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Is There Evidence for an Afterlife?

Victor Stenger

Volume 20.2, June 2010

D’Souza claims that near-death experiences (NDE) suggest that consciousness can outlive the breakdown of the body, and they cannot be explained as the product of dying brains.

In his recent book Life After Death: The Evidence (2009), conservative author Dinesh D’Souza provides several arguments for evidence of life after death, some of which I had not heard before. Here I will give a short summary with some responses.

Near-Death Experiences

D’Souza claims that near-death experiences (NDE) suggest that consciousness can outlive the breakdown of the body, and they cannot be explained as the product of dying brains. The same experiences, which have all the characteristics of hallucinations caused by oxygen deprivation, can be found in situations in which a subject is not near death. Despite thousands of cases, no one has ever come back from an NDE with information that could not have been in their heads originally.

Past-Life Memories

D’Souza is properly skeptical of the work of the late Ian Stevenson, psychiatrist and professor at the University of Virginia. Stevenson collected thousands of cases of children recalling details from past lives, mostly in India and other cultures that believe in reincarnation. Independent investigations indicated that the children could have known about the people they claimed to be in a previous life, who were usually from the same or nearby villages.

Why would children make up such stories? Many were motivated to improve their status in society, for example, to show they belong in a higher caste. Or they desired to become religious celebrities, a common occurrence in India, D’Souza points out, for children who appear especially anointed. Independent analyses of Stevenson’s data by experts did not find a single case with convincing evidence of reincarnation.

Modern Physics

D’Souza claims that modern physics shows that matter exists that is “radically different from any matter we are familiar with.” I assume he is referring to the so-called “dark matter” and “dark energy.” While it is true that we do not yet know their exact natures, they exhibit those properties of inertia and gravitation that define what we * mean by “matter” and exhibit nothing that might be called “spiritual.” Furthermore, plausible candidates exist for these forms of matter within the current standard models of physics and cosmology.

Cosmology

D’Souza mentions the possibility suggested by modern cosmology that multiple universes exist that could have different natural laws than ours—and proposes that perhaps we can live beyond death in one of those realms. While these universes may have different laws, they are still made of matter and therefore none is a candidate for a world of pure spirit.

Modern Biology

D’Souza claims that modern biology shows that the “evolutionary transition from matter to mind does not seem random or accidental but built into the script of nature.” He wishfully interprets this as a transition from material to immaterial. First, this view is far from the mainstream of modern biology, and it is held by a small minority of biologists who allow their religious faith to intrude on their science. Second, even if they are right about some previously unrecognized teleological principle in action, there is no basis for concluding that it is not purely material.

Neuroscience

D’Souza claims that neuroscience has shown that the “mind cannot be reduced to the brain and materialism is at a dead end.” He has misinformed his readers about the facts. The number of active neuroscientists today who are mind-body dualists probably can be counted on the fingers of one hand. He claims that consciousness and free will seem to operate outside the domain of objective science. In fact, considerable research exists suggesting exactly the opposite conclusion. Models of purely material consciousness have reached the state where they are being tested in the laboratory with a whole array of wonderful new tools. These models are already finding practical applications in helping people with brain disorders.

Morality

D’Souza argues, “morality is best understood under the presupposition that there is cosmic justice beyond the world.” Evolution, he says, cannot explain morality since it is based in selfishness, the opposite of morality. Morality rises above self-interest but not “gene-interest,” as Richard Dawkins famously explained in The Selfish Gene.

D’Souza claims that morality must come from somewhere outside the evolution-dominated material world. But then he tells us that people are moral because they expect to be rewarded in the afterlife. So it’s self-interest after all! Except if you are an atheist and don’t believe in an afterlife, in which case you have no reason to be moral. Thus D’Souza’s model predicts that believers in the afterlife will be far more moral than nonbelievers. What do the data say? They indicate quite the contrary—that atheists are, if anything, somewhat more moral than theists. And unlike theists, their morality does rise above self-interest. Thus D’Souza’s hypothesis is falsified by the data and can hardly be put forth as a case for the existence of an afterlife.

Practical Reason

Finally, D’Souza tries to convince us that belief in the afterlife is good for us and good for society. He claims that these beliefs, in particular those of Christianity, provide the core foundation of everything we hold dear in society: equality, human dignity, democracy, human rights, and even peace and compassion. But he does not show us where in Christianity these values can be found. They are certainly not in the scriptures. They can’t be found in the history of Christianity. In fact, they can be found in societies that predate Christianity. Indeed, one might wonder why they took so long to take hold in our modern society when they have been around for thousands of years. Could the reason be that there was a period of about 1,000 years, from roughly 500 to 1500, when Christianity ruled Europe and much of the progress of previous centuries ground to a halt?

Victor Stenger

Victor J. Stenger is emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Colorado. His latest book is The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Humanity. His previous books include Not By Design, Physics and Psychics, The Unconscious Quantum, and Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes.