By Scott Smith
To listen to skeptics, only the gullible masses believe in an afterlife, desperate to be reunited with loved ones.
As we have shown, however, skeptics are so convinced of their intellectual superiority that they are incapable of examining evidence objectively that contradicts their strongly-held viewpoints.
Unlike the cases for ESP and UFOs, however, the evidence for survival after death is by its nature less measurable and more subtle and complicated.
Militant skeptics would have everyone believe that this is merely anecdotal and easily explained away by the biochemistry of the dying brain, pumped up by morphine and stress, with the particular hallucinations the result of a combination of wishful thinking and religious preconception. But as we shall see, this view ignores some inconvenient facts.
While looking at several types of relevant experiences, I will only focus on the issue of immediate survival after death, not theological assertions about what happens beyond that, such as whether there is a heaven or hell or reincarnation. Nor will we try to resolve here exactly what it is that may survive death.
One way to think about the larger picture of reality that the so-called supernatural presents is like the difference between the world of ordinary objects we interact with daily and the invisible quantum world that underlies everything. It is difficult for our minds to get around the fact that what seems like solid reality is mostly empty space. Skeptics are invited to imagine that the paranormal world is something like the theorized other dimensions of the “multiverse.”
Let us begin with something that should be a perfect test for the skeptical case about hallucinations of the dying: death-bed visions. It is not uncommon for people who are about to die to imagine that the heavens open up and relatives appear to welcome them to the other side.
In What They Saw at the House of Death: A New Look at Evidence for Life After Death by Karlis Osis, a noted physics professor, and Erlendur Haraldsson, a clinical psychologist. Between them, they had carefully examined 5,000 cases of death-bed visions for nearly two decades starting in 1959. These were culled from observations by 17,000 physicians and nurses. Most were medical personnel in the U.S., but some came in from a separate study about patients in India, to check to what extent cultural and religious beliefs influenced the experiences.
Investigative journalist Michael Schmicker, in Best Evidence, summarized the remarkable conclusions:
*Patients who were given painkilling drugs were not more likely to have such visions than those who were not.
*Brain malfunctions were more likely to reduce such visions.
*A history of using psychoactive drugs did not increase the likelihood of these visions.
*There was no evidence that a lack of oxygen induced the visions.
*Stress played no role in predicting which patients would see “the dead.”
*Whether the patient believed in an afterlife did not matter.
*In some cases, the death-bed visions came to people who did not know they were dying.
*The visions often did not fit with the religious preconceptions of the individuals. Christians saw no evidence of hell; Hindus had no visions that confirmed they would be reborn.
*There were 11 aspects to these visions that were shared by both American and Indian cases, so they are likely common to many cultures.
Schmicker cited a compelling example. In 1919, Horace Traubel, a friend and biographer of the poet Walt Whitman, was dying in Bon Echo, Ontario, Canada. With him was Lt. Col. L. Moore Cosgrave. Cosgrave reported that at 3 a.m., Traubel stared at a point in the room three feet above the bed.
“A light haze eventually resolved itself into the form of Whitman…wearing an old tweed jacket, an old felt hat, and had his right hand in his pocket,” which Cosgrave could see. The apparition nodded twice to Traubel, who said, “There is Walt.” As the ghost brushed by him, Cosgrave felt a slight electric shock.
“Near-death experiences” (NDEs) was the term coined by Dr. Raymond Moody, a physician who wrote the first popular book on the phenomenon, Life After Life, in 1975. He studied cases of patients who were pronounced clinically dead, but claimed they could see and hear things that seemed impossible, according to the materialist understanding of reality.
A 1982 Gallup poll revealed that one out of seven Americans had at least once been close to dying and 35% of these reported having the NDE. These experiences would seem fairly common, but were not generally reported by physicians, which is explained by the fact that only 32% of doctors at the time believed in an afterlife vs. 67% of the public.
