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Choose one option between 450-550 words Option #1Why is the geographical location of heaven supposed to be an important issue in the Soul Narrative? Why is that issue such a tough one? Option #2This is something that has come up before: Do Trans-Humanism and Traditional Religion agree on the possibility of an un-embodied or disembodied personality? If so, why? Option #3What hurdles would purported evidence for a previous life, or lives, or for an After-Life have leap to be compelling?

Is There Anything Beyond Death?
A Parapsychologists Summation
BELIEF IN SOME form of an afterlife can be found in every
society known to us and, from the evidence of ceremonial burial
practices, appears to go back to remote prehistoric times. Various
psychological explanations for this fact have been advanced. We
are the only species that understands that we are doomed to die
and the idea of a life beyond the grave may be our brway of
compensating for the menace of our mortality. Such an idea
could derive substance from our dream life, because in our
dreams we engage in diverse activities while our body lies prone
on the bed. The fact, moreover, that it is impossible to imagine
one’s own total annihilation, because something must be left over
to do the imagining, would reinforce such a belief. At a more
sophisticated level, we have a tenacious belief in a just world.
But, because the world we know contradicts this belief so
flagrantly, it becomes necessary to invent a world where we do
all ultimately receive our just deserts.
At present, however, belief in an afterlife has been
severely eroded by the advance of science, which reveals that the
mind is so intimately dependent on the proper functioning of the
brain that the very idea that we could, in some form, survive the
destruction of our brain now strikes many educated people as so
farfetched as to be no longer worth considering. Where such
belief remains strong is among religious fundamentalists. All
three main monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and
Islam, teach the immortality of the soul. This is especially the
case with Christianity because of the central position of the
Resurrection in Christian doctrine. The faithful are promised a
share in Jesus’ own triumph over death or, as Paul puts it, “For, as
in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”‘
It is not surprising, therefore, that where religion is still
strong, belief in some form of survival is still prevalent. Thus, for
the United States, Gallup puts the figure at around 70 percent as
compared with Western Europe where it is a mere 43 percent,
while within Europe itself it is strongest in countries like Ireland,
where religion still counts (64 percent) and weakest in a
nonreligious country like Denmark (26 percent). It is true that
some modern Christian theologians, influenced by certain trends
in modern philosophy, have discarded the notion of survival as
they have discarded the miraculous element in religion generally.
The basic argument here is that personal identity becomes
meaningless without the body as one’s point of reference. But the
argument is questionable and, in my view, unsound. At all events,
the reason so many people still cling to a belief in an afterlife is
that this is what their religion teaches them.
In what follows, however, I want to discuss not why
people believe in an afterlife, but, rather, what empirical
evidence there is that would justify such a belief. This brings us
into the domain of psychical research.
The Evidence
I shall start by listing four broad categories of evidence. The first
and oldest type of evidence involves the alleged manifestations
of deceased individuals or what, in common parlance, would be
called “ghosts.” The second, and by far the most important
evidentially, consists of communications, ostensibly from
deceased entities, as purveyed by a medium. The third, which
only recently has become a target for serious research, consists of
evidence that persons now alive have had a previous life on
earth. And the fourth, which is even more recent as a topic for
research, involves the so-called near-death experience. This
means that someone, after being pronounced clinically dead, is
John Beloff: “Is There Anything Beyond Death?” – page 1 of 7
resuscitated and is then able to recall some special kind of
experience during this critical interval, usually of an
otherworldly kind.
Let us now consider each of these in turn.
1. There can be no doubt that people do see apparitions
and, in some instances, the apparition is so lifelike that it is only
after it has disappeared that the observer realizes that it was not
an actual person. There is also evidence of apparitions being seen
collectively by more than one observer at the same time or by
several observers independently on successive occasions.
