An Atheist (A. J. Ayer) Meets the Masters of the Universe?

Source: An Atheist Meets the Masters of the Universe by Peter Foges, Laphams Quarterly, 8 March 2010.

Dr. Jeremy George, senior consultant in the Department of  Thoracic Medicine at London University’s Middlesex Hospital, was on duty one fine May afternoon in 1988. It was a day like any other. At around 3 p.m., an elderly patient was admitted with pneumonia.

When the young doctor saw this “crumpled heap in a corner of the private wing,” as he later put it, he instantly recognized “it” as Professor Sir Alfred Jules Ayer, also known as A.J. Ayer (or “Freddie” to his friends), the former Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, and Britain’s most eminent philosopher.

“He was very pleased that somebody knew who he was,“ said Dr. George, who spoke about the event for first time more than a decade later to the English playwright William Cash. “He looked very blue. His oxygen level was virtually incompatible with life.”

Dr. George gave Ayer emergency oxygen and admitted him immediately to the intensive care unit, where his condition improved. “He would not have survived the day.”

Ayer was my wife’s stepfather and brought her up. As his virtual; son-in-law I knew him well and was extraordinarily fond of him. Naturally, therefore, I paid him a visit. What, I asked, could I get him to relieve the tedium? A book was what he wanted—one to stretch his astonishing stainless steel brain. He asked me to buy Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, rather surprisingly riding high on the best-seller lists in Britain that spring. Within the hour I had placed it beside his bed as he slept, and tiptoed away. My visit was but one of many. Another of his legion of friends brought him a supply of smoked salmon—which his kind nurses pretended not to see.

In the early evening of June 6, as Ayer later wrote, he “carelessly tossed” a slice of this salmon into his mouth. It went down the wrong way and he choked. Before the biomedical machinery in the ICU, flashing red, had managed to summon the emergency staff to his side at a run to revive him, Freddie had actually been clinically dead for four minutes. The hospital notes simply stated: “cardiac arrest with bradycardia, and asystole.”

To give context to this mini medical drama it’s important to bear in mind that A.J. Ayer was an atheist. Not just any old atheist—the atheist as far as millions of Britons were concerned. In addition to establishing his reputation as one of the great analytic and rationalist philosophers of the century with such works as Language, Truth and Logic and the later Foundations of Empirical Knowledge, Ayer had spent most of his adult life putting the case very publicly on radio and television, as well as in print, for the “non-existence” of God—indeed arguing that the very idea of “God” was devoid of meaning, a position known in theology as igtheism. He had gone twelve rounds with the best and the brightest of the bishops and theologians in the land—and in the public mind he was thought, in the main, to have triumphed.

According to his own account written for the London Daily Telegraph three months later, “the earliest remarks of which I have any cognizance…were made several hours after I returned to life…addressed to a French woman in French…Did you know that I was dead? The first time that I tried to cross the river I was frustrated—but my second attempt succeeded. It was most extraordinary. My thoughts became persons.”

He went on to describe what he so vividly recalled “on the other side.”

“I was confronted by a red light…Aware that this light was responsible for the government of the universe. Among its ministers were two creatures who had been put in charge of space…”

Somehow Ayer was aware, however, “that space, like a badly fitted jigsaw puzzle, was slightly out of joint…with the consequence that the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should.”

(One can surmise that one influence on Ayer in this “undiscovered country”—somewhere in the borderlands between life and death—were the ruminations and calculations of the great Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Reading Hawking in hospital just before he choked had clearly set in motion a set of questions in Ayer’s mind about black holes and the mysterious continua of space-time. He confessed to me months later, however, that he’d found A Brief History of Time, which I had so lovingly given him, almost impossible to understand.)

“I thought,” he went on, “that I could cure space by operating upon time…The ministers who had been given charge of time were in my neighborhood and I proceeded to hail them…” They however seemed quite uninterested in the philosopher’s offer, despite his twirling his grandfather’s fob watch (which he always carried) around furiously to attract their attention. Ayer’s “experience” came to end, as he reported, with him in “despair.”

(It must be said—as Ayer realized—that this imagery, embellished in this case by Hawking and Ayer’s thorough grounding in the classics, are a commonplace today, a byproduct of high-tech medicine’s power to resurrect the “dead.”)

He ended the article by asserting that “my recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no God.”

Three months later, alarmed by the world-wide publicity his piece engendered (“Afterlife Shocker” ran the lead headline on the front page of the National Enquirer), Ayer retreated yet further, publishing a short addendum in The Spectator. “What I should have written at the end (instead of the words ‘slightly weakened’),” he wrote, “was that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief.”

In these two pieces—the second in particular—Ayer was clearly at pains to preserve his reputation, of which he was almost childishly proud. In the public imagination he was the champion slayer of theological nonsense, the pioneer of logical positivism, and the winner—in his own eyes at any rate—of his famous 1949 BBC radio debate about the existence or otherwise of god with Father Frederick Copleston, Britain’s most formidable modern Catholic philosopher. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, listening in distant Dublin, took a typically waspish view, complaining to a friend that Copleston had contributed “nothing,” and Ayer had been “shallow.”) Was Ayer now to be remembered as having buckled—as Voltaire had—on the threshold of St. Peter’s pearly gate? No. Despite the river, the light and the rude, dismissive, Masters of the Universe, the experience had turned him into “a born-again atheist,” he maintained, reaffirming his conviction that God was a barbarous relic, the afterlife a fairy tale.

That was in public. Privately, and secretly, the story is more intriguing. On the day of that first “death” (the second and final one occurred eleven months later), Dr. George returned to Ayer’s bedside. “I came back to talk to him later that evening,” he told Cash. “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.”

(Ayer never wrote or spoke of this conversation with the doctor who saved his life—not to his wife, nor to Nicholas his adult son. It may be that he had no recollection of it. When it came to light as result of Dr. George’s contacting William Cash, both my mother-in-law and Nicholas were skeptical. Why, though, would one doubt the word of an upstanding and seemingly discreet senior consultant physician? I have no reason to disbelieve him.)

When Ayer was released by his doctors a month later, friends and family did notice that he’d changed.

“He became so much nicer after he died,” was the mordant way my mother-in-law, Dee Wells, put it to Cash. “He was not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.”

What she also noticed is that as his life ebbed away, Ayer began spending a great deal of time with Father Frederick Copleston, his former opponent in the BBC debate. Until then they’d never been particularly close, though Ayer had grudging respect for Copleston’s muscular mind. (The erudite Jesuit had taken on Bertrand Russell on the BBC a year before arguing with Ayer, to defend St. Thomas Aquinas’ five metaphysical proofs of god’s existence, not a position guaranteed to endear him to many modern rationalists). Nevertheless, in the last year of his life, Ayer spent many hours in Copleston’s company, talking and arguing about who knows what. The must have made an odd couple seated together in the darkest recesses of London’s Garrick Club. The Catholic divine even graced Ayer’s scrupulously secular cremation.

“In the end, he was Freddie’s closest friend,” said Dee. “It was quite extraordinary.”

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