Apart from the bromides of faith, the idea of life after death has little purchase in our techno-materialist culture. And yet, anyone with an open mind who does a little research might be surprised. The fact is that rational, scientific claims sometimes appear to confirm or certainly suggest the afterlife hypothesis. The research has been conducted by competent, scientifically trained individuals. There are case histories of mediumship, apparitions, near-death experiences, and reincarnation memories, behaviors and physical markings.
Whether all this makes the case—a conclusion that would be momentous—is open for discussion. The point is that there is something to discuss. Unfortunately, few competently trained individuals seem interested in this core human question. The pre-scientific world included an entire dimension of existence that modern science has dispensed with.
We have settled into a particular worldview since the rise of modern science. Take Stephen Hawking’s view of the possibility of life after death. Hawking is one of the most famous scientists in the world, and in March, 2017, the BBC reported on his concerns over the dangers of computers becoming a menace to human existence—and there is much to be said for this concern.
Hawking is also interested in immortality. While admitting that science isn’t yet up to it, he believes that one day we will have the technology to copy our brains into digital modules. We will become not only immortal but in principle infinitely replicable—a frightening idea.
With all due respect to the great scientist, Hawking’s model for immortality has one glaring mistake: it leaves out consciousness. Without that, what could immortality possibly mean? The idea of acquiring digital immortality is entirely vacuous; consciousness is not reducible to physics and therefore cannot be computerized.
After announcing his belief in our potential digital immortality, Hawking alluded to traditional ideas of the soul’s afterlife with contempt as “fairy tales.” The fact is that real scientific data on postmortem consciousness exists; it deserves to be treated with respect and not dismissed as a “fairy tale.” Hawking, despite his achievements and status in his specialized domain of science, is grossly deficient in his opinions about immortality and life after death. He ignores the empirical data and pronounces on the subject, ex cathedra, like a pope, not like a scientist.
Once in a while a scientist, perhaps a neuroscientist, has an experience of transcendent dimensions—and, as a result, sees through the errors of his or her flawed education. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven and Marjorie Woolacott’s Infinite Awareness both describe such transcendent changes in their worldview.
So, are there experiences before death that provide glimpses of eternity? Insights, impressions of the next world? Visions of transcendent otherness? The Canadian physician Richard Bucke noticed that among cases of cosmic consciousness he collected, there was a sense of the timeless nature of existence, of boundaries melting away, indeed, of entering a zone of deathlessness.
Different things might induce this experience. Laura Dale, former editor of the Journal of the American Society for Research, once told me that for her the best “argument” for life after death was listening to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.
Music takes us out of ourselves, and the experience can sometimes be very profound. I recall two such moments with music, one when I was a high school student and first heard the strains of the medieval master, Johannes Ockeghem. The other occurred during Claude Debussy’s Nuages. I slipped into a unique state of mind. I felt I was ready to die—and with pleasure. A very peculiar feeling, impossible to describe but unforgettable.
In my opinion, the quest for evidence of life after death needs to be balanced by the quest for evidence of the fullness of life before death. Experiences where, as William Blake put it, we can “hold infinity in the palm of our hand and eternity in an hour.” Transcendence, immortality, paradise—we can and should have intimations of these, and we know from experience that it’s possible.
For this one looks to the world of the humanities—studies devoted to how human beings become human—for “intimations” of immortality. Poetry, philosophy, religion, mythology, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, cinema, and dance—all places where the different shades and tones of transcendence may be experienced.
Unfortunately, times are bad for the humanities, for the very notion of higher education, thanks to the economically biased hegemony of science, which gains its superior power by aligning itself with the state-military apparatus and the corporate plutocracy. The current trend is toward cutting funds from the humanities to feed an already bloated military-industrial complex.
Transcendent encounters occur in endless varieties, as Marghanita Laski shows in her study of Ecstasy (1961). These are states of radical dissociation from our everyday self. All the filters are removed and the personality is flooded with transcendent consciousness. From a practical point of view, the problem of our mortality may be affected positively by such encounters, as it was by Laura Dale when listening to the Missa Solemnis.
In Larry Dossey’s invaluable book, One Mind (2013), there’s a chapter called “Immortality and Near-Death Experiences” showing there are many ways of entering the state in which our deathless nature may be sensed.
Dossey emphasizes the story of Nancy Clark, a trained cytologist who had two near-death experiences before the phenomenon was even known. She later did research on cases where the experience just spontaneously occurred, like one of hers did—while she was eulogizing a dead person! There was no interruption of her outward behavior, but meanwhile her wider self was undergoing the most amazing experience of her life.
Here’s the point. Being physically near death isn’t essential to experiencing the sense of immortality. We may be in the thick of life’s challenges and suddenly find ourselves immersed in the dazzle of the transcendent. But, narrowed mentally by our biological compulsions, we mainly live in oblivion to almost everything around us, sensory and extrasensory, although the barriers aren’t impassible. Higher education is possible.
Two ways to explore the idea of immortality: inference is one. The curious inquirer needs to do some homework to appreciate that. But here I want to underscore the second way, which for short we can call intuitive.
I suspect it happens at least once to every human being: a moment when the divine beauty of the world lights up and when the sense of immortality comes to life within oneself. It could be caused by something totally ordinary or totally extraordinary. There are ways to explore these interesting possibilities, staples of modern higher education, at least until recently.
But if the humanities in higher education are being phased out for business reasons, we can take it as a challenge to carry on our higher education right in the middle of everyday life. Wherever we are and almost whatever we’re doing, it’s always possible to see things in such a way as to open our eyes to the immortal dimension. As far as higher education, we travel solo and the world is our university.