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The Case Against Immortality

[This essay was originally published in Vol. 5, No. 2 of Skeptic Magazine in 1997. The version presented here has been significantly expanded.]

But in the present state of psychology and physiology, belief in immortality can, at any rate, claim no support from science, and such arguments as are possible on the subject point to the probable extinction of personality at death.

— Bertrand Russell, “Religion and Science”

Defining the Problem

Is there life after death? This question has been asked since the dawn of civilization. It is arguably the most important and most personal question that can be asked in light of the realization of one’s own mortality. Immortality is a complex issue dependent on several other philosophical questions which need to be addressed. A fundamental prerequisite for addressing the issue of immortality is to set the problem within its proper context.

Corliss Lamont defines immortality as:

The literal survival of the individual human personality or consciousness for an indefinite period after [physical] death, with its memory and awareness of self-identity essentially intact (Lamont 22).

An essential fundamental distinction is the difference between survival of bodily death and immortality. Survival implies only the continued existence of the personality after the physical death of the body without specifying whether that existence is eternal or eventually leads to annihilation (Edwards, “Introduction” 2). Although arguments have been advanced which attempt to prove the indestructibility and hence immortality of the soul (e.g. Plato), these are not the concern of this essay. Nor are potential problems with the notion of eternal existence addressed. The concern of this essay is, however, the logical possibility of and evidence for or against survival of bodily death. Arguments for survival establish nothing in favor of immortality; however, arguments against survival are arguments against immortality. In other words, immortality presupposes the possibility of survival. This also means that any evidence deemed from parapsychology serves only as evidence for survival (2). This essay will not discuss ethical arguments which attempt to establish immortality as a necessary consequent of the benevolence of an omnipotent God. This line of argument would divert us from the present topic of this paper and bring out arguments about the existence and nature of God which are beyond the scope of this essay. Rather, the arguments analyzed here will be either of a philosophical or empirical nature.

There are two fundamental positions on the question of immortality. The survival hypothesis asserts that the human personality will continue to exist in some form after the death of the physical body. The extinction hypothesis contends that the human personality will permanently extinguish after the death of the body. This distinction may seem redundant and obvious, but the necessity of this precise definition will become clear when we analyze survival theories which invoke temporary extinction. I will assume that the burden of proof falls on the survival hypothesis because in our daily lives we know of the existence of the personality only in association with the living physical organism; that is, conclusive evidence for the continued existence of the personality after the death of the physical body does not exist for any of the views I will analyze.

Another important distinction is the difference between personal and impersonal forms of survival. Personal survival means that people will survive bodily death as distinct individuals. An example of impersonal survival would be the Buddhist belief in nirvana as a kind of Absolute Mind that individual minds merge or are absorbed into when enlightenment is fully realized (Edwards, “Introduction” 2-3). This essay will focus exclusively on personal survival.

There are three “vehicles” for the survival of the personality after the death of the body that will be considered: the disembodied mind, the astral body, and resurrection. These vehicles can be used alone or in combination. A disembodied mind is an immaterial, nonspatial substance which constitutes a person’s mental states–a “soul”. The astral body is a form of exotic matter, for in its most fundamental sense it refers to a spatial entity which has physical characteristics such as shape, size, and spatial position. These criteria must be met to distinguish the astral body from the disembodied mind. The astral body is consequently detectable in principle but extremely difficult to detect in practice–otherwise it would be noticed leaving the body at death or perhaps during out-of-body experiences. The astral body can also be specifically envisioned as mirroring the physical body’s features.

Resurrection of the body is an overt miracle from God in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition and thus presupposes the truth of traditional monotheism. Thus, as Kai Nielsen points out, “if the grounds for believing in God are scant the grounds for believing in bodily resurrection are doubly scant” (Nielsen 238). This point is relevant because arguments against the existence of God are decisive arguments against resurrection; but arguments of this sort are not my present concern. To isolate resurrection as a vehicle for survival I will assume a version of resurrection which posits the extinction of the personality at death and its re-creation with a resurrection of the body. Resurrection can be conceived of in two forms: the literal resurrection of the decayed corpse or the creation of a new body or “replica”. It should be noted that there can be no empirical evidence in support of resurrection if it is taken to be a future event on Earth or an event that takes place in another world.

Immortality is related to the mind-body problem and the problem of personal identity in philosophy. The mind-body problem is concerned with how the mind and body are related to each other. Many theories have been proposed to solve the mind-body problem. Modern materialism contends that mental states are reducible to physical brain states. Thus, if materialism is true, survival in the form of disembodied minds or astral bodies is ruled out automatically. Epiphenomenalism, which contends that the mind is a separate yet dependent by-product of the brain, has the same implications for survival. Resurrection is compatible with both of these theories of mind. A dualism that contends that the mind is a separate, independent entity from the brain is a necessary presupposition for the possibility of disembodied minds or astral bodies (Edwards, “Dependence” 292). Resurrection is consistent with dualism if it is coupled with the notion of a soul which constitutes the personality and thus does not extinguish with the body at death but continues to exist and is later rejoined to a resurrected body (Flew, “God” 108). Personal identity is concerned with what makes a person the same person over time. Personal identity problems will arise in the context of specific arguments about the logical possibility of immortality.

The Philosophical Case Against Immortality

Immortality has primarily been an issue discussed among philosophers. Thus, in analyzing the case for the permanent extinction of the personality at death, it is convenient to address the philosophical arguments before looking at the scientific evidence for annihilation. Logical arguments, if successful, are decisive; thus, not even an appeal to faith could vindicate a belief that is incoherent because no one would understand what it is that one claims to believe. The extinction hypothesis is supported by the conceptual problems that plague the notions of disembodied minds, astral bodies, and resurrection.

Belief in survival in the form of disembodied minds presupposes that people possess an immaterial, nonspatial substance which constitutes the personality. One objection to this view, that human beings are essentially corporeal, is stated by Corliss Lamont:

If we carefully examine their accounts, we find that … they actually provide this spirit with a body … [T]heir descriptions give to it activities, functions, and environments usually pertaining to earthly existence and natural bodies. The immortal personality … enjoys and suffers a great many experiences that would simply be impossible without the cooperation of … the body (Lamont 46).

Gardner Murphy illustrates this point when he asks us “to try … to imagine what his personal existence would be like if he were deprived of every device for making contact with his environment” (Edwards, “Introduction” 47). Antony Flew gives an excellent example of our corporeal nature:

Consider … how you would teach the meaning of any person word to a child. This is done … by some sort of direct or indirect pointing at members of that very special class of living physical objects to which we one and all belong (Flew, “God” 111).

