Is there such a thing as life after death? This is a question which has attracted the attention of philosophers, scientists, and religions for centuries. The difficulty with the question of life after death is that there exists no genuine persuasive proof on the question one way or another: attempts to prove the phenomenon are seldom universally persuasive. In examining some realms in which the question of life after death has been approached -- by philosophy (exemplified by Socrates and Plato), and by science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (exemplified by Sir Oliver Lodge) and by contemporary research (focusing on near-death experience) -- I hope to demonstrate that the persistence of belief in life after death remains, because the alternative is unappealing to the majority of people.
We must first consider the question from the standpoint of philosophy. In philosophical terms, life after death is generally considered a matter of faith rather than evidence. There is no undisputed proof that such a thing as life after death exists -- instead it is mostly a question of faith, which is (as the New Testament puts it) the "evidence of things unseen." From the standpoint of philosophical investigation, all questions related to life after death are speculative: death is not something which can be subjectively experienced by the self and described afterward. This has not stopped various philosophers from endorsing the idea of the immortality of the soul and even attempting to make arguments for it. Socrates, in Plato's dialogue Phaedo from ancient Greece in the fifth century B.C., offers several different arguments supporting the notion that the soul somehow survives death. One of the most fascinating arguments concerns how the mind itself works -- the mind is capable of imagining all kinds of idealized concepts (perfect justice, perfect beauty, perfect geometrical forms) that do not exist in nature or in reality. Socrates suggests that these idealized conceptions are part of a set of knowledge that exists prior to knowledge, and that explains how the mind is able to know things that it was never taught:
if, as we are always repeating, there is an absolute beauty, and goodness, and an absolute essence of all things; and if to this, which is now discovered to have existed in our former state, we refer all our sensations, and with this compare them, finding these ideas to be pre-existent and our inborn possession -- then our souls must have had a prior existence, but if not, there would be no force in the argument? There is the same proof that these ideas must have existed before we were born, as that our souls existed before we were born; and if not the ideas, then not the souls. (Plato 2008).
The arguments of Socrates are fascinating but they are not necessarily scientific. It is true that there would appear to be forms of knowledge that somehow we are born with -- certainly modern linguistics has taken up precisely this notion, of how children are able to speak a seemingly inexhaustible number of sentences that they have never actually heard spoken, as though somehow the rules of language existed in the brain before a child starts learning the language. The chief difference now is that scientists are more likely to view this as an inherent structure in the brain, rather than an inherent proof that the soul exists before and after its earthly existence in the body. However it should be noted that there is no precise disproof of this longstanding philosophical argument in favor of some form of life after death.
But would it be possible to demonstrate life after death scientifically? It is worth noting that, in one of the more curious episodes from the history of science, only a hundred years ago there was a very famous scientist who considered that the answer was yes and it had been scientifically proven. The scientist was Sir Oliver Lodge, who is still famous as being the first person to make an actual radio transmission (he did so before Marconi, who would win the Nobel for it, but whose experiments were based on Lodge's publication) and also as the inventor of the spark plug. Lodge was a physicist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in a period when scientists were actively engaged in the question of whether there was life after death. To a certain extent, Lodge considered his spiritual work to be a sort of extension of his scientific work: having made the first radio broadcast, which was essentially a demonstration of mysterious action being performed at a distance through invisible means, he became fascinated by the activities of "spirit mediums" who claimed to be able to enter a trance and communicate with the souls of the dead. This sort of attempt to demonstrate the existence of life after death in a quasi-shamanistic fashion had been popular in English-speaking countries since at least 1848, when the Fox sisters of western New York State demonstrated mediumship and claimed to be able to contact the dead. By the early twentieth century, spirit mediums were well-established, but they would undergo a vast expansion in popularity during the astonishing number of deaths that occurred during World War I (and during the influenza epidemic of the same time). It was at this point, in 1916, that Sir Oliver Lodge decided to come to the forefront and speak as a scientist who believed there was definitive proof of life after death. Lodge knew it because he had lost a son, Raymond, in World War I, and was convinced that a medium had brought authentic communications from Raymond during seances, which constituted some proof of life after death. Lodge would publish in 1916 his book about the experiences, noting in the text
To base so momentous conclusion as a scientific demonstration of human survival on any single instance, if it were not sustained on all sides by a great consensus of similar evidence, would doubtless be unwise; for some other explanation of a merely isolated case would have to be sought. But we are justified in examining the evidence for any case of which all the details are known, and in trying to set forth the truth of it as completely and fairly as we may. (Lodge 1916, 85).
The objections to Lodge's proof were readily apparent even in 1916, and indeed in this time period the chief opponent of Lodge's viewpoint was the professional magician Harry Houdini. The irony of a man of science becoming the spokesman for mystical spirituality while the professional magician becomes the spokesman for rationalism was not lost on many, but Houdini's point was that spirit mediums demonstrated nothing scientifically: as someone who had performed these feats of "contacting the dead" in carnivals and fairgrounds earlier in his career, Houdini understood the techniques of "cold reading," whereby the medium essentially works off the emotional trauma of the bereaved to generate believable content. The fact that Lodge was a scientist did not make this science -- the fact that Lodge was grief-stricken indeed perhaps made him vulnerable to charlatanry.
However, the rise and fall of scientific support for mediumship and seances did not end the scientific interest in attempting to prove life after death. Indeed, the twenty-first century is still rife with attempts to demonstrate the phenomenon. In part, this is because the alternative -- a materialist conception of human beings as only so much matter which is animated for a short period of time, then returns to its elemental form, where any notion of mind or soul is just a manifestation of electrical activity and nothing more -- is so personally and spiritually unsatisfying. As Beauregard and O'Leary (2007) write in one of their several works on the human soul and possible scientific evidence for demonstrating its existence: "What would you be left with if you accepted the materialists' explanation of you? Would you recognize yourself? If not, why not? What is missing?" (2007, 3). The mere fact that most people do not feel like a bundle of disconnected but micromanaged electrical impulses -- but instead are aware of possessing a consciousness and a mind and, in the case of all religious believers, a soul -- is partly why the materialist conception has not ultimately won the day. The scientific effort to push back against materialism, however, now tends to hinge on the notion of "near-death experiences" to demonstrate some kind of proof of life after death. This term, coined in the 1970s, describes a pattern of phenomena that is common to people who have had experiences in which they have come close to death, or even died temporarily, but then been revived -- researchers discovered that many of these cases followed the same basic pattern. For example, most report the so-called "out of body experience" in which they felt like they had exited their physical body and were observing reality remotely. During these phenomena, according to Beauregard (2012)