Aside from various faith traditions, is there any useful information about this subject available? The answer is “yes!” but you’d never know it. It’s not commonly known that science has important things to say about life after death. The problem is that in our materialist culture, the question is a non-starter.
Why? Because, we are told, there is no such thing as a soul, no consciousness without a brain. We are our brains, neurons, neurotransmitters; it follows that after brain death, the curtain is down forever.
That is the popular scientific view. But human experience reveals a different picture. For one thing, there’s a history of research on the afterlife enigma, beginning in 1882 with the founding of the English Society for Psychical Research. The founders, renown in their fields -- philosophers, physicists, classical scholars – studied and assessed fact-based narratives that point to survival. A minority of heroic academics carry on this research today, probing the fate of consciousness after death. (A lonely lot, to be sure.) But what have they found?
It’s a tricky space to navigate but the effect of all the evidence is impressive. Nowadays, we hear about the near-death experience (NDE), a remarkable phenomenon. Pim van Lommel, a Dutch cardiologist, studied near-death experiences of patients who suffered cardiac arrest.
He made a curious discovery. During cardiac arrest the heart stops pumping oxygen to the brain, which should, according to the mainline view, instantly terminate consciousness. But that’s not what happens all the time. In spite of a functionally dead brain, some reports prove that consciousness not only continues but expands in life-transforming ways.
Near-death experiences, according to official theory, should not occur, should not exist. But they do. It begins to look like our minds can unhinge from our bodies, wander off in space, and observe our clinically dead bodies from a distance. These experiences typically convince people of postmortem survival.
This is by no means the only type of evidence for survival. Research from the University of Virginia has shown that people may survive death by migrating into the body of a newborn. There are thousands of documented cases of reincarnation.
The research suggests that the hidden depths of our subconscious selves may be very deep indeed, stretching back through many lives. Each of us then harbors a vast unknown self – a stunning idea. Perhaps one day we will learn to communicate with the memory layers of our previous lives. Afterlife research opens ways to understand our living selves in new ways.
Besides near-death and reincarnation phenomena, other forms of evidence exist. Scattered throughout history are reports of ghosts, hauntings, and apparitions of the dead. Now and then the revenant comes with proof of identity and information unknown to any living person. There are famous cases of this type in the literature of psychical research. In one of my favorites, an apparition reveals the hidden whereabouts of a last will and testament that no living person knew of. So the ghost of a man made finding the document possible, which seems like an argument that he survived death.
There is another source of afterlife evidence – mediumship. Great modern mediums like Leonora Piper or Gladys Osborne Leonard have produced strong evidence for survival. Good mediums place their minds in abeyance and become receptive to messages from apparently discarnate minds. The message of mediumship is that each of us, at least in principle, could be an instrument for communicating with the otherworld. Who knows? Mediumship may evolve into an art form of the future.
New forms of survival evidence keep cropping up. For example, there are cases of so-called “terminal lucidity,” people with brain diseases who spontaneously regain their mental faculties just before dying. How strange! At death, persons with damaged brains recover their faculties: the exact opposite of what materialism would predict.
One thing may surprise us. Science today has no idea how our brain machinery produces our consciousness. The two things are wildly diverse. Even the most committed materialists admit this obvious mystery. But, if science cannot explain how consciousness emerges from the brain, we are free to assume that it pre-exists the brain. This leads to a new way to view the problem. Now we can say that the mind (or soul) uses the brain; it is not produced by the brain. If our brain doesn’t create our consciousness, it would not follow that our consciousness dies when our brain dies.
So the issue of what may come after death remains open. It is closed only to people who accept the dogmatic assumptions of scientific materialism.*
*The literature on life after death is vast, so I’ll mention just a few books to launch the reader. Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life; Ian Stevenson, Children Who Remember Past Lives; Stephen Braude, Immortal Remains; Kelly, Crabtree, and Marshall, Eds; Beyond Physicalism; M. Grosso, Experiencing the Next World Now.