Do we survive the death of our physical bodies? Is there such a thing as a postmortem continuation of the individual? If there is survival, what survives? Does everyone survive? What does it even mean to survive?
Answers to these questions are central to the dogmas of many religions. These same issues are amongst the most refractory when addressed using the techniques of scientific inquiry: data gathering, hypothesis formulation and testing, logical analyses. Indeed, such topics are generally viewed as outside the scope of scientific inquiry, not worth serious thought. As Bertrand Russell commented, “most people would die sooner than think – in fact, they do so.”
In my youth, I didn’t bother to give the afterlife much consideration. I never needed the threat of future hell and damnation to persuade me to be moral now. I identified with those ancient Hebrews who did not necessarily believe in an afterlife (de Vesme, 1931), yet still found it prudent to pursue an honourable life in this world. In college I pursued a very earthly field – the study of rocks – ultimately earning a Ph.D. in geology and geophysics from Yale University (1983).
My life changed in 1990. At the invitation of independent Egyptologist John Anthony West, I took my first trip to Egypt – specifically to study the Great Sphinx from a geologic point of view. After several more trips, undertaking various tests and analyses, I came to the conclusion that the oldest portions of the Great Sphinx date back to a much earlier period than previously believed by most Egyptologists and historians. Conventional wisdom places the Great Sphinx in the reign of the Pharaoh Khafre (Chephren), circa 2500 BCE. My studies indicated that the oldest portions of the Great Sphinx (the statue has been repaired many times, and the head re-carved) date back to at least the period of 7000 BCE to 5000 BCE, and perhaps 9000 BCE or earlier.
My Sphinx work immediately caused a firestorm and, though the controversy has abated somewhat two decades later, the implications have only deepened. Essentially, sophisticated culture and civilisation goes back much earlier than formally thought; “history must be rewritten.” Over the years I have been pleased to see confirmation of the crux of my work, as other very ancient sites have been uncovered. A good example is Gobekli Tepe in Turkey where a major monumental carved stone building phase dating to the period of 8000 BCE and earlier has been discovered.
Egypt And Its Obsession With Death
Working on the Great Sphinx, I could not help but become fascinated with the pyramids, temples, tombs, and other relics of ancient Egypt. According to the traditional view, what was the overriding preoccupation of ancient Egypt? Death and the afterlife. Say “Egypt” and pyramids (popularly interpreted as giant tombs), mummies, and the so-called Book of the Dead immediately come to mind.
Having studied them in depth, it is clear to me that the pyramids, and the Great Pyramid in particular, were not solely or even primarily overblown mausoleums. Indeed, the Great Pyramid may have served both astronomical/astrological functions, literally being an observatory at one stage of its development, as well as ritualistic purposes. Many modern visitors describe powerful and life changing experiences in the Great Pyramid. One of the most famous is Napoleon Bonaparte. While in Egypt, August 1799, Napoleon visited the Great Pyramid. He entered the King’s Chamber and asked to be left alone. Upon emerging, Napoleon was pale, faint and silent. Asked by an aide what happened, Napoleon refused to say anything of substance, intimating that he had experienced a preview of his own fate. Just before his death in 1821, Napoleon appeared to be on the verge of telling a close friend what had occurred in the King’s Chamber. Then he hesitated. “No. What is the use? You would never believe me.”
