Do we need evidence for the afterlife?


#1

It’s been a while since I last appeared in this forum, but here is a question that has been bugging me lately. In many debates in religion/theology, or even philosophy, I frequently see this pattern where the person defending the possibility of an afterlife/survival of consciousness after death sometimes makes some decent arguments for why that might be the case, only to then start to present very questionable evidence going from near death experiences and “evidence” for reincarnation to psi phenomena and ghosts. It is almost like they believe that in order to believe in those things one needs necessarily to believe that they would cause observable phenomena, or as an alternative hypothesis, that they need to believe these phenomena are true to reinforce their beliefs. I don’t really see why that needs to be the case. One could imagine several plausible explanations as to why we could have persistence of consciousness without evidence through these phenomena, I can immediately think of two such scenarios.

1 - Let’s say that the consciousness of the deceased person remains to some degree, but it has no memories because they were all stored in the brain (imagine a person with brain damage or alzheimer’s as an analogy). In such a case, even if the person did experience all sorts of weird things during a near death experience, it would be actually expected that they would not remember anything after regaining consciousness, neither would they have any memories or evidence of that if they reincarnated in a different body.

2 - If the souls of the deceased indeed go to a separate reality in the afterlife, as many religions claim, it would not be weird that they could not communicate back, unless God or something like that wished for that to be the case. But in such a scenario we would have a miracle, not a supposedly reproducible paranormal phenomena.

I personally believe that the possibility of persistence of consciousness is plausible due to difficulties in solving the mind-body problem with purely naturalistic explanations (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leibniz’s_gap for a brief thought experiment highlighting that). Nonetheless, I’ve always found all of these “evidences” very suspicious. We do have very good evidence for the subjective qualities of consciousness, since we experience them everyday (the old “I think, therefore I am” idea), and that does require an explanation, which makes discussions of mind-body problems relative to that matter relevant. However, I don’t think the same can be said for paranormal phenomena (which has not been rigorously shown to be legitimate up to this day), they would only need an explanation after being properly demonstrated to be existent.

So, wrapping up this whole rant: Do you think christians and other believers in general should be expected to give this kind of evidence or should hope to find it in order to justify their beliefs? Or is that another misconception about religion and metaphysics in general?

EDIT:
Just making two points clear to avoid confusion:

1 - I know there is evidence in controlled studies that NDE’s actually happen, in the sense that people experience them. But I haven’t seen any strong evidence that they are paranormal occurrences. Maybe I’m wrong and that evidence will eventually appear, but I’m really not convinced so far.

2 - Christians might say that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus or other events in the bible would prove the afterlife, but that is a matter of faith, and not of “scientific” evidence that people often claim to exist in these debates, which is what I’m talking about.


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #2

Very interesting post. I tend to agree with your lines of thinking. To me, soul and brain are so closely linked that my belief in the afterlife is based on [a] what you said about the problems of a purely naturalistic account of consciousness, [b] my assent to historical Christian teaching, including the physical resurrection of Jesus, and [c] my belief that God is omniscient and therefore able to preserve within Himself a record of the entirety of our experiences.

Somehow, God will miraculously reconstitute us in the end — even those of us whose molecules have long since been scattered to distant reaches of the globe and become parts of other organisms who will also be reconstituted. I’m comfortable with the mystery of it all.

I have never been particularly swayed by paranormal reports. They are problematic from a scientific perspective, and even if they weren’t, they’re wildly conflicting with one another. So whose account do you believe?

I’ll be interested to see others’ reactions.


(RiderOnTheClouds) #3

It is worth noting that no naturalistic theory can refute the Abrahamic notion of a final, miraculous, resurrection.


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #4

Fair point. I don’t think anyone here (so far) is disputing that, fwiw. I think the question here is the helpfulness (or not) of attempts at proving it through different sorts of evidence.


