What if Gary Schwartz is right?

Robert Todd Carroll


            Gary Schwartz, author of The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death (Atria 2003), has collected �extraordinary data in many experiments over many years� that support the hypothesis that consciousness is independent of the brain and survives the death of the brain (268). That the spirit survives the death of the body is something that many people on our planet already believe, so it is not clear exactly what impact this data will have on the billions of people who already strongly believe in immortality or reincarnation. True, most people come to such beliefs by being taught them from birth onward and by growing up in communities where such beliefs are constantly reinforced. Many of these people also have anecdotal evidence to support their belief. But Schwartz thinks his scientific data might have an enormous impact. Presumably, one impact would be that even skeptics would come to accept what he calls �the living soul hypothesis.�

Schwartz devotes the entirety of chapter 18 of The Afterlife Experiments to �How Our Lives Might Change� if �science proves human souls live forever.� He claims that �if you knew, once and for all, that consciousness stayed with us forever,� then �you would realize and believe that � your time here on the earth is for the purpose of learning advance lessons of love and compassion, and for you to honor the many gifts you have received by learning how to give to your family, friends, community, and the world as a whole� (238).

            Thus far, believing in the living soul hypothesis hasn�t led to a widespread adherence to the noble values he lists. Why would scientific proof make things any different? It�s not like the believers in spirits doubt that they will live forever or be reincarnated, so why would these data change things? For example, Schwartz seems to think that if we had scientific proof of the afterlife, we wouldn�t exploit the earth�s resources with abandon (241). Yet, thousands of years of very strong belief in the afterlife by the majority of our species has not produced a very loving attitude towards the planet. We can�t blame the atheistic materialist for destroying our environment. The vast majority of the destroyers are strong believers in the afterlife hypothesis. The vast majority of those who are raping the earth and exploiting our natural resources to the detriment of humankind believe in spirits and do not doubt that they will live forever. Why would they stop being selfish and destructive once the scientific proof is in that there is an afterlife? The destroyers now rationalize their behavior to justify it. Even if they had scientific proof of the afterlife, it is likely that they would find a way to justify continuing their current behaviors, lifestyles, and values.

            I sympathize and agree with the values Gary Swartz wants to encourage: finding meaning and purpose in our lives, �realizing that we have the potential to be compassionate human beings with a supreme capacity to love� (240). But I don�t see how scientific proof of the afterlife is going to increase the implementation of these values. Many people already believe with all their heart and soul in the afterlife and they seem to think that that is what gives meaning and purpose to their lives. Yet, they still persecute their earthly neighbors, allow the destruction of the planet, and spend a great part of their lives worrying about and striving for material treasures. Most people may not be philosophical materialists�who believe there is no spiritual reality�but most are still crass materialists, defining their happiness according to their wealth, power, status, or accumulation of material possessions.

            So, I�m not as optimistic as Schwartz is about the possible effects of finding scientific proof for the afterlife hypothesis. Some of his speculations, in fact, seem silly. For example, he writes: �if you had been cruel to a person, who then died, how would you feel if you knew scientifically and without doubt that he or she would still be around? Would you want to face him or her when it was your time to �cross over��? (241) What is the offended spirit going to do? Kill the offender? Haunt him? We�re going to live forever whether we�re nice or cruel. In any case, I would hate to think that the main thing that motivates people to be kind to others is that they might haunt you in this life or harass you in the next. I would hope we�d be kind to others because we�d like them to treat us kindly and until shown otherwise they don�t deserve to be treated unkindly. We really don�t have any right to be cruel to anyone. Being kind to others has beneficial consequences, regardless of scientific proof of the afterlife. Kindness resonates and not only makes the kind person feel good, the kindness is often reciprocated. Anyone who has observed the difference in happiness and well being between kind and unkind people knows the benefits of kindness far outweigh the drawbacks. In short, of all the reasons I can think of for being kind to others, the last one that would occur to me is fear of being haunted by a ghost or of having to meet my victim spirit-to-spirit for a face-off in the afterlife.

            Some of Schwartz�s speculations are downright scary. For example, if science proves the afterlife hypothesis, then, asks Schwartz �is it possible that mediums may serve as deceit detectors, giving us messages from beyond that confirm who is lying to us?� (242) If they do ever serve as �deceit detectors,� one hopes the mediums will be more reliable than the polygraph.

            Writes Schwartz: �As people everywhere become skilled at receiving information from the departed, help from the other side could in principle give each of us, directly or indirectly, the ability to discern who is being fair and honest with us, and who is being unjust and deceptive� (242). Perhaps this could happen if the �info-energy systems��Schwartz�s term for soul�are omniscient. Otherwise, why trust information just because it comes from a spirit? For all we know, the dead lie just like the living do.

            Schwartz admits that some of his speculations �may sound laughable and unworthy� (243). For example, he posits the possibility of dead people being called as witnesses in criminal trials, �especially if they are the victims in cases of murder� (244).  Maybe we shouldn�t give convicted murderers the death penalty, says Schwartz, because �the victim might not be in a hurry to see his murderer in the afterlife.� Schwartz wonders who should receive credit if a patent is obtained by someone who got the discovery from a creative dead person. He notes that suicide might increase if people have no reason to fear death (246).  We�ll have to change our view of the mentally ill: �the diagnosis of delusion and hallucination will have to be reconsidered� (247). It might be �necessary to have skilled mediums added to integrative mental health teams to help differentially diagnose and treat people in general, and also help those who are especially fearful of seeing aspects of spiritual reality� (248).  Yes, it is possible that skeptics might be declared mentally ill, suffering from spiritphobia, a morbid fear of spiritual reality. As Schwartz says, it is tempting to dismiss these �startling possibilities� by �simply labeling them as weird or worthless� (250). One such idea is what he calls �spiritual education.�

            Children, he notes, often report seeing ghosts and angels. Maybe they�re really seeing spirits and should be encouraged to �cultivate these experiences� so that by the time they are adults �these latent talents [of seeing spirits] might be developed into meaningful skills that could substantially aid society� (246). I presume that dead medical doctors would assist the living in separating those cases of true delusion caused by brain disease or neurochemical disorder from the spiritual prodigies, so that the former might get the proper treatment.

            Finally, Schwartz is hopeful that scientific proof of the afterlife might bring religious institutions together. However, strong belief in the spirit world hasn�t united religions in the past. Schwartz offers no reason to think that having scientific proof of the spirit world will have a significant effect on institutional harmony among Muslims and Christians, or Jews and Muslims, or Hindus and Sikhs, or Muslims and Baha�i, or Hindus and Muslims, and the many other religious groups trying to annihilate each other. In short, if Schwartz is right, nothing will be any different than it is now. How much more useless could a discovery be than one that will probably go by unnoticed?

further reading



Dr. Robert Todd Carroll is a professor of Sacramento City College and the founder of Web site - "The Skeptic's Dictionary," attracting 500,000 visitors and 750,000 page views per month. He is also the author of the book named, "Becoming a Critical Thinker - A Guide for the New Millennium". The author has sent the above article for Mukto-Mona on the occasion of celebration of Rationalist Day 2005.