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On the evidence for post mortem survival - Part One

Updated on July 22, 2015
John Paul Quester profile image

A mostly retired academic, with a background in philosophy and psychology.

Life after death, anyone?

Several years ago a very rigorous scholar took the trouble to examine the large body of evidence concerning the possibility of life after death. He concluded that, were he to find himself still conscious after his physical demise, he would be more annoyed than surprised.

Many people, I suspect, would argue that they would be pleased by the realization they survived death. Personally, I have mixed feelings about the prospect of post mortem survival. In particular, I find the notion of re-incarnation exceptionally unpleasant. I dread the prospect of having to cycle through the stages of human life possibly interminably: that we may be condemned to ceaselessly roll the burden of our existence, like Sisyphus his rock. Indeed, as I understand it, the religions who support such a view seem to regard reincarnation as a necessary evil to which we are condemned until our soul – or whatever else passes on from one existence to another - has finally reached that perfection which will enable it to abandon its earthly cravings and gain liberation from the cycle of rebirth by achieving nirvana.

Even if survival entailed retaining most of my identity as a person and more generally as a human being in some sort of ‘other world’, I would scarcely be elated at the prospect of having to live with myself, trapped within the boundaries of my personality – and others’ - perhaps interminably.

I recall a reading from my youth which I had then – but no longer – found incomprehensible: the story of Marcus Rufus, the Roman legionary of Borges’s tale. With adamantine will power Marcus sets out to find the river whose waters confer immortality. But, having succeeded in his quest, he eventually commits himself to reaching the remote shores bathed by waters which will grant him the oblivion and eternal rest which he now covets.

As far as I am concerned, I regard an afterlife as a desirable prospect only if it led to a higher state of being; if it brought into existence a new as yet unimaginable ‘me’ only tenuously connected to my present nature; if it allowed a different way of being in an environment that promotes growth towards ever higher levels of awareness and self development. Or if immortality meant, not unending duration in time, but an exit from time itself into an unimaginable, blissful state of being. Of course, many religions have promised something of the sort with their views of a variously imagined Paradise.

A new study of the near death experience (NDE)

However, it is not the question of whether or not an after death existence is desirable that primarily concerns me here. Rather, I would like to briefly discuss the question of the evidence for an afterlife, prompted by today’s publication on the medical journal Resuscitation of the largest ever study into near-death. University of Southampton medical scientists conducted a 4 year study of more than 2,000 patients who suffered cardiac arrests at 15 hospitals in three countries: US, UK, and Austria. About 40% of the survivors reported some sort of conscious awareness at the time they were clinically dead due to heart inactivity. The researchers believe that in actuality an even higher proportion of clinically dead individuals undergo these experiences, which go unreported because their memory is lost due to brain injury or sedatives.

These patients variously reported an unusual sense of peacefulness, the sense that time either slowed down or sped up, the perception of a bright light. About one in six felt they were detached from their body, and their sensory experience was heightened. Not a few reported fear, or the feeling of drowning, or being dragged down into a liquid abyss.

One of the more interesting cases concerns a Southampton man, a 57-year old social worker who reported leaving his clinically dead body and observing from a corner of the room his resuscitation. He was able to accurately and in detail describe the activity of the medical team working on his body. Importantly, he reported hearing two bleeps from a machine that produces such a sound at three-minute intervals. Dr. Parnia, the study leader, observed: “we know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped. But in this case conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped.”

The experiences reported by the patients in this study are not new, and several well authenticated cases already exist in the voluminous literature on the NDE which are even more impressive than the experiences reported by the British social worker. However, this study is especially significant because most existing studies were based upon relatively small samples, and documented the experiences of individuals long after they had occurred, thereby making them vulnerable to memory distortions and very difficult to verify. This study by converse used a very large number of patients and examined recently occurred experiences.

The question of whether near death studies may or may not provide evidence of a life after death is extremely complex, and I will not attempt to discuss it here. Rather, I would like to tackle this topic in a more general way by commenting on a couple of books than can be regarded as outstanding in their treatment of this subject. If interested, please refer to the Hub entitled On the evidence for post mortem survival - Part Two

© 2014 John Paul Quester


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