I've been thinking lately about the scientific approach to proving the reality of life after death, and I'm beginning to wonder if, to some extent, these ongoing efforts are bit misguided. I'm not sure, but here is the direction in which my thoughts have been going.
The scientific method is an incredibly powerful tool, but like any tool, it has its limitations. A hammer is a useful tool also, but it's not of much help when what you need is a screwdriver. It's been said that when you've got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is the basic mistake made by adherents of scientism -- thinking that one tool, science, can do every job that's worth doing. It can't. And when science is pressed into roles for which it is unsuited, it becomes as clumsy and unhelpful as a hammer filling in for screwdriver.
The great hope of the early psi investigators who founded the Society for Psychical Research and its American equivalent was that, by using the scientific method, they would be able to prove the reality of paranormal phenomena. This hope was sustained by J. B. Rhine, Ian Stevenson, and other researchers. Some of the results have been impressive. For those who care to look with an inquiring mind, there is copious evidence for many psi phenomena and, I think, clear-cut proof of some (telepathy, remote viewing, precognition, and micro-PK).
And yet, when we come to the subject of life after death, we enter a realm where the evidence, however plentiful, is not ultimately dispositive. It is always possible to argue the evidence away on the grounds of coincidence, error, deceit, or "super-psi." These arguments generally do not seem compelling to me, because I'm impressed by the wide scope of the data and the high quality of some of it, as well as by the curious consistency of reports across cultures and eras. But it is impossible to refute such objections absolutely. And I'm starting to think that even the effort to refute them is not worthwhile. I'm starting to think that while the hammer of science may be able to hit the nail on the head in some areas of psi research, it is simply not the right tool for the exploration of the afterlife.
Afterlife cases, by their nature, don't lend themselves to laboratory testing. When a person is dying, there are other priorities besides running tests. We should want it no other way. The dying process has been dehumanized enough as it is, without further robbing the patients of dignity by intruding with scientific instruments on their last moments.
Of course, it's possible to test mediums under controlled conditions, but mediumistic communications are always problematic -- a mixture of valid and invalid information, remarkable hits and significant misses -- as well as a lot of material that defies analysis (philosophical claims, descriptions of the afterlife, professions of love, etc.).
Patients can be hypnotized and helped to remember alleged past lives, but the creative imagination of the hypnotized subject can never be ruled out as the material's source. And cryptomnesia, the mind's uncanny ability to retain and regurgitate detailed information obtained decades earlier, means that even verified factual details can be ascribed to "normal" perception. In those rare cases where imagination and cryptomnesia can be safely ignored, there remains the possibility of super-psi.
Even spontaneous recollections of children are susceptible to the super-psi argument, as are the comparatively rare but sometimes dramatic birthmark cases -- which, in a pinch, can be explained by PK.
Do I find these explanations credible? Not at all. But that's because I'm convinced, for a variety of reasons, that life after death is a fact. If I were not so convinced, I might find these other explanations acceptable. And from scientific standpoint, it's not enough just to prove your case to those who are already predisposed to accept it. You have to be able to prove your case to doubters, too.
It's not at all clear that the scientific method, no matter how rigorously applied, will be able to clear this hurdle with regard to afterlife research -- at least, not any time in the foreseeable future. The reason is not that the evidence is weak, much less that there is "no evidence," as some skeptics maintain. The reason is that the strongest evidence to date has been typically collected under conditions that are not altogether "scientific." Better results are obtained when investigators are not overtly skeptical, when controls are not too stringent, and when personal feelings are allowed to play a role in guiding and assessing the phenomena. But tough skepticism, tight controls, and the suppression of personal feelings are the hallmarks of the scientific method.
So what is the solution? It just may be the case that afterlife studies aren't particularly amenable to a scientific approach. Science may be the wrong tool in this area. A different, more personal approach may be needed. Perhaps the goal should be, not to prove the afterlife to the satisfaction of skeptical bystanders, but to prove it to our own satisfaction. Each of us has different standards of evidence and proof. Each of us has different personal experiences, and each places trust in different people. If your best friend, whom you have no reason to doubt, confides in you with a story of a near-death experience, would you dismiss it as a hallucination or a lie because it's not "scientific"? I think it makes more sense to recognize that science is not the appropriate instrument to use in this instance. Honor your friend and his story. Who cares if no one else would be convinced? It's not your job to change the world or save the world -- an impossible task, anyway. Your job is to be true to yourself, not to "the world" (which is only an abstraction) or to "science" (also an abstraction, and quite possibly an inapplicable methodology in this area). To place either "the world" or "science" above your own truth is to commit an act of self-abnegation. There are higher truths than worldly truths, and there are other avenues to truth besides science, just as there are other tools in a well-stocked toolkit besides a hammer.
To be clear: I don't mean to denigrate science, which is an extraordinarily powerful means of knowledge, when applied to appropriate subjects. I'm just not so sure that postmortem survival is one of those subjects. In this area, perhaps the poets and mystics are more reliable guides. Better still, let your own experience and exploration be your guide. And if anyone tells you that your experience is not good enough, you might just answer, "It's good enough for me."