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Science and the Afterlife Experience, by Chris Carter

Reviewed by Michael Prescott

Science and the Afterlife Experience is the concluding volume in a trilogy by Oxford-trained philosopher Chris Carter, who previously brought us Science and Psychic Phenomena and Science and the Near-Death Experience. Together, the books meticulously build a case for the proposition that mind is more than simply an emergent property of matter, and that materialism is fatally flawed because it cannot deal with a raft of evidence for paranormal phenomena and postmortem survival. All three books are outstanding contributions to the field of parapsychology, but Science and the Afterlife Experience trumps the other two and brings Carter’s extended argument to a dramatic conclusion.

Part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much is strictly personal. In it, Carter deals with the categories of evidence that I happen to find most interesting: children’s past-life recollections, apparitions, and mental mediumship. He spends the bulk of his time on mediumship, offering an impressive review of some of the best cases investigated by the Society for Psychical Research and its American counterpart. He also devotes considerable time to an overview of the famed cross correspondences, providing the best and most reader-friendly summary of this complicated evidence that I’ve seen.

Not every line of evidence for the afterlife is explored. Past-life memories obtained under hypnosis, electronic voice communication, and physical and materialization mediumship are either not mentioned or cited only in passing. I agree that these categories are more problematic, and I think it was a wise decision to omit them from a book aimed at the general educated reader. While there are legitimate examples in each of these categories, the effort involved in weeding out fraud or delusion is considerable, and it makes more sense to focus on more clear-cut evidence.

When I began the book, I was a little bit concerned that Carter’s approach might be a little too briskly paced for its own good. He covers the subject of children’s past-life memories in only 50 pages, and handles the equally broad subject of apparitions in another 50 pages. I wondered if it would be possible to provide convincingly detailed expositions of all this evidence in relatively short treatments.

It turns out that it is. Carter selects his examples carefully, and weaves further examples into his rebuttals of skeptical arguments, covering a considerable amount of ground with economy and skill. Unlike hefty tomes such as Irreducible Mind or Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, Science and the Afterlife Experience does not seek to overwhelm skeptical objections with a tidal wave of cases (a perfectly valid approach in its own right). Instead, Carter zeroes in on each topic with surgical precision, selecting some of the very best cases and addressing only the most serious objections. The result is a book that can be read quickly, but which will also reward rereading and detailed study.

It’s in his coverage of mediumship that Carter really shines. He provides clear and persuasive accounts of the investigations into Leonora Piper and Gladys Osborn Leonard, stressing the seriousness of the investigators, their gradual evolution from skepticism to “super-ESP” explanations and finally (in some instances) to complete acceptance of life after death. He addresses the super-ESP position in depth, demolishing its claim to be simpler and more parsimonious than the afterlife hypothesis, and supplying a wealth of cases that strain super-ESP past the breaking point.

Perhaps the most impressive of all this evidence are the cross correspondences. Carter devotes three chapters to the subject, summarizing several cases and making it abundantly clear that no non-survival hypothesis other than willful fraud on the part of all the mediums and researchers can explain them. He also takes pains to point out that mere logical possibilities unsupported by any empirical evidence (for instance, the undisprovable idea of a massive fraudulent conspiracy) simply have no weight, and should not be confused with reasonable possibilities grounded in evidence. The conflation of these two types of “possibility” is a key tactic used by debunkers, and it is illegitimate.

The last portion of the book may be the most surprising. Having concluded that postmortem survival is a proven fact — a fact established beyond reasonable doubt — Carter boldly explores the messages that come through mediums to paint a picture of the dying process and the next stage of existence. Much of this material will be familiar to readers of my blog, though rarely has it been so ably summarized. But including it in a philosophically oriented book for the open-minded skeptical reader is, as the media might say, a “gutsy call.” Someone less sure of his position, or more hesitant about expressing it, might have left out mediumistic accounts of Summerland and higher spiritual planes. To Carter’s great credit, he carries his thesis to its logical conclusion, bravely identifying the source of the channeled books The Road to Immortality and Beyond Human Personality as F.W.H. Myers — not “Myers” in quotes, not a purported or alleged Myers, but simply Myers. He also briefly addresses the idea that the universe’s creativity, as manifested in the origin and evolution of life, may result from “the action of minds,” and (quoting geneticist Michael Denton) that the universe “gives every appearance of having been specially designed for life.”

In the Epilogue, Carter notes that “not one of my books was written to change the minds of the dogmatic pseudo-skeptics. They were written only as an appeal to those with an open mind on the subjects discussed.” He adds,

I believe our species has much growing up to do. Many of us have outgrown the comfortable smugness of the religions developed during the infancy of the human race. Yet we now find ourselves experiencing a rather troubled adolescence, with all its attendant doubt, dismay, and spiritual crisis. In the adolescence of our species we are struggling to find answers to questions that haunt us. But if there is one thing this book should have made clear, it is that the modern choice is not between blind religious faith and the pseudoscientific ideology of materialism. There is a third alternative, one that requires neither a leap of faith nor the denial of evidence. Our science and philosophy have evolved to the point at which they can finally come to grips with some of the deepest questions the human race has struggled with in the dark for thousands of years.

Science and the Afterlife Experience is a milestone contribution in that struggle. It is perhaps the best book I’ve read on evidence for life after death — and I’ve read quite a few. I recommend it highly.