What Happens After We Die?

In April 1977, a woman known only as Maria was admitted to the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after suffering a heart attack. Three days later, another one would strike her while still hospitalized. On being resuscitated, Maria reported having an Out-of-Body Experience (or OBE), during which she had watched from above as doctors tried to revive her, seeing the monitoring machines around her feeding out print-outs of her life signs. She felt led out to the area outside of the hospital, specifically to the ledge of a third-floor window on the far side of the building. Upon closer inspection, she noticed a left-footed man’s shoe, which she described as dark blue with a worn part of the little toe and a shoelace tucked under the heel. Maria asked Kimberly Clark, a medical worker who had come to check on her condition, to go try and find the shoe for her.

According to Clark, she was unable to see anything outside the hospital at ground level, and had to go to the floor above Maria’s room to peer out the windows to see their ledges. Going from one room to the next, she eventually came across the shoe. Bringing it in through the window, she saw the worn toe and the shoelace, which were not visible from simply looking out at the ledge. The shoe was, Clark asserts, exactly like Maria had described it, exactly where she had said.1

Stories like that of Maria have become increasingly common in the last few decades, with countless people reporting how they have floated out of their bodies on the operating table, had the experience of traveling towards a bright light, how they’ve been greeted on the other side by their loved ones, or how they’ve encountered religious figures there, before coming back to life on Earth. In addition to these strange occurrences are the claims of mediums who allegedly converse with the dead, the claims of those who have undergone past life regression therapy, and the claims of visions, voices, and apparitions of the deceased, some of which are reported in religious scriptures dating thousands of years into the past. For many people all across the globe, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that we survive death in some manner, that our consciousness or soul persists.

There are implications and consequences to this conclusion. If there is a life after this life, then what affect will this one have on the next? What kind of life after death will it be? Something like the paradise conceived of in Western religions, or something more like reincarnation found in the Eastern religions? Will there be a place of punishment for those who were evil in this life? Will our loved ones remember us? If their death was horribly disfiguring, will they be restored to their prior form? Entertaining the question of what happens after we die is like opening the floodgates of the imagination. While it is certainly important to find peace with the natural part of living that we call death, we must also be careful that we don’t allow our desire for comfort to overtake our concern for the truth. Thus, we will first take a look at the evidence commonly proposed for life after death, followed by brief discussion of what it might suggest.

I. Leaving the Body

In addition to OBEs, like the one had by Maria, there is another closely related phenomenon known as a Near-Death Experience, or NDE. While an OBE is typically characterized by a person leaving the body and experiencing a shift in perception, a NDE proceeds along a familiar course usually associated with the feeling of departing this plane of reality, such as entering a tunnel, heading toward a light, and having a strong sense of peace, love, and warmth.

Most OBEs and NDEs seem to occur when death is an imminent threat. In 1994, Dr. Melvin Morse published a decade’s worth of research on children in the intensive care unit of a Seattle hospital who were revived from apparent death. Out of 26 who experienced a loss of heartbeat and breathing for over 30 seconds, 23 children reported classic NDEs, while those in the control group who hadn’t lost pulse or breathing for more than 30 seconds had no such experiences.2 Similarly, cardiologist Pim Van Lommel conducted a study in 2006 with 344 patients who had seemingly died from cardiac arrest and were subsequently revived. While 282 remembered nothing, 62 patients did report classic NDEs.3 Like Morse, Van Lommel took multiple factors into account – drugs, illness, setting, etc. – and determined that only apparent death could be linked to the occurrence of NDEs.

Prior to these two studies, NDEs also popped up somewhere many would not have expected. In the late 1970s, James E. Whinnery, major general of the Air National Guard and a doctor of biophysical chemistry, conducted g-force experiments with hundreds of pilots to study tunnel vision. Whinnery noticed that as the test chambers approached high speeds, pilots began to lose consciousness.

The progression went first to grayout (loss of peripheral vision) and then to blackout… This makes a lot of sense. We know that the occipital lobe (the portion of the brain that controls vision) is a well-protected structure. Perhaps it continued to function when signals from the eyes were failing due to compromised blood flow. The transition from grayout to unconsciousness resembles floating peacefully within a dark tunnel, which is much like some of the defining characteristics of a near-death experience. The pilots also recalled a feeling of peace and serenity as they regained consciousness.4

Whinnery’s research revealed that OBEs and NDEs seem to occur on a continuum. The closer to brain death the pilots would come, the more likely they would be to have a NDE. Comparatively, those who did not reach that threshold would experience phenomena akin to an OBE. The study is also one among several to document the occurrence of NDEs under controlled conditions, where there is no serious risk of death.

