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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Best Basis for Believing in an Afterlife Is Something Other Than Paranormal Phenomena

When people are asked to explain why they believe in a life after death, many people cite something taught or promised thousands of years ago. But many other people prefer to seek a more modern basis for believing in life after death.

One very substantial modern basis for suspecting life after death is the fact that we live in an astonishingly fine-tuned universe filled with innumerable great wonders of biological organization that scientists have not been able to credibly explain.  The fundamental constants of the universe are astonishingly fine-tuned. For example, each proton has a mass 1836 times greater than each electron, but each proton has a charge that is the very precise opposite of the charge of each electron. If this very exact match of the absolute value of the proton charge and the electron charge did not exist, then imbalances of electromagnetism (a force more than a trillion trillion trillion times stronger than gravitation) would prevent planets and suns from holding together by gravity.  There are many similar cases of fine-tuning in the universe's physics that are necessary for our existence.  Within our universe are innumerable wonders of biological organization resembling products of design.  Materialist attempts to explain away such cases of biological and cosmic fine-tuning as accidents do not hold up well to scrutiny, for reasons often explained on this blog.  In short, nature gives us some extremely strong reasons for suspecting there exists some purposeful guiding intelligence helping to achieve the mechanistically inexplicable results of biology.  Such reasons do not directly support the idea of life after death, but they do tend to lead to a worldview in which the idea of life after death seems credible, by suggesting the existence of some enormously powerful transcendent agency powerful enough to be able to cause life after death.  

There is another modern basis for believing in life after death: the existence of paranormal phenomena suggesting that humans survive death.  There is nothing wrong in appealing to such evidence. Indeed, a wide variety of paranormal phenomena argue very strongly for the persistence of a human soul after death. Let's look at some of these phenomena, starting with those that only indirectly support the idea of life after death, and moving on to phenomena that more directly support such an idea. 

There is massive evidence for extrasensory perception (ESP), both in the form of observational case histories and experimental evidence gathered under controlled scientific conditions.  When materialists claim there is no evidence for ESP, they are either reflecting their failure to research the topic with adequate diligence, or simply speaking dishonestly. In the literature of psychic phenomena, you can read about very many dramatic first-hand reports in which reliable witnesses described accurately out-of-sight things, using clairvoyance that is a form of extrasensory perception.  Many examples can be found in the posts here, here, here, herehere, here, here, here, here and here.  There is also an abundance of experimental evidence for ESP, which has been gathered for more than 130 years. You can read about such evidence here, here, here, here, here and here.  

Such evidence for ESP is not direct evidence for life after death. But we may reasonably consider evidence for ESP as being evidence indirectly supporting the existence of life after death.  There is no neural way to explain the phenomenon of telepathy or ESP.  Any evidence for ESP is evidence that the human mind is some reality beyond a physical explanation.  If the human mind cannot be explained purely as being the result of material explanations such as neural activity, then we have a strong reason to suspect that a human mind persists after the death and decay of a physical body.  Similarly, if the plumbing in my house is not caused by electricity, then I should reasonably expect that after a local electrical power failure, I will still be able to take a bath. 

Stronger evidence for life after death comes in the form of death-bed visions. In such visions a dying person will typically see an apparition of one of his deceased relatives. In the posts here and here you can read about some of the earliest accounts of such deathbed visions.  Researching the topic of deathbed visions, Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson conducted research surveys of hospital workers. In a July 1977 paper published in Volume 71, Number 3 of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, they reported 178 cases of dying people who reported seeing an apparition of a dead person (Table 1). The number was much higher than the 68 who reported an apparition of a living person. We read the following on a page of the Psi Encyclopedia:

"In 2017, Una MacConville carried out a study with Irish health care professionals. The carers reported that 45% of their patients spoke of visions of deceased relatives, often joyful experiences that bring a sense of peace and comfort."

A skeptic might try to explain such sightings as hallucinations of the very ill, although such an explanation cannot explain why twice as many such sightings are of deceased people rather than living people.  We would expect hallucinations to have random content (very often being of objects, animals, living humans and earthly places), and not so often of deceased people. 