While the specific details of the experience would be interpreted by the person who was supposedly dead, based on his or her cultural and religious background, the most common stages occurred in this order:
*A sense of dying as a release from cares and pain.
*The patient feels he or she is rising from the body and able to look down on it and the attending medical personnel.
*This self or spirit is compelled to pass through a dark tunnel with light at the end.
*Beings of light greet the spirit at the end of the tunnel—often these are deceased family or friends and sometimes a person understood as a founder or leader of their religious tradition (atheists reported an abstract figure of light).
*As many as 29% recalled having their life’s events flash through their memories, as if reviewing them before judgment.
*Many wanted to stay in this disembodied state, but were told they needed to return.
*Consciousness returns to the body, startling medical personnel, who had pronounced the patient dead.
Moody’s initial report has been confirmed in thousands of cases investigated by others. The International Association for Near-Death Studies www.iands.org was founded in 1978 to encourage the serious study of the phenomenon.
Skeptics are quick to argue that all of these things can be explained by incorrect judgments about clinical death and by the combined effects of a sick brain and the drugs administered at the time.
Among the most notable books to take a more systematic scientific approach to anecdotal evidence were by medical doctors Kenneth Ring, in Life at Death, and Michael Sabom, in Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation.
Sabom in particular was skeptical. He accepted the critics’ theory that NDEs were hallucinations due to heightened brain activity and was surprised to realize that they occurred most commonly in patients who had been unconscious for at least 30 minutes, when neuroactivity was reduced.
He believed that claims that these “dead” patients had accurately described what was happening around them were easily explained by hearing medical personnel discussing them or that they were educated guesses.
Sabom set up a control group of cardiac patients who had not reported having NDEs. He found the NDEers’ accounts very accurate, while the guesses of cardiac patients were way off, and he was able to rule out the possibility in many cases of the “dead” picking up the information by hearing it.
Doctors at Southampton General Hospital studied 3,500 patients and concluded that cases of NDEs being reported involved “well-structured, lucid thought processes with reasoning and memory formation at a time when their brains were shown not to function,” contradicting the materialistic view of how the brain works.
Dr. Eben Alexander’s NDE
The most famous of modern NDEs was recounted in the 2012 bestseller by Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, in Heaven is Real: A Doctor’s Experience with the Afterlife (a good example if skeptics’ inability to state the facts in their rebuttals can be found in a response to an article in Esquire: http://iands.org/news/news/front-page-news/970-esquire-article-on-eben-alexander-distorts-the-facts.html). He went into a seven-day coma after suffering from microbial meningitis in 2008 and had an experience that ran counter to his expectations. He recalled:
I did not believe in the phenomenon of near-death experiences…I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God and I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better.
When I entered the emergency room, my chances of survival in anything beyond a vegetative state were already low, but they soon sank to near nonexistent. For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body was unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline.
All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. But mine took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.
A 2001 study reported in the British medical journal The Lancet reported that the NDEs could not be explained by reactions to medications, a lack of oxygen to the brain, or fear of death.
Perhaps most convincing is that patients are able to report events outside the room where their bodies were. For example, some claimed that their spirits went into the waiting room and heard conversations between family members, which they recalled accurately. Given the skeptics’ position on ESP, this should be impossible.
In 1990, Seattle pediatrician Melvin Morse’s Closer to the Light examined the cases of 120 children who had NDEs. In most cases, they would have been too young to have absorbed a well-grounded religious expectation of what might happen. He made a point-by-point refutation of the skeptics’ arguments about the biochemistry of death and hallucination, compelling enough to have persuaded some skeptics to take a more open-minded position.
In Beyond: On Life After Death, Fred Frohock attempted to weigh the evidence objectively and concluded:
The problem with the materialist explanation that NDEs are a purely neurological reaction to the stress of death is that we would have to stretch the powers of the brain to new and unproven levels of achievement. The weight of the likelihood, of possibilities, seems to be in favor of transcendent experiences, although NDEs could be both transcendent and part of the physical world.
