As we delve into the concepts of the soul, of death and the potential of an afterlife, I am reminded of how magnificent a thing the human brain/mind is, and how – although science has made huge strides in understanding the brain – we still have so much further to go to obtain a working understanding of its deeper complexities.
This week we are asked whether or not there is proof of life after death. While certain things such as Near Death Experiences (Rachels and Rachels 41) can seem to provide convincing anecdotes about the human potential of surviving death, I have to say that they do not constitute proof – at least not in the empirical sense. Some doctors have attempted to test Near Death Experiences to determine their veracity, and to try to come to some conclusion as to what happens after we die. Nevertheless, all of these studies up to this point. I think humanity’s best bet at finding out what happens during a claimed NDE lies not with the mystical or supernatural realms, but with the sciences.
One of the problems with NDEs is that they are as varied as the people who claim to have them. They are not universal, and everyone who claims to have a NDE describes their experience in a varied and unique way. People claim to see visions of religious figures but this in itself is suspect for a very simple reason. Those who identify with Christian ideologies and cultures see Jesus, or similar figures. Muslims see Mohammed, or similar figures from Islamic theology. Hindus see one of the various gods from Hindu culture. In other words, a Christian who has a Near Death Experience has never reported seeing Krisna or Mohammed. Likewise, a Muslim or Hindu relating an experience does not see Jesus or Buddha. These simple realities seem to point to the fact that Near Death Experiences are products of our minds, our biases and our cultures – not a genuine out of body experience that happens near death – or even when we feel that we are near death, whether or not we are (Choi).
Furthermore, several cases of famous near death experiences, such as the story behind The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven have come out later and admitted to making the whole thing up, prompted by the urging of a parent or family member (Hallowell). Additionally, there is a reward set up by the James Randi foundation, offering a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrably prove a supernatural power or experience. Needless to say, no one has been able to successfully claim that prize (Denman).
But one only has to consider the nature of Near Death Experiences to find problems lingering in their credibility. Almost all people dream throughout their lives. Remembering those dreams, and accurately relating them to others after they are over, however, becomes problematic. Remembering them accurately without embellishment is impossible to determine, and with no possible academic method for verification or testing these stories are nothing more than personal anecdotes and cannot, therefore, be considered proof in any sense of the word. They are stories – stories that may in fact have a great impact on the person relating them and those around them, but stories nonetheless.
This makes life after death an impossible question to answer, as no one that we know of has survived death to relate what happens. They are, after all, dead. Belief in the afterlife, then, becomes a matter of personal opinion. It can be combined with a strongly and deeply held religious belief, as is the case with Christianity or Islam. These beliefs can be engrained within the cultural milieu of the people that hold them, but beliefs – regardless of how deeply they are held – are still just beliefs. Appealing to the number of people that hold them then becomes little more than the appeal to popularity – a logical fallacy. Billions of people can believe something but those beliefs have absolutely no bearing on whether or not it is actually true – and with no way to test, verify or study the reality of the afterlife, this question has no possible answer. This is not to say that answers may never be found as our understanding of our world, our place in it and our potential continues to evolve. But for now, the belief in the afterlife is simply a belief. It’s a belief held by many, but it is still a belief, and has no proof with which to increase or expand its basis in overall truth. Nevertheless, it gives millions of people hope. The idea of death is scary, and the belief that it is not the end of existence is a pleasant one. For many it is absolutely essential. Therefore, I think a belief in the afterlife is a personal one, whether or not any proof is possible. The hope, in and of itself, is enough for those who hold a belief in a life after this one, regardless of what form that life may take.
Choi, Charles Q. “Peace of Mind: Near Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations” Scientific American. September 12, 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/peace-of-mind-near-death/
Denman, Chip and Rick Adams. “JREF Status” James Randi Educational Foundation. September 1, 2015. http://web.randi.org/home/jref-status
Hallowell, Billy. “Boy Whose ‘Heaven is for Real’ Story Captivated the World Speaks Out After a Different Kid Recanted His Story About Meeting Jesus and Seeing Heaven.” The Blaze. January 17, 2015. http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2015/01/17/boy-whose-heaven-is-for-real-story-captivated-the-world-speaks-out-after-a-different-kid-recanted-his-story-about-meeting-jesus-and-seeing-heaven/
Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels. Problems from Philosophy 3rd Edition. McGraw Hill, 2012.
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