The existence of an afterlife is a widely held belief. It is where our consciousness is believed to continue on after our bodily death. It relies on us having a metaphysical soul or spirit; an aspect to our being that is beyond the purely physical. As such, the metaphysical nature of the afterlife means that we cannot directly test whether it really exists.
Many believe, however, that communication with the dead is possible. Currently, 'mediums' are the most common form of proposed contact; although there are many other ways that offer potential proof of survival including: Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP); Near Death Experiences (NDEs); Dreams; Ouija board communication; past-life regression; or even dowsing. Any method that allows the receiving of information could be used.
Testing for the existence of an afterlife directly may not be possible, but if information can be passed from the dead to the living, its existence can potentially be proven.
Although there is a lot of evidence for the afterlife from various sources, none of them are robust enough to offer anything in the way of proof. Even combining all of the evidence from all of the different fields of research still does not amount to proof (or evidence strong enough to overcome reasonable doubt).
The problem of interpretation
The big problem with such things as EVPs, NDEs, and of course mediums, is that the results and experiences are interpreted. We all have inbuilt biases that lead us to interpret things in ways that we want or expect to see. When researchers are testing mediums by getting them to do blinded readings (e.g. using proxy sitters) for people, for example, what criteria are used to decide whether the medium has scored a hit? Obviously if the person scoring the test believes in the afterlife, he will probably allow a larger margin of error with statements than someone who doesn't. Interpretation leads to ambiguity, and ambiguity leads to error.
A major problem for the survival hypothesis and the subsequent interpretation of results is that it allows for other competing hypotheses. For example, it may be possible that information is gleaned via ESP from the sitter rather than from the deceased. It is not possible to tell the difference between the hypotheses if it is the sitter who verifies the information given.
An obvious criterion for testing spirit communication is that the information passed should not require interpretation: it has to be unambiguous.
Receiving and checking the message
As well as the information received being unambiguous and not subject to interpretation, another requirement is that no one involved in the experiment should know what the target information actually is. This blinding ensures that there is no possibility of information leakage. If no one knows what the information is meant to be, however, how can it be checked?
The only way this can be done is if a terminally ill patient died whilst in possession of information that no one else was aware of. This information could be sent back or acquired by any number of ways and checked against a system that the target information influences. Although a person who knows they are dying could leave a message behind in a sealed envelope and the information checked on receipt, this leads to the problem of the test being a one-shot process: once the message is looked at for verification, it would become known and the test could not be re-run under the same strict conditions.
To get around this problem, rather than check a written message it would be better to have some sort of code that affects another system. It could be something like a pass phrase that could be typed into a computer that will respond if it is correct. This, however, involves language and it’s possible that second-guessing the sort of phrase a person might have come up with could occur; or, in the case of a cipher being passed to decode an encrypted message, modern computers can crack simple ciphers with ease. Ideally the information should be completely random and should not be guessable or computable.
A randomly generated number code gets around this problem. If a person memorised a 12-digit number (as 4 groups of 3) then no one could second-guess what this number might be or work it out be other means. This number could be used as a combination to a safe or strongbox. If the code is correct it will open the safe, if not it won’t and due to the trillion (1x1012) different combinations available the test could be done many times without previous attempts making any significant difference to the odds of someone/something getting the answer correct by chance.
Most claimed spirit communication today is that claimed by mediums. This, however, does not mean that they are an obvious choice of medium (no pun intended) for the information to be channeled through. Anything could be used from old-fashioned Ouija boards to modern interpretations of spirits influencing electronic equipment, or picking up information during an Out of Body Experience (OBE) or even in a dream. The method would not matter as it's the passing of information that is the important issue.
Some people believe that spirits only come through if there is sufficient motivation for them to do so. Obviously that's speculative, but it could still be accommodated within a test. If we use the safe's combination as the target, placing something of value or benefit to those left behind inside the safe could provide motivation. Such a step need only be included if it is thought that the motivation hypothesis has any merit; and in reality, that hypothesis could not be tested until afterlife communication had been established in the first place!
Moral and ethical issues
This would be a very long experiment indeed if people were picked at random to take part. The obvious candidates to use in such an experiment are terminally-ill patients and it clearly would not be right to start asking people who've been told they're dying to take part in an afterlife experiment. If a university psychology department in conjunction with medical staff in a hospital department did this, the experiment was carefully advertised, and participants could apply voluntarily, then it could possibly be run.
The implications for humanity and religion would also need to be considered in case positive results were achieved as belief in the afterlife would no longer rely purely on faith.
To be able to test for an afterlife, the only way we can really do it is to check for the receipt of unambiguous information. This experiment could test for the existence of an afterlife, however, failure of such an experiment would not prove that an afterlife does not exist.
So, we have a test that includes:
- Target information that is randomised;
- True blinding - no one knows, or could possibly work out, what the target information is;
- A specific hypothesis. The information could only arise from a single source, the deceased, thus ruling out competing hypotheses such as super-ESP;
- Spirit motivation - if required;
- Repeatability. The same test could be run numerous times without reducing the odds of a random guess success to a significant level;
- Unambiguous results. No judging or subjective validation of results is required.
If such a test was to be carried out and information did come through successfully, it would be very difficult to argue against the outcome.
I propose that a test such as this (hypothetical) one is the only way to really test for the existence of an afterlife. By removing the need for subjective interpretation, it becomes a dichotomous test: either the information gets passed and the safe opens or it doesn't.