(Dominik Kowalski) #5

I like this thread, it´s a topic that comes to mind every now and then. One thing I always think about then is, what would be the consequence if the survival of the consciousness would be proved right? I come up with two answers, the first one would be joy, since it´s now scientifically proven, that God kept his promise and this life isn´t all there is. But the second would be fear in regard of the state humanity will get then. The bible is very carefull in pointing out the value of the life and the body, the afterlife through Jesus is promised, but not really described because the focus lays on this life. I´d fear a mass suicide to be honest, for obvious reasons.

Yes I came across that and the possibility of a scientifically provable afterlife mainly bases on the NDEs. The only person I can stand listen to on this kind of topics (excluding psi and telepathy since I don´t see any strong evidence there) is the neuroscientist Mario Beauregard. Other people involved in this have the tendency to go very much the esoteric route and loose the scientific track very fast.
A person with credibility who linked spirituality to the physical world was the late great Hans-Peter Dürr, a german physicist who was the director of the Max-Planck-Institute on three different occasions and an assistant of Werner Heisenberg. I can´t wait to get through the remaining around fivethousand pages of history and philosophy books to finally start his books.

It really very much depends on what the evidences are based on. If you would rule out the possibility of getting convinced that a personal experience that is obviously not repeatable to others or that the subjective experience could hold objective truth, in the first place, the discussion becomes obsolete. I guess this is where the desire to prove the survival of consciousness scientifically comes from, since then you would hold objective data. That and the fact that spirituality is exploding e.g. in western europe and because everyone starts to paint their own picture of God/god/spirit/intelligence they want reasons to believe some very desirable things like the afterlife itself.
Of course there are other kinds of presented evidences, but they relay on eyewitnesses/people who had a NDE, but could descibe events that the could not possibly have witnessed. Gary Habermas is probably my favourite lecturer period, and he also made one about this:


It´s certainly not a conclusive proof like it´s mostly the time in history or philosophy, but I think that deserves some explanation.

I agree, though I want to mention a study of the magazine “Focus” here in Germany a few years ago, which said that 75% of the people reported an extraordinary experience at least onece in a life time. Since it´s not clear what exactly they are I assume it´s anything from the feeling that there is someone, to sightings and dialogues with deceased and all in between. It has no value in proving anything, but I assume it´s interesting to mention it, since it´s a very modern country.

I think this is getting really interesting of we can measure the brain activity of the inner/deeper neurons of patients during cardiac arrest to see if they give up the activity at the same time like the neurons on the surface, which is 20-30 seconds at most. If they´re active for much longer we could have an explanation for experiences even in cases where it took several minutes to reanimate, though it wouldn´t be an explanation for the cases where patients accurately described events in the distance. So I think NDEs are the closest we can get to something like a scientifically provable afterlife, even though it´s far from proving anything.


#6

My problem is mainly with the fact that they could be scientifically tested. Sometime ago I’ve seem people talking about a study where they hid symbols in the patients rooms in order to check if they would be able to describe them after returning from the NDE, that is actually a good way to test it. But I’ve never heard of the study again. I think it is fine to believe in unfalsifiable hypothesis that can’t be tested. But hypothesis which could be tested but were not, or worse, gave negative results, these ones are a bit troublesome for me.


#7

Just adding to the discussion, the argument which troubles me the most for the case against the persistence of consciousness is the wishfull thinking argument, I.E. humans don’t want to believe that death is the end, therefore they end up engaging wishful thinking and lowering their standards for evidence in order to believe in it. That is actually also the argument which troubles me the most regarding the case against the existence of God. That is simply because I can’t really deny either. I would indeed love for God and the afterlife to be real, and I’m painfully aware of how people can let their judgement be clouded by their own biases and desires, and it does indeed keep me up late at night sometimes to think that maybe I’m doing that. I would certainly conclude that I’m just biased by wishful thinking if NDEs and the like were the only evidence, but I do think that the mind body problem is a very solid argument for the possibility (not proof, definetely, but a solid argument for the possibility) of the persistence of consciousness.


