Perceiving Meaningful Existence in a Comatose State

Perceiving Meaningful Existence in a Comatose State March 22, 2021

Last night, I replaced an old flower arrangement with some freshly cut tulips in my son’s hospital room. While I told Christopher what I was doing, and while I believe he could hear me in his comatose state caused by a traumatic brain injury, still he could not see the tulips. Given that he cannot see them, one might ask “Why replace the flowers for him?” Well, for one, I told him that I was doing so. My hope is that he can understand me. Moreover, in my estimation, a hospital room without flowers is lacking something essential in terms of affirming human dignity. So, it matters to me as Christopher’s dad, and to the rest of my family. Moreover, the flowers along with the family pictures in the room tell everyone who enters that Christopher is dearly loved.

Still, apart from my personal reasons for replacing the flowers, it got me to thinking of that old philosophical puzzle: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to experience its fall, does it make a sound? No, according to a certain form of idealism. So, what about the flowers? If no one is there throughout the day who can see or perceive the freshly cut tulips, are the flowers visible? Do they even exist? No, if it is the case that “To be is to be perceived” (“Esse est percipi”). This might seem to be a crazy idea, or an irrelevant thing to ponder in a hospital room, but then again, maybe not.

Some would say we are living in a materialist world and modern medicine is an example of that closed universe paradigm. Others would beg to differ. Bishop George Berkeley, whose name is associated with Berkeley University and the philosophy known as idealism, saw himself as an “immaterialist.” He was actually an empiricist, who affirmed the world of the senses, but saw it as the result of immaterial, mental reality. While the dictum of the tree falling in the forest is wrongly attributed to him, he did write in his 1710 work, Of the Principles of Human Knowledge: “All the choir of heaven and the furniture of the earth—in a word, all those bodies which compose the frame of the world—have not subsistence without a mind.” Ultimately, if I recall Berkeley’s philosophy rightly, the divine mind is responsible for all things existing moment by moment, even when no human perceiver is there to perceive them. Moreover, the divine mind constitutes our minds with the ideas we have when we engage empirical phenomenon, including in a hospital room.

According to Yale philosopher Kenneth Winkler, “Berkeley doesn’t deny a reality behind our experience.” However, “it’s a spiritual reality, not the reality of a hard, indifferent, physical world.” I hardly find this notion irrelevant, though for those living in a completely closed universe involving a materialist worldview, everything is indifferent, purposeless, and ultimately meaningless.

How do these musings bear on my son’s currently stable though comatose state of existence? There is nothing irrelevant or indifferent about his situation, for spiritual reality upholds him moment by moment. Even when no one is in his room to observe him, Christopher is there and he has subsistence and meaning in his comatose state. He exists because he is always perceived (“Esse est percipi”). Just like the freshly cut tulips, he has ongoing meaningful subsistence, even when no nurse or doctor or aid or visitor is there in the room to observe my son. God is always there to perceive him. As the psalmist says, so it is true of Christopher:

“For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:13-16; NIV)

There is nothing irrelevant or indifferent about this thought experiment, some of which I shared with my son at his bedside (as I read from this online resource from Berkeley University, which is the source for the quotes from and about Berkeley above). So, too, there is nothing indifferent about the universe my son inhabits. Christopher matters. He is not mere or indifferent matter.

If there had been time (ah, another subject worthy of consideration—does time exist outside our minds?), I might have shared my little thought experiment with Christopher’s night shift nurse who came into the room just as I was finishing up with sharing some of these ideas with Christopher. From the get-go, I could tell my son’s nurse was a spiritual person. With no prompts from me, she spoke of God and Providence in the same context as hope and Christopher’s current state. She even spoke of my late parents—whose picture overlooks Christopher in front of the flower display (shown above)—watching over my son. My nurse shared with me that she is from Africa. Her traditional culture is much more cognizant of spiritual reality and the close proximity of the life beyond to our present state of existence. She could probably grasp better than most if not all her colleagues an immaterialist philosophy of life. Perhaps better than I, too. All I know is that I will never look at freshly cut tulips in a hospital room the same way again.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths and Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse. You can read more about the author here.
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