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Interview With a Philosopher: The Grand Finale, Part Two

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What can death tell us about life? Could it potentially provide important hints and suggestions about who we really are, and what the overall context is in which we exist? These are, oddly, questions we rarely ask, but right now, we have a new opportunity to delve into them. Serious researchers are digging up things about death that we need to know and integrate into our own personal worldviews.

Today, with that in mind, I want to continue a conversation I began a few days ago, found here, with the Canadian journalist Patricia Pearson, gracious author of the amazing new book, Opening Heaven's Door. Patricia lost her father suddenly, and then a short time later, her sister. Surrounding both these departures were some extraordinary experiences that seemed to indicate that death is a lot more interesting than we ordinarily think.

The experiences she had sent Patricia off on a new adventure to discover as much as she could about the ultimate issues we all have to face at some point. In her investigations, she encountered a lot of remarkable stories that seem to indicate that our existence is somehow more than a material enterprise from birth to death, and that perhaps conscious experience is not, after all, inevitably and always dependent on a living brain. But as the evidence piled up for her that we, as conscious subjects of experience, are more than our well-functioning neurons, Patricia also began to run up against what seemed to be a knee-jerk skepticism on the part of many intelligent people hearing about it, a dismissiveness that appeared to be based on a desire to debunk the stories she was relaying, and yet without any real evidence of its own that we are, in the end, merely organic beings, and that those who seem to sense more about our existence are simply hallucinating.

It's such an irony that the guardians of spirituality long ago, many of the clerics of the church, did their best to resist and discourage careful studies of the natural world, and now, many self-appointed guardians of science, the clerics of the classroom, are doing their best to resist and discourage careful studies of the spiritual realm. We've come full circle, in a convoluted way. And this modern opposition to open research is so contrary to the fundamental spirit of scientific investigation. It would be interesting to speculate on its full nature and origins. But instead, let's turn back to Patricia's discoveries.

Tom: Patricia, you talked to and read about many people who have had what's called a Near Death Experience, or NDE -- where, often, a person who is without a heartbeat or any discernible brain activity for some minutes, is brought back to life by heroic measures, and later recounts that, during the time they were supposed to be dead, they had vivid and remarkable experiences of another world, or dimension of life.

Patricia: Yes, my intention in interviewing such people was less about "proving" there was life after death, than understanding our state of consciousness at the very end of life. I wanted to talk to the scouts and outlanders, to better anchor my sense of why my sister appeared to be so content and even radiant in the last days of her life. She couldn't articulate it. She was beyond speech. So, I interviewed people who had had NDEs, and what they described was immersion in a sea of sentient light -- a light that wasn't simply visual, but was also emotional, that was aware, that incited in them an almost shattering level of joy. One woman, a doctor, described it as feeling as though she'd been lost for centuries and had found her way home.

Tom: Amazing.

Patricia: This is not, as it happens, reducible to the physiology of the dying brain, because it happens to some people who anticipate they might die, during a plane crash for instance, but are never even seriously injured.

Tom: It's like the impending catastrophe jolts them far enough out of their normal mindset as to put a crack in the façade of the everyday reality. And here's something interesting to me. You say that many people who claim to have crossed over beyond physical death, or past this realm of existence, to another dimension, or place, and then do their best to describe it, also insist that most of what they experienced beyond the sphere of this world is ineffable, or in fact impossible to describe in words.

Patricia: That is actually one of the core elements of what I would call a Numinous or mystical experience. Ineffability. I spoke, for example, to Jayne Smith, an 85-year-old resident of Lewis, Delaware, who has been struggling to explain the complex power of her NDE for nigh on 60 years. In 1952, she was giving birth to her child when she accidentally overdosed on general anesthetic. She went into cardiac arrest, and while her doctors addressed that emergency, frantic with their paddles, Smith found herself in a world of indescribable beauty, enveloped by that extraordinary sentient light.

"The whole thing..." she told me, "is beyond my ability to actually transmit. Even if people are moved by my account, I know there's no way I can actually tell them. I can speak for an hour, and later I'll say to myself, 'I have really told them nothing.'"