However, apart from the so-called crisis apparitions where it
transpires that the person whose apparition was seen had just
died, such manifestations rarely communicate any important
information, contrary to what one might infer from fictional
accounts of hauntings. It is more as if the places in question
retain a sort of memory of their past inhabitants. One of the best
attested ghost stories in the literature is that of the so-called
Cheltenham ghost of 1885 in which the figure of a woman in
black, thought to be a previous owner, was seen on many
occasions by various witnesses. What makes that case more
trustworthy than most is that the principal witness, Rosina
Despard, the daughter of the current owner (known in the
literature as Rose Morton), was then studying medicine and
shortly afterwards become a practising doctor, a rare
accomplishment for any woman of that period.
2. The mediumistic evidence is the legacy of the
spiritualist movement, which erupted quite suddenly in 1848, in
Upper New York State, but then within the course of just a few
years spread to almost every country in the world and penetrated
almost every stratum of society, although, in England at least, it
was strongest among the upper working class which had turned
its back on the established churches.
The most common form of communication is a verbal
message delivered by the medium in her own person. In the case
of a so-called “trance medium,” however, the, supposed
communicator or some “spirit control” would speak in the first
person using the vocal mechanisms of the medium or, in the case
of a written communication, the medium’s hand. In the early part
of this century there were a number of remarkable women who
practised such “automatic writing.” They were not mediums in
the professional sense, but were educated women who happened
to be devotees of psychical research.
If we go back to the early days of spiritualism we find
that the phenomena were far more bizarre than anything we
would nowadays associate with mediumship. The furniture and
objects of the seance room would be moved about or even
levitated, musical instruments would appear to play of their own
accord, the spirit might speak directly from some point in the
room rather than through the medium’s mouth, or might inscribe
a message direct onto a pad or slate without using the medium’s
hand. Most spectacular of all was the phenomenon of
materialization in which the spirit would seek to manifest
temporarily as a quasi-physical phantom, usually, it was thought,
by extracting matter, or “ectoplasm,” from the medium’s body. A
“full form materialization” was always a rarity but partial
materializations of a hand or a face were common enough. I need
hardly add that these florid physical phenomena were always the
focus of intense suspicion and controversy. However, the whole
fraught topic of physical mediumship, although of obvious
interest to the student of the paranormal, is of dubious relevance
to the question of survival; it was, in the end, the great trance
mediums, such as Leonora Piper of Boston (whose career began
in 1884 and who died in 1950), who provided the most telling
evidence we have for the reality of survival. We shall come back
to her later.
John Beloff: “Is There Anything Beyond Death?” – page 2 of 7
3. But now let us turn to the evidence from past lives.
Here we are no longer concerned with existence in some other
world but, rather, with another life in this world. It has, of course,
always been a feature of Hindu and Buddhist teachings that we
are destined to be repeatedly reborn in this world unless we can
escape eventually from this cycle of rebirths and enter Nirvana.
No doubt belief in reincarnation in the West derives originally
from this source. When we turn to the evidence, however, we
find that it is of two kinds: (a) the ostensible memories of a past
life that can be elicited under hypnosis, and (b) memories of a
previous life that are occasionally reported spontaneously by
young children.
Hypnosis was already being used to elicit memories of
past lives in the late nineteenth century and was part of a late
flowering of the once powerful mesmeric movement. What gave
it impetus in recent times, however, was the publication of the
book by Morey Bernstein called The Search for Bridey Murphy.
It tells of a housewife in Colorado, known in the book as Ruth
Simmons, who, under hypnosis, recalls her life in nineteenthcentury Belfast. No one, however, has been able to trace the
identity of this “Bridey Murphy” who, nevertheless, it must be
said, showed a surprising knowledge of that place and period. In
general, I would say that in all the cases reported so far that have
been elicited under hypnosis, either there was no such person as
the one described or the character in question could have been
known to the informant who, in all innocence, might consciously
be quite unaware of the source of this knowledge – a case of
what psychologists call “cryptomnesia.”
The evidence based on the ostensible memories of the
very young is on a much sounder footing, thanks entirely to the
heroic labors of one individual, Ian Stevenson, a professor of
psychiatry at the University of Virginia who has made it his life’s
mission to investigate such cases. The University of Virginia
Press has now brought out five volumes of his case studies,
drawn mainly from Middle East, India, and Sri Lanka, plus a
further volume written for the general reader. Yet another volume
in the offing deals with the so-called birthmark cases. In such
cases the child’s verbal account is reinforced by a physical sign.
