Victor J. Stenger
Apr 14, 2012. Greer-Heard Forum New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
I’m a retired physicist who spent forty years doing research in elementary particle physics and astrophysics. During that time I was involved in a number of major discoveries, as just one collaborator among many on experiments in major laboratories around the world. In my last experiment before retiring, I collaborated on the underground experiment in Japan that reported the first evidence that neutrinos have mass. The Japanese leader of the experiment shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in physics for this discovery.
So, I think I have a good idea of the kind of evidence needed to demonstrate the reality of any extraordinary claim. And surely, life after death is an extraordinary claim.
I have not read every published report on near-death experiences and other types of phenomena that claim evidence that humans contain some immaterial component that makes our immortality possible. There are thousands of such reports. But I have looked at many, the ones claimed to be the best. None—not a single one--stands up under the same scrutiny that is applied in any science whenever an extraordinary claim is presented. I will tell you why, but first let me give some background.
We spent the bulk of our time on last night talking about near-death experiences, so let me begin with them. I have an discussion of near death experiences in my latest book, God and the Folly of Faith. Unfortunately we don’t have any for sale here, since the book just came out, but you can get it now on Amazon. God and the Folly of Faith contains details and references so you can follow up with your own research.
Reports of near-death experience events have attracted a large number of investigators who have a their own peer-reviewed journal called the Journal of Near-Death Studies. The research goes back 40 years. Let’s look at the history.
By the early 1970s, resuscitation technology had advanced to the point where more people were being brought back from the brink of death than ever before in history. A small minority of about one in five reported seeing a narrow, dark tunnel with light at the end, which they interpreted as a glimpse of “heaven.” Some said they met with Jesus (Buddhists met Buddha) and departed loved ones. No doubt, those having these experiences were deeply moved and many said it changed their lives.
The near-death phenomenon began to get the attention of nurses and physicians who attempted systematic studies. However, the thousands of reports published over four decades are virtually all anecdotal. Let me mention some notorious examples that received considerable media attention.
The first is, I think, the same as one Gary mentioned last night. At least it’s similar. In the 1980s, a Seattle woman named Maria reported a near-death-experience after a heart attack. She told social worker Kimberly Clark that she had separated from her body and floated outside the hospital. There she saw a tennis shoe with a worn patch on the third floor ledge near her room. Social worker Clark checked the ledge and retrieved the shoe.
However, there is no independent corroboration of this event. And this is typical of so many of these reports. We only have Clark’s report. No one could ever trace down Maria to verify her story. We have to take Clark’s word for it. Later investigators found that Clark had misrepresented the difficulty of observing the shoe on the ledge. Placing their own shoe in the same position they found it was clearly visible as soon as you stepped into Maria’s room.
For my second example, let me refer to a report by Larry Dossey, a physician who is the author of many popular books that promote spiritual healing such as prayer. In one book, he claimed that a woman named Sarah had a near-death-experience in which Dossey says she saw,
“a clear, detailed memory of the frantic conversation of the surgeons and nurses during her cardiac arrest; the operating room layout; the scribbles on the surgery scheduling board on the hall outside; the color of the sheets covering the operating table; the hairstyle of the head scrub nurse; the names of the surgeons in the doctors’ lounge down the corridor who were waiting for her case to be concluded; and even the trivial fact that the anesthesiologist that day was wearing unmatched socks. All this she knew even though she had been fully anesthetized and unconscious during the surgery and the cardiac arrest.“
And, on top of that, Sarah had been blind since birth!
When asked by investigators to give more details, Dossey admitted he had made up the whole story.
Gary mentioned a number of other reports of blind near-death experiences. None have been independently verified.
In 2010, a book appeared called Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death-Experiences, authored by radiation oncologist Jeffrey Long and journalist Paul Perry. Thanks to considerable media hype, this book moved quickly to the bestseller lists. Long had gathered thousands of accounts of near-death experiences. He did this by setting up a website asking for personal narratives of such experiences. The result is the largest database of near-death experiences in the world with over 1,600 accounts.
Long announced that medical evidence fails to explain these reports and said “there is only one plausible explanation—that people have survived death and traveled to another dimension.”
In fact, there is little or no science in Long’s book. It’s based totally on anecdotes collected over the Internet where you can find limitless, unsupported testimonials for every kind of preposterous claim. Now, I don’t insist that all anecdotes are useless. They can point the way to more serious research. But when they are the only source of evidence they cannot be used to reach extraordinary conclusions. To scientifically prove life after death is going to require carefully controlled experiments, not just a lot of unsubstantiated stories.