I have spent many hours, including several times almost the entire night (but not sleeping, mind you), in the Great Pyramid. And I have spent much time exploring other temples and tombs throughout Egypt, as well as pyramids, temples and sacred places elsewhere in the world. Initially I approached the ancient monuments as a geologist, focusing on the materials from which they were constructed. Soon, however, I became involved in studying not just the stones, but why past civilisations had erected the stones into magnificent edifices. The why behind the monuments, more often than not, apparently included religious beliefs and practices, initiation rites and rituals, which in many cases seemed to have an ostensible paranormal aspect, whether it was clairvoyance, divination or manifestations of higher levels of consciousness. Were, I asked myself, the ancient structures used to genuinely alter consciousness and possibly enhance paranormal phenomena? Or did superstition, perhaps combined with pious fraud on the part of a priest or priestess, account for the tales? Furthermore, I could not help but think about postmortem survival issues, particularly when studying ostensible tombs! Death, transformation, resurrection, union with the gods, attainment of immortality – was all this ritualistic hocus pocus and pure nonsense? Or were the ancients skilled psychic engineers, carefully manipulating the incorporeal with their megalithic stone monuments and occult practices?
My formal training as a physical scientist certainly did not encourage the notion that paranormal and psychic phenomena, much less life after death, were anything other than imagination gone wild or charlatans preying on the gullible. According to a conventional materialistic and secular “scientifically rational” worldview, the paranormal does not exist and death is the final end. It was all too easy, and indeed comforting, to put such issues out of mind. Stick to the hard evidence of the rocks, the domain of the geologist.
Exploring the Paranormal
Issues of the paranormal and questions about survival kept nagging at me. Ultimately, I realised, I must address these topics head-on, if only for the sake of satisfying my intellectual curiosity. For me the first issue was to research various reputed anomalous psychic abilities among the living, such as telepathy (direct mind-to-mind transfer of information without utilising any of the conventional senses) and psychokinesis (PK, essentially the concept of mind-over-matter). I wanted to establish what, if anything, in terms of the paranormal is possible among the living before addressing the issue of postmortem survival.
It took me over ten years from my first visit to Egypt to get to the point where I was prepared to take a serious look at the paranormal. I have taught fulltime at Boston University since 1984, and every year I have a new batch of students. Many simply want to take their courses and get a degree, but then there are those who really strive to go beyond their formal studies. One such student was Logan Yonavjak. She served as my field assistant on research expeditions to Egypt and Peru in 2003 and 2005, and she prodded me to take a serious look at the paranormal. She and I undertook a comprehensive survey of the serious scientific literature addressing psychical research and the paranormal (the field now generally referred to as parapsychology). We read literally thousands of papers, pro- and con-, and we both became involved with the field first-hand. The result of our collaboration was The Parapsychology Revolution: A Concise Anthology of Paranormal and Psychical Research.
Our studies convinced me that, once the fraud, bunk, and self-delusion are eliminated, there is something to the paranormal. The best-documented class of paranormal phenomena is telepathy. There is strong laboratory evidence for telepathy, such as classic card-calling experiments as well as many more sophisticated tests. There is also a large and compelling body of evidence from spontaneous cases (non-laboratory experiments) supporting the reality of telepathy. For instance, crisis apparitions, veridical hallucinations, or “ghosts” are well known. The evidence for PK is also strong, including micro-PK studies at an atomic level using random event generators and similar devices, such as the evidence developed by the PEAR (Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research) labs over more than a quarter of a century, and the carefully studied incidents of macro-PK (affecting larger objects) associated with genuine spontaneous poltergeist cases. Another line of evidence for the reality of paranormal phenomena is research on presentiments or “pre-sponses,” essentially a form of short-term precognition as measured by physiological parameters (heart rate, electrodermal activity and so forth). Numerous replicated experiments have demonstrated the physiological responses of individuals to disturbing photographs, for instance, a second or two before they are actually viewed by the person. According to conventional science, this should not be possible.
My research on parapsychological phenomena among the living continues, but at this point I agree with the following statement made by David Fontana, Professor of Transpersonal Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University and a well-known psychical researcher: “Psychic abilities are a matter of fact not of belief. What they are and what they mean for our view of reality is another matter, but one cannot dismiss them as fiction and yet retain credibility as an unbiased observer.” (Fontana, 2005, pp. 468-469)
But how do we interpret paranormal phenomena? This brings us to the issue of postmortem survival.
