Do you now believe?

A near-death experience leaves the author with many questions that have no answers

August 13, 2016 04:05 pm | Updated 04:05 pm IST

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade

On the afternoon of April 28 this year, I nearly died. The doctors told me that had I not received medical attention for 30 more minutes, I would have lost my life.

Around 35 days later, I was home and, though bedridden, was recuperating well. My wife and I were watching a fascinating Morgan Freeman-hosted TV show called The Story of God on National Geographic (the episode was titled ‘The Power of Miracles’) when she turned around and asked if my thoughts about god had changed.

I knew why she was asking me this. I am an agnostic. My wife is not overly religious, but she is a believer. She, along with my family, colleagues, friends and even doctors, believe it is a miracle I am alive and was able to get back to work after just a month-and-a-half. Nearly a third of that period was spent in the intensive care unit. Surely it ought to have transformed me into a believer?

Agnosticism, many have pointed out, is neither here nor there. You are neither a believer nor an atheist. Bertrand Russell, mathematician, logician, philosopher, and the most famous agnostic I know, > wrote in 1953 : “An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgement, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism.”

This definition raises many questions. For me, the first two are, “Am I alive because god intervened?” and “When does god intervene?”

Here’s what had happened: > a congenital condition I was not aware of manifested in the worst possible way on April 28, taking me close to death. This brain condition is so rare that there are no reliable statistics on how many Indians have it. In the U.S, less than 1 per cent of the population has it, and only a fraction of those faces a hospital situation. The rest go about their lives without even being aware they have it. You can’t detect it unless you do a CT scan and an angiography, and seriously who does a CT scan or an angiography just because it’s a slow news day?

The incident resulted in some memory loss, so I spoke to several people to stitch together a rudimentary timeline of what happened. I found that, seemingly, the planets had aligned to keep me alive. (I use that as a phrase, not as a believer in astrology.) It was a series of statistically improbable coincidences; far too many to take place without anyone wondering why. It was this (and, perhaps, Morgan Freeman’s voice) that prompted my wife to ask me the god question. I told her I was still not convinced that a supreme being is looking after all of us and the rest of the universe.

My wife was not alone. Almost everyone who came to meet me in the hospital, and later at home, had the same thing to say: “Thank god, you’re well” or “All is well by the grace of god” or, as a dear colleague WhatsApped me, “God is great. He is watching you.” (Remind me to have a gender debate with him later). At least two of the six doctors thanked god for my recovery.

I was troubled by these references because I thought I owed my life to three factors: I was taken to the hospital early by my colleagues; the remarkable skill and dedication of the surgeons, physicians, and nurses who never gave up; and the extraordinary scientific progress we have made.

You could argue that it is a surgeon’s daily job to quickly assess what’s wrong and save lives. But to do it each time when there are only a few minutes left must be really tough. And in a touch-and-go situation, mistakes will happen. But none happened that evening.

Another thought troubled me: why did people not wonder about the kind of progress we have made that allows us to find out the exact location of a medical problem with pinpoint precision? Why did no one (except the doctors) praise my colleagues for their quick thinking in taking me to the hospital by car instead of waiting for an ambulance, a decision that eventually saved my life? Are we replacing human ingenuity, innovation and scientific progress with god? Are we saying that the surgeon, with all his skill and years of saving lives behind him, and the sheer stamina to stand in one place for over six hours with the utmost concentration, had no role to play? Just one wrong snip and it would have been all over.

In the TV show, Freeman interviews a window washer in New York’s Manhattan district who fell 47 floors after a cable broke and survived to tell the tale. Alcides Moreno went to work on December 7, 2007, went to the top of the building and climbed on to a platform.

When the platform began to descend, one of the cables broke, plunging him 500 feet down, to certain death. Except, he did not die. He broke 10 bones, his lungs collapsed, and he spent three weeks in a coma. He woke up on December 24, and the first thing his doctors said was, “You are a miracle, Mr. Moreno.”