Thus, if the previous personality had died a violent death (and
violence figures prominently in the reincarnation literature), the
mortal wounds of the previous personality are reflected by
birthmarks on the body of the child.
In an ideal Stevensonian case, events might proceed
somewhat as follows. Almost as soon as the child learns to speak
it would start talking about another family elsewhere to which it
rightfully belonged. Its parents would, understandably,
discourage such talk but, if the child persisted and could furnish
enough particulars, attempts would be made to contact this other
family, wherever they might be. If the case attracted enough
attention it would come to the notice of one of Stevenson’s
informants in those parts and Stevenson himself would visit the
family and try to be present when the two families first met.
Then, acting through an interpreter, he would devise tests to see
whether the child would duly recognize certain people, objects,
or places connected with its previous personality. As the child
grew up its memories of a former life would fade but certain
traits of personality or certain habits or strong likes or dislikes
would persist.
4. The final category we shall consider, the so-called
near-death experience, is essentially a peculiarly vivid
hallucination. That there should be any mental experiences
whatsoever when a patient is presumed to be in a deep coma is
itself an anomaly but it is the form it takes that makes it relevant
to the survival problem. Typically, individuals report passing
through the following four stages: (a) hovering some distance
above their body while watching attempts being made to induce
John Beloff: “Is There Anything Beyond Death?” – page 3 of 7
resuscitation; (b) entering a long dark tunnel from which they
emerge into a dazzling and glorious pool of light; (c) finding
themselves in some kind of paradise where they meet lost loved
ones and beg to be allowed to stay but are told to go back as
there is still important work to be done on earth; and (d) finding
themselves back in their physical body gasping for breath.
Many who report such experiences say that they are no
longer afraid of death. Sometimes the effect is like a religious
conversion where the convert thereafter tries to be a better and
more loving person. Estimates of the proportion of those who
have reported such an experience after being resuscitated vary
from one researcher to another but some medical authorities have
put it as high as 50 percent. Unlike the other categories we have
mentioned, it is only quite recently that the near-death experience
has attracted the attention of psychical researchers. An American
medical man, Raymond Moody, published a short collection of
such cases in 1975. Much to his own and his publishers’
astonishment, the book soon became a best-seller. Today a whole
new field of near-death studies has developed, replete with its
own professional organization, The International Association of
Near Death Studies; its own specialist journal, Anabiosis; and
many volumes of research findings by doctors, psychologists,
and others.
A related phenomenon is the so-called death-bed vision.
In this case we are dealing with someone who is actually dying
and who is aware of the situation and surroundings. But, here
again, we find references to celestial visions and to seeing the
figures of those who had gone before and have now come to take
the dying one away. Sometimes a revered religious figure, such
as Jesus, acts as the guide to the next world. In 1926, William
Barrett, a physicist and pioneer psychical researcher, published a
book called Death-Bed Visions, but current interest in the topic
stems from a monograph, published in 1961 by the
Parapsychology Foundation of New York, by their then research
officer, Karlis Osis, called Deathbed Observations by Physicians
and Nurses. Osis went on collecting death-bed visions but,
eventually, he wanted to find out how far they were influenced
by the subject’s cultural background. He therefore collaborated
with a doctor in India, working with a predominantly Hindu
population, so as to be able to compare findings. The outcome
was published in 1977. Although there were some clear cultural
differences in the kinds of visions described, there was also much
in common. Thus, according to the authors: “When the dying see
apparitions, they are nearly always experienced as messengers
from a post-mortem mode of existence” whose function, in both
cultures, is “to take the patient to the other world.”
So what, you may ask, are we to conclude? It would be nice if
one could say that those who had studied the evidence were
convinced of survival whereas those who were ignorant
dismissed it. But such is not the case. From the outset, psychical
researchers have been deeply divided on this issue. This lack of
consensus among the authorities is not surprising. The fact is that
we can set no limit on the psychic powers of the living. Hence, if
a medium makes statements purporting to come from the
deceased, how can we be sure that she is not merely personifying
information she has gleaned using her telepathic or clairvoyant
powers? It is true that such a medium would be unlikely to
succeed on any standard test for ESP but we know that
paranormal phenomena are highly sensitive to situational factors
and it may be that only the conditions of the seance suffice to
bring out her special gifts.
