Is There an Afterlife?

Photo: Colin Anderson / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Question: Is there an afterlife?

"After reading various books on evolution, I found myself pondering the existence of an afterlife, and the origins of that afterlife," writes Karl. "Searching for more information online, I found your site with the exact article I was looking for. As a paranormal phenomena guide, I would be interested to know your views on an afterlife. Already that tells you that I am a skeptic, but I am an open-minded skeptic. Unfortunately, most people are not able to debate this issue, and additional input always helps."


Karl, if your question is: Is there an afterlife? the answer is: No one knows.

I think I'm safe in saying that the vast majority of people on this planet believe in some sort of life after death, but belief doesn't really get us anywhere with this profound question. Either there is an afterlife or there isn't, and believing in it doesn't make it so, just as not believing in it doesn't rule it out.

So if we set belief aside, then we must see if there's any evidence for an afterlife. The truth is, there isn't any hard evidence for an afterlife. If we had hard evidence, there would be little question about the matter. Having said that, the evidence -- if we can even call it that -- is controversial, debatable, open to interpretation and almost entirely based on anecdotes; that is, the experiences people have reported over the years.

Generally, anecdotes are not considered good evidence. Yet it could be said that the more anecdotes we have that are similar in nature and description, the better the chances are that there is something to them. For example, if one person reported seeing a flying monkey, most people would dismiss him. But if many thousands of people reported seeing a flying monkey of similar description over many years, then those reports would be taken far more seriously.

So what might we consider to be indications of an afterlife:

  • Ghost messages. There are many, many cases in which people have reported that they have been visited by relatives and friends who have recently died. If true, this suggests that their spirits or personalities have survived death in some other form of existence -- an afterlife. Skeptics would argue that such visitations are nothing but figments of the imagination and wishful thinking on the part of the grieving living people. Yet there are intriguing cases in which these spirits have imparted information to the living that the living could not otherwise know: the location of a lost item, for example, or as in some famous cases, the identity of the murderer who killed them. This could be evidence of the survival of consciousness after death... or it could be evidence for the psychic retrieval of information unknown to the living person (which would be another mystery).
  • Near-death experiences. The experiences of many people whose life functions have stopped for a short time include the tunnel of light, often meeting deceased relatives and beings of light, sometimes entering a place that they assume is heaven -- all before returning to their bodies when they are brought back to life. Are these people witnesses to what happens to us when we die? Or, as skeptics claim, are these experiences merely the result of chemical reactions in the brain? These experiences are often life-changing for these people, yet as vivid and profound as near-death experiences (NDEs) are for them, they cannot be considered hard evidence, only an indication of a possibility.
  • Reincarnation. There are many compelling cases of alleged reincarnation in which a young person seems to recall details of a past life, sometimes even able to recall how he or she died. As fascinating as these cases can be, they do not stand as empirical evidence. These cases could be indications of life after death (life after life!), if true, but there is no way to prove them definitively.
  • Other ghost evidence. We could also include such things as ghost photos and video as well as EVP, but again there could be other explanations for these phenomena.

So could all of the above combined be considered evidence for an afterlife? Not by scientific standards, certainly, but many paranormal researchers might consider it so. But this also raises the question: What would stand as definitive evidence that would withstand scientific scrutiny? Maybe nothing can. Perhaps we'll only finally know after we die. Until then, ideas about the afterlife are a matter of faith and philosophy.

Personally, I wouldn't say that I believe in an afterlife, but that I hope there is one. We'd all like to think that our consciousness survives.