Tom: Where exactly do these individuals stumble in their attempts to use language? What do they want to say that they believe exceeds available concepts to articulate? What's your own sense of this, having been with them as they expressed this inability?

Patricia: When we speak of feeling peaceful, we can mean many things. When we speak of contentment or happiness, many things. To say unequivocally that an endorphin cascade in the bloodstream is the same as spiritual bliss is to say that Romeo's love for Juliet is the same as his love for his uncle, or for Verona. Lost in translation, from the inexpressible to the rational, these emotional constructs become cruder, simpler, easier to misidentify.

As the German theologian Rudolph Otto wrote, an encounter with the Numinous is "beyond our apprehension because, in it, we come upon something 'wholly other.'" The immersion involves "strange ravishment ... vitality, passion, emotional temper, will, force, movement." You can plausibly be in a light that is also love, that is wisdom, and that shatters you, that swallows you whole. You can plausibly be in that, but not in terms of what we know.

Let me quote again. "Oh that I could tell you what the heart feels, how it burns and is consumed inwardly!" said the 16th century Italian mystic Catherine of Genoa. She continued, "Only, I find no words to express it. I can but say: Might but one drop of what I feel fall into Hell, Hell would be transformed into a paradise."

Tom: I love such ecstatic expressions, pointing to something that can never fully be said. And why should we think, for a moment, that our concepts, derived as they are from the mundane, could ever apply directly to such metaphysical otherness? If there is a realm of existence beyond our normal experience, it should be also beyond our normal expression.

Patricia: Exactly.

Tom: How do you think this relates to the stories you've heard from people about uncanny experiences in this world? I mean, in my own family, my father's mother seemed to have a ways of knowing and communicating, both with him, and with animals and plants, believe it or not, that no known naturalistic process can account for. My father had the same extraordinary means of knowing. And my daughter seems to have her own version of this. I've even had flashes. But, we don't take such things seriously enough in our attempt to understand our lives in this world.

Patricia: I think we're living in a disenchanted world, where the powers that be oblige us to distance ourselves from real, lived experiences that aren't materially explicable. It wouldn't be the first time. In the 19th century, men felt obliged to distance themselves from their emotional realities, to disavow states like depression. Throughout history, women have had to disconnect themselves from their awareness that they were as smart as men. There are simply countless ways in which we have engaged in social conformity at the expense of lived truth. The rise of brain-based materialism in the late 20th century has occasioned a similar disconnect.

Tom: I think you're right.

Patricia: It isn't that science has satisfactorily explained the powerful and life-altering experiences we have around death and dying. It hasn't -- there are simply theories and speculations. But it has told us, for all intents and purposes, to shut up.

Tom: Ha! Good point. In these accounts that you've heard and told us about, there's always a measure of mystery, or uncertainty, which most people think of as a bad thing. And, yet, perhaps it's a good thing. What do you think?

Patricia: Well, there are a number of ways to answer that question. From a spiritual perspective, as the 19th century Baha'i prophet Bahaullah said, "If I told you what paradise was like, you would slit your throats to get there." Islamist suicide bombers believe they know what paradise is like, and are eager to arrive ASAP and wallow with virgins. They clearly have no idea what's entailed in being a spiritually mature human being. So what advantage is there in a false certainty that strands us with people like that?

Humans are in their spiritual adolescence right now, in the Baha'i view. They may be smart as hell, but they're dumb as beer-addled teens in speedboats. How would you trust them with the certain contours of another realm when they would view it as a simple opportunity, and not understand the complex obligations of spiritual maturation that should precede it?

Tom: That's an excellent point. It reminds me of an old expression: "just enough light for the step I'm on." And then, there's a new expression, "What got you here won't get you there."

Patricia: Yes. We want more insight, and yet don't use well what we already have.

Tom: Thanks again for another enlightening chat.

Patricia: You're welcome. It's been fun.

Tom: In the coming days, I may be putting some additional information and resources on my website,, for those who would like to explore this subject in more detail. Thank you, readers, for being with us on this vital topic. I'd love to hear if any of you have had, or witnessed anyone having, the sorts of experiences we've been discussing.