Is The Afterlife Real?
Before we believe in ghosts, we have to believe in an afterlife first. In other words, we have to believe first that our existence goes beyond this life and form and that at least our consciousness and memories will remain with us after our passing.
There are several interpretations and beliefs about the afterlife and some claim to have experienced it (i.e. near-death experiences). Some of these interpretations, beliefs and experiences have similarities across various cultures and religions. For example, near-death stories often have those “tunnel” (or a huge gate or door) and “light” where the person must go to. There’s also that feeling or memory of seeing or hearing a supernatural being. It’s like getting a taste of the afterlife and it’s different from having a dream. In a near-death experience (NDE), the memory is vivid and something inside a person changes.
How scientists explain it
NDEs may provide us a clue of what it’s like to be on the other side. But how does science explain NDEs and do they really prove something else is out there?
Let’s start with the “tunnel” and “light” common in many NDEs. A neuroscientist (Andrew Newberg) attempted to explain how those images fill our minds during an NDE. He believes that as the eyesight fades, we feel that tunnel sensation because we lose our peripheral sight first (i.e. our field of vision narrows). In the case of bright light, during an NDE we lose functions of our visual system. The bright light people see is related to the function that shuts down last. In other words, the tunnel and light people see relate to visual and brain functions that shut down or remain.
There are other theories that explain those “hallucinations.” Some scientists conclude that those visions and hallucinations might be a mechanism for physiological defence. In this theory, our brains release protective chemicals that may trigger intense hallucinations. These intense hallucinations might show a bright light and have that supernatural sensation. Interestingly, those kinds of hallucinations can be triggered by ketamine (source: Ketamine: Dreams and Realities written by Karl Jansen).
Well, do those explanations make afterlife false and just a product of our imagination? After all, what we discussed so far are theories which mean these are just trying to explain and generalise things. A theory might only be acceptable until a better explanation (supported by the most recent evidence) comes along. In addition, theories about the afterlife can be difficult to prove or explain further. We still heavily rely on anecdotal evidence which might not be reliable or reproducible. It’s also difficult to design an experiment (at least ethically) that may give us a hint of what’s really on the other side.
But if it’s almost impossible to prove that the afterlife is real, why do we keep believing in it? Why do we still believe there are ghosts and that there are consequences for the things we do here while living?
Afterlife, morality and human cooperation
Belief in the afterlife might have a huge role in enabling human cooperation (especially in large groups numbering thousands and millions of people). This means if there’s an afterlife, there could also be consequences for what we do while we’re living. There could be rewards for our good deeds or punishments for our moral transgressions and there’s no escaping from it.
That was the conclusion from a cross-cultural survey conducted on a global sample of 87 countries (source: Beliefs about God, the afterlife and morality support the role of supernatural policing in human cooperation). The researchers’ findings suggest that beliefs about moral transgressions are tied to beliefs about supernatural monitoring and punishment. The belief that someone (or groups of supernatural beings) is watching us and there could be punishment for our transgressions support or enable human cooperation.
What happens if we stop believing in the afterlife? It’s possible that societies will be thrown into chaos because there are no “consequences.” It’s also possible that people will still behave rationally. This can be hard to prove because our societies are a product of long evolution and there are a lot of “what-ifs” and “what could have been” (plus several variables that might be isolated or dependent upon one another). Things might have turned out totally different from what we’ve expected even if we just change a single event or a single belief.
Nevertheless, afterlife continues to intrigue us despite modern science and technology. We’re perpetually curious about what happens next and as best as we can, we try to make sense of things given the limited evidence we have. Whether it’s real or not, the belief has been a part of various cultures and religions through the centuries. The belief in the afterlife also shapes our history and society because it guides our actions whether we are aware or not. It may or may not lead to best results but at least we have something to believe in and that our curiosity remains.