As far back as 1955, Dr. Wilder Penfield induced OBEs and NDEs by electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe.5 A 2004 study found that those who experience NDEs have delayed REM sleep compared to ‘normal’ individuals, as well as altered sleep patterns, increased epileptiform activity, and report “significantly more” temporal lobe epileptic symptoms.6 Dr. Karl Jansen has managed to induce NDEs through the use of ketamine, which has effects upon the brain that are very similar to what is shown in existing research on NDE phenomena:

…it is now clear that these NDE’s are due to blockade of brain receptors (drug binding sites) for the neurotransmitter glutamate. These binding sites are called the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors. Conditions which precipitate NDE’s (low oxygen, low blood flow, low blood sugar, temporal lobe epilepsy, etc.) have been shown to release a flood of glutamate, over-activating NMDA receptors. This overactivation can kill brain cells (excito-toxicity). Ketamine prevents excito-toxicity. Conditions which trigger a glutamate flood may also trigger a flood of ketamine-like brain chemicals which bind to NMDA receptors to protect cells, leading to an altered state of consciousness like that produced by ketamine.7

Of course, those who take NDEs and OBEs as evidence of a soul or afterlife do not deny that there is a physical component to such experiences. Brain trauma of some sort or another is behind the vast majority of NDEs and OBEs, and apparent death is taken as compelling indication of something beyond the scientific realm of explanation. Rather, what believers reject is the notion that everything involved in a NDE or an OBE is part of a purely physical process – that it is essentially their brain tricking them, and nothing more. Among the religious and spiritual, the belief of mind-body dualism still thrives, as it has for centuries. According to this view, our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, which comprise the mind, are separate from the physical organ we call the brain. To some, the mind is identical with the soul and is spiritual in nature. For these believers, the brain is kind of like a radio antenna, receiving signals from the mind. While the brain may be destroyed, the mind lives on. The mind, they would say, is what really and truly witnesses an OBE or a NDE.

However, the proposed evidence for mind-body dualism is typically the same evidence introduced for life after death. We’re asking what happens after we die, and NDEs are given as one bit of proof for an afterlife. But, we say, all the research on NDEs is consistent with physical causes. Now we are told, “There’s a non-physical part of you that experiences these things.” Well, we ask, what is the evidence of that? People have been known to leave their bodies, we’re assured. Suddenly we find ourselves back at square one.

What about cases like Maria, though? How could she have known the shoe was there, and described it in detail, just as Mrs. Clark said she later found it? Maria’s story has entered into pop culture, and even into the accounts and thinking of many scientists. Nonetheless, there are numerous problems with it. In 1994, two students from Simon Fraser University went to Harborview to investigate the tale. They were unable to locate Maria or find anyone who knew her personally. Even Mrs. Clark seemed unmotivated to assist in their search. The students found it remarkably easy to identify a shoe on the window ledge, too, and noted the likelihood of Maria overhearing conversations pertaining to the shoe or her operation, or even filling in some details by inference.8 In short, the famous story of Maria and the shoe seems hardly more than the anecdote of one woman, and is therefore not reliable testimony for life after death.

Few other tales of NDEs and OBEs fare any better. Keith Augustine has written a wonderful essay compiling many of the most outstanding reports, as well as covering substantial flaws in said reports, from discrepancies and failed predictions to the humorous happenstance of encountering someone in a NDE who is later discovered to still be living!9 Cultural differences exist as well; Christians may meet Jesus in their NDE, while Muslims meet Muhammad, Mormons encounter Joseph Smith, and so on. If NDEs really are occurring solely in the brain of the experiencer, these differences can be accounted for subjectively. Yet if NDEs are taken to be evidence of an afterlife, whose afterlife is the real one? How could we distinguish authentic NDEs from illusory ones?

Near-death experiences may feel very vivid and compelling to those that have them, but because they take the form of anecdotes and frequently involve claims that could have any number of plausible natural explanations, they do not constitute good evidence of life after death. As research into the brain and surrounding phenomena continues, it seems increasingly likely that NDEs and OBEs are merely the result of natural biochemical processes. When the brain is stressed, losing blood and oxygen, or even suffering an imbalance in some of its chemistry, hallucinatory experiences occur, either as accidents, or possibly as evolutionary adaptations intended to compensate for any loss and provide some sense of comfort during trauma. Whatever the precise reason may be, there is yet no cause for invoking the supernatural.