Apparition sightings are extremely common in human history. There are two types of apparition sightings that are particularly powerful as evidence for life after death:

(1) The first type is cases in which a normal person in good health sees an apparition of someone he did not know was dead, only to soon learn that the corresponding person did die on the same day (and often about the same hour) as the apparition was seen. I have collected 200+ cases of such apparitions, which you can read in the posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Collectively such cases provide evidence for life after death,  first because we would not expect so many such healthy normal people to be having such hallucinations, and second because it is all too improbable that very many hallucinations of a person would coincidentally occur at about the same time as a death of that person unknown to the person reporting an apparition. 

(2) The second type is cases in which multiple witnesses report seeing the same apparition, the apparition of a human who died.  You can read about very many such cases in the posts here, here, herehere, here, here and here.  Collectively such cases provide evidence for life after death,  because we would expect such cases to virtually never appear under the hypothesis that apparitions are mere hallucinations. Two people having the exact same hallucination at the same time or place is as improbable as two people in the same house having the exact same dream on the same night. 

Then there are cases in which living persons seem to know information that should have been unknown to them, but which was known to a dead person. I can think of three varieties of such cases:

(1) Cases in which some person claimed to be a reincarnation of some person who died before the first person was born, usually not very long before. Dr. Ian Stevenson was a University of Virginia professor and MD who was once the head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia. He spent decades gathering evidence for reincarnation, and published a 2268-page two-volume work Reincarnation and Biology, providing a huge amount of evidence. The book can be read online here. Stevenson's main technique was to investigate reports of children who claimed to have memories of past lives. He produced countless cases in which the details of the claims of the past life were verified, and also very many cases of people having unexplained birthmarks corresponding to the death wounds of the person they claimed to have been in a previous life. 

(2) Cases in which mediums (often speaking in a trance) provided information about deceased people, information that should have been unknown to them.  The careers of Leonora Piper and Gladys Osborne Leonard provide many dramatic and compelling examples, some of which are discussed hereOn pages 245-248 of the book Contact with the Other World by James H. Hyslop we have an example of such evidence, one of innumerable such cases in the literature involving mediums. Purporting to be getting communication from a deceased  Dr. Hodgson, a medium named Miss Gaul stated that Hodgson had said William James looked cute wearing pink pajamas.  Hyslop wrote about this statement to William James, who stated he was wearing pink pajamas at the time, a fact Miss Gaul could not have known. Later after William James died, another medium (a boy) claiming to be speaking a message from William James, stated, "I want you to give Hyslop two pairs of pink pajamas and a black necktie for Christmas," while Hyslop was not present. Hyslop had worn a black necktie that belonged to William James, but the medium boy could not have known about this or about the pink pajamas. Hyslop says, "I had kept the incidents absolutely to myself." 

(3) Rare cases in which a first person claimed to be possessed by the spirit of a second person known to be dead, a person who died during the lifetime of the first person.  The post here discusses two well-documented cases of this type. In both of these cases the first person seemed to know many things that should have been known only to the second person. 

Dreams provide some modest evidence in support of life after death. Besides many cases in which dreams seemed to foretell someone's death (as if such an approaching death was known by some spiritual reality causing the dream),  discussed here and here and here, there is the fact that dreams hinting at life after death can occur to some people vastly more often than we would expect by chance. 

There are very many well-authenticated cases of dramatic physical  paranormal effects produced in seances or produced in the presence of mediums, cases in which some phenomenon such as levitation occurred. The posts here, here and here discuss some examples. There is very dramatic and extremely abundant photographic evidence of massively repetitive and inexplicable orb patterns that seem to be manifestations of some unfathomable spiritual reality. Such evidence can be examined here, here and here. Such cases may not directly support the idea of life after death, but they tend to make such an idea seem more credible, in that they suggest some invisible spiritual power far beyond the explanation of current science. 

