Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Evidence in the Afterlife

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Any argument made on the existence of an afterlife requires an extent of conjecture due to the nature of death itself prohibiting first-hand accounts of afterlife experiences. Evidence found within one discipline also often contradicts that of another. It is therefore necessary to take a critical and interdisciplinary approach to explore the evidence used to debate the existence of an afterlife.

Across the Disciplines[edit | edit source]

Humanities[edit | edit source]

Religion[edit | edit source]

Book of the Dead, painted on an Egyptian coffin (c. 747 – 656 BCE)

Most evidence for the afterlife in Religion rely on interpretations from works of art, literature, or teachings, such as artwork found in churches (like the Chatres) depicting images of an afterlife [1] and literature that alludes to heaven, hell, or reincarnation.[2] Some examples include the Ancient Egyptian portrayals of afterlives through “The Coffin Texts” and “The Pyramid Texts”.[3] In religions like hinduism and buddhism, the afterlife is dominantly portrayed by art,[4] like the wheel of rebirth which “visually communicates... the realms of reincarnation”, and their practices.[5] Other notable examples are the Holy Bible,[6] prayers and fables,[7] and anecdotes from those claiming to have experienced an afterlife.[8]

However, it is acknowledged that since there is little non-human-made evidence within religion (most coming from texts or art), different biases can influence the interpretations of evidence.[9] For example, the most cited anecdotal interviews for reincarnation are from children,[10] universally known for their imagination and creativity. Moreover, this evidence may have been manipulated by religious leaders in order to influence followers.[11]

Religious evidence therefore tends to lack a sense of objectivity due to being interpretivist and more prevalent in pieces of art and literature, and can lack a sense of credibility due to the potential use of fiction, imagination, or hyperbole.

Anthropology[edit | edit source]

Anthropological evidence can be construed from cultural and archaeological perspectives. The existence of an afterlife is closely integrated with anthropology because, although the biological inevitability of death is shared by all species, humans are the primary origin of death concerns and are the initial creators of heterogeneous systems of afterlife beliefs.

Qualitative social research methods are essential for making an ethnographic approach towards collecting cultural evidence of an afterlife’s existence, focusing on observing and interpreting contemporary societies and their cultures, namely death rituals and ceremonies. The evidence is highly interpretivist and empirical. Many global indigenous tribes still exercise systems of afterlife beliefs, which act as a relief for ambivalence and fear toward death. Especially for less developed societies, the existence of the afterlife affects a society's cooperation, both culturally and economically.[12] It is important to note that anthropology originated in the West in the 19th century. Therefore, when interpreting evidence of an afterlife in native societies, it is often done under the influence of imperialism. Charles Eastman wrote regarding an afterlife among plains Indians: “The idea of a ‘happy hunting-ground’ is modern and probably borrowed, or invented by the white man”;[13] which also suggests the cross-cultural nature of the evidence of afterlife belief and how it is closely linked with other disciplines such as religion, history and sociology.

For archaeological anthropology, there exists physical evidence such as artefacts, architecture and texts that were used in the afterlife rituals. With the help of other disciplines, anthropologists can examine and analyze these using advanced technologies, thus providing a more detailed insight into ancient afterlife beliefs.

Sciences[edit | edit source]

Physics[edit | edit source]

An empirically supported idea within physics is the law of conservation of energy, claiming that energy and matter can only be transferred [14] Consequently, a deceased human’s matter only transfers through decomposition. This suggests that the Christian belief of resurrected bodies being of “incorruptible matter” is an “oxymoron and impossibility in our universe”.[15] Moreover, Galileo and Newton demonstrated that matter remains constant throughout the “observable universe”, evident through the observation of “spectral lines of light”.[16] This questions a physical difference between life and the afterlife, suggesting life after death remains on this plane of existence. Evidence from physics, which tends to be more objective, conflict with the interpretivist religious evidence. Overall, positivist evidence can be used from physics to suggest life after death is the entropy of nutrients from decomposing bodies rather than another conscious state of being.

Psychology[edit | edit source]

Ascent of the Blessed by Hieronymus Bosch, many believe that the painting captures the idea of near-death experiences

In psychology, evidence surrounding the afterlife is generally interpretivist, dealing with investigating origins of belief in the concept, the development of such thoughts, and near death experiences (NDEs). Belief in the afterlife has been proposed as a means of dealing with individual mortality: while enhancing positive death perspective, such beliefs also allow an acceptance of the negative aspects of death.[17] The idea of immortality of the soul may also be an intuitive religious concept.[18] Hence, some psychological evidence suggests that the idea of an afterlife has been constructed to ease the human experience as opposed to arguing for its existence.

