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July 27, 2005

Life after Death?

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Prof. William D. Rubinstein - a historian at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - is not someone to shy away from the big questions. He asks, is there life after death?

Is there life after death? No, this is not a joke: I mean it as a serious question. Let me begin by saying that - as with the question of evolution, about which I wrote in a previous column and which attracted fierce controversy - I am a complete agnostic about the answer to this question and have no hidden agenda when writing about it. If I have any religious views, these do not entail any strong opinions about survival after death, and I genuinely do not know whether we survive - whatever that might mean - or not. In many ways, it would be better if we did not, and the moment of death marked the literal end of existence: if survival entails the likelihood of punishment for our transgressions in this life, we might not wish, given the choice, to risk this rather unpleasant possibility.

Most educated people in the West today simply do not think about the question of survival, placing it in the total taboo basket along with most other questions of religion; in any case, most would regard the question as unanswerable. On the other hand, since almost all funerals even today are carried out by a clergyman, whose mandated words on the occasion normally assure us of eternal life, there must be some sense in which most of us believe, or hope, that death is not the end. Certainly anyone suffering a bereavement hopes so. Although I have no more real information on this topic than the next person, at least the question can be considered rationally and dispassionately.

Religious faith apart, there have been three types of claims of actual evidence of survival after death made by apparently rational people: claims of having seen or witnessed the ghosts of the dead; claims of reincarnation; and so-called "Near Death Experiences". How likely are these claims to be real and acceptable evidence of survival after death?

Reports of ghosts have been made innumerable times down the ages, in every culture. Apparently, about ten per cent of the British population claims to have seen a ghost. While, needless to say, many of these reports can be dismissed as nonsense, fraud, wishful thinking, misreporting, or the product of spirits in a glass bottle rather than the supernatural kind, there is a residuum which can simply not be explained away. Particularly disconcerting, perhaps, are the innumerable accounts of seeing or even speaking to a person located elsewhere at the moment of his death or shortly thereafter, normally a close relative. In many such cases, the reporter of the incident had no knowledge or inkling of the apparition's death. Such stories were, and perhaps are, so commonplace, that they were collected about a century ago in a large volume published by the British Psychical Research Society, Apparitions of the Living. Case after case was carefully investigated; most of the reports were made by highly respectable, well-educated middle-class men and women who had no conceivable motive to mislead.

One simply does not know what to make of such accounts, or of the more commonplace type of "ghost story". The leading current explanation of "ghosts", which is normally put in Sunday Supplement type accounts, is that they are some kind of recorded image imprinted onto the surroundings. It has been noted that many accounts of "ghosts" take place in buildings or areas where there is an unusual amount of quartz, and it is often speculated that the mineral somehow acts to imprint the image of some person or event surrounded by anxiety or terror, such as a violent death. The argument runs that some people, but not all, are particularly sensitive to becoming attuned to these "recordings". It seems clear, however, that this explanation cannot readily account for all reports of ghosts, or even the majority. Nor may ghost stories necessarily provide real evidence for survival after death, as opposed to mental telepathy or sensitivity to "recordings". One assumes that the dead must have better things to do with themselves than scare the willies out of the living. As well, hospitals, battlefields, and other scenes of frequent death should provide constant reports of ghostly hauntings, but as a rule they don't.

Belief in reincarnation is one of the main elements distinguishing the Eastern from the Western religions: according to Hinduism and Buddhism, our present life is just one part of a potentially endless cycle of rebirths; according to the Western Monotheistic religions, we get only one bite of the cherry, and that's it. Everyone has read reports of a child in India who suddenly reports that he was in reality a man in a village a hundred miles away whose life he describes in uncanny detail but who actually died six months before, just as we have all read accounts of subjects under hypnosis who can recall, often in elaborate detail, a previous life in Medieval England or dying at the Battle of Trafalgar.

As with reports of ghosts, one simply does not know what to make of them, and such accounts raise far more questions than one can easily answer. Today, there are far more people alive than in the past, so what were the extra "souls" doing in their previous existence? What is the mechanism which "decides" whether in our next life we will be born to millionaires and live to be one hundred, or return as dung beetles, and based on what criteria? Where are we between incarnations, assuming that the transmigrations aren't instantaneous? Does one have the same personality throughout different lives, the same I.Q.s or interests? This hardly seems plausible - in which case, in what sense are we the same person?

"Near Death Experiences" (NDEs) were apparently almost unreported prior to about forty years ago. In recent years, however, accounts of this phenomenon have become commonplace. NDEs occur among those who have been pronounced dead by doctors, and then revive, shortly afterwards, often for inexplicable reasons - this is apparently fairly common. In about one-third of such cases, the person reports having travelled down a shaft of light to an idyllic world, there to be "met" by a long-forgotten deceased relative or friend. In many cases, those reporting NDEs are actually sorry to be restored to their normal lives, and virtually all are adamant in insisting that their experience was real and actual, and not a dream or hallucination.

NDEs have apparently been reported hundreds of times in recent decades, all fairly similar. Skeptics have been quick to point out that while the person in question might have been declared dead by doctors, his or her recovery is prima facie evidence that they were actually still alive - no one can literally come back from the dead - and the reported NDE, however realistic, was an hallucination triggered by chemicals in the brain at a moment of great trauma, perhaps similar to the proverbial experience of a drowning man's life flashing before him. Once again, one simply does not know what to make of the NDE phenomenon.