II. Hauntings

If NDEs and OBEs are not persuasive evidence of life after death, what about hauntings? 32% of Americans believe in ghosts, according to a 2005 Gallup poll.10 Thanks to films like The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist, but also to legends such as the Brown Lady and the Bell Witch, apparitions of the undead have made their way into popular conscience. Hauntings are said to take a variety of forms, sometimes as particular entities, sometimes attached to or possessing a person, or even affecting an entire house. The ‘symptoms’ of a haunting often include disembodied voices, objects moving by themselves, unexplained noises, and feelings of being watched or touched, to name a few.

The most common theory among paranormal investigators seems to be that ghosts are lingering spirits of the deceased that use energy to manifest themselves, which might account for flickering lights, malfunctioning electronics, changes in temperature, and other annoyances typically experienced during investigations of purportedly haunted areas.11 Investigators have also frequently reported the presence of electromagnetic fields in haunted areas. Although many paranormal enthusiasts attribute the fields to ghostly activity, it may actually be the other way around.

Dr. Michael Persinger, a Canadian neuroscientist, developed a helmet that emits very weak electromagnetic fields like those usually found at supposedly haunted sites. People who have used the helmet report sensing a presence, seeing a shadow, or even seeing an apparition.12 Persinger has also investigated haunted areas himself and discovered magnetic fields similar to those used in his experiments. In one case, an abnormally high field was emitted by an alarm clock kept only 10 inches away from where the subject laid her head to sleep – a field with waveforms “similar to those found to trigger epileptic seizures in rats and humans.” When the clock was removed, the experiences ceased.13

The International Census of Waking Hallucinations, published in 1894, documented through repeated surveys that 10-25% of normal, functioning individuals have hallucinated at least once in their lifetime. Many of us have heard voices or seen things that are not really there, but we tend to brush them off and get on with our day. When the timing is right, though, when it’s dark, relatively quiet, and a feeling of isolation hangs in the air, we may interpret these experiences in a different way, especially if our thinking has been primed by folklore, superstition, religious beliefs, TV, reading material, or the statements and experiences of other people. Hallucinations are not uncommon, nor do they indicate madness, as Dr. Oliver Sacks explains in his latest book on the subject, wherein he compiles a lengthy anthology of hallucinatory experiences of numerous kinds, ranging in severity and intensity.14

The Nightmare by FuseliA great number of ghost encounter stories fit two fairly common and well-known kinds of hallucination known as hypnagogia and hypnopompia. Often you will hear about someone’s experience of waking to see a shadowy figure standing at the foot of the bed, or sometimes waking to find a figure pressing down on top of them. Strange noises may be heard, odors can be smelled, and changes in temperature may be felt. The experiencer may feel trapped, paralyzed, and unable to move. All of these are characteristics of sleep paralysis, a phenomenon associated with hallucinating while falling to sleep (hypnagogia) or while waking from sleep (hypnopompia). To keep us from acting out our dreams when we enter into REM sleep, the brain releases chemicals that paralyze the body’s muscles for a time. Unfortunately, the communication between brain and body isn’t always perfect, and so we may awaken to quite a terrifying experience.15

Like NDEs, sleep paralysis has its cultural variations.16 It has been tied to incubi and succubi, the “Old Hag” legend of Newfoundland and Britain, the djinn that attacks victims in their sleep in Turkey, and even alien abduction stories, among other representations.

Why might hallucinations be so common? Are we really so gullible that we mistake weather balloons for alien spacecraft, or coat racks for other beings? Are our eyes that faulty that they deceive many of us on a semi-regular basis? Psychologist Justin Barrett coined the term Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD) to describe a well-known and well-documented tendency of our brains to distinguish between agents and objects, with a special preference for agency.17 For example, if our ancestors heard rustling in the bushes behind them, it would be more advantageous to err on the side of caution and assume the sound is due to a predator rather than the wind. HADD could mean the difference between life and death, in evolutionary terms, and it also accounts for our species’ longstanding habit of personifying objects and patterns down through history. Of course, this theory alone would not prove that apparitions are merely misfirings of our agency detection system, but it does provide a plausible natural explanation for many of the sensations and experiences familiar to ghostly encounters.