Thus, to quote John Hospers: “Your body seems to be involved in every activity we try to describe even though we have tried to imagine existing without it” (Hospers 280).

This brings up an interesting point. Even if you conceded the possibility of disembodied existence, you would still have to justify the identification of the disembodied spirit with the previously “flesh and blood” person. C. D. Broad makes the point:

If I cannot clearly conceive what it would be like to be an unembodied person, I find it almost incredible that the experiences of such a person … could be sufficiently continuous with those had in his lifetime by any deceased human being as to constitute together the experiences of one and the same person (Broad 278).

Many philosophers have argued the bodily continuity is more essential to personal identity than memory because memory claims can be true or false; thus memory in itself is not enough to make you the same person over time–bodily continuity, they argue, is required (Edwards, “Introduction” 48-9).

Another problem for disembodied minds is called the problem of individuation. Basically, the problem is: How do we distinguish mind A from mind B? The answer is spatial location of their bodies (Edwards, “Introduction” 49). It is inconceivable how two minds could be distinguished otherwise, especially if we add the further condition that these minds be identical in thought content, which is logically possible.

This brings us to the notion of astral bodies. What astral body theories attempt to do is “portray an immortality in terms of a visual image of the body that is entirely dissociated from the tactile image, to preserve the form of the earthly body without its solidity” (Lamont 48). This is the type of immortality that most people envision. This view tends to reinforce the argument that humans are essentially corporeal by defining astral bodies by relation to physical bodies:

Does not this view … avoid the dilemma we have been describing? It does, but only to confirm quite clearly our central argument. For as soon as our death-conquering spirit becomes itself a material thing, it then and there receives a body … Thus the essential unity of the body-personality is again demonstrated (Lamont 49).

Flew states the problem as follows: “It is, obviously, to find some positive characterisation for an astral body” (Flew, “God” 117). That is, if we are to begin to take the notion of astral bodies seriously, we are going to need some positive criteria for what it is to be an astral body rather than a contrast between it and disembodied minds or normal physical bodies.

One absurdity for astral body theories is that astral bodies would require astral clothes, not to mention an entire astral plane which quite conveniently appears and functions almost exactly like the physical world[1]. Another problem for astral body theories is the problem of synchronization. The astral body is supposed to be an exact duplicate of the physical body (Edwards, “Introduction” 21). Thus, for every physical action there is a corresponding astral action (22). As Paul Edwards points out, “all events in a person’s life [involve] physical contact … [but] the astral body cannot touch or be touched by another body” (22). Edwards puts the last nail in the coffin for a version of astral body theories when he observes that:

If the astral body is an exact duplicate of the regular body it must die along with the regular body … If the secular body died as the result of a brain tumor or as the result of being shot through the heart, the astral brain and astral heart must have been similarly injured (22).

There are no conceptual difficulties, however, with a modified theory of astral bodies. It is not necessary for astral bodies to mirror physical bodies exactly; the minimum required characterization for astral bodies is that they have some physical characteristics such as shape, size, and spatial position. A minimum characterization, however, hardly provides a plausible account. A specific positive characterization is required for a credible theory. What form of exotic matter is the astral body constituted of? Why does the astral body remain undetected? How does the astral body function?

Finally we are brought to resurrection. Literal resurrection of the decayed corpse faces a single insuperable difficulty: How are the constituent parts of a long-decayed corpse that have been absorbed into other human beings going to be reconstituted along with the other people who share the same matter? Cannibalism poses the same problem.

The other form of resurrection invokes the creation of a new body that is not materially continuous with the old. Flew immediately objects: “Thus to produce even the most indistinguishably similar object after the first one has been totally destroyed and disappeared is to produce not the same object again, but a replica” (Flew, “God” 107). Peter Van Inwagen argues that this objection is even valid in regard to literal resurrection. He urges us to imagine a manuscript that was written by St. Augustine, burned by Arians in 457, and miraculously recreated by God in 458 (Van Inwagen 242). Van Inwagen contends:

The manuscript God creates … is not the manuscript that was destroyed, since the various atoms that compose the tracings of ink on its surface occupy their present positions not as a result of Augustine’s activity but of God’s (Van Inwagen 243).

He also uses the analogy of a house of blocks built by a child. If the mother accidentally knocks down the house and rebuilds it in the same configuration the blocks originally were in, the resulting house would not be the house of blocks built by the child, but by the mother (Van Inwagen 243).

As John Hick has argued, whether or not the replica can be identified with the original person is a matter for decision. The “replica objection” assumes that someone’s being me is a fact that is independent of the existence of any other people. In other words, since the replica would not be me if I existed and had not died, there is no room for calling the replica me after the dissolution of my original body. This assumption, however, is invalid. Van Inwagen seems to be playing linguistic games when he argues that reconstituting the person from the same matter would be a replica. The manuscript God creates has the same causal history as St. Augustine’s manuscript since they are materially continuous with each other, thus they are the same manuscript. That a replica is materially continuous with the original person indicates identity, but bodily continuity is not necessary for personal identity. If I have my car repaired and every single part is gradually replaced, is the resulting car the same car? Indeed it is. If every single part was disassembled and at some later date the car was reassembled completely from different parts, but with the same exact material and quality and in the same exact configuration as the original, the resulting car would be the same car. It is the same car because it is the closest-continuer of the original[2]. If the original exists and an exact replica is created, then the original would be the closest-continuer and the replica would not be the same car. That the original is destroyed does matter. If my body dies and a replica is created, there is room for calling it me; if my body lives and a replica is created, there is no room for calling it me. Thus the replica objection fails to rule out the possibility of resurrection.

Conceding that bodily resurrection is logically possible, however, is not saying much. On scientific grounds the belief that a person whose remains have turned to ash or been absorbed into other organisms will actually be regenerated as a fully-functional replica is incredible. To use one of Kai Nielsen’s examples, such an event is as unlikely as a man growing an aluminum exoskeleton while his bones turn into iron rods (Nielsen 240). While we can imagine what it would be like for these kinds of events to happen by forming a general picture of them, we have no idea how such events could actually occur when it comes down to their details (Nielsen 240-41). Providing a detailed explanation of how a resurrection replica could come into existence is about as promising as explaining how astronauts could build a space station in the center of the Sun. Such events are logical possibilities only because they are not self-contradictory in the way that the notion of a round square is. But they are not real scientific possibilities.