Serious study of psychical and paranormal phenomena dates back to at least 1882, the year when the Society for Psychical Research was founded. At that time, and right up to the present day, some psychical researchers have interpreted some of the phenomena they study as being communications from deceased persons or discarnate (non-bodily) entities. Indeed, among many people the prime interest in psychical studies is to establish the possibility of an afterlife. To give a classic example, let us suppose you attend a séance. The medium goes into trance and begins to speak in a different voice. The voice claims to have a message from the beyond, a message from your departed grandmother. Through the medium, you are told that your deceased grandmother still cherishes those moments you had with her, and a very private story is related, a story that you are certain you never shared with another person and only you and your grandmother knew about.
So, is this proof that you received a communication from your beloved grandmother? Does she live on in the afterlife? Many people would say yes, absolutely (of course, we are assuming there is no fraud on the part of any involved in the séance). No one other than your grandmother knew the private story, and so it must be her who now relates it (indirectly through the medium). What other explanation can there be?
Indeed, there is another explanation, and it gets to the crux of the arguments for and against postmortem survival. Instead of your grandmother contacting you from beyond the grave, perhaps the medium is telepathically picking up information from your brain, perhaps information that is stored away deep in the unconscious, and then relaying it in a form that is ostensibly a communication from your grandmother? (Granted, the medium is doing this unconsciously, and in no way intends to deceive. The medium truly feels that she or he is communicating with the dead on your behalf.)
Let’s make the situation a little more complicated. What if the supposed communication from grandmother relays information unknown to you, perhaps concerning your aunt when she was young? After the séance you consult your aunt, and indeed the communication is true, and what is more, your aunt is shocked and flabbergasted because the information is something that only she and your grandmother shared, and absolutely no one else had ever known it. So, is this proof of the continued existence of your grandmother in the “ethers”? Some parapsychologists would counter that possibly the medium telepathically raided, if you will, your aunt’s mind to find interesting information that was then relayed to you at the séance, information that appeared to come from your grandmother.
There are well-documented cases that become incredibly complex. For instance, at some séances entities, referred to as “drop-in communicators,” make themselves known (Gauld, 1971). Some such drop-ins are ostensibly deceased souls unknown to any of the séance sitters. The drop-in is simply taking advantage of the séance setting, attempting communication with the still living, perhaps asking that a relative or loved one (a living person unknown to any of the séance sitters) be contacted. Drop-ins can conveniently be dismissed by critics as simply figments of the imagination of the medium and/or séance sitters (the medium may pick up on the imagination of the sitters telepathically, expressing this imagination in the form of a supposed drop-in), except in the cases where the information given by a drop-in is verified later. For instance, a drop-in requests that a message be relayed to so-and-so at such-and-such address, and when a sitter at the séance goes to the indicated address it is found that the address exists, the person named lives there, and the message has significant private meaning for the indicated person. Could, just possibly, the medium have assessed all of the information paranormally and then created, unconsciously, the purported drop-in to “communicate” the information? (We assume that no fraud is involved, and in the best cases it seems clear that fraud is not an issue.) Yes, but to many this would seem a much more elaborate, concocted, and complex explanation than simply accepting that the drop-in was indeed a discarnate entity from the other side.
Basically, much of the evidence that ostensibly supports postmortem survival can conceivably be interpreted, with varying degrees of finesse, as due to the psychical and paranormal functioning (even if masked and at an unconscious level) of living persons. This is sometimes known as the Super-ESP hypothesis (ESP refers to extrasensory perception), but actually can include paranormal phenomena besides ESP, such as the movement of objects. Take poltergeist activity, unexplained movements of objects, such as items falling off shelves or being “thrown” through the air without any physical cause that can be observed, various unexplained noises and disturbances. Having observed a minor, but I believe absolutely genuine, poltergeist incident, I am convinced that such activities can be real.