On the other hand, not every haunting has to be chalked up to an over-active mind. There are plenty of cases of fraud and fakery. William Mumler, the first “spirit photographer”, was exposed as a charlatan after still living persons began to appear as ‘ghosts’ in his photographs, not to mention an undercover police agent.18 His technique of re-using photographic plates with traces of negatives on them has been replicated many times since. The famous Amityville Horror, an allegedly “true story” recounted by George and Kathy Lutz and written by Jay Anson, has also been revealed as a fraud. Dr. Stephan Kaplan, Joe Nickell, Dr. Karlis Osis, Alex Tanous, and several other researchers visited the Amityville house and found numerous inconsistencies with the Lutzes’ story. The subsequent owners of the house and the priest who appears under the name “Mancuso” in the novel, sued over embellishments in the book. Finally, William Weber, Butch DeFeo’s lawyer, confessed that he and the Lutzes had concocted the tale “over many bottles of wine.”19 Some ghost footage has turned out to be promotional material for businesses,20 while some of the activity in classic cases like the Enfield Poltergeist has later been admitted to be fakery on the part of children (and a parent),21 and even popular paranormal shows like Ghost Hunters have been caught faking evidence.22

Occam’s Razor is a principle used by many scientists to remind them to stick only with what the evidence suggests, to not build elaborate theories on little more than speculation and bias. When looking at competing hypotheses, it says, choose the one that has the fewest assumptions. If you suddenly find you can’t remember a chunk of your day, don’t think aliens have traveled light-years to probe you and wipe your memory, think exhaustion and stress, not to mention the general faultiness of human memory. The latter hypothesis has an overwhelming amount of personal experience behind it, and is supported by what we know of biology through centuries of study and observation. The alien hypothesis assumes that aliens exist, that they possess the intelligence and technology for space travel, that they have developed memory erasing devices, that they are aware of Earth’s existence, that they care enough about humans to wish to experiment on us, that they have some reason for trying to keep their experiments secretive, and there are probably other assumptions I have neglected, too.

So what could explain the reports of disembodied voices, moving objects, strange noises, feelings of being watched or touched, electronic malfunctions, orbs and figures in photographs and videos, and the other standard fare from so-called hauntings? I’ve given a few natural, scientifically-credible hypotheses already, but there are still others I haven’t covered, like pareidolia – the tendency to find patterns in random stimuli, such as faces in the clouds – or something as simple as radio interference producing ‘ghost voices’ on recording devices. The alternative hypothesis, that spirits of the dead are responsible, makes multiple assumptions. It assumes that spirits or souls exist, that some of these spirits can get lost or trapped on Earth after death, that these immaterial things can interact with the material world without a material body to do it from, that there are rules and limits on how they can interact and communicate with the material world, that what most of these spirits want is to pester people by causing lights to flicker and making their footsteps very audible in old houses, rather than journeying around the world site-seeing, and there are certainly other assumptions I have neglected.

But wait a minute, hasn’t Einstein given some credence to the idea that we might survive the death of our bodies in some form? If matter and energy cannot be destroyed, then is it possible that the electrical energy that flows through the living becomes what we might call a ghost when the physical body dies? Not likely. When we die, the energy in us is released back into the environment, usually in the form of heat. The notion that our electrical energy might linger around consciously, or might possess anything, is an assumption – one that looks quite silly when we consider that we ingest the energy of others every day when we eat dead animals and plants. Just think: anytime you eat a burger, you may run the risk of sharing your body with the spirit of a cow! Benjamin Radford puts it succinctly,

Most of the “energy” that any dead person leaves behind takes years to re-enter the environment in the form of food; the rest dissipates shortly after death, and is not in a form that can be detected years later with popular ghost-hunting devices like electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors. Ghost hunters who repeat the claim that Einstein’s theories provide a sound basis for ghosts reveal less about ghosts than they do about their poor understanding of basic science. Ghosts may indeed exist, but neither Einstein nor his laws of physics suggests that ghosts are real.23

Whether we’re considering the trickery of the mind, the trickery of technology, or outright fraud and fakery, one has to admit that these sorts of natural explanations are abundant and extremely familiar. They may not be satisfying to those who wish to believe, but the alternative is fraught with undemonstrated and unfalsifiable assumptions, as noted. It can be understandably difficult for some of us to process the fact that our own eyes and ears deceive us on occasion, or that we could be swindled by people we thought were honest and trustworthy, and yet we know it happens to many others on a regular basis. Whatever conclusion we might prefer, there is just no decent evidence of hauntings, let alone evidence that they are any supernatural phenomenon.

