In the comments section of my blog post about Stratfordian arguments, Bruce Siegel asked an interesting question: Which am I more certain of–that Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare, or that there is life after death?
I ended up giving this question a lot more thought than I would have expected, and I've already changed my mind once about the answer. The interesting thing, to me, is not so much the issue of Oxford's authorship of the Shakespearean canon, but my degree of certainty–or uncertainty–about an afterlife.
I know people who are absolutely certain of life after death, either because they had a near-death experience or because they've witnessed phenomena that convince them beyond any doubt. I also know people who regard the whole idea of life after death as transparently ridiculous and not even worth discussing. When the brain dies, the mind goes out of existence, and that's that.
But how about my own view? It turns out, when I really think about it, that I'm sure of only one thing: whatever is going on, it's a lot more complicated then the materialist worldview would suggest.
I definitely do not believe that all the evidence for life after death can be explained away as hallucinations, delusions, mistaken observations, hoaxes, urban legends, and trickery. These explanations no doubt account for some of the purported evidence, but I'm convinced they cannot account for all of it. Something is happening–something real, something that millions of people have experienced, something that has actually shaped the course of human history by providing the impetus to art, architecture, science, literature, music, in fact culture in general. Without a belief in a spirit world, it's safe to say there would have been no cave paintings, no pyramids and ziggurats, no astrology and alchemy (which laid the basis for astronomy and chemistry), no psalms or epic poetry along the lines of Gilgamesh or the Iliad, and no ritual banging of drums or playing of flutes. As strange as it may seem in this predominantly materialistic era, a belief in spirits–in some kind of supernatural dimension that can interact with our own–is one of the great driving forces of history, and I don't buy the idea that it was all just a lot of hokum foisted on the gullible by a self-serving cadre of shamans and priests.
No, something sure as heck is going on … but what?
The simplest explanation, of course, is that the spirit survives physical death and continues to exist in another realm. And for the most part, I accept that explanation, at least intellectually. But when somebody I know passes on, I have to admit that I don't assume they still exist in an afterlife realm. It's more of an intellectual concept to me than a gut-level belief. On a gut level, I really don't know.
Similarly, I think that near-death experiences are not just hallucinations of a dying or traumatized brain; and yet, when I heard about the AWARE study, which will see if NDE patients report noticing hidden images in the hospital room during their out-of-body phase, my gut feeling was that no such sightings would be reported. And that is still my expectation. There may be design flaws in the experiment that make it unlikely that a hovering spirit would notice or remember these images, but even if that were not the case, I'm not sure I would expect a positive result.
But why not? If I really think the spirit does leave the body and has enhanced vision, why wouldn't it see the targets, at least in some cases? Or is it that I really don't believe?
No, I think it's something little more complicated than that. What I believe is that obtaining evidence of life after death is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. The evidence seems to be inherently elusive, ambiguous, frustrating. And therefore any protocol that attempts to gather this evidence on demand--to collect dozens of authenticated cases of target sightings or what-have-you--will likely end in either negative or bewilderingly ambiguous results.
And this is true of afterlife evidence in general. The same medium can produce high-quality evidence on one day and gibberish on the next. Or a medium can produce evidence in conditions that seem to preclude any possibility of cheating, and yet under less stringent conditions the same medium may very easily be caught cheating.
Some channeled material from allegedly higher spirits seems to convey profound philosophical and moral truths, but other material from the very same source can be just plain goofy.
Near-death experiences have common elements that stretch across the centuries and bridge very distinct cultures, and NDEs can have a profound impact not only on the NDErs themselves but even on those who merely read about the subject; and yet there are other elements of NDE's that seem ridiculous–for instance, in many NDE's reported in India, the person finds he was called to the afterlife because of a bureaucratic mixup involving a similarity of names with another individual. (Bureaucratic snafus in the afterlife?)
The same kind of problem pertains to out-of-body experiences, as explored (for instance) by Robert A. Monroe. Monroe was by all accounts was a dedicated and serious researcher, and he does appear to have had legitimate OBE abilities, yet some of his accounts of the bizarre realms that he visited seem more like vivid dreams or nightmares than like anything real.
There is a tricksterish quality to the evidence for life after death; it's almost as if the universe is teasing us, giving us just enough information to justify a belief in an afterlife if we are so inclined, but not enough evidence to cement that belief, at least for most people. The whole field of Forteana encompasses just this kind of bizarre, inexplicable evidence which doesn't fit neatly into our standard picture of reality and doesn't seem to fit into any particular alternative worldview either, unless perhaps it's the view that the world is inherently insane. And yet the overall regularity of the physical world seems to rule out that viewpoint also.
So ... how much do I really believe in life after death?
I believe that something happens to us after we die. I believe that reality is multifaceted and multilayered and that we experience only a small part of it–the tip of the iceberg–during our physical incarnation. But exactly what it's all about, how it works, and what our deceased friends and relatives might be experiencing, or what sort of beings they might be at this point, or even whether they retain their individuality or their humanness–all of that is beyond me.
Oxford was Shakespeare, though. That much I'm sure of. Hey, at least it's something.