Those who believe in bodily resurrection would probably concede that this is all very unlikely in the absence of a miracle from God. But they would argue that resurrection is not unlikely if the possibility of divine intervention is allowed. Resurrection would require an act of God, of course, but we have no more grounds for believing that an intelligent Creator would resurrect dead human beings than we have for believing that he would resurrect the dinosaurs. This is the case because we have no reliable way of determining how likely or unlikely any event is once supernatural intervention is allowed. As a consequence of this, resurrection of the dead is just as likely given supernatural intervention as is growing an aluminum exoskeleton while one’s bones turn into iron rods.

Another problem for survival in any form is the age regression problem, which is stated by W. T. Stace:

When an old man dies, what kind of consciousness is supposed to survive? Is it his consciousness as it was just before death, which may perhaps have become imbecile? Or is it the consciousness of his mature middle age? Or is it the infant mind that he had when he was a baby? The point of these questions is not that we do not know the answers … The point is that all possible answers are equally senseless … [W]ill the old man who dies suddenly revert to his middle years after death? And will the infant who dies suddenly become mature? (Edwards, “Introduction” 60).

The conceptual problems for the three common vehicles for survival make survival a highly implausible possibility. Disembodied existence is inconceivable, astral bodies are too ill-defined or undefined to warrant their acceptance, and literal resurrection cannot account for the fact that many people who have shared the same matter cannot all be resurrected of that matter. There are no logical problems for the prospect of a resurrection replica, but given our past experience, resurrection is an extremely unlikely prospect for the future. Now I shall turn to the scientific evidence.

The Scientific Case Against Immortality

Modern science demonstrates the dependence of consciousness on the brain, verifying that the mind must die with the body. This conclusion is emotionally difficult to accept. Dylan Thomas forcefully expresses the animosity that many of us feel toward the prospect of our inevitable extinction: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lamont 211). Miguel de Unamuno expresses similar feelings: “If it is nothingness that awaits us, let us make an injustice of it; let us fight against destiny, even though without hope of victory” (Lamont 211). Bertrand Russell comes to a different conclusion: “I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting” (Edwards, “Immortality” vi). I must admit that, when confronted by the death of someone close to me, or contemplating my own inevitable death, I am not comforted by such words of wisdom. Nevertheless, we cannot base our beliefs on what we want to be true; the truth can only be found by weighing the evidence for a given idea. In the case of immortality, the extinction hypothesis is supported by strong and incontrovertible evidence from the hard experimental data of physiological psychology, whereas the survival hypothesis is supported at best by weak and questionable anecdotal evidence from parapsychology.

The rallying cry of many parapsychologists is that they have discovered indisputable evidence for paranormal or “psi” phenomena inexplicable by modern science which has either been ignored or denied by the scientific community at large on the purely dogmatic grounds that psi does not fit into the preconceived notions and prejudices of modern scientists. These parapsychologists often speak of a forthcoming scientific revolution comparable to Copernicus’ discovery that the sun is the center of the solar system. Antony Flew argues that the charges of a priori dogmatism are unjustified:

It is simply grotesque to complain, in the absence of any such decisive falsifying evidence, that these appeals to … the named laws of established physics are exercises in a priori dogmatism. For what “a priori” means is: prior to and independent of experience. But in … these kinds of cases we have an enormous mass of experience supporting our present beliefs and our present incredulities (Flew, “Parapsychology” 138-9).

There is no basis for the conclusion that parapsychology is going to lead some kind of scientific revolution. The revolutionary theories of Copernicus and Darwin required support from several different types of solid evidence before gaining acceptance in the scientific community; Einstein’s predictions from relativity were based on a scientific theory and subsequently verified by experiment. Yet, when we analyze parapsychology we find no such hints of a forthcoming revolution. First, to quote Flew, “the long sought repeatable demonstration of any psi phenomena seems to be as far away as ever” (Flew, “Parapsychology” 140). A study by the National Research Council in 1988, published as Enhancing Human Performance, surveyed many areas of research to determine how to improve individual and group performance (Frazier 150). The NRC report’s section on “Paranormal Phenomena” concluded: “The committee finds no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena” (Frazier 151). Second, “no one has been able to think up any halfway plausible theory accounting for the occurrence of any psi phenomena” (Flew, “Parapsychology” 140). Finally, parapsychologists offer no positive criteria for what kind of event should be categorized as an instance of paranormal phenomena. As Flew puts it, “all psi terms refer rather to the absence of any means or mechanism, or at any rate to the absence of any normal and understood means” (140).

Clearly parapsychological evidence in general is wanting. However, we must evaluate parapsychological evidence directly cited to be most consistent with survival. Reports of apparitions can be explained in terms of hoaxes or hallucinations. Photographic evidence for apparitions is dubious[3] because ghosts tend to look remarkably like double exposures (“Ghost” 293). Furthermore, apparitions can be explained in terms of hallucinations because:

There is a tendency to ‘see’ faces and human forms even in quite random shapes … It is possible that perceptual creations of this kind are occasionally elicited in states of fear, and there do seem to be social factors determining to some degree the forms that ghosts take[4] [italics mine] … [The] lack of consistent evidence prevents general acceptance of ghosts (293-4).

The theory that apparitions are hallucinations rather than external manifestations of the deceased gains further support from many sightings where other people who are in a position to see the reported apparition do not see it (Cook 128). Finally, the fact that apparitions “rarely communicate any important information” suggests that apparition experiences are hallucinatory (Beloff, “Anything” 261).

Out-of-body experiences (OBEs) are also cited as parapsychological evidence for survival. The former parapsychologist Susan Blackmore sums up the results of investigations into OBEs: “There is no real evidence for psi in OBEs, there is no evidence of anything leaving the body, and there is no evidence of effects caused by out-of-body persons” (Blackmore, “Elusive” 132). Experiments designed to detect a double during OBEs have yielded negative results:

The size of any effect detected has decreased with increasing experimental sophistication. Most recent studies have used magnetometers, thermistors, ultraviolet and infra-red detectors, and so on … but no reliable detector has yet been found (Blackmore, “Oxford” 572).

Parapsychologists “have even used animals and human ‘detectors’, but no one has yet succeeded in detecting anything reliably” (Blackmore, “Near-Death” 38). Another type of experiment was designed to determine if OBE subjects can retrieve information from a remote location. Blackmore concludes that

The experimental evidence is weak. Subjects have been asked to view target letters, numbers or pictures, placed in distant rooms … [and] other studies have tried to discover whether subjects seem to be looking from a specific location during OBEs; however, the results have been inconclusive. Generally these studies provide very mixed results and it is not clear that any paranormal process is involved (Blackmore, “Oxford” 572).

