The Possibility of Life after Death

In his essay entitled “Experience,” Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.” This is what Emerson says, and he is talking about the place of each of us during our lives, between transitional times of birth and death. Stairs below us, stairs above. Extremes-but we do not know them; we do not know what they are like. Are they something? Or are they nothing?

Not that people throughout history have somehow fallen down on the job. “In the time of the Buddha,” says philosopher John Hick, “some two and a half thousand years ago, there was as great a multiplicity of rival views as today. Is the death of the body the extinction of the person? Or does a person survive as a continuing consciousness? Or as a resurrected person? With a spiritual body? In perpetuity or for a limited period?” And on and on. From time out of mind, people have been trying hard to find the answers, and none has proven itself to be THE answer. Why, then, take up the seemingly futile task of thinking about what happens when people die?  Why talk about it this morning, when for at least the past two and a half thousand years, or more, the reality of death has maintained an impenetrable ambiguity in the face of public investigation, and in some aspects it has invited belief in life after death while, in others, it has permitted the opposite conviction? Why? I like the answer John Hick gives. He says, “We shall not be able to refrain from speculating about death until we can refrain from speculating about life; for the one is inseparable from the other. … If we wish to think realistically about life we cannot avoid also thinking about death.” True words.

So here’s what I want to do this morning. Talk about my journey to a positive belief in the reality of life after death. My effort to peer into the stairs above me, to see what I can see. Perhaps my story will speak to yours.

My journey. No mystical experiences, I’m afraid. Primarily it has involved taking a close look at the reasons for and against life after death, as well as stepping back and becoming more aware of the different paradigms which powerfully influence how people imagine the relationship between mind and brain.

Let’s start by considering the reasons for. Some of the ones I encountered in my journey were logical in character, meaning that they centered on the definitions of key ideas and the need to preserve their integrity. Others were theological in character, presupposing as true certain basic ideas given in a particular scripture or tradition, and the arguments go from there. The ones that really impressed me, however, were the empirical arguments-the ones grounded in concrete sensory experience.

We have already heard about one class of such experiences: the near-death experience. Another has to do with apparent cases of reincarnation memories. The gold standard for research on this is Ian Stevenson, M.D., a well-respected psychiatrist from the University of Virginia who was once described as “a methodical, careful, even cautious, investigator, whose personality is on the obsessive side.” Perfect for doing exhaustive, honest research. He and his collaborators gathered cases suggestive of reincarnation from all over the world-Africa, the United States, Canada, Burma, India, South America, Lebanon, and Turkey. Each case, he says, “usually starts when a small child of two to four years of age begins talking to his parents or siblings of a life he led in another time and place. The child usually feels a considerable pull back toward the events of the life and he frequently [asks] his parents to let him return to the community where he claims that he formerly lived. If the child makes enough particular statements about the previous life, the parents (usually reluctantly) begin inquiries about their accuracy. Often, indeed usually, such attempts at verification do not occur until several years after the child has begun to speak of the previous life. If some verification results, members of the two families visit each other and ask the child whether he recognizes places, objects, and people of his supposed previous existence.” That’s what Ian Stevenson says. Together with a network of volunteers, he would try to find these spontaneous past life recall cases as soon as possible. He’d carefully question both the family of the living child and the family of the deceased to ensure that they had no contact and that no information had or would be passed between them. He’d also obtain detailed information about the deceased, including information not fully known to anyone involved-such as details of the will-so as test the child’s knowledge. Over the years, Ian Stevenson accumulated 3000 such cases, and, having honestly considered alternative hypotheses-like fraud, information gained from others, extra-sensory perception, deception on the part of the parents, and even spirit possession-he argued that reincarnation stands as the best scientific hypothesis for explaining the cases. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation-that’s the place to begin exploring Stevenson’s research for yourself. Another good overview is a book by philosopher Robert Almeder: Death and Personal Survival: The Evidence for Life After Death.

We’re talking empirical evidence for life after death. The near-death experience, reincarnation memories, as well as cases of mediumship, apparitions, and out-of-body experiences. Viewed separately, we find in each class of evidence provocative cases which strongly suggest the possibility that something survives physical death. Viewed together, viewed collectively, a pattern arises that makes it hard NOT to believe.