The brain may be the instrument that guides the self into a realm of existence as real and empirical as the dimension we currently occupy. All we have to do is move the perimeters of physical reality out to more comprehensive dimensions. Death is as ordinary as birth, and may be the same kind of portal to another empirical stage of life. Physicists tell us there must be more dimensions to reality to explain the reality we sense and know.
In Dr. Andrew Newberg’s Teaching Co. course The Spiritual Brain, he cites the impact these experiences have on those who go through them: “People come away from a near-death experience with a radically altered set of beliefs about themselves, the meaning of life, relationships—everything. They no longer fear death and are more spiritual and less religious. Many say things like, ‘I don’t think there is a God; I know there is a God.’ One said that the experience was ‘bigger’ than religion, which was not sufficient to help encapsulate the NDE.”
But some aspects of the NDE mimic other experiences, such as the phenomenon known as an out-of-body experience (OBE). While the NDE is involuntary, the OBE may be a spontaneous occurrence or it could be something the individual wills.
While this is not a direct indicator of survival of death, it does provide evidence that humans consist of something other than a body: a “spirit” that can separate from it under certain conditions while the body remains alive.
Such experiences have been recorded around the world throughout history, often by shamans who claim to have gone into the “spirit world” to receive guidance. In a study of 70 non-Western groups by D. Shiels for the Journal of Psychical Research in 1978, the core experiences of being able to leave the body voluntarily were very similar, despite major cultural differences.
I interviewed Scott Rogo, the highly-regarded parapsychologist, in June 1990. Two months later, he was murdered and my interview appeared in the December issue of Fate magazine. I particularly admired his hardheaded approach to the field, always skeptical about easy explanations for so-called paranormal phenomena. He had his first book published at 19 and by the time of his death at 40, had written 29 others.
One of these was Leaving the Body: A Complete Guide to Astral Projection (another name for intentional OBEs). In addition to recounting many credible experiences of people able to describe distant events as they hovered over them, Rogo had lots of personal knowledge. He had trained himself to leave his body and once while out of town, returned in spirit to his home to find his roommate had someone visiting. He confirmed this when he came back from the trip.
In his Psychic Breakthroughs Today, Rogo reviewed some of the best anecdotal collections by people who had repeated experiences with this, such as Sylvan Muldoon’s The Case for Astral Projection and Dr. Robert Crookall’s The Supreme Adventure. It appears that 10-20% of the population almost anywhere in the world has had at least one OBE.
Rogo also discussed lab experiments to induce these experiences. Noted psychologist Dr. Charles Tart at the University of California at Davis, for example, in the 1960s had subjects fall asleep and try to prove they had left the body by viewing a number that was placed out of sight.
In some cases, Tart found that when the individual later reported being out of the body, brain waves showed strange activity that indicated he or she was neither asleep nor awake.
One of his most notable clinical subjects was Robert Monroe, who went on to write the classic memoir Journeys Out of the Body. During one experiment, Monroe’s spirit went into the hallway and accurately reported that the lab technician who was supposed to be monitoring him was there talking to someone else.
Another set of experiments were conducted at Duke University by Dr. Robert Morris. His most outstanding subject was Keith Harary, who would later become a parapsychologist himself. Rogo called the system of testing him “ingenious” and the results “stunningly successful.”
A study of those who claimed to have undergone OBEs was supported by the University of Kansas Medical Center and the renowned Topeka-based Menninger Foundation. They compared these who had these experiences with those who did not claim to have had them. “They could not find any specific personality characteristics differentiating people who experience the phenomenon from those who do not,” wrote Rogo.
Finally, Rogo also considered the credible anecdotal evidence that some saints and mystics of a variety of religions have had the ability to be more than one place at once, known as bilocation. This could be either as an apparition or seemingly having their body in both places at the same time. In Miracles, Rogo (who had no religious affiliation), provided the thought-provoking documentation. But it is not likely a lab will be able to test this phenomenon.
