From Spiritualism to quantum physics, the quest persists to find out exactly what haunts us, and how, and why…
The idea that the energy of life just vanishes into nothingness in death has never been comfortable for us humans. Such potent energy must go somewhere: to Paradise, perhaps, or the Underworld, or some purgatorial holding pattern, or the interstices between the stars. It must revive secretly on some other side of existence. And there, many have long supposed, the spirits traverse eternity, reaping whatever good or ill they sowed in life.
Such an explanation accounts nicely for what happens to an individual’s life force. But not all energy that has gone on to its post-mortem dimension seems content to stay there. Unfinished business, hatred left unquenched, revenge uncompleted, one’s murderer gone free, lost or unrequited love, the need to warn or scare or save one’s survivors; there are so many compelling reasons not to rest that one would expect the ether to teem with souls still not quite decoupled from life. And so they seem to over about us, occasionally visible, often subtly perceptible, just out of earshot, but nevertheless there, palpable enough to prompt never-quite-answered about who they are and what they want.
The questions about the fate of the life force have been asked for thousands of years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, it appeared at times that science was on the verge of providing some definitive answers. Energy of all sorts was on the verge of providing some definitive answers. Energy of all sorts was much on people’s minds then: electrical energy, magnetic energy, how to two transferred back and forth, how energy was transformed into light and heat. Energy never vanished, it seemed, it merely changed forms. So it might be with the energy of life, some scientists speculated: Perhaps life was another manifestation of energy, as indestructible as electricity or sunlight, and as quick to take another form.
It made sense, and it carried the advantage that the whole business of an afterlife might be viewed objectively, not through the distorting lenses of superstition or metaphysics. And if one could quantify the existence of human energy after the body’s death – ghosts and spirits, as it were, why couldn’t one get in touch with them? Why couldn’t science open a line to the Other side?
Science and the Supernatural
The idea smacked somewhat of hubris; the science of the time (and of today, for that matter) was as yet ill-equipped to unveil nature’s most closely held secret: the mystery of death and what lies beyond it. Even so, there were pioneers willing to try. And if they fell short, some were equally willing to cloak their efforts in enough pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo to at least confuse the issue.
One of these was Franz Anton Mesmer, the 18th century Austrian physician whose theory of “animal magnetism” – a natural magnetic energy he believed to exist in all living creatures, suggested the possibility of sensing objects and events beyond ones’ waking ken. Mesmer was wrong about nearly everything except the technique of hypnotizing or “mesmerizing,” subjects. Still, his incorporation of magnetism into his spiel imparted a certain learned aura to his work and to the otherworldly pranks of a legion of Mesmerists who sprung up on both sides of the Atlantic.
Emanuel Swedenborg, a renowned Swedish scientist who was a contemporary of Mesmer, offered a philosophical counterpoint to the Austrian’s mind-bending hocus-pocus. The hidden worlds to which Mesmer clamied to send his hypnotized subjects were familiar ground to Swedenborg, who reported the frequent company of Jesus, a host of spirits, and even God. He framed the afterlife into six spheres of Spiritualism, which spirits traversed from the lowest (life on Earth) to the highest (unknowable to us). About equal parts brilliant and deranged, Swedenborg like Mesmer, helped fertilize the occult ground of what would become, in the 19th century, the Spiritualist movement.
Science and the Soul
By the end of 19 centaury, science and mediumship have gone their separate ways, the latter dissolving into the often suspect claptrap of channeling and psychic hot lines, the former searching for spirits in wholly new directions.
These days, the serious scientists speculating on the soul’s possible survival tend to be, of all things, physicists. Their mystical turn of mind is doubtless linked to quantum mechanics itself, the science describing the cosmos as a mysterious mesh of being and nonbeing in which tiny, invisible bits called quanta – the building blocks of the universe – behave in exotically erratic and unpredictable ways.
All creation is joined “in a state of unending flux of enfoldment and unfoldment,” says the University of London’s David Bohm, a leading authority on quantum mechanics and also a student of Eastern mysticism. Bohm asserts that human consciousness is part of a unity that includes the whole universe. If such oneness is indeed the case, it’s logical to assume that somewhere in that universe, disembodied souls exist.
Another physicist influenced by Eastern thought is Brian Josephson, a Nobel laureate and professor at England’s Cambridge University. “One is not the same as one’s body,” says Josephson, who defines the soul as a nonphysical “organizing center” of the self. He is convinced that this organizing center survives death.
Mind, Brain, Soul
Other scientists approach the soul by speculating on whether human consciousness is separable from human flesh: Is the mind merely what the brain does? Or is it more, and other – an entity that can exist independent of the brain and survive the brain’s death? One renowned thinker who argues for the second proposition is Australian neurophysiologist Sir John Carew Eccles, another Nobel Prize winner. “I cannot believe,” says Eccles, “that the wonderful gift of a conscious existence has no further future, no possibility of another existence under some unimaginable conditions.”
Eccles has an ally in Sir Karl Popper, the eminent philosopher of science. Popper posits the existence of three worlds: a material one containing the brain and all other material objects, an abstract world in which the mind dwells, and a world that holds all the mind’s achievements, all the fruits of civilization. These worlds interact constantly, but they are essentially separate; the mind, therefore, enjoys an existence independent of the brain.
No End in Sight
Inquiring minds, including some of the best minds around, do indeed want to know. But this side of the grave, will we ever really understand what death is and what the spirit is and whether it survives after the body dies? The best minds seem to think not.
Physicist Josephson contends that physical science will never, by itself, unravel all reality’s secrets, although he concedes that mystical insight may open new path-ways for rational thought.
Neurophysiologist Eccles is even more modest about the prospects, although a good scientist that he is, he allows for all possibilities. “I don’t want to claim that I have some extraordinary revelation telling me the answer” says Eccles. “I keep everything open. I keep so many doors open because I am, as it were, a lost soul trying to find my way in the unknown.”