#8

NDEs are interesting, but I just don’t think they prove or disprove anything. So they shouldn’t be used for evangelism. Besides, the early church did just fine without them.


(Dominik Kowalski) #9

For me this argument is really weak if you give this a second thought because you could apply it on your belief that your family loves you or, in a more similar case, to the dismiss of the atheists like Thomas Nagel and Colin McGinn who hope atheism to be true.

My belief in the afterlife bases mainly on the resurrection of Jesus, so when this kind of argument is made I would present the historical case which in my opinion is a pretty good refutation. Though I agree with @beaglelady when she says that the church didn´t need it in the first centuries, I think it is pretty hard for some people to ignore this cases of NDEs since they seem to give a good case for the afterlife. And I would say that the situations are hardly comparable, since the early church certainly wasn´t confronted with the kind of, almost ideological, scepticism towards miracles and spirituality that it is faced today in the west.

I can relate to that, especially since that kind of thinking ruined my second semester in university, because I couldn´t concentrate on studying but rather on seeking. What helped me out was reading and hearing the lectures on the New Testament, and I realized that our belief wasn´t merely based on evidentless faith but has a strong case for itself. And if the resurrection is true, Christianity follows. But if we only consider metaphysical and philosophical arguments we leave the area of objectivity for the most part (though I´d argue that there are objective philosophical truths like in morality) and enter a subjective one with biases and desires from everyone making an argument, where it is required to weigh the arguments but mostly without the benefit to ever test them.
I´m leaving two other Habermas lectures on that here, just in case someone is interested:



Also Edward Feser, both his blog and his books, are tremendous in making cases for the existence from a philosophical standpoint.

My point is that I like hearing and reading about NDEs, especially if they have cases with patients describing distant events. But it´s not like I build my theology of any sort or my belief in the afterlife around them, in my imaginary list of reasons to belief in the afterlife (or even God himself), they would be in the lower middle at best. For me they´re important in the sense that I feel that they support me in my thinking of the west having turned blind to the spiritual and miracolous since David Hume and most people aren´t even aware of that.
The other thing is that I don´t feel the need to belief in dualism to believe the afterlife, even though I understand why the majority of theologians prefers it. But, because of the evidence for top-down-causation, a case can also be made for non-reductive materialism and which would therefor be an argument against the simple survive of consciousness. This is not exactly my position, but I don´t see how it would conflict with God, the resurrection or the afterlife. Or to paraphrase John Polkinghorne: “At the end of our lives God will download the software from our hardware.”


(Shawn T Murphy) #10

Thank you for the post. I have done much research in this area and read about various methods of demonstrating that the consciousness is not part of the physical body and survives intact after physical death. The first research center that I studied was the Monroe Institute which has carried on the OBE work from Robert Monroe. They have developed repeatable methods for recording out of body experiences as Robert recorded during his life.

The second area that I have studied is the spirit possession work treated by a number of medical practitioners. The works of Dr. Carl Wickland’s book 30 Years Among the Dead and Dr. Edith Fiore’s The Unquiet Dead summarize the phenomena of departed consciousness staying behind to molest the living. They both treated patents with the symptoms of multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia and depression that were actually caused by departed relatives or enemies.

The third area that I have studied is the research at the University of Virginia’s Cognitive Studies department led by Dr. Ian Stevenson and Dr. Jim Tucker which brings the most compelling forensic evidence that the consciousness survives intact and passes into the next life. Nearly all of their subjects lost conscious memories of their past lives around puberty though.

The fourth area that I have studied are the many writings from those who have communicated from beyond the grave. Some of the famous stories are: The Return of Arthur Conan Doyle, the Titanic passengers, Holocaust victims with unfinished business and Ruth Montgomery.