And here’s where my criterion of what constitutes evidence differs markedly from Gary’s. From my viewpoint as a research scientist, the only religious experiences of any kind worth studying are those where the subject reports a unique perception, one that they could not have known previously, which is then later corroborated. If demonstrated by solid, repeatable observations, these could provide the kind of scientific evidence for consciousness independent of the body that we might begin to take seriously.
Gary claims such successes, but I have not seen them referred in the expert literature. If the evidence is as good as Gary claims, why isn’t it part of the consensus knowledge of science—in the textbooks along with the evidence for neutrinos and DNA?
Last night we heard of a simple test setup. Place a target, such as a card with a secret message, on a high shelf in the operating room, facing the ceiling so that it is unreadable not only by the patient on the table but by the hospital staff in the room. Then if a patient has a near-death experience that involves the commonly reported sensation of moving outside her body and floating above the operating table, she should be able to read that message.
This experiment has been tried several times without a single subject succeeding in reading the message under controlled conditions. I understand that more experiments of this type are now being carried out, but I haven’t heard any results yet.
The researchers in the field would love nothing better than to verify the afterlife. But they are beginning to have second thoughts. One prominent, long-time investigator, Kenneth Ring, whose name was mentioned last night, has commented that after decades of research we would have by now expected more than few positive results under controlled conditions. This is the upshot of the 40 years of research, agreed to by the editors of the journal of near death studies in an extensive handbook they recently prepared. They can’t point to a single verifiable case in which the experiencer reported something they could not have known ahead of time. Gary claims there are many. Well, the people workers in the field admit, to their distress, because they really want to believe, that there are none.
Incidentally, the same can be said of religion in general. After thousands of years, there should have been some verifiable scientific evidence for God or gods by now, at least any god that plays such an active role in human lives and in the operation of the universe that most believers take for granted. Gary says there’s evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. There even isn’t any evidence for his crucifixion. No Roman records, which are extensive, and not a single Roman historian of the time, including those living in Jerusalem, mentions Jesus—and they wrote a lot. You can find Pontius Pilate. But not Jesus.
By the way, there were a dozen eyewitnesses who said they saw Caesar Augustus rise from the dead.
No doubt, the near-death experience itself is a real phenomenon, somewhat like a dream or hallucination, although perhaps not exactly the same. But it’s still in the brain.
As we heard last night, many features of the near-death experience, especially the tunnel vision, can be simulated with drugs electrical impulse, and acceleration. I think it’s safe to say that we cannot regard near-death experiences as evidence for life-after-death.
Furthermore, as we discussed last night, none of these people retuned from the dead. A flat EEG us not brain death because it only measures activity on the surface of the brain. And there is no way of determining that the experience actually happened during a flat EEG. Most likely the experience happened before or after, when the brain was highly active.
In any case, after all this effort, the near-death experience has been determined beyond a reasonable doubt to be all inside the head.
I was going to talk about claims of evidence for reincarnation, but I don’t think anyone here believe in it so I’m cutting it out to save time.
So, next, let’s take a look at psychic studies. For over a hundred and fifty years attempts have been made to find scientific evidence for special powers of the mind that violate established scientific principles. This could be evidence for an immaterial, immortal soul.
The scientific search for the soul began in the late nineteenth century with experiments on so-called “spiritualist mediums” conducted by prominent physicists, and devout believers, William Crookes and Oliver Lodge. Since then the history of paranormal studies has been a series of extraordinary claims of evidence for psychic phenomena, enthusiastically reported in the news media and popular books, followed by the collapse of those claims under the intense scrutiny of skeptics. More important, all have failed to be independently replicated. To the present day, paranormal studies have been plagued by insufficient care taken to rule out other, more mundane possibilities.
No properly controlled experiment in almost two centuries of psychic research has provided significant, replicated evidence for the special powers of the mind that you would expect if mind had some non-material aspect.
By the same token, considerable evidence does exist supporting the hypothesis that what we call mind and consciousness result from mechanisms in a purely material brain. If we have disembodied souls that are responsible for our thoughts, dreams, personalities, and emotions, then these should not be affected by drugs. But they are. They should not be affected by disease. But they are. They should not be affected by brain injuries. But they are.