But Moreno is not sure it’s a miracle; his younger brother Edgar, who was with him on the same platform, died on impact. Why did Edgar die and Alcides survive? If it had been a miracle engineered by god, Edgar should have survived, too. According to > Dr. Neil Martin , chairman of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Department of Neurosurgery, many people with my condition don’t even reach the hospital alive. Mostly because the people around them have no idea what’s going on, and by the time they find their wits, it’s already too late. Why did god keep me alive, and not another patient who may have died due to the same condition? If, by 2100, the population of the world surges to twice the current number, how will God cope with the increased work pressure? The universe is expanding faster than the speed of light because space is expanding at that pace. How does he or she take care of that? And let’s not even get into a multiverse discussion. Bottomline: God sure has a lot of work to do. If he or she exists, that is.

The god question is not easy to answer conclusively because god’s existence is a matter of faith, not science. There is no mathematical proof. God is a construct of belief. The great Austrian-American mathematician Kurt Gödel once attempted to prove the existence of god. His ontological proof of god, by definition, is more axiomatic and derived from semantic logic than from real mathematics. It was not long before it was discredited and the axioms questioned. Undeterred, a group of mathematicians from around the world is using open-source documentation to formalise Gödel’s proof to a level where it can be proven by computer programs. We will wait.

There is also some debate whether Gödel was himself a believer or not. His wife is quoted as saying he was, while his friend and Game Theory co-founder Oskar Morgenstern noted that he wasn’t, and that Gödel was trying to prove God only to satisfy his mathematical curiosity.

No child comes into this world with a belief in god, as if it were preloaded software. Children believe because their parents teach them to. People teach their children about faith, their religion, and the rites and rituals they are expected to follow or participate in. Parents also teach them that, if miracles happen, God causes them. I was therefore not surprised when I heard that while I was in surgery, some of my family were in temples, praying for my survival. They perhaps did so because they were otherwise unable to help me in any way. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” Humans pray not only because they want something from God, but because they are helpless in certain situations. Circumstances overwhelm us at times, and prayer seems to be the only recourse; probably because it gives us the illusion of an assurance, of a certainty when it could very well be just a matter of chance. When I survived, people told me that they are happy their prayers had worked. I know they meant well and I thanked them profusely, but I could not agree with their logic.

Despite living to tell this tale, I am nowhere close to an answer as to why this illusion of prayer or of god gives us an assurance or hope, as if it were a rope to hold on to when we slip off a cliff’s edge. It is just as well that I don’t have an answer; perhaps humans are not supposed to know why.

I don’t know why I collapsed at work and not while I was driving or while I was in the local train. I don’t know why my colleague Manojit Saha saw me at the very moment it happened and thus could raise an alarm, even though he was supposed to be elsewhere then. I don’t know why my colleagues decided not to wait for an ambulance and drove me to the hospital themselves. I don’t know why the surgeon waited that evening even though he did not have patients. I don’t know why that surgeon, one of the few who can conduct the specific procedure, was present in the hospital that evening. There are several more “whys” for which I (or others) have no answers.

These coincidences, seemingly, contributed to the “miracle” of me being alive. Why did they happen that day? Why don’t they happen to everybody? Does god, if he or she exists, really have the time to look after all seven billion people every single moment of every single day? In the billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars and billions of planets, why does god have a particular interest in happenings on earth?

I am sure I will think about these questions until the day I really die, but I don’t think I will ever be close to an answer.

That day, I switched to another channel to watch a police procedural drama. In the episode of Crime Scene Investigation: Las Vegas , a gunman goes on a rampage inside a five-star hotel during a forensics seminar. By the time a forensic detective realises who the killer is, he is holding a gun to her chest. At that moment, the SWAT team arrives and takes down the killer, a guy named Ballard.

Back at the lab, a colleague asks, “Are you okay? Ballard wanted you dead, and if SWAT hadn’t been there…”

She responds, “But they were.”

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