III. Talking to the Dead

Despite the lack of proof for ghosts, there are some men and women who claim to have the ability to communicate with the spirits of the deceased. A medium, or psychic, is one who can allegedly serve as an intermediary between the world of the living and the spirit world. Attempts at talking to the dead date far back in human history, but the practice gained most of its popularity during the 19th century with the Spiritualist movement. Mediums would claim to receive messages from the departed, typically pertaining to the afterlife, the supernatural, the nature of reality, the future, and sometimes specific questions of audience members. The movement was so widespread that séances were even conducted in the White House, notably attended by Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd.

In 1887, several faculty of the University of Pennsylvania – many who were initially favorable to Spiritualism – published a report on their investigations into Spiritualist mediums. The Seybert Commission, as it’s become known, helped to uncover numerous instances of fraud among mediums, by replicating the methods used as well as testing claimants under more restricted environments. “In conclusion,” the report states, “we beg to express our regret that thus far we have not been cheered in our investigations by the discovery of a single novel fact”.24 The Society for Psychical Research, established in 1882 to scientifically examine paranormal phenomena, also played an important role in debunking various mediums of the time, as did professional magicians like John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Houdini.

Spiritualism began a steady decline after the 1920s, but some of its practices still endure today. Self-proclaimed psychic and medium Sylvia Browne has made a number of predictions about internationally known criminal and missing persons cases. In 2003, on The Montel Williams Show, she told the parents of a missing 11-year old boy that their child was dead, and described the location of his body. However, young Shawn Hornbeck was eventually found alive in 2007.25 Browne also predicted the death of Amanda Berry to her mother in 2004, yet Berry escaped her captor alive in May of 2013.26 Sadly, the professed psychic has even told parents that their children are living, when they are later discovered to be deceased, as in the case of Holly Krewson.27

Other celebrity psychics like John Edward and Allison DuBois (who inspired the hit television show Medium) have come under fire for different reasons. DuBois’ track record of assisting with police investigations has been grossly exaggerated, according to law enforcement officials who have been led nowhere by her input, and could potentially have been distracted from more promising leads.28 Those who attended tapings of John Edward’s show Crossing Over, like Jim Underdown, have noted the heavy editing that takes place before anything is aired, as well as the audience preparation beforehand, and the four-page release document. In person, without the assistance of editing, Edward “struggled to get hits,” Underdown said, “and in one attempt shot off nearly forty guesses before finding any significant targets.”29

In 1948, psychologist Bertram Forer gave his class of students a personality test. After they completed it, he told them they would each be given a unique analysis of their personality based on the results of the exam. They were to rate the analysis from 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) depending on how well they found it applied to them. The analysis read as follows:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

Unbeknownst to the students, Dr. Forer had handed them all the very same analysis, which he had gleaned from various horoscopes. The average rating for its applicability was 4.26.30 Some statements, though they might seem personal, are in fact so general that they can fit practically anyone. This observation has become known as the Forer effect, and it can help us understand how psychics and mediums sometimes appear to make such accurate guesses.

“I’m getting the letter M,” says someone like John Edward. A woman in the audience says their mother’s name is Mary. Later on, she believes Edward had guessed her mother’s name, contrary to what actually happened. Such a scene was common on Crossing Over when it ran on television, and variations on it crop up frequently where alleged psychics are involved. The willingness to believe plays a not insignificant role in the Forer effect, and also in a technique called cold reading that is employed – knowingly or unknowingly – by most professed mediums. The idea is to make informed, general guesses based on probabilities. The psychic calls out the name John to an audience of around 200 people. Considering that each person likely knows 100 people, by conservative estimates, the psychic has a database of at least 20,000 names. What are the odds that someone in that audience is named John, or knows someone else by that name?

