The Afterlife, Revisited

One advantage of being a philosopher is that you can spend time on, and even sometimes get paid for, delving into questions that so many consider impractical or unanswerable or just outright odd – such as whether an external world exists, where we get the notion of moral obligation, what is the best form of government, whether God exists, and whether humans have a soul that can exist after bodily death.

On the last question, if I could have come up with a satisfactory answer in the early 1970s, I might have become fabulously rich. James Kidd of Phoenix, AZ, missing and presumed dead in 1949, had left a Last Will and Testament, offering about a half-million dollars (the equivalent of 6 million in 2016 dollars) to anyone who would do research to offer concrete proof that the soul left the body after death. A couple decades later, 133 claimants fought for the grant, and it was finally awarded in 1971 to the American Society for Psychical Research. Unfortunately, the ASPR used up the money by 1975 – without results.

In that same year, however, Raymond Moody, a medical doctor who also has a Ph.D. in philosophy, published Life after Life, a book on “near-death experiences” (NDEs) of patients who had been resuscitated after clinical death, many of whom had extraordinary experiences of separating from the body and eventually returning.

Moody’s book has been followed by a multitude of books and articles documenting many thousands of cases in which resuscitated individuals reported viewing procedures in operating rooms, walked through walls, saw relatives and friends in waiting rooms and/or deceased relatives or friends, met with a “Being of Light” or angelic figures, underwent a comprehensive “life review,” and either were sent, or chose to return, to their bodies.

Due to tremendous advances in resuscitation techniques, numerous physicians, scientists, and philosophers have added their efforts to the study of NDE phenomena. Possibly some of them would have been successful in winning James Kidd’s award in 1971, instead of the ASPR.

Without doubt, one of the most extraordinary findings from a number of researchers has been the NDE experiences of blind patients, as reported by psychologist Kenneth Ring, cardiologist Pim van Lommel, and others. Ring reported that 80 percent of thirty-one blind respondents (fourteen of whom were blind from birth) reported seeing objects and persons in the physical world, something verified by investigators.

But although these are impressive cases, and all were “near death,” none of them actually died. They came back. Skeptics have predictably come forth with physical or neurological explanations for their out-of-body experiences – oxygen deprivation, hallucination, etc.

Philosopher Fr. Robert Spitzer S.J., in his recent book, The Soul’s Upward Yearning, considers worldwide and longitudinal studies of NDEs as possible evidence of human faculties for transcendence, but thinks these studies need to be supplemented by further philosophical and scientific analysis.

The Soul Hovering Over the Body by William Blake, 1808
The Soul Hovering Over the Body by William Blake, 1808

Spitzer, a student of the transcendental Thomism of Bernard Lonergan S.J., and also conversant with contemporary developments in science and mathematics, follows in the footsteps of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and other philosophers who have formulated rational proofs for the existence of God and immortality.

He begins with exhaustive studies of religious experience (the sense of being propelled towards something divine and “wholly Other”) by figures such as William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience), Rudolf Otto (The Idea of the Holy), and Mircea Eliade in his numerous works on the philosophy of religion. Spitzer notes that 84 percent of the world’s population is religious, and discusses surveys about experiences of “something transcendent, mysterious, and sacred that is present as wholly Other.”

Like Aristotle, who speaks of the existence of an intellectual component of human consciousness, independent of matter, “immortal and eternal,” Spitzer focuses on mental powers and horizons, “heuristic notions” that unify general concepts and relations between concepts. These lead to greater and greater intelligibility, but always remain imperfect. Our sense of “imperfection” is caused by our innate orientation towards an attainable “horizon of complete and unrestricted intelligibility.”

In mathematics, Gödel’s theorem proves that even the most logically consistent system must have an incompleteness which “points to higher-level solutions within that horizon of intelligibility.” Thus in intellectual investigations, the process of asking “why” leads continually to other “whys,” and beckons humans toward a realm of intelligibility transcending sensory particularity.

Like Plato, who proposed that our ideas of perfection, such as “perfect equality” or “perfect goodness,” cannot come from the material world but must have a divine source in which humans participate, Spitzer argues that our everyday, profound experience of imperfections in justice, goodness, love, and beauty indicates an innate sense of perfection that, carried to its logical conclusion, brings us to apprehend the possibility of encountering perfect justice, perfect love, etc.

Like Descartes, Spitzer wrestles with the problem of how the spiritual soul can be interconnected with, and interact with, a material body. Descartes’ answer – the pineal gland – was a “non-starter,” but has inspired other hypotheses.

Spitzer suggests that the “trialist” (non-dualist) theory of Nobel Prize-winning neurophysiologist John Eccles may offer the best present hope of a solution. According to Eccles, since quantum wave functions can be collapsed to an “eigenstate” (affecting classical physical systems), quantum fields may mediate the immaterial and material components of consciousness.

The extreme example of this is the phenomenon of self-consciousness, in which humans “experience themselves experiencing,” catching themselves directly in the act of experiencing, so that “the same act of experiencing has two relative positions with respect to itself simultaneously” – something that is not possible for a material entity, and “strongly suggests that [consciousness] is transphysical.”

Still, philosophers might look in a different direction. Socrates, for example, after offering his proofs for immortality as a “raft for life,” commented that a philosopher would have greater security if he could “find some word of God which will more surely and safely carry him.” So also, Spitzer who, in conclusion, points to Christian revelation as the ultimate and unique answer to questions about the immortality of the soul.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.