The Nature-Nurture-Nietzsche Blog

Exploring life at the intersection of biology, psychology, and philosophy.

Evidence for Life after Death?

Why the evidence for life after death doesn't stack up

In an earlier post, I argued against the idea that the mind could survive the death of the brain. One thing I didn't do was discuss the empirical evidence that supposedly supports the reality of life after death. This evidence comes from a wide range of reported paranormal phenomena, including out-of-body experiences (OOBEs), near-death experiences (NDEs), ghost sightings, mediums conversing with the dead, and recollections of past lives. These phenomena, if they really are what they seem to be, would provide a strong reason to believe that we survive death (although they wouldn't imply that we necessarily survive forever). So, how good is the evidence that these phenomena really are real?

The short answer is: not great. To begin with, much of the putative evidence for life after death is easily explained in purely naturalistic terms. For example, although there's no reason to doubt that people have OOBEs and NDEs, these experiences are plausibly explained in physiological or psychological terms. Similarly, memories of past lives may be false memories, and ghost sightings may be hallucinations or misinterpretations of ambiguous stimuli. These alternative explanations do not in themselves prove that there's nothing supernatural going on. However, wherever there is a plausible alternative explanation for a phenomenon, we must concede at the very least that we have no strong reason to accept the supernatural interpretation. In addition, there is some evidence that actively undermines the credibility of such interpretations. An amusing example: Some mediums have "successfully" made contact with people who, unbeknownst to them, were actually fictional or still alive.

See All Stories In

Do You Believe in an Afterlife?

Understanding our feelings about the great beyond and the paranormal.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

But not all alleged paranormal occurrences can be explained in naturalistic terms. We've all heard stories, for example, of deceased relatives returning to the world of the living and conveying information that couldn't possibly have been gained in other ways. Of course, one might wonder why, if these kinds of things can happen ever, they don't happen more often. Still, if any of these reports are accurate, naturalistic explanations would simply not be plausible. We would have good reason to believe in life after death. Our suspicions should immediately be aroused, though, by the fact that the evidence for these unambiguously paranormal occurrences is almost always poorly corroborated or anecdotal. Anecdotal reports are notoriously unreliable, and a general pattern in parapsychological research is that, whenever reliable scientific methods are applied to the investigation of a paranormal phenomenon, the phenomenon in question suddenly seems to vanish into thin air.

So the situation is this: Where there's good evidence for a supposedly paranormal occurrence (e.g., NDEs and OOBEs), it can be given a naturalistic explanation; where a naturalistic explanation cannot be given for a paranormal occurrence, there's no good evidence for it. This is precisely the pattern we'd expect if there were no reality to paranormal phenomena. In short, there is no good empirical evidence for life after death.

-Steve Stewart-Williams is the author of the book Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life - available now from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.uk.

Follow Steve Stewart-Williams on Twitter

Steve Stewart-Williams is a lecturer at Swansea University and author of the book Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life.

more...

Subscribe to The Nature-Nurture-Nietzsche Blog

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.