It seems that the evidence is more consistent with a psychological model of OBEs:

If sensory input is reduced or disrupted, the normal input-based model of the world may start to become unstable and break down. In this case the cognitive system will try to get back to normal by creating a new model of the world from imagination … [from] a bird’s-eye view, as though from above (Blackmore, “Oxford” 573).

According to this model, “if the OBE occurs when the normal model of reality is replaced by a bird’s-eye view constructed from memory, then people who have OBEs should be better able to use such views in memory and in imagery” (Blackmore, “Elusive” 133). Blackmore conducted some experiments and found that “OBEers were better at switching viewpoints, were especially good at imagining scenes from a position above their heads, and were more likely to recall dreams in a bird’s-eye perspective” (133).

Peter Geach argues that evidence for a “double” is weak because:

There are supposed to be a lot of “subtle bodies” around, and physicists have a lot of delicate apparatus; yet physicists not engaged in psychical research are never bothered by the interference of “subtle bodies” … The discoverers of X-rays and electrons did not appeal to the lay public, but to physicists, to study the evidence; and so long as physicists … refuse to take “subtle bodies” seriously, a study of evidence for them by a layman like myself would be a waste of time (Geach 226).

Other phenomena often cited as evidence for survival are near-death experiences or NDEs. Survival proponents argue that because the core features of NDEs are almost invariably reported by experients, NDEs constitute evidence for an objective afterlife reality. However, these core features can be explained by physiological models because the same brain processes occur at the onset of dying (e.g. oxygen deprivation, endorphin release, and random neural firing) in those who undergo NDEs, thus their subjective experiences should be similar (Blackmore, “Dying” 261). Another argument is that NDEs are real because they feel real, but this does not constitute evidence that NDEs reflect an external reality anymore than the fact that hallucinations feel real constitutes evidence that they are real. Some researchers claim that information has been obtained in NDEs by means other than sensory perception, but there is no experimental evidence to support these claims. Madelaine Lawrence designed an information retrieval experiment where an electronic screen placed in the cardiac rehabilitation ward in Hartford Hospital, Connecticut, displayed a sentence that was changed randomly and could not be seen from the vantage of a patient or the staff (Lawrence 158-9). When someone had an NDE, all they had to do is repeat what the sentence said; then the staff could report what the NDEr said and determine if there was a match. The results produced no evidence that anyone could retrieve information from a remote location during an NDE[5]. The accuracy of descriptions of the environment in NDEs may be based on semiconscious perceptions of the environment prior to the breakdown of perception which are incorporated into hallucinatory imagery during NDEs. There is no corroboration for claims of perception outside of the immediate environment of the patient[6] or accurate perception in NDEs in the blind[7], thus the paranormal argument does not constitute evidence for survival (125-133). Finally, the fact that people undergo positive personality transformations after NDEs does not indicate a mystical experience of an afterlife. A study conducted by Kenneth Ring found that personality transformations occurred in people who come medically close to death regardless of whether or not they experienced an NDE, suggesting that the transformation resulted from facing death rather than an NDE (248-9).

Some findings of NDE research are more consistent with physiological and psychological models. None of the patients who report NDEs are brain dead because brain death is irreversible (Beyerstein 46). First, NDEs only occur in one-third of all cases where there is a near-death crisis (Ring 194). Second, the details of NDEs depend on the individual’s personal and cultural background (Ring 195). Third, physiological and psychological factors affect the content of the NDE. Noises, tunnels, bright lights, and other beings are more common in physiological conditions directly affecting the brain state, such as cardiac arrest and anesthesia, whereas euphoria, mystical feelings, life review, and positive transformation can occur when people simply believe they are going to die (Blackmore, “Dying” 44-45). Fourth, the core features of NDEs are found in drug-induced and naturally occurring hallucinations (Siegel 174). The OBE can be induced by the anesthetic ketamine (Blackmore, “Dying” 170). A tunnel experience is a common form of psychedelic hallucination (Siegel 175-6). All NDE stages have occurred in sequence under the influence of hashish (Blackmore, “Dying” 42-3). Fifth, a build-up of carbon dioxide in the brain will induce NDEs (Blackmore, “Dying” 53-4). Sixth, the panoramic life review closely resembles a form of temporal lobe epilepsy (206). There are even cases where epileptics have had OBEs or seen apparitions of dead friends and relatives during their seizures (206). Seventh, computer simulations of random neural firing based on eye-brain mapping of the visual cortex have produced the tunnel and light characteristic of NDEs (84). Eighth, the fact that naloxone–an opiate antagonist that inhibits the effects of endorphins on the brain–terminates near-death experiences provides some confirmation for the endorphin theory of NDEs:

Within a minute [after being injected with naloxone] he awoke in an agitated state, and later reported an NDE-like experience that apparently was interrupted by the naloxone, suggesting that the experience may have been mediated by opioid peptides (Saavedra-Aguilar and Gomez-Jeria 210-211).

Finally, NDEs can be induced by direct electrical stimulation of brain areas surrounding the Sylvian fissure in the right temporal lobe (Morse 104).

Other findings are flatly inconsistent with survival. The tunnels described in NDEs vary considerably in form. If NDEs reflected an external reality, one would expect consistency in the form of tunnel experiences reported (Blackmore, “Dying” 77). Furthermore, NDE cases have been reported where the patient has identified the “beings of light” as the medical staff making resuscitation attempts (227). Finally, the fact that “children are more likely to see living friends than those who have died” in NDEs strongly suggests that NDEs are not experiences of an external afterlife reality (Blackmore, “Near-Death” 36).

Past-life memories are also considered evidence for survival, particularly for reincarnation. There has been evidence accumulated by parapsychologists where people provide accurate historical details when they describe “memories” of “past lives” while under hypnosis. This evidence, however, is more consistent with an alternative explanation–cryptomnesia. Melvin Harris describes this phenomena:

To understand cryptomnesia we must think of the subconscious mind as a vast, muddled storehouse of information. This information comes from books, newspapers, and magazines; from lectures, television, and radio; from direct observation and even from overheard scraps of conversation. Under normal circumstances most of this knowledge is not subject to recall, but sometimes these deeply buried memories are spontaneously revived. They may reemerge in a baffling form, since their origins are completely forgotten (Harris 19).

There are numerous cases where information from past-life regressions has been traced back to such mundane causes upon further investigation (Edwards, “Introduction” 9). In fact:

In all the [past life] cases 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 … might consciously be quite unaware of the source of this knowledge (Beloff, “Anything” 262).

