By Stephen Smith
Is there life after death? On the surface the question might seem nonsensical. If someone is alive they are not dead by definition. But that’s not what we mean by the question. Most contemporary philosophy seems to come down to the definition of words. The question of life after death isn’t a subject typically addressed by contemporary philosophy; it is a question from an earlier time when the obvious objections had yet to be realized. Is the “human experience” in any way a continuity? Are we the same entity we were as a child? Are we the same entity we were yesterday?
So putting aside the fundamental problems with the wording of question of life after death, let’s just agree to run with the classic understanding. Does the human experience continue beyond the grave? Theology and “spirituality” offer a seemingly endless list of cocksure and contradictory answers to all of life’s mysteries, but these tend to be based on revealed truth rather than evidence. Is there any evidence for life after death?
There are three usual lines of so-called evidence for the continuation of the human condition past the grave: Near death experiences (NDE), out of body experiences (OBE), and ghosts. For some reason the ghost thing is usually dismissed by believers. Somehow the idea of ghosts is not as serious as NDE or OBE. This is totally arbitrary and cultural. The whole question is about ghosts. Is there a ghost inside your body that controls your brain? Does this ghost skedaddle when the host body is no longer useful? Calling it a soul or spirit isn’t in any way informative and calling it energy is just an abuse of the English language.
To move forward at all we have to just sort of roll over and accept the fact that the tough questions have to be ignored. This isn’t an issue that philosophy is well prepared to deal with, though that doesn’t seem to give the philosophers any pause. The primary objection to life after death is that brain functions seem to be able to explain all of human experience, and a misfiring brain can account for NDE. But the believer will respond that the brain is just a tool of the ghost. Just because you can cut out the part of the brain that remembers your wife’s birthday only means the ghost doesn’t have access to it anymore. The brain is just the ghost’s tool. Kind of like a lug wrench or pachinko machine. The obvious next step with this opposition to the materialist view is that now rabbit and human ghosts can be considered equivalent with one just having access to a better brain.
Considering that philosophy's best arguments for life after death are simply rhetorical and there is good rhetoric for almost any imaginable philosophical position, it is better left to look to science for answers.
It is easy to find all kinds of crazy stuff on the internet about NDE, but there are a few sober groups. Dr. Kenneth Ring, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut, published an article in the peer reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies in 1993 claiming that the ghosts of dead people were able to see events far away from their corpses. They would supposedly report all sorts of details when resuscitated. But these aren’t the sorts of experiments that can be repeated in a laboratory setting unless you are willing to deal with a mad scientist.
In 2010, Dr. Jeffrey Long, an M.D. who is also associated with the Journal of Near-Death Studies published a book called Evidence for the Afterlife that summed up the hundreds of scholarly articles written on the subject over the past few decades. Long claims these experience have nine proofs of life after death: 1.) Lucid death, 2.) Out of body experiences, 3.) The blind were able to see, 4.) People under anesthesia heard and saw what was happening to them, 5.) The “whole life passing before you” phenomenon, 6.) Meeting family members, 7.) Young children have the same experiences as adults, 8.) Worldwide consistency, and 9.) Changed lives.
Most of the “research” for these “studies” appears to be anecdotal. The journal itself, though fairly sober, does feature stories about a six-year-old kid meeting the Devil and another one being greeted by his recently deceased puppies. It’s also worth noting that both Ring’s and Long’s books were published by Harper Collins and not a university press, though the journal itself does seem to be above board.
In 2001, a 20-year Dutch study of cardiac arrest survivors suggested that, “NDE might be a changing state of consciousness (transcendence), in which identity, cognition, and emotion function independently from the unconscious body.” Since not all cardiac arrest survivors experienced NDE, the study casts doubt on a physiological explanation. But this just moves the bar from different kinds of brains to different kinds of ghosts and doesn’t really answer the fundamental question. Is there a ghost in the machine?
Earlier this year the Review of General Psychology published by the American Psychological Association did a state of the research concerning NDE and concluded, “[t]he claims made by out-of-brain theorists should not be underestimated by cognitive neuroscientists: if true this would imply a new relation between the brain and consciousness…we are far from solving the question…it is useful to remain open to both interpretations.”
But why do we have to die for our ghosts to roam free? What about OBE? It seems that one should be easy to test. Put a photograph on a high shelf, have a subject leave his body and come back and say what it is. Dr. Sam Parnia of the Weill Cornell Medical Centre in New York, and Southampton University has been performing just such a study since 2008. You can dig around his website (horizonresearch.org) all day and not find the results. It seems a bit suspicious. His findings were suppose to be released early in 2011 but Dr. Parnia has only responded, “[m]any people have written to us and have asked to be updated with the study results, however, as I am sure everyone will understand, we are unable to release data in a piecemeal fashion. We therefore look forward to being able to release the results of our study once the study has been accepted for publication in a major Pier[sic] Review Journal.” Don’t hold your breath.
Dr. Parnia is claiming he’s run out of money. But honestly, how much can something like that cost? It seems like if you could leave your body it would be worth a hundred bucks to pop into the clinic to prove it. One has to suspect no strong evidence has been discovered. This hasn’t stopped any number of folk from pointing to such studies as proof of the afterlife.
According to Brain: The Journal of Neurology, OBE “are due to a paroxysmal cerebral dysfunction of the TPJ [temporo parietal junction] in a state of partially and briefly impaired consciousness.” So really all we have is anecdotal evidence of any sort of consciousness without a brain.
So what about the ghosts? If we are going to go with anecdotal evidence there is a ton of it for ghosts. We’ve got ghosts on film and stories of people seeing, talking too, being haunted by, and falling in love with ghosts since the dawn of time. For all practical purposes ghosts are the best evidence for life after death there is. Are we really ghosts temporarily housed in slowly rotting collections of meat and bones? Maybe. Who knows?