The Survival Question

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Note: This is a somewhat expanded version of an article (Surviving Death) which appeared in The Philosopher's Magazine (Summer Issue 2001).

Introduction

It may seem surprising that I've included an essay on the survival question here, since the general tone of the site is skeptical. However, I think that genuine skepticism should include a measure of skepticism about skepticism itself, by which I mean that we should constantly review our mostly strongly held beliefs. The present essay is an exercise of this kind.

I was brought up as a Roman Catholic but ceased to believe in that religion in my early twenties. However, it took much longer for me to lose a conviction that we survive our physical death. Eventually I did so, however, and for a long time now I've thought that belief in an afterlife is a form of emotional escapism and self-indulgence.

Our existence on this planet is to a considerable extent the outcome of chance; there was nothing planned about it, nothing inevitable, and I can see no good reason why we should think ourselves so important that the universe would wish to preserve our consciousness after we leave the scene. Although I regret this on a personal level, I also find it satisfying in a different way; it seems all of a piece with the naturalistic and scientific world view that I generally favour.

And yet I cannot persuade myself that, in adopting this attitude, I'm being entirely fair to the known facts, though I realize that view is going to be unpopular with rationalists, most of whom appear to have made up their minds quite firmly on the question, and indeed don't regard it as a real question at all. Such people seldom bother to look at the evidence, which they assume will turn out to be a morass of self-deception and outright fraud, as indeed very much of it is, but not all; and the best of this material poses serious difficulties for anyone who wishes to dismiss the survival hypothesis out of hand.

Critical appraisals of the evidence for survival

Naively, one might suppose that the best way to form a reliable opinion of material of this kind would be from the research literature on the paranormal (parapsychology). In fact, modern parapsychology is very largely concerned with laboratory experiments and statistical work and most serious researchers today steer clear of 'spontaneous' phenomena such as ghosts and mediumistic communications.

This marks a considerable shift in interest from the early days of the (British) Society for Psychical Research and the American Society for Psychical Research. Many of the nineteenth century founders of these societies were motivated by the hope of finding evidence for survival, and devoted a great deal of their time and energy to working with mediums. The desire to prove that human beings have a 'spiritual' dimension that might allow for survival probably motivates quite a few of their modern successors, but their approach is more indirect.

It is therefore mainly to the older records and material that we must turn if we wish to explore the evidence that bears directly on the survival question. If we had to do all this investigation for ourselves it would be a most daunting task, but fortunately we don't have to, for there exist several really excellent critical discussions. The best of these, in my opinion, are by C.D. Broad and Alan Gauld. Neither could be accused of gullibillity.

Broad was an eminent philosopher in the first half of the twentieth century, Knightbridge Professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge from 1933 to 1953. Alan Gauld is a distinguished academic psychologist. Both have made detailed examinations of the material, mainly though not exclusively that obtained through mediums, many of whom were non-professionals. Their books are of the first importance for anyone wishing to assess the reliability of the evidence for survival, and I don't believe it is possible to have an informed opinion on the issue unless one has read them.

The evidence considered by these writers is of several kinds.

  • Mediumistic communications
    This refers to information received by mediums or sensitives which purports to come from discarnate entities of various kinds, some of whom claim to be the spirits of people who were formerly alive. Today mediumship is often referred to as channelling, but it is the same thing.

  • Ghosts
    The belief that the dead come back to haunt places is very old and is recorded in antiquity. Often the ghosts are simply seen and do not attempt to communicate, although occasionally they do.

  • Reincarnation
    This differs from the preceding two in that belief in reincarnation has traditionally been widespread only in certain regions and cultures, notably Indian.

  • Out-of-the-body experiences (OOBEs) and Near-death experiences (NDEs)
    These have again been reported for thousands of years (Plato has a description), but they are attracting a lot of interest at present because modern methods of resuscitation have resulted in numerous instances of patients who recover after being seriously ill and who, in earlier times, would have died. This has resulted in a considerable increase in the number of reported cases. Several researchers have collected series of these and have often claimed that they imply the possibility that consciousness can leave the body and exist independently; also, some of the descriptions of people who have entered these states appear to agree with claims about the afterlife made by the major religions. Many although not all of those who undergo a NDE give it a religious interpretation.

It's important to say that the approach of both these authors is secular, not religious. For them, survival, if it does occur in any form, is part of the natural world. Broad was in fact quite hostile to religion, and Gauld, as far as I can see, is neutral towards it. Neither author, therefore, is biased in that respect, and Broad, at least, tells us—I'm sure sincerely—that he personally dislikes the idea of survival. And, in fact, both of them assess the evidence as inadequate to found a firm opinion either way. I give their conclusions in their own words.

Broad:

In the known relevant normal and abnormal facts [emphasis in the original] there is nothing to suggest, and much to counter-suggest, the possibility of any kind of persistence of the psychical aspect of a human being after the death of his body. On the other hand, there are quite well attested paranormal phenomena which strongly suggest such persistence, and a few which strongly suggest the full-blown survival of a human personality.