Another form of past-life memories does not involve hypnotic regression. “Memories” of previous lives spontaneously occurred during waking life in cases investigated in India by Ian Stevenson. Stevenson collected cases where children generally between two and four years old began talking about their “previous lives” and even their “previous deaths” (Edwards, “Introduction” 11). Usually the memories are gone by age eight. In several cases the persons the children claimed to be in a previous life did in fact exist and many descriptions given were accurate (11).

Stevenson dismissed the possibility of fraud because he saw no motive for it. Ian Wilson points out that many children claimed to have belonged to a higher caste, thus a motivation for better living conditions is obvious (Edwards, “Introduction” 12). In one case a boy wanted a third of his “past-life father’s” land (12). Stevenson hired David Barker, who was doing research for an anthropology dissertation in India, to help analyze some of his cases and Barker found that there was not a single case of convincing evidence of any paranormal factor (12). Stevenson also hired the lawyer Champe Ransom to analyze some cases. Ransom concluded:

Stevenson’s cases then do not amount to even half-way decent evidence. In only 11 of the approximately 1,111 rebirth cases had there been no contact between the two families before an investigation was begun. Of those 11, seven were seriously flawed in some respect. What this means is that in the great majority of cases, the two families had met years before a scientific investigation began, and that the likelihood of independent testimony was quite small. The rebirth cases are anecdotal evidence of the weakest sort (Edwards, “Introduction” 14).

The fact that the vast majority of Stevenson’s cases come from countries where a religious belief in reincarnation is strong, and rarely elsewhere, seems to indicate that cultural conditioning (rather than reincarnation) generates claims of spontaneous past-life memories. Moreover, reincarnation seems incapable of explaining spontaneous cases where the child claims to remember the ‘former life’ of a person who has died after the child was born (Cook 129).

Although mediumship is often cited as evidence for survival, most material of this sort is dubious. The majority of sittings with mediums can be explained in terms of guesswork and obvious or subliminal cues provided by the sitters (Becker 9). Moreover, as Peter Geach points out, “There are cases, as well-authenticated as any, in which the medium convincingly enacted the part of X and told things that ‘Only X could have known’ when X was in fact alive and normally conscious” (Geach 231). Carl Becker concludes that:

The theory that mediums communicate with discarnate intelligences becomes even more suspect in light of experiments in which ‘mediumistic contact’ has been made with living or demonstrably fictional characters. The manifest potential for fraud in this business has cast such suspicion on the profession that few parapsychologists now count mediumistic seances among their sources of evidence (Becker 9).

The late Robert Thouless, former President of the Society for Psychical Research, developed a test of survival where a message is encrypted in such a way that it can only be decoded by key words known only to one who has died (Stevenson 114). Thouless set up three encrypted messages for himself, hoping to communicate the key words which would decode his messages to his colleagues after his death through a medium. Though the first cipher he proposed was cracked a few weeks after he published it, neither of the other two ciphers were broken during his lifetime, providing a rare opportunity for parapsychologists to produce truly compelling evidence for survival of bodily death. The key to one of the remaining ciphers (a replacement for the cracked key) was a simple two-word key; the key to the other was a roughly 100-word literary passage. The literary passage key, though long, could be obtained simply by relaying the title of the book, the location of the passage in that book, and a couple of words from the beginning of the passage (Oram 118).

Under the advice of Ian Stevenson, Thouless also transposed the first six letters of his two-word key into numbers using a published table in order to reset a combination lock to those numbers (Stevenson 114). Unlike Thouless’ encrypted message tests, the combination lock test requires the entire key to be known to unlock it and gives no hints that one is coming close to hitting the key by making near-misses, thus ruling out the possibility that one could narrow down his options for a key by repeated attempts to unlock the combination lock (115). Stevenson has reported that the odds of hitting the right key for a combination lock test purely by chance are 1 in 125,000 (115).

When Thouless died in 1984 roughly one hundred candidates for a key were submitted to the Society for Psychical Research, some of which came from mediums, but none of them were able to decipher any of Thouless’ encrypted messages (Stevenson 114). However, in 1995 James Gillogly successfully decoded one of Thouless’ messages using the two key words “black beauty” generated by a computer program he wrote[8] which yielded the message: “This is a cipher which will not be read unless I give the key words”. The discovery of Thouless’ two-word key was further confirmed when Stevenson used his table to transpose “BLACKB” back into numbers which unlocked Thouless’ combination lock (115).

The flaw in Thouless’ test which allowed it to be deciphered was his use of common words for a key that could easily be cross-checked by a computer program designed to form two-word combinations from all the entries in a typical dictionary (Oram 116). Incredibly, the parapsychologist Arthur Oram has come to the credulous conclusion that the repeated failures of mediums to come up with a key that will successfully unlock Thouless’ encoded messages despite numerous tests is due to the inability of the deceased Thouless to remember the simple keys ‘on the other side’! (Although the deceased Thouless could apparently remember who Oram was and other similar facts) (Oram 117). A simpler explanation for these failures is that Thouless could not communicate the key words because he had not in fact ‘survived’ his death and thus was not in contact with Oram through the mediums. To his credit, Oram does concede this point:

It seems fair to assume that if [the mediums] were in effective touch with Thouless they would either be given the key or an explanation that [and why] he cannot remember or cannot communicate the key … [A] considerable number of people have felt that they have been in touch with Thouless and some of them have felt that rather deeply, including at least one whose submitted key was of a wrong form [italics mine] (117).

Regarding Thouless’ simplest test Oram reports: “There are no instances in our records of anyone getting the two-word key even partially correct” (118). Other similar direct tests of the survival hypothesis have also yielded negative results: attempts to obtain postmortem Thouless’ literary passage key to his remaining message, J. Gaither Pratt’s mnemonic key to his combination lock, and T. E. Wood’s key to his enciphered message have all been unsuccessful (Stevenson, et al, 329-334). Oram succinctly characterizes the state of the experimental evidence for survival from mediumship: “We can only be sure of two facts relating this research; one is that work has been done to try to get the keys through mediums and the other fact is that we have not obtained the keys” (Oram 118).

In all these cases it is important to realize that alternative explanations do not have to be proven. Rather, if certain phenomena are to be considered indicative of survival, survival must be the only consistent hypothesis capable of explaining the evidence. Otherwise the survival arguments have no force: “If any explicable reason can be supposed, then the claim vanishes, however bizarre the event, for the onus is always to show that the event is paranormal” (Gregory 577).

