In chapter 13 of The End of Christianity, Victor Stenger addresses the evidence for life after death. He particularly responds to Dinesh D’Souza’s Life After Death: The Evidence, which I have not read. Stenger admits that D’Souza presents some arguments that he had not heard before. As far as I know, Dinesh D’Souza is no expert on the evidence for life after death. The fact that he knows of arguments that Stenger had not heard before suggests that Stenger is even less of an expert on the subject than D’Souza. Am I claiming to be an expert? Not at all. This is a warning that neither D’Souza nor Stenger may be presenting the best arguments from both sides of the topic. I’ll try to weigh the arguments from both sides, but the reader should be aware that further investigation on their part is recommended.
Apparently D’Souza mentions that one reason to believe in life after death is because it was revealed by God in the Bible. Stenger responds by falsely asserting that none of the prophecies in the Bible have been confirmed. One need only to read through my commentary on Daniel to see how wrong he is. He then claims that the most important stories in the Bible have been shown to be myths. Yet, as we’ve seen through earlier reviews in this series, atheists struggle to adequately explain the resurrection of Jesus, the most important story in Christianity.
But the evidence discussed in this chapter largely concerns modern evidence and not the Bible. Stenger believes that if a psychic or medium, who claimed to speak to the dead, told us something that we later confirmed to be true, that this would be evidence for life after death. He claims that this has never been done. Once again, he is wrong. For example, according to Robert McLuhan (loc. 1951), “Phinuit [a personality that controlled the medium Leonora Piper] diagnosed sitters’ physical ills and prescribed simple remedies; he also gave advice on private affairs, about which he unaccountably knew a great deal, and sometimes gave forecasts of future events, some of which turned out to be accurate.” As the quotation implies, even believers in mediumship do not claim that mediums are 100% accurate. What they claim is that they are far too accurate to account for with normal explanations (e.g., cold reading, fraud).
Another point is that Stenger shows he does a poor job of interpreting the evidence. He states that someone claiming to connect to the dead and providing surprisingly accurate information is evidence of life after death. That is not entirely true. By itself, it is merely evidence of some form of telepathy. McLuhan explains why (loc. 2151):
On the other hand, the doubts about Phinuit are true — and are one of the big puzzles of the material. This trance-ego of Piper’s claimed to be independent of her, although manifesting through her body, but was never able to give a satisfactory account of his identity. For a Frenchman he appeared to know little French; his knowledge of medicine was slight for a trained doctor; and investigations yielded no trace of a person of that name. Other personalities that subsequently communicated through Piper seemed similarly to be products of her imagination: they included the novelist George Eliot, who described meeting a character from one of her novels in heaven, and an obviously phony Julius Caesar.
The inconsistencies have a major bearing on whether or not the Piper material is evidence of survival of death. In fact the SPR researcher Eleanor Sidgwick and some other researchers concluded that Phinuit was what they called a dream creation, an artificial construct in the medium’s mind. This alone was not conclusive proof against Piper being in touch with genuine spirits; other communicators could give good evidence of once having lived. But the researchers became increasingly aware that what they were observing was a creative process, akin to what happens in hypnosis. There was a high level of suggestibility; they noticed that Piper seemed to pick up information that was in the sitters’ minds and weave it into the drama as if it came from a dead person. It was even discovered that communicators who had provided convincing evidence of having survived death vouched for the genuineness of deceased people who were completely fictitious, and had been invented purely for the purpose of catching them out.
As I started to become aware of this, my first thought was, well in that case the medium must simply be making all of it up. From there it was a jump and a hop to assume there must be something wrong with the investigators, who were so desperate to believe in an afterlife that they just didn’t notice.
But by now I was starting to recognize this sort of rationalizing as an automatic mental process, and to take it into account. I reflected that the researchers showed themselves to be cool and analytical: the moral and religious issues that preoccupied spiritualists rarely concerned them. Then again, doubts about the identity of the communicators and about the nature of the process have no bearing on the accuracy of the information that Piper produced. This is the essential point. Unless you can come up with plausible normal mechanisms for how she could have achieved this, telepathy is the absolute minimum that can explain what Piper did. One might add, if you are a phony medium it’s hard to see how you can make your illusion more convincing by inventing a ‘spirit control’ who claims to have been a French doctor, when you neither speak French nor know anything about medicine.
We must be on the look out for falling into an either/or trap. We do not have to choose between believing Piper was talking to a deceased person or believing she was a complete fraud. There are positions between the two extremes that must be considered. All evidence like this suggests is that two minds can communicate in some non-physical way.
