Is There an Afterlife?

David Fontana. Is There an Afterlife? O Books, 2005.
In this study, David Fontana analyses what he sees as the evidence for an afterlife from an examination of apparitions, hauntings, poltergeists, mental and physical mediumship, electronic voice phenomena, near death and out of the body experiences and reincarnation claims. This covers a wide field, and there is no doubt that much of the coverage is thorough. The exception is Ian Stevenson’s studies of childhood memories of past lives. This might seem puzzling given that this is the evidence that many students of this field find most persuasive. It would appear however that reincarnation does not really fit in with Fontana’s own Spiritualist beliefs.

Despite the obvious effort put into this book, and the voluminous references, it is unlikely that it will impress those not already among the converted; indeed many parapsychologists are likely to groan inwardly and think that with friends like this, who needs CSICOP. The problem is the usual toxic mix of credulity and snobbery which undermines so much of the work of the SPR. Material of varying degrees of credibility is piled together, and Fontana never really comes to grips with the possibilities of fraud or artefacts of perception and memory.

Again and again his argument seems to boil down the to the belief that nice middle class people don’t lie, and that the right education and upbringing can make one proof against other people’s fraud and your own malobservation. For a psychologist Fontana seems to have an incredibly naive and one-dimensional view of human nature and motivation. We are told for example that a woman diplomat engaged in EVP research couldn’t possibly be engaged in fraud because she would have too much to lose if found out. Of course the rest us recognise that nice respectable people sometimes lead very strange double lives, and indulge in all sorts of inappropriate and risky behaviours, the catastrophic consequences of getting found out only adding to the thrill. (The truly cynical would say that as diplomats lie for a living it should come easier to them than the rest of us).

Of course some of the cases reported here, if they occurred exactly as reported, would be very difficult to explain. It is also true that these cases tend to be the older ones, all dating to 70 or more years ago, and as such likely to impervious to reinvestigation.

Part of the problem is that like many in this field, Fontana is really only interesting in these odd experiences as a battering ram against modernity and ‘materialism’ both of which he disapproves. Indeed he writes like someone from the 1930s much of the time, and, yes, he does quote from Sir James Jeans. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia Supplement 59, November 2005.

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