The Misguided Quest for Physical Immortality

As I drove down to Mission Viejo to give a talk on the afterlife, I thought back to the article in Newsweek I'd read a few days before. Brilliant scientists, including Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, thought it possible to someday "cure death," and Dmitry Itskov, the "godfather" of Russia's Internet, predicted that the technology that would allow him to live for 10,000 years would be in place by 2045.

Wow. And here I was about to tell 70 seniors that death was no big deal because all it involved was the shedding of the body -- the same body that these scientists would go to any length and expense to keep running.

What different worlds we come from! I grant that the technology these geniuses are playing with will probably extend our lives a few years, maybe even a decade, but beyond that? Not likely, and no thanks anyway.

I also found myself wondering how these scientists could be so unaware of the research being done on surviving death. There is a library of information pointing with great force to a world that doesn't require a physical body to be alive. And this information isn't arcane or esoteric anymore. A recent award-winning documentary Death Makes Life Possible, brings together leading consciousness researchers who tell us that death is not the end. And only two weeks ago NBC's Nightly News carried a story about a kid who remembered small details from his "former life," all of which checked out.

My interests include the near-death experience, deathbed visions, spirit communication, reincarnational memories, and terminal lucidity among Alzheimer's victims. These phenomena depend for logical consistency on a view of the human person that physicalists have never seriously considered: that we are something more than the body, that the body is the most intimate part of our environment, yes, but not us; that the body is so close to us that we can't walk away from it until we die, but it isn't us.

But does death really leave us disembodied? The research I specialize in tells a different story. When we die we find ourselves in a new and better body, what Buddhists and Hindus call the "subtle body" or linga sharira. This body isn't given to us miraculously. It's our present inner body that emerges at death when the physical body is shed. It emerges as naturally as a butterfly from its chrysalis. At that point it enters a new environment as subtle as itself and becomes our outer body. This environment is what we call the afterlife, and that is what I was traveling south to Mission Viejo to attempt to describe.

This is not the place to present evidence supporting this spiritual worldview. Serious research is being done all over the world on paranormal phenomena, or what might be better described as anomalous conscious states. And none of it owes a smidge to religious teaching, even though religion sometimes likes to hitch a ride on what turns up.

What these brilliant men and women who seek to tame death fear is extinction. Blessed with huge fortunes and reputations, they understandably fear losing it all. So they cling to this world, unaware of all the evidence that points to something better in another.

Realistically, the world they might enter at death could have terrors of its own if their characters have been marred by habits of cruelty, depravity, or excessive selfishness. But for the true servants of humanity -- from ordinary good people who give love to their families and friends to geniuses who leave the world permanently changed for the better -- the world they would enter at death would be at least as rewarding and challenging as this one.

One of the most intriguing social movements in recent years is the Death Café. People come together to talk about death. Taking it out of the closet, they say, helps remove the fear of it. Perhaps it does for some. But for me, and most of my audiences, talking about death no more removes the fear of it than talking about a large asteroid heading our way. We need Afterlife Cafes, not Death Cafes.

No one recognizes this more clearly than Elizabeth McAdams, my hostess in Southern California. Years after her father died, she experienced a moving communication from him. Spurred on by that experience, she founded the International Foundation for Survival Research. As she put it, "everyone deserved to know about the massive amount of evidence pointing to life after death." Since then she has funded psychical research and given Distinguished Achievement Awards to persons as diverse as Senator Claiborne Pell and George Gallup, Jr.

Her foundation offers some of its public programs through the "Life After Life Club," a local group in Laguna Woods Village retirement community, and what a vital and lively bunch they were! Well aware of the stakes involved, they challenged me time and again; they insisted on evidence. They had little in common with my college-age students, most of whom are too young to fret much about death.

But some day they will. Some will be attracted to philosophies that dogmatically deny an afterlife, but others will be drawn to the research that argues for its reality. The guidebooks of this latter group will not be the Bible or the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita, worthy though they are, but the works of researchers like Pim van Lommel's Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, or Chris Carter's Science and the Afterlife Experience, or Jim Tucker's Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives, or my own The Afterlife Unveiled.