Part 1: Introduction: Live After Death - The Greatest Question of All
The greatest question that challenges humans is not "is there other life in the universe?" or "will we find a cure for cancer?" or even "is there a God?". And it certainly isn't "can we transplant our minds into computers?" No, as humans who are born to inevitable death, the biggest question is, "is there life after death?" The justification for asking the question is very, very simple - without an afterlife, what is the point of the whole universe? But even before we get to our subject matter of life after death, we need context - what is life, and what is consciousness?
We are probably alone in the vastness of the universe
The universe seems to be around fifteen billion years old and contains around two hundred billion galaxies, each of which contains around one hundred billion stars. Science long held the viewpoint that in all this vastness, life must be abundant, an 'accident' that 'happens everywhere'. As a boy, I believed this; as an adult entering my years of twilight, I do not.
The reason for this change of viewpoint is simple, and rooted in science. The great physicist Enrico Fermi calculated how long it would take a civilisation to propagate its way across the gulfs of space once it had such primitive technologies as generation ships; his conclusion was that if life was abundant, there should be abundant evidence of its expansion and colonisation - even here on Earth.
Thus his question, which became known as the 'Fermi Paradox' was: "Where is everybody?". This question still begs an answer. Far from life being ubiquitous, it seems that life on Earth is not only special but quite conceivably unique. Furthermore, even if microbial life turned up on another sphere or comet or asteroid, that would merely deepen the mystery of our existence as conscious beings, unique and alone in the universe. So you see, before we ever approach the issue of life after death, we need to be aware of how unique and miraculous we are!
We do not know how life arises
The presumed yet unknown process whereby life arises from non-living matter is termed 'abiogenesis'. When I was a boy, I read eagerly of the early experiments to create life's building blocks in test tubes. These were the classic 1952 Miller–Urey experiment and similar research that demonstrated that most amino acids, the chemical constituents of the proteins used in all living organisms, can be synthesised from inorganic compounds under conditions intended to replicate conditions we think existed on the early Earth.
But the Miller-Urey experiment remains the most spectacular leap forward in understanding the science of life's creation that we have made so far. The vast gulf between the spontaneous generation of simple proteins and the evolution of those proteins to living organisms has simply not been closed.
The Complexity Problem
Even the simplest forms of life are complex - very, very complex. The likelihood of a living organism rising out of the primordial mud is non-existent even in a time as long as the life of the universe. Think of this in the following way - take a puddle of goo with all the essential ingredients of life; stir it up for a billion years; irradiate it with solar radiation; heat it; cool it, mix it and pool it, - at the end you'll have - a puddle of goo!
The Junkyard and the 747
Fred Hoyle put this beautifully: "The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein." There has been no effective riposte to this, just oft repeated and never-proven claims of the 'inevitability' of life across the universe.
Why does science take this approach to the origin of life - that it's an accident?
Science takes the approach that all life is essentially an accident that occurred when the right ingredients were mixed (by good fortune and chance). Science has taken this approach particularly strongly since Darwin's Origin of Species detailed the principles of organisms changing through adaptation to new environments. This gave science a powerful insight into natural law and the origin of species and encouraged belief that every aspect of life as a physical phenomenon is accidental. This is because with Darwin, spontaneous creation of life only had to happen once, for a 'simple' (yet hugely complex in reality) organism.
The mechanism Darwin proposed for random evolution was that spontaneous genetic mutations in organisms result in either elimination of the mutant or, due to some mutations conferring survival advantage, causing a modified species to dominate and go forward. Scientists then felt that they had proven that we are indeed just an accident, evolved gradually from the very first 'accident'. There is scientific proof of this phenomenon occurring in microbes in the laboratory.
But despite the success of his theory, Darwin tells us nothing of the origin of life - only how it progressed once it had started. In fact, unless you think that the creation story of your religion is a literal story of creation rather than a metaphor, there is nothing to fight about with evolution. Think of it as 'guided evolution' if that helps.
The absurdity of materialist reductionism
Human culture was, in its formative centuries, bounded by affairs of spirit. Everything was created by the gods for a purpose and all things had a preordained destiny. The Sun was drawn across the sky by the chariots of the gods, followed by the Moon and the tides. Of course, this was a touch unbalanced because it took no account of the possibility that the universe could both be a spiritual creation and yet run independently once set in motion. In essence, every occurrence of every sort was driven by the gods. Is science making the same mistake when it attributes every aspect of existence to calculable physical phenomena?
