How I Discovered That We Continue After Death
My scientific approach.
There has never lived an honest soul who could tolerate the thought that everything ends with death, and whose noble sentiment did not rise to a hope for the future.
Charles Howard Hinton, a brilliant mathematician living in the late 1800s, believed in, and eloquently mathematically described, a fourth spatial dimension alongside our 3D reality. That is not so odd in itself. What is odd about him is that he believed that if we focused our attention enough on this spatial dimension, if we worked diligently at attempting to visualize it, we would directly encounter the “spirit world”.
William James, the father of modern psychology, and well-known Harvard professor, attended seances and became president of the Society for Psychical Research, dedicating a large part of his life to understanding and proving the existence of supernatural phenomena, describing it as “established fact”. Carl Jung, the inventor of analytic psychology, and one of the most impactful minds of the 19th and 20th centuries also attended seances, and believed in forces beyond those that constitute our normal reality, arguing for the existence, along with space, time, and causation, of a fourth acausal force, “synchronicity”.
How could this all be? How could such brilliant, rational, minds believe in things that are so seemingly irrational?
I believe it’s because they all had experiences that they couldn’t explain under the standard scientific understanding of the world. For Jung, it was prophetic dreams and prima facie impossible synchronistic events, along with having a cousin who worked as a professional medium and for whom he had great respect. For James, it was a deep curiosity into the world of mediumship after having tragically lost his son.
Surprisingly, even for him, after meticulously testing a well-known medium, Leonora Piper, the theory that mediumship is impossible was rendered false by his direct experience with the capacities of an extraordinarily accurate one. James called this his “white crow”. To disprove the hypothesis that all crows are black one only need discover a single non-black crow. Similarly, for James, to disprove the hypothesis that mediumship is false, one need only experience one extraordinarily accurate medium. Both James and Jung came away with strong beliefs in a worldview that was much more mysterious and magical than the dominant materialist understanding of reality allowed for.
Materialist academic intellectuals
We could pass all of this off as “crazy”. And a lot of my colleagues would. There is a deep adherence to a worldview among Materialist academic intellectuals that disallows the continuation of life after death. This is really a shame. It crushes hope. It ties us to a materialist view of our own conscious lives. It dictates that we are nothing but a body that houses a brain – the producer of our sense of self and all our experiences. Our hopes, our joys, our loves, our sense of beauty, all reduced to a series of computations performed by 80 billion neurons and their pattern of connectivity. What a dull, lifeless, account of the miracle we truly are.
This view was not always held on to so vehemently. There was a period of open-minded investigation into the nature of who we are among the intellectuals and scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where honest, respectful debating of the continuation of consciousness after death was the norm. But, like the politics of today, academia has become extremist, respect for alternate positions has become scarce, and in its place a bully mentality, a ridiculing of those who may hold a differing perspective.
As a skeptical academic scientist myself I was nonetheless always intrigued by those rare, highly intelligent people who held a belief in the “other” world. I was trained not to believe in that “nonsense”, having been raised in the Materialist academic tradition that pooh-poohed anything having to do with the continuation of ourselves after death. Even though this was not possible on the worldview I was indoctrinated into, I still secretly devoured the words of those brave, iconoclastic voices.
Image: William James, balancedachievement.com
Joy and anger
When I first read The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, I experienced a mixture of extreme joy coupled with anger. Joy because James was suggesting that mystical, spiritual, and even supernatural experiences were valid and worthy of exploration, pointing to the reality of a world unseen, and anger because my academic colleagues were dead set against even discussing such possibilities. I felt I was on my own with the only colleagues available to me in my attempt to learn more, having been dead themselves for many decades. Yet, while I wanted to believe what they were pointing to was real, I was still unable to, my skepticism, and fear of irrationality, still holding me in their chains.
Then when tragedy struck, I went on my own quest to discover an explanation for the experiences I was having that were not amenable to the scientific model of reality I was accustomed to. My dearest friend and amazing colleague died by suicide and soon afterward I began to have those same kinds of experiences that Hinton and Jung and James were having. An ineffable knowing that he was still around, as if I had Hinton’s access to the spirit world; signs and synchronicities that were nearly impossible to account for; information that I seemingly couldn’t have known unless he was providing it to me.
The search for proof
So, buoyed by my dead intellectual forebears I fully immersed myself into the search for “proof” that we continue on after death, and that the synchronicities and supernatural information I was being inundated with were real and not just some form of wishful thinking or worse. I was shocked at what I encountered in my search for understanding. The evidence for the continuance of consciousness after death was overwhelming and as strong or stronger than for any of the scientific claims I, as a neuroscientist, have encountered.
Here’s how I came to that conclusion. I decided to go about it in a way that I was trained to do as an academic searching for truth. Good scientific method requires several steps. First, you must have an understanding of the existing knowledge within the field you’re interested in. This includes having a grasp of both the already existing data and the theoretical background for your field of study. Then you perform scientific experiments in order to further the knowledge within the field. This involves both observational studies and the creation and testing of hypotheses.
