In January 2021, a surprising and exciting piece of news came across my desk here at the Grail: American hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow was putting up close to a million dollars in prizes in an essay competition devoted to exploring the evidence for an afterlife, offering $US500,000, $US300,000, and $US150,000 for first, second and third place respectively to answer the question: “What is the Best Available Evidence for the Survival of Human Consciousness after Permanent Bodily Death?”
My excitement was twofold: Firstly, that Bigelow – known for his interest and support for scientific exploration of paranormal topics over the last few decades – was undertaking a project that had the promise to bring a lot more attention to a topic, and field of research, that I think has been criminally overlooked for many years. And secondly, on a purely personal note, that I might have a chance of winning one of the prizes, writing about a topic that I have a deep interest in and have written about before: my 2015 book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife addressed this topic specifically. The Daily Grail has been running on the scarcest of funds, mostly through generous reader donations, for over two decades – here was a chance to perhaps fund it properly going forward into the future!
My goal was to create an essay that you could give to anyone – from layman to scientist – and it would make sense, be convincing to any objective but skeptical mind, but also not try to hammer home any particular belief or philosophy beyond ‘there seems to be a preponderance of evidence pointing towards this conclusion’ (as I don’t believe at this stage we can infer too much more).
As such, my approach was to – as with my book, Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife – summarise the best evidence, not all the possible evidence. Through my own extensive research, I believe that rests on four main pillars: the evidence accumulated from research into:
(Though it should be noted that each of those areas has multiple sub-areas, as I ultimately explored in my essay).
I know many might say I should have included things like Instrumental Transcommunication (ITC)/Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) and physical mediumship – but to my mind if I was going to make my best argument to an intelligent, objective person, the evidence in those areas isn’t as strong in my opinion, and the fields are fraught with fraud and wishful (and sometimes delusional) thinking. As I viewed the essay as a chance to turn new people on to the excellent research on afterlife-related topics, I thought including these topics might dilute the overall strength of my essay, and make the reader less inclined to give credibility to the four main areas I covered. Sure, I might mention those areas as possible ancillary supporting evidence in a short note somewhere, but no more.
Then, midway through my writing of the essay, Robert Bigelow made things even more interesting – he stumped up a bonus amount of cash prizes for another 11 essays, from 4th place to 14th, who would all receive $US50,000 – an incredible total prize pool of nearly $1.5 million.
Despite the allure of the prizes, it was very important to me that I stayed true to my ‘4-pillar’ approach in order to truly present the best evidence in these fields. I care about this topic a lot, and wanted to do it right. Given it was part of a competition, I certainly could have written the essay ‘strategically’ and included other topics perhaps more likely to resonate with the judges: For example, Dr Brian Weiss is well-known for his research on reincarnation memories recalled through hypnosis, but I don’t find that area overall as strong as the reincarnation research I included; similarly, I excluded physical mediumship, even though I knew that another of the judges, journalist Leslie Kean, has had positive experiences in that area and wrote about it in her book Surviving Death. My goal remained to present an essay with the core evidence from the field that would present the strongest, most unimpeachable case that any skeptic would find very difficult to dismiss or refute.
As it turns out, I soon found out that even presenting the evidence from just those four areas I specified in under 25,000 words – one of the conditions of the essay competition – was a difficult enough task. My first draft, which I thought was fairly ‘tight’, came in at over 35,000 words – meaning I had to cut pretty much an entire third of my original content out!
On facing this prospect, I considered whether I should perhaps just pick a single area instead – the one I thought was the absolute strongest – and go into the evidence in that topic in more depth, given that even at 35,000 words I thought I was perhaps not doing all four ‘pillars’ justice. I wondered whether, seeing as the contest was going to include a range of 14 essays as winners that would be published on the website of the Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies, the judges might prefer to have essays individually address single topics in detail, and thus the competition overall would cover the gamut of subjects. But I remained firm in my central thesis that perhaps the most compelling evidence for an afterlife is the amount of convincing evidence that can be found across multiple areas of research. It is the sheer diversity of the sources of evidence that makes the overall case so strong.
