Life After Life


  • David Lester. Is There Life After Death? An Examination of the Empirical Evidence. McFarland, 2005.
  • Lance Storm and Michael Thalbourne (editors) The Survival of Human Consciousness McFarland. 2005.
These two books examine the evidence for human survival of bodily death from a moderately sceptical and a (mainly) moderate believers point of view.

Lester examines chiefly the evidence from Near Death Experiences and reincarnation claims, with short sections on ghosts, poltergeists, mediums, possession, death bed visions etc. He find the claims fascinating, and points out many of the pitfalls in simplistic sceptical counter explanations, he notes that the majority of the studies are marked by poor research, ideological bias, the reliance on old memories and the use of old cases. Cases are often investigated months, years or even decades after the alleged events have taken place, giving time for stories of the have become set.

Occasionally this criticism is slightly off balance, for example Lester argues that caution must be used in dealing with older cases because standards of investigation were weaker, yet in many respects the founders of the Society of Psychical Research had much more developed critical faculties than some of their current colleagues. However in general Lester makes points which can be applied to almost all studies of anomalous personal experiences.

In the Storm and Thalbourne anthology various writers try to get to grips with what survival of the human personality beyond bodily death might actually mean. The problem which anyone proposing some kind of survival faces, is that far from surviving beyond bodily death, the human personality all too often does not survive up to bodily death, as is the case in Alzheimer’s and related forms of dementia. Of the writers in this anthology, Donald Stokes most clearly faces up to this and other evidence from neurology, and proposes that all that could survive is content less consciousness, sans memory, sans experience, sans identity, which doesn’t seem a very pleasant prospect. Co-editor Storm himself suggests a variation on our old friend the information field, in which ‘absolute knowledge’ (whatever that means) of everything is preserved. Other contributors such as Keith Chandler, William Braude and William Roll, seem really to be arguing along similar lines.

In a paper with wider implications, James McClenon looks at cultural influences on Near Death Experiences, and notes that these can reflect changes in culture before these changes become part of official ideology, indeed they can held to make these ideological changes more explicit. This tends to make the debate between cultural and experiential sources academic, rather there is a continuous feedback, each continually influencing the other.

Michael Thalbourne’s study of hallucination proneness linked to various personality profiles also probably has wider relevance as might Robin Woofitt’s analysis of the actual language used by mediums.

There are some less good contributions, most notably David Fontana with his defence of physical mediumship and the notorious Scole experiment. His argument, that everything must be assumed to be genuinely paranormal unless someone can conclusively prove otherwise, is quite risible.  -- Peter Rogerson

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