On the Evidence About Life After Death
Life After Death, Anyone?
Several years ago, a very rigorous and critically minded scholar (who shall remain nameless here) took the trouble to examine the large body of evidence concerning the possibility of life after death. He concluded that, were he to find himself still conscious after his physical demise, he would be more vexed than surprised.
Many people, I suspect, would assert that they would be pleased by the realization they had survived death; indeed, polling data since the 1940s consistently suggest that about 70% of Americans believe in an afterlife, and recent ones show that they regard it in mostly positive terms (1).
Personally, I have mixed feelings about the prospect of post mortem survival. In particular, I find the notion of re-incarnation unappealing. I dread the prospect of having to cycle through the stages of human life possibly interminably: that we may be condemned to ceaselessly roll the burden of our existence, like Sisyphus his rock. In fact, as I understand it, religious traditions which endorse such a view seem to regard reincarnation as a necessary evil to which we must subject ourselves until our soul – or whatever else passes on from one existence to another - has finally reached that perfection which will enable it to abandon its earthly cravings, thereby gaining liberation from the cycle of rebirth by achieving nirvana.
Even if survival entailed retaining most of my identity as a person and more generally as a human being in some sort of ‘other world’, I would scarcely be elated at the prospect of having to live on as myself, possibly interminably, trapped within the narrow enclosure of my all too human personality.
I recall a reading from my youth which I had then – but no longer – found baffling: the story of Marcus Rufus, the Roman legionary of Borges’s tale (2). With adamantine will power, Marcus sets out to find the river whose waters confer immortality. But, having succeeded in his quest, he eventually commits himself to reaching the remote shores bathed by waters which will grant him the oblivion and eternal rest which he now covets.
I regard an afterlife as a desirable prospect only if it led to a higher state of being; if it brought into existence - or perhaps uncovered - an as yet unfathomable ‘me’ only temporarily connected to my present nature; if it allowed a different way of being in an environment that promotes growth towards ever higher levels of post-human awareness and self development. Or if immortality meant, not unending duration in time, but an exit from time itself into an unimaginable, perhaps blissful state of being. Of course, many religions have promised something of the sort with their views of a variously depicted Paradise (see Russell (3) for a presentation of Western views of Heaven).
However, it is not the question of whether or not an after death existence is desirable which is primarily addressed here. Rather, I would like to comment on the evidence for an afterlife as presented in two well-researched books, and on some recent remarkable empirical findings from the domain of clinically based near death experiences.
Only the evidence collected by the best investigators, and analyzed with all the methodological sophistication that can be brought to bear upon this disquieting matter, may help one decide whether such evidence constitutes a sufficient basis for rationally assenting to the possibility of post mortem life. The interested reader would be well advised to refer to these works, which fully meet these requirements. Here, I shall just provide an overview of these studies.
An Intellectual Elite Tackles the Evidence for an Afterlife
A recent book by Pulitzer-prize winning science journalist and university of Wisconsin professor Deborah Blum (4) delivers a spellbinding account of the attempt by a group of scientists and philosophers, beginning toward the close of the 19th century, to scientifically investigate the existence of psychic phenomena and of the afterlife during an era which, somewhat paradoxically, marked the triumph of scientific rationalism while granting full expression to sometimes coarse and naïve forms of spiritualism and magical thinking.
What makes this story especially noteworthy is the caliber of the men and women involved in a seemingly quixotic quest. The roster includes Harvard professor William James, the founding father of scientific psychology in North America and arguably its most original philosopher; the lesser known Frederic Myers, regarded today by some serious scholars as possibly the greatest though unacknowledged psychologist in recent history; a medical researcher who went on to earn a Nobel prize in medicine; eminent British philosophers and scholars; Alfred Wallace, the co-proponent of the theory of evolution; some of the best known physicist of the era: and the list can go on no less impressively.
What transpires from Blum’s account is the extraordinary intellectual and personal integrity these people exhibited in their investigations, which eventually found organized expression in the founding of the British (1882) and American (1885) branches of the Society for Psychical Research, still active today.
Along with the telling of their painstaking attempts to find solid empirical evidence for - or against - an afterlife and for psychic phenomena, the book extensively portrays the manner in which their efforts were received by key institutions and their representatives.
These researchers had very few friends indeed. Most of the professional mediums, psychics, etc. who profited from the spiritualist craze – most of them fraudulent – feared and reviled them for their successful efforts to expose them. The supporters of Spiritualism came to regard them as enemies, owing to the sanely skeptical attitude they adopted in their investigations. Religious authorities were similarly inimical to their undertaking, which they felt was threatening the primacy of their faith.