After finally editing my essay down – with much agonising and second-guessing of my choices – to just a few words beneath the 25,000 limit, I submitted it. Interestingly, while I thought I would nervously await the result during the judging period – given the possibilities it offered for a big turnaround in my financial situation – I actually almost completely forgot about the competition during this time. I think this was because I was satisfied with what I had created, and I knew the decision-making was now out of my hands.
It was almost a surprise when I checked my email one morning – literally 5 minutes before I was leaving for work – and found a message from the Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies (BICS). Unfortunately I had not made the top 14 essay list of prize winners. However, such was the quality of the 204 entries in total, the email noted, that the judges had found another 15 essays to be of such high worth – mine included – that they had decided to name them as ‘Honorable mentions’. And remarkably – given the competition had originally started with just 3 possible prize winners – Robert Bigelow had now decided to award each of the ‘Honorable mentions’ $US20,000 as well, even though it had never been mentioned in the competition details previously…an overall ‘winners list’ of 29 essays and a prize pool of close to $2 million. An extremely generous move by Robert Bigelow, and one I am most grateful for!
I’ve seen many people comment on social media that they will be disappointed if the winners don’t present some new and exciting convincing research. But I’m not sure that was really possible within the window of the competition – research takes years to do, from ethics approval to data collection and finally writing and publishing. Instead, this competition was mostly about assembling a formidable array of essays that sum up the currently available evidence in one central library/anthology of well-written material. And, as I point out in my own essay, there is not a great need for ‘new’ evidence, as there is a huge body of existing, convincing evidence already (though new research and evidence is always welcome, obviously).
Looking back on my essay with a few months of ‘distance’ from the writing process, there are a few things I might have done differently. I probably spent a bit too much time discussing how eyewitness testimony of anomalistic, spontaneous phenomena was an entirely valid form of evidence, even when disputed by scientists, by using the analogy of meteors to illustrate my case. At some point readers may switch off due the length of time I was ‘off-topic’ talking meteors rather than afterlife, but I felt it was very important to start the essay with an historical example to show how solid evidence for certain phenomena are often dismissed out-of-hand-, when the evidence is plain to see, simply due to the scientific paradigm not ‘allowing’ the phenomena.
After reading Dr Jeffrey Mishlove’s winning essay, I would probably now in retrospect also use more images and video. I wrongly assumed that the competition was for a word-based essay only – I think the addition of images and videos as in Jeff’s essay certainly makes the reading experience more enjoyable for a 25,000 word piece, helping to break up an essay length that equates to around 50 to 90 pages of text. Additionally, doing so would have meant I could have included important anecdotes and testimony that I reluctantly edited out of my manuscript to get it under the 25,000 word mark (one story from Dr Bruce Greyson in particular that I was keen to have in my essay, but in the end sadly had to cut, was included in Jeff Mishlove’s essay as an embedded YouTube video…doh!).
But overall I remain really happy with my own entry in the competition – I think it provides a very solid argument for the survival of consciousness beyond death by presenting the strongest ‘core’ areas of evidence that skeptics would have a hard time dismissing. I managed to place within the top 29 in the competition out of over 200 entries in total (and, apparently, around 1000 original applications for entry), among very well-credential scientists and researchers who deserve much credit for their persistence in this field despite orthodox science’s hostility towards their endeavours. And, as I said to many people while writing my own essay, if we were going to give a prize for research contributing solid evidence to the afterlife question, I believe the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia deserves perhaps 80% of the credit – from Bruce Greyson (NDEs) to Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker (reincarnation), it is their foundational work that most research today builds upon. I am but a lowly author assembling the various pieces of research done into what I hope is a coherent whole.
Sure, $US500,000 would have been hella nice to have in the bank. But I’m more than grateful for the recognition and prize money I did receive, and furthermore am very hopeful that my own essay, and the competition overall, can act as a springboard toward more serious discussion of the evidence for the survival of consciousness beyond death. Be sure to head over to the BICS website and read them all!