The (Lack of) Scientific Evidence for Life After Death

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Hey have you ever almost DIED? Have you ever almost died so hard that you floated above your body, and then you saw a tunnel with a light at the end, and then you went to heaven for a minute, and Jesus looked at you and said “keep up the good work homes” and then you were back in your body here on Earth? And did this confirm your existing belief that there is in fact another world awaiting us after the inevitable death of our corporal forms?

Well, that was just your oxygen-starved brain desperately firing neurons and flooding your body with endorphins in an attempt to keep you alive, and sadly there is no heaven or hell and when we die we’re all going to rot in the ground.

Just kidding! I don’t know that. No one knows that! But I have, essentially, covered both sides of this “debate.” You can honestly skip the rest of this video if you want, there’s really no other real scientific evidence to suggest that a “near-death experience” (NDE) is anything other than that. On the one side we have people who had a life-changing psychedelic trip, and on the other side we have scientists who point out that there’s no other evidence it was anything else.

But I KNOW that won’t convince all of you so I’m just going to keep talking.

I’m interested in all this right now thanks to an article I just read from Business Insider, which basically just describes a panel the “journalist” saw at South by Southwest in which two “scientists” describe their work on NDEs. If you’re watching this on YouTube instead of reading the transcript, just know there are a lot of quotation marks in that sentence.

The “scientists” in question are Jim Tucker and Jennifer Kim Penberthy, two psychologists at University of Virginia (UVA), who “study” near death experiences from the assumption that they’re describing the soul leaving the body, and anecdotal reports of children saying they are reincarnated beings.

This sort of paranormal research is nothing new: people who believe in the existence of the soul and an afterlife have, for centuries, attempted to find empirical evidence for their beliefs. And after all those centuries, they have literally nothing to show for it besides spooky stories. While other fields of real science have accelerated their rates of discoveries in the past few decades, parapsychologists like Tucker and Penberthy are really just sitting here in 2022 repeating the exact same things that their forerunners said in 1985: in fact, the reason why these people are being paid to recycle 50-year old talking points is because the guy who invented the Xerox was a spiritualist and Zen Buddhist who believed in reincarnation, and in 1968 he died of a heart attack and left a million dollars to UVA on the condition that they set up a department to study the possibility of life after death, to be run by Ian Stevenson.

Stevenson was the true skeptic’s quack: he wasn’t just a raving lunatic; he took his lunacy seriously, traveling the world and exhaustively collecting stories from toddlers who claimed that they were different people in another life, comparing them to records of the recently deceased to “solve” the case of who the kids were previously.

Stevenson did come up with some great stories, like the one about a boy in Beirut who “spoke of being a 25-year-old mechanic, thrown to his death from a speeding car on a beach road. According to multiple witnesses, the boy provided the name of the driver, the exact location of the crash, the names of the mechanic’s sisters and parents and cousins, and the people he hunted with — all of which turned out to match the life of a man who had died several years before the boy was born, and who had no apparent connection to the boy’s family.”

Wow, creepy! Only…Stevenson didn’t speak any of the languages of the people he interviewed, so he relied on translators. They were in cultures where reincarnation was accepted more or less as fact, so even if the people involved aren’t knowingly lying, there’s a very good chance that they were misremembering things, putting words in the mouths of the toddlers, and making the stories sound more impressive than they were. And of course then there are the people who did knowingly lie, like one translator who even Stevenson admitted had been dishonest but he still claimed the stories could be trusted (his publisher disagreed and backed out because of it).

There isn’t a single story Stevenson gathered that can’t be better explained as some mix of coincidence, exaggeration, and/or outright fraud (on the part of the subjects and the translators if not Stevenson himself). But there are plenty of really uncomfortable ableist and homophobic consequences of Stevenson’s beliefs: if a little girl told a story about how she used to be a boy and now refuses to wear traditionally “girly” clothing and only answers to the name “Richard,” Stevenson assumed that’s because she used to be a man named Richard. If a child had a disfigured face, he assumed it was because in a previous life he was a man who shot himself in the face. According to Stevenson, any disease, disorder, or quirk of personality could be explained by a violent past life. That’s…gross. Like, imagine handwaving away serious birth defects as the inevitable result of a past life, and not a disorder based on genetics or environment that we can prevent or alleviate. Imagine a kid rejecting the gender they were assigned at birth and using past life hypnosis to “fix” it. Ugh.

Stevenson’s proteges, Tucker and Penbarthy, do the exact same thing in their “research,” uncritically accepting stories of children who claim to be the reincarnation of others. They also talk about near-death experiences as further “proof” of an afterlife, and again, there’s just nothing new under the sun: people say they floated above their bodies in the operating room and heard every conversation the doctors and nurses had, there are some frequently experienced details across people having NDEs like the old “light at the end of the tunnel,” and they talk to dead loved ones. All of this is old news, and all of it has non-paranormal explanations: several studies have shown that people who “float above their bodies and see everything that’s happening” are unable to identify a playing card left in plain sight or an image on a computer displayed in the room. People on anesthesia who are in no way “near death” report similar things, often being able to hear things being said in the room while “under.” Scientists can recreate a near-death experience in random people by using hallucinogens like ketamine or even by throwing them in a centrifuge. There is absolutely zero evidence that this phenomena is anything other than the result of a brain under a good deal of stress.

I’m very sorry to report all this for several reasons: first, because all of this was already debunked decades ago. Come up with something new! Or at least stop weaseling into mainstream news sources. Second, because UVA is still spending money on this quackery, and the students who pay tuition should be pissed about it. I’m pretty sure the school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, would be pissed.

And third, because I really wish there were life after death. It would be great if death wasn’t the end, but just a transition to an even better world where me and my loved ones are reunited in paradise while we laugh at the people we hate being tortured in hell for all of eternity. That sounds fun! So long as I don’t think too long and hard about that “tortured for all eternity” thing. And yeah it would also be great to know that after death I get another go-round to try again. Think of all the mistakes I would fix! I definitely wouldn’t try to eat an entire package of pixy stix in one afternoon only to barf up a rainbow of partially processed sugar, again. Last weekend was rough, y’all.

But as much as I want there to be something after death, there’s just no evidence that it’s so, and for that reason I have to reject it. Ah, the life of a skeptic. Not always fun.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. It sounds like he’s not just “handwaving away serious birth defects.” He’s actually blaming the victims of birth defects.
    Imagine telling a child with a disfigured face, “you did this to yourself. You just don’t remember.”
    Then you can bring in some repressed memory “experts” and a hypnotist and maybe, just maybe, the child will “remember.”
    This is not harmless stuff.

  2. Well hold on. A lot of parents have noticed a dead goldfish in the bowl, and figured, okay, for $1.99, I can have a live one in there by the time Lucy gets home from school. And many times Lucy accepts the reincarnated version. And other times, Lucy asks, “Mom, I don’t think that’s Wally, did something happen to Wally? Did Sawyer eat him?” So reincarnation works as well as the bereaved wants it to.

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