But I will admit: we are talking about parapsychological stuff. Stuff which strikes many people as strange. Which naturally leads us to consider some objections to life after death. It certainly did for me, in my own journey, since parapsychological research has long proven to be a magnet for criticism, even enthusiastic contempt.

Why is that?

One reason, I think, is the National Enquirer effect. By that I mean a kind of guilt by association. Since they are controversial, and controversy attracts attention, accounts of near death experience, or reincarnation memories, or other parapsychological phenomena pop up now and again in National Enquirer-like sources, and we may think, Huh, parapsychology must lack credibility since the National Enquirer lacks credibility, is sheer sensationalism and entertainment and fluff. Nothing to it. However, to this I would say that it’s simply unfair to take the worst expression of something and treat it as if it were representative of the best. It’s unfair to read an article or see a special on TV that is so gullible and poorly thought out that you can drive a truck through it-and then think that you have, by this, successfully debunked all the quality research on the related phenomenon that’s out there-like Ian Stevenson’s research, or the Lancet NDE study from 2001.

It’s unfair-but nevertheless, we can fall for it. We can succumb to the National Enquirer effect. And then there is this reason for objecting to parapsychological evidence for life after death: the shadow of fraud. It’s happened. During spiritualism’s heyday in the 19th century, there was widespread fraud, especially as the movement was taken over by showmanship and riches were to be had. As for the 20th century, there have been a few documented cases of evidence tampering in lab-based parapsychological experiments. Fraud has happened; and the shadow this throws can tend to spoil even evidence and experimental results that, in truth, are perfectly valid. To this, I would say four things: First, evidence tampering is something that researchers in all scientific fields have been tempted to do, or have done, for purposes of getting tenure, or preserving prestige, or other causes. It’s a problem every field deals with. Second point: some of the people who are most zealous about uncovering fraud are parapsychologists themselves. When they find it, they let everybody know. Transparency. They understand, more than anyone else, that the phenomena they study are extraordinary-and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence that, to be taken seriously, must be as immune as possible to the charge of fraud. This, in fact, leads to my third point: because of the intense scrutiny it has labored under in the 20th century, parapsychological research has developed methodology and controls that are perhaps far better than you see in other branches of science. Given the level of criticism, parapsychology has had to run as tight a ship as possible, for it even to survive. Finally, there is this, my fourth point: whereas it is admittedly true that even the best cases for survival are not fraud-proof-since one can always conjure up ways in which the case might be tainted-still, there is the silent inexorable witness of evidence that continues to pop up in widely differing contexts, over time, examined by many different researchers. The silent inexorable witness that makes the probability of fraud remote, and in fact turns the suspicion back on the skeptic, and can lead one to wonder what it is that causes some skeptics to disbelieve no matter what; or to insist on standards of evidence, that, if adopted, would render any empirical science impossible; or simply to be more interested in ridiculing and name-calling than rational dialogue.

We’re talking about objections to the possibility of life after death. Besides the National Enquirer-effect and the shadow of fraud, there’s this: the idea that the origin of belief in life after death is wish fulfillment. People believing because it’s just something they want to believe in. “Such a theory,” says philosopher John Hick, “is attractive to an age schooled in the exposure of motives by modern psychology. But nevertheless [this theory is not in accord] with early man’s thoughts. For the most general primitive attitude to the dead of which we have evidence was not one of envy, but more of fear or pity. The dead were not usually thought of as having passed on to a higher and happier life but rather as having lapsed into an altogether less desirable state of mere half-existence. […] The early Greek conception of the after-life, expressed in the Iliad and the Odyssey, centered upon the psyche or soul, which scholar Erwin Rohde described as ‘the body’s shadow image’ or ‘a feebler double of the man.’ At death this descends into erebus or hades where, while still recognizable and still bearing its earthly name, it persists as a depleted, joyless entity, a mere bloodless shadow of its former embodied self.” That’s what John Hick says, and he concludes: “Thus the ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die’ view of the origin of humanity’s conviction of an after-life is not supported by the evidences of anthropology. On the contrary, ‘for the vast majority of mankind, the idea that the soul gains by passing out of this world is very rare indeed.'” The question for us thus becomes-how did belief in an afterlife take hold upon humanity, if not out of wish fulfillment? Perhaps for some of the positive reasons we’ve considered here today. Definitely, John Hick’s point prevents us from summarily dismissing the ancient conviction in life after death-psychologizing it away.