A related technique is hot reading, which is when a supposedly ‘gifted’ person uses information obtained prior to the reading to give the appearance of supernatural abilities. During the 1980s, stage magician James Randi discovered that the self-proclaimed prophet and faith healer Peter Popoff was hot reading when he intercepted a radio transmission Popoff was receiving in a transmitter hidden in his ear. Off screen, Popoff’s wife was providing priorly obtained information on audience members to her husband.31 Accusations of hot reading have also been made against John Edward and James Van Praagh by their own audience members.32

The examples I’ve given of deception among mediums are specific, but explanations like cold reading, the Forer effect, and hot reading, are not limited to any individual, and it could rightly be said that the field of interest around talking to the dead is rife with evidence of them. With the long history of fraud behind mediumship, the lack of verifiable evidence that any spirit-to-human communication is going on, and the increasing awareness of psychological factors and tricks that play a role in things like séances and “messages from beyond”, there is no legitimate reason for thinking that psychics can tell us anything of special value about what happens after we die.

IV. Past Lives

When amateur Colorado hypnotist Morey Bernstein put housewife Virginia Tighe under hypnosis in 1952, he was surprised to find that after asking a series of questions taking her back through her history, Tighe suddenly began referring to herself as Bridey Murphy. “Murphy” claimed to be an Irishwoman from the city of Cork, born in 1798, and gave startling details about being the daughter of Duncan and Kathleen Murphy, living in a wooden house, marrying Sean Brian McCarthy at the age of 17, moving to Belfast, dying from a fall in 1864, and witnessing her own funeral. Bernstein published Tighe’s story in 1956 as The Search for Bridey Murphy, which became a best-seller and ignited interest in reincarnation and the practice of Past Life Regression (PLR) therapy.

According to most proponents of PLR, hypnosis can be used to access the unconscious mind, where memories from past lives are stored. PLR is often treated as a means for helping with a patient’s personal problems, not simply for uncovering who they were in a previous life. Regardless, there is no explanation for why past life memories, if they do exist, would be suppressed and stored in the unconscious. Such a view seems to presume mind-body dualism, since a different body should mean a different brain, too. Unless one imagines the mind to be separate from the brain, it makes little sense to suppose that we somehow acquire or retain the same memories of events experienced by another brain.

But if regressions like Mrs. Tighe’s are not actual past life memories, then what can account for all the detail she supplied? Cognitive psychologists like Dr. Elizabeth Loftus have studied the ease with which false memories can be implanted in subjects by the subtle art of suggestion. In one study, 24 subjects were asked to remember and write about events from their childhood, three of which were true, with a fourth invented by Loftus and her colleagues. After writing down their memories, each person was later interviewed two separate times about the answers they’d given. 29% of the subjects ‘remembered’ the false event, partially or fully, in writing, and 25% ‘remembered’ it even after both interviews. Loftus’ conclusion has been echoed by many other psychologists:

Nearly two decades of research on memory distortion leaves no doubt that memory can be altered via suggestion. People can be led to remember their past in different ways, and they can even be led to remember entire events that never actually happened to them. When these sorts of distortions occur, people are sometimes confident in their distorted or false memories, and often go on to describe the pseudomemories in substantial detail.33

The last sentence sounds quite a bit like the case of Virginia Tighe. In fact, following publication of Bernstein’s book, investigators looked for corroboration of anything related to Bridey Murphy and turned up empty-handed. No birth records, marriage records, or death records existed for this Irishwoman, and no one in the city of Cork seemed to know of her. One newspaper, however, did find a Bridie Murphy Corkell – an Irish immigrant in Chicago who had lived right across the street from Mrs. Tighe when she was a young child.34 The middle name of Tighe’s husband also happened to be Brian, just like the middle name of her alter-ego’s husband, and the name by which “Bridey Murphy” preferred to call him. Tighe’s experience with PLR exhibits cryptomnesia, which is when we forget how we have obtained previous information. As it turned out, her supposed past life was built on childhood memories she had forgotten over time.

The implantation of false memories through a practice like regression has become so recognized as a real scientific phenomenon that it has been used and upheld in courts of law.35 The False Memory Syndrome Foundation notes that, “Almost all introductory psychology textbooks include a section on false memories.”36

Of course, not all cases of PLR are as easily debunked as that of Bridey Murphy. There have been many stories of children who describe events and details from alleged past lives. Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson (1918-2007) spent around 40 years collecting reports of past life memories from children, and published his first book on the subject in 1966, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, which has become one of the most lauded works of its kind among believers in past lives. Several of the cases include specific names, towns, descriptions of places and persons, and other details that are quite striking at first. However, a number of flaws in Stevenson’s research cast doubt on the weight of his evidence.

