October 08, 2008

Ghost in the Machine

Sobbing, shaking and knowing death was imminent, [Nancy Reagan] held her husband's hand about 1 p.m. Saturday as he inhaled deeply and opened his eyes for the first time in five days.

While most thought Alzheimer's disease had robbed former President Reagan of all his memory, the last look he gave his wife was one of deep acknowledgment, [his daughter Patty Davis] writes for People magazine.

"At the last moment when his breathing told us this was it, he opened his eyes and looked straight at my mother. Eyes that had not opened for days did, and they weren't chalky or vague," Davis recalls. "They were clear and blue and full of life. If a death can be lovely, his was."

Davis and her brother Ron were standing next to their father's bed when the astonishing interchange between their parents took place.

(Source. Other sources.)

After Ronald Reagan's death I watched a television interview where Ron Jr. recounted this story himself. He was very emotional as he spoke, and it was clear that he believed that something profound had transpired. His father had apparently burst forth through a broken body to bid farewell to his beloved wife. This kind of story is not unique in my experience, but what makes it interesting is whom it is that is telling it here and how it fits into his overall view of human nature.

Ron Reagan Jr. is a self-described atheist. Consistent with, and common to, atheism is the philosophy of materialism. Materialism is the idea that all things that exist can be explained in purely material terms, and there are no entities such as gods, angels, or human souls which exist beyond the boundaries of the physical universe. This means that the "mind" is simply an emergent property of the physical brain — without a brain, there is no mind. It also implies that a malfunctioning brain will yield a malfunctioning mind. Given a materialistic outlook, how does an atheist like Ron Reagan process his father's last moments of life?

Alzheimer's is a degenerative disease, which affects the brain cells and the connections between them. A brain at the fatal end of this illness is a devastated organ from which an identifiable "mind" should not hope to emerge. In the case of Ronald Reagan, he had not even opened his eyes in days, and had not been alert for years before this. From where, then, does a clear-eyed Reagan suddenly surface?

At the very moment when his body was so far gone as to yield to death, Ronald Reagan became animated — himself again. If a body is broken, why does it not naturally and successively proceed from almost dead to actually dead? If we flatten the tires on a car, drain its oil, and pull half it spark plugs, do we expect it to have one last burst of blazing performance before it finally sputters and dies?

Perhaps it is like the runner, who after exhausting all resources at the end of the race finds in himself one final burst of speed for the finish line. But this is not an accurate analogy, because the racer does indeed have something left to give. He is simply very low on carbohydrates and is inhibited by the pain of lactic acid buildup in his muscles, which makes him pace himself to the end. In that last burst, he is drawing on the remainder of his resources but could not hope to continue long in this. To be an accurate analogy, we would first have to sever some tendons and break some bones. No matter how brave or determined one is he cannot get far or fast on broken legs.

The other problem with this analogy is that a runner can will to briefly overcome his fatigue. But here we are speaking about the very thing from which something like a will is supposed to originate: the brain. In the materialist paradigm there could be no Ronald "in there" to triumph over his failing brain — a brain so destroyed that it could no longer even support life itself.

So what happened that night: one final power surge resulting in the shutdown of a fragile system, or a man rising from his broken body to say farewell before passing on? Ron Reagan Jr's heart is urging the latter. But how can he maintain this as an atheist? As most atheists I'm sure that he thinks of himself as an eminently rational creature. But to be consistent, I think he must either give up his materialism or give up his sentimental notion that something extraordinary happened that Saturday afternoon.

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At 10/09/2008 9:59 AM, Blogger Sam said...

I don't know if that is sentimentality or if Reagan really was lucid in those last moments. But if Reagan Jr. really believes he was lucid, it would be interesting to interview him about it. It might be insensitive, but interesting anyway.

At 10/24/2008 9:14 PM, Blogger R.I.P. Redeemed In Prayer said...

Very interesting post!

At 12/09/2008 2:43 PM, Anonymous Duane said...

Hi Paul,

I had no idea you were back blogging again until I got a referral from your site to mine.

Hope the break was refreshing.

In Christ,
P.S. You can delete this msg. I know it has nothing to do with the post. I just wanted to say hi and couldn't find your email link. :)

At 12/16/2008 8:36 PM, Blogger Chris Tolbert said...

This is a great post. Wow. You're going on the blogroll Brother.

I look forward to reading more from you.

Soli Deo Gloria!!

At 12/18/2008 10:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

more than likely it was wishful thinking on the part of his family.

At 12/18/2008 10:10 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thank you very much, Chris! You're very generous.

At 12/18/2008 10:11 PM, Blogger Paul said...


Or, perhaps that is just wishful thinking on your own part. Ron Reagan is a bright fellow and a first-hand witness. Somehow I think he would take insult at your insinuation. And the fact that he is a committed atheist would tend to rule out a "wishful" bias on his part.

At 12/21/2008 1:18 AM, Blogger Mariano said...

Please feel free to delete this comment after reading it as I do not want to foist this unto your site.

My name is Mariano, I blog on “Atheism is Dead.”

I have been very busy collecting data for an Atheism is Dead project entitled “Answering Atheism” which lists online resources for countering atheism.

The project consists of lists of hyperlinks to:
Websites/blogs that specialize in countering atheism.
Websites/blogs that have partial relevant content.
Particular essays, article, posts.
Audio, video and books.

I have included your website in the partial relevant content category.

If you are so inclined, I would appreciate it very much if you would announce the launch of project Answering Atheism. You can also go to Atheism is Dead and copy an image/button that you can hyperlink and add to your website - please hyperlink it as:


Also, please do spread the word amongst your sphere of influence.

Thank you so much for your time, attention, consideration and ministry.


PS: Stats—thus far the lists consists of 5 pages of video, 5 pages of articles/essays/posts, 10 pages of audio, 8 pages of books, 9 pages of partially relevant content, and one and a half pages of specialized content.


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