I was fairly close to both Angela and Jacob throughout our teens; at least, we were all part of the same circle. I briefly entertained the hope of something closer between Angela and myself, and for a few weeks she was more or less my girlfriend; but Jacob “swept her off her feet,” and they were at one school and I at another, so I had no chance. It made no difference to our friendship, though.
Unfortunately, I largely lost touch with Angela when I started attending university. Over the course of the next six months, we crossed one another’s paths only three times or so. On the last occasion, she had just returned from a visit to Paris, from which she had brought home, among other things, the Pléiade edition of Montaigne she proudly showed me.
And that was that. Two and a half years later she was killed when a drunk driver struck her car in an intersection; she was alive for several hours after the collision, but never regained consciousness. That was twenty-five years ago tomorrow.
I learned of her death three days after, from Jacob. (Their romance had not survived their remove to separate colleges, but they had remained friends.) I won’t bother to say how the news affected me, but I will remark that I had had what in retrospect seemed to have been a premonition of it. On the night of her death, Angela had suddenly, for no discernible reason, come into my mind, attended by an inexplicable sense of aching melancholy, which at the time I simply took for acute nostalgia.
Jacob, though, had had something that seemed like much more than a premonition. On the night of Angela’s accident, apparently during the hours when she was lying in the hospital unconscious but still breathing, he had had a particularly vivid dream in which she and he had spoken to one another in a strange house that, after the fashion of dreams, was also somehow a garden (if I have the details right).
Their conversation, which had been pervasively sad, concerned her imminent departure for somewhere far away; and it seemed to Jacob that it was understood between them—in that way in which, in dreams, many unspoken things seem simply to be presumed—that she was leaving on a journey from which she would never return. She told him, he recalled, that she had come only to say good-bye.
Now, these things—my vague intuitions, Jacob’s haunting dream—may have been merely coincidences; but, frankly, I can’t make myself believe that the universe is quite large enough to accommodate coincidences of that kind. What was most extraordinary about our experiences, however, is that they were not that extraordinary at all.
That is, it is rather astonishing how common these encounters with the uncanny really are. You may not recall any yourself, but it is quite likely that you need only ask around among your acquaintances to discover someone who does. I myself have had at least two others, one utterly trivial, one of the most crucial importance, and both together sufficient to convince me that consciousness is not moored to the present moment or local space in quite the same way that the body is.
The mind can, of course, deceive itself; it can retrospectively fabricate spectral connections or occult sympathies and convince itself they were there all along. But there are still a great many experiences that resist any too effortlessly reductive an explanation.
There was a period of two or three years, for instance, when a member of my extended family temporarily acquired the unsettling habit of dreaming abnormally clear dreams that later came true (as well as several that did not). I was even present on one occasion, under circumstances neither of us could have foreseen or planned, when a dream he had described to me months earlier came to pass.
What does it all mean, though?
Well, obviously, persons who have known such moments are unlikely to be convinced by any purely materialist account of consciousness, at least of the “mechanical philosophy” variety. The confirmed “physicalists” among them might toy with ideas drawn from, say, some of the more stochastically adventurous quantum theories of consciousness, but mostly out of desperation.
Whatever the case, though, such experiences should chiefly remind us how many and how deep the mysteries of consciousness really are. And the profoundest mystery of consciousness is consciousness itself, because we really have little or no clear idea what it is, or how it could either arise from or ally itself to the material mechanisms of the brain.
There are, of course, intellectually serious books with titles like How the Mind Works (Steven Pinker) or Consciousness Explained (Daniel Dennett), but the preponderant consensus in the philosophical world is that they do not deliver more than a fraction of what they promise. The logical high ground is still occupied by consciousness “mysterians” like Colin McGinn or, at least, by skeptics like John Searle.
Most attempts to describe the mind entirely as an emergent quality of the brain, or as another name for the brain’s machinery, not only fail convincingly to bridge the qualitative distance between sensory impression and coherent thought, but invariably bracket out of consideration a great deal of what any scrupulous phenomenology of consciousness reveals. Certainly they do not seem to explain the “transcendental” conditions by which consciousness is organized: that primordial act within and prior to all our other acts of mind and will; that constant mediation between thought and world that we both perform and suffer in advance of all experience or volition.
Consciousness has not been explained until one can provide a comprehensive picture of how the mind not only “fits” the world, but also “intends” and “constitutes” it as an intelligible phenomenon. And that is not the straightforward mechanical problem it is often mistaken for.
But these are matters that have been tormenting philosophers and cognitive scientists for decades, and they will not be resolved by any arguments or any science currently at our command. And, anyway, even if humanity should some day penetrate the ordinary mysteries of consciousness, the more extraordinary mysteries will probably remain, and continue to urge human beings to think in terms not only of the mind, but of the soul.
Whatever the case, I cannot help but believe that on the night when Angela lay dying, some portion of my consciousness was remotely, flickeringly aware of the fact; and that she, or something of her, was able to reach out into Jacob’s dream to make her farewells. But, even in admitting I believe such things, I would never claim to understand them.
David B. Hart is a contributing writer of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.