Before publication of Twenty Cases, one of Stevenson’s interpreters for 2-3 of the cases in India was accused of fraud, delaying things until Stevenson could examine the reports with another interpreter.37 Paul Edwards, philosopher and editor-in-chief of MacMillan’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, criticized the reported case of Corliss Chotkin Jr. as being characteristic of Stevenson’s unimpressive investigative approach. Mrs. Corliss Chotkin told Stevenson that her son, Corliss Chotkin Jr., bore scars and exhibited behavior like that of her late uncle, Victor Vincent. Alarmingly, Mrs. Chotkin was Dr. Stevenson’s only source for the case. Worse yet, the story begins by noting how Vincent had told his niece a year before his death that, “I’m coming back as your next son. I hope I don’t stutter then as much as I do now. Your son will have these scars.”38 To top it all off, the Chotkin family were members of the Tlingit people, who are strong believers in reincarnation.

Edwards also cites an unpublished report by Charles Ransom, a lawyer hired as an assistant by Stevenson in the 1970s. In the report, Ransom notes how Stevenson had asked the children leading questions, how he spent too little time interviewing them, how his cases had a large gap between when the children began to recall their past life memories and when they were interviewed, and how Stevenson even filled in parts of the narrative at times. Ransom found that only in 11 out of 1,111 cases he’d seen was there no contact between the family of the deceased and the child, and 7 of those 11 were seriously flawed.39 A review of another book by Stevenson finds very similar problems, as well as the fact that belief in reincarnation is common to many of the communities and families the children belong to,40 further confirming the work of psychologist Robert Baker, who has identified belief in reincarnation as the single greatest predictor of having past life memories.41

Like with all the phenomena we’ve looked at in this article, past life memories appear to primarily come down to anecdotal evidence. Psychological studies and natural explanations provide a counter-balance to whatever elements of the stories might be corroborated. Flaws in methodology and in the anecdotes themselves build a hefty cumulative case against any conclusion involving the supernatural. All that remains to be said is that death is still very much a mystery, none the illuminated by these purported evidences for a life to come.

V. Confronting Death

On December 20th, 1996, at the young age of 62, the renowned astrophysicist and skeptic Carl Sagan died from pneumonia, following a lengthy battle with myelodysplasia. Ann Druyan, his wife of 15 years, spoke of how they each faced his death:

Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous — not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance… That pure chance could be so generous and so kind… That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time… That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful…

The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.

There is a myth among popular culture that when a non-religious person confronts death, they often buckle under the pressure. We hear so frequently about the solace that people of faith find in their belief that they will one day see their loved ones again in heaven. We also hear about the unpleasant fate awaiting those who follow the wrong path. As we have seen, though, there is no reliable, persuasive evidence that either belief is true. This might be viewed as bitter-sweet by many people: on the one hand, none of us have an eternity of torture and pain awaiting, but on the other hand, neither are our loved ones awaiting our arrival on the other side.

Who among us wouldn’t like to wake up after we end this life, surrounded by friends and family in a paradise beyond our wildest dreams, where there is no sorrow, no pain, and no death? This belief may be so widespread, at least in part, because it is so enticing. Unfortunately, no amount of conviction or religious fervor will make it true, and the evidence believers have proposed for it has been just as full of wishful thinking and assumptions as the belief in heaven itself. We have countless documented instances of brain injuries affecting the mind, like the case of Phineas Gage, who friends and employers reported as being drastically changed in personality and behavior after a large iron rod was driven completely through his head.42 We have observed the decay and eventual obliteration of our sensory apparatuses following brain death. What we know of the world, and from our experiences with death, strongly suggests that no conscious part of us outlasts our body.

If death is really the end, if we have no soul, energy, or consciousness, that survives the demise of our physical body in any significant way, then what is the point of life? Why not just throw in the towel now and avoid any future suffering? Earlier this year, I received an email from someone – presumably religious – who wanted to know my answer to precisely this question. “[T]he majority of the world is starving, diseased and suffering,” he said, “[People are] shooting children in schools, etc… why would you want to take a chance that any of this could happen to you or your child (if you have one)?”

I answered:

I think that question applies to just about everybody, including Christians and other theists. If this life is just the appetizer before an eternity of bliss and you’ve already crossed the finish line by finding Christ, putting your faith in Allah, or whatever, then what’s the point in sticking around afterwards? Why not just off yourself and all your loved ones to gain instant access to that eternal bliss? Heck, plenty of people have done just that for that exact reason (Andrea Yates and Deanna Laney come to mind for “sending” their kids to heaven, and there was another such case in Illinois this last November).