The fifth area that I have studied are the cases of the appearance of the spirit of truth. (John 14:17 15:26 16:13) These are the most relevant for Christians as this was Jesus’ promise to us. The most impactful work in this area is from Johannes Greber’s Communication with the Spiritual World of God, followed by Reverend G. Vale Owen’s collection of inspired works. Greber was a devote Catholic priest who ended up leaving the church after publishing his works. I recommend all Christians to read the struggle that he went through.

I did not mention the work done by neologists on extreme brain trauma because I have not yet finished this work, but this is another area with some good hard data from I have seen so far.

The Christian worldview that I have allows for all of these areas to fit logically together, if you can accept that the conscious is part of our spirit/soul and our brain is just the short-term memory storage and data processor. Long-term storage is in the spirit.


(Jim Lock) #11

Glad I’m not the only one! :wink:


#12

I don’t mean to be rude, Shawn, but I think most of this evidence ends up fitting the category of purely anedoctal or flawed. Maybe some of these things actually happened, who knows? But I need more concret proof or arguments to give credit to such extraordinary claims. Just so that you don’t think I’m being unfair, I will give an example of something I would consider good proof. The last year, a friend of mine who favors these ideas has shown me a study by Sam Parnia called “AWARE”, in this study, one of the tests was to place hidden simbols in places where they could not be seen by the patients, but would be easy to see if the NDE paranormal phenomena of walking outside of your body as a spirit happened. Note that Sam is a believer in the paranormal reality of NDEs, but he designed this experimental approach in order to fairly test its validity. From what I’ve read from the study, they didn’t get enough patients reanimated in the rooms with the symbols to test the hypothesis, but they said they plan to expand those tests in the “next round” of the study, informing all the patients of the symbols and the like. Let’s say this study found out that the patients actually accurately described the symbols, and them other skeptical groups tried to reproduce the data and confirmed the same phenomena, in that case I would gladly admit that good evidence has been found, and that we would have to take this evidence very seriously. Unfortunately, no such evidence has been found. Yes very weird cases have been reported, and if we could know for sure that they were true, they would be good evidence, but that is the problem with anedoctal evidence, you never really know.


#13

I agree with you that it is a weak argument in the sense that it really says nothing about the actual existence of God, the afterlife or anything. But it is a troubling argument in the sense of making you question yourself and your beliefs. It doesn’t damage the case for the existence of God at all, but it is a good argument against your reasons to believe in something (I.E. maybe it is not a rational choice, but an emotional one).

I will take a look at that and the videos, thanks for the recommendations! (although I don’t think the one about NDEs will convince me, I must admit).

I don’t know, plenty of people have tried to prove those things scientifically and failed. It is not like they were not allowed to try. I think the divine/transcendent should be more a matter of philosophy and theology (althoug you sorta already have to believe to be interested in the latter).

I agree with you. Given that you have a being like God which will restore your physical makeover and make all the requirements met, you could have and afterlife without souls or dualism, but not to the persistence of consciousness per se, it would be more of a restoration.


#14

I’m sure we’re not alone on that!


#15

Yeah. Like I said, I think most people end up shooting themselves in the foot when they do that, because they base their arguments on something that, while it may be true (who knows?), can be easily questioned.


(Mark D.) #16

I don’t see why belief in an afterlife is any more in need of evidence than divine creation. I think most people here have no expectation to detect evidence of God activity when studying astrophysics or evolution.

I personally find NDE’s to be very suspect and always emphasize the significance of the N part of NDE. What a stressed brain is capable of is no indication of what consciousness will be like when we are dead. Is there any urgency in establishing the capacity of natural systems to sustain consciousness after death, or couldn’t that be entrusted to supernatural -and therefore undetectable- processes? I reject the likelihood of afterlife persistence of personal consciousness, but of course I have no reason likely to persuade anyone who is inclined to disagree with me on that.

It makes me wonder if there is also interest in establishing natural processes which could bolster belief in the resurrection. All of these beliefs seem best left to faith IMO.


(Mark D.) #17

And as evidence for efforts at apologetics, it probably pushes more people away than are able to be tricked into belief that way.