There’s lots of possible objections to consider, and reason requires that we take a fair look. Here and now, there is one more I want to consider-perhaps the objection that, above all, drives criticism and even contempt towards belief in life after death. It’s this: that life after death is simply impossible. So impossible that even to bring it up is to be ridiculous. Impossible in a way that some thought rocks falling to earth from the skies was impossible. “I would more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie,” said famous Unitarian Thomas Jefferson,” than stones would fall from heaven.” He was referring to what we now call … meteorites.

The key objection to life after death is that it is simply impossible. Why impossible? Because, after all, mind is dependent on the brain. How can you have thinking without a brain to support it? How to even imagine what that might be like? To even consider this-what’s the matter with you?

This was the objection-there like the proverbial elephant in the middle of the living room-that I encountered pretty much everywhere in academia. There in the graduate school of philosophy I went to. There in the Unitarian Universalist seminary I went to. You just didn’t question the assumption. You just didn’t.

Which is why I count one of the sweetest moments in my personal journey the time I discovered the work of William James, American philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, his short work from 1898 entitled: Human Immortality. In his elegant prose he acknowledges that the “old notion of a life hereafter” has lost “its power to draw belief,” especially in “scientifically cultivated circles.” “One hears,” he says, “not only physiologists, but numbers of laymen who read the popular science books and magazines, saying all about us, How can we believe in life hereafter when Science has once for all attained to proving, beyond possibility of escape, that our inner life is a function of that famous material, the so-called ‘gray matter’ of our cerebral convolutions? How can the function possibly persist after its organ has undergone decay?”

But it is as a scientist that James asked me and asks all of us to take a closer look at the admittedly intimate relationship between mind and brain. Certainly one way of describing it is in term of “production,” as in the brain producing the mind as a tea kettle produces steam and an electric circuit produces light. Take away the tea kettle, and there’s no steam. Take away the electric circuit, and the light goes away. The brain dies, and there’s no more mind, nothing left. But-is this the only way to describe the relationship? William James says no. There is another way, of equal explanatory power: what he calls “transmission.” As in, the brain transmits a stream of consciousness, or a soul, or a spirit-whatever language you want to use-in the same way that a television set transmits ultra high frequency electromagnetic waves, transforms them into the programs we see and hear on our TV screens. Damage the TV, and the programs no longer come through all right. Turn the TV off, or unplug it, or smash it to smithereens, and nothing comes through at all. It looks exactly like death-but this does not mean that the ultra high frequency electromagnetic waves are gone too. They are just no longer capable of being received and translated. In some form and fashion, they are still there. Same goes for the mind, upon death of the body.

Now, William James proposed this alternate paradigm of mind-brain relations in 1898, so clearly his analogy in setting forth the transmission idea did not involve TV sets. He talked about sunlight shining through a glass prism, or air moving through organ pipes, as determined by organ keys. But my mind went immediately to the television set. It helped me to see instantly that the transmission paradigm of the mind-brain relationship made just as much sense as the production paradigm-that, in fact, what we have here are two radically different ways of understanding what it means to be human. Each one adequate to the facts. But one makes life after death impossible, while the other makes it … possible.

And here is where things stand. My personal journey to a reasoned belief in life after death. A careful consideration of the best evidence I can find. Taking a look at the objections and evaluating their persuasive force as fairly as possible. Stepping back and becoming aware of the different paradigms which make all the difference to how we envision the relationship between mind and brain. In the end, I freely admit that my belief, however reasoned I hope it to be, may not change anyone else’s mind. In fact I expect this, understanding the power of paradigms-how it can be so difficult to communicate across paradigms and hope to be understood. Yet this I know: that we do not have to think alike to love alike. It is why we are Unitarian Universalists, what it means to be Unitarian Universalists. And I know this too: that taking a reasoned position on something cannot possibly require anyone to have discovered an argument that demolishes all opposing views. Such a requirement is absurd. Not only is it egregiously false to the history of ideas, it’s also destructive to one’s own life. To hold off from believing something which is of vital significance to your heart and spirit until you have convinced everyone else is to make yourself a hostage to others, to paralyze your own growth. The exercise of reason is just not fundamentally about other people-your ability to convince other people. It’s about integrity, and self-respect. It’s about doing justice to the voice of reason and conscience within that honors doubt and won’t settle for unthinking faith. It’s about convincing yourself. Being able to give yourself to the belief without a sense of shame or dishonor. Reason, rightly used, prepares the way.