But is poltergeist activity due to literal ghosts (presumably mischievous departed spirits), or can the Super-ESP hypothesis adequately explain poltergeists? One theory is that many poltergeist manifestations are unconsciously caused by, or emanate from, the person who superficially appears to be the focus of the poltergeist activity. Poltergeist activity may be a method (at the unconscious level) of “working out” unresolved emotional and psychological tensions and conflicts.
There are many other classes of evidence that some claim as support for the reality of survival beyond the grave. Classic séances sometimes include movements and levitations of tables and other items, strange sounds and voices, and even the supposed materialisation of objects and beings (deceased persons?). If, and it is a big if in many researcher’s minds given the amount of fraud documented in such settings, any of these types of phenomena are genuine, are they due to spirits from the “other side,” as is generally claimed by the medium? Or might a Super-ESP explanation be applicable?
Near-Death experiences and Out-of-Body experiences are sometimes cited as supporting evidence for the survival hypothesis, but the counter argument is that many such experiences are subject to conventional (non-paranormal psychological and physiological factors) or Super-ESP explanations.
Some researchers have attempted to utilise modern electronic apparatus as a means of communicating with those beyond the grave, a concept sometimes referred to as instrumental transcommunication. One form, known as electronic voice phenomena (EVP), consists of recording the static of a radio that is tuned to a frequency carrying no transmissions. When the recording is played back, perhaps at a different speed than originally recorded, voices or communications from the other side may be heard, or so it is claimed (Raudive, 1971). Even if such “voices” are independently verifiable, critics of the survivalist hypothesis can claim that the voices were encoded paranormally (and unconsciously) via a form of PK by those involved or associated with the experiments rather than by entities from the spirit world – Super-ESP strikes again!
What about reincarnation? Isn’t reincarnation a type of afterlife, or the continuation of life after the dissolution of a particular physical body? While many supposed cases of reincarnation and past lives remain unsubstantiated by solid data, there are also a number of cases where something paranormal apparently is involved. The late Dr. Ian Stevenson (1918-2007), a psychiatrist associated with the University of Virginia (Charlottesville) for nearly half a century, collected, scrutinised, verified, and analysed literally thousands of cases of individuals who apparently demonstrated memories of former lives.
Just because a living person claims memories of a past life, does that mean it is the same person inhabiting a new body? Or, is a person who appears to remember a past life (and in most cases it is simply bits and pieces of a presumed past life that are “remembered”) in reality paranormally accessing information about a former person and/or time, perhaps even from still living people? Many cases of supposed reincarnation, some would argue, are nothing more than the latter. That is, Super-ESP is the true explanation. Weakening the Super-ESP hypothesis in some presumed reincarnation cases, however, is the finding by Stevenson that in a few instances marks made on the body of a person after the person died apparently appear on the presumed incarnation of the deceased person. Here is a real example given by Stevenson. A young woman in Burma with congenital heart disease died during open-heart surgery. While preparing her body for burial, a mark was placed on the back of her neck with red lipstick. The woman’s presumed incarnation, born thirteen months later, had a prominent red birthmark at the back of her neck, a line of diminished pigment corresponding to the incision in her abdomen and chest made during the surgery, and when the baby began to speak she seemed to have knowledge of the previous life that she could not have acquired by normal means.
If Stevenson’s data on birthmarks in subsequent presumed incarnations caused by marking or mutilation of a cadaver after death of the previous person stands up to scrutiny, it could have far-reaching implications. It is one thing to hypothesise that fragments or portions, or even the totality, of a personality might be transmitted from a dying person telepathically, including aspects of that person’s death, but to suggest that somehow a lingering discarnate personality is aware of what happens to its former physical body and incorporates marks or mutilations to the body in the next incarnation raises many theoretical and philosophical issues. Is this evidence for the existence of “ethereal beings,” “spiritual entities,” or “soul components”?
Super ESP or Something Else?