Absence of Evidence
The absence of evidence is not generally taken to be evidence of absence. However, says Stenger, absence of evidence can be evidence for absence when the evidence should be there and is not found. I agree with Stenger, but I’m not sure this is applicable to life after death. It is conceivable that the realm of the living and the realm of the dead are separate. While in the realm of the living it is simply impossible to observe the realm of the dead. Thus, on the matter of life after death, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Of course, there is at least some evidence for life after death. Whether that evidence is sufficient evidence for belief in life after death is another matter.
A Common Belief
Apparently D’Souza claims that the common belief in life after death is evidence that life after death is real. Stenger rightly points out that this is poor reasoning and that there are different, contradictory views of the afterlife. At best, the common belief in life after death might prompt an atheist to examine the evidence, but it is not evidence in and of itself.
While I agree with Stenger’s main point in this section, he still makes factually incorrect statements. First, life after death is assumed in the Torah (e.g., Genesis 25:8). Second, Paul did not initiate the Greek influence on Christianity. Greek influences can be seen in the writings of pre-Christian Judaism. Moreover, the physical resurrection of the body in the new heaven and new earth is the NT view of the afterlife. Those Christians who believe that the soul goes to heaven and nothing more (e.g., this is not just an intermediate step) are simply not following the NT.
Problems with the Paranormal
Before he starts looking at specific pieces of evidence for life after death, Stenger comments on paranormal research in general. He claims that much of the evidence is anecdotal and therefore scientifically useless because we cannot check the veracity of the testimony. Perhaps he would consider all the studies of the medium Leonora Piper, mentioned above, as anecdotal. Since she is deceased, we can no longer study her abilities. But such an approach in unreasonable. Suppose an anthropologist embeds himself with a tribe and publishes a thorough study of the tribe. Fifty years later, when the tribe has been absorbed by its surrounding society, another anthropologist comes along and sees the study. He remarks that since he cannot verify the testimony of the first anthropologist that the study is useless. As far as I can tell, no scientist actually does this. I doubt Stenger has performed every physics experiment to confirm the testimony of all the physicists who came before him. Rather, he relies on the testimony of other physicists and trusts their judgments. Likewise, I suggest we trust the testimony of past parapsychologists unless we have reason to believe they doctored their data. The simple fact is that nearly all of our knowledge comes from the testimony of another human being. Ignoring testimony would make living life incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
Stenger’s second problem with paranormal research is that, even when it uses controlled experiments, it does not meet the standards of the basic sciences. He notes that parapsychologists often claim success in experiments where the probability of the results is merely 1 in 20 (p = 0.05). Stenger states that “in physics a claimed new effect is not publishable until it is shown that it would not be reproduced as a statistical artifact once in ten thousand cases (p = 0.0001)” (Loftus 312-313). Some parapsychologists may be guilty of this charge, but there are others who claim to have observed more phenomenal results. Here is one such example:
A theology student named Hubert Pearce was the subject of four [card-guessing] experiments involving a total of seventy-four runs; where a score of 5 was the mean he scored averages of 9.9, 6.7, 7.3, and 9.3 — the odds against this are a hundred thousand billion billion to one (that’s a 10 followed by 22 zeros). In one of the experiments Pearce was guessing cards at pre-arranged intervals while the experimenter Gaither Pratt was turning over the cards in another part of the building. This meant Rhine could argue there was no realistic possibility that Pearce could have been getting the information by any means other than ESP. (McLuhan loc. 2774)
Many people, brought back from the brink of death, report having a near-death experience. In general, these experiences involve an out-of-body experience and a glimpse of the realm of the dead (or an intermediate area between this life and the next). Stenger is most interested in those cases where the subject reports a perception that is later corroborated. Obviously, genuine cases of such phenomenon would make it quite difficult to maintain that the mind is nothing more than the brain. Unfortunately he does not examine many cases of this nature.
He notes one case where a patient named Maria experienced an NDE after a heart attack. She told a social worker, Kimberly Clark, that she had separated from her body and noticed a shoe on a ledge near the emergency room. Clark checked the ledge and confirmed the shoe was there. Stenger is not convinced by this evidence for two main reasons: (1) no one could track down Maria to corroborate Clark’s account and (2) the shoe could have been observed and talked about by hospital workers and Maria could have heard about it. According to the investigators cited by Stenger, Maria was probably dead when they investigated the case in the mid-1990s so it is no surprise they could not find her. The quality of the debunking cited by Stenger is debatable. Stenger is relying on an investigation by Ebbern, Mulligan, and Beyerstein: Maria’s Near-Death Experience: Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop. Michael Prescott subjects this paper to criticism in a series entitled “Who Will Watch the Watchers?” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5). I leave it to the reader to decide the matter for himself. Personally, after seeing Bruce Greyson’s (who is an NDE researcher himself) review of one of Clark’s books in the comments of Part 4, I don’t think it is a particularly solid case. At the same time, the debunking was pretty poorly done too.
