Nov 20, 2019 in Analysis

The question over what happens to the human conscious after death is a matter of great debate among scientists, philosophers, people of faith and the public as a whole. While those who base their beliefs on religion envision a scenario in which the soul leaves the body and proceeds to an eternal afterlife in Heaven or Hell (or, in the case of Buddhism, Hinduism and various other religions, the belief that the soul is reincarnated into another life form whether it is newly born human or animal), there are others who are certain that once clinic death occurs, human consciousness ceases to exist and the result is eternal oblivion. While there may never be a truly definitive answer to what happens after death occurs, science offers compelling evidence that makes it impossible to rule out the possibility that there is some form of afterlife.

The first argument in support of the idea that there may indeed by an afterlife comes from a UK-based scientific study. As reported by Knapson, among the patients who took part in a study about consciousness after they had suffered from cardiac arrest, 40 percent of them described having a sense of being aware even as they had been declared clinically dead. This would seem to contradict the scientific understanding of death and consciousness. For example, the same report noted that according to experts, the brain stops functioning around 20 to 30 seconds after the heart stops beating due to a lack of oxygen. As a result, the human mind should not be generating thoughts. To be clear, the recollections that these patients were having cannot merely be attributed to the hallucinatory effects that the brain experiences when it is being deprived of oxygen. Indeed, discussing the same report, Knapson notes that one of the patients recalled physically leaving his body and observing the doctors resuscitating him from a corner of the room. There does not seem to be any scientific explanation to counter this, since even if skeptics were to argue that these patients had a degree of consciousness that allowed them the ability to pick up audio cues, there would nonetheless be no way for them to explain how it is possible for the patients to have witnessed these events visually and recall them in detail.

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If these are the accounts of those who were clinically dead but were then resuscitated, then these cases in and of themselves do not necessarily prove an afterlife since the patients were ultimately brought back to life. So where do people go when their clinical death is permanent? According to Bering the answer could very well lie in reincarnation. This article profiles the work of the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist who devoted his career to researching children’s memories of purported past lives. In all, he recorded more than 3,000 case reports on the phenomena and what he often discovered could not be rationally explained by science. For instance, there was a case involving a toddler in Sri Lanka who was able to describe in great detail people, events and locations related to her past life. Many of the statements were too vivid to have merely come from her imagination. Sure enough, out of 30 statements that Dr. Stevenson recorded from the girl, 27 turned out to be correct. For instance, she was able to describe the house where she had lived, had correctly identified it as being next to a Hindu temple where people smashed coconuts nearby and that her father had been a flower vendor. The flower vendor confirmed that his daughter had drowned, just as the girl had described it. In most cases, the researcher was able to actually confirm the existence of the deceased subjects based on the details that the children provided. In addition to the descriptions that the participants shared, Dr. Stevenson also found parallels between birthmarks, moles and birth defects of the children and the circumstances that led to the deaths of the individuals they had purported to be in their past life. The researcher was able to confirm these through autopsy reports. In addition, he was able to link the phobias that they were suffering from with the ways in which the individuals in their purported previous life had died. In discussing these facts, Dr. Stevenson’s professional background is important because he should not be mistaken for a charlatan or an eccentric pseudoscientist. He was 38 when he was named the chair of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, a relatively young age in academia to hold such an esteemed position. In addition, he spent a considerable amount of time looking for other rationales for his discoveries. In other words, like any reputable scientist, he would rigorously look for weaknesses and alternative explanations in order to disprove findings. The larger point being that Dr. Stevenson was not looking to push an agenda based on personal beliefs or biases. Instead, he understood the need to do the research based on the proper scientific method. 

Beyond the standard near-death experiences of consciousness or the belief in reincarnation, Dr. Robert Lanza makes the argument that evidence of an afterlife can be proven based on the principles of quantum physics. He has constructed the theory of biocentrism, which is based on the idea that rather than thinking that the universe creates all living things, it is in fact biology itself that is at the center of reality and that it is responsible for creating the universe. Since, according to this concept, biology is the essence of life and consciousness, it is the human mind that creates and makes sense of the universe and the human consciousness has the ability to alter this reality. Therefore, time and space could be seen as an illusion that is not confined to any boundaries. If there are no spatial or linear boundaries, then there can never truly be death since an infinitive number of realities are occurring simultaneously. It should be noted that, just as with Dr. Stevenson, Dr. Lanza is neither a new-age mystic nor a quack. He is a doctor and academic at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. To back up his theory scientifically, he cited the so-called double-slit experiment. In a nutshell, when scientists observes two a particle passing through two slits in a barrier, the particle acts in a bullet-like manner and passes through either of the slits. On the other hand, if the scientists does not observe the particle, the particle behaves very differently. It moves like a wave and is able to pass through both slits simultaneously. What this indicates is that matter and energy can take on various characteristics and that these patterns of behavior can be manipulated through the power of human consciousness. As for how this relates to the human condition, if this theory is true then it means we are essentially immortal. This is obviously a very different take from the traditional belief that the body ascends up to eternal paradise or down below to a permanent state of damnation, but it certainly supports the idea that once a person dies, it does not mean they cease to exist. 

Of course, there are critics who are persuasive at arguing against the idea of life after death. Indeed, researchers have noted that the visions and experiences associated with near-death experiences can be simulated using ketamine, a powerful horse tranquilizer commonly used as a party drug. If true, then those who support the idea that death is a process that leads to nothingness might have a point.

In another argument against the concept of an afterlife, Sam Harris, a philosopher, neuroscientist and author, makes a compelling, science-based argument against the notion that human consciousness remains after the death. He points out that when certain parts of the brain are damaged, this affects the ability of the patients, but the process of memory recollection seems to be arbitrary. For example, the subject might be unable to recognize faces, and they might forget the names of animals and yet they would somehow still be able to recall the names of tools. As the brain becomes progressively more damaged, the human mind increasingly loses its ability to remember information. And yet, according to those who believe a person ascends to Heaven after death, that individual is able to communicate in English with dead relatives, see beloved pets again, etc. But if the human brain is able to partially lose its recollection ability while the person is alive, it would seem difficult to imagine that same person being able to have all of his/her memory functions restored upon brain death. 

However, Dr. Emily Williams Kelly, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, is one expert who would not be swayed by this argument. She concedes that if the conscious experience of the human mind depended entirely on the brain, then indeed there cannot be an afterlife. Once the brain is turned off, the existence of that individual person would be over. However, she insists that reaching this conclusion is way too simple because there is enough scientific evidence to back the idea that human consciousness continues to function even in the absence of brain functioning. Therefore, it is impossible to rule out the idea that there is an afterlife. 

In conclusion, the reports on out-of-body experiences and other recollections that patients have when they are near-death are simply too powerful to ignore. Patients report witnessing medical procedures being conducted on them when, scientifically speaking, they should not have the ability to do so. While researchers certainly offer scientifically-plausible explanations for why people undergo near-death experiences, they do not present an open-and-shut case; they are simply offering their best guesses. Furthermore, skeptics of the concept of an afterlife also bring up valid points through philosophical arguments. Nonetheless, what they provide is intellectual discourse and not an iron-clad rebuttal of the idea that there might be an afterlife. Ultimately, the answer to the question about life after death is only known after the person permanently dies. But because there is no way to report on this from the afterlife, no conclusion can be reached. However, because science will never able to definitively prove that there is no afterlife, the individual is free to believe what he or she chooses. 

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