These three types of claims of survival seemingly cannot all be true, since they appear contradictory: they might all be false but they cannot all be true, it would seem.

Each also raises the central religious concern entailed by the notion of survival - reward and punishment. As with many other religions, Christianity claims centrally that survival occurs, and is intimately bound up with the reward or punishment of each individual - the notion of Heaven and Hell. Rationalists almost certainly find the notion of reward or punishment harder to accept than the notion of survival itself, and it is certainly fraught with conceptual difficulties. As David Hume pointed out in the eighteenth century, 98 per cent of people don't deserve either fate. By what standards or criteria are they to be judged? Must one be a practicing Christian to be rewarded with Heaven, or is this open to anyone? - in which case, what is the point of being a Christian? If one is to burn in Hell forever for cheating on one's income tax, why not cheat on one's income tax and also murder twenty people? One's fate is the same. (To get around this, the Roman Catholic church has wisely devised the concept of Purgatory, a place where minor sinners literally sweat it off before being deemed eligible for Heaven). In the twentieth century, we have learned that much behaviour is psychologically or sociologically determined, at least to a degree: there are more thieves among teenagers in the Gorbals than in the Stockbroker Belt in Surrey. To what extent does this count?

All of this may be nonsense, although the existence of human consciousness raises at least the possibility that it is not. Consciousness - think about it - is categorically different from anything else we know, since "it" does not occupy space or have weight. (Picture in your mind an image of your house. How big is this mental picture? How much does it weigh?) Nor can consciousness be truly located anywhere.

Obviously it is somehow triggered by brain cell activities, but - to use the previous example - if one looks at your brain cells with the largest electronic microscope in the world, one will not find an image of your house - or anything else. If consciousness can somehow continue to exist without brain cell activity - a rather large if - one at least has the logical basis for survival.

The whole subject is wrapped in mystery, to say nothing of wishful thinking and illogicality. Indeed, it is something of which we know nothing. Nevertheless, it can be said without any fear of contradiction that each and every one of us will eventually find out whether it is true or not.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales - Aberystwyth.


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Prof. Rubinstein: Let me first congratulate you on your open-mindedness, which puts you in a choice sector of the academic world where this subject is concerned. And it is obvious that you have taken the trouble to read and ponder some of the evidence.

Still, I cannot accept your conclusion that the subject of post-mortem survival is 'something of which we know nothing'. The very fact that you discuss, albeit briefly, three phenomena that may be associated with survival suggests we are not wholly ignorant.

I believe that what you mean is that this is a subject where we cannot prove anything according to the strict rules of scientific experiment. And that is, for now, true. But outside of the hard sciences, in any field that relates to human experience, that isn't the criterion that we normally use when we say we 'know' something. We arrive at knowledge by amalgamating all sorts of evidence from different sources and using our intelligence, common sense and wits to assess their validity.

In your own field of history, I expect you would agree that much of what we know, or try to know, is not a matter of pure fact but of the preponderance of evidence.

Without wishing to sound didactic, I would suggest that the issues and doubts you quite reasonably cite have been much considered both in spiritual teachings and in psychical research. There is hardly space to go into such complex matters here, but I can recommend books on survival by David Lorimer, Alan Gauld, Paul Beard, and Colin Wilson that I believe you will find very stimulating and might tip the balance in favour of a tentative acceptance that a part of us that is more 'real' and basic than our bodies -- including our brains -- does carry on past this one short life.

Posted by: Rick Darby at July 27, 2005 11:03 PM
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Professor Rubenstein is wrong in his assertion that in "Western Monotheistic religions, we get only one bite of the cherry, and that's it", at least in relation to orthodox Judaism. Judaism is unequivocally clear that Jews have to obey certain commandments. If not done in this life, then it's back again in another, and so it goes.

Posted by: geoffrey zygier at July 28, 2005 07:54 AM
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Woody Allen wondered why people seem so afraid of death. 'After all,' he said, 'you don't hear many complaints.'

Posted by: smasty at July 28, 2005 09:26 PM
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I can't actually say I believe in life after death, but the paranormal activity that occurs and things people claim to have witnessed fasinate me and I believe there isn't a reasonable explanation for anything paranormal that occurs! I am a student at Aberystwyth and as you probably know Aber has its own 'Ghost stories', such as the Aberystwyth Ghost Train, which supposedly you can hear by the railway bridge of the old railway, which has been closed for about 40 years!

Posted by: Rebecca Lomax at December 26, 2005 12:27 PM
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The Near Death Experiences have given a treasure of information on what happens after death. And the result is stunningly similar to Spiritual instructions.Read more: Near death experiences

Posted by: priyanka at July 30, 2007 08:08 PM
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I'm not a college major, just a normal joe trying to get thru each and every day. I agree with alot of what you wrote, but what if ? I was able to help my Mother pass, and was with her months before she died. Why is it we don't talk about the afterlife, what the heck are we afraid of. I saw things and heard things that didn't then and even today make sense. Most of it didn't have to do with her death. Doctors, clergy, family, all clinging on to a hope of life....shame on all of us. Death should be a part of us, we can't escape it, claim it and make it personal.

Posted by: Kate Bohler at November 7, 2010 10:50 PM
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