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.
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.