Hope Springs Eternal: Science, the Afterlife, and the Meaning of Life

By Shermer, Michael | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Hope Springs Eternal: Science, the Afterlife, and the Meaning of Life


Shermer, Michael, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


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I ONCE SAW A BUMPER STICKER THAT READ: MILITANT AGNOSTIC: I DON'T KNOW AND YOU DON'T Either. This is my position on the afterlife. If we knew for certain that there is an afterlife, we would not fear death as we do, we would not mourn quite so agonizingly the death of loved ones, and there would be no need to engage in debates on the subject.

In Deepak Chopra's 2006 book, Life After Death: Burden of Proof, he presents six lines of evidence that convince him that the soul is real and eternal: 1. Near-Death Experiences. 2. ESP. 3. Quantum Consciousness. 4. Talking to the Dead. 5. Prayer and Healing Studies. 6. Information Fields and the Universal Life Force. For Chopra, the universe is one giant conscious information field of timeless energy of which all of us are a part. Life is simply a temporary incarnation of this eternal field of consciousness. Let's review these one by one.

Near Death Experiences.

Five centuries ago demons haunted our world, with incubi and succubi tormenting their victims as they lay asleep in their beds. Two centuries ago spirits haunted our world, with ghosts and ghouls harassing their sufferers all hours of the night. In the last century, aliens haunted our world, with grays and greens abducting captives out of their beds and whisking them away for probing and prodding. Today people are experiencing near-death and out-of-body experiences, floating above their bodies, out of their bedrooms, and even off the planet into space.

What is going on here? Are these elusive creatures and mysterious phenomena in our world or in our minds? New evidence indicates that they are, in fact, a product of the brain. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger, in his laboratory at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada, for example, can induce all of these experiences in subjects by subjecting their temporal lobes to patterns of magnetic fields. I tried it and had a mild out-of-body experience.

Similarly, the September 19, 2002 issue of Nature, reported that the Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke and his colleagues discovered that they could bring about out-of-body experiences (OBEs) through electrical stimulation of the right angular gyms in the temporal lobe of a 43-year old woman suffering from severe epileptic seizures. In initial mild stimulations she reported "sinking into the bed" or "falling from a height." More intense stimulation led her to "see myself lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk." Another stimulation induced "an instantaneous feeling of 'lightness' and 'floating' about two meters above the bed, close to the ceiling."

In a related study reported in the 2001 book Why God Won't Go Away, researchers Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili found that when Buddhist monks meditate and Franciscan nuns pray their brain scans indicate strikingly low activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, a region of the brain the authors have dubbed the Orientation Association Area (OAA), whose job it is to orient the body in physical space. (People with damage to this area have a difficult time negotiating their way around a house). When the OAA is booted up and running smoothly there is a sharp distinction between self and non-self. When OAA is in sleep mode--as in deep meditation and prayer--that division breaks down, leading to a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy, between feeling in body and out of body. Perhaps this is what happens to monks who experience a sense of oneness with the universe, or to nuns who feel the presence of God, or to alien abductees floating out of their beds up to the mother ship.

Sometimes trauma can trigger such experiences. The December 2001 issue of Lancet published a Dutch study in which of 344 cardiac patients resuscitated from clinical death, 12% reported near-death experiences (NDEs), where they floated above their bodies and saw a light at the end of a tunnel. …

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