Thursday, November 29, 2012

Figuring Out Death

All religions, all humanity have pondered death.  It’s the greatest mystery, the reality that all of us must confront and yet usually ignore until the inevitable becomes painfully obvious.

The question becomes particularly poignant this time of year, both because of winter when all plants in the northern climes seem to die and the landscape becomes bleak, and because of the continued belief that the world will end this December.

Recently, four scientists who have examined consciousness and near-death experiences were interviewed on a TV show about what death really means.  Naturally, they did not agree.  Science requires facts, evidence that can be reproduced in a laboratory and can withstand close scrutiny.  Such evidence is hard to come by with such an amorphous subject like death.

One of the scientists believes nothing happens after a person dies. Christof Koch,(left)  the chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute of Brain Science and the Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at California Institute of Technology, said, “You lose everything. The world does not exist anymore for you. Your friends don’t exist anymore. You don’t exist. Everything is lost.”

Koch didn’t convince Bruce Greyson, professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, who said that “if you take these near death experiences at face value, then they suggest that the mind or the consciousness seems to function without the physical body.”

In the same vein, Dr. Stuart Hameroff, a physician and researcher at the University Medical Center  in Tucson, Arizona, said his research opens “the possibility of life after death, reincarnation and persistence of consciousness after our bodies give up.”

Then, neurosurgeon and author Eben Alexander (right) added, “I have great belief and knowledge that there is a wonderful existence for our souls outside of this earthly realm and that is our true reality, and we all find that out when we leave this earth.”

All of them can’t be right. 

This is all we know:

(1)   Some people who nearly died claim to have seen long-dead relatives or been drawn to a bright light or, on occasion, met some religious figure.  However, not everyone claims such experiences.  Some people said nothing happened; indeed, they had no awareness of the time between the dying and being reviving.

That implies that the post-death events are not consistent, which makes little sense since humans have the same basic anatomy and, hence, should share, similar post-death experiences.  That’s why some scientists dismiss near-death experiences, arguing that they result from internal brain reactions  -- and not from an external source.

(2)   The universe will end someday.  It will simply exhaust all available energy.  At that point, nothing will survive, on Earth or anywhere else.  In essence, none of our experiences then have any meaning beyond an immediate time period.  On that basis, heavenly life in a nonexistent universe is simply implausible.

If life on Earth has no meaning, what possible meaning could life in heaven have? 

(3)   No evidence of a soul has ever been discovered.  Photos showing something leaving the body simply turned out to capture the gap created when energy stops being generated by a once-living person.

Besides, souls must be invisible.  As such, all souls must be blind since light would pass right through such an individual, and we need to capture light to see.  Heavenly beings, therefore, must use canes.

(4)   People do claim to have lived previous lives and have shown precocious knowledge of forgotten events.  On the other hand, serious research could uncover the same facts.  Moreover, the effort to visit “previous” lives, called regression, is spotty at best with false memories abounding.  The “memories” seem real, but can be shown to be completely erroneous.

(5)   No one can imagine himself not existing.  That would imply existence continues after death.  However, many animals are aware of self, too.  Does that mean, they, too, have an existence after death?  Where does the process end?  Or, is post-life simply a continuation of life?  If so, why bother with death?

Under the circumstances, it’s possible to go back and forth on this issue without ever reaching a clear consensus.    Besides, without any real facts, it has to be all conjecture anyway.
Christian heaven

That’s where religion enters the discussion.  True believers have no doubts, depending on the pap they’ve swallowed from different faiths. For example in Christianity, the faithful go to heaven; nonbelievers are punished in Hell.  The same is true in Islam, except those rewarded are Muslims. 

Both can’t be correct.

In that case, however, they are on par with any science poking into this dark and unfathomable mystery.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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