One of the go-to talking points of materialists -- those who believe that consciousness is produced by the brain, like the liver makes bile, and will cease to exist with physical death -- has been that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." This argument is routinely used to dismiss any claim of the survival of consciousness without a hearing. Unless someone who has died re-appears and holds a press conference on the lawn of the White House, any evidence pointing to survival is summarily disregarded. But with the publication of Chris Carter's Science and the Afterlife Experience: Evidence for the Immortality of Consciousness, this bolthole of skeptics has been considerably closed.
Carter has emerged as one of the most careful analysts of a body of data that has gradually accumulated for most of the twentieth century. His previous books Parapsychology and the Skeptics and Science and the Near-Death Experience are nightmares for those who believe that the Great Questions -- the origin, nature, and fate of consciousness -- have long been answered. Carter has an intellectual embouchure that is elegant and precise. He has something else as well: a confidence based on an encyclopedic knowledge of the field, filtered through trenchant logic. Carter commands the philosophico-analytical high ground, with undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of Oxford.
Carter's book is divided into four parts: Reincarnation, Apparitions, Messages from the Dead, and Conclusions. After providing provocative observational material, including the key characteristics of reincarnation and apparition-type experiences and messages from the dead, he provides alternative explanations for these ostensible phenomena. He meets head-on the criticisms of skeptics. His summary sections, "How the Case for Survival Stands Today" and "Is Survival a Fact," is not a winner-take-all conclusion. He proposes three categories for possible conclusions: (1) proof beyond all doubt, (2) proof beyond all reasonable doubt, and (3) preponderance of evidence. His final chapter, "What the Dead Say," offers the conclusion to those who, if survival is a fact, are most qualified to weigh in with an opinion. They've been there. We haven't. These sections are a tutorial on how the evidence in a controversial domain should be handled.
Anyone who has followed the debates about the origin and fate of consciousness in recent decades realizes our appalling ignorance about these great issues. The nature of consciousness remains a mystery -- not just its origin, but also its fate. As cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman of the University of California-Irvine, says, "The scientific study of consciousness is in the embarrassing position of having no scientific theory of consciousness" ["Consciousness and the Mind-body Problem." Mind & Matter. 2008; 6(1): 87-121]. As to how consciousness might arise from a physical system such as the brain, if indeed it does and for which there is no convincing evidence, Harvard University experimental psychologist Steven Pinker confesses, "Beats the heck out of me. I have some prejudices, but no idea of how to begin to look for a defensible answer. And neither does anyone else" [How the Mind Works. New York, NY: W. W. Norton; 1997: 146].
Recognizing our ignorance about the origin of consciousness, we might muster a bit of humility about its fate.
This is the gap Chris Carter is attempting to fill with Science and the Afterlife Experience. Those who think they already know the answers don't need to waste their time with this book. For the rest of us, it is a gem.
We should drop the pretense that the question of survival is not worthy of the attention of really smart people. It is and always has been the key question of humans throughout history. Thank you, Chris Carter, for shedding light on this, the Greatest Question.
Larry Dossey, MD
Author: THE POWER OF PREMONITIONS and REINVENTING MEDICINE