NDEs are often characterized by the sensation of being in a different dimension, where the usual perception of space-time disappears while the physical dimension vanishes.[19] Psychologist Emily Williams Kelly states that NDEs show that a form of consciousness exists even after brain activity becomes abnormal.[20] Kelly argues that “if our conscious experience totally depends on the brain, then there can’t be an afterlife -- when the brain is gone, the mind is gone. But [...] when the brain seems to be virtually disabled, people are still having these experiences.”.[21] NDEs can also be reproduced by drugs such as ketamine [22] making further psychological study more accessible. However, subjects are not definitively (irreversibly) dead [23] during NDEs, making the NDE argument for the existence of the afterlife potentially less credible. However, research conducted by the Loyola University Medical Center shows that even after being clinically diagnosed as brain dead, some patients continued to show electroencephalographic activity for 36.6 hours.[24] This is an example of empirical evidence that exists even in situations of definitive death, although the necessity for an interpretivist approach in such cases must be noted.

Evidence for the afterlife in psychology can vary between working towards understanding the nature of human belief in the afterlife and personal accounts; it therefore combines both empirical and subjective evidence. As the concept of the afterlife is an inherently human idea, taking a psychological approach to investigating its evidence is appropriate since psychology is the science of the human mind/behaviour. However, it requires the use of perspectives from other disciplines such as philosophy, making such investigation interdisciplinary.

Evaluation[edit | edit source]

Evidence for or against the existence of an afterlife can be seen to be very speculative, with evidence either being very interpretivist or positivist. While more positivist evidence decreases the influences of biases, afterlife is closely associated to wellbeing and choice and as such, subjectivity is necessary. Although both are needed for a more holistic understanding, conclusions from the different evidence conflict. This questions the credibility of each discipline’s evidence and questions the superior way into continuing to study this debate.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Terence Nichols, "Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction", Brazos Press, 2010
  2. Louis Ginzberg, "This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment", Psychology Press, 2004
  3. J. Edward Wright, "The Early History of Heaven", Oxford University Press, 2000
  4. Terence Nichols, "Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction", Brazos Press, 2010
  5. Stephen F. Teiser, "Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples" Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007
  6. "The Holy Bible" Crossway, 2001
  7. Terence Nichols, "Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction", Brazos Press, 2010
  8. Hans TenDam, "EXPLORING REINCARNATION", December 2012
  9. Terence Nichols, "Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction", Brazos Press, 2010
  10. Hans TenDam, "EXPLORING REINCARNATION", December 2012
  11. Thomas Christianson, "Spiritual Manipulation: How To Spot It And What To Do About It” “Relevant Magazine”, October 13, 2016
  12. J Pediatr Nurs, "Death Rituals Reported by White, Black, and Hispanic Parents Following the ICU Death of an Infant or Child", 2016 Mar-Apr; 31(2): 132–140
  13. Gary R. Varner, "Ghosts, Spirits & the Afterlife in Native American Folklore and Religion", OakChylde Books/Lulu Press, 2010
  14. Barbara Montero "What Does the Conservation of Energy Have to Do with Physicalism?", December 6, 2006
  15. Terence Nichols, "Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction", Brazos Press, 2010
  16. Terence Nichols, "Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction", Brazos Press, 2010
  17. Patricia A. Schoenrade, "When I Die...: Belief in Afterlife as a Response to Mortality", 1989
  18. Vera Pereiraa, *, Luís Faíscab and Rodrigo de Sá-Saraivaa " Immortality of the Soul as an Intuitive Idea: Towards a Psychological Explanation of the Origins of Afterlife Beliefs", Journal of Cognition and Culture 12, 2012
  19. Ines Testoni, Enrico Facco & Federico Perelda, "Toward A New Eternalist Paradigm for Afterlife Studies: The Case of the Near-Death Experiences Argument", World Futures, 2017
  20. Lisa Miller, "Beyond Death: The Science of the Afterlife", TIME, 2014
  21. Lisa Miller, "Beyond Death: The Science of the Afterlife", TIME, 2014
  22. Jansen, K.L.R. "The Ketamine Model of the Near-Death Experience: A Central Role for the N-Methyl-D-Aspartate Receptor", Journal of Near-Death Studies, 1997
  23. Dell’Olio, A.J, "Do Near-Death Experiences Provide a Rational Basis for Belief in Life after Death?", SOPHIA, 2010
  24. Grigg MM, Kelly MA, Celesia GG, Ghobrial MW, Ross ER, "Electroencephalographic Activity After Brain Death", Arch Neurol, 1987