As regular readers of this blog know, there's a variety of evidence suggestive of the survival of consciousness after death. Some lines of evidence, of course, are more persuasive than others, but when you look at the totality of the research, it's fascinating to see how the various investigations all converge on the same conclusion.
Among these lines of evidence are near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, apparitions and hauntings, spontaneous after-death communications and induced after-death communications, mediumship, spontaneous memories of past lives reported by young children, alleged memories of past lives or of an existence between lives reported by hypnotized adults, and electronic voice phenomena. This is not a complete list. I'm sure I've left out a few things.
Again, I'm not saying that all of these lines of inquiry are equally compelling; for instance, hypnotic regression can be very problematic because hypnotized subjects have a known tendency to confabulate. And a lot of electronic voice phenomena sound more like random noise than actual voices, at least to me. Still, when we draw back and look at the big picture, I think that only two alternatives can reasonably explain the totality of the evidence.
The first and most obvious explanation is that consciousness really does survive death, at least for a while, and in some cases it reincarnates.
The second possible explanation is that there is some kind of cosmic conspiracy afoot – a concerted effort by the collective subconscious of mankind, or by deceitful demons, or by some other preternatural force – a conspiracy to convince us that we survive death when we really don't.
The non-materialist alternatives to survival all fall broadly into this second category. Advocates of super-psi (or super ESP) are basically saying that unknown powers of the subconscious mind are deceiving us in order to allay our fears about our own mortality. Some religious fundamentalists say that mediumship and near-death experiences are the work of the devil, intended to tempt us into straying from orthodoxy.
Now, the thing about conspiracy theories is that they are impossible to disprove. It doesn't matter how much evidence you can gather that seems to call the alleged conspiracy into question; the devoted conspiracy theorist will simply tell you that that evidence itself is part of the conspiracy. For instance, some people believe that the Apollo moon landings were faked on a TV soundstage. If you point out to them that astronomers all over the world tracked the progress of the Apollo spacecraft, they will tell you that those astronomers were all in on the conspiracy. If you point out that moon rocks were returned from the lunar surface and analyzed by experts, they will tell you that those experts were also part of the conspiracy. And so on. The more evidence you present, the bigger the conspiracy must be, but this is not a problem for the conspiracy theorist, who actually likes the idea that he is a lone voice of truth and sanity fighting against overwhelming odds.
I'm not saying, of course, that conspiracies never take place. Obviously, there have been conspiracies in history. For instance, there was a conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar. But it did not remain secret for long, and it did not involve a prohibitively large number of people. There was a kind of conspiracy to prevent the public from knowing too much about Franklin Roosevelt's handicap while he was in office, and to prevent the public from learning that John Kennedy's marriage was basically a sham. Again, though, these conspiracies involved a limited number of insiders and were eventually brought to light.
The trouble with conspiracy theories as all-encompassing explanations is that not only can they never be disproved, but also they breed a sense of helplessness, passivity, and cynicism. If the whole world is out to get us, then there's probably nothing we can do about it except despair.
When we come to an idea like super-psi, we find a conspiracy theory that is even more impossible to disprove than the usual ones. By definition, super-psi potentially involves everybody's subconscious – every thought and every feeling that anybody has ever had or ever will have. You can't get much bigger than that! If the combined resources of the subconscious minds of all human beings are involved in an elaborate charade, and if those heretofore unrecognized resources are vastly greater than we have ever suspected, then the resulting conspiracy is capable of producing literally any evidence necessary and suppressing any contrary evidence.
This doesn't mean merely that we can never learn the truth about life after death. It means we can never know the truth about anything. We cannot trust our own minds, since at the deepest level they are intent on fooling us. We cannot trust anybody's perceptions, including our own. If we take super-psi seriously, or for that matter if we believe that any evidence that contradicts our belief system is manufactured by devils to test our faith or by soul-eating "hungry ghosts" to numb us for the slaughter or by space aliens who are putting us through our paces in a giant Habitrail, then we have no possible way of using our rational faculty and empirical evidence to arrive at truth.
What it comes down to is this. Assuming that we find the overall evidence for postmortem survival to be reasonably convincing, and not capable of being entirely explained away as mistaken observation, hoaxes, flimflam, urban legends, wishful thinking, etc., then we face a basic choice. We can take the evidence at face value, on the assumption that the universe is essentially benign and that our minds are, in principle, capable of discerning the truth about things. Or we can assume that the evidence is the result of a giant con job, in which case the universe is essentially malign and our conscious, reasoning minds are, in principle, incapable of knowing any part of the truth.
I concede that there is no way to definitively decide between these two alternatives. To some extent it depends on whether our outlook on existence is basically optimistic or pessimistic. Is the universe friendly, or is it out to get us? Is life an adventure or a nightmare? Is there room for trust, or only for fear?
It comes down to what William James called "the will to believe," meaning our willingness to take a leap of faith at a point when ratiocination can go no further. We each have to take that leap, in one direction or the other, for ourselves.