Taking the Afterlife Seriously

Article excerpt

"The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mysterious. It is the power of all true science."--Albert Einstein

I have put Michael Shermer at a disadvantage by writing a book that bases the afterlife on the survival of consciousness. He has little interest in consciousness compared to his interest in laboratory-induced hallucinations and altered states. It's a shame that he doesn't grasp that the afterlife is about nothing but consciousness. (I don't offhand know anyone who took their bodies with them.) Shermer's focus on God is irrelevant to the argument. I give seven versions of life after death in my book, collected from every religious and philosophical tradition. He fails to address them or to realize that certain traditions (Platonism, Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta) do not posit a personal God.

Shermer's retelling of the flaws in prayer studies is germane to my argument but only to a small degree--it by no means forms a sixth of my book, more like three pages. I must point out, however, that the 2006 Benson-Harvard refutation of prayer is far from being authoritative. Critics have found methodological flaws in it, and there are 19 other studies in the field that arrive at differing results, 11 of them showing that "prayer works."

Now to the holes in Shermer's own approach. It may be curious that stimulating some area of the brain can induce out-of-body experiences or the feeling of sinking into a bed, or that Buddhist monks have low activity in their Orientation Association Area (OAA), as cited by Shermer. Unfortunately, these experiments have little bearing on the afterlife. Induced states are quite feeble as science. I can put a tourniquet on a person's arm, depriving the nerves of blood flow, and thereby eliminate the sensation of touch. This doesn't prove that quadriplegics with paralyzed limbs aren't having a real experience. I can induce happiness by giving someone a glass of wine and having a pretty girl flirt with him. That doesn't prove that happiness without alcohol isn't real. The point is that a simulation isn't the real thing or a credible stand-in for it.

Shermer doesn't adhere to the scientific impartiality he so vocally espouses. Loading the dice turns out to be fairly standard for him. For example, he cites the December 2001 issue of Lancet that published a Dutch study in which, out of 344 cardiac patients resuscitated from clinical death, 12% reported near-death experiences. (The actual figure was 18%, by the way.) Immediately he skips on to say that near-death experiences can be induced in the laboratory. Hold on a minute. Did Shermer miss the point entirely? The patients in the Dutch study, who suffered massive heart attacks in the hospital, had their near-death experiences when there was no measurable activity in the brain, when they were in fact brain dead. Did he quote the astonishment of Dr. Pin van Lommel, the Dutch cardiologist who observed this effect? No. Did he go into the baffling issue of why the vast majority of resuscitated patients (over 80%) don't report near-death experiences? That's pretty important if you are claiming that all this near-death hokum can be induced in the lab with a few electrodes.

Leaving out the heart of the matter, as Shermer does, smacks of unfairness, for I rely on this same Dutch study and give all the particulars. Skepticism is only credible when it's not being devious. But Shermer often deliberately misses the point. I cite a University of Virginia study that to date has found over 2,000 children who vividly remember their past lives. In many cases they can name places and dates. The facts they relate have been verified in many cases. Even more astonishing, over 200 of these children exhibit birthmarks that resemble the way they remember dying in their most recent lifetime. (One boy, for example, recalled being killed with a shotgun, and his chest exhibited a scatter-shot of red birthmarks). …