Perhaps the most implacable adversary of their effort was the mainstream scientific community. Most scientists could not accept that the very era that was witnessing the triumph of the physical sciences and the technological achievements which descended from them could be polluted by a flare up of morbid superstitions they had thought forever relegated to a pre-scientific past. Accordingly, those among their own ranks who chose to take these phenomena seriously were subjected to very acrimonious, sometimes vile attacks. On this occasion, the scientific community displayed the level of dogmatism and narrow mindedness that they were so fond - in some regards unjustifiably - of ascribing to the Catholic Church which had put Galileo on trial. The way these investigators faced this frontal attack on their work and reputation is a tribute to their admirable intellectual and personal qualities.
After reviewing many years of research in this murky, frustrating field, James acknowledged that precious little advances had been made in truly understanding these baffling phenomena, and that substantial progress might require centuries rather than decades of hard work. Despite these misgivings, he was unhesitant in his belief in the existence of paranormal phenomena, whether or not they univocally pointed to life after death, a conundrum that continues to this day, as discussed below.
However, most of the researchers who accompanied James in this quest, at different times and with varying degrees of certitude eventually leaned toward an affirmative answer to the question of post mortem survival. This fact by itself proves nothing. But it should not be disregarded either, given these individuals' extensive experience and the seriousness and quality of their research work (see also 5).
Personal Survival or Super-psy?
Immortal remains: The evidence for life after death (6), is authored by Stephen Braude, professor emeritus and former chair of the department of philosophy at the university of Maryland, and editor of the Journal of Scientific Exploration.
Along with his more mainstream philosophical interests, Braude has investigated paranormal phenomena for decades, and written extensively about it. Immortal remains presents a challenging, detailed, rigorous discussion of the evidence about post mortem survival as evinced from a variety of areas including mediumship and channeling, out-of-body and near-death experiences, reincarnation and possession cases, hauntings, and other phenomena. In reviewing this evidence, Braude first discusses explanations in terms of what he calls the ‘usual suspects’ (fraud, misreporting, misobservation, hidden memories, etc.), and then the ‘unusual suspects’ (dissociative pathologies, savantism, rare mnemonic gifts, etc.). His analysis shows persuasively that both types of explanations falls short of accounting for the best evidence.
The real choice is between the survivalist hypothesis, and what has come to be called the super-psy hypothesis. The latter accounts for seeming evidence of post-mortem survival as actually resulting from complex paranormal modes of psychic functioning on the part of living individuals. These abilities would enable them to gather information ostensibly provided by discarnate personalities (e.g., during seances or automatic writing, etc.) from a variety of other living sources using telepathy, clairvoyance and yet other means of psychic data gathering.
Braude shows that the two hypotheses are both capable of accounting for most of the best data. But his analysis in the end leads him to the conclusion that the survivalist hypothesis enjoys a slight advantage: because it is more parsimonious, requiring less complex assumptions to account for the data. Braude argues that all the various strands of evidence mutually reinforce one another in pointing toward the conclusion that ‘we, or some essential purposeful and distinctive chunk of our personal psychology can survive physical death’. (Ibid., p. 348)
This conclusion is arrived at with ‘little assurance’, but ‘some justification’. And the data place further limits on what we can reasonably infer from them: only that some people may survive death, perhaps for a limited time only.
It is precisely the cautious, tentative, cogently argued, fine grained analysis of the empirical evidence and associated explanations which I find especially persuasive, and have made me more receptive toward the prima facie scientifically implausible hypothesis of survival.
A Key Study of Near-Death Experiences
The medical journal Resuscitation recently published the largest ever study into near-death (7). University of Southampton medical scientists conducted a 4 year study of more than 2,000 patients who suffered cardiac arrests at 15 hospitals in three countries: USA, UK, and Austria. About 40% of the survivors reported some measure of conscious awareness at the time they were clinically dead due to heart inactivity. The researchers believe that in actuality an even higher proportion of clinically dead individuals undergo these experiences; but they are not reported because their memory is lost due to brain injury or sedatives.
These patients variously experienced an unusual sense of peacefulness, the sense that time either slowed down or sped up, the perception of a bright light. About one in six felt they were detached from their body, and that all the while their sensory functioning was heightened. A few became very afraid, or felt they might be drowning, or being dragged down into a liquid abyss.