As brain function decreases, we lose consciousness, as when under full anesthesia. Why should that be if consciousness resides in an immaterial soul? Brain scans today can locate the portions of the brain where different types of thoughts arise, including emotions and religious thoughts. When that part of the brain is destroyed by surgery or injury, those types of thoughts disappear. Let’s face it, so-called spirituality is all in the head. It’s purely material in nature.
Let me now take a look at some of the arguments for an afterlife that conservative political author and Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza makes in his recent book titled Life After Death. One of the major reasons so many people seek an afterlife, according to D’Souza, is they want to believe that the universe is just. In East Asia, this is called the law of karma. Since life in this world is obviously unjust, with many rewards for the wicked and few for the virtuous, reincarnation and multiple lives make it all come out even.
In the West, justice is served not by a succession of lives but by a last judgment. In either case, cosmic justice cannot be achieved in this world but only in another world beyond the grave. If there were any revealed truth behind these beliefs, you would think they should not be so dramatically different.
D'Souza claims that belief in an afterlife explains “why humans continue to espouse goodness and justice even when the world is evil and unjust.” He says, “There has to be cosmic justice in the world in order to make sense of the observed facts about human morality.”
Notice he is trying to make a scientific argument. Forget what theologians say. Forget what moral philosophers say. Scientific observations of human behavior are going to be used to provide evidence for the existence of cosmic justice. And, since justice is obviously unavailable in this life, it follows that there must be an afterlife to provide it.
Now, it seems to me that D'Souza has the argument turned around. If people believed in cosmic justice in an afterlife, you would think they wouldn’t have any need to worry about justice in this life—and, indeed, many don’t. On the other hand, people who don’t believe in cosmic justice in an afterlife have a strong reason to see that justice is done in this life.
So, belief in the afterlife has a negative impact on social justice. In fact, this is exactly how religion has excused the inequality of society throughout history, asserting the divine right of kings to rule over everyone else no matter how cruel and incompetent the kings may be.
The hypothesis of no afterlife makes much more sense of the factual data than does D'Souza’s hypothesis. No people are more fervent believers in life after death than Muslims, and in no societies will you find less justice, especially for women, than in Muslim societies. In Christian societies, the more fundamentalist the family the greater the incidence of spousal and child abuse.
Allow me to list what I see as the liabilities of belief in an afterlife:
1. You may not take action to seek justice in this life if you assume it will be provided in the next.
2. You may live in constant fear that any sin you might have committed will condemn you to an eternity of suffering in Hell.
3. You may not exercise your own best judgment in matters and allow yourself to be controlled by others who claim sacred authority.
4. You may not live your life to the fullest if you think that you will have another life after death.
5. The idea that you will live forever gives you a false sense of a glorious self that leads to extreme self-absorption in this life, which is so clear in America today. Religion is supposed to make you humble. But what could be more egotistical, more narcissistic, than to think you are a special creature of God destined to spend eternity with him in total bliss? Knowing you are not going to live forever restores a sense of your true place in the scheme of things.
Next, I would like to discuss what I call “secular spirituality.” Americans, especially the young, are steadily turning away from organized religion. A new Gallup Poll says that 32 percent of Americans are non-religious. Not all, however, are moving directly into fully materialistic atheism. About half say they are “not religious but spiritual.” Some have found appealing a modern form of spirituality that they have been bamboozled into thinking is based on science.
Since the 1970s, New Age gurus, such as Deepak Chopra, have been claiming that, according to quantum mechanics, human consciousness can control reality. They say that we can make our own reality—we can be rich, beautiful, and healthy— just by thinking about it. In this scenario, we all live forever as part of one, unified whole, with our souls tuned into a universal, cosmic consciousness.
Don’t believe it! The mind has nothing to do with quantum mechanics. And Deepak Chopra is aging along with the rest of us.
In sum, there isn’t a shred of scientific evidence supporting an afterlife and much denying it. Neuroscience has just about closed the door on the existence of an immaterial component to human consciousness. When you’re dead, you’re dead. Your body and brain, which contain all that is you, dissolve into dust.
Arguments about justice and morality providing evidence for an afterlife in fact provide evidence against it. The claimed personal and social benefits of belief in an afterlife can also be turned around to show that we all would be better of without this primitive superstition carried down from the ignorant childhood of humanity.
You often will hear it said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” This is not true. Absence of evidence is evidence for absence when that evidence should be there. If life after death exists, then evidence should be there. It is not. Life-after-death can be ruled out scientifically beyond a reasonable doubt.