The best type of modern evidence for life after death is near-death experiences. Ever since Raymond Moody's best-selling 1975 book Life after Life, the common characteristics of a near-death experience have been well-known. A particular near-death experience may have between  one or more of these characteristics. The characteristics include:
  • a sensation of floating out of the body, which may include seeming to view the body from above;
  • feelings of peace, joy or tranquility;
  • a life-review in which previous life events are reviewed or relived in some sped-up manner;
  • a passage through a tunnel;
  • coming to some border or boundary that seems to be some "point of no return" between life and death;
  • an encounter with a very bright light or a “being of light” or a light that is somehow sensed to be numinous or a source of thought or feeling;
  • an experience of seeing some heavenly or supernatural realm;
  • an experience of seeming to see one or more deceased relatives;
  • an experience of being told that you must “go back” and continue to live your regular life;
  • an experience of having heightened consciousness, mentality or perception.

There are two reasons for thinking that accounts of such experiences are not simply some modern myth spread by authors. One reason is that we can find accounts of such experiences much earlier than 1975.  You can read about two 19th century near-death experiences here, and you can read about four 19th century near-death experiences here.  You can read an early 20th century near-death experience here.  The discussion of evidence for out-of-body experiences here includes many reports of aspects of near-death experiences that were reported before Moody's 1975 book. 

A second reason is that such near-death experiences seem to occur to significant fractions of the population. A recent study using so-called crowdsourcing found that 10% of the subjects reported a “full-blown” or “classic” near-death experience, and some 28% reported some type of near-death experience.

There are four reasons why it is not credible to maintain such experiences are hallucinations. The first is that such near-death experiences typically occur suddenly to people with no history of hallucination. The second is that there is too much similarity in the accounts. Were such experiences hallucinations they would have the almost infinite variety of dreams, but instead near-death experiences tend to follow particular patterns, having some of the characteristics listed above.  The third reason is that near-death experiences often occur to people having a cardiac arrest, during which their heart has stopped, and brain activity has stopped. Since brain activity very quickly stops when the heart has stopped,  hallucinations should be impossible during cardiac arrest. The fourth reason is that during near-death experiences people often report details of medical efforts to revive them, details that they should have been unable to know about while unconscious. You can read some dramatic examples here

Altogether these many examples of paranormal phenomena provide a very substantial basis for believing in life after death. But are paranormal phenomena the best basis for believing in an afterlife? No, I think they are not.  
I think the best basis for believing in an afterlife is the existence of normal, everyday human mental phenomena that cannot be credibly explained by anything we know about the brain. 

Below are some basic facts about human mental activity, facts that we take for granted but cannot actually explain by reference to any credible theory about the brain:

(1) Humans are capable of instantly forming permanent memories.
(2) Humans are capable of remembering very clearly things that happened to them more than 50 years ago.
(3) Upon hearing a name or seeing a picture, humans can instantly recall a great deal of information learned about a person, place or thing many years ago. 
(4) Humans can remember with 100% accuracy very large bodies of memorized information, as we see occurring when an actor flawlessly recites all of the lines of the very long role of Hamlet, or when a Wagnerian tenor flawlessly recites all of the lines and notes of the very long roles of Tristan, Siegfried or Hans Sachs, or when a Muslim accurately recites every verse in his holy book of 6000+ verses (as some can do). 
(5) Humans can understand a host of very subtle concepts and topics. 
(6) Some humans can do accurate mathematical calculations at blazing speeds. 
(7) Humans are capable of great creativity, and can quickly come up with novel ideas. 

We have been told for many years that all such phenomena can be explained as activity of the brain. Such claims are not correct. We have no understanding of how a brain can do any of the things listed above. We have no understanding of how a brain could produce consciousness. We have no understanding of how neurons could ever think or understand anything or ever come up with an idea.  There is no credible detailed theory of how a brain could do any of the main things it would have to do if it stored our memories, such as translating human experience and learned knowledge into neural states, storing memories for 50+ years, and instantly retrieving memories.  We know from our work with computers some of the things that systems have when they are devices for writing, instantly retrieving and permanently storing new information. The brain has no such things (as I discuss here, here and here). 

