Afterlife

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The afterlife (also referred to as life after death, the hereafter, or the great unknown) is the realisation consciousness and/or mind of a being continues after biological death occurs. Major views on the afterlife derive from religion, esotericism and metaphysics. In many popular views, this continued existence often takes place in a spiritual or immaterial realm. Deceased persons are usually believed to go to a specific realm or plane of existence after death, typically believed to be determined by a god, based on their actions during life. In contrast, the term reincarnation refers to an afterlife in which only the "essence" of the being is preserved, and the "afterlife" is another life on Earth or possibly within the standard universe.

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Types of views on the afterlife

There are two fundamentally different types of views on the afterlife: empirical views based on observation and religious views based on faith. The first type of claims are loosely based on pseudo-scientific observations and conjecture made by humans or instruments (for example a radio or a voice recorder, which are used in electronic voice phenomena, or EVP). These observations are made from reincarnation research, near death experiences, out-of-body experiences, astral projection, EVP, mediumship, various forms of photography et cetera. Academic inquiry into such phenomena can be broken down roughly into two categories: psychical research generally focuses on case studies, interviews, and field reports, while parapsychology relates to strictly laboratory research. The second type are based on a form of faith, usually faith in the stories that are told by ancestors or faith in religious books like the Bible, the Qur'an, the Talmud, the Vedas, the Tripitaka et cetera. This article is mainly about this second type. ==The afterlife in different metaphysical models In metaphysical models, theists generally believe some sort of afterlife awaits people when they die. Atheists generally do not believe that there is an afterlife. Members of some generally non-theistic religions such as Buddhism, tend to believe in an afterlife (such as reincarnation) but without reference to God. Agnostics generally hold the position that, like the existence of God, the existence of other supernatural phenomena such as the existence of souls or life after death is unverifiable and therefore remains unknown. Some philosophies (e.g., humanism, posthumanism, and, to some extent, empiricism) generally hold that there is no afterlife.

Many religions, whether they believe in the soul’s existence in another world like Christianity, Islam and many pagan belief systems, or in reincarnation like many forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, believe that one’s status in the afterlife is a reward or punishment for their conduct during life.

Afterlife in modern science

Scientists, in general, either describe the universe and human beings without reference to a soul or to an afterlife, or tend to remain mute on the issue. A notable exception is a famous study conducted in 1901 by physician Duncan MacDougall, who sought to measure the weight purportedly lost by a human body when the soul departed the body upon death.[25] MacDougall weighed dying patients in an attempt to prove that the soul was material, tangible and thus measurable. These experiments are widely considered to have had little if any scientific merit, and although MacDougall's results varied considerably from "21 grams," for some people this figure has become synonymous with the measure of a soul's mass.[26] The title of the 2003 movie 21 Grams is a reference to MacDougall's findings.

The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1884 with the express intention of investigating phenomena relating to Spiritualism and the afterlife. Its members continue to conduct scientific research on the paranormal to this day. Some of the earliest attempts to apply scientific methods to the study of phenomena relating to an afterlife were conducted by this organization. Its earliest members included noted scientists like William Crookes, and philosophers such as Henry Sidgwick and William James.

J. B. Rhine, who was critical in the early foundations of parapsychology as a laboratory science, was committed to finding scientific evidence for the spiritual existence of humans. Scientists who have worked in this area include Raymond Moody, Susan Blackmore,Charles Tart, William James, J. B. Rhine, Ian Stevenson, Michael Persinger and Pim van Lommel among others.[27]

Some, such as Francis Crick in 1994, have attempted a ‘scientific search for the soul’.[28] Frank Tipler has argued that physics can explain immortality, though such arguments are not falsifiable and thus do not qualify as science.[29]

Charles Tart conducted research into out-of-body experiences, or OBEs, that indicated the possibility that a person might be able to perceive targets at a distance removed from the physical body.[30] Later investigations have both corroborated and failed to corroborate “out-of-body” experiences transcending the confines of the brain.[31] In one instance, a hospital placed an LED marquee above its patients’ beds which displayed a hidden message that could only be read if one were looking down from above. As of 2001, no one who claimed near-death experience or out-of-body experience within that hospital had reported having seen the hidden message.[32]

In 2008 however, Penny Sartori, an intensive care nurse from Swansea, published an academic book about near death experiences following 10 years of research. Sartori found that people who went through out-of-body experiences felt as if they floated above themselves and were able to accurately recount what had happened in the room even though their bodily eyes were closed.[33]

Scientific investigation of the afterlife also includes the study of (among others) cases of haunting, apparitions of the deceased (including, in some cases, information conveyed by those same apparitions), instrumental transcommunication (recording of paranormal voices on tape), and mediumship.[34] A noteworthy recent study in this last area is known as the Scole experiment, a series of mediumistic séances that took place between 1993-98 in the presence of the researchers David Fontana, Arthur Ellison and Montague Keen. This has produced photographs, audio recordings and physical objects which appeared in the séance room (known as apports).[35]

Currently, a large study, headed by Dr. Sam Parnia, is set to examine near-death experiences in cardiac arrest patients. Doctors at 25 UK and US hospitals will study 1,500 survivors to see if people with no heartbeat or brain activity can have "out of body" experiences.[36]

Further reading

  • Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions edited by Hiroshi Obayashi, Praeger, 1991
  • Beyond Death: Theological and Philosophical Reflections on Life after Death edited by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Christopher Lewis, Pelgrave-MacMillan, 1995
  • The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection by Jane Idelman Smith and Yazbeck Haddad, Oxford UP, 2002
  • Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion by Alan F. Segal, Doubleday, 2004
  • Brain & Belief: An Exploration of the Human Soul by John J. McGraw, Aegis Press, 2004
  • Beyond the Threshold: Afterlife Beliefs and Experiences in World Religions by Christopher M. Moreman, Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.
  • Is there an afterlife: a comprehensive overview of the evidence by David Fontana, O Books 2005.

External links