The fundamental tenets of science now demand that there can be no purpose in nature - none. Therefore, life has no purpose (we are just chemically powered, accidentally created robots); the universe is an accident and consciousness is an illusion.
Consciousness (what science calls a 'hard' problem' ) is one of the most powerful indications of non-physical existence, and so for most scientists, it must be explained as an 'emergent accident' or denied altogether (see below).
Life after Death - what is life anyway?
As we talk about life after death, we need always to be aware that we don't yet know what life is, or how it has arisen. This is one of the great mysteries. We cannot identify any physical difference between a piece of matter that is inanimate and a similar piece that lives and breathes. We'll now move on to the second great mystery of human existences - consciousnesses.
Life after death - what is consciousness?
"Many modern analytic philosophers of mind, most prominently perhaps Daniel Dennett of Tufts University, find the existence of consciousness such an intolerable affront to what they believe should be a meaningless universe of matter and the void that they declare it to be an illusion. " - SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN JUNE 2018
In the article quoted above, you can read about how science is digging ever deeper into the specific functions and connectivity of neurons throughout the brain. Again, this is a reductionist approach which seems unlikely to go far in explaining how and why we feel and see and love.
Using a different approach, renowned mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose has been pursuing the possibility of consciousness arising from quantum mechanics:
".He believes we must go beyond neuroscience and into the mysterious world of quantum mechanics to explain our rich mental life. " - NAUTILUS
It might seem like Penrose is merely digging into further reductionism, but he is not. Penrose seems to believe that consciousness cannot arise from what we understand as computational processes and reaches into an as yet unknown domain:
“Somehow, our consciousness is the reason the universe is here.” - SIr Roger Penrose
Life after death: A word on the human brain and computers
How a computer works
In essence a computer takes a set of information we give it - for instance a picture that we have turned into numbers (with another computer or the same computer), and then reads a set of instructions of what to do with those numbers - multiply them, add them, subtract them etc etc etc and store the results. And that's ALL a computer does, - it's just a fancy calculator.
The apparent intelligence arises from the instructions we give the computer - the program. And here's a really key point - even if we get a computer to write its own program, it will still just be following instructions we gave it - still just manipulating numbers.
Neural Networks - The Exceptions?
Neural networks are simple computing blocks connected to each other in such a way that when a calculation has been executed and approved as 'correct', the connections between the electronic 'neurons' are made better or worse as needed to improve the program next time. Thus, they modify their own program (which we gave them) and improve it as they repeat exercises. This is how they play chess and 'Go'.
In terms of simulating physical brain processes, this is a spectacular success. In terms of explaining consciousness - it means absolutely nothing. Here's why:
A Computer 'Knows' Nothing - Zero Awareness
So now we have computers that can recognise faces, beat us at games like chess - not by calculating a thousand moves ahead but by recognising patterns in (probably) much the same way humans do. But this is still not in any way conscious - why not? Because it's still just a machine executing instructions and it has absolutely zero self awareness. Even if its program allows it to appear intelligent (as per the Turing Test requirements).
John Searle showed the Turing Test to be inadequate in his Chinese Room thought experiment. I'm going to repeat myself - A COMPUTER HAS ZERO SELF AWARENESS or CONSCIOUSNESS AND THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT IT EVER WILL HAVE.
When we switch off, dismantle or disconnect a computer it dies - but does a human being die - or, because we have consciousness, do we continue in some form - is there life after death for us? Does our consciousnesses survive physical death? We are now ready to (finally) talk about life after death!
Part 2: Life After Death: Is there any proof of an Afterlife?
Many religions around the world believe in some form of the afterlife. From Christians to spiritualists, life after death is a common concept in religious and philosophical belief systems
While a large percentage of the population believes in the afterlife, is there any proof?
Does anyone know what happens after we die? There are many theories and beliefs on the subject. However, whether anyone has provided concrete proof of the afterlife is still open to debate.
Here is a closer look at some of the leading ideas on the afterlife and whether they offer any additional evidence of life after death.
Examining the Main Schools of Thought on the Afterlife
Most beliefs and ideas about the afterlife belong to one of several categories. They are either based on religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs, scientific research, or personal experiences.
Many religions believe in some form of the afterlife. While they do not have any proof to back up their beliefs, the lack of proof has not stopped billions of people from having faith. There are also many philosophical beliefs that revolve around the concept of reincarnation.
Finding proof of some type of existence after death has also been the focus of several scientific studies. In the early 1900s, a physician attempted to weigh the human soul. In recent years, a physicist released a new concept about how the soul is not an individual.