Claims that brains store memories and that brains produce things like thinking and ideas and imagination are not claims well-established by evidence, but are merely speech customs that spread around by a process of social contagion, like the once-dominant custom of men wearing ties and hats to work (a custom that office workers followed religiously during the 1950's).

bad explanations

When it comes to memory, the shortfalls of neuroscience are gigantic.  Neuroscientists have no credible explanation for how any conceptual or episodic memory could ever form in the brain.  The brain has no known mechanism for writing complex information.  For a brain to store a memory, it would have to somehow translate sensory experience or conceptual knowledge into neural states. No one has the slightest idea of how such a miracle of translation could occur.  If stored memory information existed in the brain, it would leave a very clear mark of itself, just like stored genetic information in DNA leaves a very clear mark that scientists were able to detect in the middle of the twentieth century.  No sign of any such stored memory information has been found in the brain of humans or any other species.  If such information existed, we would have found very clear signs of it about 70 years ago, around the time when DNA was discovered in cells. No such information has been found. 

Lacking any other credible possibilities, neuroscientists typically claim that memories are stored in the synapses of the brain. Such synapses bear not the slightest resemblance to some memory storage system.  Scientists have determined that the proteins that make up synapses have very short lifetimes, having an average lifetime of only a few weeks.  The longest amount of time that humans can remember things (60 years or more) is 1000 times longer than the average lifetime of the proteins in synapses. This means that the theory of synaptic memory storage cannot be correct.  Neuroscientists have ignored this difficulty.  They have also ignored the problem that humans can form permanent new memories instantly, but such a thing could never occur if memories were to be stored in a brain, which would require protein synthesis that would take at least minutes.  

Besides lacking any credible theory as to how human memories could be stored and persist for decades, neuroscientists lack any credible theory as to how a human could instantly retrieve a memory. Humans build computer systems capable of retrieving information very fast, and we know the kinds of things that enable instantaneous retrieval (things like coordinate systems, addressing systems, and indexes).  The human brain has no such things.  The human brain no more resembles a device for instantly retrieving learned information than does a sunflower plant. 

Since the brain lacks any known read mechanism for reading stored information, we have no understanding of how a brain could recall a memory at any speed, even a very slow speed. There also seems to be no way that a brain could retrieve information quickly enough to explain instant human recall, and accurately enough to explain memory retrieval that often occurs with 100% accuracy.  A variety of speed bumps and slowing factors in the brain (such as what are called synaptic delays and synaptic fatigue) should make brains too slow for instant recall.  A large amount of signal noise in the brain should make it impossible for humans to neurally recall large bodies of information with 100% accuracy, as occurs when someone playing Hamlet correctly recites all of his lines.  Inside the cortex of the brain, signals  travel from one neuron to another with a reliability of much less than 50%, as low as 10%.  The same slowing factors and noise factors in the brain should make it impossible for a human to do something such as accurately perform in his head with great speed a very complex math calculation, something that some people are capable of doing. 

All of these things very strongly indicate that the brain is not actually the storage place of human memories, and that brains are not the source of human intelligence and thinking. There is a way to test such an idea. If you remove half of a human brain, then according to the theory that memories are stored in brains and the theory that brains produce thinking, removing half a brain should cause a vast loss of memories, and a vast reduction in intellectual capabilities as measured by IQ tests.  Such a test has actually been done many times, usually on people suffering from daily brain seizures so bad that the only way to stop them was to remove half the brain, in an operation called a hemispherectomy operation. 

Data from many different hemispherectomy operations (discussed here) show that removing half of a brain does not cause any great loss of memories, and does not usually result in a substantial reduction of thinking ability as measured by IQ tests. Such operations tell us loud and clear: your memories are not stored in your brain, and your brain is not source of your intelligence. 

A similar test is gradually performed not by surgical operations, but by rare diseases such as hydrocephalus that destroy much more than half of a brain. The physician John Lorber studied much cases, and was surprised to find that in patients who had lost the great majority of their brains due to disease, more than half had intelligence above average. Many other such cases can be found in the medical literature. There was one boy who never spoke a word except "Mumma" until they took out half out of his brain to stop seizures; and after that he started speaking well.  A Frenchman who was employed as a civil servant was astonished to be told by doctors that he had almost no brain, because some disease had been gradually replacing his brain with fluid.  Like the hemispherectomy cases, such cases tell us very strongly that the brain is not the source of the human mind. Such results are ignored by neuroscientists, who have created a belief community organized around belief dogmas that all human mental activity can be explained by the brain. 