Good science also requires an open mind to observations that do not fit into current theory. The history of science is full of overthrown theories that were held onto just because people have a tendency to be adverse to change. We need to ensure we’re not throwing out observations just because they don’t fit into the current theoretical understanding; that’s how theories are modified and evolve.
So, I researched. I read voraciously. I talked to people who had similar experiences. I performed my own “experiments”, including looking for and finding corroborative evidence from several mediums, and most importantly I let go of my skeptical biases that disallowed me from even conducting this type of research. As a neuroscientist, I was attempting to discover how the brain functions, how different brain regions perform different tasks, and what the underlying neural signatures of different behaviors might be. This field is wide open. It’s like being an explorer, so little is known.
We all gather data and, if our techniques are sound, we present what we find which adds to the growing corpus of understanding. So we read what others have found. We utilize known techniques. We set up our hypotheses and test them. And most importantly we observe with open minds in an attempt to not be too theory-driven and miss what we may be blind to if we assume too much. We build ourselves up as careful and reliable researchers and others accept our findings. Not as absolute truth, but as highly probably true. That’s how a lot of science works.
I attempted to do the same with the hypothesis that our consciousness, our selves, continue after death, and I tried to do it as rigorously as I do my neuroscience research in the lab. Scientific exploration of a subject requires an understanding of the already extant data. It turns out that just like studying any other field in depth there is a vast amount of literature and data on life after death that needs to be read and sifted through. A vast literature and a huge corpus of data that I had no idea existed.
The information fell into a few different categories: personal accounts of near-death experiences, gathered by researchers such as the Near Death Research Foundation (NDRF), and the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS); parapsychological research performed in research institutes such as William James’ own Society for Psychical Research and American Society for Psychical Research, and the Institute for Noetic Studies (IONS); mediumship studies performed at laboratories such as the Windbridge Research Center and the Schwartz lab at the University of Arizona; and departments devoted to the scientific exploration of paranormal phenomena such as the University of Virginia’s Department of Perceptual Studies (DOPS). I studied it all as if I was in graduate school again. For many years. The overwhelming evidence was impossible to dismiss.
Armed with such plentiful evidence from such reliable sources, and coupled with my own extremely compelling personal data from my own experimentation, I felt excitement and hope. But, as it turned out, even though my research unearthed an overwhelming amount of evidence for the continuance of life after death there was still something blocking me from taking that leap to full belief. I realized that I was still under the Materialist stronghold that has always dictated to the rest of us what can be deemed as real.
To them, to most of my academic colleagues, the phenomena I was experiencing and researching were not possible and therefore not worthy of my efforts to study it. So I set out to understand what their reasons for its impossibility were. What I came to realize is that the continuation of consciousness after death is not possible for them because of their presumption of materialism, not because they have researched the topic and found the research to be faulty.
In fact, I guarantee you that not one of the Materialists who deny the existence of our continuation after bodily death has looked into the phenomenon with any kind of rigor. Again, for them, it’s impossible a priori, so why would you research it? To do so is as worthless as dedicating one's life to discovering whether the Easter Bunny is real. And as intellectually vacuous.
The materialist and the mystic
Image: Steven Pinker and Sadhguru, omny.fm
I recently watched an interview between Steven Pinker, a well-known staunchly Materialist Harvard professor, and Sadhguru, a highly regarded Indian guru. Their discussion was on the nature of consciousness. One of the questions raised was whether consciousness could survive bodily death. Pinker gave the standard Materialist response. Of course not. The brain is responsible for consciousness and once the brain dies, we die.
He stated his reasoning for that position: that any conscious experience has a brain signature. That we can read out someone’s consciousness by using brain imaging techniques. And because we can do so, there can be no consciousness without our brains. As a neuroscientist, I know full well how the brain and consciousness are tied together. Damage the brain, or infuse it with a hallucinogen, and consciousness is very impacted.
Ask a subject when they are conscious of a stimulus and the brain acts differently from when they are not. Does this prove that the brain is the cause of our consciousness and that without it consciousness cannot continue? No. And the materialists know that it doesn’t prove that. They only take it as proof because the alternative doesn’t conform to their belief system.
Pinker continues with the other side of the argument. He said if it were true that we survive death then we should be able to have seances and communicate with the dead. But, he claims, “We all know now that this is flim-flam, stage magic.” He continued with what he assumed was the final word on the matter. “Ask Aunt Hilda where she hid her jewelry. She should be able to tell you. If that happened I would believe that consciousness could survive the death of the brain. That has never happened and I would be able to bet a lot of money it never will.”
I wish Pinker was serious here, if he was, I, and many many others could point him in the direction of people who would be able to do just that and much more. My fiance is a professional medium who helps people talk to their own “Aunt Hilda’s” on a daily basis. I’m highly confident we would win that bet.
I don’t expect to have provided proof to anyone but myself through my investigation into the continuation of our consciousness after death. My hope is only to have shown that a rigorous path of exploration into the phenomenon points very strongly to that fact. The rest is up to you to do your own work and study for yourself, but understand that it is misguided to rely on the dictates of the materialists who have never bothered to perform the proper research on this topic. The truth is out there to be discovered with an open mind and open heart.
This essay originally appeared on the invaluable Essentia Foundation website.