The most commonly reported evidence for human afterlife is the encounter with apparitions of people who are dead.
“Ghosts are a universal phenomenon, seen again and again without end by people of every culture, religion and country,” wrote Schmicker in Best Evidence. “They have been reported for thousands of years by people from every economic, educational, and social strata. They have been seen by kings and peasants, hamburger-flippers and nuclear scientists, aborigines and bank presidents, doctors and laborers, by famous people and by average citizens, by men and women and children of every age and sex.”
In 1882, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in England to support a scholarly investigation of such phenomena.
Four years later, its first report was published, a two-volume, 1,400-page summary of 700 cases (edited and updated by Eleanor Sidgwick in 1923 in the revised edition of Phantasms of the Living).
One of the cases occurred on Dec. 7, 1918, involving a Lt. David McConnel, a pilot trainee who was flying to an airbase when he crashed and died at 3:25 p.m. At about that time, his roommate, Lt. J.J. Larkin, claimed to have him in the pilot lounge and reported that McConnel told him he “had a good trip,” then left.
Fifteen minutes later, a friend of the two came into the lounge and wondered when McConnel would be back so they could all go to dinner together. Larkin informed him that McConnel had already returned, but they could not locate him.
Later that night, they learned of his death and informed their commander of the experience, as well as writing his family a detailed letter about it.
The best example of a ghostly haunting of one location cited by Schmicker is Borley Rectory in Essex, England. From 1863 until it burned down in 1938, there were some 100 persons who were witnesses to seven different ghosts and a variety of related phenomena. Harry Price’s The Most Haunted House in England: 10 Years’ Investigation of Borley Rectory details the strange happenings.
One of the most sensational books on evidence for the survival of the human soul after death was the 2002 bestseller The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death by Gary E. Schwartz, Ph.D., and William L. Simon. Schwartz is a professor of psychiatry and medicine at the University of Arizona, a graduate of Harvard and former director of the Yale Psychophysiology Center, with 450 published scientific papers. His credentials did not make his report any less controversial.
Schwartz and his colleagues conducted clinical tests on a handful of so-called psychic mediums, including Allison DuBois (the inspiration for the TV series “Medium”), John Edward (who also had a TV show), George Anderson, Suzane Northrop, George Dalzell, Anne Gehman, and Laurie Campbell.
The 374-page book details not only the precautions taken to prevent fraud and statistical analysis of the possibilities of chance in the results, but his responses to the charges of professional skeptics (including James Randi and Ray Hyman, whose criticisms of ESP experiments we cited earlier).
In the early 1990s, I was trying to find a legitimate medium—someone who could “channel” messages from the dead for the living—for reports in Fate (which was making an effort to avoid printing just any psychic’s claim and was counting on my experience as a business reporter to screen for the better ones). Frankly, I could not find many, but there were a few.
One was Bevy Jaegers, a St. Louis psychic with a particular skill known as psychometry. That is the ability to handle an object and psychically pick up information related to it. For example, she would touch a piece of clothing a victim had been wearied when murdered and would have images of the crime flash before her. In its peculiar way, this was receiving “messages from the dead.”
When I visited with her, she set up a number of meetings and phone calls with law enforcement officials who had worked with her on 50 murder cases. We began to collaborate on a book about her work, but my more mundane career was skyrocketing and we did not have time to finish it before she died (and yes, mediums do not generally get warnings about their demise). But the experience did convince me that she had been largely accurate and was certainly not a fraud.
I had read what the skeptics had to say about the medium James Van Praagh, who had a TV show at the time, so I went to his “group reading” very well-armed (for the same reason that I prepared to expose Uri Geller).
I took careful notes on whether his information, allegedly from the dead for loved ones in the audience, was accurate and was surprised that most of it did seem to be. There appeared to be a few misses and there were some things that could not be verified at the time.