Note that there are other veridical NDEs. If interested in the subject, you should read much more than this review or Stenger’s chapter. Perhaps start with Chris Carter’s Science and the Near-Death Experience, but be prepared to read more. I’m not sure one book can really do the topic justice.
Problems with NDEs
Stenger, borrowing heavily from Keith Augustine, summarizes some general problems with NDEs. First, only 20% of those who come close to dying recall having NDEs and therefore NDEs are not common. Twenty percent sounds common enough to me. It’s certainly more than the zero percent we would expect if there were no life after death. Perhaps the skeptic could rephrase the objection: how come not everyone experiences an NDE? It’s a fair question. But, as skeptics like to say, the patients do not truly and completely die. If they are not completely dead, then that might explain why their souls did not leave their bodies.
Second, says Stenger, existing research presents no challenge to the current understanding that NDEs are hallucinations. But the fact that there are veridical NDEs does present a challenge. Also consider the following study (Kelly 389):
Sabom had interviewed 32 patients who reported NDEs in which they seemed to be watching what was going on around their body. Most of these were cardiac arrest patients who were undergoing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) at the time of their NDE. Sabom then interviewed 25 “control” patients, “seasoned cardiac patients” who had not had an NDE during their previous cardiac-related crises, and asked them to describe a cardiac resuscitation procedure as if they were watching from a third-person perspective. Among all these patients 80% of the “control” patients made at least one major error in their descriptions, whereas none of the NDE patients made any. Moreover, six of the 32 NDE patients related accurate details of idiosyncratic or unexpected (to them) events during their resuscitation.
This study is by no means definitive, but it at least challenges the hallucination theory to some extent.
Third, the experiences seem to be inwardly generated fantasies. But the existence of veridical NDEs shows this claim to be problematic.
Fourth, sometimes living persons are seen in NDEs. Stenger claims this happens in 10% of NDEs but I doubt this. Nonetheless, those NDEs where a living person is seen would suggest that that specific experience was not of the realm of the dead. But we should also hesitate before assuming that all NDEs have the exact same explanation. There’s no reason that some NDEs could not be hallucinations while others are the real deal.
Fifth, NDEs seem to be informed to a large degree by culture. This is true as far as I can tell from my reading. Recall that I cautioned above about making things an either/or matter. Many NDEs are said to be of an intermediary realm between life and death. The experiencer is only allowed to go so far. He is not allowed to see all of the realm of the dead. Some NDE researchers suggest that this intermediary state reflects our culture so as to provide a gradual transition from life to death. One can decide whether this is plausible or not, but it is something to be considered.
Sixth, interfering with neural processing and cerebral blood flow in the temporo-parietal junction consistently results in out-of-body experiences, which are typical of NDEs. On the other hand, Chris Carter (176-184) states that such phenomena is not much like NDEs.
Seventh, some experiencers of NDEs claim to have gained paranormal powers after their NDE, but none of these powers have been confirmed. I have not heard of this before. If true, it would suggest either that the NDE is not real or that the spirits in the other realm are not entirely truthful. The fact that all the evidence does not seem to point strongly in the same direction makes it difficult to come up with a convincing theory of NDEs.
The Material Mind
According to Stenger, there is considerable evidence that the mind results from mechanisms in a purely material brain. His main argument is, that since changes to the brain can result in changes to the mind, there is no soul. This argument only works if you assume that the brain/body never influences the mind/soul. However, most of those who believe in the existence of the soul believe that there is a two-way communication between the brain and the soul: (1) there are “signals” (for lack of a better term) from the soul to the brain and (2) there are “signals” from the brain to the soul. To people who hold to this view, it is expected that changes to the brain could modify or interrupt signals from the brain to the soul.
Stenger also claims that as “brain function decreases we lose consciousness” (Loftus 321). Anyone familiar with NDEs will know that the experiencer usually claims that perception and consciousness increases during the NDE, often to levels never experienced in normal waking life. This appears to be a case where the materialist makes a prediction that turns out to be false. Certain dualists offer an explanation for this phenomenon: the brain limits the mind, but when the mind disconnects from the body at death the limitations imposed by the brain are loosed. At the least, on this one point, dualism seems to offer a better explanation than materialism.
Stenger addresses some other, apparently weaker, arguments from D’Souza that don’t add much to the evidence for life after death. In the end, it seems that Stenger downplays the amount of evidence out there for an immaterial mind of some kind. I don’t think there are easy answers when it comes to paranormal phenomena, but we at least have to confront it even if it makes us uncomfortable.
Carter, Chris. Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death. Inner Traditions, 2010.
Kelly, Edward, and Emily Williams Kelly. Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009.
Loftus, John W., ed. The End of Christianity. Prometheus Books, 2011.
McLuhan, Robert. Randi’s Prize: What sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong and why it matters. Kindle Edition. Matador, 2010.