To quote Professor Fontana, “Given that the evidence supports the existence of psychic abilities, these abilities are either explicable as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis from the living (i.e. as Super-ESP), or as communications in one form or another from those who have survived death and live on in another dimension. There is no way around these two possibilities. The evidence either supports Super-ESP or supports survival.” (Fontana, 2005, p. 469)
In his book Is There an Afterlife?, Fontana is adamant that he believes much of the evidence cannot be adequately explained by Super-ESP. The Super-ESP hypothesis becomes too complex and convoluted, and ultimately so complicated that many prefer, or even find it necessary, to discuss alternative explanations, such as postmortem survival.
Fontana asserts there are two, and only two, ways to interpret the evidence: Super-ESP or survival (to be clear, Fontana leaves open the possibility that Super-ESP may explain some of the evidence while other evidence supports survival). But is it really an either/or situation? Are the only two viable alternatives Super-ESP and survival of humans (and possibly other organisms?) that once inhabited Earth in bodily form? It seems clear to me that there are additional possibilities (even if not actualities). What about the time-honoured notion of discarnate entities that perhaps never inhabited physical bodies: gods, angels, demons, spirits and so forth?
At another level, the concepts of Super-ESP and survival may not be totally distinct from one another. Another time-honoured concept is that of a World Soul, conscious of and remembering its past, that is all the past, and that individual souls may merge with and draw from this World Soul. Related to this is the concept of a spiritual record (sometimes known as the Akashic Records) of all that has transpired, a record that might be accessed from time to time by certain individuals or other beings.
Rather than viewing the issue of postmortem survival as a simple dichotomy, you survive or you do not, I believe the issue is much more subtle, complex and nuanced. It is not simply is their life after death, yes or no? Rather is it a matter of which psychic components of a person may survive, in what states, for how long, and how such components may influence the living (for instance, via communication through a medium, haunting, reincarnation or possession).
The ancient Egyptians took a much more sophisticated approach to afterlife issues than many modern people do. They had a number of terms for various psychic components of a person, not fully understood to this day, but we can list some as follows: ka (life force, vital force, spirit, double), ba (individual personality, soul), akh or khu (spirit form, transfigured spirit, ghost), ib or ab (heart, emotion, thought), sheut (shadow, hidden self), and ren (name, embodiment of power and personality). Upon death and dissolution of the body, the ancient Egyptians believed these components could separate and go their separate ways; part of Egyptian ritual involved reuniting the psychic components. When it comes to attempting to understand the subtleties of the psyche and the possibility of postmortem survival, I believe we can benefit by studying ancient wisdom.
At this point I am not sure what exactly survives, what form or forms it takes, or how long it might survive (for a limited duration? forever?), but I believe the evidence supports the conclusion of the early psychical researcher F. W. H. Myers – something survives:
I hold that certain manifestations of central individualities, associated now or formerly with certain definite organisms, have been observed in operation apart from those organisms, both while the organisms were still living, and after they had decayed. (Myers, 1907, p. 27)
We have the foundation for serious studies of the survival issue, a topic that I will continue to pursue in this life – and perhaps the next.
Caesar de Vesme, A History of Experimental Spiritualism. Vol. 2, Peoples of Antiquity (Translated from the French by Fred Rothwell), Rider, UK, 1931David Fontana, Is There An Afterlife?, O Books, UK, 2005
Alan Gauld, “A Series of ‘Drop In’ Communicators”, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 55, part 204, pp. 273-340 (1971)
F. W. H. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (edited and abridged by his son Leopold Hamilton Myers), Longmans, Green, USA, 1907
Konstantin Raudive, Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead, Colin Smythe, UK, 1971
Bertrand Russell, Mortals and Others: American Essays, 1931-1935, Routledge, USA, 1996 (quote cited originally published in Russell’s The ABC of Relativity, 1925.)
Ian Stevenson, Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect, Praeger, USA, 1997
The Parapsychology Revolution: A Concise Anthology of Paranormal and Psychical Research
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