IS THERE AN AFTERLIFE?
A comprehensive overview of the evidence
Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).
David Fontana is fully convinced that there is an afterlife, and this book is a sustained attempt to persuade the reader that he is right. Much of the material he cites is old, and therefore will be largely familiar to people who have already read a certain amount about the subject, but he also includes more recent contributions and quite a lot of these are first hand, deriving from his own experience as a researcher.
He provides examples drawn from the whole range of evidence categories: hauntings (including poltergeists), mental and physical mediumship, claims for electronic communications from the dead, near-death and out-of-the-body experiences, and reincarnation. For all of these he discusses the possibility of misrepresentation, fraud, and the "super-ESP" hypothesis, but concludes that although they may explain some of the findings they are by no means adequate to explain everything and there is no real alternative to accepting the reality of survival. He is unusual in his readiness to credit many of the reports of physical mediumship; most investigators seem to feel rather uncomfortable in discussing material of this kind, for understandable reasons.
It has to be said that some of the reports are pretty remarkable, not to say bizarre. For many months Fontana took part in "sittings" organized by a group of experimenters at Scole, in Norfolk. All kinds of phenomena occurred, allegedly by the intervention of discarnate entities. For example, lights floated round the room performing extraordinary gyrations, sometimes entering the bodies of the participants and moving about inside them. Fontana admits that it is difficult to describe such things without inviting ridicule and disbelief, but he insists that they did occur and says that professional conjurors were unable to duplicate them in the circumstances that obtained in the sittings. The reader is thus obliged to suppose either that Fontana is exceedingly naive and easy to deceive or that something inexplicable did occur.
Fontana has witnessed many other strange phenomena with mediums at different times, including the materialization of "spirits" who could be shaken hands with. He is also persuaded of the reality of what he calls Instrumental Transcommunication, by which he means the recording of messages from the dead on tape and in other ways, which has always seemed to me one of the more dubious claims made on behalf of survival. However, Fontana is convinced that genuine material does come through in this way, and I suppose that if you find the other phenomena he describes to be believable you might as well take these on board as well.
Here, of course, we reach the central question: is there any point in reading about this stuff, or is it all simply too absurd to be worth bothering with? That Fontana has amassed a pretty large body of evidence to support his claims can hardly be denied, and he does consider all the possible counter-arguments pretty fairly. Nevertheless, it is certain that few scientifically minded or sceptical people will read his book, let alone accept his claims, since for such an audience the matter is already decided in advance: survival is plainly impossible, no matter what evidence anyone adduces. Their main reason for thinking this is the apparently complete dependence of mind and consciousness on the brain and the almost complete lack of any coherent theory that could accommodate the notion of survival.
Fontana explicitly avoids proposing theories, as he explains in his Introduction. What he does provide, at the end of the book, is a chapter speculating on what the afterlife might be like. This seems to be based on a combination of hints from mediumistic communications and ideas that appear to derive ultimately from Theosophy, with much talk of astral bodies and the like. There is supposed to be a kind of evolutionary process in the afterlife, with the departed progressing through various levels of enlightenment, perhaps indefinitely. It is a consoling vision but I am not sure how persuasive it is, even if you accept the reality of survival. Some less committed or less optimistic writers, such as C.D.Broad and Alan Gauld, have had a less sanguine view of the form that any possible afterlife may take.
As with other reviews of the evidence for survival, this one leaves the reader (this reader, anyway) feeling baffled. The whole weight of modern neuroscience makes survival all but inconceivable, yet there are apparently well-attested phenomena that are most naturally accounted for by survival and indeed are otherwise difficult to explain. Sceptics who dismiss all this material out of hand as proving the gullibility of everyone who has investigated it have, I fear, simply not done their homework. The only honest attitude to adopt, it seems to me, is one of puzzlement.
I find Fontana's book less satisfactory than those of Gauld and Broad because Fontana has so definitely made up his mind in one particular direction, whereas these other writers preferred to suspend judgement. But there is no doubt that he offers some interesting information that is not easily available elsewhere.
28 June 2005
See also The Survival Question
%T Is there an afterlife?
%S A comprehensive overview of the evidence
%A Fontana, David
%I O Books
%C Ropley, Hants.
%G ISBN 1-903816-90-4
%P 496 pp
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