Science and the Near Death Experience

Introduction to Science and the Near-Death Experience

“I do not believe we can go back to an age of simple belief. Many of the explanations once given by religion, especially those about the material world, have been shown to be scientifically invalid. The general denial of any possible spiritual reality, however, and the active ignoring of evidence pointing toward the reality of some sort of spiritual aspect of humanity, is scientism, not science.”

Charles Tart, PH.D., Institute of Transpersonal Psychology

The belief in an afterlife dates back at least to the Neanderthals, who buried their dead with flowers, jewelry, and utensils, presumably for use in the next world. Although many people today associate belief in an afterlife with religious faith, it is important to remember that this belief predates any organized religion. It is found in the old shamanic spiritual beliefs of hunter-gatherers from around the world, and usually without any elaborate theological baggage. For instance, the explorer and writer H. R. Schoolcraft, in his travels through the United States in the early 1800s, was greatly impressed with how the Native Americans handled their dead without apparent emotion.

“The Indians do not regard the approach of death with horror. Deists in religion, they look upon it as a change of state, which is mainly for the better. It is regarded as the close of a series of wanderings and hardships, which must sooner or later cease, which it is desirable should not take place until old age, but which, happen when it may, if it puts a period to their worldly enjoyments, also puts a period to their miseries. Most of them look to an existence in a future state, and expect to lead a happier life in another sphere. And they are not without the idea of rewards and punishments. But what this happiness is to be, where it is to be enjoyed, and what is to be the nature of the rewards and punishments, does not appear to be definitely fixed in the minds of any. If a man dies, it is said, he has gone to the happy land before us—he has outrun us in the race, but we shall soon follow.”

In 1913, nearly a century later, the anthropologist J. G. Frazer wrote,

“It is impossible not to be struck by the strength, and perhaps we may say the universality, of the natural belief in immortality among the savage races of mankind. With them a life after death is not a matter of speculation and conjecture, of hope and fear; it is a practical certainty which the individual has little dreams of doubting as he doubts the reality of his own existence.”

Of course, civilizations all over the world have built breathtaking monuments to the belief in an afterlife. The Great Pyramids of Egypt, the lost temples of Angkor, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and many other magnificent structures around the world testify to the power of the belief in an afterlife to motivate people to the most extraordinary effort. What is the source of this belief? At this point the skeptic offers various explanations: tribal people dreamed of their dead and mistook these dreams for visits; people tend to fear death and yearn to be reunited with their loved ones, and so are willing to follow anyone who promises eternal life in return for certain forms of behavior; and so on.

However, there is another possibility. Throughout recorded history people have reported many phenomena that would seem to indicate evidence of survival past the point of bodily death. Could the nearly universal nature of cultural belief in some sort of survival be based on experiences humans have reported in all known cultures for thousands of years?

Even today, reported contact with the dead is surprisingly common. In 1973, University of Chicago sociologist Andrew Greely asked a representative sample of 1,467 Americans, “Have you ever felt that you were really in touch with someone who had died?” Twenty-seven percent said they had. In 1975, professor of psychology Erlendur Haraldsson asked in a representative national survey in Iceland, “Have you ever perceived or felt the nearness of a deceased person?” Thirty-one percent answered yes. Ten years later Haraldsson asked the question again in the European Human Values Survey: this time every fourth person in Western Europe reported contact with the dead.

In fact, evidence for the survival hypothesis—the idea that our consciousness survives the death of our bodies—is vast and varied, and comes from several different lines of evidence: NDEs, deathbed visions, reported memories of a previous life, apparitions, and even messages from the dead.

All of these lines of evidence have been examined by many first-rate researchers, scientists, and philosophers. However, opinions differ on how all of this data should be interpreted and what it all means.

Webster’s dictionary defines prima facie evidence as “evidence having such a degree of probability that it must prevail unless the contrary be proved.” In terms of sheer quantity and variety, the evidence in favor of the survival hypothesis certainly does seem to provide a strong prima facie case in its favor. However, many alternative explanations have been proposed, some crude, some clever. All attempt to account for this evidence in terms that do not require the survival of the mind after death of the body. So if we are to make up our minds regarding the reality of survival on rational grounds rather than on religious or materialistic faith, then we must demonstrate that these alternative explanations are either more or less compelling than the hypothesis of survival.

The purpose of this book is to examine and evaluate evidence for the survival hypothesis from near-death experiences and deathbed visions, those strange and often wonderful experiences people frequently report when they have suddenly or finally arrived at the brink of death. But first, we must closely examine the relationship between the mind and the brain, in order to deal with the most common skeptical objection to survival of consciousness beyond the point of biological death.

Copyright © 2010. Chris Carter. All Rights Reserved.