While the parapsychological evidence for survival is insufficient, the physiological evidence for extinction is more than sufficient. In the mid-18th century philosopher David Hume stated the fundamental basis of the empirical argument for annihilation:

The weakness of the body and that of the mind in infancy are exactly proportioned; their vigour in manhood, their sympathetic disorder in sickness, their common gradual decay in old age. The step further seems unavoidable; their common dissolution in death (Hume 138).

Barry Beyerstein points out that the view “that consciousness is inseparable from the functioning of individual brains remains the cornerstone of physiological psychology” (Beyerstein 44). This is due, he says, to “the theory’s parsimony and research productivity, the range of phenomena accounted for, and the lack of credible counter-evidence” (45).

Beyerstein lists five main types of empirical evidence which support the dependence of consciousness on the brain. First, phylogenetic evidence refers to the evolutionary relationship between the complexity of the brain and a species’ cognitive traits (Beyerstein 45). Corliss Lamont sums up this evidence: “We find that the greater the size of the brain and its cerebral cortex in relation to the animal body and the greater their complexity, the higher and more versatile the form of life” (Lamont 63). Second, the developmental evidence for mind-brain dependence is that mental abilities emerge with the development of the brain; failure in brain development prevents mental development (Beyerstein 45). Third, clinical evidence consists of cases of brain damage that result from accidents, toxins, diseases, and malnutrition that often result in irreversible losses of mental functioning (45). If the mind could exist independently of the brain, why couldn’t the mind compensate for lost faculties when brain cells die after brain damage? (46). Fourth, the strongest empirical evidence for mind-brain dependence is derived from experiments in neuroscience. Mental states are correlated with brain states; electrical or chemical stimulation of the human brain invokes perceptions, memories, desires, and other mental states (45). Finally, the experiential evidence for mind-brain dependence consists of the effects of several different types of drugs which predictably affect mental states (45).

Memory is essential to self-identity. Electrical or chemical stimulation of the brain can prevent the formation of new memories and cause memory loss for events that occurred up to three years before such intervention (Stokes 71). Neuroscientists have accumulated a considerable amount of evidence that long-term memory traces “are dependent upon, and perhaps consist of, changes in the strengths of synaptic connections among neurons” (Stokes 73). Lamont argues that because:

The proper functioning of memory … depends … on the associational patterns laid down as enduring structural imprints through means of interneuronic connections … it is difficult beyond measure to understand how they could survive after the destruction of the living brain in which they had their original locus (Lamont 76).

Further experimental evidence for mind-brain dependence is derived from “split-brain” patients who have undergone an operation that severs the corpus callosum to reduce epileptic seizures (Beyerstein 45). The corpus callosum is a broad band of fibers that directly connect the left and right hemispheres of the brain. If information is only presented to one hemisphere of a “split-brain” patient, the other hemisphere is unaware of it and is not capable of understanding the reactions of the informed hemisphere (45). The result of “split-brain” surgery is the formation of two mental systems, each with independent mental attributes (45). A variety of psychological tests corroborate the existence of two streams of consciousness demonstrably unaware of the contents of the other (Parfit 248). To give a humorous example, “one of the patients complained that sometimes, when he embraced his wife, his left hand pushed her away” (Parfit 249). Beyerstein asks: “If a ‘free-floating’ mind exists, why can’t it maintain unity of consciousness by providing an information conduit between the disconnected hemispheres?” (Beyerstein 46).

One of the strongest arguments for mind-brain dependence comes from the effects of “brain pacemakers” which electrically stimulate the cerebellum in the brains of psychotics (Hooper and Teresi 154). The following case illustrates these effects:

Another patient, a severely depressed former physicist, was troubled by voices that commanded him to choke his wife. When he got one of Dr. Heath’s pacemakers in 1977, the infernal voices vanished, along with his perennial gloom … But his wires eventually broke, and once again his wife was threatened with strangulation. When the gadgetry was mended, so was the man’s psyche (Hooper and Teresi 155).

These are just a few examples from neuroscience of the dependence of consciousness on the brain. We know that altering the brain’s chemistry can cause drastic personality changes. Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease are dramatic examples of mind-brain dependence. If you are thinking of suicide, don’t go to a psychiatrist, go to a pharmacologist: A combination of an antidepressant and tryptophan should banish all thoughts of ending your life (Hooper and Teresi 171).

Survival proponents who think that the brain is an instrument of the soul use arguments like the following in an attempt to reconcile physiology and the soul:

A colored glass … [has] only a transmissive function in respect to the light that shines through [it], since [it does not itself] create the rays. The same may be said of an organ, which transforms already existing air into music. In a similar fashion the human body may act as a transmission apparatus for the supernatural soul (Lamont 98).

Corliss Lamont makes it apparent that this rejoinder has no force:

A severe injury to the head, for instance, may change an ordinarily cheerful man into a sullen and morose one subject to sudden fits of homicidal mania. If the brain and body are simply the instruments of the soul, we have to say in such a case that this personality is really still brimming over with joy and benevolence, but that unfortunately these sentiments can only express themselves in dark glances, in peevish complaints and in violent attacks (Lamont 100).

Lamont continues:

Suppose … [he] becomes definitely insane … [and] is convinced he is Napoleon … Are we to say that his real personality is still normal, that his soul is still thinking clearly and healthily, and that as soon as he gets rid of his body by dying he will come to his senses? (100).

The illustrations of the “instrument theory” reveal a fatal flaw:

If the human body corresponds to a colored glass … then the living personality corresponds to the colored light that is the result of the glass … Now while light in general will continue to exist without the colored glass … the specific red or blue or yellow rays that the glass produces … will certainly not persist if the glass [is] destroyed (Lamont 104).

The consequences of the instrument theory are absurd. Throughout aging, specific mental abilities may be irrevocably lost one-by-one:

Yet if instead of the senses being destroyed separately and gradually by disease or accident, they are all simultaneously destroyed by death, the dualistic immortalist asks us to believe that they will go on in some other state with unimpaired, if not greatly improved, capabilities! (Lamont 102).

Paul Edwards asks: “How does the complete destruction of the brain bring about a cure that has so far totally eluded medical science?” (Edwards, “Dependence” 296). Edwards argues that the instrument theory is inconsistent with Alzheimer’s disease:

An Alzheimer patient’s brain is severely damaged and most of his mind has disappeared. After his death his brain is not merely damaged but completely destroyed. It is surely logical to conclude that now his mind is also gone (296).