So the most impressive features of human mental activity cannot be explained by anything known to exist in the human body. Why is such a reality a more impressive basis for believing in life after death than cases of paranormal phenomena? It is because cases of paranormal phenomena strongly suggest that some people survive the death of the body.  But the failure of neuroscientists to credibly explain the main aspects of human mentality (and the facts of neuroscience indicating that the brain cannot possibly be the cause of the more impressive human mental phenomena) suggest that all people have minds and memory that cannot be explained by bodily activity.  If none of our minds can be explained by brain activity or any other bodily activity, then there is a strong reason to believe that every single one of us will continue to exist after the body perishes. Similarly, if the functions of no car can be explained by the activity of television networks, we have a strong reason for believing that every car will continue to function if the television networks all fail.  

A person believing in the myth of a human mind arising from a brain may believe in life after death as some kind of special miracle. A person correctly understanding that minds do not arise from brains (and that memories are not stored in brains) will tend to believe in life after death as a kind of natural continuation of a mind after the passing of some physical thing that the mind never depended upon, some physical thing that was never the source of such a mind. 

People sometimes refer to the "miracle of birth," but there is nothing very marvelous about the moment when a baby comes out of a mother's womb. The real physical miracle is the origination of a human body, its growth from a speck-sized egg.  There is nothing in that speck-sized egg that specifies how to make a full-sized human body. DNA does not specify anatomy, and does not even specify how to make any of the 200 types of cells in the human body.  The DNA in a fertilized ovum merely specifies low-level chemical information.  Our biologists do a terrible job of describing the mountainous levels of organization and fine-tuned complexity and dynamic goal-oriented behavior inside human bodies, and they fool us with tricks such as enormously misleading cell diagrams which make cells look 1000 times simpler and 1000 times less organized than they are.  Each cell has a level of organization and complexity comparable to that of a large factory, and each cell's dynamic activity is as impressive as the dynamic activity of a large active factory. Just as a human body is a marvel of supremely dynamic hierarchical organization that cannot at all be explained by DNA or anything in a tiny speck-sized ovum, the human mind is a spiritual wonder that is not at all explained by the brain.  

The uniting of your father's sperm and your mother's egg never resulted in something that explains the mountainous levels of hierarchical organization in your infant body. We know of nothing inside a female body that can explain the appearance of a full-sized baby from a speck-sized fertilized egg, and each time such a full-sized baby arises in a womb it is a wonder of origination as great as a new car slowly materializing inside another car, and emerging from it (or a wonder a million times greater, since each human body is a million times more organized and internally dynamic than a car).  The stratospheric levels of fine-tuned complexity and organization of your infant body arose from some unfathomable process a thousand miles over the heads of today's scientists.  Your mind arose from some other unfathomable spiritual process also a thousand miles over the heads of today's scientists.  Just as it makes no sense to worry about your adult body dying because your mother or father has died (neither being capable of explaining the origin of your body), it makes no sense to worry about your mind dying because your brain or body will die (neither being capable of explaining the origin of your mind or the persistence of your memories). 


  1. Very very interesting post, I actually believed in the continuation of consciousness before I had any idea about the paranormal evidence as I was familiar with the complete incapacity of scientists to explain aspects biological complexity outside of "it happened, so therefore it happened"

  2. Good stuff, Mark, a wide-ranging compendium of data refuting the commonly accepted idea that "stuff" is the only reality.

  3. # 1 of the three varieties of cases : My grandmother passed her uncle in the hallway of her tenement (depression era). He seemed rushed and just nodded as he walked by which she thought was odd. Upon entering her families apartment she learned that the uncle she passed had just died.
    I suspect we will all understand the nature of life/death when our time comes. INI