Is Life After Death Possible?

03/18/2010 05:12 am 05:12:02 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It was the 18th Century Irish philosopher, George Berkeley, who posed the question, "If a tree fell in the forest and there was no one there to hear it, would it make a sound?" The answer, of course, is, "No!" A closer look at this question of a tree falling in the forest may have bearing on the perennial question of whether there is life after death.

Electromagnetic radiation, pressure waves, molecules, and solid objects likely exist quite on their own apart from humans or other forms of life. However, color, sound, taste, smell, and touch certainly have no existence outside of an organism's interaction with stimuli in the world. Color cannot be perceived by a disembodied mind, because it is the eye and visual cortex of the brain that turns electromagnetic radiation into the colors of the rainbow. Similarly, it is the ear and the auditory cortex of the brain that transform pressure waves into sound. These qualities do not exist without the body's physiological mechanisms to create and perceive them. Thus, when a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, it simply produces rushes of air and pressure waves as it falls. There is no sound.

The near death experience is often given as evidence of life after death. Let's overlook the fact that a person who has just "died" is probably the last person on earth whose judgment you should trust! In any case, the key word in this phenomenon is "near." Indeed, no one writes about the "truly dead" experience, because there is no one to write it. Nonetheless, near death experiences are taken as evidence of mind and life apart from the body after death.

I recently watched an episode of the The Larry King Show on CNN in which three prominent men, two well known physicians and an author, discussed mind, death, and the near-death experience. At one point, the author described a near-death experience that he believed served as iron-clad evidence of the existence of the mind apart from the brain, and that in turn proved that the mind can persist after the death of the brain. He reported a case in which a blind woman had a "near death" experience and was later able to relate the number of physicians in the operating room, the types of instruments used to revive her, and, most remarkably, the color of the drapes used in the operation. That a blind woman could suddenly see objects and color while "dead" must certainly be proof positive that her disembodied mind floated above the scene and collected all of this information before returning to her lifeless body. I, however, am skeptical.

The problem is how a disembodied mind would perceive these things. First of all, anyone who needs glasses knows that without a proper lens, such as the eye has evolved through hundreds of millions of years to provide, light has no focus and images are merely blurs. Moreover, since color has no reality without the body's systems that convert electromagnetic frequencies into the neurophysiological patterns that we call red, blue, green, etc., the mind that supposedly floated above the operating table would have had no mechanism by which to see and recognize specific colors. No frequency of light has inherent redness or blueness. Ask anyone who is color blind.

We must also wonder by what means a disembodied mind would have recorded this information and stored it such that it could be retrieved in orderly fashion. Finally, we have that pesky Second Law of Thermodynamics with which to contend. The hawkers of fairytales are fond of resorting to terms from quantum mechanics and other arcane areas of physics to support, or perhaps to obscure, their contentions about the mind being eternal and living on after death. However, even if the mind is a phenomenon of quantum physics, a significant amount of energy is still required to maintain the information it contains after it floats away from the body. Even more energy would be needed if this mind remains active, continues to process new information, and seeks out other minds with which to interact and share this information. The brain, and I believe the mind, perceives, understands, and remembers with energy derived from the burning of ketones and sugar, and subsequent production of energy rich molecules of ATP. What form of energy would drive a disembodied mind, and in what way would this energy interact with it?

The mind is utterly dependent on the body for the acquisition of information about the environment. If one believes the blind woman's experience was true, and I don't, the only explanation is that her mind received information directly from the minds of the doctors and nurses still living around her. Unfortunately, there is extraordinarily little evidence of extrasensory perception, or the transfer of information from one mind to another. Now and then, a study will inexplicably show a difference between the ability of a "psychic" and a normal person in their abilities to pick up such "extrasensory" information. However, the information is always extremely vague, and just barely suggests that something "funny" may have happened. That is bound to happen with enough trials, and I suspect it is sheer luck. Of course, a mind freed from the body may be better at picking up the thoughts from the still living, though I can't imagine how or why that would be.

Perhaps we humans would be less willing to throw our lives away for crazy religious, political and military causes if we didn't believe in everlasting life. But this life can be painful, futile, and frightening, and no one can be blamed for wanting to believe that the mind continues on after the death of the brain. On the other hand, a very wise Zen Buddhist priest once told me that eternal life would be more difficult for us than death. I for one believe that the very last sound we hear is the falling of the Tree of Life.