In our follow-up interview, we discussed the views of his critics. I cannot say for sure that he has never cheated, but as I mentioned previously, there is evidence that some seemingly genuine psychics have tried to “improve” their results.
As part of my research, I also went to a “séance” conducted by Edward one Halloween. I was convinced he was a fraud at the time, not because I could prove it, but what he did seemed like nothing more than a parlor trick in the dark. After reading The Afterlife Experiments, I had to have a more open mind about his achievements.
I also had studied George Anderson previously, including watching him in a TV documentary and reading his 1989 bestseller, We Don’t Die. I think it is fair to say that if there is one medium whose accuracy has been repeatedly confirmed by thousands of readings, Anderson is it.
Of the others in the Schwartz book, I had two personal readings by Laurie Campbell. The first turned out to be surprisingly accurate in looking into my past and forecasting the future, while the second, five years later, did not even hit the target. This was, I had learned, not atypical of even the best (as Rogo observed, psychic talent seems to operate like an unreliable electrical connection that frustrates those who claim to have such abilities).
I do not put much stock in getting reliable information from any medium, but for those who want comfort without being gullible, it is worth getting a reading from any of those purported to be the best, without thinking it will be infallible revelation.
Another interesting source on mediums is Victor Zamit’s A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife. It pulls together a huge amount of information for every kind of “evidence” of the hereafter, although I am a skeptic about the New Age channeling examples. Spirits, I have become convinced, love to promote specific belief systems that contradict each other.
Finally, I would like to consider something that would not seem to provide much promise of credibility, but is one of my specialties: encounters with animal ghosts. I recounted 125 cases in The Soul of Your Pet: Evidence for the Survival of Animals After Death (dozens of others that came in after the third edition in 1998 will be included in the next version of Animals and the Afterlife by Kim Sheridan).
The understandable skeptical response to this notion is that anecdotes that claim that people saw their dead pets are clearly based on wishful thinking. That would make some sense, since many people grieve severely when they have bonded with a companion animal for 10 or 20 years.
The trouble with this theory is that it does not explain most of the stories I reported. I really had no idea what I would receive when I sent a request for information from readers of veterinary professional journals and publications about the paranormal.
The most striking thing about most of the stories was their credibility:
*Many witnesses were not the owner of the pet encountered, so a desire to see it played no role.
*Other cases involved multiple witnesses, so the events were not simply one person’s hallucination.
*Some involved more than one sense—the witness not only had a sustained view of the dead animal, but could hear or feel it, making it less likely they were simply imagining the event.
*Some witnesses were veterinarians, doctors, psychologists and other professionals who would be expected to take a more objective attitude than most people.
*Many stated they had never had a paranormal experience of any kind before or since the event and others said they were not religious in any way (virtually no one said their religious background taught that animals have spirits, although an ABC News/Beliefnet poll showed that 43% of Americans believe animals go to heaven, while 17% are unsure; 40% disbelieve, including both those who religious views deny that any animal has a spirit and those who do not believe in the supernatural at all).
*Perhaps the most intriguing cases were those that involved the reactions of other animals, making it apparent that these incidences were not simply figments of human imagination. For example, one evening a witness reported that she was at home with her two cats, watching TV on a couch. Suddenly, what appeared to be her recently deceased third cat came out of the kitchen and walked across the living room, then went right through the closed bedroom door. The two living cats had gone to the edge of the couch to stare at the ghost as it walked by them, then when it disappeared, they ran up to the bedroom door and stood there briefly before running away. They refused to go into the bedroom for months thereafter.
The point is that if there is evidence that even some animals have an afterlife, that makes it all the more likely than humans survive death.
The likelihood of human survival of death does not explicitly provide evidence for God or any particular religious philosophy. However, it would be evidence that the global phenomenon of belief in the supernatural has a grounding in some kind of alternate reality that deserves more study.
In the next section, we will look at whether nature and history provide evidence for the benevolent God of traditional religion.
For more information on Scott, visit his homepage.