If under certain circumstances the mind cannot survive in life, how can it survive death? Edwards provides a clear illustration of the incompatibility of the instrument theory with the facts of Alzheimer’s disease. Prior to her affliction with Alzheimer’s, “Mrs. D” was a considerate, compassionate person with a normal functioning mind. Yet,

At about the time when she could no longer recognize her daughter, she beat up [a] paralyzed lady on two or three occasions … [The instrument theory] implies that throughout her affliction with Alzheimer’s Mrs. D.’s mind was intact. She recognized her daughter but had lost her ability to express this recognition. She had no wish to beat up an inoffensive paralyzed old woman. On the contrary, ‘inside’ she was the same considerate person as before the onset of the illness. It is simply that her brain disease prevented her from acting in accordance with her true emotions … [T]hese are the implications of the theory that the mind survives the death of the brain and that the brain is only an instrument for communication. Surely these consequences are absurd (299-300).

Other survival proponents concede the evidence for mind-brain dependence, but try to avoid the implication of personal extinction at death. Douglas Stokes, for example, writes:

[T]he intimate dependency of one’s personality on the state of the brain makes it appear unlikely that one’s personality and memories could remain largely intact following the destruction of the brain. However, memories, feelings, behavioral dispositions, and other personality traits are probably not the aspects of the mind that should be identified with an unchanging self … It would seem that the self must be what Hart called the ‘I thinker,’ that entity that thinks one’s thoughts, senses one’s sensations, feels one’s feelings, and remembers one’s memories rather than being the thoughts, sensations, feelings, and memories themselves (Stokes 76).

Stokes’ attempt to leave room for survival while acknowledging the strong and consistent evidence for mind-brain dependence is disingenuous. By accepting the implications of this evidence, Stokes has cut off the possibility of any form of personal survival (resurrection aside). Once an individual has been stripped of his memories, dispositions, mental skills, and personality traits, nothing but a tabula rasa remains. Such a ‘blank slate’ could not be a vehicle of personal survival; the mind of a deceased individual would be reduced to something like the mind of an infant, only divorced from any means to perceive or interact with its environment. Most of us would regard the reduction of the mind of a productive adult to the mind of an infant while alive as a tragedy as great as that of death itself; thus the bare existence Stokes allows for the mind after death would hardly be better than extinction. In fact, it seems unintelligible to claim that a particular individual has ‘survived’ his death once all of his distinctive mental characteristics have been erased (a particularly poignant problem for the idea of reincarnation). The continued existence of an ‘undifferentiated self’ lacking the mental traits which uniquely characterize a particular individual does not constitute personal survival anymore than the continued existence of one’s bones does.

William Hasker takes a different approach. He too concedes the evidence for the dependence of consciousness on the brain:

Whereas dualism has been above all concerned to assert the independence of mind from body, both scientific findings and everyday observation combine to show the mind’s dependence on bodily conditions. A partial listing of relevant data would include: the dependence of personality states on hormone balance, the genetic determination by DNA structure of mental attributes and defects, the effects of drugs on mental states, personality changes in persons who have undergone such operations as frontal leucotomy or temporal leucotomy … [T]hese findings … taken as a body … demonstrate a profound and comprehensive dependence of the mental, emotional, and even the spiritual aspects of human personality on its biological basis in the human brain and nervous system (Hasker 306).

How does Hasker try to reconcile the evidence for mind-brain dependence with the survival hypothesis? His contention that “while originally produced by the brain and dependent upon it in many respects, the mind is nevertheless capable of continuing to exist and to function without the brain after the death of the body” seems unintelligible (307). As he himself asks, “If … the mind or soul is generated by the brain and is dependent on it in all the ways already emphasized, how can it fail to perish with the brain?” (307).

Although Hasker never satisfactorily answers this question, he does provide an analogy to try to explain his conclusion:

A black hole … is an incredibly intense gravitational field which is originally generated by a massive object but which, once it has formed, literally squeezes the object out of existence. Thus, according to Roger Penrose, ‘After the body has collapsed in, it is better to think of the black hole as a self-sustaining gravitational field in its own right. It has no further use for the body which originally built it!’ Could the human mind, then, like the black hole, become a self-sustaining field of consciousness? (308).

What are we to make of this analogy? I am afraid that there are far too many dissimilarities between the mind and a black hole to draw any reliable conclusions about the mind-brain relationship. For example, a black hole is created when the collapsing star which generated it is destroyed. The brain, on the other hand, is not destroyed when the mind comes into existence. The black hole and the star which created it do not exist simultaneously, unlike the mind and the brain. More poignantly, however, when the mind comes into existence, on this analogy, it should no longer need the brain once it is created–that is, even before the brain is destroyed. The black hole analogy, like that of a child which grew in the womb but no longer depends on the womb for sustenance after birth, is an example of generation without continuing dependence. The mind-brain relationship, on the other hand, is an example of both the generation and continuing dependence of the mind on the brain. This relationship is captured more closely by the analogy of the dependence of a magnetic field on a magnet; but since the magnetic field ceases to exist when the magnet is destroyed, it is not surprising that Hasker rejects the closer analogy in order to avoid its consequences.

If the mind depends on the brain throughout life then, in all probability, it depends on the brain even as death approaches. The mere fact that the human organism may be approaching death is not going to suddenly transform the mind into an independent entity which no longer needs the brain to function. The dependence of mental states on the brain during life strongly implies that when the brain dies the mind dies with it, just as a non-duplicated computer program ceases to exist when the computer it runs on is completely destroyed. Thus the evidence for the continued dependence of consciousness on the brain provides strong evidential support for the extinction hypothesis.

One last point to make about the implausibility of survival given our knowledge of our evolutionary heritage is that:

It is patently absurd to expect that all the myriad specimens of all the myriad species of life from the beginning of evolution are to go on existing forever in another world. Yet we are led into just such absurdities when we once start relying on the dualistic theory that man has an immortal soul … that can exist independently of the body (Lamont 117).

Neuroscientists agree that the facts cited above are indeed facts. Furthermore, scientists outside of neuroscience do not dispute that cases demonstrating the dependence of consciousness on the brain are valid. On the other hand, “most scientists outside of the parapsychological field do not accept the existence of psychic phenomena” (“Parapsychology”). Even within parapsychology we find few parapsychologists who believe that psi is indicative of survival of bodily death[9]. John Beloff states that:

It should not be thought … that all parapsychologists are necessarily committed to a dualist interpretation of the mind-body relationship. At the present time especially, many exponents prefer to think of psi as essentially a function of the brain, or of some special brain mechanism or process (Beloff, “Parapsychology” 586).

