This week’s news about Harvard neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander III‘s near-death experience during a meningitis-induced coma has re-energised the debate about what light science can shed on questions about the afterlife. This divisive issue has generated a considerable body of scholarly and non-fiction writing for over a century, exploring the differences between scientific and divine truth, and the possibility of using science to prove definitively whether or not a form of life or consciousness exists after death. From the philosophical rationalisations of Richard Dawkins to the direct challenge by physicist Simon Singh to the television psychic Sally Morgan to undergo a scientific test under laboratory conditions to prove her ability, the burden has remained with believers and practitioners of the paranormal possibilities to provide indisputable scientific evidence of their position. Several institutions are engaged in the disproof from the scientific angle, including James Randi’s Educational Foundation, whose mission is to “help people defend themselves from paranormal and pseudoscientific claims”, while in the UK one of Britain’s leading psychologists, Professor Chris French, is a leading figure in a larger skeptical movement who have proposed that a very simple test would be able to prove one way or the other if psychics are genuinely speaking to the spirits of those who have died.
Cynics have been quick to note that Dr Alexander has a recently published book to promote which not only details his experiences, but also no doubt provides more scientific detail about how he drew the conclusion that what he had seen was genuine and not a product of brain chemistry, a topic on which he is an acknowledged professional expert. Dr Alexander explains: “There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.”
What will be interesting is how science responds to this with action, rather than derision. Will Dr Alexander or other neurosurgeons attempt to recreate the scientific circumstances of his coma, in order to understand better what happened? Is it possible to design an experiment which stretches what is currently known about brain chemistry to analyse what occurred? The standard position of science has been that what is claimed by believers in life after death defies a range of scientific laws that hold our understanding of the universe together. But if the continuing failure to provide a unified theory of quantum mechanics demonstrates anything, it is that the laws of nature are still not fully known or understood. They do not exist as an impregnable iron fortress. While there is still so much to explain, we cannot be certain that science can absolutely and definitively prove or disprove all claims upon it.
This is not, however, a purely contemporary debate. More than a century ago, the British physicist Sir Oliver Lodge drew on the same knowledge that helped him develop key advances in wireless telegraphy, the automobile engine, and in our understanding of phenomena such as lightning, to explore the scientific veracity of ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. A president of the Society for Psychical Research, his interest in spirit communication took a tragic turn when his son was killed in the First World War. Desperate to communicate with what Lodge was sure was the spirit of his son, he devoted increasing time and energy to exploring connections between his scientific knowledge and his strong belief in the afterlife, and published extensively on the subject. His interest in spiritualism is often linked to that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but he remains one of the leading figures in what the Society for Psychical Research would describe as “challenging contemporary scientific models”. In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, just as in the Enlightenment, advances in science were so substantial, influential and rapid, that they held an almost mystical power and it is no great wonder that for a short while between the 1890s and WWI, paranormal phenomena took on the same air of wonder that electricity, the telephone, and advances in chemistry must also have generated.
In allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore’s novel Equilibrium, Sir Hensall Chase, Adelia’s scientist brother, says to the medium Epiphany Fortune, “Do you not yearn to reach more than these petty domestic audiences caught up in their ridiculous dramas? Do you not wish to be understood beyond the parameters of mere belief? Fact, Miss Fortune, fact! That is the language of history.”
It may seem that both sceptical scientists and believers in the paranormal yearn for the authority of proof, but perhaps that is to misunderstand both science and the spiritual. For despite their differences and, at times, their opposition, they are united by the inspiration created by the quest for truth, as much as they are by the discovery of fact.