One of the more interesting cases concerns a Southampton man, a 57-year old social worker who reported leaving his clinically dead body and observing from a corner of the room his resuscitation. He was able to accurately and in detail describe the activity of the medical team working on his body. Importantly, he recalled hearing two bleeps from a machine that produces one such a sound at three-minute intervals. Dr. Parnia, director of Resuscitation Research at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the study leader, observed: “We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped. But in this case conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped.”
The experiences communicated by the patients in this study are not new, and several well authenticated cases already exist in the voluminous literature on the NDE which are even more impressive than those described by the British social worker. However, this study is especially significant because most existing studies were based upon relatively small samples, and documented the experiences of individuals long after they had occurred, thereby making them vulnerable to memory distortions, and very difficult to independently verify. This study by converse used a very large number of patients and examined experiences which took place under the supervision of medical teams and recorded shortly afterwards.
Post-mortem Survival and the Mind-Body Problem
Beyond its empirical aspects, the plausibility of the survival of some aspect of personal consciousness after bodily death depends to a great extent on an adequate understanding of the so called mind/brain or mind/body problem
Based upon media reports, one would be justified in assuming that the much heralded recent progress in the neural sciences, which document with increasing precision the nexus between mental activity and brain activity: that this progress has conclusively proven that the mind is the brain; that it is solely a by-product of brain activity. On this basis, it becomes very difficult to claim that some form of consciousness could survive the physical decay of brain tissue induced by death.
However, it is essential to realize that the findings of neural science only point to a correlation between brain and mind activity. And correlation does not necessarily imply causation. There exists a strong positive correlation between amount of sun screen lotions consumed and the number of deaths by drowning. This does not imply that these lotions cause people to drown, does it?
The nexus between mind and brain is beyond doubt. The crucial question concerns the nature of this relationship, and more generally the ultimate nature of consciousness. The latter is, by almost universal admission, possibly the most difficult problem confronting both science and philosophy. It remains as intractable as it has ever been, progress in the brain sciences notwithstanding, as I attempted to show elsewhere (8,9,10); and the often invoked incompatibility of the notion of an immaterial mind with the laws of physics is by no means unchallengeable. (8,11). Although it would make matters ever more complicated, the wealth of empirical findings from parapsychological research should be taken fully into account in addressing this problem. If this were to happen, the conceptualization of the mind brain link would almost certainly significantly change. I am not holding my breath, though.
In sum, to return to the main interest of this article, I submit that any open minded reader who were to assess the empirical evidence as presented and analyzed in the works discussed above - along with several others which could not be discussed here (e.g., 12,13) - may well concur that the hypothesis of a continuance of life in some form after physical death is rationally defensible.
No more than this is warranted at present.
It may not seem much.
But it is, given the current zeitgeist.
2. Borges, J. L. (1970). The Aleph and other stories, 1933-1969, together with commentaries and an autobiographical essay. Edited and translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author. New York E.P. Dutton.
3. Russell, J. B. (2006). Paradise mislaid : How we lost heaven - and how we can regain it. New York: Oxford University Press.
4. Blum, D. (2006). Ghost hunters : William James and the search for scientific proof of life after death . New York : Penguin Press.
5. Quester, J. P. Death: A wall or a door? And what do key psychologists have to say about this? https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/Death-A-Wall-or-a-Door-And-What-Do-Psychologists-Think-About-This.
6. Braude, S. E. (2003). Immortal remains : the evidence for life after death. Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield.
7. Parnia, S. et al. (2014). Awareness during resuscitation – A prospective Study. Resuscitation, 85, Issue 12, 1799–1805.
8. Quester, J. P. (2017). What on Earth Happened to the Soul? https://owlcation.com/humanities/What-on-Earth-Happened-to-the-Soul
9. Quester, J. P. (2017) Is human understanding fundamentally limited?(https://owlcation.com/humanities/IS-HUMAN-UNDERSTANDING-FUNDAMENTALLY-LIMITED.
10. Quester, J. P. (2017). Is a non materialistic view of the nature of mind defensible? https://owlcation.com/humanities/Is-the-Mind-Other-than-the-Brain.
11. Stapp, H. P. (2014). Compatibility of contemporary physics with personality survival. www.researchgate.net/publication/255612057.
12. Kelly, E. F. et al. (2007). Irreducible mind: toward a psychology for the 21st century. Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield.
13. Kelly, E. F. et. al. (2015). Beyond physicalism: toward reconciliation of science and spirituality. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.
© 2018 John Paul Quester