#18

It is a fair point, and if one carries the belief that the afterlife will be brought solely through a miraculous act of bodily resurrection (without the need for souls or anything like that), then the two are indeed in the same category. However, if you believe that the persistence of consciousness is just what naturally happens after you die, then it is more akin to a natural process than to a miracle, I guess.


(Dominik Kowalski) #19

Sure, but doubt isn´t the opposite of faith and the commitment to Christ is not once and for all, but over and over again throughout life. I was at the same pointand I appreciate the argument in the sense that it calls for everyone to question their believes. And, keeping the arguments from believers and skeptics in mind, I´d say that the evidence for God and the resurrection is far greater and more likely.

It doesn´t have to, it´s also not like the video convinced me to become one of the proponents of scientifically proven afterlife or something similar, but what it establishes in my opinion, is that even if we measured brain activity of the deep neurons even minutes after cardiac arrest, it can´t account for several key experiences of some NDEs like the mentioned descriptions of distant events. That´s a basis for further research and philosophy.

Careful I think you´re making a mistake. Ever read Craig Keener´s “Miracles”? Some are stories in the sense of “A missionary told me…” which are not that convincing for the sceptical mind even though the person is cited in the footnote and maybe reliable. But the most important cited events are those in the medical cases with spontaneously regrowing organs after surgery (e.g. regrowing kidney in an infant, with pre- and post-mra and the account from the doctors as evidence) or resurrections of dead patients, though not like Jesus of course (e.g. passage in the picture+ the sources in the footnote) or an example of an infant with a clumped foot who got prayed for by a minister in front of the surgeon minutes before surgery. The surgeon was an eyewitness and claimed to have seen the foot unfold as soon as the minister laid hand on herwith the toes and bones in the normal position. A surgery wasn´t necessary anymore. It is also Keeners favourite example I might add. But here is the passage for the second case:



So of course I will not claim a priori for this to be a supernatural event (science couldn´t prove that in any case), but at first invite everyone to propose a natural explanation as an alternative and see how this works. But if those fail it is allowed to look for another explanation, don´t you think? And these among others are cases mentioned in the book where it completely opposes what normally happens or what is heard of, so in my opinion these are the best examples for miracles we got. 44% of american physicians told in a survey that they´ve witnessed a miracle with one of their patients, 70% believed in them. The majority of the public in Hawaii says the same, and it´s certainly not a third world country. It happens pretty regularly in Latin America, Asia or Africa so I think we should be more open, especially if we have medical evidences.

I´ll research them and will give you notice in the next few days when I found some cases about almost fully missing brains of people who lived a normal life anyway, because it is great to make a case for the consciousness not being solely bound to the brain. I figure this was what you were after in the first place, wasn´t it?

No but I would say that, because of the large number of people calling themselves spiritual though not part of a religion, they want objective data from secular sources supporting the possibility of an afterlife. I don´t need it as a Christian, because it depends on other events.

The special thing about NDEs, especially after cardiac arrest is that we don´t measure any neuron activity after 20-30 seconds at most, which makes higher conscious states impossible according to mainstream neuroscience. I already mentioned that the case gets really interesting as soon as we figured out how to measure the activity of deeper neurons to see how long they´re active. Though I´d say it doesn´t take all of the strange events taking place while some NDEs away. But as I mentioned in another post I´d fear the consequences of proving the survival of consciousness, because it will for many, many people take away the worth of our physical body I´d think, while at the same time eliminating any fear of death. It´s a two-sided sword.

Yeah I agree. I don´t see a problem with mentioning it, but I wouldn´t build my whole apologeptic argumentation around it, especially since it´s not exclusive to a certain religion/belief.


(Dominik Kowalski) #20

Also here is another video from Edward Feser arguing for the immateriality of mind. I have given it a listen but I have to repeat that since it requires you to think with him rather than just listening while driving on the highway. It´s absolutely worthwhile though and Feser is great.