Writing around the turn of the 17th Century, William Shakespeare wrote of death that it is the “undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveler returns.” But will modern science make it possible to explore that “undiscovered country”?
Without question, death and the mystery of what happens after we die has fascinated artists, scientists, and philosophers since the dawn of human history. Undoubtedly, it has been a primary concern of human beings since the dawn of time.
To a large extent, every religion in human culture has dealt, on some level, with what happens after death. It has been speculated that one of the principal roles of religion in human life has been to comfort human beings from their fear of dying.
Indeed, religion has primarily attempted to convey a vision of an afterlife to the adherents of its various sects and movements. Whether it lies in the paradise of Christianity or the reincarnated soul of Buddhism or Hinduism, a primary point of overlap between religious concepts of the afterlife involves the moral judgment of a person after death. To wit, how a person behaves in this life determines where we go when we are no longer living.
But what is the afterlife’s role in a society that increasingly values scientific thought and a rationalistic outlook? Can a contemporary philosophy regarding the afterlife exist in a secular world? There are arguments to be made about an afterlife that is not expressed through religious symbolism, but how can science deal with such a mysterious (and indeed almost mystical) concept and retain its claims to objectivity?
Scientists may have a response to this conundrum in the coming years. For example, the science around “Near-Death Experiences” is a field of study worthy of further exploration. Evidence suggests that individuals from a vast array of different cultural backgrounds experience similar phenomena when a medical state of death occurs. In such cases, successful resuscitations of “legally dead” patients on the part of medical professionals enable us to hear the experiences of those who have literally experienced death.
The similarities in these accounts are striking in their uniformity. For example, most people who have experienced an NDE tend to describe a sense of absolute peacefulness and the impression of being guided into the afterlife. They usually describe interacting with family members, pets, and friends who have passed away. They also often come away from an NDE feeling as though they no longer fear death.
It may be that all of these people are merely experiencing the brain’s natural response to dying; perhaps our brains release a chemical at death that approximates a kind of hallucinatory vision equivalent to a 21st Century version of a mystical experience. Then again, it is curious indeed that so many accounts from people experiencing NDEs include clear descriptions of their surroundings and descriptions of events that they would have no way of otherwise knowing.
Whatever the merits of scientific exploration of NDEs, it is certainly worth asking whether we can safely explore the thought of an afterlife from a rational and secular perspective in today’s world. If so, it may be the case that death is really nothing to fear at all and that religious minds throughout history have been relatively close in their understanding of the afterlife. Perhaps the gateway to eternal consciousness is standing right in front of us.