Most people manage to turn a blind eye to to one or the other of these two relevant sets of data, but it is part of the business of a professional philosopher to try to envisage steadily both of them together. The result is naturally a state of hesitation and scepticism (in the correct, as opposed to the popular, sense of that word). I think I may say that for my part I should be slightly more annoyed than surprised if I should find myself in some sense persisting immediately after the death of my physical body. One can only wait and see, or alternately (which is no less likely) wait and not see.

Gauld:

Certainty is not to be had, nor even a strong conviction that the area of one's uncertainty has been narrowed to a manageable compass... If we elect to go by the available evidence, instead of relying on faith, no firm answers are available... To those hot for certainty—whether it be certainty of survival or of extinction—this answer may seem dusty enough. However, it will not seem dusty to everyone... a rational case, of either tendency, built on evidence, however difficult to interpret, is to be preferred to any amount of blind belief or blind disbelief.

I agree with both these authors that this is where the evidence leads us, and it is certainly unsettling to both the religious faithful and the ultraskeptics. It is also unsettling in another way, for if we go by the evidence we have, survival may not always be a welcome prospect. Both Broad and Gauld find mediumistic reports which point to the possibility of temporary survival followed by a gradual fading away, or survival in a zombie-like state. (Another philosopher, H.H. Price, suggested that survival may be a dream-like state, quite similar to that described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead—the Bardo Thodol.) There are even more unpleasant possibilities, including post-mortem fusion with other entities or bits of psychic flotsam and jetsam. Perhaps we had better hope that the rationalists are right and there is no survival.

Rationalist objections to survival

Much the strongest reason for dismissing the possibility of any form of survival is the apparently complete dependence of conscious experience on the brain. There is a huge and ever-increasing amount of knowledge about the brain and its workings, all of which appears to point conclusively to the view that the mind simply cannot exist apart from the brain. If that is the case there is, of course, no more to be said; the evidence from mediumship and other sources, no matter how compelling, must be discounted. But is it correct?

Both Broad and Gauld discuss this question at length, and both find ways of looking at the problem which do in principle allow for the possibility, at least, of some form of survival. I'll leave you to read their arguments for yourself; they are too complex to summarize in an essay like this. However, I'll conclude by saying that new ways of thinking about the matter may come from a different direction, namely modern physics and cosmology. It's evident that the universe must be a vastly stranger place than we can easily envisage. Black holes, it appears, are perfectly real; our universe is full of them. No one knows what happens inside them; they may even be gateways to other universes. This is extraordinary enough, but there are still stranger things in the minds of the theorists, some of which might even accommodate survival.

As an example, consider Julian Barbour's theory that we live in a timeless universe, which he calls Platonia. This is essentially a testable and therefore scientific physical theory of great complexity and sophistication, but it does have metaphysical implications. When we think about death and the possibility of survival we picture events occurring in sequence. One moment we're alive, the next we're dead, and conceivably we may then find ourselves transported to some other state of existence.

But according to Barbour, this isn't the right way to think about it. There is no succession of states, because there is no time; everything just is. Heaven, hell, and purgatory, he suggests, are simply different areas in Platonia. Some places are wonderful, some are boring, and some are dreadful. But all are present 'simultaneously' (it's impossible to avoid temporal language in talking about timelessness), so survival changes its meaning because causality takes on a different character in Platonia. Survival cannot take place in time, because there is no time. Barbour puts it like this:

In both classical physics and Everett's original [many-worlds] scheme, what happens now is the consequence of the past. But with [my] many instants [theory], each `Now' competes with all the other Nows in a timeless beauty contest to win the highest probability. The ability of each Now to 'resonate' with all the other Nows is what counts. Its chance to exist is what it is in itself. The structure of things is the determining power in a timeless world.

As I understand this, it means that we have a chance to exist timelessly, regardless of death, somewhere in Platonia. Barbour's theory may be wrong, of course, but that isn't the point. It will serve as an illustration of how modern cosmology opens extraordinary vistas of possibility to the mind, by means of theories that are scientific and not metaphysical.

[Note added 10 November 2013]
In his autobiography. Confessions of a Philosopher, Brian Magee expresses a view of the mysteriousness of time which is quite similar to Barbour's. And this leads him to say the following about the possibililty of survival.

Although I am sure there is an immaterial self I am far from being sure that it has any existence except in relation to a body. My own particular self may have come into existence when or after my body did, and may cease to exist when my body dies. It may be something that has evolved over millions of years in undisentanglable relationship with brains, and may have no way of existing separately from my brain. This was, for example, Popper's view. He was persuaded of its truth and untroubled by it. I am unpersuaded of its truth, and am deeply troubled by it.

Conclusion

Like Broad and Gauld, I don't know whether anything that could be called survival occurs. It may well not, and in some ways I'd prefer that it didn't. Extinction would make for a tidier, and probably less frightening, world, and in most moods I think that this is what we have: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life/ is rounded with a sleep." But I don't think the issue is finally closed.

Further reading (books reviewed on my site are highlighted)