Personally, I don’t live a life so bad that I would consider it a greater benefit to be dead than to go on living. Sure, there are some things I could avoid, like sickness, tragedy, and so forth, but I would also miss the people I care about and put a heavy burden on them if I took my own life. It sounds cold, but the suffering of other people is out of sight and out of mind for me most of the time, so not really something that feels like a cost to me personally (hey, I’m willing to bet you’re not going down to the soup kitchens every weekend or building hospitals and schools in third world countries in your spare time either, are you?). More importantly, there’s not even the possibility of helping with the suffering of others at all if you’ve already made your exit from life.

To be frank, though, I believe firmly in the right to choose how we end our lives. For certain people, it can be the only hope of peace they might have, and when it comes to personal autonomy, there is arguably no higher sense of it than to make that decision between life and death. However, there has to be a desire there. I would prefer it be a desire that’s accompanied by a feeling of deep fulfillment. I’m not likely to go out in a fit of anger or frustration, but some day if my loved ones have gone and I’ve lived an enjoyable life and want to bring it to an end on a good note, I see nothing wrong with that.

You point out that death is inevitable. Of course it is, but inevitability is not a good reason for jumping the gun now. All music inevitably comes to an end, and all art will inevitably decay with time, but what sense would it make to disregard it while it’s still around? We enjoy what we enjoy, and it’s not easy to explain why, because each of us is different. Your desolate depiction of life may describe how you feel (although I doubt this and think you’re merely trying to set up an argument), but it doesn’t describe how I feel. What will your response be? “Well, you should feel as I feel.” I guess that’s too bad, isn’t it? I can’t force myself to see things as I don’t, and I can’t force myself to have desires that I don’t. That’s part of why you’re trying so hard, because you have to make the case that life is so miserably bleak because you know it’s not self-evident.

Which brings me back to how I began this message. It comes down to perspective. Obviously, there have been plenty of religious men and women who have felt that life just wasn’t worth putting up with anymore, because the rates of suicide are not exclusive to atheists – not by a long shot. So why don’t you see things their way? Probably because your perspective is different. Whether you think your god would disapprove, or if it’s some other reason, you have your desires just like I have mine. The only difference is that you might believe there’s a life after this one with unimaginable pleasures, while I think this life now is the only one we get. I’m not terribly psyched about non-existence (nor am I really bothered by it), because it’s, well, nothing. But it sure seems like there could be plenty of reason for you to rush headlong into that everlasting paradise. Whatever is stopping you must be something you desire more than jumping into that place right this instant. And if you understand that you can have a desire that overrides your desire to die, then you understand my answer.

In my article, Why Are We Here?, I argued that purpose is not something that can be conferred on us by any deity, but we each determine it for ourselves. We are here now because we choose to be here, and because others who love us and care for us want us to join them in this journey of life. Even if nothing happens after we die – if our atoms disperse throughout the cosmos and never again form us as we know ourselves at this moment – it would be a terrible waste not to enjoy the wonderful things in this fleeting life while they are around. Sagan and his wife recognized this, and it seems their lives were made richer for it.

As Mark Twain said, “Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born”.43 When we allow the fear of death to control us, living becomes a miserable chore. But when we learn to enjoy life for what it is, death becomes more like the coda in our own symphony. To an extent, what happens after we die is up to us, just as it is with how we live. The memories and legacy we leave behind will continue after death, with friends, family, loved ones, and any others we have touched in any way. We will not see anyone in another life, but if the memory we leave with them helps them to live a life that they enjoy, and even helps them to confront death in peace, have we not done more for them, and perhaps for ourselves, than any afterlife could?

After death, there really will be no sorrow, no pain, and no death. It won’t be because of any supernatural reason, but will simply be because we no longer exist. Immortality is not necessary to appreciate life or to come to terms with death. I take comfort in knowing that although I will no longer get to see those I love, or get to hear my favorite music, or get to read my favorite authors, or get to watch the wildlife outside my window, I will not be around to experience those longings. I will not even be blissfully unaware or peacefully at rest, because I will not be. What matters is that I be at peace at the moment of my death, and that I leave some of my strength, joy, and love to my loved ones and those who have known me.


Next in the Big Questions: Why Be a Good Person?

For related material, see my articles Finding Hope in a Godless World and Death: An Atheist Perspective.



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