Along with research and religious or philosophical beliefs, there are thousands of anecdotal stories that many people believe offer some form of proof. These stories typically involve deathbed visions and near-death experiences.
People Report Visions of the Afterlife from the Death Bed
Deathbed visions are quite common. According to one study, during the past 50 years, there were over 5,000 cases of deathbed visions of the afterlife. In most of these cases, the subject reported seeing deceased relatives, bright lights, and many of the same experiences reported by those who have a near-death experience.
Some of the subjects who reported these visions experienced them just moments before death. They related what they saw to their loved one or a medical professional as they passed.
According to the research, patients were not more or less likely to experience one of these visions when given painkillers. The conclusions of the study also found that there was no evidence that oxygen-deprivation led to the visions, which is a common explanation presented by sceptics of these visions and near-death experiences.
The study also presented a few other interesting details about these visions. The patients' belief in the afterlife did not seem to increase or decrease the likelihood of deathbed visions. In some of the cases, these visions even came when people did not know they were about to die.
While the visions reported by people on their deathbed provide an interesting perspective on evidence of life after death, the visions do not provide solid proof.
Do Near Death Experiences Proof There Is an Afterlife?
When people want proof of the afterlife, they often refer to near death experiences (NDEs). NDEs are also incredibly common.
According to a poll from 1982, 1 out of 7 Americans experienced a situation where they were close to death. Over one third of these individuals reported a near-death experience. A wide range of people from all cultures and religious backgrounds have reported these experiences.
While the details often vary based on preconceived notions of what occurs when you die, most subjects go through a similar set of stages.
People who have near-death experiences often have a sense that they are dying and that their pain is going away. They also often feel like they are rising from their bodies and can look down on themselves.
These experiences also report a dark tunnel with a bright light at the end. When they approach the light, deceased friends and family are there to greet them. In some cultures, people report seeing the leader of their religious beliefs. Nearly a third of these people also report having the events of their lives flash before their eyes.
Another similarity between near-death experiences is the desire to stay in the light or in the out-of-body state. A voice then instructs them to return, and they wake up from their near-death experience.
There have been thousands of these cases with no solid explanation to prove or disprove what each patient experienced.
Physician Attempts to Prove There Is Life After Death
Some people want concrete proof in an afterlife. Faith in a religion or stories about NDEs are not enough. In 1901, a physician from Massachusetts attempted to prove that there is life after death.
Duncan MacDougall believed that the human soul has physical weight. When a human being dies, and their soul passes on to the afterlife, their body should weigh a little less. He attempted to prove this theory by weighing people on their deathbeds and then weighing them again the moment that they die.
MacDougall weighed six patients. Two of the results he disregarded for various reasons. One patient lost weight at death and then gained it back, while two others lost weight at death followed by more weight loss.
Only one patient lost about 21 grams in weight at death. He used this one result to claim that the human soul weighs 21 grams.
He published his results in 1907. His study was widely mocked and considered flawed. It became known as the 21 Grams Experiment and continues to come up in discussion about the afterlife.
Critics argued that MacDougall used selective reporting. Instead of using data from all the patients that he weighed, MacDougall only used the data that supported his theory.
Physicist Provides a New Perspective on the Afterlife
Duncan MacDougall was not the only individual who believed that a scientific study could prove that there is life after death. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff released their report on quantum consciousness.
These physicists believe that the human consciousness gets stored on a quantum field. They argue that protein-based microtubules are responsible for transmitting and storing information on a subatomic level.
When a person dies, their quantum data is released into the universe. The data is transmitted back when a person is resuscitated. They argue that this is what occurs during a near-death experience. If the person dies, the quantum data remains outside of the body, where it exists as a human soul.
Penrose and Hameroff began working on these theories independently in the 1980s, before collaborating in the 1990s. They revised and updated their theory, before releasing in 2013.
The original concept of quantum consciousness is that the brain transmits electrochemical signals directly connected to quantum mechanics.
Penrose and Hameroff believe that the electrochemical signals are measurable in microtubules. In fact, they claim to have discovered quantum vibrations in these microtubules during research at the National Institute for Materials Science in 2014. However, other physicists argue that quantum mechanics are not related to consciousness in any shape or form.
Other Physicist Claims to Have Proof That There Is No Afterlife
While Roger Penrose used the laws of physics to attempt to prove that there is life after death, another physicist used the same laws to prove the opposite.