A point on which nearly all the experts would agree is
that the information supplied by a medium such as Mrs. Piper
John Beloff: “Is There Anything Beyond Death?” – page 4 of 7
cannot be explained away along the lines we would use to
dismiss the claims of some inferior medium, such as relying on
generalities, fishing for hints from the sitter’s reactions, trading
on items of inside knowledge about the case in question, and so
forth. The precautions which Richard Hodgson, her chief
investigator, took with Mrs. Piper border on the paranoid. Not
only were sitters always introduced anonymously and after she
had gone into her trance but they even took up a position behind
her where she could not have seen them had she had her eyes
open. Furthermore, Hodgson had her tailed by private detectives
who even opened her mail, yet nothing suspicious ever turned
up. Yet Mrs. Piper continued to pour forth a profusion of
pertinent statements, not only when she was on her home turf in
Boston but when she traveled to England and was tested in
Liverpool, Cambridge, and London. As she was paid a retaining
fee throughout her career by the Society for Psychical Research
in London, she was able to devote herself full time to research
instead of giving private sittings.
Probably the person for whose postmortem existence we
have the best evidence is a George Pellew. He was a Bostonian
gentleman, a member of the newly founded American S.P.R.,
and, although he did not himself believe in survival, he once told
his friend Hodgson that, should he die in the not too distant
future and then discover that he had survived, he would earnestly
attempt to communicate the fact through Mrs. Piper. In the event,
he did die soon afterward in an accident at the early age of 33
and, lo and behold, a spirit-control calling itself George Pellew
(in the literature, for the sake of anonymity, he is referred to as
George Pelham, or just G. P.) duly began communicating through
Mrs. Piper. Whenever she held a sitting at which any of his
friends were present, he never failed to greet them whereas,
conversely, he never greeted anyone he had not known during his
lifetime. In this way he correctly recognized 30 out of a possible
150 individuals without making a single error.
Then, after some years, he stopped communicating. It
appears to be a general rule that it is the recent dead who
communicate through mediums, especially when they have died
prematurely, leaving unfinished business. This raises the question
as to what happens to us eventually, assuming we do survive. Do
we, in due course, progress to some higher spiritual sphere where
we lose all interest in earthly matters? Does our private ego
merge with some universal cosmic mind? We can but speculate.
However, a case like that of G. P. reminds us that, perhaps, some
people are better able to communicate than others, just as some
are more psychically gifted than others. It also reminds us that
survival does not necessarily imply eternal life.
Hodgson, himself, died soon afterward, also somewhat
prematurely at the age of 50 while playing squash. He likewise
soon began communicating through Mrs. Piper, and it then fell to
his friend William James to study and evaluate the R.H. control.
James, the great pioneer of psychology in America and a Harvard
professor, was the one who had originally discovered Mrs. Piper.
As befits an academic, he was very cautious about coming to a
definite conclusion about anything, but he had no doubt whatever
that the entranced Mrs. Piper knew more about Richard Hodgson
than she could possibly have known in her waking life.
Perhaps, the most sophisticated attempts to demonstrate
survival that has ever been undertaken is one that began in 1901
with the death of Frederic Myers, perhaps the most important
pioneer of psychical research and the author of Human
Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Messages
purporting to come from the deceased Myers began being picked
up in the automatic scripts of Margaret Verrall. Margaret Verrall
was a lecturer in classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, the
John Beloff: “Is There Anything Beyond Death?” – page 5 of 7
wife of Arthur Verrall, who was likewise a classicist at
Cambridge. The plan the postmortem Myers had concocted was
to involve a number of mediums who practised automatic
writing. He would select themes from Greek and Latin literature
and convey these piecemeal through different mediums so that
only when pieced together would the complete story emerge. …
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