Most of us have experienced the numbing shock at the announcement of the unexpected death of a friend or relative. What is its meaning and significance for us? Do we regret the way we treated the person in question? Death comes as an intrusion into the routine of our daily lives, sometimes forcing us to adapt radically; in any event encouraging us to ask some of the deepest questions about life and its purpose. A subject which is normally dismissed as “morbid” pushes to the front of the stage and demands consideration.
We live in a society where there is a widespread, if largely unacknowledged, fear of death. Science and technology have made gigantic strides towards control of many hitherto fatal infectious diseases, although we are beginning to realise that its prowess in the face of degenerative diseases is not so spectacular. Technology, however, cannot eliminate death, only postpone it and affect its timing, thus rendering more acute the dilemmas of doctors about whether or not to prolong life under artificial conditions. These dilemmas have been further reinforced by a materialist theory of life which tends to cling to physical existence without admitting the possibility of a spiritual dimension beyond it. The patient passively submits to the sophisticated techniques and instruments of modern medicine, isolated from friends and family. For the doctor, death can be an uncomfortable admission of failure, as well as a tacit reminder of his or her own mortality.
The problem of death will not disappear if we ignore it. Sooner or later we must come to terms with our own nature and destiny. What is the nature of man, of death, and what are the implications of the nature of death for the way in which we live our lives? The first two questions amount to asking about the nature of consciousness.
We know that consciousness is intimately associated with the brain, but exactly what is the nature of this association? Broadly speaking there are two possibilities: either consciousness is produced by the brain, therefore perishing with it at physical death, or else it is transmitted through the brain into the material world; in which case it needs to be extinguished at bodily death. Materialists who insist that the brain produces consciousness usually cite the effect of brain damage, alcohol and drugs on our awareness and state of mind. This, they contend, indicates such a close correlation between consciousness and brain that it is inconceivable that physical death should not mark the extinction of the conscious self.
The strongest apparent evidence of this is the dead physical body. But is the self-extinguished or just absent? The transmissive theory would not deny any of the materialist’s observations but would dispute this interpretation and conclusions. If the instrument is damaged, manifestation of consciousness will be distorted or incomplete. It might appear that the programme was being produced by the radio, an impression arguably strengthened by dropping it on the floor or into water; the sound is blurred, crackly or perhaps even fades out altogether.
The programme is still there, but the damaged receiver/transmitter can no longer reproduce if faithfully; and the destruction of the instrument does not annihilate the radio-waves, it just makes their manifestation in the physical world impossible. On the basis of normal experience, therefore, it would seem impossible to decide which of these two stories is correct: both fit the evidence. It is here that some aspects of psychic experience may throw some light on the problem.
Although in my book Survival (new edition 2017) I have dealt with apparitions and out-of-the-body experience separately, I shall confine myself here to a brief consideration of the near-death experience in so far as it relates to the nature of perception in this world. At a point of great physical distress, the patient might feel their conscious self-rising out of the physical body and be able to perceive it and the surrounding area as if from a point near the ceiling. They will be able to observe the attempts of the medical staff to resuscitate the physical body, will feel no pain, but rather a sense of calm and detachment from the resuscitation work. They may even hear themselves pronounced dead.
At length people find themselves once more back in the physical body with its cramping pain. They are then able to describe accurately to the nurses and doctors the procedures involved in the resuscitation as well as conversations and actions which took place while they were ostensibly unconscious, even dead. The doctors and nurses frequently confirm the accuracy of such observations and are astounded to them, it looked as if the patient was absolutely unconscious, and yet they are able to recount the exact sequence of events which took place during resuscitation (see The Self Does Not Die, edited by Rivas and Smidt). It is impossible here to convey the details of such experiences or the plausibility of various alternative explanations advanced.
My own conclusion is that the patient really did perceive the events described and that therefore the bodily senses are not essential for perception, while the conscious self is. Just because we normally perceive by means of the physical body does not mean that we cannot perceive independently of it. Moreover, those who have had out-of-the-body or near-death-experiences testify that they felt a greater sense of reality than in the physical body and were free from the constraints of space-time. This line of reasoning is also suggested by post-mortem communications describing physical death; the parallels with the near-death-experience are striking, to say the least. In the light of such evidence, the theory that consciousness is produced by the brain can no longer be sustained; it must give way to the transmissive hypothesis.
Those who undergo a near-death-experience no longer fear death (the attitude among those resuscitated without any memory of conscious experience remains unchanged). They also realise the absurdity and futility of exclusive preoccupation with the temporal values of money, status, frame and power; they become less concerned with past and future, more focussed on appreciation of and attention to the present; and they become interested in spiritual knowledge and relating lovingly to those whom they encounter: the pursuit of wisdom and the practice of love, values which can help us live in the light of the eternal recognised in the present moment. Such is the challenge of death.