In other words, even most parapsychologists accept the dependence of consciousness on the brain! This leaves the survival hypothesis in an awkward position since paranormal phenomena are the best source of evidence that survival proponents have to offer. Even if one is inclined to believe that paranormal phenomena are best explained in terms of survival, the existence of such phenomena is doubtful because “a century after the founding of the Society for Psychical Research, there is still a total lack of consensus regarding the actuality of any parapsychological phenomena” (Beloff, “Parapsychology 586). This lack of consensus is due to the lack of evidence for psi:

With the single exception of hypnosis, not even the existence of one of the phenomena originally classed as supernatural, or later as paranormal, has achieved general acceptance among the scientific community; not one demonstrable, or repeatable, paranormal effect has been discovered; not one characteristic or law has been found which turns up in all those experiments that claim a positive result (Scott 579).

I think I have presented a fairly accurate representation of the evidence on both sides of this issue, and in weighing that evidence the scales are clearly tipped in favor of extinction. Given this conclusion, it is irrational to take Unamuno’s position and “fight against destiny, even though without hope of victory” (Lamont 211). We should not allow our emotions to cloud our judgment. As Corliss Lamont says,

We do not ask to be born; and we do not ask to die. But born we are and die we must. We come into existence and we pass out of existence. And in neither case does high-handed fate await our ratification of its decree (Lamont 278).


[1] Susan Blackmore presents several conceptual difficulties with the notions of astral bodies and astral worlds in Chapter 21 (“Reassessing the Theories”) of her Beyond the Body (Academy Chicago Publishers, 1992).

[2] For a more detailed discussion of the closest-continuer view and the various reasons for believing that it is a matter for decision whether or not a replica can be identified with you, see “The Closest Continuer View” by Robert Nozick in Self and Identity edited by Daniel Kolak and Raymond Martin (Macmillan, 1991).

[3] I especially recommend Joe Nickell’s Investigative Files article titled “Ghostly Photos” in the July/August 1996 Skeptical Inquirer.

[4] Ronald C. Finucane’s Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation (Prometheus Books, 1996) shows that the way that ghosts appear has varied in different eras according to social expectations, implying that ghosts are culturally dependent hallucinations rather than manifestations of spiritual entities.

[5] Other NDE information retrieval experiments have been carried out with similar results. While absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the total lack of experimental evidence for paranormal perception in OBEs and NDEs in the face of numerous attempted experiments designed to gather such evidence suggests that there is no paranormal factor involved in OBEs and NDEs (which is very different from a lack of evidence due to the fact that no one has tried to accumulate such evidence).

[6] Many NDE researchers refer to the case of a Seattle heart patient known only as “Maria” as one of the most convincing pieces of anecdotal evidence for paranormal perception in NDEs. In “Maria’s Near-Death Experience: Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop” (from the July/August 1996 Skeptical Inquirer), Hayden Ebbern, Sean Mulligan, and Barry Beyerstein beautifully illustrate the unreliability of anecdotal evidence in general and in NDE cases by demonstrating that knowledge of the environment allegedly inaccessible to this patient by any normal means was in fact easily discernible by ordinary sense perception and inference. This investigation provides a clear example of why anecdotal evidence for paranormal abilities alone is worthless without experimental corroboration.

[7] See p. 128-133 of Susan Blackmore’s Dying to Live (Prometheus Books, 1993).

[8] James Gillogly provides an account of how he cracked Thouless’ cipher and of his attempts to decipher Thouless’ literary passage test in “Cryptograms From the Crypt” in Vol. 20, No. 4 of Cryptologia (October 1996).

[9] In fact, a Parapsychological Association survey conducted in 1980 found that only 11% of the parapsychologists surveyed from the US and Canada believed that survival after death had been positively or probably demonstrated (see “Profiles of the Parapsychologists: Their Beliefs and Concerns” in the Summer 1981 Skeptical Inquirer, p. 2-6).

Postscript on Survival (1999)

In a review of Paul Edwards’ Reincarnation: A Critical Examination, John Beloff wrote: “[W]e may grant the author his contention that everything we have learnt from physiology does indeed point to the critical involvement of the brain in everything we do or feel … However … there is empirical evidence which contradicts orthodox science. Edwards never addresses himself to such [parapsychological] evidence” (quoted from p. 347 of the January 1997 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research). Beloff is making a fundamental logical error here: Insofar as he concedes that there is strong evidence for the dependence of consciousness on the brain, he is implicitly committed to denying the possibility of survival of bodily death (aside from the scientifically extremely unlikely possibility of a physical resurrection of the body). Mental states cannot “half-depend” on the brain; a mental state is either brain-dependent or it is not. Given the well-supported findings of conventional science for mind-brain dependence and the controversial and inconclusive parapsychological evidence for a mind functioning independently of the brain, we are provided with contradictory evidence and thus faced with a fundamental choice: Which source of evidence are we to trust?

Placed in this light one can see why my scientific case against immortality concludes that “the scales are clearly tipped in favor of [the] extinction” of the mind at death after surveying the present state of the evidence regarding survival of bodily death. For Beloff to make a case for survival not only must he provide good experimental evidence of the sort we have been looking at (which so far–even he admits–does not exist), but he must refute the evidence for the dependence of mental states on the brain. There is only one way that I can see that he can do this, and that is to concede that some mental states depend on the brain but not all of them do. From the fact that all of the mental states we have a good understanding of depend on the brain we can reasonably extrapolate (as neuroscientists do) that all mental states depend on the brain. Where we are largely ignorant of the way the brain generates certain mental states due to the enormous complexity of the processes involved, such as high-level psychological phenomena as elusive to physiology as self-awareness, there is always room for a sort of “soul of the gaps” argument to the effect that such phenomena can exist independently of the brain. But legitimate physiological research is unambiguously going in the opposite direction.

Such an argument from ignorance, aside from offering no actual positive support for the existence of brain-independent mental states (allowing only the mere possibility that they are independent), would not apply to mental states we know are brain-dependent, such as memory and personality traits, both of which are essential for any form of personal survival after death. Given that point, I can see no way in which Beloff or anyone else can refute the evidence from the dependence of consciousness on the brain against survival, and again we are left with the simple choice: What are we to trust, the findings of well-established science or those of controversial and inconclusive parapsychology? What I have tried to show in The Scientific Case Against Immortality is that the state of the evidence–strong evidence for extinction and no good evidence for survival–when taken as a whole not only paints a picture that is completely consistent with extinction but also that the best explanation for the state of the evidence is that the mind ceases to exist at death.


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