Life After Death

An old friend wrote to me, sending a link to a very earnest film about a retired naval officer (I’ll call her G.) who became a medium, helping (as she believed) bereaved survivors receive transmissions from their loved ones on the Other Side. I wrote back to her as gently as I could.

Dear _____,

            Thank you for sending this film.  I did actually watch it all the way through.

            I have to agree with the large lady that unless someone is ready to accept beliefs of this kind, no amount of testimony will induce belief. And I am not prepared to accept it on the basis of butterflies, or unaccountable readings, or any similar phenomena. Nor, of course, am I prepared to reject it. I do not feel I have sufficient evidence one way or the other, and despite what G. calls it, I don’t feel what she offers is really evidence.

            The intensity with which people believe something is not evidence of its truth, no matter how convinced they are that it is.  It is usually something they are deeply invested in believing. Against the occasional butterfly, what are we to make of millennia of silence from beloved friends and ancestors implored so earnestly to appear? I would give a lot to see my father again, but just as wishing or even praying does not make it happen, believing does not make it true.

            How could G. pluck such specifics out of the air?  I leave aside the possibility of fraud and assume that G. genuinely believes she is speaking truth and relaying messages from dead people unknown to her. But the people before her – the widow, the daughter – are projecting these thoughts as intensely as they can. Which is more likely: that she is picking up thoughts telepathically from the people in front of her, or that she is relaying messages from the Spirit World?  Both are unlikely, but one is more unlikely than the other.

            Not having an explanation for such phenomena does not oblige a person to accept someone else’s explanation. If the dead can really communicate with us, why do they not do so directly? Why does the widow’s husband communicate with G., but not with his grieving wife? Why a butterfly and not a ghostly voice or apparition? Perhaps the dead visit us in dreams – I have spent some happy times there with my father in recent years. But is it not more likely that dream images come from our unconscious than from the Other Side? Remember Ockham’s Razor – always go with the simplest explanation that accounts for the phenomena. Remember the diagnosticians’ adage: when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.

            So I don’t deny that you and G. could be right – what basis would I have for doing that? My very doubt prevents me from asserting either that you are wrong, or that you are right. I am not convinced, even though I would really like to be. But thank you for trying to persuade me of something it would very much please me to be able to believe.

My friend wrote back thanking me for a thoughtful reply, and recommending several books about life after death and how the dead communicate with us. I replied.

Dear _____,

            I did indeed read one of those books – I forget which – at your suggestion some years ago. And my reaction was the same – I cannot deny this, but I cannot believe it either. The same with the stories of dying (which have encouraged me as I learn not to fear my own death). Are they true reporting of external circumstances, or are they sensations and emotions manufactured in the dying mind? Who can possibly know?

            In my view, having been given a close shave by Ockham’s Razor as a teenager (not that long before I stopped being shaved by anyone else’s razor), the only reasonable view to be taken from the universally observable phenomena is that when we die, the collections of attitudes and memories and conditioning and so on that we call our soul, mind, personality, individuality, whatever are annihilated, never to be seen again. The same is true for everyone. The idea that when we die, it’s over, and when our loved ones die that’s over too, is very repugnant to people who cannot accept that life is transient. So they have formed the counter-idea, in just about every culture there ever was, that really we survive, and there is a Happy Hunting Ground somewhere where we will all meet again.

            And maybe there is, but I don’t think so. I think views like yours and G.’s are based in an unwillingness to accept that we are all transient beings. It is brave of you to believe that in the face of what seems to me overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But I just can’t agree. Do you know the Parable of the Sower? Jesus said:

Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: and it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: but when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Matthew 4:3-9. So the seed that fell to you sprang up and increased, but the seed that you have kindly tossed to me has been gobbled up by the fowls of rationalism, and empiricism, and even Buddhism (non-reincarnational flavor). Not everyone has ears to hear every message. Jesus also said: “there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:13-14. But in this case, if you are right, there will be no gnashing of teeth – the moment I die, or maybe even a little while before, I will see that you are right, and my father will explain it all to me. I really, really hope it happens that way.