalist, Patricia Pearson, about her fascinating, absorbing new book, Opening Heaven's Door. I happened to see it in a bookstore, and once I started reading, I could hardly put it down. It's rare to find a book on any topic that's as well researched and engagingly written as this one.

Tom: Thanks for agreeing to a chat today, Patricia!

Patricia: My pleasure, Tom.

Tom: Your book begins with a compelling story. Your apparently-healthy 80-year-old father suddenly died at three or four in the morning, on an otherwise normal night, in bed. In another city, your sister, struggling with cancer, awoke at about that time to the unprecedented sense of a presence in her bedroom, hands cupping her head, and with that, an unexpected experience of joy that lasted for two hours. You report that she told her son about it while driving him to school before receiving the call that your father had died.

Patricia: Yes, and she had never experienced anything remotely like it.

Tom: And then a short time later, you had the most remarkable experiences with your sister, as she approached her own death. The passages where you recount what you witnessed are some of the most compelling I've ever read on this mysterious time in the life of any person, and especially in the ways you describe her "radiance," her "knowing beyond words," and her "generous love, released from need." All of this set you off on a profound quest for understanding. Could you say something more about how your search for insight began and how you decided to pursue it?

Patricia: Shortly after Katharine's death, people began to confide in me that they had observed similar mysteries. Yet they had never told anyone outside their families. These were academics, newspaper editors, psychiatrists, and lawyers. That astounded me. It was a modern underground, of sorts. So, I was curious to explore that. And also I wanted to know -- to deeply explore -- what my sister actually experienced. What is it to sense a presence? What does it mean to feel a surge of spiritual energy? Why would a dying person become happy?

Tom: I believe you've tapped into some amazing stuff, and bumped up against one of the most incredible facts imaginable. Socrates believed that, "The least important things, we think and talk about the most; the most important things, we think and talk about the least." You're giving us a new chance to start a public conversation about one of the most important aspects of our life: that we all die. And it's something we rarely ever talk about, astonishingly enough. It's the one modern taboo. And yet, when we can get people to talk, we come across all these stories, often kept almost secret in families because of the skepticism and even shame people seem to think they would face in revealing such things.

Patricia: Yes, and what's interesting is that they often face a kind of gestural skepticism. It's not based on contrary evidence, but rather on the assumption that certain things can't be true. One guy said, of my sister's experience, "I don't mean to be unkind, but she was engaging in wishful thinking." Really, and he bases that on what? He is an I.T. specialist for a bank.

Tom: That's classic. The apparent inability of so many "modern people" to acknowledge that there may be much more to life, and death, than meets the eye in our normal daily experience reminds me of a story concerning a famous early modern astronomer who was literally not able to see a certain comet, or some such celestial anomaly, because his worldview told him it couldn't exist. It was one of his uneducated servants who first saw the novelty in the sky that the experts couldn't, because they found it unthinkable. Likewise, sophisticated skeptics often dismiss anecdotes, or personal testimony, concerning such experiences as you write about -- until one of them unexpectedly has such a surprise himself.

Patricia: Well, there's lots of evidence in perceptual studies of people failing to see things they don't expect. But what's interesting in perceptions around death is that this can act in reverse. A signal, if you can put it that way, comes in, and the recipient has no idea how to rationally interpret it. Roughly half of the bereaved population experiences what we call "anomalous cognition" in relation to a death, and it can happen before they know of the death by conventional means, or many years later. There's no framework of expectation. Skeptics talk about "wishful thinking," but in fact, no wish was being expressed in these moments at all.

Tom: As, for example, when someone unexpectedly sees a recently deceased relative, whom they don't even know to be gone, as an apparition bringing support or saying goodbye in their own last hours.

Patricia: I'd say that the pushback about these common human experiences has less to do with careful analysis than with a reflexive waving of materialist bibles at vampires. It cannot be, and therefore it must go away. Sensed presence experiences become "grief hallucinations," even though there's no neuroscientific research to back that claim. A perfect example of this is the recent New York Times obituary for one of the world's oldest men, the Polish paraspychology researcher Alexander Imich, aged 111. Wrote the Times: "Imich was highly agitated four days before his death, speaking Polish and Russian to spirits he felt were around him. He was treated with medication before his death."

Tom: So the Times had to offer its own reductive "explanation."

Patricia: This seemingly irrelevant addendum, "he was treated with medication," is an absolutely classic example of how we report and then tamp down on these experiences. Serious researchers of deathbed visions have found no correlation between extent of medication or sedation and what visions are had.

Tom: It's the old "nothing buttery" metaphysical diet -- it's nothing but a drug reaction, or hallucination, or desperate wish projection. And this is most often proposed without any good evidence at all.

Patricia: That's right.

Tom: It's amazing that the skeptics who so fervently insist on high standards of evidence for positions they dislike are able to go boldly forth in this discussion with their own claims without troubling themselves to use equal standards.

Patricia: I agree. It's striking how the standard of proof is lowered when you're engaging in rebuttal. There's a really close and brilliant analysis of this in the British journalist Robert McLuhan's book, Randi's Prize.

Tom: When you got seriously into your research, you began to learn about a wide range of connected experiences that all point to death being something very different from a cessation of life and existence, a mere snuffing out of consciousness, but perhaps more like a doorway or portal into something more, a transition to what could be described as a complex, alternative dimension of existence with multiple connections to the realm of daily life we're most immediately presented with, throughout our time before death. What's surprised you the most in these discoveries?

Patricia: Well, so many things have surprised me, where do I start? The prevalence of these experiences among intelligent, discerning people, the vividness and specificity of the experiences, their radical alteration of worldview as a result, even if people keep quiet. In a way, what surprised me the most was that there could be this degree of profound human experience that had been rendered irrelevant, and dismissed as merely the result of a mundane brain process. There's a bigotry at play that smoothes over radical complexity, the way women were once dismissed as being overly emotional and, you know, kinda dumb.

Tom: Definitely. The modern materialist worldview can end up looking like a pastiche of thin and artificially-manufactured fabrics. What you've so masterfully gathered in your book are multiple indications that the true weave of reality is much more complex, dense, and fascinating.

Patricia: We are experiencing a tension between an enchanted and a disenchanted world. Even while the gatekeepers of official discourse claim that all has been explained by the brain, people continue to encounter radical mysteries. Are these people superstitious naifs? No, it's actually the opposite. The confident materialists are often remarkably illiterate about the phenomenological nature of numinous experience. Instead of interviewing the highly intelligent and thoughtful people who have just been blown sideways by something inexplicable, they essentially say: It cannot be, and it must not be so.

Tom: I'm sure your own personal worldview shifted enormously as you did your research and wrote up your results. Could I be so bold as to ask: How do you view human beings at this point? What are we and what are we up to in these bodies we have?

Patricia: As far as my misanthropic husband is concerned, human beings are ants who've learned to drive. We're idiots. But another way to look at that, with less fury, is that we're dogs trying to do algebra, as the radio interviewer Alex Tsarkis said to me recently. We have no idea. In that sense, I am what consciousness researchers call a Mysterian. I would insist upon mystery remaining and abiding. Neuroscience has not been able to account for anomalous cognition around death. That much, I know.

Tom: There's so much more to say about these mysteries. Let's continue our conversation in a few days.

Patricia: Let's do.