Reading before the sermon

Our reading today is a reflection on the Near Death Experience, or NDE (for short). Because of modern advances in resuscitation technology, the past fifty or so years have seen an influx of accounts of remarkable experiences by some people who have been clinically dead and yet have been brought back. Their hearts had stopped beating; their lungs had stopped working; and thus, starved of blood and oxygen, their brains had shut down. One evidence of this is doctors shining a light into their pupils and nothing happening, no reflexive response to the light. The eye reflex is mediated by the brain stem, and that’s the area that keeps us alive; if that doesn’t work, it means that the brain itself has stopped working.

Now, how we interpret NDEs depends on a prior belief regarding the nature of the relationship between the mind and the brain. Clearly, the state of our minds is closely related to our brains. But how, exactly, does the relationship work?

One very common belief is that the brain produces the mind. There can be no minds without brains, and when the brain dies, the mind ceases to exist. Let’s call this the production theory of mind-brain relations. The brain produces the mind like an electrical generator produces electricity. Just as electricity ceases to exist when the generator breaks down or is turned off, so the mind fades away to nothingness when the brain dies.

If one believes this theory of mind-brain relations, then what neuroscientist Michael Persinger says about NDEs will ring true. He says that the best way to interpret NDEs is to see them as a “last gasp” of the brain’s functioning, triggered by a potent cocktail of drugs, a lack of oxygen, and perhaps even a fear of dying. The dying brain no longer perceives anything in the external world; all it is perceiving (for example: being outside of one’s body, the presence of dead loved ones, the tunnel, the bright light) are fantasies created in the mind and nothing more.

Yet does this hold up to the evidence?

A good place to start would be to explore the 13-year study of NDEs published in 2001 by the highly respected international medical journal, The Lancet. For now, I would simply have you consider the following report, which comes from Madelaine Lawrence, R.N., Ph. D., Director of Nursing Research at Hartford Hospital. She mentions the case of one patient who described floating up over her body and viewing the resuscitation effort being done on her. She then felt herself being pulled up through several floors of the hospital that seemed to dissolve as she moved through them until she found herself above the roof. There, she paused to enjoy the view of the night skyline of the city when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a red object. It was a shoe. She was struck by the oddness of this discovery, but only for a moment, as she felt herself “sucked up into a black hole” into the rest of her NDE. Afterwards, when she returned to her body, this patient told her experience to a nurse, who told the story to a medical resident, who laughed. However, the resident took his skepticism right upstairs to the janitor and convinced him to get a ladder. They checked the gutter on the roof, and the red shoe was there, just as the patient’s story had said it would be.

From Michael Sabom’s research we hear of other such cases, where NDE’ers came to know things in ways that are hard to explain. Michael Sabom, a cardiologist, wondered about the degree to which exposure to TV medical shows influences the reports of NDE’rs. What they show on TV, he points out, is very different from what actually happens in a real ambulance or emergency room; so if the accounts that NDE’ers give of their resuscitation experiences resemble TV, then it’s likely that their experiences were nothing more than hallucinatory.

Here’s how Sabom conducted his research: He asked one group of people who almost died but who didn’t have an NDE to try to describe the resuscitation procedures. Then he asked a second group of people-this time, all NDE’rs–to describe the resuscitation procedures. The results? NDE’rs often contradicted TV procedures in accurately describing what doctors, nurses, and other medical staff actually do to resuscitate people. The reports from non-NDE’ers resembled TV.

These are just two of many cases in which NDE’rs come to possess information that can’t possibly be accounted for through the production theory of mind-brain relations. If the brain produces the mind like an electrical generator produces electricity, then the only ideas we can have in our minds about reality have to come through our physical senses in contact with the world around it, or their scientific extensions (as in telescopes and cyclotrons). Clearly, though, NDE’ers are coming to know things in ways that don’t involve their physical brains and sense organs.

Perhaps we need a different theory of mind-brain relations, one which can more accurately account for the facts-all of them, even the strange ones that come to us from research into the NDE…..

Here ends our reading for today.