This paper is one in a series of blogs that I have produced around paranormal research. Perhaps one of the most common questions a parapsychologist will come across would be is there any scientific evidence for life after physical death or sometimes referred to as life after life. In this blog, I discuss whether there is scientific evidence for life after physical death.
Life after death is the assumption that the soul/consciousness of the person exists after their physical death. It is a foundation of many belief systems in the world. However, life after physical death is generally regarded as a belief rather than being evidence-based. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try and understand what evidence is out there for life after physical death. This blog will demonstrate evidence in the paranormal literature.
Life after physical death is a difficult concept to study scientifically as the researcher is trying to observe/measure things that they can’t physically observe. For ethical reasons a scientist can’t set up experiments to kill people and see if they can provide evidence of the afterlife. Parapsychologists are left with three types of evidence; (1) negative evidence (rule out all other standard explanations), (2) indirect evidence from people’s observations of NDE and (3) test the assumptions of life after death.
Before we move on to discuss the paranormal evidence firstly, we need to know what we mean by scientific evidence. There is an important distinction between scientific evidence and scientific proof. To scientifically proove something, I would expect a theory behind the concept and experimental results to support the idea. To demonstrate scientific proof, one needs to have reliable and valid experimental data.
When I started researching paranormal, I was surprised that there are not many paranormal topics that cover life after death. Four main paranormal topics cover directly or indirectly evidence for life after life: (1) Near Death Experiences, (2) Mediumship, (3) Hauntings and (4) Past Lives. Three out of four topics are generally self-reported (although there are a couple of research investigations into Hauntings and Past Lives). The only topic that includes some scientific experimental data is mediumship research.
It is important to examine two types of evidence when assessing whether there is scientific evidence for life after death. Firstly, what are the assumptions of the theory and secondly, what evidence exists for life after death? Let’s take the premise of life after death. It is the assumption that there is survival of the consciousness outside of the human body. Therefore, any theory of life after physical death needs to assume that human consciousness can operate outside of the human body.
We discussed in my first blog (which you can read here) that there is considerable evidence for human consciousness operating outside of the human body. Testing this assumption is far easier for researchers. There is a strong evidence base for this assumption being met, and in principle human’s consciousness can operate outside of the human body. The difficulty comes in relating to life after death, as the evidence always has a physical body alive (or least capable of life). It raises a question that science can’t answer, whether consciousness is sustainable after death or an extended period.
A Near Death Experience (NDE) is a common self-reported account that some people report when the physical body is close to death. There are many themes, such as a sense of floating outside of the body, hearing conversations when they are unconscious and having an awareness of things around them without being awake. There are some examples, of people reporting things that require them to be outside the area that the body in order to see them. However, there are limitations to NDE’s such as the body is sustainable of life so can’t answer the fundamental question whether the consciousness can survive without the human body. All NDE’s are self-reported therefore provide some evidence but fall short of providing scientific proof of life after death.
The most direct evidence of paranormal research comes from mediumship research. Mediums are people who have the alleged ability to contact deceased consciousness in the spirit world. There have been mediums studied intensely over the last one hundred and fifty years. In some of the stronger evidence mediums have been investigated for over fifteen years and still, researchers couldn’t find evidence of fraud (Mrs. Piper). More recently, there has been experimental research with a variety of conditions to test whether mediums are communicating with the spirit world. There are some positive findings to experimental research into mediumship, i.e., in forced choice experiments, sitters are more likely to pick their reading from the medium rather than a random reading. We can say there is some evidence of mediumship, but not conclusive to the point of scientific proof (as there is little research into how mediums operate).
The third topic that relates to life after death is hauntings. In most haunting cases there is an assumption that a spirit is causing paranormal phenomena. There are two types of case studies; (1) self-report of a haunting phenomenon and (2) ghost hunters. Interestingly, a third of the European and USA population consider they have been contacted by a deceased loved one. Most haunting investigations on the television attempt to find evidence that the location is haunted through the various spectrum level of quality from poor to some scientific evidence. Usually, the limit of these investigations is that they can record changes in the environment but can’t provide the mechanisms or what is the actual cause.
The final topic of paranormal that indirectly assess whether there is life after physical death is past lives. In these cases children, usually aged between two and six years of age, claim that they had a previous life in which they have died and can provide details of their past life. In most cases from the details provided, either the family (in most cases) or the researchers can find the deceased family. In addition, the child usually demonstrates some unusual behavior, has phobias of how the deceased had previously died and has birthmarks relating to how the deceased past. There are some interesting cases of past lives. However, there are only a handful of cases where researchers have found the families. So although this work is of interest, it falls below the threshold of scientific proof.
Finally, the last question that needs to be asked is whether there is a theory in science to explain paranormal phenomena. Recent developments in paranormal research are looking towards Quantum Mechanics as a possible answer. One of the fundamental assumptions is that paranormal research assumes that human consciousness can operate outside of the human body and across time and space. Two potential experiments can demonstrate this concept; (1) interference pattern and (2) non-local communication. Although, these are a long way to being established as theories in the brain and paranormal topics. There is at least a small amount of evidence of quantum mechanics operating inside the brain, which allow one of the fundamental assumptions of paranormal to be met.
So, back to our main question is there scientific proof for life after physical death. The answer is no due to difficulty in studying the nature of the phenomena. However, there is some paranormal evidence to support the existence of life after death. The fact the concept can’t be evidenced scientifically doesn’t mean it’s not true. It just the evidence doesn’t yet exist that meets the thresholds. The fundamental assumption that consciousness can operate outside of the human body appears to have been met. Therefore, the next stage should be about discovering how the mechanics of consciousness work, i.e., whether there is evidence of quantum mechanics inside the brain.
I will be presenting a series of blogs around the paranormal: The next topic is “Can human consciousness operate outside of our perception of space and time?”
If you’re interested, you can buy my book at Amazon
Thanks for reading, Ian