Dr. Sean Carroll, a physics professor and cosmologist, claims that the physical body and consciousness would need to be entirely separate for an afterlife to exist.
According to the laws of physics, Dr. Carroll argues that consciousness is comprised of electrons and atoms. These electrons and atoms give us our mind and cannot operate after death.
Dr. Carroll uses the Quantum Field Theory (QFT) to help illustrate his theory. With QFT, each type of particle has its own quantum field. Dr. Carroll believes that there would need to be another field for life to continue after death. If humans have souls, physicists would have detected “spirit particles.”
The theory presented by this physicist is based on the idea that physicists already know everything there is to know about the laws of physics. For there to be a soul, there would need to be an entirely new physics model. That is exactly what many theologists believe.
The argument is that science cannot fully prove or disprove the afterlife as the spiritual plane is beyond our comprehension. Many religious individuals, theologists, and philosophers believe that God, our soul, and the afterlife may not adhere to our understanding or definitions of these terms. Humans cannot try to understand something using science when it is entirely beyond our plane of existence.
Can Mediums Communicate with the Dead in the Afterlife?
Along with the anecdotal stories of deathbed visions and near-death experiences, there are people who claim to have the ability to speak to the dead. These mediums claim to help the bereaved communicate with their deceased loved ones.
Mediums are not new. Throughout history, spiritualists have helped people communicate with the dead. Notable television mediums, such as John Edward, have demonstrated their abilities in front of the camera. However, there are plenty of sceptics who argue John Edward and other mediums are really mentalists.
Instead of communicating with the dead, sceptics believe that mediums are skilled at reading people. They pick up on subtle clues. They read people’s body language and provide vague statements to attempt to make a connection.
For example, John Edward frequently begins the process by stating that he is speaking with a deceased person with a “J” or “G” sounding name. The vagueness of his remarks ensures that at least one person in the audience will make a connection. From there, he continues to provide vague statements while using clues from the subject to provide the right response. As with the other concepts related to what happens after people die, these mediums do not provide proof for or against the afterlife.
Note: a friend of the author - a scientist - told him recently that the things John Edward told him could not ever conceivably have come form a 'cold reading' or a 'warm reading' and that in his opinion. John Edward was indeed getting the information from the departed - there could be no other explanation.
Billions of People Have Faith in the Afterlife
Along with the theories and stories discussed, there are groups of people who do not need proof of life after death. For the billions of people who follow the theological beliefs of a religion, faith is all the proof needed that there is an afterlife.
Almost all major Indian religions and Abrahamic religions believe in some form of the afterlife. Buddhist and Hindus believe in reincarnation. Followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe that your soul moves on to another plane of existence. Faith is the belief in these teachings without proof.
Buddhists believe that you are reborn into another body after death. When you achieve absolute enlightenment, you reach nirvana. However, Buddhists do not believe that humans possess souls in the same way that Christians or Hindus believe in a soul.
Hindus follow a similar birth/rebirth cycle as the Buddhists. However, they do believe that your soul remains through each rebirth.
Christians and Muslims believe that your soul moves on to a paradise after death. However, this paradise requires you to remain faithful to the beliefs of the religion.
Jewish people also believe in an afterlife, their concept is more fluid and open to interpretation. Some Jews believe that heaven is here on earth and others believe that your soul remains with those that you leave behind.
Conclusion – Is There Proof of Life After Death?
There is no definitive proof of life after death. However, that is the simple answer. There are many different theories on the topic, from theological belief systems to quantum consciousness.
Several scientists claim that they have proven that there is no afterlife, while other scientists claim to have proof to the contrary. There are also conflicting ideas from different religions, each with their own concept of what life after death means.
People who have had near-death experiences claim that their stories offer proof of the afterlife. There are also many anecdotes of people experiencing visions from their deathbed. However, sceptics claim that these NDEs deathbed visions are simply the result of oxygen loss or brain trauma.
Mediums also claim to have proof of life after death, due to their communication with the dead. The counter argument to these claims is that mediums are scam artists who are adept at reading the room.
In the end, none of these people or groups offer definitive proof for or against life after death. However science has revealed so much about the physical nature of the universe that it has begun to show us the faint outline of the nature and effects of consciousness, a place that science is battling with conceptually. It is also my opinion, based on the reading I have done and on life-experience, that our soul or 'consciousness' does indeed survive physical death and that our existence is what give the universe a purpose.
This article is the first in a series on the important issue of life after death. We will be following with articles on the explicit afterlife beliefs of every major belief system. Please sign up below if you would like to be notified when these articles are published.